Late spring brings panfish shallow in about every type of water in Tennessee. Here are some of the rivers and lakes where bream and their kin provide the fastest action. (May 2006)
"Bream beds!" your buddy announces, having caught a whiff of the sweet, fishy smell that lets bluegill anglers know they are getting close to the target during late-spring panfishing outings. About the same time, you, too, catch the scent, and both of you go into bird dog mode, trying to home in on the aroma's source while peering hard through polarized glasses for visual clues.
Despite your most careful searching, it's your friend's cricket rig that ends up finding the jackpot. A cast beside a small stickup results in an immediate strike, with the bobber plunging out of sight before the bait has time to settle. As your friend sets the hook with a grin and begins battling a brute bream on his ultralight rod, you fire a cast to the other side of the same piece of cover. Same result! You've found a nesting colony and are likely to be busy for a while.
Panfish don't earn a tremendous amount of acclaim, but that surely isn't because Tennessee anglers don't value them. Anyone who questions that notion needs only to visit virtually any Tennessee waterway during the spring and look around. Chances are good that several anglers both on the banks and in boats will be casting crickets under corks for bluegills, dunking redworms for shellcrackers, swimming flashy little lures for white bass or dropping grubs to rock bass.
Most panfish group up, so they tend to produce very fast action. They also are quite predictable in many situations, especially during the spring. Both attributes make them outstanding targets for outings with youngsters or other newcomers to fishing. While none of the panfish species grow huge, some are very hard fighters for their size and provide great sport on light tackle. Of course, it should not be overlooked that most panfish are indeed well suited for the frying pan.
With panfish having so many fine attributes and right now being prime time to go after them, it seems fitting to explore some of the best places in Tennessee to find fast panfishing action.
Tennessee's earthquake lake offers good fishing for a variety of species, and anglers travel to Reelfoot to fish for bass, catfish and crappie at times. Bream, however, are the main attraction in this shallow, stump-filled lake, and May is prime time to target Reelfoot's jumbo bream.
Reelfoot resembles a giant farm pond, with its endless cypress trees, stumprows and stands of lily pads, and the bream fishing is undeniably pondlike, with bluegills growing to big sizes and a mix of other panfish species available to keep things exciting.
During May, the bluegills typically will be on their beds, so an angler can "follow his nose" to find good fishing -- sniffing for beds along the lake's shallow edges. Anglers also can find beds simply by working along rows of docks or through cypress stands with live crickets fished on cork rigs or small jigs cast and retrieved. Any time a spot produces a heavyweight bluegill, the angler should slow down. More big bream are likely to be nearby.
It's worth noting that Reelfoot is no place for a fiberglass boat. The lake's shallow bottom is absolutely loaded with stumps and downed timber, and there's no rhyme or reason to running the lake. The best way to get around is in an aluminum boat and at a low speed. Fish camps offer rental boats that are well set up for the lake, and some include boat use in lodging packages. The folks who run the fish camps also can provide good guidance regarding where the bream have been biting and how far they've been beneath the surface.
For more information about fishing Reelfoot Lake, contact Blue Bank Lodge at (877) 258-3226 or check them out at www.bluebankresort. com. In addition to a Tennessee fishing license, anglers need a Reelfoot Preservation Permit, which ranges from $3.50 for one day to $17 for the year.
'Gills & 'Crackers
It's tough to cover top fishing spots in Tennessee without a visit to Kentucky Lake, and panfish provide no exception to that rule. Kentucky supports a terrific bream population, which is anchored by high numbers of heavyweight bluegills and shellcrackers.
During May, most 'gills and 'crackers will be shallow, whether they are moving up to spawn, are actively spawning or have done their spawning already. And in most cases, some fish will be in all three stages. Anglers should concentrate on the back ends of creeks and on shallow flats within bays, especially where there is plenty of vegetation or flooded cover, such as buckbrush. While shellcrackers spend summer days a little deeper than bluegills, the two species spawn in the same kind of habitat. In fact, at times they will use the same beds, with the shellcrackers using the beds first and the bluegills soon after.
Bluegill fishermen can use a variety of techniques to catch fish, including fly-fishing. A small popping bug or foam spider fished with a bloodworm fly on a dropper a couple of feet beneath it is apt to produce very good bluegill action. Of course, the most popular way to target bluegills is still live bait, crickets or worms fished under floats. For shellcrackers, it's pretty tough to beat a live worm fished right on the bottom. Some anglers still use a float, just to track the activity, but they set it just deep enough to allow the bait to settle on the bottom.
Kentucky Lake panfishing also lends itself well to casting small lures with ultralight spinning tackle. Anglers can work the banks in the upper ends of creeks, throwing small grubs, mini-spinners and micro-sized plugs and expect a mixed panfish bag. Big bluegills are apt to dominate the catch, but anglers also may catch assorted "bream" species, along with crappie, white bass and an occasional largemouth.
Kentucky Lake now falls under a reciprocal licensing agreement, which allows Tennessee anglers to go several miles into Kentucky. However, with so much great water to fish in Tennessee, there's really no reason for most panfishermen to venture north of the border. For fishing information, guided fishing and lodging, call Buchanan Resort at (731) 642-2828 or check them out at www.buchananresort.com.
FAMILY FISHING LAKES
For many Tennessee anglers, it would be tough to top the opportunities afforded by Tennessee's Family Fishing Lakes, which are managed specifically for fishing by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
Beyond being intensively managed to provide outstanding fishing, these lakes offer some of the easiest fishing access in the Volunteer State. Most have large areas of open shoreline that lend themselves to easy bank-fishing, fishing piers or pla
tforms and inexpensive rental boats available. Many also have picnic tables and restrooms, making for nice family outings, and some offer concessions, including bait and tackle.
Part of the appeal of these lakes also lies in what they are not good for. No skiing or swimming is permitted, nor are any alcoholic beverages. These are fishing lakes, and the TWRA has taken measures to make sure that providing good fishing opportunities remains the top priority.
The 18 lakes in the Family Fishing Lakes program, which are scattered through the western and central parts of the state, are fertilized to maximize productivity, causing game fish to grow quickly. Bluegills and shellcrackers are part of the management plan in all of the lakes, and their populations are regularly monitored. To pick a single lake from this program as the hotspot for bream or even to highlight a handful would shortchange opportunities afforded at other lakes. In truth, the best Family Fishing Lake for any given angler is the one closest to home.
The Family Fishing Lake aspect really shines during the spring, when bluegills become aggressive and move close to the banks. Even newcomers can dangle crickets under corks and enjoy fast bream-fishing action this time of year. Family members can line up side by side on the bank and all enjoy good spring fishing or rent a fishing boat and work the lake's shore, casting around deadfalls and stumps.
A daily permit is required to fish the Family Fishing Lakes, and special regulations apply. Check out TWRA's Web site at www.tnwildlife. org for descriptions and locations of each lake, directions and details about regulations.
FORT LOUDOUN TAILWATER
White bass pile up in the tailwater of Fort Loudoun Dam during the spring, attracting anglers who fish both by bank and by boat. With swift water, plenty of rocky current breaks and a super-abundance of baitfish, the white bass have everything they need. Anglers find plenty of fish and good access.
One real appeal of the Loudoun tailwater is that shoreline access puts anglers in casting range of very good fishing. Like many tailwaters, this section of river is bounded by riprap, much of which anglers can walk along in order to fish (although walking the rocks down to the water's edge is not for everyone!). Unlike what is sometimes the case below larger dams, this stretch of shore puts anglers right next to good fish-holding currents as long as power is being generated.
Anglers use many types of offerings to catch white bass, which feed mostly on small shad and young-of-the-year skipjack. White grubs, small bucktails, spoons and in-line spinners are among the most popular. Lures must represent shad and be manageable in swift currents. White bass hit small lures with gusto and fight like they are much larger than they really are. For sheer productivity, it's tough to beat live minnows fished on split shot rigs and drifted beside the rocks.
White bass like ambush points. Prime areas are swift current lines along riprap banks, seams in the current or waters that flow over rockpiles. Prime areas vary daily, dependant largely on the amount of water flowing through the dam, and anglers must learn to read the surface of the water effectively. Bank-fishermen walk up and down, casting to all different points and at a variety of angles. Once they start catching fish, they often can stay in that spot and simply keep repeating the same presentation. Boating anglers typically drift and sometimes present their offerings with three-way rigs.
Anglers fishing for white bass in the tailwater of Fort Loudoun Dam are apt to get occasional surprises when jumbo stripers slurp in their baitfish-imitating lures and take off running. In addition, these anglers may catch hybrids, drum, smallmouths, skipjack and more. The list goes on and on, which is part of the fun of tailwater fishing.
It's worth noting, by the way, that white bass pile into every tailwater along the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, and anglers might want to try fishing below the dam closest to home before venturing elsewhere. Each is unique in its layout and access offerings, but all have abundant rock, current and forage to attract and hold white bass and some measure of access to boating and bank-fishing anglers.
Finally, tailwater anglers must be aware that waters below large hydro — electric dams can be very dangerous. The water is swift and can rise, fall or turn turbulent quickly. Anglers must use all precautions and watch for other boats, especially if they are drifting. Anglers also need to wear life jackets upstream of signs warning to do so -- for the sake of safety and TO avoid a hefty fine!
Shellcrackers like clean, clear water and vegetation in major reservoirs, and Dale Hollow offers all those characteristics. While this big bluff-bounded lake on the Kentucky border is best known for its trophy smallmouths, local anglers know it's also a hotspot for panfish when the 'crackers move shallow to spawn during the spring.
Dale Hollow doesn't have much shallow water, and that actually works to an angler's advantage for this style of fishing. With somewhat limited spawning habitat available because of a distinct lack of shallow water, the 'crackers must pile up, which makes concentrations fairly easy to locate. Prime spawning areas are flats with hard bottom and either woody cover or abundance of vegetation.
Shellcracker nests are apt to be visible in Dale Hollow's very clear water. However, anglers can find fish simply by fishing for them. Unlike bluegills, shellcrackers prefer to feed right on the bottom, so that's where baits need to be placed. Worms generally outproduce crickets for 'crackers.
Dale Hollow also supports a good bluegill population, and hand-sized bream sometimes dominate the catch. In addition, assorted sunfish sometimes will show up in a day's catch. That said, shellcrackers are the main attraction for anglers who are looking for jumbo panfish on late spring days.
For lodging information or more information about fishing Dale Hollow, call Cedar Hill Resort at (800) 872-8393, or www.cedarhillresort. com.
CLINCH & POWELL
River Rock Bass
Finally, anglers who are looking for fast panfish action should not overlook rock bass, which inhabit most small to medium-sized streams in the central and eastern parts of the state. Rock bass hit lures and natural offerings with gusto, and where there is one, there usually are several, creating opportunities for outstanding action.
Two of Tennessee's finest rock bass rivers are the upper Clinch and Powell rivers in the northeastern corner of the state. These cool-water flows, which are largely overlooked except by local anglers, are loaded with rock bass and serve up fast action during the spring. Many local anglers fish for "anything that bites" in these streams, catching a mix of rock bass, smallmouths and assorted sunfish. However, a few anglers specifically target rock bass, which are outstanding to eat and fun to catch.
Rock bass like deep holes a
nd distinctive cover. Often, they'll be crowded around the branches of a big tree that stretches into the water or close to a deep boulder. They'll hit a variety of baits, but the best bets are small grubs on leadheads or live bait, especially hellgrammites and crawfish. Rock bass have big mouths for their size and will slurp down a surprisingly big live offering.
Both the Clinch and the Powell can be waded or floated in a johnboat or a canoe. Floating probably offers the best prospects because of the rock bass' preference for deep, slow runs. Some good rock bass holes also can be fished from the bank. Keys are looking for cover and making more casts to the same spot any time a rock bass is caught.