From spring's pre-spawn fishing on lakes and streams on into the night-fishing of summer, the early smallmouth action in the Volunteer State is just a drop in the bucket. Fall's feeding frenzy, followed up by the best winter fishing around on a variety of deep lakes, give Tennessee smallmouth angers a smorgasbord of brown fish options to choose from year 'round.
Count yourself lucky to get to travel within our borders to sample what Tennessee has to offer when it comes to smallies, from shallow-water streams to deep-water lakes. And count yourself even more fortunate that you just happen to live in the best all-around smallmouth state in the country.
In a year's fishing in Tennessee, you can battle a 6-pound smallmouth on 4-pound line with a long Float-N-Fly finesse rod, and you can come face to face with a trophy smallie in the moving water of a river, where the fish can use the current like a lever against you. I'll take either at any time.
Volunteer anglers have been taking advantage of smallmouth success for years, and with trophy regulations now in place across most of the state, the fishing seems to be getting better and better. Let's look at where that "better fishing" is.
OUR TOP BROWN FISH LAKES
George Scholten, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's (TWRA) reservoir and river fisheries coordinator, has little trouble identifying the top lake destinations for smallmouth bass.
Scholten said Dale Hollow is Tennessee's premier smallmouth fishery, but Tims Ford, South Holston, Norris and Pickwick reservoirs are also very good. Dale Hollow is just plain Dale Hollow -- the legendary lake is still the top destination when it comes to reservoir smallmouths.
Although Dale Hollow produces solid numbers of smallmouths, what really sets it apart is its capacity to produce trophy fish. Scholten said, according to the most recent creel surveys, Pickwick Reservoir actually had the highest catch rates. Dale Hollow and Norris were close behind Pickwick, and then followed up by Percy Priest and South Holston.
Scholten did say was the agency was proposing a trophy smallmouth regulation package for one reservoir for 2010, but that decision hadn't been made officially at press time, so keep an eye out for at least one change in smallmouth regulations this spring.
The best news is where the Volunteer State stands in relation to the rest of the country when it comes to quality smallmouth bass fishing. We've always been mentioned in the top two or three and often whispered as the best out there. Many biologists, as well as anglers, have believed that Tennessee is the top overall state for smallmouth bass fishing in recent years -- and not without reason. The trophy regulations in place have helped to beef up an already strong population.
"Tennessee is still the go-to state for high-quality smallmouth fishing," said Scholten. "Through progressive management, we have been able to maintain this high-quality fishing in spite of increases in fishing pressure."
As far as trophy regulations go, Scholten added, "Unfortunately, politicians intervened this past spring and size limits were reduced on several upper East Tennessee reservoirs. These reservoirs would really benefit from the 18-inch size limits that were in place earlier this year. Hopefully, someday we will be able to get these size limits back up where they need to be."
With this forecast each year, we also like to look at what we call dark horses for the coming year. This year's lake to keep in mind is an old standby that used to be known for big smallies more than its largemouth bass. Scholten said for those anglers who haven't discovered it yet, Watts Bar has improved tremendously in the last few years. Other than that renewed brown fish destination, he says the size limits on many reservoirs were increased to 18 inches in March 2009. That means the reservoirs with these size limits still in place should be improving soon. Scholten says these are definitely areas for anglers to watch.
Dale Hollow, Tims Ford, South Holston, Norris and Pickwick reservoirs are very good, with Watts Bar making a comeback.
But take my word for it: Don't forget to mark your travel calendar with a trip or two this year to Kentucky and Watauga lakes at certain times of the year. Neither are overlooked destinations -- just often underestimated.
There's no doubt that Tennessee's smallmouth fishing is remarkable for its trophy potential. The trophy regulations put into place over the last several years, along with protective slot limits, have created a healthier smallmouth population. Any smallmouth forecast would be incomplete without sharing a tale or two about encountering these highly sought bass.
You rarely read about the big ones that got away. It's time to talk about a couple of big smallmouths that lived to fight another day. Remember this, the most memorable encounters are the fish that get away. You just don't forget them.
Picture this: a cold December weekend, a strong wind, and the Billy Westmorland Tournament happening at legendary Dale Hollow Lake. The trophy regs had been in place for several years when this big brown fish encounter occurred. My tournament partner, Eddie Nuckols, and I were working the Float-N-Fly along one of our favorite and most productive banks for 21-inch keeper fish.
Nuckols' bobber went down and disappeared for a full five minutes before we would even see the fish that led the boat away from the bank to deeper water. Well into the fight on 4-pound-test, the big female finally porpoised and showed herself -- but she was too big to jump. Now I've heard of a handful of anglers that say they've run into the next world record at Dale but have never seen one close to 12 pounds. The smallmouth on the other end of Nuckols' line wasn't it either, but it was the closest brown fish I've ever seen to a full 10 pounds.
It was another 10 minutes before we would see the behemoth again. And finally 20 minutes into the fight, the giant smallmouth was done. She lay up on her side and was headed for the net as Nuckols guided her toward the boat. That's when fate appeared in the ugliest of twists. Five feet from the boat and just out of net reach, the fly popped out of the roof of the smallie's mouth just short of finishing its job. She laid there on the surface for what seemed like a torturing eternity just out of reach, and then with a flip of her tail she was gone. The only good news is we know where she lives.
Let's change venues and step into a moving water encounter. This story
I'll tell on myself. Two years ago, I was doing what I call a scout trip on the Little Pigeon River. I like to test the waters and see what they're hitting or not hitting before I guide customers.
Out by myself, it was time to test the late spring and post-spawn waters with a little topwater enticement. The Zara Puppy I pulled from my wading pack produced about a dozen strikes and some smallish fish right out of the gate. The active surface action and eager fish kept me going.
Looking for bigger fish, I eased into a shallow-water hole for a one-of-a-kind encounter. Working the topwater plug back quickly, I saw the water suddenly erupt. The strike looked like it left a 2-foot void on the surface. I drove the hooks of the Puppy home, and the biggest river smallmouth I've encountered to date launched into the air, having only one way to go in the shallow water -- up. The topwater plug found itself on the inside lip of a 7-pound-plus river dream.
As stories go, this one was headed for a bad end as well. Three jumps into the fight, the big female was done playing with me. The last jump came just inside of 10 feet, and I could see her eyes as she spit the Zara Puppy back at me. The plug hit me in the chest and fell in the shallow water at my feet. Another one gone, but never forgotten.
There are only a handful of states that you could come close to one of these encounters, let alone two of this caliber. And again, the most memorable encounters are with the big fish that get away.
OUR BEST SMALLMOUTH RIVERS
Like most Volunteer anglers, I love the night-fishing found on our brown fish lakes in the summer and the bobber fishing on the deep, clear highland reservoirs in the winter.
But in the summer, give me moving water.
Jason Henegar, the TWRA river and streams coordinator, said we've seen very little change in the riverine smallmouth population from last year. Again for 2010, Henegar likes the Pigeon River once again as the top smallmouth river destination in Tennessee, followed by the Holston River system, the French Broad, and then the famed Nolichucky River.
Those are the best of the best rivers, but as always, keep the Buffalo, Cumberland and Duck rivers in mind for the smallmouth opportunities there. The rivers in East Tennessee definitely are the most talked about moving smallmouth waters, but their Middle and West Tennessee counterparts make nice trips from the springtime into the fall.
Wherever you decide to go, remember your target. I've never caught a bad smallmouth or one that didn't fight regardless of size.
The Duck, Buffalo and Cumberland are better for numbers of fish than big fish, but you'll find the occasional trophy smallie on any of them. But as good as they are, Henegar said they just do not produce the numbers of quality fish that the Holston, Pigeon and French Broad rivers produce. And in the last couple of years, bigger smallies -- in the 4-pound-plus class -- are showing up again in the Nolichucky River.
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 may 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 it gets and that it can withstand. Those qualities can be found in all of the East Tennessee smallmouth rivers.
Henegar also added river enthusiasts can expect no changes in regulations for smallmouths in rivers for 2010. Whether you fish one of the trophy streams with quality regulations like the Pigeon or Little Pigeon rivers, or one of the moving waters with statewide regulations in place, all will benefit from this year's much-needed rainfall.
Henegar said we received adequate rainfall this past spring and early summer. He added, however, it's going to take a couple of years for the smallmouth populations to rebound from the continued drought last year. Also, Henegar said it will take time to rebuild the numbers of large fish in populations that saw impacts of the droughts of 2007 and 2008.
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 the I-40 exit at Hartford. To check the generation schedule, call the Waterville Dam release schedule at 1-800-899-4435.
Holston 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 1-800-238-2264 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.
GET ON THE WATER
Do yourself a favor and take these few tips and get on the water sometime in 2010 for the best fishing experience Tennessee has to offer: the smallmouth bass. They're mean, they're fighters and worthy of your attention and respect.
And the best news of all is that you're fishing in the best overall smallmouth state in the country and one of the top trophy destinations in North America. The trophy situation in Tennessee definitely has us in a smallmouth state of mind, where the smallmouth bass is officially King.
Whether you like to get on a deep lake at night for after-dark smallies, or in the cold of winter for finesse smallmouths, Tennessee has a number of lakes to meet your needs. And if you love fishing moving water, there are premium rivers in East Tennessee and other viable choices across the state. The only thing stopping you from enjoying the best smallmouth fishing in the country is yourself.