It's often called the "Lake Erie of the South," and the abundance of big smallmouth more than justifies that moniker for Pickwick Lake. However, while northern anglers bounce around in monster swells, anglers in the Magnolia State do their smallie work in much more hospitable conditions.

Indeed the TVA lake shared with neighboring Alabama and Tennessee holds a healthy population of smallmouth that find abundant habitat throughout its 43,100-acres. And with long southern growing season, Pickwick smallies grow fat and sassy on a diet of threadfin shad, gizzard shad and all the yellow perch they can catch.

Although largemouths rule throughout Dixieland, the brown bullies with striped faces earn their place in the Pickwick mix with their feisty nature and spirited battles. I recently asked Bassmaster Elite Series pro and Petal, Miss. native Cliff Pace about Pickwick's late-spring action.

"By the time the end of April, first of May gets around 99 percent of the fish on Pickwick are going to be post-spawn," Pace said. "They'll spawn into April and it varies from year to year. It's not a set time line, as Mother Nature changes from year to year and the fish change with it. But, as a good rule of thumb, by the first of May, most of them are going to be done."

Consistent with traditional post-spawn behavior, Pickwick's brown bass will be focused on some much-needed R&R, but they'll quickly develop a serious interest in aggressive feeding before transitioning into their summer pattern.

"They'll be traveling from their spawning grounds, out to main lake structure that's in and around the current that the Tennessee River creates," Pace said. "They want to be near that current because that's the habitat that suits them the best.

"Normally, the smallmouth are going to get around the harder areas. They're going to look for little isolated rock piles, shell beds and hard spots on the edge of those ledges."

As Pace notes, both largemouth and smallmouth are going to favor deeper current spots during the warmer months. But whereas some of the lake's green fish may live their entire lives in shallow backwater habitat, the post spawn will always find smallies heading to the cooler, more oxygenated and food-rich current scent.

"The post spawn can be really good," Pace said. "Sometimes, a post spawn can be hard because the fish are scattered. When they get out there and start grouping up on specific pieces of structure, you may have to spend some time looking for them, but once you find them, you can find them in big numbers that time of year."

 

Top tactics

With post-spawn smallies eager to eat, a variety of baits will yield a day's worth of hook ups. Pace described a handful of his preferred baits.

One of his favorite post-spawn baits is a V&M football head jig with a craw trailer. Smallies terrorize the lake's crawfish population and the old football head does a good job of imitating this crustacean forage, while doing an equally admirable job of rolling across uneven, rocky bottom without snagging. Pace said that current strength (see "Go with the Flow.") dictates his jig size.

"Keeping it on the bottom is very important," he said. "If they're pulling a lot of water and the current's running really strong, I'll use a ¾-ounce (jig). If the current's not so bad, I'll drop to a ½-ounce size."

Pace also spends a lot of post-spawn time with a crankbait, something that runs 10-15 feet deep. His typical choice is a Jackall Muscle Deep in ghost minnow for clear water or chartreuse/purple back for lower visibility. Crawfish colors, he notes, are productive year-round in practically all conditions.

"The crankbait is a great search tool if you're graphing those areas and looking for those key spots," Pace said. "If you go over an area and you see something that intrigues you a little bit, you can pick up that crankbait, fire it off 10 or 12 times and figure out pretty quickly if there's anything there or not."

A tube jig also gets some playing time in Pace's smallmouth game plan. He'll rig a 4-inch tube with a lead head inserted into the hollow body and drag it along the bottom to mimic a crawfish.

"I like to use a (tube) jig with a 90-degree line tie where the line tie comes out the top of the bait," Pace said. "When you drag it, the nose of that bait is bumping into things on the bottom and it creates a dirt trail; a dust cloud."

If the fish are in 15 feet or deep and he can sit right over them and watch their movement on his bottom machine, Pace will break out the dropshot and hang a slender bait in their faces. A Jackall Pintail Minnow or a V&M shad bait in natural baitfish colors are his common selections. A cylinder shape weight helps prevent bottom snags, but Pace knows he has to match the size to the day's changing current.

"You want to use a sink that's barely big enough to make good contact with the bottom," he said. "That can change by the hour, especially on the Tennessee River.

"In the morning, they might not be generating a lot of current so you may be getting by with a ¼-ounce weight. By lunch, they might be pulling 30,000 cubic feet per second (through the dam) and you may have to use a ½-ounce on that same location, in the same depth."

Among the other baits that can deliver smallmouth action, a Carolina rig is a real sleeper. Particularly effective as a follow-up to the football head presentation, the old ball-and-chain makes a similarly noisy bottom ruckus, but dragging the bait a second behind and a foot or so off the bottom varies the deal enough to stimulate otherwise disinterested fish.

"It's something a little more subtle - something that entices them a little better," Pace said.

Tungsten weights offer optimal impact noise and sensitivity for "feeling" the bottom. If your C-rig bite slows down, but you're still marking fish, try switching bait size and/or color. Sometimes, going from, say, a 5-inch lizard to a 7-incher will trigger a couple more bites.

You'll also want to keep a few jerkbaits handy, in case you mark fish suspending around bait schools. This one holds minimal relevance during the pure post-spawn deep structure scenario, but when atypical weather throws a wrinkle in the operation, that slow, erratic twitching can be just the ticket.

However you hook your smallmouth, expect a fierce fight marked by numerous sprints, a couple of cart wheeling jumps and a stubborn tussle at boatside. Best to just let them get it out of their system, so keep a good bend in the rod, gather line when you can and don't fret if your opponent gives you the slip - there's plenty more down there.