Bassin’ the Tenn-Tom

Working this KVD jig along a grass line resulted in a nice Tenn-Tom bass coming to the boat.
Working this KVD jig along a grass line resulted in a nice Tenn-Tom bass coming to the boat.

These four lakes on the famed waterway are worth the attention of any Mississippi bass fisherman. Try one out soon.

The string of lakes that make up the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway were constructed to boost the regional economy, and to that end, they have been successful. As a side boost, the lakes have enhanced fishing, boating and camping and brought additional income to the area as the site of big bass tournaments.

Needless to say, tournaments are not held on barren waters. Some lakes are better than others, according to some anglers, but as a whole, they have a charm and fishability on par with any lake system anywhere.

From a Mississippi perspective, the lakes run between Pickwick to the north and Aliceville to the south. A good, bass- fishing bucket list wouldn’t be complete without all of those lakes. There is no charge for locking up or down the waterway, but it can be a tournament loser if you don’t get back to the weigh-in on time because of barge traffic.

This Aliceville bass came the boat for Jim Fikes of Pickinsville, Ala.
This Aliceville bass came the boat for Jim Fikes of Pickinsville, Ala.

Given the broad scope of the waterway, the lakes are not static; state regulations, slot limits and creel limits all apply. Plenty of bass spawn the old-fashioned way, just as they have for centuries in rivers and streams. Healthy populations of bass, crappie, catfish and bream are available, and are all popular with anglers. Bass may well be the most sought-after species on an ongoing, 12-month basis; crappie and catfish run a close second. That said, there are few baits mature bass have not seen in a lifetime, but with a few tricks and a working knowledge of the fishery, good bass can be caught.

Columbus, Aberdeen, Aliceville

Ken Lowery, who considers Columbus Lake his home water, said each of these lakes are just different enough to make them interesting, but alike in so many ways that the same approach can be taken to each body of water.

“I don’t think any bass angler will object to grass and weeds,” Lowery said. “Early morning fishing is great where the grass is dense around points and humps near deeper water that contains some structure. The bass will be in there chasing baitfish near the surface and then transition to the deeper water as the sun gets high and surface temperatures rise.”

Weedless frogs and lizards are just a couple of Lowery’s go-to morning baits. He casts to the back of the grass, where it is against a shallow ledge, and works his bait through the grass, stopping adjacent to cover such as stumps or poles, much as a live frog will do. He will continue this approach with critters until he has covered the grass patch, and then he’ll break out a buzzbait to work the skinny water around the grass.

“In Columbus, there is plenty of old, man-made structure remaining where the gravel business operated prior to the construction of the waterway,” Lowery said. “Casting against or parallel to the vertical, gravel walls will often bring a strike, as will working every piece of emerging structure. During the spawn, this is the hot place to fish, as bass like a level place to make a bed. Where a ledge is wide enough to support a bed, a bass will be there. Use your depth finder to find beds holding fish and cast to them with Carolina rigs in a junebug or red color or a sinking worm in any color that mimics an egg-eating predator.”

James Golden lips a Bay Springs bass during an annual outing to the Tenn-Tom Waterway.
James Golden lips a Bay Springs bass during an annual outing to the Tenn-Tom Waterway.

Out of the gravel mine, Lowery goes to creeks and works every log and stump field. Sometimes, schooling bass will be seen blowing up on shad, and this is the time when crankbaits do the trick. Locking up to the pool known locally as Aberdeen will find much the same fishing conditions, with feeder creeks and a few very popular oxbow lakes where the fishing is reported to be above-average. One will encounter a few bowfin and gar in the slack water, but where these old river runs connect to the river, the bassin’ can be good.

The Tom Bevil Lock and Dam creates Aliceville Lake, often called Pickinsville by locals for its proximity to the Alabama city of that name. If locking down from Columbus Lake, have plenty of gas and be prepared for a long ride; the fishing in the old Tombigbee River portion of the waterway can be fruitful. For the angler who wants a different challenge, locking down from Columbus will allow for a short ride to the Tenn-Tom’s confluence with Luxapalila Creek, just south of the city of Columbus. The Luxapalila is a known home for native Mississippi Southern walleye. You may fish all day and never catch one, but you might. They hit the same baits you throw for bass.

Want to go north? Don’t bother

Unless you are a dyed-in-the-wool river fisherman, don’t bother with the waterway north of Amory. The skinny water is designed for barge traffic and the dirt on the bottom so poor it wouldn’t raise dust in the middle of a dry August. The habitat just won’t support good bass fishing. Hold the cards and letters folks, having hunted and hiked the Divide Section part of the waterway I can attest, it’s not worth the trip if bass are your target.

Frogs are a common early morning bait among the pads and grass patches of the Tenn-Tom.
Frogs are a common early morning bait among the pads and grass patches of the Tenn-Tom.

Go far enough, however, and you’ll find Bay Springs Lake, created by the Jamie Whitten Lock and Dam and connected to Pickwick Lake. James Golden of Taylorsville takes a vacation each year on Bay Springs and catches bass, crappie, catfish and bream.

“Bay Springs has everything that Pickwick does, but in a smaller footprint,” Golden said. “Around the end of May, perhaps as late as June, I try to hit the lake when the mayfly hatch is taking place. Some of the willows will be hanging with them, and every kind of fish will be under the drop, either eating the flies as they hit the water or eating the smaller fish as they gather to eat the manna falling from the sky.”

Golden ties a mayfly pattern of his own design and keeps at least a dozen on hand when he fishes his favorite willow which extends over a gravel bed. The flies are not a specular insect but can produce swarms so large they show up on radar. All the Tenn-Tom lakes in Mississippi feature a mayfly hatch.

“If I could have just one bass lure on Bay Springs, it would be the old standard Rapala black-and-silver model,” Golden said. “The wooden one is still my favorite, but there are few of the balsa models remaining. The last one I bought was in a tackle box in an estate sale — still in the original box”.

The remains of a former gravel mining operation in Columbus Lake provide habitat and spawning areas for fish.
The remains of a former gravel mining operation in Columbus Lake provide habitat and spawning areas for fish.

James starts early, using the Rapala as a topwater lure by slowly retrieving the bait near structure near grass; the slight twitching is intended to replicate an injured minnow. As the sun warms the water, he increases the speed of the retrieve to push the lure down in the water. By varying the speed of the retrieve, the minnow-colored bait will mimic a feeding baitfish, triggering strikes.

“My tackle box is full of lures I know how to use,” Golden said, ”Mepps spinners, plastics, and critter baits — a few I call Gully-Whoppers that from time-to-time will catch a big bass. I guess I’m a sucker for every new bait idea that comes through town. I’m impressed with the new product by Odin that has a bait reservoir what stores an attractant that is released through the faux gills. I’m anxious to see just how well it works.”

To fish the grass, Golden is a frog-man, saying if there is ever a weedless Rapala made, it will make someone a fortune. He is not picky about color but uses a fluorocarbon leader attached to braided line on a baitcasting reel. He said too many bass have wrapped his line around a limb and the line had broken.

“I’m not a fancy fisherman,” Golden added. “I catch fish for fun and food. Bay Springs Lake is as pretty a place as anybody could ask for. Every year, I catch largemouth bass, smallmouth bass and a number of other species of panfish. I believe in releasing the bass and keeping some of the others for breakfast and supper. Every man needs a place to go where he feels at home and can catch fish. Bay Springs is my place.”

Go with the Tow

One technique unique to the Tenn-Tom is the bite prompted by barge traffic.

Passing barge traffic on the Tenn-Tom Waterway can create fishing opportunities due to the resulting current.
Passing barge traffic on the Tenn-Tom Waterway can create fishing opportunities due to the resulting current.

When a boat pushing loaded barges up or down the waterway passes, the outflow of water and inflow after passage creates a very noticeable current. This triggers a feeding frenzy as baitfish are pushed from their holding places and are at the mercy of the current.

The same phenomenon occurs when the locks are filled and emptied or refilled following locking activity. Simply put, when a barge is approaching or passing, or you are fishing near an active lock, have a line in the water. Naturally, the closer to the lock one is fishing, the more exaggerated the water movement will become.

David Hawkins
About David Hawkins 182 Articles
David Hawkins is a freelance writer living in Forest. He can be reached at hawkins2209@att.net.