Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Decline of Guntersville Lake

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If you read this blog, you probably have read about my frustrations with Guntersville lake. Over the last three years, the lake named "Best Bass Fishing Lake in America" multiple times has continually toughened for me. Now, if this is your first time reading my blog, then you may not be too familiar with me, so allow me to give a brief explanation on things. I am not a guide. I am not a professional. I am not paid by anyone to fish anywhere or with anything. In fact, I make no money of any kind through my writing. This blog is an honest account of my experiences in all things outdoors, especially bass fishing. 

With that said, I am decent bass fisherman fisherman and an above average tournament fisherman at best, though I recognize that I refrain from larger tournaments. I would not rank myself above anyone or try to persuade anyone of anything different. 

With all of that said, I woke up and decided that simply saying that "Guntersville has declined" isn't quite an acceptable statement without evidence. After all, for all the times that I have written about my struggles, there are guides who claim the lake is as good as ever. Now, you as a reader have to understand that I fish ten lakes a year so when the lake is tough, I just go elsewhere. 

Conversely, there are a lot of guides and local fishermen that ONLY fish the Big G and make their living on this lake. It behooves them to fish Guntersville almost exclusively as they have too much invested to do anything else. Additionally, the economic impact on Guntersville and Scottsboro are massive. According to a paper written and published by Auburn University in 2013, the expenses for tournaments anglers were estimated to exceed $4.6 Million dollars for the 272 tournaments for which data was recorded. Adding in local fishermen, that impact increases to $6.7 Million. That's an estimated $667 per trip and $225 a day impact.

This amount of economic impacts (which is probably greatly under-estimated, gauging by the tournaments surveyed) make it obvious that those supported by the fishing economy of Guntersville would do most anything to keep fishermen on the lake, despite a possible decline in fishing experience. Guides, in particular, have done much in the way of exaggerating success on the lake though there are some specific ones who are more interested in conservation than making money.

In addition, bigger tournaments who have brought the finest fishermen from all over the country continue to find great success on the lake, causing many recreational fishermen to have a skewed idea of the lake. These fishermen look at the leader board and judge the lake by the very top of the list and not the middle and lower end, which is where their skill set most likely resides. 

For example, the Alabama Bass Trail is a very good blend of expert tournament anglers as well as local fishermen. Looking at the top of the board, you see that winning weights were almost 27 pounds, down over two pounds from the 2015 weights. However, skipping to 10th place shows that it took less than 20 pounds. ABT pays out to 40th place, which took just over 14 pounds to cash that check. Over half of the 152 boats failed to break ten pounds and almost 100 of the 152 boats failed to weigh a limit, which exceeded the 75 boats who didn't weigh a fish in 2015, per AL.comConversely, the ABT tournament on Pickwick a month later took 22 pounds, a full five pounds less to win, but the weight for 40th was within a pound and a half of Guntersville. Less than 50 boats failed to weigh in a limit. 

Moving on to my personal experiences, I took a look at my Fish of 2014, Fish of 2015, and Fish of 2016 pages and drew up some conclusions. In 2014, I caught a total of 28 fish on Guntersville on a minimum of four trips. That represented about a quarter of my fish caught in 2014. Conversely, I caught 34 fish on Wheeler despite taking the same or less number of trips. Yet, my best bags and biggest fish came on Guntersville.  In 2015, I caught 26 of my 138 bass on Guntersville on a minimum of five trips. Of the largemouth, smallmouth, and spots, the best bags and biggest fish all came from lakes not Guntersville. In 2016, 19 of my 283 bass were caught on Guntersville on a minimum of six trips. As in 2015, none of my biggest fish or five fish limits were on Guntersville. Surprisingly enough, the best days came on Wilson, which you can read about in the links below:

Fishing Report for Wilson Lake 9/24-10/1

In summation, each year since 2014, Guntersville has produced fewer and smaller fish per trip. It is the only lake to both shut me out with zero fish in both multiple trips per year AND consecutive trips on the lake. Yet, it remains the site of my biggest five fish limits both fun fishing and tournament fishing as well as my largest bass I've ever caught. Still, it has to be recognized that all of these highlights came from before 2013. In truth, I haven't caught a sack over 20 pounds in three years nor a fish over five pounds on the lake famous for both. Lastly, the frog and ledge season, so famous on the G, have been absolutely non-existent for myself and most everyone I know. 

Since I am just one fisherman, I pulled in all the data from the two fishing clubs with whom I fish. One is a larger club that averages 15 boats per tournament and features around five boats who fish local BFL and ABT tournaments with success. The other is pretty much the opposite, but it makes for some data normalization. The data reported from the 2013-2016 seasons. 

In the percent of boats who weighed in limits, Pickwick led the way with 45% of tournament boats weighing in limits. Wheeler followed with 40%, Wilson with 39%, and finally Guntersville with a 30% mark. Of the 59 tournaments, there were only three tournaments where there were no limits weighed. Two of those were on Guntersville. Interestingly enough, if the smaller club, which features around six boats per tournament is eliminated, Guntersville average is still 30%, but Wheeler stands at 48%, Wilson at 49% and Pickwick and amazing 73% of boats weigh in limits. 

The average winning weight and big bass on Guntersville is a 17.7 winning sack and 6.62 pound big bass average. Pickwick, Wheeler and Wilson checked in at 15/4.7, 16/5, and 13/4.7, respectively. 

In other words, it does take bigger fish to win on the G. However, Guntersville has slipped from requiring a bass over eight pounds in 2014 to over six pounds in 2015 to right at five-and-a-half pounds in 2016. While the data shows that Guntersville has had the larger bass, the window between the Big G and the other Tennessee River lakes has closed. In the 2015 -2016 seasons, Guntersville produced six big fish over six pounds. Wheeler produced three and Wilson two. Overall, the current average is nearly identical between each and every lake and the spread between the four lakes is less than 0.4 of a pound. 

Guntersville does have one thing the other lakes do not have: 10 pound (or larger) bass. It is the only lake to produce a fish over eight pounds. Yet, eliminating that ten pound fish, the big fish average drops to 6.3 pounds which is less than a pound from Wheeler or Wilson's average. And, Pickwick, Wilson, and even Wheeler offer something that Guntersville does not: smallmouth. Wilson and Pickwick in particular are targeted almost exclusively for smallmouth during tournaments and often provides trophy smallmouth that exceed six pounds. 

In other words, local clubs are representative of what is seen in larger tournaments: Guntersville continues to have the bigger fish and heavier tournament weights, but only at the very, very top. However, further analysis shows the true trend: winning weight averages have declined drastically in consecutive years. After an uptick in 2014 from 20.25 pounds to 23 pounds, winning weights plummeted to 19.34 in 2015 to 14.9 in 2016. That's nearly five pounds per year. 

Conversely, averages on Pickwick have increased each year as has Wilson (with a very slight decline from 18 to 17 between 2015 to 2016). Wheeler has not been quite as stable, fluctuating each year.

In summation, nearly all the data points to one thing: there has been a three year slump for Guntersville, based upon the data I have collected. In truth, the lake hasn't been the same since around 2010. Why is the lake so stubborn? Many have speculated that it could be anything from natural trends to fishing pressure to the killing of aquatic vegetation. In truth, it could be any, all, or none of these. Yet, the fact remains that the lake has been impossibly hard for nearly everyone not at the very top of the game. While it behooves locals to avoid Guntersville and move on to other lakes, the word hasn't spread to out-of-towners, who continue to visit from thousands of miles away. While the economy can surely use their money, it would possibly save a lot of heartburn to try the other lakes on the Tennessee River. In the meantime, perhaps the rest will allow the Big G to return to what she was: the site of 30 + pound bags and 12+ pound fish.

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