Wheeler Lake used to be the place to go when you wanted lots of action with 12- to 15-inch bass. Now it’s also producing the heavyweights. In 2012 Wheeler leaped from the bottom of Alabama’s quality bass barrel to No. 2 overall. Now, 5-pounders are as common as in the early 1990s when Wheeler was in its heyday.
Alabama’s second largest reservoir, Wheeler stretches 60 miles from the Guntersville Dam to Wheeler Dam in the northern part of the state. This reservoir is widely known for the stump infested bass habitat on the Decatur Flats near Decatur.
In some years the flats are covered with thick grassbeds, but that isn’t the case now.
Other fishing options include the upper, run-of-the-river reaches that flow past Huntsville and the lower end, which has steep banks and long points. The lower end is where you’ll find Elite Series pro Randy Howell fishing in September.
Howell won his first major bass tournament at Wheeler in 1998 and credits the victory for launching his professional bass fishing career. He has also had several top finishes here in Bassmaster tournaments.
“September can be challenging at Wheeler and at other Alabama reservoirs because the bass are in transition,” Howell said. “They’re grouped up and following shad.”
The shad are moving toward creek mouths and into creeks as the water cools. The bass follow their meal ticket like a caboose. Howell recommends that you concentrate on First and Second creeks in September.
First on Howell’s agenda is fishing the points at the mouths of these creeks. They comprise the first stop for the shad and bass as they move up from their deeper summer haunts.
“I’d start looking for shad, stumps and other cover in the 6- to 10-foot depth range,” Howell says. “Lowrance’s down and side Structure Scan modes really help with this.”
A Citrus Sparkle Livingston Divemaster DM 14 crankbait, which dives 10- to 14-feet deep, would be a key bait for Howell at this time. Another would be a Yamamoto Plum or Green Pumpkin & Watermelon Laminate 10-inch Kut Tail worm rigged on a 1/2-ounce shaky head jig.
“I got onto fishing big worms on a shaky head from a co-angler at a Kentucky Lake tournament,” Howell said. “I’ve used it at Wheeler and other TVA reservoirs. It out fishes a Texas rig 5 to 1.”
Howell slings the big shaky head worm with a long rod and 16-pound Gamma fluorocarbon line. Besides showing bass a big target, the heavy shaky head covers water fast and quickly locates bass schools.
When the bass and shad begin moving into the creeks, Howell ties on two Livingston crankbaits. One is the Divemaster Jr., a short-billed cranker that dives to 4 feet. The other is the Pro Ripper lipless crankbait.
“Look for schools of shad flippin’ around secondary points and pockets,” Howell said. “Find the shad and you can count on the bass being there, too.”
A sure sign that you’ve found the bass is when you see surface feeding activity. When Howell spots this, he digs out a Livingston Pro Sizzle walking stickbait in Candy Shad. The Pro Sizzle and the Pro Ripper allow him to make long casts to feeding bass without spooking them.
“If they won’t come up for a walking stickbait, try slow-chugging a small popper,” Howell said. “Sometimes that really pays off.”
Wheeler Lake lies east and west halfway between Birmingham and Nashville. The communities around Wheeler pride themselves on catering to bass fishermen. You will feel very welcome. You can launch at several excellent ramps around the lake.
Joe Wheeler State Park on the lower end of Wheeler Lake gives you quick access to First and Second creeks. Ingalls Harbor in Decatur is across the lake from the lower end of Decatur Flats. This elaborate facility features 10 lighted ramps, plentiful parking for large tournaments, ample dock space and even an icehouse.
Largemouth bass are the main squeeze at Wheeler, but smallmouth bass and the northern species of spotted bass also add to the fun. Smallmouths are especially common from Elk River down to Decatur. Spotted bass tend to hang near the main river channel.
Keep in mind that catfishing is excellent. Wheeler previously held the world record for blue catfish with a 111-pound behemoth. Panfishing for bluegill, redear sunfish and longear sunfish is excellent. Wheeler’s crappies grow faster than bean sprouts, and you can also fish for striped bass, hybrid stripers, white bass and sauger.
Editor's Note: The portion of this article about grass mats on Wheeler's Decatur Flats has been corrected. Thank you for your comments. Your input keeps us on our toes.
Before you visit Wheeler or any Alabama reservoir, go to www.alabamabasstrail.org. Here you'll find detailed information about nine lakes and two major river systems, including fishing locations, productive fishing patterns, local guides, campgrounds and where to stay.
For more information about fishing Wheeler Lake and accommodations around Decatur, visit www.decaturcvb.org. Also, the Athens - Limestone County Chamber of Commerce has information about facilities near Wheeler Reservoir, www.tourathens.com.
Rick Sizemore, firstname.lastname@example.org, 256-394-2280