Sunday, September 23, 2018
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Tombigbee September Bassin’
Fishing the waterways around Gainesville Reservoir can be equally as productive as fishing Guntersville and Eufaula.
By Greg McCain
Originally published in the September 2018 issue of AON
Micah Easterling holds a quality bass that came from the back of a creek on Gainesville Reservoir on the Tombigbee River.
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Fishing options abound for Alabama anglers. The best-known lakes, like Guntersville and Eufaula, get pressure from locals and out-of-state visitors, as well. Their reputations spread far beyond state borders.

Then there are plenty of other possibilities in Alabama that get localized pressure but not much attention from outside the region. I ventured to one of the lesser-known venues in the state in early August, taking a trip with Micah Easterling to the Tombigbee River.

Micah, one of the top tournament anglers in the Tuscaloosa area, first got into bass fishing on the stream portion of the Sipsey River and later learned to fish the lower section where it empties into Gainesville Reservoir. Our original intent was to fish the lower Sipsey, but we ended up spending a good bit of time in another big Gainesville tributary, Wilkes Creeks, as well.

Isolated and wild, the Tombigbee enters Alabama in Aliceville Reservoir, the pool just above Gainesville. All the reservoirs—Aliceville (also known locally as Pickensville), Gainesville, Demopolis and those to the north in Mississippi—are part of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, which connects the Tennessee River with the Gulf of Mexico.

“There are a lot of locals who fish these lakes all the time,” Micah said after we met near his home in the Buhl community just outside Tuscaloosa. “They don’t get much outside pressure, but there is still very good fishing to be found. It’s nothing to catch a 20-lb. bag on Gainesville, and at times it takes 25.”

Micah had scouted the area a few days before our trip and found a concentration of quality bass in Wilkes Creek, about a 10-minute run downstream from where we launched at Vienna Landing, a Corps of Engineers facility off Highway 14 in Pickens County. Vienna is about an hour’s drive southwest of Tuscaloosa.

On the trip in advance of our outing on the lake, he said the bass “were absolutely submarining” a frog and a topwater walking bait. He and a partner caught 12 quality fish in a short time among the stump fields and grass patches in the back of Wilkes.

“We were just casting randomly, and single fish just kept on schooling,” he said. “We caught several good ones up to about 5 pounds.”

The topwater bite never materialized for us. We started on a grassline about halfway into the big creek and later idled toward the back, bouncing off stumps several times along the way. Even when we settled down amidst the stumps and grass in the back of the creek, one of the “fishiest” looking areas that I have ever seen, the bass continued to ignore our topwater offerings, despite some occasional boils from single schoolers.

I walked a Spook, expecting an explosion at any moment. Micah alternated between a Spro popping frog and a Strike King Sexy Dawg walking bait but never could get the bass to commit.

“I’m not sure why they won’t hit the topwater today,” Micah said. “That’s about all we threw on the last trip.”

Only when I switched to a swim jig, a white-and-chartreuse Tight Line Jigs model, did the action pick up. Over about a 30-minute period, I caught two quality fish and had another bigger fish create a swirl the size of a boat deck as it slashed a couple of times at the lure.

The first fish hit the instant I ricocheted the swim jig off a stump. For a moment, the fish tangled in the debris around the base of the stump and then swam toward the boat, angling into a mass of floating grass and logs.

I thought I was about to lose a monster, but the hard-fighting bass weighed only about 3 pounds when I finally worked it to the boat.

The second fish we landed came from the edge of a grassline—Micah said most of the grass in the back of Wilkes is some variety of hyacinth—and slammed the swim jig about the time it hit the water. It didn’t fight as hard as the first fish, but we estimated the largemouth weighed about 5 pounds once it was aboard.

“These two fish are what you could expect to catch if you stayed back here all day,” Micah said. “We’re going to go look at some areas in the Sipsey, but many of the tournaments on Gainesville are won in the back of Wilkes and by fishing the grass on the main river. I think we could probably get those five or six good bites if we stayed here all day.”

We left the area to explore the Sipsey. Early morning fog and cloud cover had given way to hot August sunshine when we wound our way up the Sipsey channel to a place Micah called Moon Lake, a bowl-shape oxbow that appeared to cover as much as 100 acres. The run up the small river took us on a zigzag course from bank to bank amid grass, standing timber and thousands of submerged stumps.

The Sipsey, one of the hidden wonders among Alabama fisheries, actually starts in north Alabama in Marion and Fayette counties and winds for more than 100 miles to where it enters the Tombigbee about 1 1/2 miles below Vienna Landing. More stream-like on its upper length, the Sipsey offers wading and float opportunities upstream and some treacherous navigation on the lower end.

“I’ve only fished the very lower end in the last couple of years,” Micah said. “I actually learned how to bass fish on the Sipsey in the Tuscaloosa area. It’s one of those places where you only need a couple of rods, one for a spinnerbait and one for a rubber worm. Once upon a time, there were some big, bruising fish in that part of the Sipsey.

“There are some good fish in Moon Lake, and a lot of the locals still tournament fish here.”

We started on the north corner of the oxbow, the water stained heavily from thunderstorms that rolled through the previous evening. The bank was lined with thick patches of grass, with some areas extending 50 yards into the water. The middle of the oxbow was littered with old cypress stumps, some barely visible under the water line and others extending above it with various types of vegetation growing from the top.”

The area offers all kinds of possibilities for catching bass. Micah said the stumps serve as ambush points for early morning tournament anglers, and the grasslines will hold fish through the day. Micah called the vegetation “running grass” for its propensity to spread horizontally across the top of the water. It then develops stalks along its entire length that grow up to about 2 feet high.

“You can actually throw out of either side of the boat,” he told me as we started fishing. “There may still be some fish hiding in the shade of the stumps and some fish in the grass.”

The bite had subsided, however, as we worked the grassline I caught a couple of small keepers on the swim jig and Micah had a fish boil on the frog. Thinking it was a gar, he tried to shake it off, but the fish wouldn’t let go. It finally swam to the boat where we saw it was actually a grinnel, or bowfin, rather than a gar. About that time, the frog slipped from its grip.

“There’s a lot of grinnel in here, literally thousands of them back in Wilkes,” Micah said. “I caught one there one time that weighed 18 pounds.”

We never continued upstream into the Sipsey. Micah again reiterated the need for caution in boating, and he said one area that he called the “s-curve” just above Moon Lake was idle speed only because high water had totally filled in the channel. The channel is not marked and also not mapped on electronic GPS units.

“You really can’t run the Sipsey unless you’re with someone who knows it well,” Micah said. “Even then, it’s easy to get out of the channel and onto a stump. You can get in trouble in a hurry.

“If you have never been here, I would recommend idle speed only and even then you’re going to eventually hit (an underwater) stump.”

We encountered another novelty in Moon Lake. Micah said about half the stumps hold either a red wasp nest or a snake. We saw plenty of the wasp nests but no snakes.

“You have to be careful not to bump one of the stumps,” Micah said. “There are some wasp nests so big that I don’t know if you would live through it if they got after you.”

Avoiding the wasps and the stumps allows fishermen to reach a series of shoals with gravel and sandy bottoms. The area, which starts about 5 miles upstream, features fishing for quality spotted bass. Micah said there are some “magnum spots” up there. They can be caught with a shaky head or an underspin combined with fluke-style plastics.

“It’s difficult to get to, but there are some really good spotted bass up the Sipsey,” Micah said. “You just have to know what you’re doing to get up there.”

While Micah confines most of his fishing to Gainesville and the lower Sipsey these days, he said some stream fishing possibilities are still available. He said he once regularly floated a stretch near Tuscaloosa and helped keep the stream clear of debris.

He said he doesn’t hear as much about the stream fishing these days and said the upper portions of the Sipsey are often blocked by downed trees.

“If you’re going to float it today, you have to be prepared to go over or around some of the trees in the water,” he said.

Check a map for potential access and take-out points. Micah said the approach from his youth—“a tin boat and two rods”—would likely still work, but be prepared for the log jams.

Otherwise, fishermen can fish the grass on the main river or the grass and wood in the backs of the creeks.

When targeting largemouth, Micah recommends a four-lure approach. He regularly starts with the Spro popping frog and uses it both in the grass and around the stumps.

“Most people want to use the popping frog in open water, but it will still come through the grass,” Micah said.

He pops the frog with a slow to moderate pace, attempting to create a bubbling action with the dished-out nose.

He also likes to steadily reel a Reaction Innovations Skinny Dipper on a weighted belly hook, either 1/8- or 1/16-oz., around the grass edges. He likes the penetration color (black and blue). An alternative to swim over and around the grass and also among the stumps is a 1/4-oz. JaKKed Baits swim jig with a Paca Craw trailer. His favorite color is called scrubby mcscrubberson, a mix of various colors that perhaps best mimic a bream. Micah has personally helped develop some of the JaKKed swim jigs.

A final option, one that works on grasslines just about anywhere when conditions get tough, is to punch the vegetation with a heavy tungsten weight and small plastic. Micah uses JaKKed tungsten of at least 1-oz. and a Reaction Innovations Sweet Beaver (penetration) on a heavy flipping hook.

Micah doesn’t use a particular brand or model of rod or reel but recommends pairing medium-heavy to heavy-action rods with high-speed reels to fit the presentation. He uses 65-lb. braid for all of his fishing on the Tombigbee because of the grass and wood.

Even though the Tombigbee impoundments don’t enjoy the same reputation as some of the better known Alabama lakes, Micah suggested making a trip to sample the fishing.

“There’s good bass fishing on Gainesville and in the lower Sipsey,” Micah said. “It’s pretty tough right now because of the water temperature, but it will only improve as the water conditions improve. And there always seem to be some fish biting even in hot weather. When the conditions are right, the fishing on the Tombigbee can be really good.”
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