The world’s greatest bass anglers descended on North Alabama’s Wheeler Lake in 2016, an all-star year for the diverse body of water. Since then, the 60-mile-long reservoir on the Tennessee River has played host to major bass boat and kayak tournaments as well as smaller kayak club events, hosting some of the biggest names in the industry. With over 67,000 acres of water, Wheeler Lake can support that kind of recreational and tournament pressure year-round.
Wheeler Lake is Alabama’s Hidden Bass Gem
Wheeler Lake is often overlooked because just one lock upstream on the Tennessee River is one of the world’s greatest bass fishing lakes, Lake Guntersville. However, in recent electroshock surveys by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), more bass were surveyed on Wheeler Lake than Lake Guntersville. In 2013, survey results showed Wheeler Lake holding more 5-pound fish than Lake Guntersville, although Guntersville reclaimed that title in 2014. The latest TVA results showed that Wheeler and Guntersville’s average fish each weighted about 2.1 pounds. Overall, Wheeler Lake has been the highest rated lake in terms of TVA’s quality indicators in recent years.
Unlike Lake Guntersville, Wheeler holds a healthy population of smallmouth bass. With the Elk River flowing from the Cumberland Plateau and the mighty Guntersville Dam kicking out moving water and oxygen, it is common to catch a smallmouth anywhere on the main channel. This bonus black bass variety will offer more opportunities for anglers to use skills and seek species that are familiar to them. Spotted bass are extremely common in the feeder creeks though you may find the streams offer limited access.
Giant Bass and Record Catfish
Catfish are plentiful on this lake. In fact, a world record 111-pound blue catfish was caught in 1996 on this body of water. I met a random kayaking stranger on the water last year and he told me about a day he had where he caught so many catfish and that they were so aggressive that he broke all his rods and was physically exhausted from catching so many fish during a certain hatch of an insect. Other game fish such as striped, hybrid, and white bass along with crappie and sauger are other regularly targeted by anglers on the reservoir.
Working Wheeler Lake’s Productive Channels
If moving water on the main channel or on the feeder creeks are not your forte, Wheeler Lake holds thousands of acres of backwater sloughs, canals, and swamps situated off the main lake. Because of the amount of flat shallow water that is often inaccessible my bass boat and its proximity to the well populated Huntsville metro-area, Wheeler Lake is likely Alabama’s most popular kayak fishing lake.
However, use caution when pre-fishing this water from your satellite imagery and topography maps. What may look like the ideal backwater creek-fed slough may actually turn out to be a muddy pit devoid of grass and other vegetation. If you are going to make serious run to compete on this lake, you must at least get your boat on the water to see for yourself the present status of your fishery.
Pay Attention To Hydroelectric Dam Influence
Fishing on this lake can be hit or miss and Wheeler can fool you. Hydroelectric dams above and below Wheeler often dictate how the channel fish respond to your lures. Lily pads on a small flowing stream have tricked many anglers as have the muddy-bottomed sloughs located around Interstate 65. No doubt, Limestone Bay looks great on paper but after TVA killed off the grass years ago, it is has since been a tough fishery. If you can figure out the grassless Limestone Bay you will have mastered Wheeler Lake.
NAKA club stop winner Jasen Albright caught three largemouth over twenty inches long within twenty minutes of launching his kayak while half the field struggled to even boat a fish. It is those 60-plus inch days that have anglers coming back for more. Expert frog angler Greg Massa, of BackWater Kayak Fishing, has had multiple days catching over 100-inches in his best five fish. I caught my personal best largemouth, a 24.75-inch freak fish, with Massa on my first day of fishing on Wheeler.
Alabama’s Best Wildlife Watching
The wildlife on Wheeler Lake showcases Alabama’s best freshwater animals. This body of water hosts several locations on Alabama’s Birding Trail. You’ll encounter copious bald eagles and other birds of prey. And don’t be caught off guard if you see a massive lizard the size of your kayak eyeing you from a distance. These reptiles were brought in decades ago to control the local beaver population and they have since thrived in the Wheeler backwaters. Just this summer I encountered what I thought was a log in the middle of a muddy slough. As it turned it, it was a beast the size of my Jackson Big Rig.
Plan Your Wheeler Lake Trip
When to Go
I enjoy going in the early spring around March or April when the lily pads start to grow above the surface. The huge leafs send a message to me that gets me excited about the growing season and better weather around the corner. And fishing topwater lures around those lily pads is invigorating after a long winter season.
Where to Go
Head to Point Mallard Park. Send your family to the waterpark while you hook into monster largemouth bass in the bay and sloughs around the point.
What to Throw
The main forage on this lake are shad, bream, and crawfish. Jigs, Carolina rigs, and cranks work great on the end of the lake. Shad imitation lures work well on the stumpy flats.
Where to Stay
Point Mallard. There’s plenty of family-friendly entertainment in the park and they have over 200 camping sites located near prime fishing. It’s also conveniently located near downtown Decatur. Ditto Landing is another marina offering camping upstream on the Wheeler reservoir. Ditto Landing is halfway between Wheeler and Guntersville Lake, situated minutes from the largest metro area in North Alabama.
Where to Eat
Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ. The seven-time world champion can cook some meat.
Who to Call
People always say Lake Guntersville is Alabama’s best bass lake–but they’re wrong. | Feature photo: Eric Atkins