Three Top Lakes for Middle Tennessee Bass

Spring largemouth fishing in Middle Tennessee is in full swing. Don't miss the fishing at these three hotspots!

By Ed Harp

Tennessee largemouth bass anglers are blessed. Middle Tennessee offers a number of top lakes that produce both quantity and quality in the spring. Easily accessed by anglers, these waters offer a wide variety of habitat, structure and cover. As the saying goes: There is something for everyone.

If catching a number of bass is your goal, Center Hill is one body of water you should consider. The average size of the bass caught may not be quite as large as in some waters. On the other hand, 15 or more largemouths per day is nothing to sneer at either.

Bobby Gentry (1-270-427-0419) - local resident, tournament competitor and professional guide - recommends a spinnerbait as your first choice of weapons on this lake. Center Hill is chock-full of stumps, laydowns and stickups. Most of this cover is found in relatively shallow water near creek channels with steep, well-defined drops. The water is stained in most areas of the lake throughout the spring. That is just about as good as it gets for spinnerbait fishing.

Gentry normally will start his search at the Cookville Marina. Everything a largemouth bass needs is there: a deep channel with adjacent shallow water, cover, wood, stained water and forage.

He suggests anglers begin by throwing a 3/8-ounce brightly colored spinnerbait. Target areas of wood cover, in shallow water, near or adjacent to the creek channel.

"Work your bait with a variety of retrieves until you find out what works," he said. At times, a fast, shallow retrieve is best. On other days, however, slow and easy is the technique that will catch them. If the action is slow, vary the size and weight of your bait. Try a couple of approaches if the first technique doesn't work, but Gentry says whatever you do, don't leave this area until you have fished it thoroughly. "It almost always produces a couple of keepers," Gentry said.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Under the right conditions, buzzbaits can be effective around the Cookville Marina area as well. Gentry likes to work a buzzbait if the spring has been warm and the water temperature is at or near the 60-degree mark. According to him, the same water that produces with a spinnerbait pattern will favor a buzzbait. "Early morning and late evening are the best times, but cloudy, overcast days are good as well," he said.

If you like to fish plastics, tubes can be effective. Most anglers rig them Texas style with a 1/4-ounce worm weight. A second choice, especially if the cover is sparse, is a Carolina rig with a 1/4-ounce barrel sinker.

Either way, the better fish will most likely be in water 18 to 22 feet deep, according to Gentry. They will almost always be relating to the channel. Tubes, fished in deep water, will not match the numbers of a spinnerbait. They will, however, catch bigger fish - fish in the 4-pound class, for example.

For those who are crankbait fans, Gentry recommends fishing from Hurricane Marina on up to the dam. Long main-lake points with many smaller secondary points are the dominant fish-holding structure here. The largemouths use the points as pre-spawn staging areas and as postspawn staging areas. These points are one of the most reliable areas of the lake during the spring season.

Crankbaits are perfect tools for this type of structure. Work the points with a wide variety of baits. Some should run shallow, others deep. Some should have a wide, hard wobble, while others should just vibrate a bit. Vary the size of your bait; sometimes it does matter. Once you unlock the secret of depth, action, size and color, you will be in for a thrilling experience. This area is capable of producing fish after fish on cast after cast.

Pay attention to the weather and water while fishing this lake. It will rise and fall rapidly. It is not unusual for Center Hill to rise 3 feet in a day - that's a fishing day, not 24 hours. When the water rises, local anglers immediately abandon any deep-water pattern they are fishing. The fish follow the water. Smart anglers follow the fish.

Throw spinnerbaits, buzzbaits and shallow-running crankbaits into newly flooded areas. Bright colors are the norm for rising water. Bright means bright: Yellow chartreuse, green chartreuse, fluorescent pink and the like are popular and effective. Although this pattern may be short lived, it can be fantastic.

For anglers who would like a decent chance to catch several bass and run into an anchor fish, the Cumberland River should be a top choice. Along the river's path in Tennessee are dams that form several impoundments. There is some fine largemouth angling on the stretches of river between the dams.

The main river can be difficult, however. Spring rains create rapidly rising water and rapidly deteriorating conditions. On top of that, the waters tend to be cold. This is caused, in large measure, by the high number of dams along the river's path. The water flowing from the dams is cold, keeping the main-river temperature in the mid 50-degree range most of the time.

Experienced anglers, men like Cobby Hayes (who has over six decades of experience on the river), point to the creeks, tributaries and backwaters as their first and best spots in spring. Water in the backs of these creeks and tributaries tends to warm quickly.

"Find warm water, the warmest there is," Hayes said when asked about the best type of water to fish.

These spots tend to collect wood in one form or another. Spinnerbaits are a natural choice of lures under such conditions. One popular technique is to retrieve your spinnerbait rapidly, just under the water's surface. This will create a bulge along the path of the lure.

At other times, a lift-and-drop retrieve will excite the bass. This retrieve is especially effective along channels, in chunk rock and along the outside edge of weedlines. Old-fashioned short arm spinnerbaits - you do not see them much anymore - are perfect for this technique. The short arm allows the blade to rise vertically and then spin freely in a circle as the bait drops through the water column.

Of course, the usual horizontal retrieve will also produce a few fish. It is especially productive on the inside edge of weedlines. If you select this retrieve, make certain you vary your depth and speed. River bass can be finicky.

In the spring, the Cumberland and its tributaries can get stained to downright muddy. When that happens, Hayes recommends bright colors in your spinnerbaits. Colors such as chartreuse, pink and sno

w white are effective. When the water is stable and clear, natural colors are preferred. Shad is by far the most popular.

An old-fashioned Texas-rigged plastic worm will still catch bass, too. It is hard to beat in the Cumberland. Nothing fancy is necessary here; a 6-inch worm rigged with a cone-shaped weight at the head and impaled with an offset worm hook will work just fine. Color is largely a matter of individual choice. Purple, black, grape, watermelon and motor oil are local favorites.

This rig is most productive around wood cover, sparse weed growth and rock areas, especially gravel and small chunk rock. Many anglers are realizing success pitching and flipping these baits around isolated stickups in the back ends of the creeks. It shows the fish something different, something other than a tube or creature bait.

Weightless worms, sometimes called floating worms, are popular. Most of them do not float, however. (They just drop very slowly, which is one of their advantages, as a falling bait is a fishing bait.) Several brands are named as the choice of top anglers, but the truth is you can catch fish with just about any of them. A local product, The Hairy Joe, is popular in the northern Tennessee area. It is a plastic worm with synthetic hair molded into the tail. The worm was designed and is manufactured by Bobby Gentry.

Rigging varies. The standard method is to rig the weightless worm Texas style (without the weight, of course). Another popular style is to rig the worm "wacky style." Create this rig by running your hook through the egg sac. Most anglers throw it weightless with spinning tackle, although, light casting tackle is another option for experienced anglers. Retrieve the worm, several inches under the water's surface, with a series of twitches or short pulls. This will cause the worm to bend into a semicircle when pulled and then straighten out when tension is released from the line.

Hook selection is varied, with many anglers having strong preferences. Again, the traditional offset hook is the standard. Circle hooks are gaining in popularity due to several perceived advantages. They are somewhat weedless, provide secure hooksets and are considered by some to do little or no harm to the fish.

Red hooks are all the rage, especially with plastic baits. According to T.J. Stallings from TTI Industries (334-567-2011), a developer and marketer of Bleeding Bait Hooks, red triggers a feeding response in fish. A red hook creates this response. Many top anglers are using nothing but red hooks these days; they swear by them. Certainly, they are gaining in popularity by leaps and bounds.

However you rig them, weightless worms should be fished in very specific locations, according to weightless worm fanatics such as Gary Mulberry. Mulberry has successfully fished national tournaments. He is, in his own term, "addicted" to these soft-plastic baits. He opines that they are at their best in shallow water with isolated cover. Weightless worms do not cover a lot of water fast, but they do excel at fishing specific pieces of cover.

As for color, most anglers opt for the brightest colors they can find. Color descriptions with the word fluorescent in them are especially popular. Regardless of its color, Mulberry suggests you work your trick worm slowly and deliberately. Pull it along with short, soft twitches. Allow the worm to straighten out between pulls. Every so often, let it drop slowly. It will gently flutter toward the bottom. Few bass can muster the strength to resist.

The Cumberland and its tributaries are experiencing heavy weed growth, especially in the northern part of the state. In places, not too far from the Kentucky state line, the weeds are so thick and heavy that it is difficult to get a boat through them. Even in May and June, the weeds will be so thick in places that they will mat across their tops. These weedbeds are high-rent districts for largemouths. After all, they are a shallow-water ambush predator.

These northern Cumberland River weedbeds produce several 10-pound largemouths each year. Most are taken by pitchers and flippers using heavy jigs and plastic trailers. Anglers toss these baits into holes or sparse areas in the weedbeds. Heavy baitcasting tackle is required.

If you want to fish big-bass water, really big-bass water, schedule some time on Old Hickory. According to Gentry, this impoundment should be analyzed and fished like a river. "It is basically a river, just a river," said the guide.

He points out that this impoundment is made for largemouth bass - lots of shallow, weedy and woody water with well-defined channels from both the main-river system and the tributaries. The main-river feed is the Cumberland.

"It's an awesome fishery . . . we catch quite a few decent fish from it every year, which weigh around 7 or 8 pounds," he said.

When Gentry says they weigh 7 or 8 pounds, they do. Most anglers would agree with him that a 7-pound or 8-pound largemouth is at least "decent."

According to Gentry, a spinnerbait is your best bet for Old Hickory, at least until you find something better. He recommends throwing it around and over the vast weedbeds that are growing in the lake. Locate a spot with good weed growth near or adjacent to a channel. Fish it thoroughly, from all directions and at all depths, until you find what works.

Gentry suggests bright colors for spring. "I don't know why. They just seem to work better in the springtime, even in clear water."

Buzzbaits will also produce over the weeds. Although white buzzbaits are the standard in many places, Gentry's advice here is to "throw any color so long as it is black." He generally limits his buzzbait angling to ". . . early in the morning, late in the evening and on cloudy or overcast days."

When conditions are not right for spinnerbaits or buzzbaits, you will find him, or his clients, throwing a jig along the edges of the channel that runs the length of this reservoir. He prefers smaller jigs, no larger than 3/8 of an ounce in the traditional color combination of black and blue. If the water has some color to it, which it usually does, he will add a plastic chunk and rattle to his jig to help the fish find his bait. As a part-time lure-maker and experienced commercial plastics molder, he, of course, uses and recommends his own products.

Upon occasion, he will throw a hard jerkbait over the tops of the weeds. He suggests anglers vary their line size and further fine-tune their presentation by selecting bait styles and sizes so they have precise depth control. He wants his bait just deep enough so that it ticks the tops of the weeds during the retrieve. Gentry emphasizes that at times a fast, jerking retrieve will trigger as many or more strikes than a slow, gentle retrieve with longer pauses. Experiment and let the fish tell you what they want is his standard advice.

When it comes to selecting a specific area of the impoundment to fish, Gentry does not believe it matters, at least not much.

"This lake is not so much site-

specific as it is condition-specific. Find warm water, cover, weeds or structure and you will find fish at Old Hickory in the spring. It's just that simple," he said.

Old Hickory also gives anglers a late-spring option they may not have on other lakes. Because the Cumberland River is so cold, the water in Old Hickory stays cooler than in the surrounding impoundments. As a consequence, the spawn runs about three weeks behind the other Middle Tennessee impoundments. You can fish for pre-spawn bass in the tributaries and backwaters of the Cumberland River and at Center Hill. When they go on the beds, move over to Old Hickory and continue fishing pre-spawn largemouths for another couple of weeks.

Take advantage of what nature and the government has provided; fish Middle Tennessee this spring.

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