These four lakes offer some topflight black bass action, now and on into the spring. Check out this great smallmouth and largemouth fishing! (March 2007)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Each year, we like to talk about the best of the best -- hotspots and honeyholes. But every now and then, it's also good to look at lakes from a different angle somewhat. In this article, we're going to look at four lakes in terms of their black bass fisheries. The four bodies of water we'll cover in this article are productive habitats, though some of them are better known for being hotspots for species other than black bass, or are known for being prime bass lakes outside of the March pre-spawn period. But the great reputations of these lakes outside of black bass fishing this time of year by no means suggests you should ignore these fisheries in March.
Chickamauga Lake is a quality bass, crappie and catfish destination, among other species; Dale Hollow Lake is the smallmouth promised land for anglers fishing at night in the warmer months and during the day in the winter; Norris Lake is getting better and better known for the good walleye action that now complements its striper and quality smallmouth bass opportunities; and Reelfoot Lake is a crappie heaven full of good spring and fall largemouth bass fishing.
For the time being, though, clear your head of all those walleye, crappie and catfishing opportunities found on each of these waters, and we'll take a look at the pre-spawn bass options at Chickamauga, Dale Hollow, Norris and Reelfoot lakes.
Statistics, for the most part, are for those who love to crunch numbers, but when it comes to checking the status of a lake's bass population, they are important to all anglers. George Scholten, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's (TWRA) new reservoir coordinator, said they don't have a ranking system for our fisheries but rely on creel data as part of monitoring a lake.
Scholten said Chickamauga and Reelfoot are more productive lakes and, as that productivity would suggest, they have better largemouth fisheries. Dale Hollow and Norris have much lower productivity; not coincidentally, their smallmouth bass fisheries are stronger.
Scholten also added that spawning is influenced by many environmental factors, but water temperature and photoperiod (day length) are probably the most important spawning cues for most species.
"In Tennessee, smallmouths generally spawn first, followed by spotted bass, and then largemouths," explained Scholten.
That's a key piece of information for anglers that chase all three species at given lakes. He said smallmouth spawning usually occurs in April and early May when temperatures range from 59 to 64 degrees, depending on the year and reservoir.
Also, smallmouth spawning activities start early in the spring when water temperatures start to increase. In most Tennessee smallmouth fisheries, catch rates quite often peak in March and April during this pre-spawn period and then again during winter months.
On the flipside of the coin, Scholten said largemouth bass make their way to the spawning grounds when water temperatures stabilize above 60 degrees. They usually spawn in late April to early June (depending on the reservoir) when water temperatures range from 68 to 72 degrees. Catch rates in Tennessee's largemouth fisheries often increase in May and June.
Again, Reelfoot Lake and Chickamauga are both high-quality largemouth bass fisheries, and Scholten said Reelfoot is relatively under-utilized, which may partially explain why this fishery remains such high quality. The Quake Lake is known for crappie and catfishing opportunities, and the word isn't really out about just how good the largemouth bass fishing is there.
On the other hand, Scholten said Chickamauga receives more fishing pressure but routinely ranks in the top five as far as angler catch rates. This past year's electrofishing surveys on both these fisheries indicated that there is a good distribution of size classes, and there is an abundance of high-quality fish in these fisheries at both Reelfoot and Chickamauga.
Scholten reiterated what biologists and even anglers have been thinking for some time now. The electrofishing surveys on Dale Hollow and Norris suggest that the size limits on these smallmouth fisheries are having the desired effect. If you've seen the turnaround in the quality smallies coming out of each of these reservoirs, you'd know why.
Better yet, the agency's electrofishing surveys yielded high numbers of sub-stock and quality-sized smallmouths, indicating stable, and well-distributed populations. Dale Hollow has big fish now, and it has little fish that are growing into tomorrow's big fish.
Dale and Norris routinely rank in the top five as far as angler catch rates, as well as when it comes to brown fish. Scholten said angler reports from Dale Hollow have been very positive this past year, with many anglers stating that last year's fishing was the best they have experienced for some time.
And I can vouch for Norris by saying the quality there just keeps getting stronger and stronger. The Protective Slot Limit at Dale Hollow, where anglers can only keep one smallmouth under 16 inches in length and only one over 21 inches in length, has boosted the lake's number of big smallies -- no questions asked. The 18-inch size limit on Norris Lake is making similar strides there.
ON THE WATER
When he moved to the Chattanooga area, Jim McClanahan became involved online with the Chattanooga Fishing Forum, which put him back into the tournament fishing mode. He's now experienced two pre-spawn periods on Chickamauga Lake and likes what's offered this time of year.
McClanahan said pre-spawn bass can begin bedding activities as early as the first of April on this lake. He said, however, that he hopes that's not the case every year, because lake levels are usually low and bass eggs can be covered by too much water if the bass spawn too early.
McClanahan said the prime time for Chickamauga's spring fishing and spawning is after lake levels stabilize. The first of May is what he calls the prime pre-spawning period on Chickamauga.
Key water temperatures as noted by Scholten are similar for McClanahan on the waters of Chickamauga Lake. Regardless of the species you target and whatever lake, McClanahan said anglers need to be sure and release bedding bass so they can finish their spawning activities.
Key areas and structures for pre-spawn and bedding largemouths on Chickamauga are found in the backs of creeks and pockets. McClanahan suggested looking for water depths of 1 to 4 feet. Also, your target areas need to be in backwater areas off the beaten path, away from current and heavy boat traffic. He noted that banks with old stumps, rocks and gravel bars offer prime bedding areas. Bass relating to stumps on silted banks and flats will actually lay eggs on the bases of stumps.
"I love topwater baits fished over beds," McClanahan said. "But if they're not real aggressive, any kind of bait that looks like a predator will catch them."
He noted that on Chickamauga, bedding bass are driven crazy by baits that you can flutter down into the bed and twitch. Lures like Senkos, Flukes and tubes are great options because they fall slowly.
You can catch plenty of bass in the 2-pound range on Chickamauga during pre-spawn fishing, but McClanahan says the occasional 4- to 5-pound largemouth will show up as well. It takes anywhere from 20 to 25 pounds in a five-bass limit to win the bigger spring tournaments on Chickamauga Lake.
But really the best news is that, as McClanahan pointed out, if the bass are aggressive, then you can boat anywhere from 30 to 40 fish per trip in the springtime. Of course, as on all bass waters, there are tough days here, but a tough day could mean 10 largemouths on this lake.
To get to this good pre-spawn fishing, you have a number of good access points. Use the ramps at Wolf Tever Bridge off Hwy. 58, Harrison Bay State Park or Chester Frost Park.
DALE HOLLOW LAKE
Ralph Sandfer has spent years guiding on Dale Hollow and knows the smallmouth fishing on this legendary lake can be tough even in the pre-spawn period. A deep, clear offering like this one can test anyone's skills, but in late March when smallmouths start to move to shallower water, your opportunities for a big trophy can improve on a day-to-day basis.
Sandfer said you need to be on the water when the weather begins to warm the water. When the water temperature breaches that 55-degree mark, the smallies start to move up and get more active.
The water temperature also pulls baitfish back into creeks, and they bring the brown fish with them. On the way back, pea gravel banks with rocks scattered on them about the size of your fist are stopping points. Grassy points that warm up quickly are also good areas to target with springtime baits. Another key development that plays a role is the hatching of crawfish. Keep an eye out for red clay banks and black shale rock. Sandfer said crawfish will hatch with the full moon, and smallies will bump the rocks to get to them.
Sandfer's top springtime lures include a variety for several situations. He loves to fish hair jigs in crawfish patterns, jerkbaits like a pearl or chartreuse Fluke, and bigger-than-expected crankbaits. He said most people won't throw a Norman's DD-22 for smallies, but those baits will fire up the smallmouths. Sandfer likes a model with a turquoise back, chartreuse sides, and a little red on the bottom. The key is he can fish it shallow or down to 20 feet. Another advantage: When a smallmouth slams a big crankbait, there's no doubt about it. You don't have to worry about being in a "feeling" contest with the fish. Of course, your problems aren't over at the hookset.
"Getting a big one hooked is one thing," Sandfer said.
"Getting it in the boat is another."
In the spring, big females from 4 to 6 pounds are common, but don't expect to load the boat. Dale Hollow is about quality, and Sandfer said a good day is having around 10 smallies buttoned up.
Good springtime boat accesses can be found at Horse Creek Dock and Cedar Hill Dock on the lower end and at Holly Creek Dock about midlake.
Local angler Robert Lowery spends plenty of his free time on Norris Lake year 'round, and he definitely makes time for the pre-spawn smallmouth fishing. He said the bass activity usually picks up in mid- to late April. His birthday is April 23, and he said he's usually fishing for smallmouths that whole week.
Not only does the date play a role in when Lowery gets on the water, but so does water temperature. He said key water temperatures that seem to put them on the move and thinking about pre-spawn activities are between 53 and 55 degrees.
Productive areas he's seeking out include active, flowing creeks feeding into the lake. He fishes the Cove Creek arm of the lake that has a bunch of creeks coming in on the Cove Creek Wildlife Management Area.
"When the smallmouths are staging up for the spawn, fish the mouths first and, second, the points of these creeks," Lowery said. "As the spawn progresses, move farther back into the creeks, then as the spawn is underway, look for flats adjacent to these areas."
Lowery's top springtime lures include suspending jerkbaits in a shad color. He prefers the Lucky Craft Slender Pointer or Pointer. He advises anglers to get close to the bank and throw parallel to it to keep the lure in the strike zone for the whole cast. The water is clear and a jerk-jerk-pause retrieve will call fish up from 20 feet.
From his years of experience, Lowery has found that a good-sized Norris springtime smallmouth will be from 3 to 6 pounds and the colors on these fish make some great pictures.
As far as numbers go, Lowery said to expect to boat a couple of dozen smallies but added a 4- to 6-pounder on 6-pound-test doing that smallmouth marathon can really test your skill and make your day.
Lowery said anglers can find good springtime access at Mountain Lake Marina. For all the old-timers like himself, it used to be known as Lindsey Mill Boat Dock. The marina at the dam is also a good place to put in, and it's not that far of a run up to Cove Creek.
Reelfoot Lake is known for its duck hunting and crappie fishing and rightfully so, but the Quake Lake is home to some overlooked largemouth bass fishing. The better news is that the springtime can see some good numbers and big bass boated.
Guide Billy Blakely said it's not uncommon to see a springtime tournament limit of five fish weigh anywhere from 24 to 30 pounds. And yes, there will be plenty of 5-pound bucketmouths in the mix. Blakely said it's commonplace to boat 15 to 25 bass per trip in the pre-spawn days on Reelfoot.
The veteran guide noted things start to actually pick up toward the end of February or at least by the first of March on these shallow waters. The fish will get active and look to bed toward the end of March and the first part of April. Blakely said the magic water temperature to put them on beds is 60 degrees.
When bedding conditions are at
hand, Blakely believes polarized glasses are a must for peering into the 2-foot or less depths. Reelfoot isn't real clear, but you can see the underwater stumps and adjacent beds in water this shallow. Blakely advises anglers to look in the shadows of the stumps for the bedding bass.
As the fish start to move into shallow water around stumps, the guide likes his chances with a Strike King Wild Shiner. He said to let the suspending version settle about 6 or 8 inches below the surface and then go to working it. You can stop it right over the stumps.
Once the bass are hard on the beds, he'll switch to a big white 4.5-inch tube bait. Blakely said you can't beat a tube once any type of bedding activity starts.
Blakely said things pick up on the northern side of the lake first up around Buzzard Slough and then spread to the rest of the lake as the waters warm. Good access can be found on the upper lake via the ramp at Kirby Pocket. Later, you can get on them by putting in at Blue Bank Resort.
To fish Dale Hollow Lake with guide Ralph Sandfer, call him toll-free at (877) 214-9698.
To fish Reelfoot Lake with guide Billy Blakely, call Blue Bank Resort at (877) 258-3226.
Find more about Tennessee fishing and hunting at: TennesseeSportsmanMag.com.