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Tennessee's Smallmouth Forecast

Tennessee's Smallmouth Forecast

Whether you're up for chasing smallmouth bass in subfreezing temperatures,

during the spring spawn, all night long in the heat of the summer, or on rivers in the fall, it's always brown bass season.

By Larry Self

When it comes to having the best brown bass fishing in a variety of habitats, Tennessee's waters, from highland reservoirs to flowing rivers, may just be the best in the country. This year we've developed a smallmouth bass outlook that will keep you busy all year. You can and should fish for and catch smallmouths year 'round. Whether you're up for chasing them in subfreezing temperatures, during the spawn, all night long, or in the heat of the summer waist deep in water, it's brown fish season in the Volunteer State.

Experience is as good as any tool to use when it comes to picking a good spot to fish - for the most part. But when you're looking to find out which Tennessee brown bass waters are the best, a little help from biologists is useful. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's Tim Churchill is the statewide reservoir coordinator, and I call on him often when comparing experience with biological data.

I'm lucky in that there are few smallmouth bass waters across the Tennessee Valley I haven't backed a boat into or at least waded. Although on any given day one lake or river might be better than another, for this outlook, we're seeking out the most consistent lakes and rivers, the heavy hitters for numbers and quality of Tennessee's brown fish. I think it was Hemingway who expressed a sentiment I agree with: I'd rather be good than lucky - that way you're ready when luck comes. Your luck is, well, a matter of luck, but these Tennessee waters are good, and there's no point in wasting one of your lucky days on a mediocre bass lake. If you do have a lucky day, these are the lakes and rivers where you'll catch the most fish.

As good as Tennessee's lake fishing for smallmouth bass is, when you couple it with the superb stream fishing available within the Volunteer borders, you've got an almost unheard of combination for brown bass. There are some states that can brag about the excellent smallmouth fishing on Lake Erie and even Lake Michigan. There are a ton of Northern destinations that have great smallmouth bass fishing. But, when you look at the whole picture, we're talking about perhaps the best smallmouth fishing in the country.

Churchill has learned from his work with other agencies and other research where Tennessee stands among other states' smallmouth fisheries. From my reading and research over the years, I felt Tennessee had to be close to the top. His work backs that up.

Eddie Nuckols, a strong proponent of float-and-fly fishing for smallmouths, holds up a healthy brown bass from March's cool waters. Photo by Larry Self

"I think we are the top," said Churchill. He explains this is why the agency is taking some fairly innovative management steps (e.g., slot limits and high minimum size limits) to ensure the fishing quality for smallmouths is maintained.


Maintaining this level requires some tweaking of the size regulations on quality waters. Dale Hollow is a prime example of a lake with effective special regulations - a two-fish slot limit. Dale Hollow anglers are catching more and more smallmouths over 18 inches than they have in a number of years.

For 2003, such regulation changes as we've seen on other bodies of waters and designated streams are proposed for the smallmouth fishery of Fort Loudoun and Tellico lakes. Frank Fiss, the agency's warmwater stream/river coordinator, and Churchill are currently wrapping up composition of a statewide management plan for smallmouths. They weren't to the point of proposing anything on warmwater streams, but we have some data suggesting it could benefit fishing. There are proposals out for 2003 to have an 18-inch minimum, one-per-day limit on smallmouths in Tellico/Loudoun. This would extend this limit from the Alabama state line upstream to these two reservoirs. The idea is to enhance the size structure and increase catch rates in these reservoirs, says Churchill.

Based on my fishing adventures, I told Tim Churchill I'd rank Tennessee's top smallmouth lakes in order of quality like this: Dale Hollow, South Holston, Watauga, and then possibly Percy Priest or Center Hill. I didn't miss the mark on the top two anyway. He says the data supports my theory on the first two, placing Dale Hollow first, South Holston second, followed by Boone and Watauga lakes. Those conclusions are based on catch rates for the last two years. Churchill says that, oddly, catch rate data indicates that Chickamauga Lake was third in 2001, but he felt that might be linked to a sampling bias: On the days biologists checked Chickamauga anglers, the fishing was simply very much better than average.

Other than the already popular top lakes mentioned, there are those that fall into the dark horse category and deserve your attention most of the year for smallmouth bass activity. Churchill says Cherokee Lake is a sort of dark horse that doesn't get mentioned too much. Also, a lot of Tennessee River impoundments (like Chickamauga and Kentucky) seem to have growing smallmouth populations, but those improvements may be a function of drought conditions and clear water; he's not sure the good fishing will continue to improve on these lakes. Regardless, he says the idea of the restrictive minimum size limits is to conserve fish in these populations.

When it comes to stream fishing for smallmouths, I may be a little biased, but I have stood waist deep in many of them across the state, and I never met a bad smallmouth river. My experience and knowledge suggest that the top rivers are the Nolichucky, Holston and Pigeon in the east; Cheatham below Old Hickory Dam and the Duck in Middle Tennessee; and the Buffalo on farther west.

Frank Fiss' opinion, based on research and data, is that these rivers are still top picks. But he went on to say ranking them is hard due to varying efficiency of electrofishing surveys given habitat differences among the streams. The surveys are great for tracking a given water over time, but they don't work well for head-to-head comparisons. For the sake of argument (and all dedicated smallmouth anglers like to argue), Fiss says his opinion ranks them in order from the Pigeon, Holston, Buffalo, Nolichucky, and then the Duck River.

Smallmouth sleeper waters and ones to keep a watchful eye on would be the Upper Clinch River and Little Pigeon System. And the Collins River might be worth bragging about also, adds Fiss.

The beauty of all this is as an angler reading this outlook, you may have your own preferences or have just learned some new ones. But n

ow for the sake of not arguing, let's take a closer look at a few of the lakes and rivers spotlighted above and try to distinguish various times of the year that some stand out to help you plan your smallmouth calendar for 2003. We'll feature some of the lakes first and then hit a few rivers.

Undoubtedly, you have to begin any smallmouth forecast, outlook or just plain conversation with Dale Hollow. It's great to be the king. Last summer with low water conditions and higher-than-normal water temperatures, Dale wasn't the nighttime destination she normally is for anglers from a variety of states.

Under normal conditions, though, the first of July through August is time to get your arm broken throwing spinnerbaits and hair jigs over coontail grass and humps all over the lake. Summer access is made easy at a variety of docks up and down the lake.

As good as the nighttime action can be in the summer, there's not a hardcore smallmouth man around that would deny Dale is at her best in the winter. From the Billy Westmoreland and Horse Creek Dock Invitational the first weekend of December through April, Dale Hollow is a winter fisherman's dream. Traditional baits like the Silver Buddy, hair jigs, and Whirly-Bees can dominate at times. On other days when the fishing gets tough and smallies suspend, jigging spoons and the float-and-fly are quick tickets to success. Good days can mean over 20 or more fish per day. You haven't lived until you've fought a 5-pound brown fish on 4-pound-test using a bobber and a 1/16-ounce fly. Good winter access can be found at Horse Creek Dock on the lower end of the lake.

South Holston Lake in the northeast corner of the state may not be as consistent in the winter as Dale Hollow on a variety of baits, but she makes up for it in the summer with excellent night-fishing on spinnerbaits, hair jigs and grubs after dark. That's a good time to be on the water. But from January until the end of March, there's no place like South Holston in the entire country when it comes to fishing the float-and-fly. Consistent bags of 25-plus pounds in tournaments are routine. This is one lake that's made a float-and-fly name for itself where jigging spoons used to be the spoken word. Spoons still catch them, but you'll see an entourage of bobber rods when the water temperature drops below 50 degrees. Year-round access is found at the Highway 421 Bridge ramp.

Watauga Lake also features very good night-fishing in the midyear months, but probably most local anglers will argue the fall fishing is the best. That's when the daytime fishing gets as good as the nighttime action. Grubs and hair jigs are the baits to use day and night throughout the fall. The lake has been known as a great black-and-blue pig-and-jig destination after dark as late as November. Access can be found at the Fish Springs Dock on the lower third of the lake all year.

Boone, Center Hill and Percy Priest lakes may not rank as the No. 1 smallmouth hotspots from year to year, but they sure have their moments. All are quality nighttime smallmouth destinations with good jig and spinnerbait opportunities. The winter fishing on each is worth a planned trip as well.

One of the hardest decisions for some smallmouth anglers is to choose between nighttime action on lakes in the summer or hot river fishing. As good as many lakes can be in the springtime, the rivers may be even better. The spring is when most smallmouth men float rivers with creek minnows for some of the best action all year.

The Pigeon River from the North Carolina state line down to where it dumps into the French Broad River is one of the rivers that makes anglers hesitate to head to the lakes. The all-day float from downtown Newport to the Rankin Bridge on the French Broad can be unforgettable in the springtime. Later on, the hellgrammite fishing from the North Carolina border down to Newport is as good as any smallmouth action to be found. Replace that with fall's topwater action, and the Pigeon can keep you busy most of the year. Anglers have a very good chance of catching a lot of smallmouths and the possibility of meeting up with some quality 3- to 4-pounders.

Like the Pigeon, the Nolichucky River flows out of the North Carolina hills and into Tennessee. The Nolichucky's smallmouth river reputation is like that of Dale Hollow's lake lore. Numbers of smallmouths can be caught on most of the river's stretches from Erwin down to the Highway 70 dam in Greene County. But the best fishing is most arguably below the dam downstream through the remainder of Greene County. Float trips with hellgrammite and smoke or pumpkinseed grubs are called for from May through October.

Last year's low water conditions hurt the action on the Nolichucky, but when things are right, she can be one of the most productive waters around. Float trips from the Highway 70 dam to the Highway 321 bridge offer an all-day outing, and a float from the Highway 321 bridge down to the public access at the Easterly Bridge can tally good numbers and a quality fish or two. Don't expect a lot of 4- to 6-pounders, but one does show up from time to time. Another good float is from the Easterly Bridge to the newly named Bewley Bridge next to the Cocke County line.

The Holston River flowing down out of the Tri-Cities through Surgoinsville and Rogersville into Cherokee Lake just keeps coming and coming. Fiss ranks it high on his list. Float trips are a must from the VFW ramp at Churchill downstream to Christians Bend and from the Christians Bend put-in down to the Surgoinsville Public Ramp. Spinnerbaits, flukes, jigs and live bait dominate the choices among experienced anglers from the spring throughout the fall. This river destination is best for anglers looking for big fish rather than large numbers of fish.

Middle Tennessee smallmouth angler William "Buddy" Dodson spends as much time on the Duck and Buffalo rivers as I do on the eastern waters. He says float trips are the best way to approach the Duck River. There is some decent fishing above the Riverside Dam that can be accessed by putting in at the ramp above the dam and hitting the shoals about six miles upstream. But Dodson says the best smallmouth fishing, by far, is below the dam. Good public access can be found by canoe or jet boat float from the ramp in downtown Columbia at the dam to the ramp at Chickasaw Trace off Highway 7. That's about a three-quarter-day float. From the Chickasaw Trace to the Monsanto Bridge is about a two-hour float. Some of the best fishing is in the fall on spinnerbaits and creek minnows. Expect to catch 20 to 30 fish per trip. Smallies here are often in the 2- to 3-pound range, and there's always the possibility of a 4-pounder slashing your offering.

Dodson says the smaller Buffalo River offers excellent wet wading in the summer with most action primarily found on live bait. There's a public access ramp about three-quarters of a mile from Linden.

The Buffalo is well known for good canoe float trips. There are actually more than a half-dozen businesses that rent canoes and then pick you up downstream at a designated location along the river. You may not catch huge fish on the Buffalo, but you can catch a bunch of smallmouth bass there, and Dodson says you can pick up a lot of 2-pounders.

There you have them, most of, but not all of, Tennessee's hot smallmouth waters. There are others, but these are, as the saying goes, the cream of the crop. You may not have time to get on each of the featured waters this year, but hit as many as you can while being versatile with your bait selection and thankful for the best smallmouth fishing in the country.

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