Largemouth vs. smallies?

FLORENCE, Ala. -- The pre-tournament buzz for the 99 pros fishing Pickwick Lake focused on choosing between a revitalized largemouth population and world-class smallmouth fishery.

After two days of competition at the Alabama Charge, the catch ratio is leaning more on the largemouth side of the equation.

Catching a mixed bag here is more coincidence than calculated strategy, according to Alabama's Randy Howell. He believes you must commit to one species or the other based on the layout of the lake.

"If there's any place where you can say there's a dividing line between targeting one or the other, it's here," Howell said. "It's as one-sided a scenario as I've ever seen."

He describes a roughly three-mile smallmouth zone extending from the launch and weigh-in site at McFarland Park in Florence to Wilson Dam. The stretch offers a textbook tailrace fishery complete with sheer bluffs, gravel shoreline and plenty of current.

Howell made the deliberate decision of aiming for smallmouth. The fish accounted for four of his five-bass limit on Day Two, all of them weighing in the four-pound class.

"These are the biggest tailrace smallmouth I know of in the country," he said. "You can count on them to average between three and five pounds and there's nowhere else I know you can depend on that kind of weight."

Native Californian Aaron Martens is one pro who made the smallmouth choice for selfish reasons.

"I love catching smallmouth here; it's just a magic kind of place," the Alabama transplant said. "You come here to fish for them. It's kind of like a destination, the place you dream about catching them."

Martens' fantasy trip has turned reality as his all-smallmouth creel weighing 34 pounds, 14 ounces has him 14th in the standings.

Largemouth territory begins down lake at Coffee Slough, where hydrilla appeared several years ago. Before then, the largemouth bass virus struck Pickwick and put the population in peril.

Now the vegetation and bait have supercharged the aquatic food chain and the largemouth population is flourishing.

At the Alabama Charge the majority of the largemouth fans are fishing a prespawn bite. First-day leader Denny Brauer, who fell to sixth on Day Two, is among the contingent.

"It's as good as I've ever seen it," Muscle Shoals native Timmy Horton said. "The grass and bait have really made a difference down there and you catch quality, tournament winning largemouth there."

Horton is high on the largemouth comeback, but he made it into the final 50 cut with an impressive bag of smallmouth weighing 21-7.

"This is a unique place and today I proved it to myself," he said. "This is the only place I know of where you can't go wrong either way, largemouth or smallmouth."