The Road to Tuscaloosa: Part 3

Official Practice

The official practice period would be the last chance for some good time to work on the water before the Nationals happens in May. I had made plans with the guide I hired in November to use his boat for the 3 days I can get out there including the use of his truck. So no driving across country, a major headache avoided.

I arrive in Birmingham Friday evening and head to the hotel. My rods are waiting for me at the front deck as I sent them there so I wouldn't have to carry then on the plane. I have 4 spinning rods and 2 casting rods.

I have my best plastics with me this time as I didn't bring as much of them when I was last there and that was a mistake.

Day One:

I meet Lavaughn (the guide) at his house and we go for a drive down his street to a local ramp that is used by his neighborhood, only 30 seconds away from his house, this guy has it made!

He launches me and wishes me luck. We couldn't talk about anything to do with the fishing and current positioning, rules you know. I start fishing right there, it's the back of long creek and structurally it's beautiful. Winding creek going threw a large flat, perfect. Only problem I can see is the water temp is lower than I expected, 60 deg. I notice a slithering creature coming towards the boat, when it sees me it veers off to the side of the boat and continues to the bank it is heading, it's a Water Moccasin saying "Hi" and I give it plenty of room to go on its way. Ok, first wildlife spotted and not the kind I want to be seeing, but it ends up being the only Moccasin I see the rest of the time there.

The creek has jumping bait everywhere and I expect to get bite fast but it doesn't happen. Ok, I can only do better from here so I start working my way out to the main lake picking up and going 1/4 mile at a time looking for the banks with the most exposure from the sun and that would warm the quickest. This creek by the way is about 2 miles long before it hits the main section of the lake and about half way out I hit my first fish. It's only a pound and a half and it crushed the rip bait! A good sign as last November the rip bait ended up being the better of the baits I found to work for me. I catch two more fish and both are not keepers. So I pick up again and start heading straight out to the main lake to check the points going into this creek and see if the fish were staged out there. No dice, no bites on main lake and I get the feeling right away that this is going to be tougher than I was hoping for.

I head to the upper 1/3 of the lake as my plans were to break the lake down into thirds and spend each day working a different section thoroughly. I go straight to an area that I did ok last time there just to feel out the bite. This proves to be a good thought as the fish were still there but VERY spooky and obviously they have been pressured heavily, something the guide warned me about in November as this lake receives tons of pressure in the warmer months of the year. There are males guarding nesting areas, but the fish are not locked down and no signs of females anywhere. I am in a protected cove that is the outside bend in the river that used to be there which is surrounded by a huge flat. I know the females have to be close and probably off shore. I approach this area like Clear Lake and start ripping the 128 pointer outside this spawning flat in hopes of finding a big girl, but no dice. As I slowly go down along this flat I come to an area that gets very shallow 50 yards off shore. This is a very exposed spot and I notice some large figures pick up off the bottom and slowly swim in front of me. I can barely make out what they are in the 8' of water I am in but one of them comes up enough so I can make out what they are, BINGO, they are toads and I guess them to be in the 6lb+ range. I make a large circle of the area and make some pitches with the senko but these fish are very wary of me and have no interest in that bait, something that holds true from the last time there.

This area is getting a lot of attention from the locals who are everywhere except off shore where I am. Most are throwing some type of bait they work fast by the weed beds and I watch one guy catch 3 fish in a very short period. He is working a fluke in a greenish color on the surface. I say hey and how ya doin' and he says he's caught at least 25 fish today but none over a pound and all bucks. I get off this flat as I don't need to be seen there right now working it like there are fish right there, which there were. I will comeback to this spot just before the tourney to see if the fish are still in that area and hopefully they will have a different attitude.

I head over to a bridge piling and start throwing some plastics. I few casts later I get a tap, set the hook and the first fish in the 2lb range is in the boat! Cool, that is the size I am after for my base limit. The local boat dealer I talked to before when I was searching for a boat to use said the guy who can bring in a limit each day of 2lbrs will win this tourney hands down. I belive him as the bite feels about as tough as any I have ever experienced. All the obvious baits you would think would work don't and going to baits that are a little off center seems to be the best way to approach this lake. I hit other pilings and get another fish to go that is about a pound and a half, then I pick up the rip bait and catch another. Ok, the pilings are still holding fish so I move on.

Now I am looking for major flats with very protected water. I want to find the biggest concentration of males guarding nests and I find one in a huge cove with tons of guys working it but nobody catching them. I see a good looking bank that doesn't standout and head over to it, there's nobody near it so I figure thats a good thing. Sure enough there are the males and they all have bad attitudes something I'm starting to expect from these fish. I rig up one of my favorite plastics and start working these fish. Some of them dart for a weed bed immediately when my bait hits the water and others check it out and take a bite! I catch 3 fish here and all are about a pound and a half. There are guys chucking buzz baits, poppers, rip baits, flukes and blades all around me and none are catching anything. Everyone I talk to says the bite sucks and it does, but at least I have a limit now and it's only 10 a.m. plenty of time to improve.

I could probably spend all day catching small males but that won't win this tourney so I head back out to the main lake and start working cove entrances in hopes of finding bigger fish that haven't moved up yet. I start catching fish but they are small. Time to regroup my thoughts. I know if I work the bridges I can catch good fish but I'm not sure about the numbers of them. The one bridge I did work I worked very hard for my 3 fish. That will be more of a backup pattern if I need it, but I want 2-3 lb fish and to find areas that are housing them. The north section of the lake is getting the most pressure by far so I leave it and abandon my plans to work it all day and head to the middle section of the lake. Now I am looking for docks in deep water. I go to an area that has them that I caught fish last November and rig up light weighted plastics and start working them slowly deep to shallow, shallow to deep. I get bit and these are better fish. Closer to 2 lbs but not quite there. I know there must be good ones there, it just has that feeling so I work the baits as slowly as I can and I finally get a better fish! It is over 2lbs and it really wanted that Robo worm, hooked it in the crusher and it almost had it down all the way so thats a good thing as far as a plastic a better fish will eat. I continue and get another fish over 2, COOL! Ok, this is working so I pick up and look for another set of deep docks. Now I look for docks in the back of protected coves and BINGO first fish that pushes 3lbs, the scale says 2lbs 15oz, its a 3!

Now I am looking for flats adjacent to these types of docks and I find a nice male (over 2) guarding his nesting area, he wants nothing to do with me but that is the size male I want to be finding, his girlfriend is going to be much bigger, but where is she. Now I am on the trolling motor and just cruising the bank, the weather is turning sour and its getting harder to see threw the water with the clouding sky's. Now lightning and thunder can be heard and a light rain is starting, its about 2p.m. now and a wind is also getting started. I am on my way out of this cover when I see a large figure sitting on a shallow ledge and it has a companion, its a fish that is definitely over 5lbs and a little male is bumping her but she's not moving. I pitch my plastic 10 feet past them and slowly work it to her. She sees the bait and bolts like a rocket in the opposite direction, not a good sign! These bigger fish are so spooky it isn't even funny and now I know why I am not seeing many of them. I figure when someone moves threw they spook and disappear and that is why I am not seeing them.

The the weather is getting ugly but I have a good idea of where I need to focus for day two, it's 5 p.m. now so I call it a day. My weight is about 10lbs, thats the target weight I hoped for and to do it on day one is a good thing.

Day Two:

It's raining like cats and dogs first thing and the winds are howling. I pick up where I left off but now I need to find new water that is out of the wind. I goto a long no nothing bank with red clay and start chucking jigs something I didn't do on day one. I work the banks slowly and methodically but no takers. I can't get a jig bite to save my life so I rig a tube and a shaking rig with my favorite Robo worm and start catching them. They are small but plentiful I find a very good point that has a nice cove in the back and catch a few there, biggest on the point was a 2lb fish but not quite, 1lb 15oz to be exact. I move into this cove and it makes a sharp turn at the back and I see bait activity. I rig up a top water make a cast towards the bait jumping and get blasted by a nice fat pound and a half fish. It spits up shad that are only an inch long so I now have a good idea of the size of the bait these fish are clueing into. This helps with getting a blade size figured out for a spinner bait, something I need to try today also. I put down the top water as I know I have active fish here and start chucking a blade, slow rolling, burning it back, you name it I tried it and no takers. I go back to the top water and another fish nails it, this one goes about a pound. I work these fish with the light weighted plastics and catch one off the bank, it goes almost to 2 lbs. Time to go, I am looking for these types of fish now, quick bites and areas that are less pressured, in fact there are very few people working the main lake so that gives me more confidence. I find a secluded cove with deep water in the back and a few docks, this time I start with the plastics and approach the area as quietly as I can. I get a good tap in the back of one of the docks and it feels like a good one and is! It heads straight for the surface and makes a great jump! Then it jumps again and again and again, this fish is going nuts! I get it to the boat and put it on the scale, he goes 2lbs 15oz! Another near 3lb fish in two days and I feel very fortunate getting this size fish to go with the bite being so tough. Mind you, these fish are not just jumping into the boat, I check many coves that look the same as the ones that are producing and only a handful actually do, but at least I'm finding a few that do and thats good for the confidence factor. At this point I am only able to get 1-3 fish per cove and I am working each one very hard, the fishing is tough bottom line. By the way, the scenery is breath taking, lush is an understatement. The rock formations are absolutely beautiful (I loved geology in school) and the amount of wood in the water can drive ya crazy with the lack of fish around it. Maybe the fish will relate to the wood better in May, who knows. Now I change my approach again, I know a few coves in the middle section of the lake will produce but I want to find numbers so the look continues. I go into a large creek channel that wanders for about a mile back off the main lake similar to the one I started in on day one but on the opposite side of the lake this time and stop midway as the banks I am looking for now have about a 20-30 degree angle to them. That angle is good for largemouth which I am looking for exclusively now. Its 10a.m. now and I head into a cove off this creek channel and can visibly see 1 lb fish cruising. It's always good to find these fish because I can test many baits and retrieves with them and see how they react. The weather is getting better now, the rain has stopped and the winds are dying down. A lot of the creeks are getting some color in the back from the run off from the rains that morning and night and the fish I was seeing were on the edges of the colored water where it mixes with the clear water.

Plastics are working ok now but not as good as the previous day, the reaction is still working but I haven't yet found a bait that is very good for that either. I rig a prop bait and start working it slowly and this seems to be a very good bait as the first cast with it produces a very aggressive male from his nesting spot, he goes near 2 lbs. As I release this fish a boat comes into the same cove I am in and I put the bait down and start throwing plastic again. The guy goes right past me and starts working the back section I am heading too. He looks familiar as I get closer and when I'm about 50 feet away I recognize him as one of my competitors. He is from Wyoming and finally I can bounce some ideas off someone and he is fully ready to talk which the rules allow us to do with fellow competitors. He doesn't sound to positive about the bite and I understand fully. This bite is tough and sporadic and to catch anything good is a chore. We chat a bit about where we have fished and what we have caught and he is interested in what I have to say as I am with his info. I get out of there 20 minutes later feeling even more confident now. I know the bite is tough but I am getting the bites I need and that is good. I head into another large creek and the guy from Wyoming passes me again. I work one side with the prop bait and get 3 fish to go almost immediately and very aggressive strikes. I see a nice looking section of this cove with two docks in shallow water and can see what looks like a nice male and make a cast right on top of his head and he immediately charges up and crushes it! He goes 2lb 6oz, nice fish. Next cast 10' away from where I caught him I get destroyed again and its another 2 lb fish, cool, this bait is working just fine. Next cast another 2lbr, holy smokes I can't wipe the grin off my face, this is the best spot I have found yet and I am fishing fast! I pick up and look for similar stuff and find it and the same thing happens, fast bites and good fish. I now have over 10lbs and it only 2p.m. cool!

The weather is turning again and the sounds of thunder can be heard getting closer and closer. The wind is getting strong again too. It sounds like a strong storm is coming in. It's 3p.m. in the afternoon and now the thunder is all around me. I get off the water as now the rain is pouring and the thunder and lightning is more than I can stand being around. LaVaughn meets me at the ramp and says he's been trying to call me to get me off the water as there has been a tornado warning in the area, oh great, not again! I head to the hotel and the warnings last until 7p.m. Man my timings good for bad weather here. The reports say the weather will be nice the following day with heavy rains expected till early morning then clearing for the rest of the day with highs in the 70's. This is good, I will have my last day on the water yet.

Day 3:

Just as reported the rains were heavy over night and into the morning and the lake came up a foot with the creeks turning to pure mud. Main lake was fine as far as water color went. I now am in the southern part of the lake and go into coves that didn't have creeks flowing into them. I love to fish incoming water but not right after a heavy rain, I like the creeks to settle for at least a day so they can clear a bit and the fish usually setup under them then. The cove I chose was a good one, pure luck I checked it but what the heck. First fish in the boat is a largemouth that is pushing 3lbs but not quite. It came from under a dock and the water here was gin clear. Bait was getting busted in the back of this cove so I threw my trusty top water bait and wham! Finally a 3+ is hooked and going nuts, this is a good cove! I get her in and she is fat as can be, no signs of being on a nest at all and obviously with the right attitude I was looking for in the fish. I make another cast and wham! This fish goes over 2 also. I make myself leave, reluctant but I didn't need to beat these fish up. I found the size I was looking for and the attitude was there to back it up. This may be my starting spot!

As I leave this cove two boats are heading in so it's no secret, I'm kinda bummed. The search continues.

I head into another big creek, the one I was in before the storm the day before chased me off the lake. It has two main arms so I head into the one I didn't get a chance to fish the day before. I find the right angle on the bank 20-30 deg. and start chucking the top water only. 3 small fish in a pocket. Another fish on the outside of this pocket, then another and another, ok time to go. Opposite bank is screaming at me to check so I do. Third cast and another 2+ is hooked and jumping, jumping, jumping, these fish really like to jump here, gunna give me a heart attack in the tourney I predict. Next cast another 2, cast after that huge boil but no fish, next cast another boil, has to be a guarding fish. I chuck a worm over to it and he takes it, set the hook another 2lbr. This is a great arm! I go without a strike for a while then I get on them again, 4 cast and 4 hits and I miss them all! There is a great concentration here, maybe this will be my starting spot. I am over 11lbs and its only 10:30 a.m. I have the biggest smile on my face, this is a killer top water bite, but I know I'm not the only one doing it from what I saw up north on day one. Oh well, can't beat 'em, join 'em. Not one boat in this section of the lake, nothing looks that special about this section either, thats good for me.

I feel good about the southern section so I leave it and go back up to the north for one last try. I'm looking for ugly no nothing water and see a series of docks and small pockets and head over to them. I go into one small cove and see a nice male with a really nice female, they have no interest in me so I leave them, as I head out of this cove there is a great looking point so I cast the topwater over it and start working it back, BAM, nice largemouth over 2lbs. Only good fish I could catch up here. The water is really dirty from the rains up here. The northen section of this lake seems to be where the majority of the guys working the lake are, the local I had take me fish in November said there were good fish there but the pressure really hurts the bite when there are a lot of guys working it, which was obvious.

Now it's late in the day I have had a great day as far as weight goes and really hope the bites I found in this practice period hold up as far as areas with concentrations go. I did find a better bite mid lake and down so when May rolls around and the 3 days of practice before the tourney happens I will be spending a lot of time in the mid to lower section of the lake perfecting the bite I have found. My confidence is high and I have a feeling of what to expect, maybe this ol boy will have his day after all on this lake for this tourney, I will be giving it my all.

Cris Van Clef