Colbert County, Alabama has a special attraction to anglers of all kinds. Bass anglers, striper anglers, catfish anglers, you name it. All those popular species can be caught from a base camp in the area referred to as “The Shoals.” The area includes Muscle Shoals, Tuscumbia, Sheffield and Florence.”
Local fishing guide, Captain Brian Barton (256-412-0969), regularly hosts recreational anglers in search of locally abundant fish. He often targets multiple species in the same day on Pickwick Lake and its 490 miles of winding shoreline and 43,100 acres of water surface.
On this particular day, we would be targeting saltwater stripers and Barton’s favorite, smallmouth bass. The plan was to motor up a tributary to search for stripes, and later in the day move out to the main lake and fish river bluff walls for smallmouth.
When smallmouth bass are on the bucket list, Barton starts by catching live bait. The fresher the better is his motto, and the bait he nets in the morning will have you catching fish all day long. He has a large bait tank on board to be sure the bait stays lively and fresh. “I always want fresh river water in my tank,” advised Barton. “I always add a little bit of salt to it (See Video). Livelier baits translate into more fish in the boat.”
With plenty of bait on board, we started in search of the stripers by moving out of the lake and up a small tributary. Based on his experience, Barton explained that the fish we were targeting would run from 16 to 28 pounds with an average fish being 18 to 24 pounds. That average alone got me excited. He noted that his boat record was 28 pounds 12 ounces.
The whole process went just like Barton predicted. We stabilized his War Eagle boat on one side to the creek and cast chunks and heads of skipjack herring to the opposite side, which was the deep side.
“It is all about water temperature,” explained Barton. “When the river hits 78 to 80 degrees the stripers start coming in and they will stay in the tributaries until the water temperatures cool down. Tributaries like Pond, Cypress, Spring, Dry, and Little Bear are all fishable targets.”
Barton’s Shimano Sahara spinning reels were spooled with 30-pound test Vicious Braid and mounted on B’n’M Silver Cat rods. “I use the rods for striper and catfish,” stated Barton. “That’s why I spool with braid.”
“I have used every brand of catfish rod on the market over the last 30 years,” said Barton. “I have seen a lot of good and bad ones. The B’n’M rods are the best I have ever used. The Silver Cat series is perfect for the everyday cat fisherman.”
The terminal tackle began with a barrel swivel tied to the tag end of the mainline. About 16 to18 inches of 20-pound Vicious mono ended with a Daiichi 3/0 bleeding bait hook.
Barton’s bait of choice for the stripers is skipjack herring. He normally cut each skipjack into a head and two cuts out of the body sections. Occasionally he would use a fillet or just a smaller size, if the bite was slow.
When those stripers hit there is no doubt that you are in a fish fight. It seems like simple fishing, but it is rewarding and recreational to tie into one of those big fish. You are never quite sure you will get it to the boat until it’s in the net. Once caught, Barton insists on a quick photo and release.
As the afternoon wore on, the tributary started stirring with surface action, mostly white bass. It was Barton’s signal to leave the tributary. “That looks inviting said Barton. “Wait until about 6:30 or 7:00. Those white bass just come alive back in here. If I ever lose my love for live-baiting the smallmouth I am going to try some Road Runners on them.”
We made our striper memories and moved on to satisfy Barton’s passion for live-baiting smallmouth bass. With a livewell full of shad we motored out of the creek and into Pickwick Lake.
With our targeted fish moving from stripers to smallmouth Barton began explaining the possibilities. “When fishing for smallmouth or other bass for that matter, there are several different places or locations you want to look. Anyplace the current hits the bank directly and creates an eddy pool is good. The mouths of tributary creeks are always good, particularly the downstream point where you have current breaking off the upstream point. Pickwick has over 250 shell mounds or Indian mounds which are also good smallie country.”
“Any of those structures, rock walls, any of the old Muscle Shoals River Canal structure, are good,” continued Barton. “Basically, anything that has a hard bottom like rock, shell or pea gravel bottom where you have a contour break or a current break is going to hold smallmouth in the fall and the spring and summer.”
We were fishing what Barton called a “typical afternoon” on Pickwick. The dam was running about 40 to 50 thousand cubic feet per second of current. Barton chose a straight wall bluff to begin our afternoon adventure.
“The current is pushing into the bank,” explained Barton. “That current is pushing shad into the bank. We want to cast our baits up against the bluff and let it float down the bluff wall. We should catch largemouth, small mouth, spotted bass and probably a few fresh water drum and catfish along the way.”
Thinking about the old axiom, “variety is the spice of life,” I followed Barton’s instructions to cast 10 to 15 degrees upstream and allow my bait to float downstream alongside the wall.
“As you hit the bottom just gently lift the weight up off the bottom like you would a plastic worm,” advised Barton. “Just float your gizzard shad over the structure.”
We were still using B’n’M rods, but for the live bait fishing we were using the 8-foot B’n’M Float-n-Fly Rod equipped with a spinning reel. Our line was 8-pound Vicious mono and a split shot weight.
“Weight is always a variable,” said Barton. “We will start with a split shot weight of about a 1/4 ounce. You may have to go up or down between 1/16 to 1/2 ounce, depending on the speed of the current. If I were fishing still water I would normally have no weight or very little weight. I would hook that shad right under the dorsal fin and let him swim. I like a size 1 or 2 baitholder hook to pin the shad through the bottom of the lip and come out through the nostril.”
Just like with the stripers, Barton’s strategy worked to perfection. The first bait drifted along the wall produced a nice largemouth. The remainder of the day produced plenty of both smallmouth and the predicted largemouth bass, freshwater drum and catfish thrown in.
The smallies were best for me, because living in Florida I seldom get to target the bronzeback beauties. The thrill of holding that rod in your hand and floating live shad along a beautiful bluff wall on Pickwick Lake in Alabama is pretty hard to beat.
The fishing opportunities in the area are endless and fishing guides like Barton know where to go for the different species. Pickwick is about 46 miles long, dam to dam, so there is a lot of places the fish can be. When you have that much water it is a good idea to hire a guide like Barton unless you have several days to fish and discover on your own where they are.
Barton is owner operator at Brian Barton Outdoors. You can view his website at brianbartonoutdoors.com.
Colbert County, Alabama is a special place. A place that is especially attractive to anglers, but also to tourists in general. Anglers are attracted to the great fishing and tourists are attracted to the area’s beauty and a rich history in the music culture.
Barton lives in Muscle Shoals, AL, an area referred to as “The Shoals.” Muscle Shoals, Tuscumbia, Sheffield and Florence make up this area that has a long history in the music industry. It was, in fact, the birthplace of the famous Muscle Shoals Sound.
“There was a sound here called the Muscle Shoals Sound,” explained Barton. “You know that song, ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ by Lynyrd Skynyrd? There is a line in the song that says, Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers. The Swampers were a group of five men and they had a unique sound that couldn’t be reproduce anywhere else,” continued Barton. “That sound brought all these musical cats in here to do their recording. People like Aretha Franklin, Wilson Picket, Little Richard and a whole lot more came here to record.”
Now, visitors to “The Shoals” have the opportunity to investigate some of that music history by visiting such places as the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, the W.C. Handy Home and Museum, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio Museum and the famous FAME Recording Studios.
You can easily find suitable accommodations for the trip to Pickwick. I stayed at the Cold Water Inn in Tuscumbia. It has everything you need, all set in an antebellum theme that will knock your eyes out. Service, rooms and breakfast were all outstanding.
On a personal note, there are plenty of fine eateries in the Shoals area. One I liked in particular was a place called Champy’s. It is one of those places that is so good you want to tell everyone about it. They are known for their chicken, but everything we had, including the onion rings and, believe it or not, the tamales we had as starters. Just mosey on in when you got a little time. The chicken is prepared fresh while you wait and it is worth the wait! Don’t miss it if you are in the area.
The other place that came out on top was a little Mexican diner that Brian Barton told us about. It is a family run place and the food is outstanding. If you need a Mexican food fix, Casa Mexicana is the place to get it. I guess I should confess, we went to Casa Mexicana twice during our short stay in the Shoals. It was that good.