Here are the best places in the state to try your skill at catching smallmouth bass. If you've got the time, they've got the fight. (January 2007)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
We could argue all day about which is more fun: a 6-pound smallmouth bass on Float-N-Fly gear in the winter with 4-pound-test, the same quality fish hooked with a grub on 6-pound mono with its head in the current in a shallow river, or a serious brown fish destroying a big spinnerbait over grass at night.
The encounters are all different, they're all as real as it gets, and they are definitely the best fights you'll ever have face to face with the renowned king of freshwater fish. Brown fish, bronzebacks or smallies, whatever you choose to call them, they're a top game fish in Tennessee, and Tennessee is a top destination for them. In this article, we'll discuss the best smallmouth opportunities Tennessee has to offer anglers. If you have the time, they for sure have the fight.
We normally focus this smallmouth outlook on about four lakes and rivers. This year, we'll change things a bit by looking at the top four smallmouth lakes and perhaps the top four rivers, but there's also a little room for touching on some of rest of the best. Most know which lakes and rivers take top honors, but there are a few dark horses making some smallmouth noise as well.
In the last 20 or so years, I've been very fortunate to have fished most of the state's best smallmouth waters. You could realistically say that I've backed a boat trailer in most of the reputable smallmouth lakes and waded and fallen down in almost all of the respected streams and rivers. Not much has changed in the last few years when it comes to what most anglers consider to be the best of the best. However, a few of the lakes change top ranks and so do the rivers.
To back up what I've experienced, I consulted the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's (TWRA) fisheries division. Tim Churchill has spent the last several years as the state's reservoir biologist and has just moved into a new position in Director Gary Myers' office as his primary grant writer and assistant. He's in a transition mode but still knows as much or more than anyone about the smallmouth bass in Volunteer lakes.
THE BEST BROWN FISH LAKES
The top four smallmouth lakes in my book at present time have to be Dale Hollow, South Holston, Center Hill and Norris lakes. Churchill and TWRA data backed up those choices, and he ranked them in order of Dale Hollow, South Holston, Norris, and then Center Hill. He and others are also looking at Tims Ford as the dark horse and probably the biggest mover in the last couple of years. As a smallmouth fishery, Tims Ford is on the rise.
In my travels not only around the state but other parts of the country pursuing brown bass, I usually run into an angler or two from other states that like to challenge Tennessee's highly ranked smallmouth fishing against their favorite waters. States like Michigan and waters like Lake Erie often come into the fray. I spent some quality time in the boat with two-time Bassmaster Champion Kevin VanDam last year, and we definitely compared Tennessee with Michigan from spring fishing to winter fishing.
There are some quality brown fish waters around the country, but I'll put Tennessee, where the smallmouth is now the undisputed king, up against any state out there. Churchill agrees that we rank at the top or close to it on most of everyone's lists. He said the national outdoor press seems to give us plenty of respect, and he thinks most would rank us the top state in the Southeast. Churchill said Tennessee probably even beats Lake Erie for year-round fishing opportunities.
Pat Black works in the TWRA's fisheries division and keeps close tabs on creel data across the state and on noted smallmouth waters. He said he sees rising populations in most of the Tennessee River main stem lakes. Black said habitat like clearer water seems to have shifted to favor smallmouths, and quality fish are fairly common now in Chickamauga, Watts Bar, Fort Loudoun, Pickwick and Kentucky lakes.
Black said the state's management strategy has shifted in the past decade to reflect the changes biologists have seen and to provide more protection through harvest restrictions.
Dale Hollow sets the example when it comes to quality restrictions: Its protective slot limit allows the harvest of just one smallmouth under 16 inches in length and one other over 21 inches in length. There are now a number of key smallmouth waters that have restrictive limits with anywhere from slots to minimum lengths of at least 18 inches.
The best news for Tennessee smallmouth anglers is that the management strategy is working.
Black said Tims Ford Lake is a rising star as a high-quality smallmouth fishery in Middle Tennessee, due in part to the management strategy there. Probably the biggest concern when it comes to smallmouth lakes is the decline at Percy Priest. I've noticed the decline, other anglers have mentioned it, and the agency is also aware. Black knows about it as well and said it's hard to say what the cause has been. The TWRA has been trying to enhance that fishery by stocking smallmouth fingerlings when they are available, but the jury is still out on whether or not that has been successful.
For many anglers, of course, the best smallmouth lake is the one nearest the water they know well and know how to fish. But whatever you call your home waters, it's hard to argue with the data. Black said the creel report data he used is based on the total angler-hours spent targeting smallmouth bass and indicates how different fisheries stack up on paper at least.
The agency said it can't survey all reservoirs every year, but Black ranked them based on the most recently available information. The top five lakes in the state based on a five-year average from 2001 through 2005 were as follows.
Dale Hollow Lake was No. 1, with the highest sampling by far each year with the exception of 2004. South Holston was in the second spot, based primarily on the 2001 sample. South Holston was sampled again in 2006, but the data wasn't completely compiled yet.
Norris Lake was sampled all five years and ranked third in the data.
Pickwick Lake has been high on most everyone's smallmouth lists for years but has been declining in recent years as well. The first couple of years in the sampling kept it on the fourth spot, but Black said Pickwick has fallen off quite a bit in more recent years.
Upstart Tims Ford with its fairly new restrictive regulations was fifth in the creel rankings with samp
les gathered in all of the five years with the exception of 2003.
Based on the 2005 creel survey only, the top five statewide were Dale Hollow, Norris, Tims Ford, Watauga, and then Pickwick Lake. However, Black said South Holston Lake wasn't sampled in 2005. He suspects that, had it been sampled, it would still rank somewhere around No. 2 or 3 either way. In addition, he said Center Hill has always ranked somewhere in the middle based on angler-hours as well as catch rates.
DON'T OVERLOOK MOVING WATER
There's no argument that the lake fishing for smallmouths in Tennessee is topnotch. But there's also no doubt whatsoever that a big reason the Volunteer State ranks at or near the top of most everyone's lists as a smallmouth destination is the incredible stream fishing found here as well. When you couple the awesome reservoir opportunities with those of our moving waters, we have it all when it comes to brown fish options.
As good as it feels to have a mad smallmouth hit a spinnerbait after dark on Dale Hollow in July or fight one on a Float-N-Fly rig on South Holston in January, to have a smallie blow up on a Tiny Torpedo in moving water or have them annihilate a hellgrammite below a shoal is just as satisfying.
I've had my jet boat in many rivers and waded most of the big-time rivers to fight brown fish face to face. The streams I put on the top of my list are the Pigeon, the Holston, the Nolichucky, the Duck and Buffalo rivers. Let's see what the TWRA data and river fisheries brain trust have to say about these and other moving waters.
Our Top Smallmouth Streams
Frank Fiss, TWRA's stream coordinator, said the agency has been keeping the likes of stream biologists, Rick Bivens, Bart Carter and Carl Williams busy conducting creel surveys on the Pigeon and Nolichucky rivers this year. That means next year, we'll have fresh stats on both of these great smallmouth streams.
Like me, Fiss has found the Pigeon River smallmouth fishing was off just a little this past year. From what I've seen, the fishing may have been off just a little relating to what seemed to be an increase in the usual generation schedules suited to accommodate the whitewater rafting companies along its shores. Despite the fishing being a little off in 2006, Fiss and I both agree that it still ranks on the top of the list for the best smallmouth rivers. He said the Pigeon is No. 1, followed by the Holston, the Nolichucky, the Buffalo, and then the Duck or Powell rivers.
Just what makes a river a quality destination versus a numbers situation? That's exactly the question I put to Fiss about how a river becomes a top destination for smallies.
Fiss said an extremely high abundance of bass in a limited forage situation can create a dense population of bass, but without much forage, there will be few big fish. The best example of this that he has ever seen was the Shenandoah River in Virginia. There he said you could find thousands of smallmouth bass, but fish over 14 inches were very rare. Although he hasn't fished it, Fiss said he has heard the Powell River has a similar situation: Population data indicates high numbers, high recruitment, but slow growth. With that said, Fiss added even the Powell can produce a 20-incher occasionally.
The veteran stream biologist said reproductive success (recruitment) varies greatly across the state. He explained a year with high reproductive success could result in higher abundance, at least while in its early years.
"We tend to think that unusually strong year-classes ultimately correct themselves due to high competition resulting in higher mortality, but this does not always have to be the case," Fiss added. "Some evidence from Virginia research shows that a strong year-class can not only produce lots of small fish for a while, but also result in lots of big fish later."
Fiss said streams that have reliable spawning success tend to be rivers where quantity is always good. In Middle Tennessee, which has typically poor recruitment, biologists are observing a fairly strong year-class of smallmouth bass from last year's spawn. These fish are and will be contributing to the quantity on Middle Tennessee rivers like the Duck and Harpeth rivers. Fiss hopes they will survive to large sizes.
Some rivers definitely feature more numbers than quality and some have both. And some are just blessed. Count the Holston and Pigeon rivers among the blessed -- good numbers with great quality smallmouths in the mix.
The Nolichucky River is probably the most noted of all of Tennessee pure smallmouth streams ("pure" that the river is known for smallmouths and not smallmouths plus other species). Because of high water early in 2006 and then low water later in the year, however, the Nolichucky just never produced the fishing it normally does. Count on a good comeback there in 2007. The Nolichucky is a numbers destination, but a 5-pound-plus smallmouth there will come as no surprise. It's always good for numbers and the occasional lunker.
Fiss said, according to the biologist Tim Cleveland, next year the Duck River could be a numbers and occasional lunker location. And the Buffalo River is always a prime candidate for lunker smallmouth bass, especially if you get away from the crowds. The Buffalo can see some high-traffic areas with plenty of canoe accesses.
Among dark horse rivers, the Powell River keeps coming up as a numbers destination. Fiss said you might also add Little River to the "up-and-coming rivers" list. Recent surveys have shown decent numbers of quality smallmouth bass greater than 12 inches in length. Fiss said Bart Carter recommends it over the Powell River.
ACCESSES TO SOME OF THE BEST SMALLMOUTH FISHING
Dale Hollow Lake: Good summer and winter fishing can found by putting in at the ramp at Horse Creek Dock near Celina.
South Holston Lake: The TWRA Ramp at the Hwy. 21 bridge provides good access year 'round.
Norris Lake: The ramp near the dam on the lower end offers good winter fishing and the access found at Hickory Star Marina on up the lake year 'round.
Center Hill Lake: Easy and year-round access can be found at Edgar Evins State Park.
Pigeon River: The ramp near the police station allows float trips from Newport on downstream to where the Pigeon dumps into the French Broad River. Great wading can be found along the access road off the I-40 exit at Hartford. To check the generation schedule, call the Waterville Dam release schedule at (800) 899-4435.
Holston River: Good access can be found at the ramp near Beech Creek as well as the TWRA ramp at Surgoinsville. To check the generation schedule, call the TVA water release number at (800) 238-2264 and follow the prompts.
Nolichucky River: Anglers can access the waters upstream via put-ins in Erwin, ramps at the Davy Crockett State Park and Kinser Park. The TWRA ramp at Easterly Bridge puts you on the fishing downstream.
Buffalo River: There are outfitters along the river that rent canoes to needy fishermen. The ramp near Linden is also a good starting point.
A FINAL WORD
For those who find it difficult (and I include myself here) to keep up with all the varying smallmouth regulations across the state, you'll be glad to know that Churchill said there are no new regulations on tap for the 2007 fishing seasons for smallmouth bass in reservoirs. Fiss added that there are no smallmouth fishing regulation changes proposed for the coming fishing season as well on the state's highly touted brown fish streams. For the most up-to-date smallmouth regulations, consult the TWRA's 2007 Tennessee Fishing Regulations or look them up on-line at TNWildlife.org.
Count yourself lucky to live in what many call the top destination in the country when it comes to catching big smallmouth bass and plenty of them. The smallmouth opportunity is here for you, and it's a strong one. However, keep this one tip in mind when targeting smallmouth bass: Smallmouths are where you find them, they hit when they want to, what they want to, and you had better be ready when they decide to feed. At any time on one of these waters, you could catch that brown fish of a lifetime. I've seen it happen time and time again.
Find more about Tennessee fishing and hunting at: TennesseeSportsmanMag.com