Tennessee's Day & Night Bassin'

Nighttime and daytime bass-fishing opportunities abound this time of year for Tennessee anglers. Here are some of the best spots for both largemouths and smallmouths.

By Larry Self

Whether you like to fish for bass during the day - when at least you can see what you are doing - or at night - when there are no crowds and the fish are more active - is partly a matter of personal preference. Whether you target green or brown bass, day or night, there are waters in Tennessee to fit the bill.

The goal here is to help you know when and where to target each whether it's day or night angling you prefer. From largemouths to smallmouths, there are some hot daytime and nighttime bassin' lakes across the state. We've singled out the hardest hitting producers for you.

Call me fortunate, but I'm happy to say there are few bodies of water left in Tennessee I haven't been on with a fishing rod, got sunburned in the summer or lost in the dark. Going fishing a lot gives me some ideas about the best bass spots in Tennessee, but one man's experiences is not the same thing as science. To get a biologist's point of view, I consulted the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's Tim Churchill.

In west Tennessee, you can't talk largemouth bass without talking about the comeback Kentucky Lake has made the last couple of years. Old Hickory in middle Tennessee is the next obvious green fish pick and in east Tennessee, Churchill and I agree Douglas Lake had to be the other largemouth choice because of its consistency.

For a smallmouth look, we'll concentrate on the ever-legendary Dale Hollow for its nighttime summer smallmouth action and move east to South Holston, a good lake with a reputation in the making. The daytime bronzeback best bet has to be the mountain-fed streams of the Nolichucky and Pigeon rivers.

Churchill says Kentucky Lake is headed for a 15-inch minimum size limit on largemouth bass beginning in 2003, but no changes are scheduled in any of the other locales other than the proposed extension of the 20-inch smallmouth bass limit upstream from Douglas Lake to the Nolichucky and Pigeon rivers.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Kentucky Lake
Glen Stubblefield gets this look in his eyes when he knows something is about to happen. I've been in the boat with the renowned Kentucky Lake guide on more than one occasion and if he says cast right over there, I don't waste time, I just cast.

Late May or through June is a perfect time to fish Kentucky Lake. Since hitting a down cycle in the 1990s, the lake's bass fishing is back with a vengeance.

Interestingly, both the largemouth and smallmouth fishing has improved here. Smallies are tending to show up more often, and the top-end fish are bigger.

Stubblefield works a post-spawn, early-summer pattern that involves fishing isolated structure from humps to brushpiles way out off the bank. That strategy leaves the majority of bass anglers behind, but it also leads to some very, very nice fishing. Fifty-fish days are quite possible, and the bag will include both largemouths and smallmouths.

What the veteran angler is doing is no new concept, it's not a secret, and it won't shock you. He's fishing post-spawn bass that have pulled out of bays and off flats and hit the first decent structure next to deep-water drops they can find. His tools of the trade are just as simple. With either a Carolina-rigged lizard or creature bait, he's simply catching bass and lots of them in 10- to 15-foot depths.

"There ought to be a smallmouth right here," said Stubblefield on my last trip with him. There was. He popped the trolling motor in the water on the next spot and said, "Cast right there, and you'll feel the brush." About as soon as I felt the brush, another largemouth ate the pumpkinseed lizard. I don't recall a time he was ever wrong.

Old Hickory Lake
Give guide Donny Hall a little wind in May and June, and he'll catch largemouths on Old Hickory Lake. It just takes a little wind to break up the surface, allowing bass to come up on shallow flats chasing shad. If the water is clear, you'll get a topwater bite situation; if it's dingy, it's Carolina-rig time. His Carolina rig includes a 20- to 25-pound fluorocarbon leader that's 6 to 7 feet in length.

Hall likes a small stick bait for when the largemouths are feeding on the surface or in shallow water. Somewhere in 2 to 14 feet of water off flats and drops he'll find the fish. If the bass won't come up, he'll search for them with a Carolina-rigged centipede in either smoke purple, smoke blue, green pumpkin or a lipless crankbait.

Early in the morning, he'll often catch a few small bass on top and after they slow down, pick up some decent bass on the centipede, and then move to the lipless crankbait to catch the 4- to 5-pounders. On some days, the sizes are reversed on the same baits, with the bigger fish coming on top. A good numbers day is 30 to 35 largemouths, with most averaging 12 to 14 inches - the small size in part a product of the heavy pressure on Old Hickory. But Hall says there is also a reasonable chance of a few 4- to 6-pounders coming to the boat during the post-spawn pattern.

Top areas in June are around the Gallatin Steam Plant for numbers; decent bass reside in Drake's Creek and in Bledsoe and Station Camp creeks. Hall says good access is found a mile or so below the steam plant at Bull Creek Ramp and near midlake at Station Camp Creek Ramp. Access to the lower end of the water is at Drake's Creek via the ramp at Saunders Ferry Park.

Douglas Lake
Largemouth bass guide Rick Johnson doesn't make his home on Douglas Lake for nothing. The big largemouths he's caught at the lake over the years keep him there. He says to look for cloudy, calm days for Douglas' best largemouth fishing. With plenty of threadfin shad and an average population of crawfish, forage isn't a problem for bass in the lake and largemouths are abundant.

Johnson believes the abundance of shad helps to make the topwater action late in May and on into June some of the best fishing of the year. After the largemouths come off their post-spawn patterns, they get active up near main channel banks and the points coming out of creeks. On an average day, you'll easily catch 10 largemouths, and on the good days 40 to 50. The catch will normally include several 2- to 3-pound largemouth bass, but Johnson feels the 7- to 10-pounders that were caught a few years back have been harder to come by in the last couple of years.

The late-May and early-June surface

activity has Johnson constantly casting poppers and stick baits. When those lures are not tearing them up, his backup topwater bait is a soft-plastic jerkbait worked just under the surface.

Once the topwater activity slows and bass continue to transition into a summer pattern, Johnson's fishing will turn to mostly main channel points and Carolina-rigged lizards for taking his largemouths. Good summer access can be found all over the lake from the ramp at the dam on the lower to midlake at the Dandridge Ramp and on up at the newest ramp at Walters Bridge.

Dale Hollow Lake
Dale Hollow Lake is still undeniably the king when it comes to smallmouth bass fishing. And in June at night, it's just hard to beat this lake. Guide Ralph Sandfer says to put him on the lake at night during the dark of the moon with a 60-degree air temperature and a 70-degree water temperature.

"Give me that, and I'll catch fish every time," guarantees Sandfer. The dark of the moon keeps recreational boaters off the water at night and settles things down for a better night bite. The month of June provides some of the best fishing conditions of the year. You might need a jacket at night for this pre-summer pattern, but Sandfer says it beats sweating through a July night.

Shad are an important part of the diet of Dale's smallmouths, but in June, the lake's crawfish population is also active, making crawfish-imitating baits like jigs tipped with twin tail craw imitations very effective. In June, Sandfer likes a 1/4-ounce jig in green pumpkin, green with an orange belly, green with brown or pumpkinseed. He adds a crawfish scent attractant to whatever color jig he's using.

Of course, a jig isn't the only bait that works on summer nights. Sandfer will start the night off with a big 1 1/2-ounce spinnerbait and will also employ grubs and tube baits after dark.

Sandfer says he starts with the spinnerbait because you can do so much with it. In the early summer at night, Dale Hollow smallies will feed in water anywhere from 1 to 15 feet deep. Good fishing is found up and down the lake early in the summer - at least, until the summer's heat pushes the bass to deep water.

Until that happens, Sandfer likes the spinnerbait because he can fish it at any of those depths mimicking both shad and crawfish. If the smallies won't chase the blade, he'll turn to a jig and slow down, fishing tight to the bank or cover.

Sandfer suggests that anglers experiment with colors and baits if the smallmouth bite is slow on old favorite lures.

An average night in June on Dale will turn up eight to 10 brown fish, and a good night is 16 to 18 smallies. Nearly all of them will be 3 pounds or better. The slot limit seems to be helping to produce a greater number of 5-pounders. That slot limit allows one fish under 16 inches and one fish over 21 inches per angler. Good summer access is found on the lower end of the lake at Horse Creek Dock.

South Holston Lake
South Holston Lake may not have the legend, size or reputation of Dale Hollow, but this lake in northeast Tennessee it does have some quality brown fish. Tournament weigh-ins often include 20-pound-plus weights from five-fish limits - very good smallmouth fishing anywhere in the world. What's impressive is the lake maintains this status without a size limit on smallmouth bass.

For well-known tournament angler Eddie Nuckols, successful night-fishing on South Holston calls for a simple recipe. A cloudy, rainy day will keep a lot of boat traffic off the lake during daylight hours and makes for a calm night of fishing.

The same conditions tend to make smallmouths feed earlier than normal and often stimulate feeding all night. On most nights, Nuckols says anglers should expect a minor and a major feed. The minor bite is normally right after dark; a second and more active feeding period occurs between midnight and 3 a.m.

With shad still up in the water column in late May and early June, baits that imitate shad forage work well. As at Dale Hollow, crawfish are active at South Holston this time of year, and the bass are eager to eat them, too.

For the smallmouths interested in shad, Nuckols fishes a spinnerbait with a big No. 6 or 7 blade in June. Much of his tournament success is related to using a big-bladed spinnerbait in June. Relatively big shad concentrate in the lake early in the summer, making the big blades attractive to the smallmouths.

Nuckols' other go-to pre-summer baits are crawfish imitations: 3-inch grubs and 3/16- to 1/4-ounce root beer-colored pig-and-jig combinations. You'll want to throw these baits in Jacobs Creek with its reputation for night-fishing, but Nuckols says any creek arm will produce in June.

Nuckols also prefers to fish when there is no full moon.

"Most anglers are scared to run in the dark," said Nuckols. "When the moon's out, tournament weights will be less."

He says a lot more fish are caught on the dark of the moon or partial moon on South Holston. In June, smallies will be up shallow and will get deeper as the summer comes along. Nuckols says when they start dropping the lake that anglers should back off and concentrate on suspended fish with spinnerbaits. The best nighttime access to the lake is found at the Hwy. 421 bridge ramp.

If you want to fish for smallmouth bass during the day this time of year, you owe it to yourself to try two east Tennessee rivers. The daytime smallmouth action found on the Nolichucky and Pigeon rivers rivals any other found in the country - it's just that good.

The Nolichucky is a top numbers destination all summer long. Anglers can choose from a number of floats lasting anywhere from half a day to all day to a full weekend float. On good days, anglers on a float trip can catch anywhere from 50 to 100 bronzebacks per day on a variety of baits. That total will often feature a big bruiser or two - fish over 4 pounds do happen.

There are three baits I'm going to have with me at all times: a Tiny Torpedo, a 1/16-ounce hair jig and a 3-inch grub.

Good float trips can be found in Greene County from the Davy Crockett State Park ramp to Kinser Park ramp (22 miles), the Hwy. 70 bridge to the Hwy. 321 bridge (8.5 miles), the Hwy. 321 bridge to Easterly Bridge on Whittenburg Road (three miles), and from the Easterly Bridge to the Bewley Bridge (four miles).

The Pigeon River is no slouch for numbers either. The best day fellow guide Mike Wilson and I ever had on the Pigeon River saw us land 105 smallmouths.

The summertime is the right time for some serious grub, jig and hellgrammite action on this river. The last section of the Pigeon may not be the only float trip on the river, but it's the best. The stretch of river from the boat ramp

behind the police station to where the Pigeon dumps into the French Broad River is tops. Coupled with the wade-fishing from the North Carolina state line down to Newport, we're talking quality. From numbers to frequent 3- and 4-pounders and bigger, this river is the real deal. Anglers need to remember the Pigeon has a trophy regulation of one smallmouth per day with a minimum length of 20 inches.

Old Hickory - Donnie Hall at (615) 383-4464.

Kentucky Lake - Glen Stubblefield at (270) 436-5584.

Douglas Lake - Rick Johnson at (865) 397-4135.

Dale Hollow Lake - Ralph Sandfer at (877) 214-9698.

East Tennessee River smallies - Larry Self at (423) 422-7553.

Bullet Lures - Eddie Nuckols at (423) 753-6151.

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