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Two Topnotch Tennessee Smallmouth Lakes

Two Topnotch Tennessee Smallmouth Lakes

Although there are uncounted numbers of good places to catch smallmouths in Tennessee, these two lakes take top billing in the winter.

By Larry Self

When you live within the borders of a state that can lay claim to some of the best smallmouth fishing in the country, it's not easy to single out one or two lakes as the "best."

But two nominees can make an excellent case for being the top two winter smallmouth lakes: Dale Hollow in Middle Tennessee and South Holston in East Tennessee.

Of course, Dale Hollow's reputation is legendary; a huge percentage of the heaviest smallmouths ever caught by anglers have come out of this one lake. But Dale Hollow is not one of those lakes that make the list merely because of its history. Day in and day out, it still produces a lot of big fish, and it's these big fish that attract anglers from across the country.

South Holston may not be so legendary, but when it comes to picking a great place to catch smallmouths in the winter, it's worth driving by a lot of other lakes to get to South Holston.

Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's Chief of Fisheries Bill Reeves has a lot of responsibility riding on his shoulders. But one of his primary projects has been to re-create trophy smallmouth fishing in Tennessee. It's not that the fishery wasn't already good, but Reeves is striving to make it better.

One of his targets early on was Dale Hollow Lake, where catching an 18-inch smallmouth had started to become a chore for even dedicated anglers.


Neither snow nor sleet keep top smallmouth anglers like guide Bob Coan from their appointed rounds on Dale Hollow. Big fish like this one keep these anglers coming back for more. Photo by Larry Self

The management technique used was a 16- to 21-inch slot limit. Many doubted this would work when it was first discussed, but few can argue that the slot limit didn't help turn the fishing on this storied lake around. Anglers can keep one smallmouth over 21 inches and one under 16 inches, but must release everything in between. From all indications, angling and biological alike, the slot limit introduced in 2000 on Dale Hollow on both sides of the state border has been a major success. In fact, Reeves said biologists originally thought it would take three years to see a response increase in the number of trophy-sized smallmouths in the harvest after the slot limit was established. It took only 18 months.

Reeves said it will take another two years of creel surveys and samplings to determine if the trophy regulations, which initially at least seem to be working very well, will produce long-term as well as short-term results. The bottom line is the current slot limit isn't set in stone.

A number of changes could conceivably be made depending on the results of future creel surveys and samplings. The slot, for example, could be expanded - or it could be removed.

Dale's future smallmouth regulations are dependent on two things identified by Reeves: biological and sociological response.

Biologically, the question that has to be answered is whether there is enough food in the lake to sustain a population of bigger, older smallmouths. A slot limit will produce older fish, but if those fish meet some other habitat limitation, they may not get much bigger.

Reeves said a larger population of bigger fish could cause a forage catastrophe down the road, and the slot limit would have to be removed.

If, however, the lake can support such trophies, Reeves said you could see a size limit change as high as 22 or 23 inches on Dale Hollow in a couple of years.

Socially, the question remains as to whether fishermen are going to leave enough big smallmouths in the population to drive the trophy regulations. If anglers take out every legal smallmouth they catch, there could be an adverse effect. Clear lakes like Dale Hollow and South Holston are where Reeves said anglers go to harvest the fish they want to eat.

"When you're talking about trophy management, if the biology of fish supports it, the question is: will people tolerate it?" explained Reeves. He said trophy management isn't for every lake. You have to have the right fish population and anglers must be willing to live with a regulation that forces them to release fish at Dale Hollow that would perhaps be mountable trophies in most other places.

At the base of all trophy management is the lake itself: For a lake to be considered for trophy management, it must first have a low mortality rate, and each lake is unique when it comes to that important factor. For example, a typical lake has a 20 percent natural mortality for bass. Reeves said if the lake has an additional 30 to 40 percent harvest of the adult population, it only leaves at best 50 percent of the overall population.

If the percentage of adult fish able to survive falls enough, a lake may simply not ever produce enough trophies to be a good candidate for trophy management. This is where creel and size limits come in, and Reeves said anything you do limit-wise has an immediate positive response. He defines size management as 14 inches being minimal, 16 inches being middle and 18 inches the beginning of trophy management.

It's hard to place an exact measurement on a trophy smallmouth. The increase response in the number of bigger smallmouths after the slot limit was introduced on Dale Hollow was quicker than anyone could have predicted. Reeves said that even in lakes that produce fast-growing fish, it takes at least five years for a smallmouth to reach 21 inches. Growth rates, of course, vary from lake to lake. It may take as long as eight to nine years for a smallie to reach 21 inches in a lake with slow growth rates.

Reeves agreed Dale Hollow is still king when it comes to smallmouth fishing in Tennessee and expects that reign to last with the new trophy regulations.

He considers Pickwick to be next in line with the big smallmouths it's producing along with sheer numbers of bronzebacks. He rated South Holston as a close third for the best smallmouth angling in the Volunteer State. Pickwick has a size limit of 14 inches on smallmouth bass - below the "trophy" size level - and that makes it vulnerable in Reeves' eyes. In comparison, Reeves said Dale Hollow has a much lower productivity than Pickwick. He said if trophy regulations could be put in place on Pickwick it would unimaginable what the results could be. However, trophy management at Pickwick, even with the lake's excellent fertility and productivity, is technically difficult because it lies within the borders of

Alabama and Mississippi as well as Tennessee.

In the case of South Holston Lake, Reeves said it's a situation like biologists and fisheries managers have in California where the big largemouths are showing up. A lot of trout are stocked in South Holston, which already has an abundant alewife population like Dale Hollow.

But South Holston has a lot more trout per acre than Dale Hollow. In short, there's plenty of protein for the smallmouths to live on. Reeves said no trophy regulations are planned for the northeast Tennessee lake that produces a large number of big smallmouths. But it is something the agency is eyeing and may have some recommendations in a year or two.

"What would it be like if we could make it (South Holston) three or four times better?" asked Reeves. The lake produces some unreal catches during winter tournaments, when a five-fish limit can weigh as much as 27 pounds. Currently, there is no size limit on the lake's smallmouths.

South Holston has a lot going for it. Reeves said the lake, although one-third the size of Dale Hollow, has a lot of cover that provides for smallmouth reproduction. And it's an unusual lake in that it contains native smallmouths with especially good genes. He said the trophy potential is there if people are willing to accept it.

As Reeves did and other anglers will note, Pickwick may be in the top one or two in many eyes when it comes to overall smallmouth fishing, but as winter air and water temperatures drop, no water is better than that of Dale Hollow Lake or South Holston Lake. There's no doubt, Dale Hollow is still the reigning king, but South Holston in the winter is no longer the redheaded stepchild. It has the potential to be the best, but if things continue going well at Dale Hollow, it will never be overtaken.

Eddie Nuckols and I have been fortunate to have partnered together in winning the last three out of four Billy Westmorland and Horse Creek Dock Invitationals at Dale Hollow Lake. I've fished with probably more hardcore smallmouth anglers than most people, and I'll say beyond a shadow of doubt, he's the best I've been in a boat with.

It's no secret our successes over the last four years at Dale Hollow have come on the Float-N-Fly, the patented coldwater finesse technique. You can ask either of us and we'll tell you the same thing. Smallmouths can't resist the small baitfish imitation in the wintertime.

"They like it," laughed Nuckols. "It just goes along with the sluggishness of the fish. And it's hard to beat a slow presentation." Nuckols said the last time he checked, smallmouths have eyes on the top of their heads. When they're suspended, they're looking up, and they can't resist that small fly imitating an injured or dying baitfish dancing above them. It's an easy meal, and that's the reason for the technique's continued success.

Nuckols' choice for best wintertime conditions is the cold, miserable days most people avoid. Overcast skies with a light wind are best and a water temperature of 45 to 55 degrees is perfect. He said once the water gets below 40 degrees, it gets tough even on Dale.

Nuckols explained every lake is different, but his prime water temperature for boating smallies is 48 to 52 degrees. Nuckols said he doesn't like his line to freeze or his guides to be clogged with ice all day, but those conditions do keep most casual anglers (and pretty much everyone else) off the lake and out of the way of serious winter fishermen. Last year, he broke out a hair dryer to thaw frozen steering cables before we could get the boat out of the slip at Horse Creek Dock.

He targets winter smallies mostly by experience. Nuckols will pay the most attention to the wind and baitfish habits, and a little attention to the sun. Key depths for placing your fly under the float at Dale Hollow are from 8 to 12 feet. Nuckols advised that your boat had better be sitting in more than 30 feet of water. Winter fishing at Dale Hollow means targeting main-lake structure, mouths of coves and two-thirds of the way back in creek arms.

"There's no set pattern on Dale Hollow," explained Nuckols. "There are different groups of fish doing different things."

Nuckols said there are some fish in all areas, but one of the three types of places he targets will hold the majority of fish. He said he doesn't believe everything he reads, but some time back he read an article about tracking bass that was different. Nuckols agreed with the piece and believes smallmouths live in an age-class and grow up together. As they get older, he thinks they die off and the next group fills the void - or that's the hope. That's why he explained we often boat bookend smallies off the same spots. Last year, during the first hour of the Billy Westmorland Tournament, we released four smallies each in the slot limit - the eight of them would have weighed over 32 pounds.

"Don't spend too much time in one place," is the best advice Nuckols can give someone heading for Dale Hollow's winter smallmouth action. "You're looking for the majority of the fish, not the minority."

Smallmouth angler Rick Chappell knows South Holston Lake and does as well there as anybody I know. The smallmouths he and some other expert Holston anglers are boating are enough to keep many anglers from heading toward Dale Hollow.

Chappell says there are two types of smallmouths found at South Holston in the winter. There are those that stay around structure consistently and those that roam.

When he finds the structure-oriented smallmouths, he targets them with a jigging spoon. The suspended schools of fish that roam normally use points as their reference areas during the winter; these fish are the ones he'll hunt down with a Float-N-Fly.

In Chappell's opinion, when the water temperature drops below 40 degrees, not only do the smallies get lethargic, so do the baitfish. The temperature range from 40 to 50 degrees is his best bobber water temp condition. His favorite Float-N-Fly days are those cloudy ones with an air temperature around 38 degrees. What he calls typical dull, dreary winter days are the perfect times to boat a big smallmouth.

Chappell will turn to a jigging spoon on the bright, sunny days. Those two techniques will cover most of the bases at South Holston in the wintertime. Chappell said as soon as he pulls the boat away from the ramp at the Highway 421 bridge, he'll throw a Float-N-Fly until the sun peeks out. Once the sun shows itself, it's jigging spoon time. When the sun doesn't make an appearance, you can bet he's got a bobber rod and a fly under a float all day.

The main key is finding the baitfish," said Chappell. "In the winter, baitfish aren't visible to the eye." Chappell, like most winter fishermen, relies on a graph for tracking baitfish locations and movements. Finding the baitfish in the winter is objective number one whether you're fishing a Float-N-Fly or jigging spoon. If he's not already on fish, Chappell will cruise points marking b

aitfish and then go back and fish those areas.

He said perfect depths for spoon-fed smallies is in 25 to 35 feet of water on banks with stumps and brush cover. Key depths for South Holston Float-N-Fly anglers is 9 feet on average for putting the fly under the float, and your boat should be in 30 to 35 feet of water on wintertime main-lake structure. Chappell's best South Holston winter smallmouth spots are points and main channel roll-ups.

For those not accustomed to the harshness of winter fishing, Chappell advised newcomers to layer themselves with insulated underwear followed by a layer of wool. His key for keeping warm is wearing his raingear on top of the other layers. It's the only thing he's found that will really break the cold wind. If you can handle the winter boat ride, you can handle anything. And keep extra gloves handy in case the first pair gets wet.

"Have plenty of patience," Chappell instructed anglers about hitting the winter fishing scene for the first time. Winter smallmouth fishing isn't for everybody. But if you can take the first few minutes of numb fingers, tears rolling down your eyes from the brisk boat ride, and not being sure if you still have toes, that 5- or 6-pound smallmouth will make you feel warm all over.

Like Eddie Nuckols said: "You can't let the cold immobilize you." Not if you're planning to catch many wintertime smallmouths.

Chappell's last piece of advice is: "Know the right bait and get confident with it."

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