There is just something transcendent about fishing, whether casting for largemouth from a boat, wading a mountain trout stream or even slowing down to see what Bill Dance is pursing on TV when channel surfing. Fishing just brings to mind a more simple, easier life, even if it is untrue.
Even so, fishing is fun, which is why it is so great to be a Volunteer. Tennessee contains 29 major reservoirs, and more than 19,000 miles of warm- and cold-water streams. Even better, this doesn’t count the thousands of small ponds and lakes, both public and private.
One of the best is located in the western part of the state, not too far from Nashville.
The Kentucky Lake Dam, which was completed in 1944 on the Tennessee River, backs up about 160,000 acres of water (that’s about 155,339 football fields) along its 2,380 miles of shoreline and is the largest of the Tennessee Valley Authorities’ reservoirs.
“Our (Kentucky Lake) bass fishery continues to surprise me and I’ve been a professional guide on the lake for 39 years,” said Steve McCadams of Paris (www.stevemccadams.com). “The average weight of winning tournament stringers has increased dramatically over the years to the point it’s almost mind boggling.”
For years, a five-fish limit weighing 18 to 20 pounds would either win or have the angler in the top tier of local or national tournaments on Kentucky Lake during the late winter or throughout the spring and early summer.
That’s no longer the case, according to McCadams, who says that it takes a 5-pound plus average to win most events.
“A lot of anglers are catching stringers tipping the scales at 27 to 28 pounds nowadays so the average has increased dramatically,” said McCadams.
Kentucky Lake has become what McCadams calls a mecca for bass anglers probing the deep areas with modern day sonar technology and tossing deep-diving crankbaits and jig-and-craw combos, as well as Texas- and Carolina-rigged worms and swimbaits.
Next is a 15,000-acre lake located in the northwest corner of Tennessee created by a series of violent earthquakes in 1811-12 that caused the Mississippi River to briefly flow backwards.
Granted, Reelfoot Lake is known best for its bluegill and crappie fishing, but in recent years the bass fishing has become very good in the spring, according to Ron Wong of Memphis (www.lroutdoors.com), two-time winner of the St. Jude Classic.
“Spring-time bass fishing on Reelfoot can produce a five-fish stringer weighing 18-21 pounds,” Wong said.
Once the water starts to warm there are two lures that Wong says are productive — a 3/8-ounce Strike King KVD spinnerbait in a shad color and a Texas-rigged June bug colored Strike King Rodent. He recommends that anglers start at the mouth of one of the many boat lanes in Reelfoot Lake and fish the tree lines bordering the lanes. Small ditches going into the boat lanes are other key areas to check out for catching bass.
GIBSON COUNTY LAKE
Considered a hidden TWRA gem by many, the 560-acre Gibson County Lake near Trenton produces numerous 10-pound bass every year, according to locals.
“I have caught more big fish in one day at Gibson County Lake than any other lake I have ever fished,” said Tommy Akin of Greenfield, former state wildlife commissioner and avid bass angler. “(It has) good fishing year ‘round, but the best time for 10-pounders is from January to April.”
Best baits for this deep-water lake, Akin says, at this time of the year are big crankbaits, swimbait jigs and redeye, shad-type vibrating baits.
“The big fish will be anywhere from 5 to 20 feet, depending on water temperature and time of the year,” Akin said. “It’s also a great place for fisherman with small boats as well as big bass boats.”
Considered one of the best bass fishing lakes in Tennessee, Pickwick stretches from Pickwick Landing Dam to Wilson Dam in Alabama, and is the north end of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. The lake sits in three states and while anglers can pursue multitudes of fish species, the lake is especially noted for smallmouth bass.
“Late March is the prime time on Pickwick for trophy time,” said Gary Harlan, guide based out of Tishmingo, Miss. Wong agrees, saying that Pickwick Lake “comes alive” in late winter and early spring as surface temperatures reach the high 40s and low 50s.
Early spring bass can be caught using an umbrella rig (only three hooks allowed in Tennessee), containing 4-inch swimbaits in a shad color, with the middle hook using a different color. Areas for this technique are the edges of deep flats off the river or creek channel.”
PERCY PRIEST LAKE
Over in middle Tennessee lies a lake that many consider a sportsman’s dream in the spring, as several species of fish are available to anglers, especially smallmouth, largemouth and spotted bass. Due to its locations near Nashville, Percy Priest is heavily fished, but it continues to produce quality fish.
“With all the fishing pressure it still kicks out 15- to 25-pound tournament limits of smallmouth and largemouth bass due to its great off-shore cover that the bank fishermen never fish and those fish all go to the bank to spawn in the spring,” said Jim Duckworth (www.jimduckworth.com).
This lake near Chattanooga made national news back in February 2015, when Gabe Keen, a teacher and coach at Campbell County High School, caught a state record largemouth weighing 15 pounds, 2 ounces in about 20 feet of water. The previous record (14 pounds, 8 ounces) had stood since 1954.
“Chickamauga Lake, home of the new Tennessee state record largemouth; need I say more?” said guide Richard Simms of Scenic City Fishing (www.ScenicCityFishing.com).
Of course, there is more to say, according to Ben Hayes, Scenic City Fishing guide who handles largemouth trips on Chickamauga. According to him, Chickamauga has become the most consistent big-fish producer in the state the last five years.
“Evidence of this is the new state record that was caught here in February,” said Hayes. “This was no surprise to area fishermen who have seen many, many double digit fish being caught over the last few years.”
For example, there was a Chattanooga Bass Association tournament in August 2015 with a winning five-fish weight of 26.52 pounds. And while that is good, it was the lowest winning weight of the circuit’s nine tournaments in 2015; the forecast for 2016 is even better.
“The last two springs the TVA has gotten the water levels up early and they remained pretty stable, which has produced great spawns those two years,” Hayes said. “There are great numbers of 10- to 12-inch bass, which should grow to over 15-inch keeper size by the spring of 2016. The hydrilla has been allowed to grow, which has produced acres and acres of habitat to support the whole food chain and for small bass to grow.”
A FEW MORE TO CONSIDER
Mark Thurman, TWRA Region 3 fisheries program manager based out of Crossville, says Chickamauga and Dale Hollow are worthy of anyone’s top bass destinations. Chickamauga for largemouth and Dale Hollow, of course, for smallmouth since it is where the world record smallmouth — 11 pounds, 15 ounces — was caught by D.L. Hayes in 1955.
Thurman also recommends two rivers in his region — the Emory River for smallmouth bass and the Conasauga River for redeye or Coosa bass (Conasauga). Anglers have the option of floating the Emory River — the 5 miles from Nemo Bridge to Reister Access is a good float — or wading from one of many access points.
Todd St. John, fisheries program manager for the TWRA’s Region 2 based out of the Nashville office, favors Tims Ford Reservoir for smallmouth bass fishing from late February to early March.
John Hammonds, TWRA Region 4 fisheries biologist, says Douglas Lake is full of bass with the highest electrofishing densities in his region. However, most of the bass are 10 to 12 inches, which means anglers will catch a lot of fish, but the lake is still a few more years away from producing large numbers of trophies.
“It has good expansion of smallmouth bass, but it’s still primarily a largemouth bass reservoir,” Hammonds said.
Cherokee, Loudoun/Tellico, MeltonHill are not bad, but not typically highly sought after destinations. Lake Loudoun has decent number of bigger largemouth bass. Known for its smallmouth bass, largemouth bass can also be found at Norris Lake, which also has a good population of spotted bass.
There are good numbers of both smallmouth and largemouth on lakes Boone and Patrick Henry. Similar to Norris, Watauga and South Holston have low densities of largemouth bass, but are primarily smallmouth fisheries.
“The Pigeon River smallmouth bass is really good and the Nolichucky is good also,” Hammonds said. “Also, the Little Pigeon in Sevier County that flows into the French Broad has a spring migration of smallmouth bass that people target.”
So there it is, the best of the best in Tennessee bass fishing, at least as far as anyone can predict. It’s hard to truly provide a forecast as every year some lakes or rivers are better than others, and the list changes often. But that doesn’t really matter, as trying new areas is half the fun of fishing.