Bass are recovering after the spawn and are getting hungry. Here are some of the Volunteer State's best spots for you to catch fish from now. (May 2009)
"Buzzbait, spinnerbait, crankbait, topwater and now a plastic worm. I love the days when bass want to eat everything."
Such were the words of my fishing pal, Don Melton. According to my fishing log, they were uttered on May 6. Obviously, the overall action was enough to make for a red-letter day, he won't be forgetting it anytime soon because it included a largemouth that went just shy of the 9-pound mark. Neither of us forgot the 5- and 6-pound bucketmouths that had stopped by for a visit as well. When May rolls around, there are at least two anglers who know where they plan to be: on Kentucky Lake.
The overall bassing action may never really get any better than it is right now (unless you happen to go on a day when water conditions get really fouled up by heavy rains). True, there may be more chances for super-big bass earlier before the overweight hens drop their eggs, but if you like numbers better than trophies, then you'd better be getting on the water this month.
In general, the reasons for the dramatic action is simple: Bass are coming off the spawning beds, and with the drive to reproduce no longer dominating their lives, the need to forage heavily to make up for lost body weight and the stress of nest guarding becomes paramount. Woe be to the small bluegill, shad or crawfish that comes within visual or sensory range of a hungry bass of any kind. This holds true wherever you find these fish, and while some tactics may work better in one location than another, the basic truth is this: Black bass are hungry and huntin' in May.
Guide Glenn Stubblefield's most important piece of advice for anglers after May bass in the northern part of this sprawling impoundment is that the largemouths are not prone to hanging around the spawning grounds once the egg-laying period is over. He says that anglers get accustomed to finding bass shallow during the spring and keep going back to the same places where the only residents are likely to be small bank-runners. His advice is to back off to places like main channel points and deep humps that hold fish during the winter. Like my fishing partner of many years, Terry Maness, Stubblefield relies heavily on Carolina-rigged worms or lizards and deep-diving crankbaits.
Water clarity can greatly influence the color of the soft plastics the bass will prefer and it seems that every portion of the lake has a "best" hue, according to local lore. Some of the favorites are pumpkin/pepper, watermelon and June bug -- but when the fish are really on their feed, you can take your pick.
When picking a crankbait, those that imitate shad in the 2- to 3-inch range usually get the nod, although there are those among us who absolutely have to drag an imitation crawdad anytime there are submerged logs or a bottom consisting of a mix of gravel and chunk rock
Move southward on Kentucky Lake and things change marginally, as the lake loses its "wide-bodied" configuration. The Latrendresse family has been guiding in this area for a couple of generations, and Bob is currently carrying the mantle.
"Even in April, I've found bass in 10 feet of water during the spawn and feel that angling pressure may be the cause of this," he said. "Don't be afraid to get away from the shoreline, and by all means, take the time to work places where the bank of the river falls into deeper water in a series of steps. Every level is a potential favorite spot for a bass that's hanging around waiting for a meal."
Bob cites crappie mats as prime places to look, as well as the riverbank. When you come to an island, flipping with either a large, flashy spinnerbait, a plastic lizard or large jerkbait can lead to serious close-up action that will test your tackle. His final bit of advice: Check the smaller creeks with no-wake zones and pray for current. When the flow is going on, the dropoffs near the creek mouths can be super hot.
Although it is geographically a neighbor to Kentucky Lake, Barkley has some decided differences. Rather than looking for deeper water, channels, drops and humps, you might do well to heed the words of pro guide Jim Moyer of Clarksville, who says that he never fishes deeper than 5 feet or so this entire month. During the early portion, there are bass on the beds.
Moyer feels that there is an "in-and-out process" as some bass come off the spawning beds and others go on them. His basic approach here is to work finesse baits around proven spawning flats and his success rates make it hard to argue with them.
When water color is a problem due to spring rain, he suggests that you try the backs of creeks where the clarity is usually good and water temperatures comfortable for the bass. Working the "mud line" where clear and murky waters come together is highly recommended.
Over on the Kentucky side of this pond resides a gent named Ron Lappin whom I have known since we both thought that we could find fame and fortune in the professional bass angling business. He came a lot closer to it than me, but we sure had plenty of fun trying.
We threw a lot of spinnerbaits at the abundant visible cover on Barkley and caught fish, but on one occasion, we actually drew out as partners for a Red Man tourney, and he decided to see what would happen if he tossed a crankbait at the base of some buckbrush sprouting from a hump surrounded by deeper water. What happened was three keeper bass in four casts, so whatever you do on Lake Barkley this month, carry a supply of 200 series Bandit crankbaits. Both shad and sunfish colors are highly recommended.
The chance to write about a lake near Nashville means a chance to talk with veteran fishing writer and serious angler Vernon Summerlin of Franklin. If a bass can be caught, Vern will find a way to get the job done.
"Like some other lakes, water flow makes a big difference here," he said. "The discharges have a definite effect on angling success. An hour or so prior to discharges, you will find some bass feeding and the same is true during the discharge. After things stabilize, you can expect another hour or so of reliable action.
It's like fishing a tailrace area for bass in some ways, so figure from midmorning until noon rather than very early or very late. If you don't want to worry about the discharge schedule, then go back into the creeks. Bass stay in them year 'round."
Summerlin suggests paying attention to rocks or other structure where the fish can hold easily during periods of high water flow, a common occurrence on Old Hickory. Channel edges, espec
ially around bends, are prime spots if there are downed trees or bushes there. Bass, including some big ones, are often found shallow.
In early May, by all means, work spinnerbaits and jerkbaits from ankle-deep water outward until you are convinced that they either are or are not there. Casting toward a lunker bass that you can see is great fun unless you are prone to getting excited and wind up decorating a shoreline tree with your lure.
He also added that milfoil has historically been a hit-or-miss proposition due to efforts to get rid of it, but where it exists, the aggravating vegetation is a boon to bass anglers. Although this type of cover is most common well over into the summer, it pays to keep it in mind, and when the first sprigs start poking above the surface, run a spinnerbait or Rat-L-Trap as close to the shrubbery as you can get it.
When John Collins retired and moved to the Chattanooga area, he did it with one thing in mind other than getting away from the crowds that make up the proverbial rat race: bass fishing. His scratched and dented aluminum bass boat has become a common sight on Nickajack in the past decade.
"In early May -- when I expect the largemouths to be on the beds -- you can find them in the expected bays and coves where the current doesn't pose a problem. The Nickajack Cave area is a good place to start and with a name like that it has to be interesting."
Collins added that another consistent area in terms of production, not only during the spawn, is the Bennett Lake stretch. He said it resembles a picture that a serious bass angler would draw to show perfect bass habitat, with flats, humps and dropoffs that bass can relate to."
Like any number of local anglers, Collins frequently starts off using a Rat-L-Trap as a prospecting bait because it allows him to cover a lot of water in minimal time. When an aggressive bass grabs his offering, he slows down and switches to a crawfish crankbait first, especially in areas with rock or gravel, then winds up with either a crawdad or black/blue jig-and-pig.
"I keep meaning to try a Carolina-rigged lizard," he said, "because I know that they will work. I just never seem to find the time to get around to it. When the bass are biting, it's hard to get away from what you know and have confidence in. On Nickajack when the bite slows, it's easier just to switch locations."
Moving into late May when the water temperature rises above 60 degrees and stays there, Collins starts looking for milfoil but admits that finding some in the right water is not a certainty. Eradication efforts have completely removed the plant in some areas and reduced the density of it in others.
"Even before the milfoil reaches the surface it is still a bass magnet. Running a Rat-L-Trap or spinnerbait over the pre-emergent stuff is a good way to find quick action. I love to toss topwaters around it, and a shad-imitating jerkbait is always a good choice. Watch for milfoil coming up along the main river. If you're really looking for a thrill, you can always throw a buzzbait and hope that your heart can take the strain."
This reservoir does not have much of a current flow to improve bass fishing during the summer, but it sure makes up for it in the spring. Bedding conditions over most of the lake range from adequate to great, which makes it a good choice this month for the hit-and-run angler. However, just because you are almost positive that bass will be where you're casting does not mean that you will load the livewell.
Terry Maness lived in the area for years before moving to West Tennessee because of his job. He still misses Chickamauga, saying, "Around stumps and buckbrush -- really shallow water, traditional bassing spots -- you'll find beds this month. Sometimes they'll be active areas all month long but certainly during the entire length of the spawn.
"To work the bedding sites I like a finesse bait like one of the bigger tube lures or a jerkbait like the Fluke. If you're patient enough, you can get strikes by tossing a Rattlin' Rogue and working it so that it just dips, then pops back to the same place time and again. It's not a technique for most people, but it sure works."
Maness adds that as the spawn tapers off, the fish move to deeper water with secondary points receiving the most interest.
"Anywhere with an obvious contour break relating to what amounts to deep water on this shallow lake should be considered," he said. "The whole area around Mitchell Branch fits into this category and you won't find a better place to run a deep crankbait. Just thinking about May on Chickamauga is enough to make a body homesick."
WATTS BAR LAKE
Those of you who have been reading this magazine for more than a couple of years will recognize the name of Tom Evans. Tom was the photo editor for Game & Fish Publications and usually felt that if fish photos were needed, he should go catch the fish. This is not surprising, since he had been a pro guide before entering the magazine world and went right back to fishing afterward. When he settled near Watts Bar and hung out his shingle, those of us who know him figured out that there could only be one reason: great bass fishing.
"Watts Bar has it all," he admitted, "multiple species and something to fish for year around. In the spring, the bass are shallow and made to order for anybody who likes to throw a crankbait. You can start on the banks and channel edges on the lower end of the lake around the first of May and still find bass on the spawning flats close to the first of June on the upper end. The middle portion of the lake fits sort of between the two and is always worth looking at. This includes the Rockwood area for those who need a reference point."
Evans added that when the fish come off their beds they do what their kinfolk do virtually everywhere else: They head for deeper water. Dropoffs outside creek mouths and any points running from shallow to deep water have potential, as do channel edges.