Big Suspended Largemouth In The Lake Russell Trees

The forest of trees at Russell confounds many anglers - but not Trad Whaley - who regularly pulls tournament-winning fish out of the timber.

Brad Bailey | April 1, 2007

Trad Whaley of Abbeyville, S.C. with a Lake Russell largemouth that smashed a custom-made Big Train spinnerbait slow-rolled through deep timber.

In tournament fishing, the name of the game is to come in with five bass that weigh more than the five bass anyone else on the lake has caught. When Trad Whaley fishes a tournament on Russell, he says he’s swinging for the fences — and he has often been successful bringing five, big, difficult-to-catch suspended largemouths out of the lake’s standing timber and taking them for a ride in his livewell to tournament weigh-ins.

Trad, 33, is a third-generation train engineer who runs CSX locomotives between Abbeyville, S.C. and Atlanta. He is also a second-generation bass-tournament fisherman. His dad, Danny Whaley was one of the best when bass tournaments first became popular in the 1970s and 80s.

Trad has carried on the family’s winning tradition at Lake Russell and nearby lakes. He has finished in the top five at the 72 Marine tournament three times; he won two Palmetto Team Trail tournaments on the lake; he finished second three times in BFLs on Clarks Hill, and he has won two BFL tournaments on Lake Hartwell.

What he is known for at Russell is fishing big, custom-made spinnerbaits in the timber and catching big, suspended largemouths.

“We are spinnerbait fishermen,” said Trad. “That’s what my dad and I do.”

Trad in his fishing element: throwing a spinnerbait in standing timber. Thirty feet below the surface, Lake Russell is essentially a forest of trees, and to consistently catch bass, you have to be able to pull suspended bass out of the trees.

In April the bass will be on the banks at Russell, and you can catch fish a lot of different ways. They will hit crankbaits, floating worms, flukes, jerkbaits, worms or buzzbaits. But if you want to catch five bass bigger than everyone else is catching, Trad says pick the spinnerbait every time.

Trad and I took off from the Hwy 72 ramp on March 15, went to the mouth of Rocky River and pulled up to a reef marker. While he is a spinnerbait fisherman, he enjoys catching any bass that will bite. Trad picked up a rod rigged with a Blade Runner — a homemade leadhead with a small spinner rigged with a small white fluke.

“First thing in the morning, you can pull up on nearly any main-lake point or reef marker within about two miles of the ramp and catch spotted bass,” he said.

He made a long cast past the reef-marker pole and began a slow retrieve. On his third cast his rod loaded up with a fat spotted bass that weighed a pound and a half. On his fourth cast, he caught another similar-sized spot — and on his fifth cast he caught the third bass of the day. In 10 minutes, between us we caught five spotted bass. We hit one more point with the Blade Runner and caught one more small spot before heading deeper into Rocky River.

“The spots are overpopulating the lake,” said Trad, who can remember when the fishing at Russell was 100 percent largemouths. “If we stuck with it, we could probably catch 30 or 40 spots,” said Trad. “But most of the spots are small, and you wouldn’t have enough weight in most tournaments. I wish people would keep every one they catch.”

He cranked the big motor, and we headed deeper into Rocky River to find dingy water and largemouths.

Trad’s tournament-winning strategy at Russell involves two alternating patterns — fishing the Lake Russell standing timber and hitting rip-rap rocks as he runs from one patch of timber to the next.

His go-to bait for big bass is always a spinnerbait, and it is one that he and his dad designed. Named the Big Train spinnerbait, the heavy-duty spinnerbait features a bullet head to allow it to come through brush easily, a heavy-gauge wire, flatter-than-normal blades and a skirt that has a lot of flare.

The day I fished with him, Trad had both a 1/2-oz. spinnerbait and a 3/4-oz. spinnerbait tied on. The trick is to fish the spinnerbait deep and slow, and in some situations the 3/4-oz. bait got the call because it sinks faster. Trad’s retrieve is a slow, slow-roll.

“A lot of people slow-roll a spinnerbait,” said Trad. “I just barely crawl it.”

The Big Train Spinnerbait is sold at a couple local bait stores, at the Diamond Carpets store in Winder, and can be purchased from Trad. It retails for $7.99 — that’s a top-end blade — and the reason it’s so expensive, says Trad, is quality components.

The Big Train spinnerbait made by Trad and his dad, Danny, has heavy-duty, high-quality components and is designed to pull bass out of the standing timber at Russell.

“One of the things we use is a high-quality swivel so the blades will spin even if the bait is barely moving,” he said.

Generally, Trad rigs the spinnerbait with a No. 3 Colorado blade and a No. 4 or 4 1/2 willowleaf blade, but he can change blades quickly to match the size of the shad the fish are eating.

We pulled up to a bridge rip-rap in the back of Rocky River, and Trad picked up a spinnerbait.

“Everybody fishes rip-rap,” he said, “but I fish it a little differently — deep and slow.”

On his fourth cast, the slow-rolled spinnerbait, crawling along the top of the rocks in 10 or 12 feet of water, was slammed.

“He thumped it, too,” said Trad as he unhooked a 2 1/2-lb. largemouth. “Sometimes when my dad and I fish, we will throw a Deep Little N from the back of the boat. The crankbait will catch more fish, but the quality fish are going to be on the spinnerbait.”

By about 10 a.m. we were on the trolling motor in a patch of standing timber. This is Trad’s element on Russell, and he was casting a spinnerbait to specific trees. The boat bumped and slid over and past the standing and barely submerged timber as Trad picked his targets. Cedar trees received the most attention.

“Cedars have the most cover,” said Trad. “The other trees are mostly just straight trunks, but the cedar trees still have a lot of branches.”

Trad placed his casts beyond the edge of the trees, then pulled it back just brushing the outer branches.

“You don’t want to crash into the tree, or you will spook the fish,” he said. “But you want to be close to the cover.”

Ten minutes into the stand of trees, Trad set the hook on an aggressive 2 1/2-lb. largemouth that ran down his spinnerbait.

Because of the cover, Trad fishes the spinnerbait on 20-lb. Big Game line, and it’s not a place you want to spend a lot of time playing a fish out. When a fish hits, he says to hit it hard, keep cranking and try to launch the fish into the boat.

“You’ve got to turn their head in a hurry or they will break you off in all the wood,” he said.

Even in the timber, Trad is looking for trees near drops, ditches and creeks. In March he was targeting the last deep water before the spawning flats. The bass, he said, pull up almost to the flats to await warmer water. The big females will suspend in the timber at about the depth the sunlight penetrates to warm their eggs ahead of the spawn, he said.

“That tree right there is called the money tree,” he said, as we moved through one stand of timber. “When it gets right, there will be a 3-pounder on it nearly every time you fish it.”

Trad likes to see a good wind on the water to break the glare, and he prefers a bright day to concentrate the bass on the cedar trees.

Don’t plan on loading the boat most days when you fish a spinnerbait in the trees.

“You aren’t going to catch a lot of fish doing this,” said Trad. “You will catch more fish if you beat the banks with a floating worm or jerkbait, but the fish out in the timber will be bigger than the bank fish. You can get out in the timber with a worm or a lizard and catch fish in the trees, too, but my five on the spinnerbait will be heavier than your five. If I can catch two or three fish from each stand of timber, I can usually put together a pretty good bag.”

Trad’s run-and-gun approach involves hitting patches of standing timber – but stopping to slow-roll a spinnerbait on the bridge rip-rap when he moves.

Swinging for the fences is Trad’s approach to fishing in tournaments.

“Sometimes you come up empty,” he said. “But sometimes you have a real good day.”

We covered a lot of water. We fished standing timber and rip-rap near the state park before fishing our way to the rip-rap in Allen Creek. The water was muddy, and other than a pair of small largemouths that we pulled off the bridge pilings, the rip-rap didn’t produce.

In March, we were ahead of the big move to the bank, but by April the fish should be heading toward the spawning flats.

“On the first full moon in April, you should be able to catch 30 or 40 bass a day,” he said. “The fish will move up on the shallow pockets behind the timber and onto the flats to spawn. You will be able to catch them on floating worms, jerkbaits, Rat-L-Traps, spinnerbaits — anything you want.”

And the fish will still be in the standing timber.

“The spinnerbait bite in the trees will hold up through May as the fish move back out,” said Trad. “In May the bluebacks and threadfin will move into the timber and the bass will stay in the trees with them.”

And Trad will be there, too, slinging a Big Train spinnerbait.

If you’d like more information on Trad’s heavy-duty Big Train spinnerbaits, you can email him at <[email protected]>.

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