Believe it or not, now's the time to do battle with bruising bronzebacks on the hallowed waters of our state's most renowned smallmouth lake. Here's where to try!
It won't feel so cold outside once you tangle with a smallmouth bass or two of this size or bigger! Photo by Larry Self
By Larry Self
The only thing separating me from one upset 5-pound-plus smallmouth bass was my 8-foot-long float-and-fly rod and 4-pound-test monofilament. For the first five minutes, the angry brown bass that had his routine feeding pattern interrupted by my light tackle controlled what happened. Five minutes later, the tide turned and 5 pounds of Dale Hollow bronzeback bounty met my net and was briefly removed from Kentucky's blessed bronzeback waters.
Dale Hollow's waters in the Bluegrass State may not be the biggest section of winter fishing opportunity, but when it comes to cold winter brown bass action, it simply remains the best. Winter fishing for hefty smallies is never easy, but the search for Dale Hollow's smallmouth bounty will have you prospecting for bronze instead of gold. Now is the time to do battle with bruiser smallmouths on our state's most renowned bronzeback waters.
BIOLOGICAL BOUNTY From all indications, angling and biological alike, the slot limit introduced in 2000 on Dale Hollow on both sides of the state border has been a major success. In fact, Bill Reeves, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's chief of fisheries, said biologists originally thought it would take three years to see a noticeable increase in the number of trophy-sized smallmouths in the harvest after the slot limit of 16 to 21 inches was established. But it took only 18 months to see results!
Anglers have to release any smallmouths caught in the slot and can only keep one above or below the slot limit. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) officials sided with Tennessee's Wildlife Resources Agency officials and set the same regulations on Dale Hollow's Bluegrass waters.
"We have and continue to honor Tennessee's wishes since they own and manage 80 percent of the lake," said Ted Crowell, the KDFWR's assistant director of fisheries. "We shouldn't be managing the lake, they should. They have 24,000 acres and we have 4,000." Crowell also added from all outward indications the trophy regulations are working and the department has had no complaints. From what he's heard, bass anglers like the slot limit because they're seeing results.
The KDFWR has limited creel survey data on Dale Hollow since Tennessee primarily manages the lake. That doesn't mean Crowell can't make his own observations from firsthand fishing experience there. Crowell said he prefers to fish the Wolf River arm because of its length and abundant cover. He cites Illwill Creek as a good embayment, too. The Kentucky side of Dale may be small when it comes to total acreage, but those waters are certainly not to be overlooked.
"The 4,000 acres in Kentucky are no different than the 24,000 acres in Tennessee," added Crowell. "There are major docks on the Kentucky side, plus a state resort park and a lodge." He also doesn't draw any boundaries when he talks about Dale Hollow Lake for what it truly is or when comparing apples to apples or brown fish to brown fish. "Dale Hollow, in my opinion, is the best smallmouth lake anywhere outside of Canada," stated Crowell. "It's a 28,000-acre lake. Dale Hollow is Dale Hollow. The fish don't have Kentucky or Tennessee on their sides. It's at the top. It is the best."
What factors keep Dale Hollow so good other than the trophy slot limit?
"The lake has tons of physical habitat, like rock, shale and other structure and excellent water quality," said Cromwell. "There's an excellent gene pool in the lake dating back to the Obey and Wolf rivers before impoundment. There are excellent smallmouth genetics in the upper Cumberland River drainage," finished Crowell. "A lot of it is aesthetics. It is just a gorgeous lake."
For those needing a reminder, some of the waters along the border between Kentucky and Tennessee have reciprocal license agreements, meaning you can fish those areas with either state's license. Lee McClellan, information officer with the KDFWR, said anglers may use either a Tennessee or Kentucky license while fishing in the Wolf River arm of Dale Hollow Lake. This agreement includes the Illwill Creek embayment beginning at a line crossing the Wolf River at its mouth where it joins the Obey River and the main part of the lake. This line bisects the southern third of the more southern island at Lillydale. For your angling reference and convenience, signs placed on the bank mark it.
ON-THE-WATER PROSPECTING The beauty of talking with Lee McClellan is twofold. He's not only knowledgeable about the regulations and biological aspects of Dale Hollow, he also loves to fish the lake. In McClellan's angling experience, the best winter conditions are days where the air temperature is in the mid-30s to mid-40s with overcast conditions and a threat of rain or snow. He said to avoid high-pressure, clear-as-a-bell "bluebird" days, which tend to turn the smallmouths off.
"I've had great days when it was spitting snow," added McClellan. "Changing, unstable weather puts predators like smallmouths at an advantage over baitfish. Unstable conditions disorient baitfish. Smallmouths will take advantage of this." The best successful water temperatures for this Kentucky angler are from 43 to 48 degrees.
"Most of the time, smallmouths are like us, they are not actively feeding and in a neutral to idle mode," explained McClellan. "The late and legendary lure genius Charlie Brewer invented the slider worm for such times. He fished mainly the highland, clear-water lakes of Tennessee and Kentucky and invented a lure that he could swim right in front of a suspended fish's nose."
McClellan's best technique for smallmouths on a highland impoundment like Dale Hollow is to swim a jig, grub or finesse worm. Smallmouths in low-fertility, highland impoundments often suspend in the water column. He said they may be suspended 4 feet deep over an 80-foot dropoff or suspended just off the bottom on a long point in 25 to 35 feet of water.
McClellan targets his smallmouths by spending a lot of time with a map and on the water looking for "nothing" banks. He calls nothing banks featureless, boring banks near the old river or major creek channel that are mud, mixed with smaller rock, gravel and chunk rock or banks composed of chipped shale. His target banks are where crayfish go to winter and where they emerge in spring.
As water temps fall into the 40s, he looks for cuts and small coves on the main lake near the old river channel. If the areas aren't near acres and acres of o
pen, deep water, he doesn't fish them during this time of the year. Small creeks off the main lake near the old river channel are good as well. The best of these cuts, coves or small creeks have lots of nice feeding shelves in 20 feet of water, which are within spitting distance of deep water.
"In the Kentucky portion of Dale Hollow, I would look at the cuts, points and small creeks that are in the mouth of Illwill Creek and the Wolf River arm near the old Wolf River channel," advises McClellan.
He also works the channel bank along the north side of Tennessee Island and the channel bank with the unnamed cove directly west across the lake from Tennessee Island. McClellan also recommends hitting the channel bank along Cactus Island and the north part of Trooper Island, as well as the many unnamed small coves and cuts along this area. Venturing up the Wolf River arm up to Jenks Branch is always on his agenda. That's where his last 20-inch smallmouth came from.
During the early part of winter, McClellan looks for points or banks that slope fairly gently to the dropoff into the old channel. As the water temps drop into the mid-40s, banks with a 45-degree angle become more productive. Points or banks that are composed of shale hold more heat than rock banks. He's found that textbook-looking banks or points with big and small rocks, boulders and wood that look "fishy" don't do as well as points or banks composed of pea gravel, chipped shale or chunk rock mixed with mud or clay. McClellan said smallmouths may suspend right against these points or banks, or they may suspend well off the bank along a drop that starts at 40 feet deep and falls into the old river channel that may be 80 to 120 feet deep.
This is McClellan's preferred time to swim a small hair jig and pork strip (the "fly and rind" as it's called in the mid-South) or a small worm or grub Charlie Brewer style. He starts by working the bait from the top of the water column to the bottom by using the countdown method. He swims the lure along with no extra action imparted to it. Just keep watching your line keenly. If the line jumps, gets slack for no reason or moves in any other way, he said it's time to set the hook. It might be a leaf, but it could be a 7-pounder.
McClellan says to keep your lures as light as possible because heavy lures fall too quickly and will be ignored by smallmouths. These are the same fish for which the float-and-fly method is so deadly.
"It takes a lot of patience and fortitude to fish for these suspended fish, but the rewards are great," added McClellan. "Don't make the mistake, as I used to do, of being married to the bottom in winter." His one recommendation for people who've never experienced Dale Hollow in the winter would be for them to be ready to fish for suspended smallmouths and have an attitude that they may only get two or three bites all day. You're not going to load the boat during the winter season, but you may catch the fish of a lifetime.
McClellan's best tip for dealing with the bitter cold of winter is to invest in a pair of quality coveralls. Layering alone is not enough. He said an undergarment of polypropylene makes an excellent first layer because it wicks away moisture from the body. Then, a polar fleece shirt and pants under the coveralls are excellent. He also uses a polypropylene liner under a pair of wool socks and some boots rated to 40 below zero. Make sure your boots fit a little loosely with the two layers underneath. Tight boots make for very cold feet. He relies on fingerless, fleece gloves that have a mitten sewn on to slide while motoring fishing spots.
McClellan's stressed the most important clothing in winter is a personal flotation device (PFD). He said to always wear your PFD in winter (or anytime you're in a moving boat). All of the extra clothing and the very cold water make hypothermia a quick reality. He said you could pay with your life for leaving your PFD in the storage compartment of your boat.
YEARS OF SUCCESS Kentucky angler Steve Matherly has been one of the most consistent smallmouth anglers over the years at Dale Hollow. We've called on each other's expertise for some time. If I've been on the water, he wants to know about it, and the same works in the other direction for me.
For Matherly, the two top winter techniques for Dale's suspended smallies are free-lining live bait or fishing the float-and-fly. He'll catch more than a bounty of smallmouths with live shad on a light 1/0 hook or even smaller wire hook when they suspend up next to the bank.
"The float-and-fly is a deadly suspension technique," said Matherly. "Winter baitfish are smaller, so that's why the float-and-fly is so good."
He can't count the number of times winter smallies have come to the boat spitting up small shad during the fight. So if he can't find live shad to match the size they're eating, he can do it with a small 1/16-ounce fly under a float.
Matherly locates smallmouths by simply finding and following baitfish in January. He'll also tell you to watch the loons because they'll tell you where the baitfish are. The best smallmouth conditions for this wily Bluegrass veteran are water temperatures below 55 degrees with 45 to 55 being the optimal range. Cloudy, overcast skies with little wind are also ideal. A little chop on the water is a plus for breaking up the clear Dale Hollow surface. Matherly wants to be in his boat when a snow front hits town. If there's little wind, he says the snow turns the bite on.
The veteran will also tell you to get a lake map and study it. Pay particular attention to where the main-river channel comes in contact with structure. Matherly concentrates his smallmouth efforts on banks with a black shale and clay mixture and really likes to fish between points. He said to fish the breaks or drops that fall from 20 feet down to 40- and 50-foot depths.
"When it gets real cold, they'll suspend in 20 to 25 feet," added Matherly. But his best piece of advice for anglers new to Dale Hollow is: "You can't fish too deep." If you're not finding smallies in 25-foot ranges, go to 35 and so on. Those are extreme conditions, he said, but worthy approaches when the bass are not at the normal winter depth ranges. He's caught them suspended as deep as 55 feet.
Matherly's top Dale Hollow spots in Kentucky include Pusley, Hendricks and Sulphur creeks. Specifically, Pusley Creek has become his favorite as it contains several points with shale and clay banks. He really loves to fish between those smallmouth points. Matherly noted the midcreek area of Sulphur Creek as another top winter destination. He'll also venture back into border areas like Poor Branch and Nanny Branch for Dale's winter bounty.
I've spent time in the boat with Steve Matherly in Bluegrass waters. He showed me what a smallmouth would do for a live shad and I introduced him to the float-and-fly technique.
I've also been fortunate over the last few years to partner with Eddie Nuckols of Bullet Lures in the annual Billy Westmorland and Horse Creek Dock Invitational on Dale Hollow. As a smallmouth team, Nuckols and I have won the honored event three ou
t of the last four years.
The float-and-fly and the swimming fly have been our top smallmouth getters - two of the favorite techniques of our experts in this article. I'll be the first to admit, the Kentucky side of Dale Hollow lacks nothing but size when prospecting for Dale Hollow's wintertime smallmouth bounty.
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