It doesn't get any better than right now on Dale Hollow for those anglers who seek trophy-sized smallies.
All smallmouth bass caught between 16 and 21 inches must be released. Photo by Tom Evans
You've heard it before: You should have been here yesterday, or they were really biting last week. For a change, get ready for something you can bank on. It doesn't get any better than right now on Dale Hollow Lake for those anglers who need to do battle with hard-fighting brown bass. That includes battles that are both won and lost, by the way.
Yeah, I know, those who know me know how much I like to take on Dale's winter smallmouths. It's undoubtedly my favorite time of year when you catch 6-pound smallmouths on 4-pound-test with a finesse rod. But you won't find me on Dale Hollow in July with super-light tackle. When the water temperatures are this warm, the smallies are far from lethargic, and this smallmouth bite isn't for the weak hearted.
From dawn topwater explosions to arm-breaking strikes at night, the strike leaves no doubt about what just hit your lure. And often it's followed by the snap of your line. Read on and see why taking on Dale Hollow's bronzebacks will make you weak-kneed but always willing to come back for more.
THE MANAGEMENT ANGLE If you run out of Kentucky waters, don't worry. The reciprocal license agreement between Tennessee and Kentucky will help you to a certain extent. Kentucky anglers can fish south to the waters around the island that is below the mouth of the Wolf River near Lillydale. What this gives Kentucky anglers is the opportunity to fish the rest of Pulsey, Hendricks and Sulphur creeks. Look for markers designating the reciprocal waters. Smallmouths could care less which state license you're carrying.
According to Lee McClellan, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) information officer and Record Fish Program coordinator for smallmouth bass on Dale Hollow Lake, Kentucky regulations state that an angler may keep one fish less than 16 inches and one fish longer than 21 inches for their two-fish daily creel. All fish caught between 16 and 21 inches in length must be immediately released.
The size limits that went into effect over a year ago in Kentucky are directly related to the move that the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency made to manage Dale Hollow as a trophy smallmouth lake. Ted Crowell, the KDFWR assistant director of fisheries, says that Kentucky fishermen seem generally pleased with the slot limit. Tournament anglers don't care for it much because they can't keep fish from 16 to 21 inches, and those types of limits are usually the kiss of death of tournaments, according to Crowell.
"Dale Hollow is a trophy-smallmouth lake, and we share Tennessee's philosophies on managing it," said Crowell. "The lake has potential to grow big smallmouths, and we should take every advantage of it. We are glad Kentucky fishermen have access to such a great resource."
The fisheries veteran says the KDFWR adopted Tennessee's regulations for Dale Hollow. And why not? With only 4,000 acres in Kentucky out of over 26,000 acres altogether, it would be hard to manage Dale Hollow Lake with different size and creel limits. Crowell sums it up when he says that his department isn't managing Dale Hollow Lake, Tennessee's agency is.
With 4,000 acres of surface to oversee, the KDFWR doesn't do a lot of sampling, but from their data, Crowell finds that when it comes to finding good numbers of smallies in the summertime, these areas stand out. Those points at the mouth of Illwill Creek are awfully good places to find your bass boat in the summer. Illwill and Fannys creeks and the Wolf River are all great smallmouth waters during the current timeframe.
And don't overlook Sulphur Creek, with its steep points, rocky areas and all-important weedbeds. Sulphur Creek also has deep flats with 15 feet of water on them to make the weedbeds even more inviting for bronzebacks.
Last but not least, Crowell likes your chances in Pulsey Creek as well.
If catching more quality than numbers is on your agenda, McClellan says that anywhere where the old river channel swings close to a point or a bluff is going to be a big smallmouth place year 'round. Big smallies stay deep for protection and come shallow at night in the summer to feed.
He adds that the Wolf River channel swings close to points and bluffs in the lower part of the Illwill Creek embayment and then runs across the lake and along the northern shore of Tennessee Island. The Wolf River then swings north again and makes a bend in the Phillips Bottoms area and runs along a bluff.
McClellan feels that any of these areas are good for big bronzebacks. Big smallmouths like a shallow feeding flat in 15 to 25 feet of water with a deep-water sanctuary very close to that flat. The old channel provides that deep-water sanctuary. Also, any main-lake coves or cuts near the channel really shine as well for big brown bass at night.
McClellan advises anglers to stay on the main-lake channel areas. A channel point that has acres and acres of open, deep water all around it is the best possible scenario for those 20-inch and bigger smallies. He's a big believer in main-lake channel points or small coves off the main lake near the channel for trophy bronzebacks.
TWO NIGHTTIME ANGLES Eddie Nuckols of Bullet Lures isn't a two-time winner of the Billy Westmoreland and Horse Creek Dock Invitational for nothing; he knows Dale Hollow's smallmouth bass as well as anyone. When the summer rolls around, things change and Nuckols and many other smallmouth enthusiasts turn to the night on Dale Hollow. According to Nuckols, the biggest reason is that's when the big ones bite. It's also about the only time when the lake settles down from summer boat traffic in the form of houseboats and personal watercraft.
The wintertime is one of his favorite times on legendary Dale Hollow, but it's also scouting time for his summer fishing. In July, the "hump factor" plays a key roll in his nighttime success. During the winter, Nuckols locates isolated humps that will be underwater smallmouth havens in the heat of summer.
"Thirty fish per night is not unusual at Dale Hollow," said Nuckols. To find those 30 smallies, Nuckols relies not on plain humps but on those with grass. The coontail grass is a key element for nighttime success on Dale. Ironically, though, Nuckols says too much grass is a bad thing. A year with sparse or scattered grass is the best situation because it really concentrates the brown bass where you can find them with spinnerbaits and jigs. Too much grass has the opposite effect and
scatters the bass.
"It's surprising how shallow the fish are on Dale Hollow at night," said Nuckols. "There are plenty of fish in 15 feet of water." Most smallmouth lakes confront anglers with nighttime depths of at least 30 feet. Not Dale. The key depth, according to Nuckols, is 15 feet. He'll keep track of water levels, knowing when the humps and points that he's fishing will be at the magic mark. To him, it seems as if the 15-foot mark determines the oxygen content in the coontail grass. That's just one of Nuckols' theories on why the sparse grass and the 15-foot mark are the right combination for super smallmouth nighttime fishing.
"They're on the outside looking in," explained Nuckols. "The forage comes out of the weedbeds at night." Nuckols' other theory is that because the grass contains oxygen during the day and releases carbon dioxide at night, the shad move out of the coontail after dark as these levels change. The smallies wait along the edge of the weedbeds and in open pockets in the middle to feed on the suddenly appearing forage. To draw strikes from these feeding brown bass, Nuckols counts on a 1/2- or 5/8-ounce spinnerbait or 1/4- or 3/16-ounce jigs.
He also says you can throw a crankbait, but why would you do that when you can feel that big-league thump on the other baits? His top spinnerbait colors are red and black or black and blue with either a Colorado or willow-leaf blade thrown on 17-pound-test line. On the dark of the moon, throw a black-and-blue jig or a green or root beer jig on moonlit trips.
He uses 8-, 10- or 12-pound-test with his jigs, depending on how slow a fall the bass were responding to. Nuckols points out that smallmouth anglers can fish the bank and catch decent numbers of 2- to 4-pounders on a given night, but he doesn't recommend it. Why would you when he says there's a handful of 5-pounders to be had?
Dale Hollow guide and hugely successful tournament angler Robert Reagan lives for the nighttime fight with the bruiser bronzebacks on Dale Hollow. And the Kentucky end of the famed lake has enough of the share of coontail that he thrives on as much as the smallies in July.
If he had to rank the Bluegrass waters, Reagan says that Sulphur Creek undoubtedly stands above the rest. Illwill and Pulsey creeks are next in line and offer some good nighttime fishing, if it's not happening in Sulphur Creek.
The mouth of Sulphur Creek has a lot to offer smallmouth bass and their anglers. There's more coontail a little farther back if you're willing to look for it. Right at the dividing line or where the reciprocal license agreement exists is where you'll find some major-league underwater humps covered with coontail.
Also in the mouth of the creek are a couple of points that are what most smallmouth anglers dream of. According to Reagan, the mouth of Illwill Creek contains some serious coontail cover and structure as well. The humps and points that he's targeting are found beneath 15 to 25 feet of water.
With 14-pound-test, Reagan isn't fooling around with 9/16-ounce jigs. I've seen him jerk a 5-pound smallmouth in the boat just seconds after setting the hook. His was boated, and mine on light tackle hurt my feelings.
His top jig colors include a pink and white jig draped with a big, pink chunk trailer for the full moon and a black and blue or green pumpkin jig for the rest of the month.
His other weapon in his arsenal is a 1/2-ounce spinnerbait in red and black. In tournament situations, because of the size regulations and the smaller fish under the slot, Reagan will scale back to a 1/4-ounce lure to take smallmouths under 16 inches. He didn't make this move the first year of the slot limits, and it hurt his tournament success. The change to the smaller jig has him back in familiar tournament territory.
"When they change gears, I try to change with them," said Reagan. The smaller jig is also important to him on certain nights when the bite is slow. Reagan says the activity of the brown bass will determine if he goes with the small jig or his classic big fish bait. When they're finicky, the small jig can become that big fish bait. But when the smallies are on the move, covering a lot of water, he scales back up to the 9/16-ounce jig and goes hunting for 5-pounders.
Reagan makes a very key point when he says every night is different. He lets the mood of the fish dictate how he fishes, and he says smallies may feed at different times on any two given nights. You just have to be there when the buffet line starts.
One other prime opportunity that July smallmouth anglers are presented with on Dale Hollow is the late-evening and early-morning topwater bite. There are topwater explosions, and then there are Dale Hollow smallmouth eruptions. Reagan says not to give up on your humps and summer points right at daylight.
According to Reagan, topwater baits and stick baits are all worth trying on Dale Hollow. As much as he likes classic topwater killers, Reagan has added a new bait to his stash of lures over the last couple of years. He now uses a "walk the dog"-type bait, calling it the best topwater lure he's ever fished.
"The first 10 casts that you make will be your best ones," said Reagan, pointing out how small the timeframe is for the early-morning topwater action on the lake. After the sun starts to get up, it's over before it started. At best, you have a one-hour timeframe to work with. The beauty of the whole deal is that if you don't get that big bruiser at daylight, you can go home, get some sleep and be back on the water for the hardcore, lure-slamming, rod-rockin' action that happens after dark.
REMEMBER SAFETY Whether you venture out on Dale's noted waters in the daylight or dark, keep safety in mind. After dark, the lake is a different world. It doesn't take an intelligent person to know that operating your navigation lights at night is most important. Ted Crowell says that you can't regulate common sense. Anglers should have their kill switch connected, wear a personal flotation device and watch for debris in the lake.
"It is a good idea to launch as close as you possibly can to the area you plan to fish, especially at Dale Hollow," said McClellan. "In summer, the fog can get so thick on Dale at night that you cannot see the end of your boat."
He's speaking from experience and recalls one summer night while camping at Dale with two buddies. They decided to do some night-fishing in Sulphur Creek. They roared across the lake and right into the thickest fog bank he'd ever seen. They ended up going in circles for over an hour and never got more than two miles from where they had started. McClellan says that's how disoriented you can become in the fog at night during the summer on Dale Hollow. That's good enough reason not to roar up and down the lake at breakneck speeds.
IF YOU GO . . . Kentucky anglers can keep a close eye on this smallmouth fishery with a simple phone call. For Dale Hollow Lake info, call the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers line
at (931) 243-3408. This number will give you critical information from fishing reports to lake levels and water temperatures.
To fish with Dale Hollow smallmouth guide Robert Reagan, call him at (931) 864-3699.
Eddie Nuckols owns Bullet Lures and is particularly known for his Float & Fly Kits; call him at (423) 477-2033.
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