UPCOMING EVENT: TOYOTA SERIES - 2020 - Lake Cumberland

Life on the Ledges

Life on the Ledges
Jason Lambert

(Editor’s note: To learn more about the system that Jason Lambert has used to win ledge-fishing tournaments on the Tennessee River, check out the May/June 2017 issue of FLW Bass Fishing magazine. To subscribe, visit shop.flwfishing.com.)

Jason Lambert grew up stitched to the Tennessee-Alabama border, near the corner of a music triangle stretching from Nashville to Muscle Shoals to Memphis. The closest real towns – Florence, Ala., and Savannah, Tenn. – were a half-hour down a rolling, green highway in either direction. The nearest boat ramp, on the other hand, was less than 10 miles from the family farm. And it was there, at Pickwick Landing State Park Marina, that Lambert was baptized into the sport of fishing.

Jason Lambert

At 40, the 2015 FLW Tour Rookie of the Year is just weathered enough to recall fading stories of Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Rolling Stones and Wilson Pickett passed down from local old-timers, remnants of the days when Muscle Shoals was a music mecca. And while those ghosts provide a backdrop to the area’s history, to Lambert they mostly provide a backdrop to fishing. These days, fishing means flying across the water in a decked-out Ranger. But when he first heard the songs, it was while he was crawling across the lake on a commercial fishing boat, where the waves of Alabama radio mixed with the waves under an aluminum deck. And he didn’t know their stories.

“Childhood living is easy to do. The things you wanted, I bought them for you.” – The Rolling Stones/“Wild Horses.” 1969, Muscle Shoals Sound Studios

Lambert’s uncle operated a commercial catfishing operation out of the small town of Waterloo, Ala. – the kind of place where you could still get a half-inch-thick homemade bologna sandwich at the local corner store. From Waterloo, Lambert would help his uncle collect bait, set trotlines and haul in the fresh catfish that kept American restaurants stocked with prime Pickwick Lake filets to fill out plates of slaw and hushpuppies. Amid the bustle of this business, Lambert developed an instinct for fishing deep water that would ultimately set the stage for his FLW career.

“I was on the water a lot,” recalls Lambert. “But my first years of fishing didn’t involve bass. I did a lot of crappie fishing, and I helped out on my uncle’s commercial boat where we’d fish way off of the bank. Very seldom did we fish anything near shore. Even crappie fishing, we were fishing creek channels, so fishing out in the middle of the lake was just natural to me.”

On the catfish boat, the lake’s big blues – so often bound to underwater ledges – were a prized target. With weekly exposure to fishing grounds like that, it was only a matter of time until a hungry bass took Lambert’s bait.

That’s when he got hooked.

As a teenager, Lambert accidentally snagged a 6-pound smallmouth on a crappie jig. In those days, all fishing was more luck than science, and that logic was doubly true offshore.

“We found fish with triangulation back then,” he remembers. “You’d triangulate from tree to tree, and you would literally just start fishing toward where you thought they were. If you found the fish, you’d throw out a buoy marker. It took a lot more time to find them, but back then we also had all of that area out there all to ourselves.”

Around the same time that farm-raised catfish put the final nail in the coffin for Pickwick’s commercial fishing market in the ’90s, Lambert’s childhood schooling on the lake was starting to pay off in local fruit jar tournaments, where, as a teenager, he could take home $150 by landing a few big bass on a Monday or Tuesday night.

In college at the University of North Alabama in Florence – still just steps away from the Tennessee River – Lambert began to come into his own as a bass fisherman just as marine electronics were evolving to give every angler the power of his inherited offshore secrets.

“Gonna change my way of thinking, make myself a different set of rules.” – Bob Dylan/“Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.” 1979, Muscle Shoals Sound Studios

Jason Lambert

The changes happened quickly. First, GPS-enabled devices allowed anglers to pinpoint ledges on the map and return in a fraction of the time that it took to line up using triangulation and buoys. Then, as sonar advanced, fish became easier to spot on those ledges, giving well-equipped bass fishermen the ability to dance from waypoint to waypoint, selectively fishing only when they saw fish on a screen.

Lambert’s old fishing holes became crowded. Tournaments that could have been won on less than a dozen holes were now being won with dozens.

To keep finding tournament success, Lambert had to adapt.

Once limited to sightlines and guesswork, Lambert became a master of marine electronics. He began to relish long days watching graphs in open water, and spending untold hours behind the screen of a depth finder to capture new waypoints – waypoints hopefully unnoticed by other anglers.

Jason Lambert

He takes the task seriously, and is notorious for stopping sparingly on a school, hiding his hand from competitors and everyday anglers hoping to snag schools for themselves. In three days of practice for a Tour event during the ledge-fishing season, Lambert might spend less than three hours with a rod in hand. Come tournament time, the end game is to run and gun to as many hot spots as possible.

“My objective going into a ledge tournament is to find more fish than anyone else. Period,” he says. “I might make a cast or two just to see what size they are, but it’s more to check the size than to catch a fish.”

Lambert acknowledges that, occasionally, Tennessee River tournaments are still won on a single spot. Greg Hackney did it at a Tour event on Pickwick in 2014, and Lambert finished second in a Costa FLW Series event at Kentucky Lake in 2015 in the same way. But with a trophy case littered with ledge lake hardware, he’s comfortable taking his chances playing fast and playing for keeps.

“Let the water ease my worried brain. Some days I just can’t get alone.” – The Black Keys/“The Go Getter.” 2009, Muscle Shoals Sound Studios

Lambert is still fresh enough to be considered young by many anglers. With careers carrying sometimes into their 60s, pro bass fishermen don’t face the same age biases that baseball or basketball players carry. In fact, the early-to-mid-40s are considered by some to be the best years a pro angler has to offer. But in today’s world, Lambert is a bridge. High school and college fishermen are growing up in a world that he helped pioneer. Every year, the ledges get more crowded with more anglers using more sophisticated equipment and tactics. It’s enough to make you wonder just how far the Pickwick-area legend can grow.

Lambert takes pride in adapting, at being the most knowledgeable he can be with electronics and lure selection.

“I firmly believe that just growing up out there with the mindset of never fishing a bank has had a whole lot to do with being able to adapt,” he says.

Yes, Lambert is a master of adaptation, but he also carries one trait that no fish finder can teach: experience.

People ask how Jason Lambert became one of the sport’s best ledge fishermen, to which he almost always has the same reply: “It was growing up on Pickwick, dude. It’s a lot of experience and getting the opportunity to grow up there.”

In 2009, a strange thing happened to a small, rundown building at 3614 Jackson Highway, just outside Muscle Shoals. Its halls had been silent since 1979, the stories of its glory days left to Alabama old-timers with bologna sandwiches and too much time on their hands. Less than a decade ago, some people came back to investigate the old building. They were looking for the sound. And they found it. When Muscle Shoals Sound Studios came back to life, it produced two Grammy-nominated albums, sending the living echoes of the old Tennessee-Alabama border sound back onto the airwaves.

Jason Lambert

And the waves at Pickwick? They never left. But the way anglers approach them has changed as dramatically in Lambert’s lifetime as the music down the road. Somewhere between those $150 fruit jar tournaments and a $125,000 FLW Tour win, Jason Lambert’s offshore secret got out. But despite the turning hands of time, with 12 top-10 finishes at Pickwick and Kentucky Lake since 2008, Pickwick’s local ledge boy is still reigning supreme.

(Editor’s note: To learn more about the system that Jason Lambert has used to win ledge-fishing tournaments on the Tennessee River, check out the May/June 2017 issue of FLW Bass Fishing magazine. To subscribe, visit shop.flwfishing.com.)

Tags: joe-sills  angler-features 

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