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Pickwick Bass Move To Ledges In June
Lack of grass means better fishing out deep this summer.
By Greg McCain
Originally published in the June 2018 issue of AON
Scotty Johnston with a Pickwick double: a 3-lb. largemouth and a slightly smaller smallmouth, both caught on an early May trip on the lake.
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Pickwick Lake produced bass, both largemouth and smallmouth, at an unparalleled rate early this year.

The lake gave up its normal supply of heavy-bodied largemouth during the winter and early spring months, and the smallmouth bite exploded in March and April.

“I think there have been more smallmouth—and more big smallmouth—caught this spring than I can remember,” said local tournament angler and lure maker Scotty Johnston. “It’s really been an incredible year so far on Pickwick Lake. It’s going to be interesting to see what the bite will be like for the rest of the year.”

Scotty made those comments as we fished the lake during one of the first days of May. The forces of nature continued to influence the fishery as another of a series of floods raised water levels well above summer pool and an unusually cool April left water temperatures in the low 60s.

“Who can ever remember us getting to May and the water temperature being this cool?” Scotty said.

Scotty’s main concern as we fished: a lack of grass in areas normally overrun with various types of aquatic vegetation. The spillways at Wilson Dam had spilled water regularly through the early months of 2018, following extended periods of heavy current throughout 2017.

The grass showed little signs of recovery from the deluge of water.

We had run down the “little river” channel to the lower portion of Seven Mile Island and slipped into a backwater area that Scotty called Walker Slough. Seven Mile Island features many such out-of-the-way spots located between the “little river” and main channels and accessed by cuts or small ditches. Depending on water level, these backwater sloughs are usually accessible when the lake is at normal summer pool and attract fishermen because of a resident population of largemouth and more fish that migrate in to spawn there.

Walker Slough featured hundreds of acres of open water with reeds lining the shoreline and, in a normal year, other types of grasses filling and eventually matting in open water.

The back portion of the slough, accessed by trolling motor or idle speed only because of the shallow water, looked like an ideal spot for spawners with cypress trees, overhanging willows and other brush, but it was totally devoid of any grass aside from the shoreline reeds.

“Not even a sprig,” Scotty said. “Normally, there is grass all around these islands and growing back here around all this brush.”

The fishing seemed to suggest the confused state of nature. Scotty and I caught some bass, both in Walker Slough and later in the Horseshoe area just below Wilson Dam. But the hot, even frenzied bite of earlier in the spring never materialized.

Scotty, who is the state director of the popular Heartland bass tournament series, caught a couple of bass quickly. He first swam a bladed jig of his own make with little success but began to pick up a few fish on a black-and-blue jig flipped around the willows and other wood structure. His best catch was a 3-lb. largemouth with a bulging gut and a red tail, indicating the spawn was still on.

I caught my first fish, a 14-inch largemouth, just a couple of casts into the trip, by paralleling a spinnerbait along a small submerged tree. The little bass—Pickwick has a 15-inch length minimum for smallmouth and largemouth—darted out of the tree and engulfed the spinnerbait, but it proved to be one of the few catches for me during the trip.

Scotty chose to finish our trip by running to the Horseshoe, the aptly named rocky area under Wilson Dam. The Horseshoe had been inundated both by current and by fishermen during the intense smallmouth bite of recent weeks, giving up at least one five-fish limit of smallies heavier than 30 pounds, numerous other limits of 25 or more and individual fish heavier than 8 pounds.

“It’s really been unbelievable,” Scotty said. “I know this area always gives up a lot of fish, but it’s been as good as I can ever remember this year.”

Scotty quickly hooked up on one of his favorite smallmouth baits, a bone-colored Bomber Long A. He fished the lure, which can be fished like a traditional jerkbait, waked just under the surface or even cranked steadily, on spinning tackle. The smallmouth smacked the lure and bowed Scotty’s medium-action rod with a good fight.

The smallmouth was not a Pickwick giant but proved to be an interesting catch. Based on its extended girth, the fish was either still in the spawning mode or had fed heavily after the spawn. This smallie was fat and bottom-heavy.

The Horseshoe and the adjacent Wilson Dam tailrace yield thousands of similar smallmouth each year, although the hot bite of the spring tends to taper during warmer months. The fish was the lone smallmouth of the trip, although we managed to catch a few more largemouth in the Horseshoe, including a 15-inch keeper that bit my Zoom Super Fluke.

In the days ahead, Scotty said to expect the famed Pickwick ledge bite to play a vital factor in Pickwick fishing in June and on through the summer. In a normal year since early in the 2000s, the fishing on Pickwick has changed due to the presence of grass.

The bass migrate deep after the spawn, but the ledge bite might extend only over a short window, especially in a year with good grass and little current. The fish find better sanctuary under a grass canopy under those conditions.

“In June, the water is going to be heating up,” Scotty said. “The fish are going to be moving out to the ledges, and that’s when your crankbait bite will pick up along with your jig bite. Even your big flutter spoons could be a factor.”

Scott said the ledge fishing will be more important this year because of the lack of grass last year and potentially the lack of grass this year.

When the bass finally orient to the ledges, Scotty rotates through a lure lineup that features crankbaits, swimbaits, football jigs and big shaky heads with a regular-sized shaky head reserved for a finicky bite.

On an average day, he might start off with a moving lure, like the crankbait or swimbait. He throws deep-diving Profound Outdoors or Strike King crankbaits on 12-lb. fluorocarbon, using a 7 1/2-foot cranking rod and a slow-retrieve baitcaster. He noted that some anglers drop to even lighter line to get more depth out of their crankbaits, but he said the 12-lb. line will allow him to crank down to about 20 feet.

Scotty said one of the latest developments in his product line has enhanced his swimbait production. He throws Zoom swimbaits (AYU color) on a 3/4- or 1-oz. Johnston Lures swimbait head, which are equipped with a screwlock to keep the plastic secure.

“The screwlock has been a big addition for us,” Scotty said. “A few people still say they glue their swimbaits (to the head) anyway, but it pretty much takes away the need for glue.”

Scotty said he throws the swimbait out on ledges from 15 to 25 feet deep, allows it to settle, and then he inches it back to the boat with a slow retrieve. His gear for the swimbait includes a 7- or 7 1/2-foot medium-heavy rod and a baitcaster filled with 15-lb. fluorocarbon.

If the fish are less active, his first choice is a football jig, which he trails with a Zoom Ultra Vibe Speed Craw. He fishes the jig package on heavy baitcasting gear and 20-lb. fluorocarbon.

“It’s really hard to go wrong with a football jig on Pickwick ledges,” Scotty said. “I like to upsize my fluorocarbon with the jig. The fish are not going to see it, but I still have the feel of fluorocarbon. Fish it slow, and expect to get bit.”

A magnum shaky head also factors into catches on the ledges, as well. Scotty best’s models are 1/2- or 5/16-oz. and include a flat, stand-up head. He also makes round heads, as well. Scotty pairs the shaky heads, which come with oversized hooks up to 8/0, with Zoom’s Magnum Trick Worm, normally in green pumpkin. For the bigger shaky heads, Scotty prefers baitcasting tackle rather than spinning gear and fluorocarbon up to 15-lb. test.

“That’s normally what I do in the summer on the ledges,” Scotty said. “You might get on some schooling fish early in the morning or a topwater bite with a buzzbait or big Spook. But it’s usually working the ledges to catch fish.”

If the ledge fish don’t cooperate, Scotty said he does not hesitate to downsize, using his own shaky heads of 3/16- or 1/4-oz. and a magnum finesse worm, again in green pumpkin.

“I probably catch more numbers on the magnum finesse worm at this time of year than on anything else,” he said.

Scotty said the ledges yield predominantly largemouth with an occasional smallmouth mixed in.

To target smallmouth specifically in June, he said he would probably recommend returning to the tailrace area and fish eddy water early in the morning with a topwater bait or fish the current seams with a swimbait.

“Another possibility in late May or early June would be to crawl a football jig over the rockpiles in the Horseshoe,” Scotty said. “There will still be a few smallmouth hanging around.”

Night fishing is another option in June. Scotty said he does a little after-hours fishing on Pickwick. While many people turn to a dark spinnerbait, Scotty said the shaky head is his weapon of choice at night.

“I throw it on baitcasting tackle at night,” he said. “I find it easier to use than spinning gear when it’s dark. I’ll use the same size heads that I use during the day but switch to a junebug-colored magnum finesse worm.”

Scotty at several points in the trip re-emphasized the need to fish deeper water in June, especially this year more than others.

“In June, depending on water temp, they are still working their way out,” he said. “Start looking around the 15-foot ledges. As the water heats up, I will start looking for those 18, 20, even 25-foot-deep ledges.

“As much current as we have had, it’s really going to affect the grass situation. I don’t feel like we will have the amount of grass we’ve had in the past. Last year was a lot less than what we had the year before, and I expect more of the same this year. The grass is what has made Pickwick come back, but I don’t see it happening (this year).

“I really expect the ledge bite to be even more important this year because of a lack of grass.”

Boaters are urged to exercise great caution on Pickwick, which can be precarious in the daylight and more so at night. The area below Wilson Dam is characterized by quick drops in water levels—fluctuations of a foot or more are not uncommon—when turbines cut off. Even downstream, boaters are urged to run on plane only in marked channel areas.

For information about the full lineup of Johnston Lures, visit Scotty’s website at www.johnstonlures1.com. The lures are available in the Shoals at Perkins Outdoors near the entrance to McFarland Park in Florence, at Gray’s Tackle in Sheffield and at Shoals Outdoor Sports in Tuscumbia.

For details about the Heartland tournaments in Alabama, check their website at www.heartlandanglers.com/Alabama.html. Scotty runs several divisions of Heartland tournaments locally, and others are held up and down the Tennessee River.
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