When you visit Florence, AL there are a couple species of really big fish you can target. I visit the Florence area mostly in search of catfish. I have a sentimental attachment to Wilson Lake because a fishing trip there with Muscle Shoals fishing guide, Brian Barton, landed me my personal best blue catfish in 2016. A trip in 2017 resulted in a then personal best 37-pound flathead. You can see why I have a fondness for the area.
On a recent trip to Florence I decided I needed a change of pace, but still wanted to tangle with something big, a saltwater striper to be precise. I have heard the stories about mammoth stripers that congregate below Pickwick Dam and I wanted to give them a shot.
A little research turned up a local guide by the name of David Allen (270-205-9380). As a tournament angler, Allen loves bass fishing for about any species. Because of the popularity of Pickwick as a smallmouth destination a lot of his clients come in search of personal best smallies. He has helped those anglers reach their goals in many instances.
Better yet, he has been chasing the saltwater stripers for a lot of years growing up on the Pickwick waters. Allen was willing and able to give me the change of pace I was looking for. We set a time to hit the water out of McFarland Park in Florence, AL. The park sets at the base of the Highway 72 bridge crossing the Tennessee River and gives direct access to Pickwick Lake.
I should say the park gives outstanding access to Pickwick. Extra wide ramps make ramping easy and floating docks make it easy to board the boat. The facilities are topnotch and only a short idle out to the lake where our targeted species would be found in the current below Wilson Dam.
Allen explained that this time of year (early April) we were likely to find some stripers in the heavy current produced by the generating activity at the dam. It was a short ride from McFarland Park to the dam where Allen started navigating towards his fishing spot.
As we worked our way into the area he wanted to fish, he offered a warning. “It can be a little tricky in here,” said Allen. “There are lots of submerged rocks and boulders that can do serious damage to a lower unit if you’re not careful.” About that time, he pointed down towards the water and said, “See that boulder. It has been the ruination of many a prop. There was a huge boulder just under the water that could easily be missed by an inexperienced angler navigating the tailrace waters.
Allen’s local knowledge and patience maneuvered us to his chosen spot. “We will be using single swimbaits and Alabama Rigs this morning,” instructed Allen. “See where that current makes the seam right there alongside the calmer water? That’s where they are gonn’ be.”
As we worked the fast-moving water along the seam it did not take long to hook up. “There’s one,” shouted Allen, as his rod doubled over under the strike. He had offered a standard “store-bought Alabama Rig to the mighty striper and the fish consumed it. Less than a minute later Allen was reeling in a limp line and an Alabama Rig with a straightened snap swivel.
“I should have known better,” admitted Allen. “These beasts will tear up a normal Alabama rig. They come with 30-pound test snap swivels. It’s just not enough. An Alabama rig is already a big beefy, bulky, heavy-duty wire bait, but a big saltwater striper will play with it like it was a bath toy and turn it into a million pieces.”
As Allen grabbed his tackle box and pliers to repair his rig he explained that he normally beefs up the store-bought rigs considerably, but would rather use a rig produced by a local tackle guy.
“The Alabama Rig that I like to use is made right here in Florence,” said Allen. “His name is Brad Gooch. He makes one with heavier wire and swivels. His 100-pound test swivels have no chance of straightening on that powerful initial strike or run. The eyes are not going to pull out of the head or break when you are fighting a big one.”
Allen starts with Gooch’s rig and adds heavy-duty mushroom jigheads and Skinny Dipper plastic swim baits from Reaction Innovations. “I recommend 2x strong or 3x strong hooks,” instructed Allen. “If I am fishing current up under the dam I put all 1/8 ounce heads on the outside of my rig, and in the center, is a 1/4-ounce head.”
“I just go with the regular size Skinny Dipper,” continued Allen. “Given the castablilty of the Alabama rig you do not have to go to the big 6- or 7-inch swimbaits. Those big stripers will hit the smaller ones. I like the White Trash bodies with chartreuse tails. On the center one I use a dye marker to add a little more chartreuse, just to get that little bit of extra flash in that dingy water.”
Allen suggests using fluorocarbon or braid for the mainline. “Which ever you prefer,” said Allen. “If I am fishing in a hangy place I like 25-pound Segar Yellow Label fluorocarbon, just for the fact that if I get hung I can break it off easier. And, it does not have that tendency to bury into the spool like braid.”
With the new beefed up Alabama rig assembled, Allen maneuvered the boat again to where he could prospect cast the current seam. Again, it did not take long until the rod was bent like willow tree in a windstorm.
Allen’s striper techniques worked to perfection that morning and my search for a big striper was successful. The pull of these big fish in the current is beyond description, you just need to visit Florence and experience it for yourself.
Sleepin’ and Eatin’ in Florence
The Hampton Inn & Suites Florence-Downtown (256-767-8282) was our abode for the visit. Friendly staff at the desk were welcoming and helpful and the rooms were clean and nice. The free breakfast got me started right each morning before hitting the water. The selection was huge and the quality superb. I never left hungry.
Importantly for me, the Wi-Fi was excellent. Strong signals allow me to get plenty of necessary work completed when I was not on the water (Not to mention being able to download my camera and post a huge striper to my Facebook page).
Maybe the best part of staying at the Hampton was its proximity to McFarland Park. The hotel is less than 5 minutes from the boat ramp. That is a situation I will take anytime I can get it.
If you have non-anglers in the party there are plenty of other things you can do in Florence. Not only is McFarland Park only 5 minutes from the Hampton Inn, the Florence Tourism Visitors Center is right there in the park with plenty of helpful ideas for your visit.
Plenty of good eats are available in Florence, really, anything you might like. In our case, having lived in Texas for a good many years, we get an urge for good Mexican food. We found it in Florence at Rosie’s Mexican Cantina and I recommend that you try it.