Lake Guntersville has been a hallowed place for Mike Carter as long as he can remember. He even took his first paycheck as a 16-year-old grocery bagger to buy a set of waders to fish this fertile section of the Tennessee River in north Alabama.
“My parents weren’t too crazy about me buying the waders,” Carter said. “But I had to have a way to fish the lake. When I was 20, I got my first bass boat. I’ve been going at it ever since.”
After fishing Guntersville sporadically during his 18-year career at a chemical company in Chattanooga, Tenn., Carter returned to his beloved lake seven years ago to make a living on the water as a fishing guide.
“Guntersville is not like any other lake on the Tennessee River chain,” he said. “Guntersville is a very fertile lake because of all the grass it has. They don’t drop this lake like they do the other lakes on the Tennessee River. They’ll drop some lakes 8, 10, 20 feet. On Guntersville, about 2 feet is all they can drop this lake. There’s an old dam in the Stevenson area that still has pilings about 15 feet under the water. So they can’t drop it because of the barge traffic. Because of that, this lake has all this grass and stays fertile.”
According to the Tennessee Valley Authority, Lake Guntersville is 67,900 acres with 890 miles of shoreline. The water level in the reservoir is maintained at a minimum winter elevation of 593 feet to maintain the depth required for navigation. The typical summer operating range is between 594 and 595 feet.
The lake’s vegetation includes hydrilla, milfoil and primrose, just to name a few species that bass love to hang around.
In the summertime, Carter doesn’t ignore the huge hydrilla mats, but he prefers to probe the edges of the grass.
“When it’s hot, I stay deep,” he said. “The Carolina rig is great, but I don’t fish it much myself. I fish a three-quarter to one-ounce jig on your deeper ledges. If you’ve got a lot of current, you can fish a big crankbait on the ledges. Now, when I say deep, that’s 12 to 14 feet on Guntersville. Some of the deeper hydrilla lines will border those ledges. Then on down the lake there are some ledges without grass that have a lot of structure, as in wood, that hold a lot of fish.
“I fish the jig with a craw just like you’d fish a worm. You can catch more fish on a 10-inch worm, but the quality of fish on the jig is better.”
Carter, who has fished all the Tennessee River lakes from Fort Loudon to Kentucky Lake, said another good summertime pattern is to take a heavy jig and punch through the thick hydrilla mats that are in 8 to 10 feet of water.
“If the current is moving, you can take an ounce or ounce-and-a-half jig and punch through the mats,” he said. “If you don’t want to use a jig, just use a big weight and a creature-type bait, but you’ll need to peg the weight so it won’t move up and down the line. When you punch through the mats, you’re basically on a river ledge. Most of the time, the strike is going to come just as you punch through the mat. It’s a reaction strike.”
Carter said the mid-lake areas of North Sauty and South Sauty hold good fishing pretty much all year long, but the other areas of Alabama’s largest reservoir aren’t far behind.
“This is the only lake, in my book, that’s not seasonal,” he said. “You can fish this lake from the north end to the south end and catch fish just about any time. Most of your lakes, they’ll drop them way down in the wintertime. In Florida, it’s tough fishing in the summertime. But, Guntersville, you can catch fish all year long.
“A lot of people will say that Nickajack, Chickamauga and Wheeler are like Guntersville, but they’re not. The only thing that makes them like Guntersville is they’re on the Tennessee River chain. There is no lake like Guntersville, because they don’t drop it and it stays full of grass. And that’s why you don’t see the consistent stringers of fish on these other lakes like you do at Guntersville.”
Carter, who offers guide trips of either four or eight hours, likes to get an early start on guide trips during the hot weather for a variety of reasons.
“I like to start at 5 a.m. to get in on that topwater bite at dawn,” he said. “Then when the sun comes up, we’ll move to some of the deeper areas. In the middle of the day, we’ll move to some of the river ledges.”
The fishing transitions to a fall pattern after a couple of cold fronts cool the water from the 90-degree summertime temps to around the 80-degree mark. That’s when the lake’s touted “rat” fishing explodes. Of course, the “rat” most of the time is a weedless frog imitation that is dragged across the top of the hydrilla mats. The bass explode from the cover to ambush the lure.
“That’s when the fish start moving out of that deeper water and up under the thick mats,” Carter said. “That’s when a lot of people like to fish a frog. The frog bite starts late in August and goes into the fall. It’s something you can do all day long if you want to fight through those mats. It only takes a couple of cool nights to get that frog bite going.
“Another thing you can do in the fall is fish a spinnerbait. You can fish these hydrilla flats and slow-roll a shad-type spinnerbait. That, to me, is one of the better patterns to fish in the fall. You can catch these fish in the middle of the day when the water cools down. When the water temperature gets below 80 degrees, you can catch these fish all day long.”
Carter was among the guides, officials and dignitaries who helped kick off the Alabama Bass Trail at Guntersville State Park in March. In fact, Carter and Gov. Robert Bentley shared a photo opportunity with a 12-pound bass Carter caught earlier.
“That was huge,” Carter laughed about the big fish. “I was easing a jig through some primrose stubble in 6-7 feet of water. I had already caught an eight and four before I caught her. That time of year, I swim a darker-colored jig a lot. After I caught the eight and four, I left and fished some areas. I decided to stop and fish that grass line one more time on my way in, and that’s when I caught her.
“There was no doubt it was a big fish when I stuck her. She hit hard and fought the way one is supposed to fight. This one put on a show. It was sweet. It fought more than the eight-pounder. When I saw her come up and shake her head, I knew she was possibly 10-plus. But when I got her up to the boat and reached down to lip her, I knew exactly what I had.”
Stunned by what had just transpired, Carter decided to put the fish in the livewell and stow his fishing tackle in the rod locker.
“I just sat there and thought about what just happened,” he said. “I just enjoyed the moment. That was special.”
The fish was transferred live to Bass Pro Shops headquarters in Springfield, Mo., and will eventually end up in the aquarium at the Bass Pro Shops in Prattville.
Although the consistency of the fishing at Guntersville is a huge draw, it’s the quality of the fish that keeps the lake consistently rated among the elite bass lakes in the nation. In Bassmaster Magazine’s latest rankings of the Top 100 bass lakes in the nation, Guntersville finished third, behind only Falcon Lake in Texas and Florida’s Lake Okeechobee.
“It’s pretty consistent to see 20-pound stringers on a lot of trips,” Carter said. “During tournaments, if you don’t have a 20-pound stringer, there’s no need to even weigh in. You might feel pretty good about that 23- or 24-pound stringer you have until you get to the weigh-in and see all the 30-pound-plus stringers waiting to weigh in.
“That’s typical Lake Guntersville.”
Visit http://www.anglingadventures.info/ or call (423) 802-1362 for more information on fishing with Carter for bass, crappie or catfish on Guntersville. Visit www.alapark.com/LakeGuntersville/ or call 800-548-4553 for information on the variety of accommodations at the park.