October 04, 2010
These two lakes are neighbors geographically but in other ways fish quite differently. Here's how local experts approach them for bass. (May 2008)
Carolina rigs are worth a try on Douglas Lake, particularly as the bass move shallow.
Photo by Tom Evans.
Most reservoirs that are next to each other have similar fishery habitats. Many are in line on the same waterways -- fed by the same river systems. Douglas and Cherokee lakes in East Tennessee are about a 30-minute drive from one another -- but although they are related, they're more like distant cousins than close relatives.
Neighboring Douglas and Cherokee lakes are two separate bodies of water fed by different watersheds. The differences those watersheds produce in the bass fisheries have a big effect on anglers.
DOUGLAS LAKE --SCIENTIFICALLY
One of John Hammonds' jobs as a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) fisheries biologist is to monitor the bass at Douglas Lake. Concerning the age/size/population structure of black bass at Douglas Lake, he said, the largemouth bass have a great reproduction rate and really fast growth -- but they don't get very old, which limits how big the vast majority of fish can get.
The electro-fishing catch rate for Douglas is at least two times and as much as four times higher than any of the other reservoirs that Hammonds samples. Hammonds said that, obviously, there are plenty of largemouth bass in Douglas, so out of that many fish, they occasionally see a 7- or 8-pounder.
There is a trophy regulation in place for smallmouth bass here, and their size structure is usually really good. Of the few smallmouths that the agency sees in its sampling, Hammonds said the smallmouths are generally bigger than the largemouths. Because there are so few smallmouths, he said they haven't been able to collect a large enough sample to get age and growth data, but they hope to really soon.
Hammonds said largemouths are dominant in the lake because of their numbers, but smallmouth bass have come on a lot lately. The agency sees more and more smallies each year, but this year (2007), the population looked like it was starting to "level off."
The agency did stock some smallmouth bass near the dam the last couple of years to help boost the natural reproduction, and probably as a result of those stocking efforts, biologists did see more 8- to 12-inch smallmouths this year than normal. Hammonds said those fish should continue to grow and help the smallmouth population continue to increase.
"We only see smallmouths on the lower end of the reservoir and in the tributary rivers of Douglas," Hammonds added. "Smallmouth bass prefer cooler, clear water and Douglas is not their favorite kind of habitat. As the water in the lake continues to clear, we should see the smallmouth bass population increase, but this is a slow process."
Over the years, some anglers feel Cherokee and Douglas seem to run in cycles -- while one is hot, the other seems to drop off -- and many of these anglers think it's more because of fishing pressure between the two lakes than anything else.
Hammonds said that could be the case, but he doesn't know that for sure. Mainly because the TWRA doesn't see that phenomenon in their electro-fishing data on a yearly basis, and they never have a creel clerk on Douglas and Cherokee the same day. He said not to get him wrong, he knows that the fish bite better on one lake than the other on certain days, but Hammonds just can't see how that would happen enough to where it would be a noticeable pattern.
DOUGLAS LAKE FROM A BASS BOAT
Major league tournament angler Ricky Shepherd has practically made a living fishing Cherokee and Douglas lakes. It's hard to determine which he would call his home water. Regardless, Shepherd knows as much or more about bass fishing on Douglas as anyone.
In May, Shepherd said there will be two key target areas for catching the lake's largemouth bass. This time of year, there will still be some pre-spawn largemouths, some which are spawning, and some post-spawn fish. The lake's limited but healthy smallmouth population will have already spawned and aren't much of a secondary option in May.
"I've done awful well in the river upstream in early May," Shepherd said. "But keep in mind that they move up on main creek points, too." The veteran anger really likes his options on the upper end of the lake where the headwaters are formed after the French Broad is merged with the Nolichucky River.
"It's a shallow bite," Shepherd added. He said it's a power fishing deal for him up around the bushes and brush with spinnerbaits and flippin' jigs dominating what he's doing for the largemouths, which will be holding in 2 to 3 feet of water.
Again, Shepherd said during May and especially as the month goes on, you'll find bass on all sides of the spawn. Early, they'll be in the pre-spawn staging areas, then shallows for the spawn itself, and finally backed off to deeper water in the post-spawn -- all in the merry month of May. This month is one of transition.
During the pre-spawn, you can find a little Rat-L-Trap action on flats. Then Shepherd will switch to a Carolina-rigged lizard as a search tool as they get shallower. Once the majority of bass are shallow, the spinnerbait and jig take over. You can also find largemouths staging on a few secondary points as well as they move shallow. From mid-month on, most of Shepherd's bass will come on jigs as they back away from shallow water and return to the pre-spawn staging areas and even deeper.
While they're shallow, Shepherd said you're going to catch plenty of numbers with a Carolina rig. The only problem is that most are on the small side. Even in the post-spawn, he said you can stay shallow and catch all the male bass you want. As they back off, you change with them.
Unlike Cherokee Lake, Douglas is void of any significant structure after the bass move away from the limited shallow cover. He said good electronics aboard your boat play an integral role after the spawn. Douglas' main lake proper is made up of many slick banks, and you have to find the bass with your depthfinder. Believe it or not, after the spawn is when Shepherd is going to target his bigger bass off points with a jig, and they can quickly get as deep as 30 feet.
As he said, Shepherd prefers the upper end in the first days of May, but turns to the mid-lake section on down to the dam from mid-month to the end. The major points on the main lake and in major creeks like Muddy Creek are where you'll find him and the majority
of the largemouths.
In comparison, Shepherd said that Douglas Lake isn't the topwater lake that Cherokee is in May, but then again, Cherokee isn't the Carolina rig lake that Douglas is, either. There's a little topwater opportunity that starts in May on Douglas, but Shepherd said it's not a primary method as it can be at Cherokee.
Douglas in May is more of a Rat-L-Trap, jig, spinnerbait or crankbait lake for bigger bass -- or if you're looking for plenty of strikes more than you're looking for big fish, then you can treat it as a Carolina rig destination. Shepherd said to boat anywhere from 25 to 30 bass in a given day is not uncommon when they're on a rig, and there will be a few 2- to 3-pounders in the mix throughout May.
Later in the month, again, as the bigger bass move out of spawning areas back to pre-spawn staging areas and deeper, is when you'll catch bigger Douglas largemouths. Shepherd said late in May, it's common to see tournaments won with bags of 18 to 20 pounds or more of bass. At the end of May, in the post-spawn stage, is also when he said your chances increase to catch anywhere from 7 to 10 bass in the 2 3/4-pound to 5-pound range.
Key ramps that put you in the middle of the May action include the Leadvale ramp on the upper end of the lake, the TWRA ramp in Dandridge, and the ramp at the dam on the lower end of the lake.
CHEROKEE LAKE -- SCIENTIFICALLY
Jim Negus, a fisheries biologist from TWRA's Region IV, said Cherokee largemouth bass have been doing very well for the past several years and seemed to have responded well to the relatively new regulation change from a 14-inch to a 15-inch minimum size limit in 2001. He added the agency had very high catch rates of mostly small 13- to 14-inch fish in the '90s. For the past few years, however, the catch rate has decreased a bit (though it's still good) and the size structure has improved dramatically. Anglers should be pleased now that they are catching larger fish in a lake that still has good densities. As far as growth, largemouth bass grow well and a few survive to the ripe old age of 9.
"We do see a few smallmouth bass and spotted bass, but largemouth bass are the dominant bass due to obvious water quality issues," Negus explained. "Spotted bass show up in fair numbers in our late fall trap net samples from the middle section of the reservoir -- especially in German Creek. We do not collect enough of them while spring electro-fishing to say much more than they are there in low densities, and maximum size appears to be around 3 pounds."
Comparing the two lakes, Negus said he used to sample Douglas and back then there were many large fish running around. He and Hammonds would say big largemouth bass are a bit scarcer of late, perhaps because of a cycle or effect from largemouth bass virus. Negus added Cherokee largemouth bass are in a good cycle or there are more large fish because of the creel limit change. Like Hammonds said (and Negus agrees), there is still a dense largemouth bass population in Douglas, but they are perhaps running smaller than they used to, whereas Cherokee is doing well with density and size.
CHEROKEE LAKE --FROM THE TOP
Matt Myers is a young gun on the tournament circuit as far as Cherokee Lake is concerned. However, what he's learned in a few short years is phenomenal -- he's become a threat at both Cherokee and Douglas lakes, but he prefers what Cherokee has to offer in May from the top down. Like Douglas, Myers said all three phases of the largemouth bass spawn can be experienced on Cherokee Lake in May.
"You have to fish your strengths," Myers said. He added that everything from Carolina rigs, Flukes, spinnerbaits, shallow and deep crankbaits, jerkbaits and Shaky Head rigs to lipless crankbaits can play a role in May. However, for Myers, it's the May topwater action that holds him there.
In the first few days of May, Myers said key pre-spawn sections will include those with staging areas alongside flats. Creek channels and sharp drops along points are also important to your success. Top pre-spawn lures like jerkbaits will draw plenty of attention. He likes a clown-colored Rogue on clear days and a gold Rogue with a black back on cloudy ones. In addition, Myers said a spinnerbait is a good search tool for the pre-spawn period. Myers finds largemouth bass along flats, pea gravel points, and red clay banks in anywhere as shallow as 8 to 10 feet in the pre-spawn mode and in as little as 4 feet of water to even 6-inch depths once they move onto beds.
Smallmouths will have already spawned by May and will have already moved back out to deep water. But when May's surface water temperature approaches 70 degrees, Myers said the largemouths will be on the move to shallow areas waiting to go on the beds during the next full moon. He said they use the same migration routes that you find them in during the fall feeding frenzy as they follow baitfish back into creeks and coves.
May is a huge transition month as far as springtime goes, and Myers said everybody wants to catch the biggest bass possible -- and it can happen this month. Once you use the right search tools, you can catch a variety of bass.
During the actual spawn, largemouths will move to shallow areas around brush and bushes, and that's when Myers changes gears with them. Myers said the topwater bite on Cherokee starts once the temperature reaches 70 degrees or so and really heats up around the 75-degree mark. When his temperature gauge hits 75 degrees, Myers uses his go-to baits: Spooks and Pop-Rs take over in his boat. And he has no problem throwing them all day, even at high noon.
Early in May, Myers said the upper end of the lake warms quicker, and that means good action up around the Three Springs area. During this period, he likes to concentrate on the north side banks, since they warm quicker than the rest of the lake. Later, around midmonth, the middle section and on up the lake is where you'll find the best largemouth fishing (from German Creek to just above Fall Creek).
The number of bass you can boat in a given day can be up or down, but Myers said that during the pre-spawn, with water temperatures between 65 and 75 degrees, you could do a lot of damage with a Rat-L-Trap. Once they're shallower, the topwater action is prime and some big bass can be in the offering.
Myers said to expect to catch 10 to 12 good fish in May with your five best for the tournament scales weighing at least 12 pounds. However, if you hit them right, you can put 2- to 3-pound largemouths with an occasional 5-pounder in your livewell. He said the 5-pounders are more common in May. He added that when the topwater action is at its peak, you could boat 25 or more bass easily.
In comparison, Myers said you can normally boat more largemouths on Douglas Lake on a given day with a Carolina rig than you will by far at Cherokee. But on the flipside, the topwater action, if you'll put your time in on it, will equal anything you can do at Douglas. Topwaters will often provide 25 to 30 bass at Cherokee whereas you may only find five to six on topwaters at Douglas, though he does point out that if you catch five or six
bass on topwaters at Douglas, those fish are apt to be the five biggest fish you hook all day.
If you want to get a jump on the early May largemouth bass action, Myers said to put in at the Fall Creek ramp and fish up to Three Springs. From midmonth on, you can put in at the Hwy. 25-E bridge ramp and have access to water from there down to German Creek or easily on up the lake as far as Fall Creek.