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Tennessee's 2008 Smallmouth Bass Forecast

Tennessee's 2008 Smallmouth Bass Forecast

Tennessee has a number of rich smallmouth bass fisheries. Here's a look at what are likely to be the best lakes and rivers in the state for bronzebacks this year. (January 2008)

This Dale Hollow smallmouth, and others like it, are the reason hard-core anglers brave winter cold to fish Tennessee's premier brown bass fishery.
Photo by Larry Self.

There's nothing like a smallmouth bass. And the best news is you're living right in the middle of one of the best states to chase brown fish. From lakes to moving waters, Tennessee is one serious smallmouth destination.

Anglers travel from abroad to catch the smallies we have from one end of the state to the other. If you haven't taken your chance at hanging into a healthy smallmouth bass, an opportunity is nearby, regardless of where you live in Tennessee.

As we do each year, let's take a look at the best brown fish opportunities the Volunteer State has to offer.


You can't say it wasn't expected, but we do have a little bit of a shake-up in the top smallmouth lakes across the state. You can now add Tims Ford Reservoir to the list of top destinations -- and it's been a long time coming.

George Scholten, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's (TWRA) reservoir and river fisheries coordinator, said he would have to say the top brown fish lakes now are Dale Hollow, Tims Ford, South Holston and Pickwick reservoirs in that order.

Dale Hollow continues to provide excellent smallmouth fishing, with high catch rates and quality fish. Scholten said their survey this spring showed high numbers and an excellent size distribution at the legendary lake. In addition, in 2006, South Holston had some of the highest percentages of quality and preferred size smallmouth bass of any of the fisheries in East Tennessee.


About Dale Hollow, where do you start? So much has been said and so much has been written about the granddaddy of all smallmouth lakes, that it's hard to find more words to describe it. Dale Hollow is best experienced for yourself. When you point the truck and boat in that direction, keep one thing in mind. Fishing Dale Hollow isn't about numbers -- sure, there are days that you can boat more than average, but for the most part, Dale is about quality. The trophy smallmouth regulations in place there for the last few years have made it even more of a quality destination.

Whether you fish at night in the summer when big brown fish jerk the rod out of your hand in the black darkness or face winter's bitter bite, there's nowhere else in the country that equals the feeling you get when casting a lure into these famed waters. The nighttime smallmouth fishing with jigs and spinnerbaits is unrivaled for big brown fish. Couple that with the excellent float-n-fly fishing from December through March with 4-pound-test line, and you have a recipe for year-round success with the springtime and fall opportunities tacked in between the nighttime and winter fishing.

South Holston Lake should be called Little Dale Hollow. Like Dale, South Holston can be tough, but it can be a smallmouth bonanza at times, too. No one is shocked in the winter to see tournaments won on jigging spoons or the float-n-fly with winning weights over 25 pounds. At less than a third the size of Dale, this small-package lake contains a lot of smallmouth dynamite.

The grub-and-jig fishing after dark is worth the drive from anywhere, and the late season and winter float-n-fly action can be as good as it gets. But South Holston can also humble you on any given day. You might boat 30 smallies in one trip and zero on the next. However, trust me, on those days that they're biting, the numbers and the occasional 5-pound-plus brown bass are hard to beat.

Also, the most recent TWRA surveys indicate that the smallmouth fishery in Tims Ford is responding well to the 18-inch minimum size limit that was implemented in 2005, and this fishery should only improve in years to come. Scholten said Pickwick Lake is another high-quality smallmouth fishery that would likely benefit from a higher size limit in the three states that manage this fishery. The best news is that Scholten said the TWRA is committed to keeping Tennessee the state "Where Smallmouth is King."

"There are several fisheries across the state that could be improved with the proper regulations and based on comments that we receive, smallmouth anglers are ready (for those regulations)," Scholten added. "I am sure that the anglers who are interested in quality smallmouth fishing will be happy with our recommendations.

"Tennessee is definitely one of the best states for smallmouth fishing in North America and probably the best in the South," Scholten continued. "We are aggressive in our management of the species, and it shows."

We've listed the top smallmouth lakes, but there are others that deserve a mention as well. These waters include dark horses and old standbys that are declining but still worth a trip: Watts Bar, Norris, Center Hill and Percy Priest lakes.

Scholten said Watts Bar has plenty of excellent smallmouth habitat, and since the implementation of the 18-inch minimum size limit, the fishery has exploded. The size structure has improved, and each year TWRA's targeted surveys yield more smallmouths.

Norris is another reservoir that has benefited from an 18-inch minimum size limit. Since implementation of the size limit, the number of large smallmouths at Norris has increased, and Scholten and the agency expect this quality fishery will continue to improve. Although the surveys don't always show it, the southern half of Kentucky Lake is another great smallmouth fishing locale. Scholten added Center Hill and Percy Priest are "once good populations" that appear to be in a bit of slump.


Looking at the top river systems for smallmouth bass, Frank Fiss, the former stream coordinator for the state of Tennessee, said not much has changed over the last year -- except one little detail.

Fiss said he has heard that the Pigeon might be a bit off, but it's still very good. A bit off -- yes, still good -- definitely yes. But for two years in a row now, the state's best moving water for smallmouth bass has shown signs of a slight letdown. The Pigeon River may not have lost its top standing among river smallmouth destinations, but it's slowed enough over the last two years to have major competition and is now tied in almost everyone's opinion (including mine) for the top spot with the Holston River.

Like last year, the Pigeon River smallmouth fishing was off just a little again in 2007 and that's let th

e Holston close ground. Other than that, Fiss said the state's rivers rank behind the Pigeon and Holston in the order of the Nolichucky, the Buffalo, and then the Duck River. Dark horses still have to be the Powell River and the Little Pigeon River.

Again, there are some quality smallmouths in the Holston and Pigeon rivers, and the Nolichucky River is still good for numbers and the occasional lunker. Throw in what the Duck River in Middle Tennessee and the Buffalo farther west have to offer, and the state's full of moving water opportunities.

The Duck River can be a numbers and occasional lunker location destination, depending on what kind of day you have. Wading some of the small waters the Duck offers can put you on some healthy smallmouths. And the Buffalo River is always a prime candidate for lunker smallmouth bass, especially if you get away from the crowds. Keep in mind, however, that the Buffalo can see some high traffic areas with its numerous canoe accesses.

Also, the Little Pigeon River is hot and one of the better up-and-coming destinations. Smack dab right in the middle of one of the country's top tourist destinations runs a smallmouth river jewel. You can float the lower end by putting in at bridge takeouts from Sevierville on down to where the Little Pigeon dumps into the French Broad River. Or, if you like to wade and get face to face with the fish, head upstream from one of the bridges in Sevierville or wade throughout Pigeon Forge in the waters running behind the hotels and motels.

Bart Carter, a Region IV biologist who participates heavily in the stream surveys in East Tennessee where our richest smallmouth waters are found, said the upper Holston River between Kingsport and John Sevier Dam in Rogersville is probably tied with the Pigeon River now as far as its abundance of quality smallmouth bass, as well as numbers of bass.

Also, Carter said the Little Pigeon River is known for its springtime catches of large smallmouths, particularly during the months of April and May when larger French Broad fish migrate to the Little Pigeon. Last year's stream surveys showed good numbers of fish on the North Fork Holston and Holston, with a good representation of quality smallmouths. Carter added most of the streams surveyed this year showed a pretty good 2006 year-class. Hopefully, the low water this past year did not greatly affect the 2007 year-class.

Fiss said that for a river to provide quality smallmouth fishing, the bass in the river must have high spawning success. In river environments, spawning success for smallmouths is a factor of habitat, optimal flows, and available spawning-age fish. If all these variables are optimal, all contribute to high numbers of offspring.

Extremes in water flow at critical times in the growth of smallmouth fry can have a profound influence on the survival rates of the members of a given year-class. Smallmouths live long enough to spawn several times as adults, so the population itself can recover with a good spawn every few years. But for anglers, missing year-classes can affect the fishing for a decade.

Fiss doesn't think forage is limiting the growth among smallmouths in most rivers. Of course, some of the factors that limit reproduction in the low recruitment rivers, such as heavy sediment loads or poor flows during critical periods, could also be slowing the growth rate of fish.

Again, last summer's drought and its effect may not be known for some time. Fiss said it's too soon to say what the effects will be at this point. He said this year's stream surveys will tell us how the adults fared, and next year will be more telling as we see how it affected reproduction.

Fiss is pretty sure low flows will aggravate problems in rivers where there is too much agricultural or urban runoff -- low flows in such rivers mean there is less water to dilute the pollutants. Basically, he said, low flows have the potential to lower dissolved oxygen and increase temperatures and concentrate contaminants.


Here are some access points for the various fisheries we've discussed.

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; the access at Hickory Star Marina on up the lake is good year 'round.

Tims Ford Lake

Easy year-round access can be found at Tims Ford Marina and Holiday Landing Resort.

Pigeon River

The ramp near the police station allows float trips from Newport downstream to where the Pigeon dumps into the French Broad River. Great wading can be had 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 is 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.

Little Pigeon River

Good wading areas are located near a few bridges along the river between Sevierville and Pigeon Forge. You can also put a boat in at the nearby ramp on the French Broad just off Hwy. 66 and head up the Little Pigeon for good smallmouth fishing.

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