Why Guntersville Drops out of Listing of America’s Top Bass Lakes

Guntersville Drops out of Listing of America’s Top Bass Lakes

By Frank Sargeant
from The Fishing Wire

After once sitting atop the heap, this year Alabama’s Lake Guntersville did not make the top 10 in the annual listing compiled by Bassmaster Magazine of the nation’s top bass fishing spots. Toledo Bend Lake in Texas topped the charts this year, for the second year in a row.

In fact, Guntersville did not even top the southeast division, where it came in 5th. Santee Cooper in South Carolina was listed as the tops in the southeast.

North Alabama’s Lake Guntersville is still producing some whopper fish these days, but state studies indicate low numbers of fish in the 15 to 18 inch class, producing slow fishing for most anglers at present, and also indicating that fewer big fish will be caught in future as the current crop of lunkers ages out of the population. (Mike Carter photo)
And G’ville was only the third best lake in the TVA chain. Both Chickamauga, upriver, and Kentucky Lake, downriver, were placed above the 70,000 acre North Alabama lake.

What’s happened to the big lake–the economic driver of much of the economy in Jackson and Marshall counties?

Nothing unusual, according to biologists with Auburn University and with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR).

“We’re seeing a natural downturn at Guntersville, the result of what we call recruitment, or the success of spawning, in past years,” says Matt Catalano, assistant professor of Fishery Science at Auburn.

“The lake had an outstanding year class in 2008 when a huge number of the fish that were hatched survived to eventually become adults, and by 2011, anglers were seeing the results of this year class in their catches–there were more 15 to 18 inch fish than ADCNR had ever recorded in a continuing study of over 20 years at the lake,” said Catalano.

“But as fish get older, there’s a natural mortality as well as some fishing mortality, and not only that the larger fish are harder to catch–they’re more wary because they’ve been caught and released, and they’re not in the same places that the smaller fish are most of the time.”

Catalano said that continuing studies indicate that there are now more fish over 20 inches than there have been at any time during the study years, but that the more numerous 15 to 18 inch fish have fallen off to an average figure that’s 30 to 40 percent below the numbers in the 2011 peak.

“We don’t measure angler success, but with that many fewer fish in the mid-ranges, it’s sure to have an impact on the fisherman’s success,” said Catalano.

What brought on the big year class in 2008–and can the lake be manipulated to make it happen again?

“There seems to be correlation between years with low water flow from the spawn on into June and having a high survival rate of the fry,” says Catalano. Low flow typically results in clearer and shallower water, which results in more aquatic weed growth, and in return this builds a strong food chain as well as providing lots of cover where young fish can hide from predators.

Since Guntersville is part of the TVA chain, controlling the water levels to benefit the fish is probably not an option. The lake levels are manipulated to maintain navigation for commercial traffic, and for flood control; fish and fishermen have to deal with what Mother Nature give us.

However, Catalano said there’s some evidence that past stocking of Florida strain bass has helped improve the overall genetics in some areas of Guntersville, and heavy stocking could have a good result in a year when the natural spawn is down.

“Stocking a lot of young fish on top of a healthy native population usually doesn’t have much of an impact because the habitat is already full,” says Catalano. “But we know that stocking Florida bass has had very good results in other lakes around the country–in the right place at the right time, and with the right volume, it could improve the fishing.”

Changing the rules for anglers to reduce bass harvest, on the other hand, does not seem likely to produce much result.

“We tag a lot of bass on this lake and the number of returns we get give us some idea of what the harvest is relative to the number of fish. It’s pretty minimal–we think natural mortality is a far larger factor here,” he said. “That means tighter harvest rules probably would not have a measurable impact.”

The Lake Guntersville Conservation Group, formed to try bringing the fishery back through stocking and other efforts, has slated its next meeting for July 31 at Goose Pond Bait & Tackle, on the water just south of Scottsboro, at 3 p.m. Those who would like to join the group can contact Sharon Carter at 256 218 0613.