With a wide range of habitats, our state offers plenty of opportunities for dead of winter hunting and fishing. Here are some you don't want to miss out on!
Selecting Tennessee's "best bet" topic at any time is difficult, but with virtually all hunting seasons open and fishing always available, this time of year compounds the problem. Rather than get picky or playing favorites, how about starting off with some combo possibilities?
DALE HOLLOW LAKE
Whenever Dale Hollow is mentioned most anglers immediately think of smallmouth bass and rightfully so. For over half a century this clear, highland lake has held the record for the largest "brown fish" ever taken. The legendary pro Billy Westmorland reported more than one occasion when fish even larger than the 11-pounds, 15-ounce record holder have been hooked and lost. He also mentions December as one of his favorite months for big fish.
Live bait, generally shiner minnows in the 4- to 5-inch range, are popular here and are commonly fished with little or no weight. Those of us who do not care to get our dainty digits wet when replacing baits opt for jigs or metal-bodied vibrating lures like the Sonar, Cicada and Silver Buddy. A personal favorite is a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce hair jig with an oversized hook of at least 2/0, and a 3/0 is even better. This means that you will need to make your own or check with a custom tackle supplier who can deliver the goods.
For the best of all worlds get your hands on a coyote pelt and dye the naturally variegated hair. Blue- and pumpkin-hued cloth dyes will give you super color patterns, plus the coyote hair is soft, limp, and takes on water quickly. It is every bit as good as marabou feathers and much more durable.
Light penetration is a major factor here because of water clarity. Overcast days are usually the most productive and a breeze is an asset even though it may not be welcome as it finds chinks in your insulated outfit. Windy banks are best, as any bass angler with any experience can affirm.
Depending on the light situation you may be able to start as shallow as 6 feet with a friendly overcast sky. Or you may have to deal with depths of 20 feet and deeper on those rare calm, still days.
Sloping gravel banks are my personal favorite type of structures and points should never be ignored. Both the main channel and secondary varieties of points are good. Where the points and gravel are in the same neighborhood its so much the better. Some top locations on a winter day are found around Horse Creek, Long Branch, Kyle Branch and Mitchell Creek.
Having decided that we will limit our smallmouth fishing to cloudy, windy, drizzle-prone days, what about the occasions when the sun refuses to go away? My favorite answer is to break out the .22 rimfire rifle and take advantage of the plentiful fox squirrels in the tall timber around the lake.
Naturally you will need to check to make sure that you are in an area where hunting is permitted, but you do not have to worry about being crowded. This portion of Tennessee has the most beautifully marked squirrels that I have seen in half a century of hunting bushytails.
Mallards are ordinarily plentiful on Reelfoot Lake in December and January. Photo by Polly Dean.
PICKWICK DAM AREA
This is another combination trip with emphasis on sauger and rabbits.
Bottom-bouncing anglers using jig-and-minnow combos will probably be evident in the breakwater areas near the dam itself. But there are many more opportunities downstream.
Anywhere from the dam to the stretch of water around Diamond Island has potential and most of the annual hotspots will have a boat or two looking for the tasty marble eyes. Sauger chasers are basically a gregarious bunch; so don't be afraid to ask questions. Or just sit back and watch for a few minutes. If you see someone catching fish you are safe to get close as long as you don't crowd.
One stretch that never seems to get the attention that it deserves in near the overlook at Shiloh National Military Park. From about a mile upstream there are two options. One is a fairly clean sandy bottom that tapers from the shoreline out to the main channel drop-off. Under winter pool conditions it is somewhere between 18 and 22 feet. A hefty leadhead with bright fluorescent hair body and stinger treble hook attached is the hands-down favorite lure.
Hook a lively shiner through the lips or eye sockets, secure the stinger behind the minnow's dorsal fin, then start drifting and bouncing the bottom. A basic selection of colors should include heads in white, red, blue, yellow and black with hair colors in white, chartreuse and yellow.
Shoreline anglers are not to be left out. There is fine fishing near the dam on both sides of the river, if you have a bit of patience and are willing to toss a 1/4-ounce leadhead with a white, smoke-glitter or chartreuse grub. Expect occasional hang-ups because the closer your lure is to the bottom, the better your changes of success. With a sensitive rod and small-diameter line you should figure things out in short order.
White Oak WMA near Pickwick Lake can provide some rabbit-hunting action if the fish aren't biting in the winter. Photo by Polly Dean.
On the side of the river below the powerhouse, you might want to steal a page for the walleye fisherman's book and use a spinner-and-crawler rig. A rock and gravel bank tapers out to near the second "Dangerous Water" sign and there is a major eddy there where the current reverses.
Try clamping on about a 1/4-ounce of lead ahead of a small to medium-sized Alabama or Colorado spinner rig with a nightcrawler or minnow attached and slowly roll it along near the bottom. Other good places for this approach are at the mouth of The Narrows that is under the second set of major power lines crossing the river. Also around any creek mouth is good.
Since nobody can fish all of the time, take your beagles with you and head for White Oak Wildlife Management Areas or private lands in the vicinity. Getting permission to hunt deer or ducks is close to impossible, but getting access to rabbit habitat is normally not a pr
oblem, especially if you ask the landowner to grab his scattergun and go listen to the little dogs run.
This area close to the river maintains a good population of cottontails on the high ground and swamp rabbits closer to the creeks and sloughs.
There are numerous state-managed waterfowl areas across Tennessee and many of the smaller ones get little attention, but promoting them here could very easily lead to overcrowding and hurt feelings at best. Check the latest issue of the Tennessee Hunting & Fishing Guide or the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Web site for information on what is available in your area. For those who want the tried-and-true, a couple of solid favorites are Reel Foot Lake and Cheatham WMA. Here is an overview of what you can expect.
Reelfoot is a sprawling, shallow, earthquake-spawned lake in northwest Tennessee, and is the classic example of waterfowl habitat. The situation here is that although you can legally take your boat and decoys and do things yourself, the prime places have long since been locked up by locals. Do the smart thing and book a guide well in advance. These guys know their business and can find their way to their blind or honey hole under pitch-black conditions. They also provide all the necessities, including some of the best ham or sausage biscuits for breakfast anyone could ask for.
In past times there was a unique type of gunning here. Canvasbacks and other species were shot from elevated blinds. Today the "cans" are a rarity and the blinds in the treetops are gone, but the waterfowling remains among the best in the eastern United States. Mallards, pintails, wood ducks and teal are favored here, but don't be surprised if ringnecks or bluebills drop in. One misty morning a friend and I with our two young sons shot at a steady stream of ringnecks that seemed determined to land exactly where we were sitting. The boys shot limits and then the adults got their licks in.
Accommodations are easy to find since Web sites will take you to Reelfoot State Park, the Obion County Chamber of Commerce, and individual businesses like the Blue Bank Resort. For the bargain-conscious, ask the guide services about price breaks when they have cancellations.
Waterfowlers in the Nashville area line up early to apply for blind sites on Cheatham WMA and with good reason. This can be a great place on some days and pretty doggone good almost any time. Unlike Reelfoot, this is not a commercially oriented location. The blinds are allocated by drawing, but at last report can be used by other hunters, if the person who drew the blind does not show up on time. Be sure to check the latest regulations before doing so, just to be safe.
For those who prefer not to worry about a blind, hitch up your hip boots or chest waders and go on foot! Get to know Cheatham WMA and you can duck hunt one of the wade-in areas early and be at work on time.
There are two major wade-in areas. They are Marks Creek near Ashland City off of State Route 12 and the Harpeth River near Greenbriar and off of SR 49. There are specific hunting days, plus some areas are restricted for waterfowl resting sites, so do your homework.
Do some scouting before wading out into the darkness. A late afternoon visit or two and a good pair of binoculars will give you a general idea of where to go. Pay attention to details such as individual wood ducks and small flights of mallards and you will find that there is a definite pattern to their landings. Barring extreme weather changes they will probably show up tomorrow where you marked them down today.
For those who do not have to be on the job on a particular morning, pay no attention to the usual mid-morning lull when it seems that there is not a duck left in the world. Places where the birds roosted the night before are the places that they will likely use to rest after feeding. The period between 8:30 and 10 a.m. can provide some excellent action. Also, in the larger openings such as field edges your chances to bag a goose or two are better than good.
One of the great charms of Cheatham WMA is that much of it is true green timber hunting. Open water gunning is fine, but there is nothing quite like a flight of mallards wheeling and braking as they slip between the trees coming in.
I recall one day when the sky was the color of lead and something between sleet and snow was rattling the bare limbs and hissing as it hit the water. It wasn't much fun until the ducks arrived. But did they arrive! Cheatham can be a real duck hunter's dream spot.