October 04, 2010
The first warm days of February foreshadow spring crappie fishing in Tennessee. What kind of season can anglers expect this year? (February 2010)
During late summer and early fall, the shad begin bunching up at Reelfoot Lake, making for some of the best fishing of the year.
Photo by Jeff Samsel
The good news is that Tennessee waters serve up an amazing variety of angling opportunities and that excellent fishing can be found 12 months a year.
The bad news is that Tennessee waters serve up an amazing variety of angling opportunities and that excellent fishing can be found 12 months a year.
Why is that bad news? Because there are only so many days in a year, and most of us have to work and have priorities other than fishing that compete for at least some of our off days. Days that can be spent on the water are limited and precious, while fishing opportunities are basically limitless. To help you consider some great choices for the fishing trips you can go on, we've handpicked some of the finest fishing opportunities for every month of the year in Tennessee.
Tennessee River: Saugers
Folks sometimes like to talk about days when, "the weather is great . . . IF you are a duck!" Well, they could just as well fill in sauger for duck because it seems the nastier conditions are on a winter day, the better the saugers are apt to bite. Kin-fish to walleyes that generally favor more fertile waters than their cousins, saugers thrive in the Tennessee River, and during the winter the saugers pile up in the tailwaters of all the big dams that are scattered along the river's course.
During January, saugers often hang in deep-water eddies that are adjacent to current lines. Among the best areas are the washed-out holes immediately below the dams. When some turbines are off and others are on (which is often the case), anglers set up right along the seams between the fast and slow water and fish heavy jigs tipped with minnows straight below the boat. Jigs generally have to stay right at the bottom to attract strikes, which can be challenging with strong multi-directional currents and uneven, snaggy bottoms.
Other traditionally good areas are river-bend holes, the mouths of tributaries and deep cuts off the main channel, all within the first handful of miles below the dams. The fish typically won't be in the strongest current, but they like to be right next to it -- within ambush range of drifting bait.
Dale Hollow: Smallmouth Bass
Few waterways and fish species are more closely associated with one another than Dale Hollow and smallmouth bass, and reasons for that go way beyond the long-standing world-record smallmouth. Big smallies abound in this beautiful lake, and February is prime time for putting the float-and-fly to work on Dale Hollow smallies.
The bass suspend off bluffs and rocky points through the middle of the winter and feed on balled-up baitfish. A hair jig dangled under a float and worked with alternating jiggles and pauses nicely imitates the behavior of winter-slowed shad and stays suspended in the strike zone. When the bobber darts under, the real fun begins! Light line and extra-long and wispy spinning rods work best.
The only bad thing about winter float-and-fly fishing -- for smallmouth purists anyway -- is that it's hard to spend a full day throwing that bobber without hooking several big rainbow trout! It also tends to be really cold, so an abundance of warm gear is well advised. For information, visit www.dalehollowfishing.com.
Shallow-straying crappie bring smiles to fishermen's faces during March, and Chickamauga grows the kind of crappie that can make any angler slab happy. Both black and white crappie call this big Tennessee River impoundment home, and both varieties grow to large sizes in the lake's fertile waters.
With every warm snap, the fish stray a little farther into creeks and coves and closer to the banks, and by mid-month, boating and bank-fishing anglers alike typically find good crappie-catching action. Many fish move close to visible cover, including riprap, bridge pilings and downed trees, and anglers can catch those fish simply by casting minnows under floats to obvious targets.
Other fish stay near creek channels, holding in brush and other scattered cover above and below the channel drops. An angler typically can do well catching these fish simply by trolling minnows and/or jigs at a variety of depths and zigzagging over the edge of the creek channel. Experienced crappie fishermen watch their electronics constantly as they troll, always looking for cover and concentrations of fish and taking note of every detail anytime a rod goes down.
Fort Loudoun: Largemouths & Smallmouths
Largemouths and smallmouths share the glory on Fort Loudoun Lake, where both species grow to large sizes. Largemouths are more numerous than their bronze-backed cousins, but smallies offer great fishing to anglers who target them and account for important parts of many big tournament bags.
In part because of mercury and PCB contamination and strong fish consumption advisories, Fort Loudoun functions essentially as a catch-and-release bass lake. Add high fertility, good year-round dissolved oxygen levels and outstanding shoreline cover, and the result is a bass factory.
One of the most fun things about fishing in April is that the bass can be caught a lot of different ways, and if one pattern doesn't pay off, another usually will. Topwater fishing over main-lake points ranks among the best ways to catch big largemouths and smallmouths. Other excellent April techniques are spinnerbait fishing and shallow cranking around shoreline cover for largemouths. For anglers who want to target smallmouths, a good bet is to crank a little deeper over rocky points and humps near the river channel.
Clinch River: Trout
Rainbow, brown trout and brook trout are all stocked in the Clinch River below Norris Dam, and anglers enjoy fast action from stocked fish throughout the spring. Access is good, and wading is easy during low-water periods. Flyfishermen have big fun with dry flies this time of year. Spin-fishermen do well with small spoons, in-line spinners and various natural offerings.
While fast action is the main attraction for many anglers, the potential to catch very large trout is what sets the Clinch apart from many other streams. Both rainbows and browns grow to double-digit weight proportions in this large tailwater, and many locals believe the river holds brown trout that would topple the existing state record (which came from the Clinch) of 28 pounds, 12 ounces.
The big trout definitely bite best when one of Norris Dam's turbines is turning. Anglers float the river and use either big streamers cast on sinking fly lines or minnow-imitating plugs to lure big browns out of shoreline cover.
Kentucky Lake: Largemouth Bass
Kentucky Lake bass can be caught a lot of different ways during June, but folks in the know put their money on fishing ledges along the main channel of the Tennessee River. The lake's biggest bass (which will include some smallmouths) will group up in key spots along the ledges and feast on threadfin shad.
Key types of areas include tributary confluences, hard swings in the inundated channel, and transitions in bottom substrate atop the river ledges. Current triggers the bite, and the amount of current flowing affects which spots are the hottest. Among the best baits for working the ledges are big deep-diving crankbaits like Bomber Fat Free Shads and 10-inch plastic worms fished on Texas rigs.
June often also marks the beginning of the best night bite, with the same fish moving up at night to feed atop humps that rise adjacent to the Tennessee River channel and points that stretch into the channel. Dark-colored jigs, and big single-bladed spinnerbaits, like Strike King's Midnight Premier, produce both largemouths and smallmouths after the sun goes down.
Watts Bar: Blue Catfish
Blue cats grow to mammoth proportions in Watts Bar Reservoir, and in late summer, the lake's biggest cats congregate in deep holes where they find thermal refuge and plenty of baitfish. A key to catching the big blues is getting out on the river when the Tennessee Valley Authority is running water through Fort Loudoun Dam and, ideally, Watts Bar dam. When the water is flowing, the blues bite well. When it's off, they tend to lie low and shut their mouths.
The best bait for big blues, without much question, is fresh-cut skipjack. Cut gizzard shad, threadfin shad or even large bait store minnows will work when no skipjack are available, but skipjack top the list. As for the best part of a skipjack, every big-cat specialist seems to have his own take on that one. Some say heads; others tails; others fillets; and still others guts.
Some anglers anchor near the heads of big holes, which are often found along major swings in the river channel, and cast heavy bottom rigs downstream to settle on the bottom. They put the rods in holders and wait on the cats to find the baits. Others opt to drift, using heavy three-way rigs and fishing vertically so that their weights tick the bottom and baits hover just off the bottom.
Center Hill: Smallmouth Bass
As the pleasure boaters are pulling out for the evening, bass fishermen in the know are just launching their boats on Center Hill. Deep and clear, Center Hill becomes difficult to fish by day through the middle of the summer. The bass move deep and turn pretty fussy while the sun is up.
They still have to eat, however, and at night they get active. Center Hill supports strong populations of all three major black bass species, and any given night's catch is apt to include any or all of the species. Still, it's the lake's fat smallmouth bass that make the after-hours approach really fun.
The best nighttime smallmouth fishing is generally found in the lower half of the lake over the tops of humps and points and off ends of islands. To be consistently productive at night, though, a shallow structural feature needs to be quite close to much deeper water. The fish begin moving shallower on the structure and getting more active during the evening. By the time the sky is black, they are apt to be very shallow. Black Neon YUM Craw Papis, single-blade spinnerbaits and blue or black bucktail jigs work nicely in the dark.
Reelfoot: Largemouth Bass
September brings a hint of a break from summer's hottest days, and with the first glimmer of change comes fast bass-fishing action at Reelfoot Lake. The bass begin moving out of deeper water and herd up in big schools during September. That can lead to dynamite action when you find the schools, but the flipside is that when the fish are schooled up, they can't be scattered along every bank. It's best to get fresh direction from the helpful folks at the resorts.
Downed trees and grassy banks tend to hold a lot of bass during September. Spinnerbaits or square-billed crankbaits fished right through the thick stuff and bounced off the timber work well. The fish also will look up to feed in the fall and have trouble resisting a Strike King Rage Toad swam over vegetation and through other cover.
Reelfoot offers a bass everything it could ever want, with enormous amounts over wood, grass and pads and an abundance of shad and panfish to keep them very well fed. The bass, consequently, are generally stout, with plenty of 3- to 5-pound fish in the mix. Visit www.bluebankresort. com for more information.
Smoky Mountains: Trout
Although the idea of visiting the nation's most popular national park during the prime leaf-peeping month may not sound too appealing, the truth is that most folks don't like to do much walking and an angler who doesn't mind hitting a trail can find surprising solitude in the Smokies, even during October.
One major reason to fish in Great Smoky Mountains National Park during October is that the big brown trout become a little less cautious than normal as they prepare to spawn. A bushy attractor pattern laid in a back current along an undercut bank, or a Woolly Bugger stripped through a deep pool, is apt to connect an angler with a jumbo-sized brown.
The October appeal of fishing in the park goes beyond trophy trout prospects, though. Always-abundant rainbows, browns and in places brook trout become more aggressive as days and nights cool, and the weather tends to be delightful. In addition, there is good reason for all the crowding along the main roads and on short, easy-access trails. The Smokies truly are beautiful during October.
Mississippi River: Catfish
The mighty Mississippi is a serious big-cat destination, and November is prime time for catching heavyweight flatheads and blues -- at times from the same holes. The river tends to run at moderate levels in late fall (although there are never any guarantees about seasonal river flows on the Mississippi), and the fish feed hard in preparation for tougher days ahead. The flathead bite generally will fall off as the month progresses and the temperatures fall; however, as the flathead fishing slows, the blues tend to feed even harder.
For either kind of big cat, deep holes with moderate current beside riprap banks can be very productive during the first part of the November. As the season progresses, the blues will move into very deep water -- often on outside bends or below wing dams -- where they'll stay through the end of winter.
Cut shad or skipjack works best for coaxing big blues into biting. Live gizzard shad or other live fish are the ticket for flathead catfish. Either can be fished on thre
e-way rigs or Carolina rigs with enough weight to hold bottom, heavy braided line and rod-and-reel combos that provide plenty of backbone and torque. To learn more, visit www.bigcatfishing.com
Cumberland River: Striped Bass
The skipjack that folks string on their hooks as bait for striper fishing in the Cumberland River are bigger than some game fish that other anglers target in many places. Foot-long baits are at the small end of the scale used here, and it's not uncommon for an angler to sling an 18- to 24-inch bait for Cumberland River stripers. The striped bass grow to mammoth proportions in the Cordell Hull and Old Hickory pools of the Cumberland. Cordell Hull, in fact, produced the Tennessee state-record striper, a 65-pound, 6-ounce giant caught by Ralph Dallas in 2000.
The Cumberland produces fine striper fishing throughout the year, but during the cool months the action becomes extra predictable because the baitfish and consequently the stripers pile up in the warm waters in the vicinity of the Gallatin Steam Plant. Located just northeast of Nashville, the steam plant's discharge warms the waters of Old Hickory.
Within the artificially warmed waters near the steam plant, the fish will actually attack big topwater lures, like 7-inch Red-Fins V-waked across the surface, in the middle of the winter. If the fish won't take artificial lures, the best way to get the attention of a giant striper is with a great, big, live skipjack fished on a free line.