West Point Bedding Bass

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March is when anglers can expect to see some big females shallow.

About 25 years ago, West Point Lake was a prime largemouth bass impoundment that produced many double-digit fish, including at least one exceeding 14 pounds.

Impounded in 1974, West Point runs about 35 miles along the Chattahoochee River and covers 25,864 acres near LaGrange. The lake spans part of the Alabama-Georgia line about an hour southwest of Atlanta and 90 minutes northeast of Montgomery, Ala. The lake averages about 12 feet deep but drops to more than 70 feet deep in places.

Although the lake historically provided exceptional largemouth fishing, the habitat began to change in the early 1990s. Improved water treatment plants in the Atlanta area better cleaned the water flowing back into the Chattahoochee River. As the habitat changed, so did the fishing.

“Years ago, the lake had a lot of phosphorus coming down the river from Atlanta, which turned the water green,” explained Brent Hess, a biologist with the WRD. “In the early 1990s, new legislation in Georgia was passed to reduce phosphorus going into the lakes and rivers. That was good to clean up the water, but with less phosphorus in the lake now, it’s less fertile, clearer and less productive.”

Consequently, Kentucky spotted bass began to replace largemouth as the dominant species. Spots thrive in clearer waters with lower fertility, while largemouth like it a little more fertile and stained. Spots typically stay in deeper, open waters, while largemouth love hunting in the weeds, fallen trees and other thick cover.

“Since the early 1990s, spotted bass have really come on strong,” Hess said. “Spots are now more plentiful than largemouth, but there are still lots of both species in the lake. People catch most of the largemouth from Highway 109 and on up the river. The lower lake toward the dam is more dominated by spots.”

In addition, as lakes grow older, they naturally become less fertile and clearer. Material left on the bottom from when the reservoir flooded rots away. Fertile nutrients in the soil leach out of the lake bottom by the time the lake turns about 25 to 30 years old.

“It used to be one of the top largemouth lakes in the United States when the water was pea green,” said Ken Bearden, a West Point fishing guide.

“On the lower end, from Wehadkee Creek southward, people can see down 7 feet in places. The lake lost a lot of shallow vegetation. It still has a good largemouth population, but spotted bass are the predominant fish.”

Despite the changes, the lake can still deliver good catches of both species and some quality fish. The lake produces good numbers of spots in the 1- to 3-lb. range and some bigger ones. Many largemouth run in the 5- to 7-lb. range with a few hitting double digits.

“The bass population is good,” Hess confirmed. “People can catch a lot of fairly good-sized largemouth but not a lot of trophy fish. It can produce some double-digit largemouth, but they are not common. A professional angler practicing for a tournament on West Point Lake caught a 12-lb. largemouth a few years ago. The lake record weighs 14.2 pounds. The biggest spot that I know about weighed about 5 pounds.”

Under the Alabama Bass Anglers Information Team program, tournament directors report their catches from events on various lakes. During 2016, 22 tournaments fishing West Point and reported a total of 337 anglers fishing 3,102 hours to catch 1,124 bass for a combined weight of 1,792 pounds.

“In those tournament catches, 73 percent of the bass weighed were spotted bass,” reported Graves Lovell, an Alabama DCNR fisheries biologist from Auburn. “The bass averaged 1.59 pounds, but four weighed more than 5 pounds. More than 86 percent of the tournament anglers caught bass.”

To increase the size of bass people might pull from West Point, Georgia WRD began stocking thousands of Florida and Florida-northern hybrid black bass into the system in 2016. Florida largemouth grow larger and faster than native northern largemouth. The fish stocked vary in size from tiny fry to nearly 6 inches long. Bigger fish survive better, but they also cost more to raise in hatcheries, so the state stocks fewer of the larger fingerlings.

“Most of the bass we stocked have about 75 percent Florida genes, but some are almost pure Florida,” Hess said. “The fish we stocked have potential to produce really big bass in a few years. We are trying to add more genetic diversity, so the lake has the potential to grow a few more quality fish. We hope that these stocked largemouth will lead to an increase in quality-size largemouth on West Point Lake. We would like to see largemouth again comprise a larger proportion of the black bass population in the lake.”

For the biggest bass, fish West Point from late February through May when big females full of roe move up shallow. Some bass might begin moving shallow in February, but spawning peaks during the last week of March and first week of April. Some bass might continue spawning into May, particularly when we’ve seen a cold winter.

“Usually, when it gets really cold like it was this past winter, people catch bigger fish in the spring,” Bearden said. “That’s when we can usually see a lot of 6- to 8-lb. bass on the beds. On the lower end of the lake, some fish start getting ready to spawn in late February.”

Early in the year, Bearden recommends fishing the lower end of the lake where warming sunlight can better penetrate the clear water. Some good places to fish in March include Maple Creek and around the Southern Harbor area.

“We usually sample in the spring when the largemouth are on the beds, usually in the first or second week of April,” Lovell said. “In the spring of 2016, we collected some really big largemouth in our sampling. I weighed a 12-lb. largemouth two years ago. Spotted bass spawn a little earlier and slightly deeper than largemouth, so they are a little harder to sample. I encourage people to harvest more small spotted bass.”

Anglers might also consider fishing Wehadkee Creek or Yellowjacket Creek in March. Several large creeks, like Jackson and Dennis creeks, feed into Yellowjacket. The Sunny Point area can also produce some good fish. Bass spawn on numerous pea-gravel bars.

Keith adds a tail spinner to his worm in order to draw more attention to the bait.

“In early March, Yellowjacket Creek is an excellent prespawn place to fish,” Bearden said. “I like to throw a 1/2-oz. red Strike King Red Eye Shad around points to catch staging fish. I also recommend skipping flukes, soft-plastic stickbaits or similar lures under the docks. If the water is dirty, throw a spinnerbait. Beech Creek is another really big creek that it goes a long way.”

While on the beds, male bass eat very little, but they vigorously defend their nests against any predators that want to eat the eggs and fry. They’ll attack anything that poses a potential threat to the nest and periodically remove debris with their mouths. For bedding bass, drag soft-plastic baits that mimic salamanders, crawfish and other egg bandits through the nests.

“During spawning season, I like to fish the backs of creeks or shallow flats in the main lake with soft plastics,” said Keith Poche, a professional bass angler from Pike Road, Ala. “A Texas-rigged lizard is always a good bait to throw when the fish are on the beds because they want to defend the nests against anything that might eat the eggs or fry. When bass are on the beds in water less than 5 feet deep, I also like to throw a suspended jerkbait. It looks like a predator, and they want to guard against any predators that might raid the nests.”

In April, head back up the lake to fish the Pyne Road Park area and up toward Highland Park. Between the Georgia Highway 109 bridge and the railroad trestle, anglers can fish several good pockets on the eastern side of the lake. Several coves between the railroad trestle and Highland Park also offer good fishing. As water warms, anglers can fish some docks that hold bass.

“By early April, I fish the mid-lake area,” Bearden said. “The creek at Pyne Road Park goes back a long ways with a lot of stumps in the back of it. In late April, I move up the river toward the Highway 219 bridge. The majority of the fish stay up shallow all through April and most of May. By late May, bass start moving toward the deeper points on the river channel.”

When moving in and out of the spawning flats, bass frequently follow small ditches, almost like people using highways to navigate. These small channels offer bass access to shallow flats and slightly deeper water. Stumps that existed before the reservoir filled with water are found on the former shorelines of several old creeks. Many of these old stumps on the drop-off edges hold good fish. Work spinnerbaits or crankbaits parallel to the drops in these tiny ditches, and bump the stumps whenever possible.

“In the backs of many pockets and coves, anglers can find little ditches running through the shallows,” Poche said. “We can see dark spots in the water. Those dark spots are stumps on the sides of these little ditches. Fish get into those ditches and migrate into and out of the shallows. When they finish spawning, bass follow the slightly deeper ditches to slowly make their way out toward the main lake.”

In addition, anglers might also locate fallen trees, brushpiles or other cover near the ditches. Around such cover, throw a topwater bait or buzzbait in late spring.

“I’ve caught some really big bass on topwater baits in April and May,” Poche said. “I like to throw a Pop-R, which is a good bait for big fish and also produces good numbers. There’s nothing more fun in bass fishing than a big fish coming up and hitting a bait on top.”

Topwaters work great around the cover edges but can snag on weeds or branches. For the biggest bass, anglers need to penetrate the thickest, most entangling hiding places. Try throwing a tail-spinner worm into fallen trees. Simply add a spinner blade to the tail of a straight worm or soft-plastic stickbait. Rig it weightless with a 5/0 extra-wide gap hook inserted into the plastic to make it weedless

“I like a simple straight soft-plastic worm or stickbait with a little weight to it,” Poche said. “To the back of the worm, attach a No. 1 or 2 spinner blade with a swivel and a split ring. I cast it into cover and let it fall. Then, I slowly start retrieving it so the blade spins a little.”

The spinner draws attention to the bait. When the bass investigates, it sees the tempting soft-plastic morsel and strikes. Sometimes, reel it steadily, almost like working a spinnerbait or buzzbait. Sometimes, let it fall, or hop it off the bottom. Experiment with different retrieves and colors to see what bass want best that day.

“It’s a very versatile bait that almost combines the effectiveness of a weedless worm with fish-attracting ability of a spinnerbait but more subtle,” Poche said. “I can throw it into grass or wood, and it won’t hang up. It’s also a great search bait. I can cover a lot more water than just working a standard soft-plastic stickbait. Bass hit it pretty aggressively. I catch a lot of good fish on it.”

Since about 75 percent of the lake sits in Georgia, Peach State anglers can fish anywhere in the reservoir. With an Alabama license, anglers can only fish from the dam to the Highway 109 bridge. For information about lodging and other facilities, call the LaGrange-Troup County Chamber of Commerce at (706) 884-8671. Online, see www.lagrangechamber.com or www.westpointlake.info.

Ken Bearden can be reached at (706) 884-0494 or online at www.kenbeardenfishing.com.

 

West Point Fishing Guide Serving Veterans

In 2001, Ken Bearden met Joe Gilham, a Vietnam War veteran. The two men became close friends and frequently fished West Point Lake.

Gilham suffered from exposure to Agent Orange, a defoliant used to thin jungle growth during the war. Gilham’s declining health didn’t stop them from fishing as often as his condition would allow.

“In the last 18 months of his life, he got so sick that he couldn’t get the boat back on the trailer and get it home,” Bearden recalled. “The only way he could go fishing was if I took him. I made a point to take him whenever I could. Sometimes, we’d fish two or three times a week.”

Gilham died in 2013, another casualty of a war that ended more than 40 years ago but never ended for the people who fought in it. As a bass guide, Bearden had participated in events to help veterans in the past. That inspired him to start his own organization, the Veterans Fishing Organization (VFO), as a way to give back to veterans who had suffered and sacrificed for their country.

“When Joe passed away, his wife and I started this organization in remembrance of him,” Bearden said. “She said that if I hadn’t taken him fishing like I did, Joe would have died much earlier. She said that fishing gave Joe something to look forward to and talk about.”

Bearden obtained non-profit status for VFO in March 2017 with the mission of providing combat veterans, particularly those suffering from physical disabilities or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, an opportunity to fish and forget about their problems for a while. Bearden hopes to create a network of guides across Georgia, Alabama and other states so that veterans living near other lakes can enjoy the same opportunities.

For more information, see www.vfohome.org or call Bearden at (706) 884-0494.

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