Look to this Tenn-Tom Waterway reservoir for action throughout the long, hot summer.
If bass fishing is your business, or just a pastime, Columbus Lake is a definite destination for you.
Located on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, the lake is as scenic as it is fishable. That may be the reason four major bass tournaments chose to use the lake in 2012 alone.
With 123,000 acres of water and hundreds of miles of fishable shoreline, a bass angler could fish every day for a week and never fish the same water two casts in a row. There are points and bars, troughs and islands, channels and cuts, ditches and, well, you should have the picture.
Structure is plentiful, as well, with stumps, standing timber and shallow vegetation.
And nearby Columbus offers fine food and excellent accommodations, making Columbus Lake a win-win for every angler.
All this and the largest marina on the entire Tenn-Tom Waterway — what’s not to love about this lake?
Ken Lowry is a 53-year-old Columbus native and avid bass angler, and he has assisted a number of larger tournaments on the lake.
Lowry fished his first bass tournament (on another lake) in 1978, taking the win over several seasoned veteran bass anglers. Since that time he has used a wide variety of tackle and baits.
But Columbus Lake is his home lake, and he has knowledge of the waterway and its assets.
“I have fished the lake since it was filled in 1982,” Lowry said. “It is a very different lake today than it was then.
“The changes have been subtle in some instances and well pronounced in others. In one sense, it’s like fishing a river; in another sense, it is more like a lake.”
Considering himself to be more of a finesse fisherman, Lowry likes to fish close to the cover, with a pitch technique.
“The east side of the lake and west side are like two different lakes in many respects,” Lowry said. “Both sides have their advantages and disadvantages.”
The bottom of much of the east side is a series of old gravel pits. There are straight cuts, shallow bars, some structure under the surface and in the shallows some grass.
According to Lowry this area is a hotspot during the spawn.
“There is no good way to fish these pits without the aid of a good depth finder,” he said. “A side-image contour display is even better. There are a lot of flat areas where bass like to spawn.
“The cypress and other large trees were harvested before the lake was filled; there is one large, flat cypress stump river where a sow has spawned every year that I can remember.”
Lowry uses a Texas–rigged worm or lizard during the spawn. Sometimes the bass will take it just out of the bed and drop it, but there are enough times when a hook-up occurs to keep angler returning.
“Following the spawn, there are a number of patterns bass anglers can choose,” Lowry said. “One is to work ledges close to deeper water or around any of several small islands between the gravel pits and the main channel of the waterway.”
Lowry looks for concentrations of bait fish, primarily gizzard or threadfin shad blowing up on the surface. Casting into the baitfish, Lowry uses a square-lipped crankbait such as an XCalibur Silent in Black Shad.
Largemouths —as well as white bass, which are plentiful in the lake — will be under the shad. When the shad are deeper the crankbait is the only way to keep the bait at the depth where the bass are suspended.
However, Lowry uses a three-bait approach in the search for fish on any given summer morning.
Around the grass or pads he uses a blue/white buzz bait. If that produces no strikes, he goes to a weedless, Strike King rodent critter bait in a junebug color, working the bait across lily pads or through the grass at a moderate pace.
If the fish are not shallow, Lowry switches to a crankbait to work the deeper water near the vegetation.
On a warm day in mid-May, the author was pitching a chartreuse/white/red-gold glitter Stanley Wedge, catching enough bass both over and under the slot that I never bothered to change baits.
The only other rig I pitched was a Berkley green lizard Power Bait. Rigged weedless it worked well very early in the pads. I let the lizard rest and crept it across the pad, lifting and dropping the bait’s head on the pad several times. Then I would swim it to another pad. If a bass was there, the lizard was taken when the bait came off the pad.
Lowry had good luck with frog baits. Using a similar approach to mine, he worked the frog slowly, resting it on the pads and swimming it between the pads with a series of short, rapid jerks.
At a Thursday night Fruit Jar Bass Tournament baits are often a popular topic of discussion. At one such event a crusty old veteran bass angler said there is more to catching Columbus Lake bass than just picking the right bait, however.
“There are no naive bass in this lake anymore,” he said. “They have all seen just about everything that can be tied on a line. For that reason alone, presentation becomes more important than color or sound.”
Jimmy Ledsworth, 65, is another area angler who has fished Columbus Lake since it filled. According to him, the lake peaked about 10 years ago but remains a good place to fish. He assists with several tournaments and fishes the Thursday Night Fruit Jar event regularly.
“The Thursday night weigh-in is a three-fish limit with an average of 4 to 5 pounds,” Ledsworth said. “A 5- to 6-pound weigh-in is a very good weigh-in.”
Jimmy also points to new tournament rules on the care of bass while in captivity that has led to a higher survival rate during tournaments.
He points to the slot limit of 14 inches and the better care of bass in tournaments as two signs the lake is headed in the right direction. All bass 14 inches or shorter must be returned to the water immediately; slot fish are measured with the mouth closed and the tail pinched.
“The (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) sprayed to control the water hyacinths about three years ago, and that really hurt our native grasses,” Ledsworth said. “It’s starting to come back, but so are the invasive plants, as well.
“They only spray what might be a detriment to the barges and boat traffic; so there’s always plenty in the back water to multiply.”
Ledsworth went on to say the lake has something for every fisherman and has the resources to handle the tournament pressure. He was among several bass anglers who volunteered to stock fingerling Florida strain largemouth in years past.
Ledsworth’s bait preferences lean toward the june bug colors, including a Zoom worm which has a red fleck. His favorite crankbait is a Strike King model colored like a shad with a black or red spot.
“In shallow water just about any spinnerbait will get a bite,” Ledsworth said. “Any color that includes chartreuse is a good combination. Colorado blades are OK, but I’m seeing more fish caught with the willow-leaf blades.”
However, adjustments have to be made as the year progresses.
“The spring bite is good all day,” Ledsworth said. “The bite is better in the morning and late afternoon during the summer.”
One point both Lowry and Ledsworth agreed on was the need for visiting bass anglers to get the lay of the lake. They suggest checking with the Corps to obtain contour maps of the lake and studying channels, and oxbows where cover in deeper water and current will keep bass in a comfort zone and close to an available food source.
The pressure on Columbus Lake is offset by an August stocking program.
According to Tyler Stubbs, a fisheries biologist for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks, 120,000 to 160,000 Florida Strain largemouth bass have been released in the lake every two years since 2004.
The 14-inch slot limit is in place to protect these young bass.
Both threadfin shad and Gizzard shad live in the lake, as do other forage fish such as bream and crappie.
Analyzing data from tournament weigh-ins and agency shock-boat evaluations, Stubbs is very optimistic the lake is improving both in number of over-the-slot bass and in the weight of the bass being caught.
“I’m really happy with the upward trends at Columbus (Lake),” Stubbs said. “Tournament lunkers have increased to an average of 5 pounds, while the average weighed in has come up to just over 2 pounds per fish.
“That is proof the stocking and slot limits are beginning to work.”
Barge traffic plays an interesting role in fishing. Lowry and the author were fishing one of the feeder creeks when a tow boat pushed several barges up the main channel of the waterway. For a few minutes, as the barge approached and passed the mouth of the creek, the current changed course and ran up the creek. Once the barge had passed the current flow reversed itself and returned to the normal slow flow of the creek.
During this current surge, the bass turned on, as shad were washed into the mouth of the creek. We caught several slot fish and keepers in successive casts.
Another current- affecting apsect is the filling of the locks when waterway traffic is being locked up or down the channel. An estimated 114 million gallons of water are needed to perform the locking operation. The gravity-controlled flow into the lock chamber requires just 14 to 15 minutes.
And this process creates a noticeable current on the lake near the dam. Bass anglers fishing a point or cut when this happens have those few minutes of time to capitalize on the sudden current.
Unlike flood-control impoundments, Columbus Lake rarely fluxes more then 2 to 3 feet. Fed by Tibbee Creek from the west and the Buttahatchie from the east, local rains can play a large role in water level and clarity, however.
“Tibbee Creek has a lot of small feeder creeks or ditches that handle the runoff caused by heavy summer showers,” Lowry said. “Being close to one of these feeder creeks when the water starts to rise can lead to excellent fishing.
“I like to pitch a soft plastic crawfish into the current and let it float into the bigger creek. A few twitches to make it look alive will generally get a bite from a hungry bass.”
The Corps keeps the main channel dredged to a minimum depth of 9 feet for barge traffic. Non-navigational areas are not dredged, and over the years sedimentation has become something of an issue.
Some bass anglers complain about the loss of water, while others — Lowry included — take the evolution of the lake in stride and adapt their methods of fishing to match the new conditions.
Stubbs said sedimentation is caused by three sources: farm land erosion, bank erosion and vegetation buildup.
The latter has been aggravated by recent sprayings of herbicides to control the fast-growing and invasive water hyacinth. Dead hyacinths, as well as other by-kill such as water lilies and native grasses sink, add to the existing sediment.
Native grasses are popular with local bass anglers. Concern for the loss of these grasses is shared by both Ledsworth and Lowry.
On the lake, near the dam, is Columbus Marina, the largest marina on the Tenn-Tom Waterway.
Several gas pumps offer boaters and anglers fast access to ethanol-free gasoline and basic boating supplies. The store also sells ice, snacks and beverages.
Boat ramps are located at several locations on both sides of the lake. Parking is ample and restrooms are located at the main ramps.
The ramps have several angles to accommodate just about every kind of boat.
There is an “honor box” where anglers can pay the $3 lake usage fee. Annual permits are also available for $30.
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