Smallmouth anglers in our state have a unique problem: great fisheries everywhere. So, where are the best reservoirs and rivers to fish this year? (January 2006)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Tennessee contains many of the premier smallmouth bass waters in the world, and our smallmouths are finally getting the recognition they deserve. Last year, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of David Hayes' world-record Dale Hollow catch, and saw legislation put in motion to recognize the smallmouth bass as the state's official fish. You can now top that off with a new smallmouth license plate available in 2006 featuring a Tennessee bronzeback about to inhale a crawfish with a statement proclaiming Tennessee as "Where Smallmouth is King."
To be a top destination for smallmouth bass in the country, you have to have reputable waters to support the fishing, and Tennessee does. In fact, we have a large number of good smallmouth fisheries. What a problem to have . . . smallmouth bass everywhere and so little time.
If you haven't explored the smalllmouth fishing in our borders, it's time you did. We can't list them all here but we can review the king's most, hallowed waters. Get out your calendar, schedule or day planner to make notes because this may require gassing up the truck and boat and just a little planning on your part to take full advantage.
We all have our favorite smallmouth waters. There are streams and rivers that local anglers would love to keep secret, as well as points and bluffs along banks that some fishermen wish weren't on the lake map. One of my favorite things to do in this smallmouth forecast is to rank the best rivers across the state along with the best reservoirs. We may not be able to list all the places in the state where there's fun smallmouth fishing, but we can combine fishing experience and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) data and expertise to see how some great fisheries stack up.
Based on the most recent reservoir data, TWRA's Tim Churchill, the state reservoir coordinator, said he would have to rank Dale Hollow, Norris, Pickwick and South Holston as Tennessee's top four smallmouth lakes. All four are well noted across the country for their numbers and quality of smallies.
Kentucky Lake may not make the top four, but it's still the most up-and-coming smallmouth destination in Tennessee, based on constant reports of good fish coming from there. Churchill is quick to agree, saying catch rates have been creeping upward there for a while and so is the quality of fish being caught. The 2003 lakewide catch rate at Kentucky Lake for smallmouth bass was among the highest in the state for that year.
Churchill ranks Norris Lake as the state's best destination for catching numbers of smallmouths. He said that's a direct result of five years of regulations that protect fish under 18 inches.
Neither Churchill nor myself will get much argument that Dale Hollow Lake is still the state's best destination for quality. Like Churchill said, "When the big boys are biting, it can't be beat."
In the national scheme of things, Tennessee is on top or among the best on everyone's list. Churchill said we are still either at the top for big smallmouth bass or close to it. He's also heard about the smallmouth fishing in the Ohio and Pennsylvania portions of Lake Erie, and it's said to be pretty special.
"In my opinion, we have the best reservoir smallmouth bass fishing in the South, due in large part to our aggressive management strategies, or harvest restrictions," Churchill added.
Frank Fiss, TWRA's stream coordinator, counts as much on experience for ranking Tennessee's best smallmouth streams as I do. He said his rankings are based primarily on fishing reports from a variety of sources and to lesser degree from the annual surveys. Not all rivers are surveyed annually, so it is hard to compare them on a strict scientific basis.
But Fiss still doesn't have a problem putting them in order. And it's hard to argue with him on the way he ranks them based on my dealings with the smallies in these respectable waters.
This year, he said he'd no doubt rank the Pigeon River ahead of the pack because of the big smallies being caught there. The protective size limit and restricted creel limit of only one smallmouth at least 20 inches in length is paying off in huge dividends for anglers.
Behind the Pigeon, you have the Nolichucky not far up the road in East Tennessee. It's also really not far off from being the best smallmouth river, period. After that, the Buffalo River has moved up to the next highly touted spot because of its increasing production of quality smallmouth bass there as well. Fiss said the Buffalo has definitely been improving for him. The next quality stream would be the French Broad River, where both good numbers and good fish are caught.
There's always a dark horse in any forecast, and when it comes to rivers, I'm on Fiss's side when he said have the springtime river fishing in the Little Pigeon in the tourist traps of Sevierville and Pigeon Forge should be mentioned. He said there have been some real "hogs" caught there in recent springs. He's not exaggerating -- I've experienced them. It may be a seasonal fishery, but during spring, it can also have some of the best smallmouth fishing around. The top areas include the stretch from the lower portion of Pigeon Forge through downtown Sevierville. If you can stand the traffic, you have a great shot at a great bass.
Fiss also taps the Nolichucky in the east as the best destination for a smallmouth trip when it comes to numbers. Throw in a 5- or 6-pound brown fish occasionally with catch rates that often reach in excess of 50 smallies per day and you have a serious smallmouth locale.
There was also no hesitation in Fiss' predication of the best selection for quality river smallies -- the Pigeon River tops that category. The springtime run and on into the fall can see plenty of numbers and many of them will run from 3 to 5 pounds in size on a daily basis.
Is Tennessee the best overall destination for river smallmouth fishing in the country? Fiss said there's nobody actually ranking the states on smallmouth bass fishing. But when you consider Tennessee streams, rivers and reservoirs, he said it is his biased opinion that we have to be at the top. Like he said, "That's why our license plate says 'Where Smallmouth is King.' "
THE BEST OF THE BEST
That's an overview of the top smallmouth fisheries in two big categories: reservoirs and streams. Now let's take a closer look at the top fishing spots.
DALE HOLLOW LAKE
Write this down. Before you die, you have to hit the famed waters of Dale Hollow at least twice. The first and foremost time to be on the water is in the winter months from December through the first part of March throwing a float-and-fly. The winter fishing is incredible.
You won't catch huge numbers of bass, but the quality is mind-blowing on the very good days. I've seen days with the snow hitting you in the face and smallies over 6 pounds on back-to-back casts. That doesn't happen every day but it does happen on Dale Hollow, at least.
The other time to sample Dale Hollow is at night. Don't misunderstand, the springtime pre-spawn time period and fall feeding frenzy are great, but the nighttime action maintains this lake's reputation. Chunking a fly and rind or pig-and-jig over the coontail grass points after dark will get your arm dislocated.
Say welcome back to a lake that's featured phenomenal smallmouth fishing for years despite some controversy a few years back. The 18-inch restrictive size limit on smallmouths has removed many of the whispers about poor bass fishing with the recent comeback.
In the springtime, there is a real serious jerkbait bite for pre-spawn smallies on much of this brown fish water. Like other highland reservoirs, this lake is deep and clear. It also offers plenty of good fishing spots up both arms of the lake.
One of the most overlooked opportunities on this great winter destination is float-and-fly fishing, which is best around the waters near the dam. You can put in at the dam and fish some serious smallmouth structure up Cove Creek hitting the bluffs and points with this productive finesse technique. Good-sized smallies are available as much as numbers.
At one time and probably still in many anglers' eyes, Pickwick Lake was the most serious contender for taking the Tennessee smallmouth crown from Dale Hollow. The resurgence of Dale Hollow and a bit of a smallmouth slowdown at Pickwick has stopped most of that argument.
Nevertheless, Pickwick is still a very serious option for catching numbers of fish, and there are some big smallmouths here to boot. I once stood at a tournament weigh-in one March and watched three smallmouths all over 6 pounds brought to the scales, and it was a small, local tournament.
The fall fishing on this reservoir, which straddles Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, can be phenomenal. Tossing live bait in the form of yellow-tail shad on points, island heads, and along bluffs comes as natural to local anglers as getting out of bed in the morning.
As good as the fall angling can be, the springtime, when smallies move up on pre-spawn flats, can be even more addictive. Finesse baits like tubes and even crankbaits are productive, but the spinnerbait bite is truly big league. You'll get thumped and your money's worth for a trip here.
SOUTH HOLSTON LAKE
If Dale Hollow Lake is the crown jewel of smallmouth fishing, smaller but comparable South Holston Lake is East Tennessee's mountain treasure. It's a Dale Hollow look-a-like, just on a smaller scale. The bottom is sandier in comparison, making for a deeper bite, particularly in the winter when local anglers hit the water hard with the float-and-fly.
This serious smallmouth lake has slowed just a little the last two winters after consistently producing huge stringers of well over 20 pounds for years during wintertime tournaments. That slowdown is slight, but just enough to kick it back a little this year in the forecast.
Despite the small slowdown, South Holston should be on your list to hit sometime this year. The springtime spinnerbait bite is good, the nighttime jig, grub and spinnerbait bite is better, and the float-and-fly fishing at times can be some of the best in the country. Easy year-round access can be found at the Hwy. 421 bridge ramp.
This river appeared to be headed toward permanent decline because of pollution several years back. Those dark days appear to be history now. Springtime float trips from Newport to where the river meets the French Broad offer opportunities for big fish with live bait, and the crankbait fishing in deeper holes will get your attention, too.
Throw in the numerous wading opportunities with hellgrammites, finesse worms, spinnerbaits, buzzbaits and jerkbaits, and the smallmouth options seem limitless from the North Carolina state line to the outskirts of Newport. There are no guarantees, but expect big fish here on a consistent basis. Check the generation before you go at (800) 899-4435.
This fishery is mostly about numbers. The Nolichucky River is a smallmouth tradition. The fishing from Erwin on down to the dam in Greeneville offers miles of stream water. Canoe trips above the dam and float trips are the ticket. Anglers can access the waters above via put-ins in Erwin, ramps at the Davy Crockett State Park and Kinser Park.
Below the dam is the best smallmouth water, but a little tougher to fish. The very best approach is in a johnboat with a jet engine. From the dam all the way to where the stream converges with the French Broad, you'll find plenty of numbers to keep you occupied. Access on the lower part of the river can be found at the Easterly Bridge and the Banks Campground. Grubs, Tiny Torpedoes, finesse worms, and hellgrammites are all required baits here. There's no generation schedule to worry about on the Nolichucky.
This river's reputation is growing. It can be a numbers destination with quality 4-pound smallies in the mix on any given day. The river gets hit pretty hard with float trips, and canoes are utilized heavily to get to good smallmouth waters. Live bait is always an option, but you're always hearing about good fish coming on jerkbaits. There are outfitters along the river that rent canoes to boatless fishermen. The ramp near Linden is also a good starting point.
There are several miles of fishable waters on the Buffalo, with plenty of accesses scattered along Hwy. 13. The upper waters may be the most overlooked, but require a johnboat with a jet engine to take full advantage.
Bobby Wilson, the TWRA assistant chief of fisheries, couldn't be happier about the spotlight that's been put on Tennessee smallmouths in recent months. Legislation was passed in 2005 allowing the agency to pre-sell smallmouth bass wildlife plates similar to the present black bear and wild turkey plates available. In order for the plates to become a reality, there has to be 1,000 of them pre-sold. The plate features art from a print titled "Sunlight on Bronze" by renowned artist Al Agnew.
Wilson said he is "cautiously optimistic" that the agency would pre-sell the required 1,000 smallmouth bass plates at $35 above the regular cost of registering your vehicle. He said "cautiously" because even though it seems that with over one million anglers in Tennessee, pre-selling 1,000 plates should not be a problem; othe
rs say that the agency may have trouble getting that done.
That's based on the fact they had a hard time selling enough bear and turkey plates and they were only $25 and only 500 of each were required. A similar mallard wildlife plate failed to pre-sell the necessary orders a few years back. But based on the initial enthusiasm from several people wanting the "fish"-type plate, Wilson thinks they'll have the required number by the first of the year, and maybe before you read this. The deadline for pre-selling 1,000 smallmouth plates is June 30, 2006. Wilson and I have both already submitted our applications and you can download the form from the TWRA Web site at
Wilson was pleased to say the legislation to change the official sport fish from a largemouth bass to a smallmouth bass did pass. The new state of Tennessee sport fish is now the smallmouth bass. He wasn't sure if the agency would have the change soon on their official logo, but eventually hoped they would.
Wondering if anglers who concentrate on other species in the state would be offended by the change (particularly largemouth anglers), I posed the question to Wilson. He said he doesn't really think most anglers object to making the smallmouth bass the "King" fish in our state.
"Even though we have outstanding largemouth, crappie, walleye, striped bass and big catfish fishing in our state's waters, the smallmouth bass is unique in that there are currently two world records for them and annual catches of big smallmouth bass exceed many other states' records for the smallmouth bass," Wilson explained.
He added that he really doesn't think the world record for David Hayes' 11-pound, 15-ounce smallmouth will ever be broken, but he does think that we will see some 10- to 11-pound fish in the future.