The smallmouth is king in the Volunteer State. Here's a rundown on where the best brown fish reign.
Smallmouths will bite under a variety of cold-weather conditions in lakes in Tennessee, making them a great early-season target for anglers. Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
If you are a smallmouth angler, you can count yourself fortunate to be living within the borders of the Volunteer State where the smallmouth bass fishing from lakes to rivers and streams is as good as anywhere in the country and better than most.
From winter finesse techniques to topwater post-spawn action and on into the night for after-dark smallies, no waters equal the variety found here in Tennessee. The Float-N-Fly technique was born here, and smallmouth anglers across the state cut their teeth at an early age on hair jigs at night.
It's one thing to battle a 6-pound smallmouth on 4-pound monofilament with a long finesse rod like the situation found with "bobber" fishing, and then it's another to come face to face with a 21-inch-plus smallmouth in the moving water of a medium-sized stream. Both types of fishing are exhilarating. There's really no doubt that Tennessee offers the best of both worlds when it comes to quality lake fisheries and super smallmouth streams as well.
Tennessee's smallmouth bass fishing didn't happen overnight and it's nothing new to us or those who visit our smallmouth waters. We've been enjoying this kind of success for decades now, and it just seems to get better and better. Now, let's take a look at where brown fish reign.
OUR TOP SMALLMOUTH LAKES
George Scholten, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's (TWRA) reservoir and river fisheries coordinator, said little has changed from last year. The top lakes are still just that -- the top lake destinations for smallmouth bass.
He said he would have to recommend Dale Hollow, Tims Ford, South Holston and Pickwick reservoirs as being Tennessee's top smallmouth fisheries in that order. But anglers also shouldn't overlook the opportunities found at Kentucky Lake, Norris and Watauga lakes at certain times of the year.
Scholten went on to say Dale Hollow continues to provide excellent smallmouth fishing with both high catch rates and quality fish. Recent TWRA surveys on Dale Hollow recently showed high numbers and an excellent size distribution, just as they have in the past. If you've never fished Dale, you just have to if you consider yourself a smallmouth aficionado. Every time you find yourself there, a special feeling just overwhelms you -- for one thing, you're fishing where the world-record smallmouth bass was caught.
South Holston has also had some of the highest percentages of quality and preferred sized smallmouth bass of any of the fisheries in East Tennessee. The night-fishing at South Holston with grubs, jigs and spinnerbaits can often rival Dale Hollow itself, and the winter tournaments see bag limits weighed in that consistently feature 20-pound-plus catches of smallmouth bass.
TWRA data also indicates that the smallmouth fishery in Tims Ford Lake is responding well to the 18-inch minimum size limit that was implemented in 2005. The biologists feel that this fishery should continue to improve in years to come. Tims Ford is another excellent nighttime destination where jigs and spinnerbaits rule the darkness.
As has traditionally been the case, Pickwick Lake is another high-quality smallmouth fishery. Scholten still believes this lake would likely benefit from a higher size limit in the three states that manage the fishery. Pickwick is a special place to get a spinnerbait or crankbait crushed in the springtime.
As it has proved with regulations established over the last three or four years, the TWRA is committed to keeping Tennessee the state "Where Smallmouth is King." Scholten said there are several fisheries across the state that could be improved with the proper regulations, and based on comments that the TWRA has received, smallmouth anglers are ready, for the most part, to support such regulations.
I've been fishing for smallies in Tennessee and other parts of the country for over 20 years, and Tennessee ranks close to the top of everyone's lists. Every time I run into four-time BASS Angler of the Year Kevin VanDam, we get into this friendly but competitive conversation about which state, Michigan or Tennessee, has the best smallmouth bass fishing in the country. He won the first argument, but I think I won the last one.
"Tennessee is definitely one of the best states for smallmouth fishing in North America and probably the best in the South," added Scholten. "We are aggressive in our management of the species and it shows."
As for smallmouth lakes that deserve an honorable mention other than the obvious top four, Scholten added Watts Bar and Norris Lake to the list. He said Watts Bar has plenty of excellent smallmouth habitat and since the implementation of the 18-inch minimum size limit, Watts Bar smallmouth fishing has exploded. The size structure has improved and each year our surveys yield more smallmouths.
Scholten also said Norris is another reservoir that has benefited from an 18-inch minimum size limit. At Norris, since the implementation of this size limit, the number of large smallmouths has increased, and the agency expects this quality brown bass fishery to continue to see improvements. Norris used to be on my sleeper list, but no longer. The winter fishing can often equal that found at Dale Hollow and South Holston lakes if you hit it right.
The state's top smallmouth biologist went on to say although TWRA surveys don't always show it, the southern half of Kentucky Lake is another great smallmouth fishing locale. Kentucky Lake is no longer a sleeper smallmouth destination, and anglers now know it to be not only a great largemouth lake but on the edge of greatness when it comes to smallies.
If you get the chance this year, be sure to make a stop on Watauga Lake as well. The winter fishing with spoons and the Float-N-Fly finesse technique is phenomenal. The night-fishing there is as good it gets at times, and it continues all the way into November each year. Unfortunately, Scholten said, Center Hill and Percy Priest lakes that had "once good populations" of smallmouths still appear to be in a smallmouth slump.
OUR BEST SMALLMOUTH RIVERS
Over the years, we've beat the question as to which moving water in the state of Tennessee is the best smallmouth destination. We could argue about it until we're blue in the face, but the rankings change very little from year to year. There are good rivers, better rivers, and then the best. To be honest, I've never stepped in a bad smallmouth river. If they live there, it's all
good -- but again, some are just better.
When it comes to whitetails, Middle Tennessee has your numbers; when it comes to ducks, West Tennessee is the place to be; but when it comes to river smallies, East Tennessee's moving waters still reign supreme. Let's look at three destinations that deserve your smallmouth attention anytime that you can get out to fish, and we'll also look at or four or five that are "must-do trips" for serious smallmouth anglers in Tennessee.
Jason Henegar, our new TWRA river and streams coordinator, is the new kid on the block so to speak, but after a year or so on the job, he knows his smallmouth rivers very well. He took the time to help us break down our best smallmouth rivers, and based on my background of guiding anglers and catching smallmouths in river situations, he's right on the money.
In Henegar's book, the Pigeon River is once again the top smallmouth river destination for Volunteer smallies, followed by the Holston River system, the French Broad, and then the famed Nolichucky River. But this wouldn't be a complete look at our best smallmouth rivers if we didn't mention the Buffalo, Cumberland and Duck rivers too.
I'll never knock any smallmouth river destination -- like I said, they're all good if they have brown fish in them. The only difference between the East Tennessee rivers and their counterparts in Middle and West Tennessee is quality versus numbers. I've fished them all but one, and the Buffalo is on my hit list for this summer -- I have to go. I've encountered some good 3-pound smallies in the Duck and had brown fish knock the paint off a peanut jig in the Cumberland River below Old Hickory Dam. These three rivers are great places to catch plenty of nice smallies in good numbers.
Henegar said there are many factors to take into account with any quality fishery. Of course, you have to have the available forage to grow quality fish, but the availability of habitat for larger fish has to be present. He said this might be in the form of more consistent and adequate flows or structure that allows the larger fish to escape high flows or feed more efficiently. Another factor that affects a quality fishery is the amount of fishing pressure a river gets and that it can withstand. Those qualities can be found in all of the East Tennessee smallmouth rivers.
"The Duck, Buffalo and Cumberland are better for numbers of fish than big fish," acknowledged Henegar. "However, our surveys do find some quality smallmouths in these waters. They just do not produce the numbers of quality fish that the Holston, Pigeon and French Broad produce."
There's one dark horse river that I've mentioned over the last couple of years that at certain times of the year deserves your full attention. It's the Little Pigeon River. Unlike the French Broad, Holston and Pigeon rivers, all of which can produce big smallies in the 4- to 6-pound class almost year 'round, the Little Pigeon is best in the spring for quality fish, and after that, it's a good numbers fishery the rest of the year. The bigger smallies -- those in the 3- to 5-pound range -- move up from the French Broad into the Little Pigeon in serious numbers in the early to late spring.
Henegar couldn't agree more. You can't go wrong with a finesse worm like a Yum Dinger fished on a 2/0 hook without a weight there in the spring and summer.
"The Little Pigeon remains a seasonal fishery for quality smallmouths coming into the river from the French Broad River," Henegar said. "Fish in the 10- to 14-inch ranges can be caught throughout the year, but those bigger fish are only there during a short time in the spring and early summer. It remains a good smallmouth fishery, but does not support the quality smallmouths year 'round like the Pigeon, Holston or the French Broad."
We cannot overlook the Nolichucky River, which I consider to be the granddaddy of all smallmouth rivers in Tennessee. It's definitely a numbers destination, but I've seen more than a handful of 6-pound-plus brown fish taken from this famed river water. Over the last four or five years, quality fish were hard to come by on the Noli, but this spring and summer, the quality fish have rebounded, and this river destination is back on track for the time being. It should be a place you visit in your smallmouth travels. The grub fishing on the Nolichucky is unequalled anywhere. And the topwater action from Tiny Torpedoes is excellent in September and October.
Henegar said he knows of only one river smallmouth regulation that'll change this year. He said we do not have any major regulation changes on tap for 2009. The only thing we have is the inclusion of the South Fork Holston River from the confluence of the North Fork Holston River to Fort Patrick Henry Dam in the 13- to 17-inch Protective Limit Range. The summertime topwater action at South Holston is something you just have to behold. I've seen days there even in August when the fish will hit a topwater plug like a Pop'N Image Jr. all day long. The Holston River system is also one of the better spinnerbait rivers in the country.
You don't have to live in Tennessee to know that we've had some major drought issues over the past few years. Henegar said the drought has had some effect on the numbers of larger fish in some of unregulated rivers that depend heavily on rainfall. In these situations, the lack of rainfall reduced flows and restricted the available habitat for larger fish. The lower flows did create more adequate nursery habitats for young-of-the-year smallmouth bass. And, he added, they are seeing greater numbers of young-of-the-year fish in their surveys of the streams most affected by drought last year.
The waters where the smallmouth populations were most affected were in those that experience problems with water quality and sedimentation during a normal year. In these cases, Henegar said the drought could have drastically intensified the existing issues.
Drought or not, there are still some quality smallies to be caught in Tennessee's moving waters. If you live anywhere close to any of the above mentioned smallmouth streams, you owe it to yourself to go. If not, get in the truck and go anyway -- you'll be glad you did.
ACCESS 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, as well as the access found at Hickory Star Marina on up the lake 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 on downstream to where the Pigeon dumps into the French Broad River. Great wading can be found along the access road off of the I-40 exit at Hartford. To check the generation schedule, call the Waterville Dam release schedule at (800) 899-4435.
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.
Little Pigeon River: Good wading areas can be found 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.