Photo by Larry Self.
Mention Dale Hollow and heads turn, and rightly so. There are also a few smallmouth waters in East Tennessee that might not have legendary status so to speak, but they do deserve more than a second look.
In smallmouth bass circles, there are waters like those of Dale Hollow that are considered sacred. Pickwick and South Holston lakes are two others that are on their way to a revered, legendary status, if they’re not already there because of their consistency in producing quality brown bass.
For a few minutes, take your mind away from fishing the waters that will probably produce the next world-record smallmouth bass. When time doesn’t allow you to make the drive to one of the legendary lakes across the state, there are a few overlooked East Tennessee smallmouth lakes that you need to make the journey to.
The waters we’ve isolated as top picks don’t get the respect they deserve, but they’re defiantly not slouches when it comes to producing quality brown fish. February is not a month to be fooling around if you’re a hardcore smallmouth fisherman. Water temperatures are just starting to warm and will range from the low 40s to the upper 40s at best. Not your typical spawning situation, but ideal to start looking around for big smallies.
Largemouth bass may make their first serious moves in March, but smallies do it in February. These four lakes we’re spotlighting — Cherokee, Fort Loudoun, Tellico and Watauga — are all top lakes at times when it comes to producing trophy brown fish. The numbers may not always be their strong points, but they all have a history of coughing up some big smallmouths in the form of 4- to 6-pounders and on up. The only way you’re going to find out is to read on and then get on February’s chilly waters and experience big smallmouth fishing for yourself.
The first big smallmouth I ever laid eyes on came from Cherokee Lake. I can still picture that 6-pound-plus bronzeback from my past, and I wasn’t even the lucky fisherman to boat it. Regardless, its fight and pure speed as it rocketed to the surface trying to throw the tube bait hooked me for life. Right after high school in the 1980s, Cherokee was a serious destination for smallmouth fishermen. It’s never ceased from producing smallmouth bass, but there have been up and down cycles over the last few years. Anglers who fish the noted waters are proud to say Cherokee’s very good smallmouth status has returned.
Tournament angler Junior Harris from Greeneville said there’s no doubt about Cherokee’s comeback the last two years. From February through early spring, he’s seen the results at the scales. Over the last two late-winter and early-spring seasons, Harris said anglers have seen some serious brown fish brought to the net. You may not catch a boat load of them, but when they weigh in the 3- to 4-pound range and you can put them together in a tournament, you won’t complain about the quality. Harris saw five-fish limits of brown fish weighing 18 to 19 pounds placed on the tournament scales last year.
February is what Harris describes as the month to be on the water on Cherokee for what the lake has to offer, and the lower section is the place you’ll want to spend most of your time. A Fluke fished up around laydowns in the Three Springs area can be good later in March and the bluffs and points above and below the Hwy. 25-E bridge will deserve your hair jig attention later on, but the section of the lake from the Kidwells Ridge area down to the dam are smallmouth hangouts in February.
Main channel points are good starting spots in February. You’ll want to concentrate on depths of 15 to 20 feet for the most part this time of year. Harris said as the water starts to warm later in the month, you’ll want to fish more shallow as smallies move up. If you put in your time and search them out, the lake’s many humps can also pay off for smallmouths.
Cherokee Lake has a strong history of being a Silver Buddy lake all winter long and particularly on through February. Harris said the hump factor can be key to catching Silver Buddy fish. He said working a 1/2-ounce Silver Buddy over humps can produce solid brown fish. Harris has his best success casting the bait onto humps and points and then popping it off the bottom creating a natural flash with the bait’s flutter. Backup baits that produce in February include hair jigs and the Float-N-Fly. Harris said you also should never overlook what a 3-inch chartreuse Old Man String Ray Grub can do.
For the best access to the lower end, put in at the ramp at the dam just outside of Jefferson City and work your way up the lake to Kidwells Ridge slowly hitting points, bluffs and humps. There’s plenty of structure to divide your opportunity into more than one trip.
FORT LOUDOUN LAKE
One year after qualifying for and fishing the Bass Masters Classic, pro angler Wesley Strader from Rockwood still calls East Tennessee lakes his home waters. In between road trips fishing the FLW Tour and Everstart Series, Strader gets on lakes like Watts Bar and Fort Loudoun as time allows.
There are days that Strader said Fort Loudoun could be considered a numbers lake for smallies, but for the most part, it’s a quality brown fish destination. By the numbers, you could boat as many as 10 to 15 smallies per outing. What counts for most smallmouth diehards are the days that produce the big boys as opposed to numbers of average brown fish. The days of four or five smallies in the 5-pound class are treasured, and Strader said they happen on Loudoun in the month of February.
Of the underutilized smallmouth waters we’re profiling, Fort Loudoun probably has the most color in February. Strader said early February calls for hair jigs on main channel structure, but as the water starts to warm in midmonth and later on, Loudoun is a crankbait lake. The stained conditions and water temperatures nearing the upper 40s make the lake’s smallmouth bass susceptible to Bandit 200 Series crankbaits as well as the Flat-Shad Little PT. These baits run about 9 to 10 feet down and are suited for fishing February’s offerings.
Strader said smallies are mostly on main channel areas or up the lake a little ways where it narrows to a river situation. The good smallmouth fishing in February is best on the lower half of the lake. From the dam on up the Tennessee River just before you see the Knoxville skyline is where Strader said to put your smallmouth fishing emphasis. Access from the lower end can be found at Fort Lou
doun/Tellico Canal Ramp adjoining those two bodies of water. On up the lake just west of Knoxville, anglers can utilize the Concord Ramp to explore that remaining section identified by Strader as quality smallmouth waters.
What he’s looking for in his big smallmouth hunt are transition-type banks. We’re talking about banks that change from rock to mud or even pea gravel to a flat. Somewhere in that transition, he said you’d find them with a crankbait. Concentrate on long, tapering points vs. the more winterlike ones with a 45-degree angle. Skip over the vertical structure and start keying on areas near flats with more of a slope and pinpoint transition banks.
The smallies aren’t quite ready to spawn, but they’re thinking about it and moving slightly shallower. Crawfish are also starting to molt and make an appearance. That makes crankbaits in crawfish color imitations deadly in Strader’s eyes, and he’s seen what they can do in February. He said with a laugh that there’s not a specific color to use in February other than a crawfish pattern. The “spring craw” color or those with root beer and chartreuse highlights are hard to beat in Loudon’s stained water.
Tellico Lake gets a lot of fishing pressure, but local angler and smallmouth fanatic Wesley Bivens said it’s not specifically for smallmouth bass. Bivens said he’s been catching brown fish on Tellico since they dammed it up back in the mid-1970s. That’s a lot of water covered in nearly 30 years. Tellico like Watauga Lake, another lake on our overlooked review, can be tough to fish and tough on anglers with its clear water. Tellico may be an adjacent neighbor to Fort Loudoun, but the water clarity differs greatly.
Clear water calls for a different strategy, a strategy Bivens said could lead to catching a trophy smallmouth. He went on to say Tellico has a huge number of big smallmouths, and February is a key month to catch a big fish. He’s planning to put more than his share of pressure on them with the Float-N-Fly system this winter. To do so, Bivens said there’s not a place on the lake he’d rather fish than around the Lauderdale area. From the Lauderdale boat ramp, he said a 10-minute boat ride in either direction would put you where the big smallies live. The lower end of the lake is what he calls primed with opportunity.
The boat access at the Fort Loudoun/Tellico Canal Ramp will also keep you close to the action on the lower section of Tellico and the adjacent Back Creek section of the lake. Bivens said the top smallmouth structure and cover in February is all related to the main channel. The first bluff right out of the Lauderdale Ramp is as good a starting place as you’ll find anywhere on the lake. Bivens said there are just not a lot of hollows anglers target on Dale Hollow in February and March, but there are some very good points and bluffs.
Bivens suggests testing these quality waters all through the winter and February with a Bullet Lures’ Float-N-Fly rig featuring 4-pound-test line and a 1/16-ounce jig. He used to rely heavily on 1/4-ounce hair jigs and a No. 5 crawdad-colored Shad Rap, but can’t put the bobber rod down in February. The chance to hook up with a big smallmouth on 4-pound-test and the long rod used with the Float-N-Fly is just too much to pass up. The real test and fun is trying to get one in the boat with the finesse system.
The question about whether Tellico can produce is easily answered through Bivens’ experiences. He said a 6- to 7-pound brown fish on any given February day is not out of the ordinary. Tellico isn’t your grandpa’s numbers lake. You might even boat a couple of smallies over 6 pounds in a trip to these overlooked waters, according to Bivens’ experiences. He said on a three-day fishing trip at Tellico, the majority of brown bass will be 4 to 5 pounds in size, but big kicker fish can be in the mix as well.
The first smallmouth bass over 6 pounds that I boated happened over a decade ago, and it wasn’t from my favorite waters of legendry Dale Hollow Lake. That big brown bruiser was caught near the dam on deep, clear Watauga Lake on a cold and icy February morning. That first fish of the day and the biggest of my smallmouth career at that time actually jumped on the back side of the boat before I could gain the upper hand, but then again, that’s smallmouth fishing.
Watauga Lake is a smallmouth classic in the sense of the word that it defines you as a smallmouth angler. It’s one of the toughest lakes you can pit your skills against and at the same time it can produce that trophy when you least expect it. The name Eddie Nuckols is familiar in smallmouth arenas because of the national exposure he’s brought to the Float-N-Fly technique as well as his tournament exploits with it on Dale Hollow and South Holston. Nuckols, from Washington County, is no stranger to Watauga Lake and has enjoyed tournament wins there as well.
Nuckols will quickly tell you the reason to be on Watauga Lake in February is because of the smallmouth opportunity there. He said there’s no other reason to take on these tough but bountiful waters in late winter. There is truly nothing easy about conquering Watauga in February, but the challenge can be rewarding in the form of quality smallmouths. If the water is stable, Nuckols said February can be one of the best months to be on Watauga. It can get very tough when early rains spill into the lake from the rivers feeding in from North Carolina. Nuckols said rising waters kill the Watauga smallmouth bite.
When conditions are right and they often are in February, the veteran smallmouth angler said the lack of fishing pressure on Watauga is one of the things that makes it a great smallmouth destination. From main-lake points and bluffs to a lot of underwater structures available for those willing to look for it, Watauga can be a prime producer from the mid to lower section of the lake. The upper section’s shallower water with its two feeder rivers and creeks will be best later on. For now, from the boat ramp at Fish Springs Dock on down toward the dam is where you’ll want to concentrate your efforts in February.
With water temperatures near the low 40s in February, smallmouths can still be fairly deep. They may move up on the main lake inside protected pinots on main channel bluffs, but will be found relatively deep. When smallies are deep and suspended under baitfish, anybody that knows Nuckols knows he’s throwing the Float-N-Fly.
Those that don’t know him that well should also realize he knows the value of a jigging spoon in February on Watauga Lake. Drops and stumps play a big part in his late-winter fishing taking advantage of the success of a jigging spoon. He said the smallies can be in the 20- to 40-foot range with a spoon in February and often the 30- to 35-foot mark depending on the amount of winter drawdown can be very productive.
Nuckols’ Float-N-Fly fishing on Watauga depends on water conditions. It’s guaranteed he’ll be throwing it in February, but his tactics may differ slightly with the bobber set from 10 to 15 feet. In colored water, he’ll switch to a 1/8-ounce fly with chartreuse highlights and back to the routine 1/16-ounce gray and blue jig in clear conditions. He’ll even admit one of my favorite Float-N-Fly colors of a white jig with red trim is a good coldwater Watauga option. To learn more about the Float-
N-Fly, call Nuckols at (423) 753-6151.