With Outdoor Writer, John E. Phillips, and Jalen Conner
Editor’s Note: 27-year-old Jalen Conner is a native of Tuscaloosa and has been fishing Tuscaloosa County’s Holt Reservoir for eight years. A criminal justice student at Tuscaloosa’s Stillman College, Conner fishes two tournament trails – the S.A.B.A and the Jim Austin.
Jalen Conner and I went fishing upriver from Rock Quarry Boat Ramp (more info here) on Holt Reservoir in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, in early June. From 7:00 am to noon, we caught 10 bass and probably missed twice as many, with the biggest bass weighing about 4 pounds. While that bass was in the live well, it spit-out a crawfish it just recently had been eating. This clued Jalen into the fact that a soft-plastic Zoom Z-Craw was exactly the right bait for the bass we wanted to catch.
“The crawfish color I fish, as well as what most anglers fish on Holt Reservoir, is the Alabama Craw,” Conner explains. “Its main body is orange, and its pincers are red. During the summer months, the Zoom Z-Craw in the Alabama Craw color is the exact color of the crawfish here at Holt at that time. The crawfish will be in the grass, so when the currents aren’t running, or the current’s light, the bass will move into the grass to feed on the crawfish. However, they’ll eat crawfish almost every day during the summer.”
Another color of the Z-Craw that Conner fishes in the summertime is a watermelon red. He dyes the pincers with chartreuse dye. Conner fishes two types of the Zoom Z-Craw – the Junior and the larger Zoom Craw.
“I don’t tell the bass what size of crawfish they want to eat,” Conner explains. “I’ll flip both sizes and colors down the bank and in the grass. Whichever-size Craw gets the most bites is the one I’ll continue to fish. I think the bigger Z-Craw causes a reaction strike from the nearby bass, and that’s why it receives more bites than other baits do.”
Conner went on to explain: “When I’m fishing the Z-Craw, I’ll rig it Texas-style with a Gamakatsu 3/0 hook with a 3/8-ounce tungsten bullet weight in front of it. I then peg the weight to the eye of the hook. Although the Junior and the larger Z-Craws in the Alabama Craw and the watermelon red are my favorite colors, I’ll also fish a purple Craw that looks like a small bluegill. Bluegills and crawfish are what the bass are primarily feeding on in the grass and on the bank structure in the summer at Holt.”
D.J. McEachern: Fishing in Tuscaloosa County at Holt Reservoir
Editor’s Note: D.J. McEachern and his wife, Emily are working toward their PhDs in chemistry at the University of Alabama. D.J. has been bass fishing for 20 years and just recently has joined the University of Alabama’s Fishing Team. He’s been fishing in Tuscaloosa County’s Holt Reservoir on the Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa for the last three years and catches bass from below Lock 17 all the way down to Holt Lock and Dam. He primarily likes to fish grass in the summertime for bass because grass will give bass good ambush points, shade and oxygen.
“During the summer, Holt Reservoir has a good bluegill spawn, and I don’t believe many people who fish Holt Reservoir flip grass as much as I do. My favorite lures to fish during the hot summer months, all the way through August, include a bluegill popper, like a Berkley Bullet Pop. I also like a flipping bait like the Reaction Innovations Kinky Beaver in the green-pumpkin color that’s 3-1/2 inches long and features flappy tails. I’ll be fishing with 25-pound-test braided line made by Sunline and I don’t use any leader, just a straight braid. I’ll also fish with a Doybns DX795 Champion Extreme, 7’9” flipping rod with a Shimano Curado spinning reel.”
In speaking with McEachern, he catches most of his bass during the summer months near the Lock 15 boat ramp since there’s plenty of grass there on underwater humps, islands and ledges that he can flip.
“I’m known as a bank beater. I like shallow-water fishing for bass better than offshore in the summer months because the bass don’t have to come up through any other atmosphere other than the water depth where they are living. Not having to bring the bass up from deep water isn’t as stressful for them, and they easily can be released and will survive – even on the hottest days.”
Since he knows bass like to feed on bluegills, and almost always there are bluegills in shallow water in the summer at Holt, the shallow-water bass usually bite better than deep-water fish. Of course, a bass in shallow water has to be big enough to get a bluegill in its mouth and eat it, and often will be bigger than deep-water bass in the summertime.
Largemouth Bass Vs. Spotted Bass in the Summer:
“I’d rather catch largemouth than spotted bass. Largemouths are usually the species of bass holding in the grass and shallow water in the summer months. However, my best day of fishing at Holt was in March, 2022. My best five bass there were spotted bass that weighed a total of 20 pounds. I’ve had a lot of days when I’ve caught 15-18 pounds of bass at Holt for a five-fish limit. On an average day, I’ll catch 15-20 small bass. However, I’ve even heard of people catching 10-pound bass out of Holt. For me, a big river bass weighs 4-5 pounds. I try to bass fish two days a week – regardless of the weather or water conditions. But a caution to anyone fishing in Tuscaloosa County and the Holt reservoir is to watch out for logs and other floating trash, especially after a rain.”
Editor’s Note: 27-year-old Jalen Conner is a native of Tuscaloosa and has been fishing in Tuscaloosa County’s Holt Reservoir for eight years. A criminal justice student at Tuscaloosa’s Stillman College, Conner fishes two tournament trails – the S.A.B.A. and the Jim Austin.
Fish the Bankhead Tailrace to Catch a Wide Variety of Fish:
When fishing in Tuscaloosa County, according to Conner, “When only the generators are running at Bankhead Lock and Dam, you can catch a wide variety of fish in the tailrace, including saltwater stripers, hybrid striped bass, white bass, catfish and crappie. I’ve seen a 65-pound blue catfish that was caught in that tailrace, and the tailrace homes plenty of eating-size cats too. I’ve also had some friends who have limited out quickly on catching crappie in the tailrace because they know where the eddy holes are, and the places where the crappie hold when the current’s running.
Lock 17 Dam is the Bankhead tailrace border between Tuscaloosa County to the south and Walker County to the north. Numbers of spotted bass are in this tailrace when the current’s running, especially when the floodgates are open and the power-generating plant is producing current at the same time. Depending on how much current is moving through the lake, the lake may be 3-4 feet high above normal pool. Once there’s little or no current being released by Bankhead Dam, Holt Lake may be 3-4 feet below normal pool. When the current’s running strong, and I want to catch largemouths, I’ll go further downstream and fish mainly grass and bank cover.”
Fish Holt Lake with Jalen Conner and Outdoor Writer John E. Phillips:
The weatherman had promised a 50% chance of rain when Jalen Conner and I had set a date to fish Holt Reservoir. Because we both realized that the weatherman could be 50% wrong, we decided to go ahead and fish and carried our rain suits with us. We were fishing on the first Thursday in June, 2022. Although we ran almost the entire 20-mile stretch of the reservoir from Bankhead Dam to Holt Dam, we only saw three or four boats all day, with only one boat having a fisherman in it. We put in at Rock Quarry Landing with its boat ramps, restroom facilities and parking (more info here) and went upriver first.
During the summer months, Conner believes that the best fishing is upriver.
“Another advantage we have when we fish this section of the river during the week is that we rarely, if ever, see jet skis or people water skiing. This section of the Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa County is unknown to most Alabama anglers. If you enjoy fishing for bass in a river with plenty of grass, points, sandbars, quality backwater and pocket areas and underwater humps as well as islands and ledges in the middle of the river, then Holt Reservoir on the Black Warrior River near Tuscaloosa, is a hidden gem for you to bass fish.”
This section of the Black Warrior River runs through some of the most-rural areas in Tuscaloosa County and receives little or no publicity. So, the fishing pressure is almost nonexistent during the week there.
If you’re interested in learning more about fishing on the Black Warrior River and particular baits that local fishermen have found to be beneficial, you’ve come to the right spot!
Editor’s Note: Toby Wilson is a management consultant and has been fishing on the Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa County for the last seven years. He’s also heavily involved with high-school bass fishing in Tuscaloosa County with his three sons through Holy Spirit High School. His eldest, Garrett, is 18-years old, his son, Matthew is 16-years old, and his youngest son, Chase, is 15-years old.
John E. Phillips: What size of lures are you using to catch bass on the lower end of Oliver Lake?
Toby Wilson: I prefer to fish either a 3/8-ounce or a 1/2-ounce chatterbait with a white skirt and a soft-plastic Rage Tail trailer. Occasionally, I’ll use a Z-Craw trailer as well.
Phillips: How are you fishing the chatterbait?
Wilson: Often we’ll just cast and retrieve this lure. But there’s a lot of wood in Oliver’s backwater regions. We’ve found that banging the chatterbait up against logs in the water, fallen trees and any other type of wood may cause a bass to strike. Other times, we’ll fish the chatterbait slowly on the bottom. If the grass hasn’t grown-up to the surface, we’ll fish the chatterbait through the lily-pad stems, the grass stems and the underwater stumps. We want the chatterbait to hit the wood and trigger a reaction strike.
Phillips: The other lure you mentioned was a square-bill crankbait. Which is your favorite square-bill crankbait lure, and how are you fishing it?
Wilson: I use quite a few different manufacturers. I like Booyah, Bomber, Bill Norman and Lucky Craft. My boys and I fish a variety of assorted colors, such as white, sexy shad and blue back with chartreuse sides. We primarily fish bright colors that the bass can see in Oliver’s stained water.
Phillips: How are you working the square bills?
Wilson: We’re trying to crank the square bills and bounce them off the wood cover.
Phillips: Most people don’t like to run crankbaits through heavy wood cover because they’re afraid they’ll lose the crankbaits. How do you solve this problem?
Wilson: Some days you don’t lose any lures, and on some days you lose a lot. The best thing to do is bring numbers of crankbaits with you when you’re planning to fish the backwaters on Oliver Lake. We’ve learned that if we’re not banging the square bills into the wood, we don’t get as many strikes as we do when we crash the crankbaits into the wood cover off the main river channel.
Phillips: Two effective ways to fish a crankbait through wood cover is to pause the crankbait as soon as it hits the cover or burn the crankbait through the cover. Which tactic do you think is the most-productive at Oliver?
Wilson: We let the bass tell us which retrieve they’ll bite the best.
Phillips: What size bass are you catching in the backwater areas, and how many are you catching?
Wilson: Most of the average bass we catch will weigh 1-1/2-pounds to 4 pounds. But, every so often, we will catch a 5 pounder.
Adam Hollingsworth shared what he considers to be the best bass fishing spots in Tuscaloosa County during the months of April and May in Tuscaloosa County. Continue to read to learn more!
Editor’s Note: The president of the UA Fishing Team with 57 members, 34-year-old Adam Hollingsworth, became a member in 2020. He was born and raised in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and has fished the Black Warrior River since he was a child and camped at Fosters. Hollingsworth is a senior and will receive a degree in criminal justice in May, and will begin working on his master’s degree. Hollingsworth served in the Army National Guard for 10 years, starting at age 17 in 2008, and was a certified law enforcement officer in the State of Alabama. He had two deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He became inactive military to attend college in 2019 to prepare to work with the U.S Marshal’s Service after college and use his military and policing background. He rejoined the Alabama Army National Guard in October 2021. He’ll continue to pursue that career path, unless he can become a full-time professional bass fisherman, which is his dream. To fish Tuscaloosa County’s Black Warrior River, Hollingsworth likes Garmin’s Active Captain and mentions that Navionics and Humminbird’s LakeMaster are good choices.
How I Fish and What I Catch at Bankhead Lake for Largemouth Bass, Spotted Bass, Saltwater Stripers and Hybrid Striped Bass
The Bankhead area of the Black Warrior River below Lock 17 is probably the best place to bass fish in Tuscaloosa County. However, cell-phone service can be spotty to non-existent there. If I could get phone service, I’d love to go up there more to fish for bass. It is important to note this because you never know what could happen to your boat and motor while in a tournament or recreational bass fishing and the challenge it may be to get in touch with someone.
BANKHEAD AROUND LOCK 17
I’ve seen photos of several bass caught at Bankhead below Lock 17 in the northernmost part of Tuscaloosa County that would weigh 12-pounds-plus each. If you fish below the Lock 17 dam, bed fishing should be hot in April. This is also an area where you can catch some nice spotted bass too, fishing the current coming out of the dam.
In April, I target largemouth bass around lily pads with a rubber frog. I’ll also fish Yellow Creek above Lock 17 that homes nice-sized spotted bass. I’ll use an Alabama rig or a small swimbait to catch both largemouths and spots there. But if you’re fishing a bass tournament, you can’t use an Alabama rig with its five swimbaits in most tournaments. Some tournaments do allow bass anglers to fish three swimbaits on your Alabama rig instead of five. When the water’s stained, I like a pearl-colored swimbait to catch April and May bass. I also like to fish the tailrace below the Bankhead to catch saltwater stripers and hybrid stripers that will crash the Alabama Rig and a small swimbait. If you put in at a Rock Quarry on Holt Reservoir or at the landing right below Lock 17 dam and go north, you’ll be at the tailrace. If the dam’s not releasing much water, you can fish closer to the dam. As always, be sure to wear your life jacket to be safe.
A point comes out near Lock 17 where the barges come out of the lock on the left side of the lock, as you look upriver. I’ll fish the bank from that point all the way up to the lock and the spillway. Be very careful when fishing this area because the underwater rocks there can damage your motor. I’ve caught primarily spotted bass in this region – even some 4-1/2 to 5 pounders with 2-1/2-pound spots fairly common. I rarely catch any largemouths in that swift current. So much bait is in this area that it also attracts plenty of hybrid bass and saltwater striped bass. The biggest saltwater striper I’ve caught there weighed 40 pounds, and I’ve caught some large hybrids up there also.
If the water is running at Lock 17, you’ll lose numbers of Alabama rigs due to the many rocks in that region. When I’m fishing there, I fish with braided line instead of fluorocarbon or monofilament. In that section of the river, I’ll fish a Keitech swimbait in a 3-point size on a 1/2-ounce jig head. I’ll fish this swimbait on spinning tackle, cast it out and reel it back to the boat very slowly. If little current is running, your bait will sink faster to reach the target zone where the bass will be holding. If a lot of current is running, you’ll have to cast the swimbait across the current and let the swimbait sink longer to reach the depths where the bass are concentrating.
You’ll also find some holes in the tailrace, in the bottom at Lock 17 about 10-feet deep, and other holes even deeper. The bass sit in those holes and attack shad as they come over the lip of the break. I’ll use a fluorocarbon leader to start with, but if I’m losing too-many swimbaits, I’ll fish with a 15-pound-test Seaguar braid or the new Seaguar TactX Camo Braid line. What I like about this new TactX is that it’s a braided line with an 8-pound-test fluorocarbon leader that comes packaged with it. I wouldn’t fish a leader less than 8-pound test there because the bass in that current fight hard and can break smaller leaders.
At Bankhead, I prefer to fish with a 7’ rod with 7 feet of A 15-pound-test fluorocarbon line tied to 15-pound-test braided line. I’ll reel down 7’ of that 15-pound-test fluorocarbon into my reel and then turn the handle of the reel until I have a 15-foot-long fluorocarbon leader. I like to cast a swimbait out and use my Garmin LiveScope to watch the swimbait fall to know when to start a slow retrieve.
Another lure I fish in the current up by the dam is a small Megabass Vision ONETEN+1 jerkbait. I’ll fish it on a 6’6” or a 6’10” jerkbait rod made by iRod. In stained water, I like that lure in OB Stain Reaction or a pearl with chartreuse. In cleaner water, I prefer the Algney Bone, Natural Shad or GP Pro Blue II colors.
Where I Catch Bass at Holt Reservoir
When I fish closer to the cities of Tuscaloosa and Northport at Holt Reservoir, I like to fish Rocky Branch Creek on Holt Reservoir. The further you go back in this creek in April and May, the better the bass fishing will be. Rocky Branch Creek has a landing and a recreational area where people swim. When the bass are moving into Rocky Branch Creek from deep water for the spawn, I’ll fish down the bank all the way to the back of the creek where the bass will be spawning. When they finish spawning, I’ll fish along the banks of Rocky Branch and catch the bass when they’re swimming back to their deep-water homes.
If you go all the way to the back of Rocky Branch, the creek splits. On the right-hand side of that creek is a deep channel, and I’ve caught a lot of good bass on jerkbaits there. I’ve also caught really-nice bass on the left side of the split. I like to fish these two splits all the way to the back of the creek where the water’s running into the creek.
Another productive place to fish for bass at Rocky Branch is the point where those two creeks come together. I’ll catch bass with a swim jig fishing that point. Also, I’ve caught some very-nice crappie there when fishing for bass. I caught 10 giant crappie in February 2022 while I was bass fishing. When I spotted them on my Garmin LiveScope, I thought they were bass because they were so big. The majority of those fish weighed 2-1/2 pounds, which was big for Warrior River crappie.
What About the Bass-Fishing Potential at the Warrior River Now and in the Future
I don’t get to fish the Warrior River as much as I want to because of all the college tournaments I fish. I’ve got three out-of-town tournaments to fish in April. In an average month, I’ll fish three to four tournaments on the weekends. Besides the collegiate tournaments, I’ll be fishing BFL tournaments in the fall and some open tournaments as well.
The Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa County is pretty much overlooked by most of the state’s anglers, because they never see or hear anything about the quality bass fishing we have here. Most of the UA Fishing Team fishes collegiate tournaments, so they are gone on the weekend when tournaments are being held in Tuscaloosa. I think many anglers are fishing Lake Tuscaloosa, which doesn’t have near as productive fishing as the river has. But they fish Lake Tuscaloosa mainly because they have cell-phone service there. If you fish out around Riverview on Oliver Reservoir, you’ll have good cell service. There is cellphone service at Oliver, and I know Fosters has put in more cellphone towers.
I believe the Black Warrior River fishing from Lock 17 down to Moundville, Alabama, is a hidden gem in the bass-fishing world. If anglers had a bigger landing near Tuscaloosa and Northport where five to seven boats could put in, there would be more tournament fishing on the Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa County than there is today.