March represents a great time to hook into big smallmouth and largemouth bass in Tennessee. Here are some fishing spots that won't disappoint. (March 2009)
"I took my biggest Tennessee largemouth in March (from the Cheatham tailrace).
--David Lawrence, Nashville
Guide Bobby Gentry lips one of the reasons Dale Hollow is well worth a spring pilgrimage by any angler looking for nice smallmouth bass in March. Photo by Ed Harp.
"Some of my best (smallmouth) catches have come from Dale Hollow in March."
--Bobby Gentry, Celina
"My partner and I landed 10 smallmouths that weighed over 50 pounds (from the Pickwick tailrace) one day in March."
--Tim Stevens, Counce
Comments like these, all from veteran anglers, tend to make one believe that bass angling this month is a not-to-be-missed affair. The author's personal Tennessee best black bass catches have been a 9-pound, 15-ounce lunker largemouth taken in March from Brown's Creek and a 7-pound, 15-ounce smallmouth from the Pickwick tailrace a year later.
If there is a magic month for big fish in this part of the world, then this is it. Because of the capricious weather, you may or may not be bothered with flotillas of boats and bird watchers, but you can bet the farm that the big sow bass are responding to warming weather, spawning urges and growling stomachs that put the angler in a position to hang into a trophy. Read on to find what a select group of Tennessee anglers say about where to go and what to do when you get there.
Two of the best-known names on this lake, which may rank as the Valhalla for trophy smallmouth anglers, are Bobby Gentry and Stephen Headrick. Both are professionals at finding the lake's big brown fish and both are tightly connected to Punisher Lures. Headrick owns the outfit, while Gentry uses the lures as a pro guide, then helps put them together at the plant when the fish aren't biting. But most of the time, the fish are biting.
"March brings on a pre-spawn situation on Dale Hollow like it does on most other Tennessee bass lakes," Gentry said. "Weather conditions will impact day-to-day behavior, but by and large, you can look for the fish, especially smallmouths, to be shifting more from deep water adjacent to spawning flats to the flats themselves. On a clear, bright day when light penetration and visibility are greatest, this is mostly a jig or live bait game. But when it's cloudy with wind, you can have some good times using crankbaits like the Hot Lips or series 200 or 300 Bandit."
"It doesn't make a bit of difference as long as it's red. Or at least has some red in it," Gentry said. "I like the crawfish patterns that are primarily red because they have been the most consistent for me from season to season."
When asked where he would look first, Gentry suggested the area around Kemper Flats and Halsey Creek.
"There are other places in the mid-lake area that have potential," he said, "but the depth, structure and general configuration provide a place to begin looking in earnest. Once you find what the bass prefer, you can consider other places and options."
Since he mentioned wind, the natural question to ask was where to launch. His reply brought a laugh and the comment, "On Dale Hollow in March, you can run from the wind, but you won't hide from it. Luckily, it is the rare day when things get so bad that the waves are dangerous if the angler doesn't get foolish. For instance, you can launch at Hendrick's Creek Resort where the ramps are protected and be within easy motoring distance from good fishing. Horse Creek Dock is another good place to begin because it has some excellent fishing that doesn't require a long run over open water."
Gene Austin, another noted guide here, likes gravel banks that have a drop to them. Look for them between the main channel points and secondary points in places like Indian Creek, Kyle Branch, Long Branch, Lick Run, Mitchell Creek and Indian Creek. These banks typically have shelves or breaks at the 15- to 20-foot levels, which makes changing of depths easy for the fish.
Although jigs in various forms and crankbaits get most of the press notice, live-bait fishing is not to be despised. John Cates, a guide out of Kingston Springs, gives the nod to live shiners in the 4- to 5-inch range and fishes them on light to ultralight spinning tackle. He contends, and with good reason, that the clear water of Dale Hollow makes it possible for a bass to spot an injured baitfish from a substantial distance. If the human eye can detect the species of fish that has just been filleted when the carcass is 20 feet down, that is a hard point to argue.
The late Billy Westmorland of Celina had a "spring thing" for banks with black shale gravel mixed with clay, and anyone who knows about Dale Hollow and Billy's legend will agree that such places are worth a try. He sure knew his trophy smallmouths.
As an added bonus here, Bobby Gentry was quick to relate that the largemouth population is in great shape, possibly the best in years, and that most of the lake's lunker spotted bass may well die of old age without ever feeling a hook. Let a live shiner fall down one of the broken, shelving rock banks and see what a "football bass" feels like.
David Lawrence of Nashville not only grew up fishing this stretch of the Cumberland River but also had a well-known outdoor writer father who introduced his sons to some of the top bass anglers in the business. H. Lea and his son, David, fished just about every bass water in Tennessee, and this favorite waterhole just happens to be close to home. With the desire to fish and tournament-grade brains to pick, it is no wonder that he has handled his share of bass over the years.
"March is bass time below Cheatham Dam," he said without hesitation. "It's true that generation can dictate whether it will be a red-letter day or one of those days when you'd been better off at home working on your income tax, but the fish don't have anything to say about that. Given anything from moderate to strong generation, especially a flow that stabilizes early in the day, and you will find good fishing opportunities."
The area that Lawrence and most other area anglers consider prime is not especially large. It consists of roughly a mile of rock and riprap on the turbine side of the river, but because of fluctuating water levels, it may never be the same twice.
"Our normal way of fishing here is to launch below the dam and motor across to the rocks. Floating downstream, you want to put your bait -- I us
ually use a smoky gray grub and 1/4-ounce leadhead -- tight to the bank and work it back as slowly as conditions allow. You need to stay tight to the rocky cover and that means when you first start trying to do it you'll lose a lot of leadheads. If you don't hang up now and then, you're probably fishing too fast. The riprap and occasional chunk rock are just about the only cover and that's where the bass hang out waiting for a meal to swim past."
Another reason that Lawrence likes March on the Cheatham tailrace is consistent action from other species than largemouth and smallmouth bass. He said, "There is a great white bass fishery here, so while you're hoping that a nice largemouth takes the bait, the whites can keep you from getting bored and lazy. There's also a good chance that a striper will take a whack at that grub you're fishing and that can really add some excitement to your day. Cheatham has a super-good striper population and I sometimes get distracted and a bass trip turns into a striper trip."
Noted Tennessee fishing writer Vernon Summerlin echoes that, adding, "In March, you're never sure what's going to hit next. A jig might hook most anything, and when conditions are mild or close to it, you can get the job done working small to medium-sized crankbaits along the riprapped banks. A stop-and-go retrieve that keeps the lure diving as close to the rocks as possible is preferable, and either a shad or crawfish pattern can be good. Most bass fishermen prefer to cast quartering upstream from the boat to stay with the bank's slope as much as possible."
Lawrence added, "Because the different generation levels result in differing water levels, the actual shoreline changes appearances regularly. You can drift the productive (rocky) area early in the day, and by the time you finish your drift and come back upstream, it looks totally different. Because of this, you need to make mental notes of where you see riffles, eddies and other current breaks at the lower water levels. They'll still be there when the water comes up but can be hard to identify. By knowing where they are you have a lot better chance of knowing where the bass will be holding."
"March means that you'll probably find me fishing from the bank because I can pay more attention to my fishing and less to boat control," said Tim Stevens of Counce. Since he only lives five minutes from Pickwick Dam, he has that option.
"The really good spots to find quality fish consistently aren't that big and the shoreline angler has an advantage; he can stay in water known to be productive at the present water level instead of casting and hoping that something happens."
Stevens uses the public TVA launching ramp at the campground below the dam as a starting reference point.
"Immediately upstream is a gradually tapering gravel bottom with occasional big chunk rocks scattered around. Shad move in and out, plus there are some crawfish, so bass feed here but don't tend to congregate. At the upper end of the gravel is a chunk rock point complete with boulders, and the entire edge of the point that forms here has real bass potential. You'll notice that the eddy is huge, so don't think that the water close to shore is all that you need to consider. It's snag infested, but that makes it better for the bass, plus you'll hit an occasional crappie or sauger, and there are usually white bass hanging around, so it's not a boring place to fish."
Below the ramp is a continuation of the rather flat gravel slope. As it comes to an end, there is another finger of big rocks that juts out into the river, and when the water is anywhere above minimum generation, the only way you can spot it is from the narrow eddy that forms. You can't let a jig get too deep on you here, but an in-line spinner is a good bass enticer and doesn't require such a slow, precise presentation.
Past the rock finger as you move downstream, the bank starts to get more abrupt and there are many trees, tree roots and such to negotiate. Watch for cuts and other variations in the shoreline, especially those that have had riprap or other rock dumped into them to cut down on erosion. Those rocks usually reach well out into the river and the backside drop¬offs consistently hold both largemouths and smallmouths.
Past this stretch, which contains a smallish cut known as "The Hog Trough" to Stevens and his fishing pals for reasons that need little explanation, a second public launching ramp below The Botel, a shoreline restaurant/motel combination offers boat access and another reference point.
"From here down it's all boat work," he explained. "If it's early March and the weather has been nasty, stick with a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce leadhead and either a chartreuse metalflake or root beer metalflake grub in the 3- to 4-inch size. Keep it close to the rocks and as slow as you can get it. When you start seeing broken water -- eddies -- on the river side, get out because you're getting shallow and can wreck your outboard. The rocks that cause those eddies also hold a lot of smallmouths, but don't try to get in too close. Toss a gold Shad Rap from a safe distance."
On the other side of the river Stevens fishes from the very tip of the dam's lock wall, paying special attention to where the riprap "ribs" that reinforce the bank enter the water. Once again, he spends most of his time working the downriver side but admits that the upper sides will occasionally hold fish as well. Location is often dictated by current flow and learning that takes some practice.
"Anywhere there is a rock bank on the west side of the river all the way down to the second set of power lines you should be ready to get your string stretched," he said. "At this time of year, the smallmouths here seem to run in multiples, and doubles of over 4 pounds are pretty common. The best that I ever heard of went 6 pounds, 7 ounces and 5 pounds, 4 ounces. They were taken on an in-line spinner. The biggest smallmouth that I know of from this stretch of river went 8 pounds and 5 ounces and was taken on a chartreuse jig. For really big fish, I'd suggest the western shoreline from the dam all the way down to the lower Narrows (second power lines) and slowly worked jigs. For fun, more consistent action and a mixed bag, the boating angler might like the side above and below the TVA launching ramp better. It all depends on what you want. This is a fishery that pretty much has everything."
It would seem so, and March seems to be the month to prove it. According to the experts across the state, now is the time to cash in on one of Tennessee's bass factories. Now if someone would just take care of the March weather. . . .