Long noted as one of the nation's best bass fisheries, Lake Guntersville has taken a great fall, failing to earn a spot in the top 10 among Bassmaster's 100 Best Bass Lakes for 2016. Additionally, it ranked just fifth in the southeast, with Santee Cooper claiming the top rating.
"It used to be that just about anybody with a reasonable knowledge of bass fishing could come here and catch a nice bunch of fish once they learned the basics of the lake," said guide Mike Carter. "Now, it's almost impossible for people without inside knowledge here to catch much of anything."
That's a far cry from 2011, when Alabama pro Aaron Martens said Guntersville was his favorite fishery in the spring "because you catch 100 fish a day and they're big . . . If you can find grass and stumps, you're really looking good. Once you find them, you can catch a lot."
What's going on at Guntersville in 2016? Theories abound, as guide Mike Carter and his wife Sharon have formed the Lake Guntersville Conservation Group to examine the decline and seek solutions. State representatives, as well as biologists from the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR) and Auburn University are involved.
Auburn fisheries scientist Matt Catalano said that an absence of big fish is not the problem, pointing out that the impoundment has more bass over 20 inches now than in any previously surveyed years. Rather, the number of 15- to 18-inch fish has fallen 30 to 40 percent below its 2011 peak.
"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," he explained.
"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."
As a guide who spends many days on the lake, Carter, meanwhile, sees other possible contributors to the decline, including intense pressure from both tournament and recreational anglers, as well as illegal harvest of bass in the spring by bowfishermen.
"Particularly in summer, a good number of the fish that go through the weigh-in process just don't make it because of the heat and the low oxygen," Carter said. "When you have thousands of fish being weighed in every weekend in these big events, even though most survive release, the ones that die have an impact."
Tightening harvest restrictions likely would not help, Catalano said. "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. That means tighter harvest rules probably would not have a measurable impact."
Stocking with Florida strain bass holds more promise, but even that is not guaranteed to help. "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," the Auburn biologist said, adding that it could be beneficial during a year when the natural spawn is down.
Quite possibly, he explained, Guntersville simply is experiencing a natural downturn following the bountiful year class of 2008.
(This article appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)