By Larry Woody
Bass addicts tend to be an optimistic sort, convinced that the next cast will hook a monster. So it's understandable that this year's outlook has the Volunteer State's legion of bass anglers giddy with anticipation.
"It looks good, based on our field surveys," said Frank Fiss, chief of Fisheries for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. "We've had good spawns, good survival rates and good growth rates the past few years. Of course it's always possible for something to happen, to experience some drastic environmental change that could deplete the forage fish and wipe out a lot of first-year and second-year bass. Making long-range predictions is not simple, because there are so many variables that can affect the fish year by year."
There's ample reason for Tennessee bass fishermen to dream big. Last February, a 15-pound, 2-ounce largemouth was wrestled out of the depths of Chickamauga Lake near Chattanooga. The behemoth shattered a state record that had stood for over six decades. Biologists determined that the fish contained a strain of Florida bass genes, indicating the success of TWRA Florida bass stocking started years ago.
That record-buster wasn't a one-whopper fluke, as there are more. In 2009, TWRA biologists electro-shocked a 17-pounder in Browns Creek Lake in West Tennessee. The fish was weighed, photographed and released, and is probably still lurking to send some fisherman's heart rate through the roof.
"That record fish generated a lot of excitement, not only on Chickamauga but on other lakes across the state," Fiss said. "There's no question that others are out there."
In Middle Tennessee, anglers can throw a dart at a map and hit a prime bass lake — Percy Priest, Old Hickory, Cordell Hull, Cheatham, Center Hill, Tims Ford and Dale Hollow, in addition to dozens of smaller impounds and the vastly overlooked Cumberland River.
Veteran guide Jim Duckworth has fished pretty much all Tennessee waters and says his "go to" spot every spring is Percy Priest Lake, 10 miles east of Nashville.
"Priest is an amazing bass fishery," Duckworth said. "It may be the most heavily fished body of water per-acre in the country, yet it continues to rock year after year. In the past, it's been the most consistent bass lake in Middle Tennessee, and this year shouldn't be any different."
According to Duckworth, early spring is the time to fish Percy Priest, as the bass are active and the water skiers aren't. Duckworth likes to start out on top with a Zara Spook or Zorro Buzzbait, before moving over to Cotton Cordell Spots and Bandit crankbaits in the 100 and 200 series.
A few miles north of Nashville is Old Hickory Lake, one of several impoundments on the Cumberland River. For years it has been a noted bass lake, although some anglers feel it declined a bit last year.
"Old Hickory runs hot and cold," Duckworth said. "I've heard guys complain that it's being fished out, then I've gone out the next day and killed them. But it can be a finicky lake, no question. And like Priest, it has a lot of recreational traffic later in the spring. My advice is to get there early."
An Old Hickory favorite for many anglers is the Zara Spook dog-walked along a weedy shoreline. There's lots of wood in the lake, particularly in the coves, where spinners and soft plastics can entice lurking bass.
One of Middle Tennessee's most overlooked bass fisheries is the meandering Cumberland River and its tailwaters and tributaries.
"It's surprising how many fishermen, who live only a few miles from the river, have no idea how good the bass fishing is," said guide Bill Bethel. "I've caught 3-pound smallmouth and 5-pound largemouth in the Cumberland, a mile down-river from Old Hickory Dam. I have a friend who catches bass in the shadow of sky-scrapers where the river flows through downtown Nashville."
Bethel, whose clients include country-music stars and members of the Tennessee Titans, generally uses live bait, as he feels live bait is as close to a guarantee as is available. But when clients prefer artificial baits, he rigs them up with something that resembles a yellowtail or threadfin shad, fished near the bottom.
Bass, along with various other species, hang in the swift currents below dams to feed on small shad and other forage. When fishing in the turbulent tailwaters, a life jacket must be worn at all times. River anglers should also beware of barges. The Cumberland is a narrow river, and when a barge chugs by, its wake can rock a bass boat.
Another spring hot spot is Dale Hollow Lake, straddling the Tennessee-Kentucky border. Dale Hollow has been synonymous with monster smallmouth bass ever since the world record was caught there in 1955. The big bronzeback weighed 11 pounds, 15 ounces, and while that mark is probably secure, there are lots of 4- and 5-pounders in the cold, clear depths.
Dale Hollow guide Bobby Gentry grew up on the lake and has spent three decades in pursuit of its legendary smallies. He says productivity dropped a bit last year, but predicts an up swing this spring.
"It's been my experience that if we have an off-year or two, it's generally followed by a really good one," Gentry said.
Springtime smallmouth savor crayfish, so Gentry favors jigs and plastics that mimic their colors and movements along rocky banks. Jerkbaits are effective on suspended fish.
Duckworth goes after Dale Hollow smallmouths with tiny, feathered jigs, suspended about 15 feet below a small bobber. A long spinning rod completes his "Float 'n Fly" rig.
"It's not easy to get the hang of, but once you do, you'll catch a lot of fish on it," said Duckworth.
Venturing westward to Kentucky Lake, guide Steve McCadams forecasts a bass bonanza this spring. It's not that the fishing was poor last year, he says, but simply a victim of the lake's past success.
"Bass fishing had exploded here in recent years, with lots of fish eclipsing the 10-pound range and lots of heavy tournament weigh-ins," McCadams said. "Last year it leveled off a bit, due to a diminishment of aquatic vegetation like milfoil and hydrilla. But that's cyclical and can bounce back quickly. Kentucky Lake will continue to be a bassing destination."
Reelfoot Lake, nestled in the northwest corner of the state, is a natural impoundment created by an 1811-1812 earthquake. The shallow, marshy lake is festooned with acres of cypress trees and lily pads, and teems with baitfish.
Billy Blakley, who has fished Reelfoot for 35 years, says that while the lake's main claim to fame may be its sensational bluegill, crappie and catfishing, the bass don't take a backseat.
Jigs, spinnerbaits and soft plastics, fished in and around the cypress trees and pads, are a good way to entice a strike. For pure pulse-pounding excitement, it's hard to beat a topwater plug wobbling across the surface along the edge of the lily pads or through the maze of partially submerged logs and stumps. Weedless frogs slithered across the tangle of pads will likewise get a bigmouth's attention.
On the eastern end of the state, the aquatic habitat is vastly different from the waters in west and middle Tennessee. East Tennessee lakes tend to be deeper and colder, with less timber and shallow-water vegetation. Also, the bass growth rate is slower.
But that doesn't mean there's not plenty of quality fish in Douglas Lake, Ft. Loudon, Melton Hill, Norris, Watts Bar and Cherokee, along with brawny bronzebacks in the Holston River and other clear, cold streams.
"Based on past history, Douglas would probably be the top pick for largemouth," said TWRA officer Bart Carter. "Ft. Loudon has also produced some good catches, and Cherokee has really been coming on in recent years. As for smallmouth, I'd recommend Norris and South Holston as good destinations."
Douglas, which has been described as a "pattern lake," is fairly typical for the region. When anglers find the fish in one place, chances are they'll also be found in similar locations on the lake.
"I usually start out with a medium-running Bandit and soft plastics in crawfish colors or colors that match the bait fish," Duckworth said. "If that doesn't work, I switch colors, vary my retrieves and try different depths until I find what they want to eat."
If the action is slow, Duckworth shifts positions and starts the process over with different baits, colors and depths. Of course, it is not unusual for patterns to change as the day progresses.
Bass fishing on Watts Bar is often overlooked, but every spring the vast Tennessee River impoundment produces some beauties. A couple of years ago a crappie fisherman caught an 8-pound and an 11-pound largemouth while dunking minnows from the bank. Smallmouths also dwell in the swirling currents below Watts Bar dam and downriver.
Some Watts Bar anglers "scout" the banks during the winter when the water is at low pool. They fix locations of brush and rocks by bank markings and on GPS systems, and then fish the cover when the water rises in the spring.
"In lakes where there's not a lot of natural cover, once you locate some that's where you'll find the fish concentrated," Duckworth said. "That's why the locals have a big advantage; they know where the stumps are."
In east Tennessee, anglers typically find bass in the vicinity of baitfish, dropping spoons down below schools and jigging them up a few feet before letting them flutter down like a wounded minnow.
Now making long-range predictions about a new fishing season is not an exact science. But coming off a record-breaking year, with no reported problems or setbacks, there's no reason why last year's hot streak shouldn't carry over into 2017. And Tennessee anglers can't wait to see for themselves.
Bass From The Banks
Although the stereotype of a die-hard bass angler is someone busting across the lake, racing from point to point and cove to cove, there can be some good fishing from the bank.
"If you think about it, where do bass fishermen do most of their casting in the spring?" said guide Jim Duckworth. "Along the bank. That's where the fish are."
A couple of years ago an angler caught a 5-pound smallmouth while casting from a Tims Ford boat ramp. Another angler landed a 7-pound largemouth, which hit a rainbow trout he was reeling in, from the Marrowbone Lake pier.
Anglers also don't need a large body of water to catch large bass, as shown by the 17-pound behemoth electro-shocked at 167-acre Browns Creek Lake.
Browns Creek Lake, like Marrowbone Lake, is a TWRA-managed fishing lake. Most have fishing piers and docks constructed expressly to accommodate land-bound anglers. Other lakes generally have areas that are accessible to anglers from the bank.