By Jonathan Manteuffel
Special to BassFan
The top 10 finishers at the Cumberland Lake FLW Tour got just six days of rest before practice started this past Sunday on Smith Lake, about five hours down the road in central Alabama. And they’ll likely be starting this event like they left off at Cumberland – in the rain.
This week marks the third time in six years that the Tour has sampled the deep, clear waters of this Alabama Power impoundment on the Sipsey Fork of the Black Warrior River. Two names you won’t see on the leaderboard this week are the winners of the last two events – Brent Ehrler in 2013 and Dave Lefebre in 2015. Both have since moved over to the Bassmaster Elite Series.
Ehrler won the 2013 event by picking off chunky, suspended spotted bass with a wacky-rigged Senko, while Lefebre rode predominantly largemouths to victory by throwing a waking minnow bait to shallow water where the lake’s blueback herring had been spawning hours before. While those events were seven and four weeks, respectively, earlier on the calendar, both patterns – and more – could still be factors this week.
There’s no telling what lure, pattern, or depth will prevail, but it’s certain that spotted bass and blueback herring will play a part. Spring has come and gone several times this year, it seems, and the bass are spread out and doing several things around the lake. The weather will continue to influence the bite, as practice started with rain and wind, and is expected to clear by the weekend.
Spotted bass usually spawn deeper and earlier than largemouth, but in Smith’s clear water the beds are visible 12-15 feet deep. Spots will also defend their beds more aggressively than their green cousins, often chasing a bait a surprising distance away. But it’s very likely many, if not most, of Smith Lake’s bass have already completed their spring fling and are looking to recover and start feeding again.
The blueback herring, which were illegally introduced to the lake, are the featured item on the menu. These baitfish, like the bass, also may be entering their reproductive ritual, which brings them shallow on main-lake points and back into the creeks. Unlike shad, the herring will stay shallow all day, often swimming in circles over hard bottoms where they drop their eggs.
Although the sprawling reservoir makes running and gunning a little harder than on some lakes, the scattered patterns could favor scramblers like red-hot Bryan Thrift. Conversely, some late spawners and a herring migration up the creeks could allow shallow-water specialists to do well. From swimbaits to dropshots, jerkbaits to shaky-heads, suspending to spawning to schooling, virtually everybody in the field can likely fish how they like to fish.
With over 500 miles of shoreline and 21,000 acres, there’s room for the 183 boats to spread out from the launch at the dam into any of the three major branches of the lake. Water levels will probably be falling during the first day or two of the tournament after rising four feet during practice.
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the lake itself and an in-depth map courtesy of Navionics:
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake name: Lewis Smith
> Type of water: Highland reservoir
> Surface acres: 21,200
> Primary structure/cover: Rock, ledges, stumps, sawed-off trees, docks
> Primary forage: Blueback herring, shad, minnows, crawfish
> Average depth: 100 feet
> Species: Spotted bass, largemouths
> Minimum length: 15 inches (both)
> Reputation: Plenty of spotted bass, but bigger fish can be challenging
> Weather: Rain and wind early in the tournament before clearing up for the weekend
> Water temp: High 50s to low 60s
> Water visibility/color: Clearer by the dam, stained in some creeks
> Water level: Rose four feet above full pool in practice, likely falling during the tournament
> Fish in: 1 to 40 feet
> Fish phase: Post-spawn, with some late spawners still on beds
> Primary patterns: Topwaters, swimbaits, dropshots, jerkbaits, spinnerbaits, jigs/worms, crankbaits, possibly some sight-fishing
> Winning weight: 60 pounds (4 days)
> Cut weight (Top 30 after 2 days): 20 pounds
> Check weight (Top 50 after 2 days): 16 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3 for Smith
> Biggest factors: Fish moving away from the bank, herring spawn
> Biggest decision: Spots (more plentiful) or largemouths (bigger on average)
> Wildcard: Big bed-fish – one or two hefty spawners could take an angler on a rocket ride up the leaderboard
Bite is a Bit Off
Local ace David Kilgore of Jasper, Ala., has fished Smith Lake all his life, and qualified for two Bassmaster Classics via wins in the Opens, one of which was on Smith. He fishes the lake regularly and stays in tune with the bass bite.
“I haven’t exactly hit them on the head the last few weeks,” he said. “I’ve done alright, but nothing really special. The bass were spawning a month ago, so I’d say most are done by now, but there will still be a few left. You’ll see some caught on the herring (pattern) off the bank, too.
Taylor Ashley says the water has gotten dirtier in the backs of creeks, which has made largemouth fishing a challenge.
“I could see somebody start out largemouth fishing for a couple days, but it won’t last all four days,” he added. “It’ll probably be about half and half spawning and post-spawn. The water temperature hasn’t changed for a month, which is very unusual. It’s stayed around 57 to 60 degrees, with all the cold fronts and warm-ups back and forth.”
As for the herring pattern, it could happen both in the creeks and on the main lake.
“Herring spawn after the bass usually, maybe around 65 degrees, more like the shad,” Kilgore noted. “They’ll go way up in the creeks and spawn on big rocks and hard spots. They may or may not have gone yet, I don’t know. The herring bite is a timing thing; if you find them at 11 a.m. one day, you better go back at 11 a.m. the next day.”
Often the bass on Smith are so tuned in to the herring that they just won’t bite anything until the schools of bait roam through again, and it’s lights out for a few minutes.
Kilgore believes the bite has been somewhat off lately and will continue to be this week.
“I don’t think it will take a huge weight to win,” he said. “Maybe 15 (pounds) a day would be pretty good. Probably a guy can win with 56-60 pounds (over four days).”
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from some of the anglers who will be competing this week.
“It’s tough out there, I mean it’s bad tough. It was better Sunday even though it was raining all day, and then the water came up four feet (on Monday). I had found a few largemouth that might have been on bed but you can’t see anything now. When it crests and works its way back down, the fishing may get better.
“I think there are fish in both the spawn and post-spawn. The spots are probably mostly done, and so are some of the largemouths, but I think there are more wanting to move up. I think more will try to go (shallow) when the sun comes out later this week. You might just have to throw practice out the window.
“The water probably won’t crest until Wednesday. [It’s likely the tournament will be fished in falling-water conditions, as lake managers try to return to full pool of 510 feet.] Unless a guy is on big spots out deep, it’ll be a whole new lake from practice. I tried (fishing deep) but I didn’t have much success doing it.”
“The lake seems to be fishing pretty good. I’ve been getting 20 to 25 bites a day, but quality is hard to find. Getting one over 3 pounds is difficult. I did get one over 4 pounds (on Tuesday) so I felt good about that. I’ve never been here in spring and I’m kind of enjoying it. It’s harder in the fall.
“The rain has got the lake up about 3 1/2 feet and you can’t even cast to the new shoreline in the back of some of the flat pockets. But overall the lake is in good shape. Now you have some stained water and still some clear water, so it may spread guys out more than they might have been. All the ditches have water running in. I feel like the guys who did well at Cumberland may do well here.
“Not all the fish have followed the water up but some have. I’ll be out fishing for spots. Honestly, (when the tournament starts) I hope it falls like a rock and scares everybody off the bank. I’m scared of the largemouth guys. If the water comes down slow and the fish stay shallow and the right guys find them, it could be good for them and bad for me.”
“The bite had been pretty decent for both largemouth and spots, but it’s gone downhill as the water went up. It’s the opposite of what I’d have thought. It’s flooded way up in people’s yards. I’ve fished this lake for 35 years and I’ve never seen it this high. It’s way back in the bushes. Usually, the fish will go up with it, and when it comes back down they’ll get on the outside of the bushes, and when it comes down even more they’ll move out to the first drop. I feel confident there is a shallow spinnerbait or flipping pattern, but I haven’t found it. They’re probably spread out and you have to hit a lot of targets.
“I think the level has started to stabilize today (Tuesday), and it may start coming down, but it may rain again Thursday. The discharge at the dam can only pull through so much at a time, so the rain Thursday may keep it within a foot or two of where it is now when we start the tournament.
“I still feel like I can catch 13 to 15 pounds a day, doing what I’m doing. I had one 4-pounder today. One big bite a day will give you a huge separation from the rest of the guys. I’ve caught bass from two feet out to 30 feet. I’m guessing the top-30 cut will be around 24 to 26 pounds (for two days). I feel fairly comfortable overall.”
“I had a decent practice, but nothing spectacular. I had maybe 10 to 15 bites a day, but I should be getting 40 a day here. Usually this time a year, a topwater is the deal, but I’ve thrown it a lot and caught a few, and some good ones, but very few. Conditions aren’t really right for it, but it could play later.
“The water is getting dirtier. The largemouth water in the backs of the creeks is blown-out muddy. It may stay that way through the whole tournament. The first day there will be some good bags caught shallow, but it won’t hold up on Smith. It seems like the largemouth fishing has gotten worse as the spotted bass fishing has gotten better due to the herring.
Alex Davis is no stranger to Smith Lake and would love to capitalize on his experience there this week.
“I’m not seeing many schooling fish, which is weird. The few I found wouldn’t really bite either. It’s fishing real weird. But I think I’ll be all right, since I know a lot of stuff to do here. I really need to make the (Top 30) cut to get closer to Cup qualification.”
Top 10 to Watch
With all that, and more, in mind, here, in no particular order, is BassFan’s recommendation on the top 10 to watch at this event.
1. Bryan Thrift – Without question, Thrift is the biggest bassin’ show going right now. He’s fishing at a superhuman level – even Andy Morgan says BassFans are being treated to something we may never see again. Expect him to continue his record-setting streak of consecutive limits in Tour competition (53 and counting) this week.
2. Andy Morgan – He clawed his way out of the triple-digit finish hole he was in, scoring a 5th place at Cumberland after leading days 1 and 2. He needs to maintain high finishes to get into Forrest Wood Cup qualification range. He tied for 6th at Smith in 2015 and was 3rd in 2013, so he knows how to get it done in Cullman County.
3. Jared McMillan – The rookie has hit the big leagues with a huge bang, having led both the Tour Angler of the Year (AOY) and Rookie of the Year (ROY) lists going into Cumberland Lake a couple weeks ago. Now at 5th in the AOY, he is only 17 points behind Thrift. His finishes in the first four Tour events were 4th, 9th, 20th, and 78th, so he needs to reverse that trend this week to stay in contention.
4. Taylor Ashley – The first-year pro from Warrior, Ala. favors the Coosa River lakes, but he’s no stranger to Smith. He has also fished Lake Hartwell, another herring lake, quite a bit the last couple of years. At 82nd in the AOY points, he needs a good finish. He should be able to find success on his favorite technique – throwing a swim jig.
5. Anthony Gagliardi – Always a threat to win, Gagliardi may have an extra advantage at Smith, as probably no one understands the blueback herring bite better. The former Cup champion is having a good year, at 21st in the AOY points, and has had past success at Smith (15th in 2015, 9th in 2013).
6. Zack Birge – This third-year pro is having a breakout year, currently at 2nd in AOY points. He’s had just one out-of-the-money finish (74th at Okeechobee) in four starts, and was tied for 6th at Smith in 2015 when for some reason he couldn’t complete a limit. He loves to cover water doing his power-fishing thing and that may be exactly what works this week.
7. Scott Canterbury – Almost a local (he lives about an hour from the lake), Canterbury has done mostly well at Smith (39th in 2015, 2nd in 2008, but 92nd in 2013). A good finish this week should bump him up into the top 10 in the AOY points. He’s missed only one check this year. His pre-fish at Smith prior to the 30-day off limits had him encouraged, and despite a discouraging practice, he’s very likely to adapt to the changing conditions as well as anyone.
8. Clent Davis – A man who favors the offshore patterns, he should be able to find a comfortable herring deal on Smith, where post-spawn bass may be chasing pre-spawn herring. His results at Smith aren’t stellar (130th in 2015, 77th in 2013), but momentum from his recent success at Cumberland (3rd place) may help him improve on those numbers.
9. Alex Davis – No relation to Clent but also an Alabama native, Alex Davis used to guide on Smith. He often goes there when he just wants to get a lot of bites and get tuned up. His Tour-level success here hasn’t been what he’s wanted, but this could be the time everything falls into place for him. Currently 17th in the AOY points, he is looking to improve on his season-best 14th place finish at Lake Lanier.
10. John Cox – While many wouldn’t expect a shallow-water expert in an aluminum boat to be a contender at Smith, just that fact alone might make Cox someone to watch. But throw in that he has a top 10 there in 2015 and many bass are shallow now, and it gets more plausible. The former Cup champion is 16th in the AOY points, so he’s having a pretty good year. Toss a few spawning bass into the mix and it really starts looking good for him.
> Anglers will launch at 6:30 a.m. CDT all 4 days from Smith Lake Dam Access (7482 Smith Lake Dam Rd., Jasper, Ala.). Weigh-ins on days 1 and 2 will get under way at 3 p.m. at the same location. Weigh-ins on days 3 and 4 will be at the same location with a 4 p.m. start time.
> Thurs., April 26 – Showers and possibly a thunderstorm – 66°/48°
- Wind: From the NE 5 mph
> Fri., April 27 – Chance of showers, mostly sunny – 73°/46°
- Wind: From the NW 5 mph
> Sat., April 28 – Sunny – 75°/47°
- Wind: From the North 5 mph
> Sun., April 29 – Sunny – 80°/51°
- Wind: Light from the East