Old Hickory Lake: This lake is not easy, but the opportunities to catch big largemouths are real. And spring is the merriest time to be on its waters.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
The largemouth bass spawn can come late or it can come early, but come what may, you'll want to be on Old Hickory Lake. The best news as far as timing goes is that the majority of the best pre-spawn fishing action on this nationally recognized lake occurs in May. That means you still have time to take advantage of some fast bass action by getting on the water.
This lake's largemouth reputation is so good there's no secret about it. Forget the word overlooked or this just being a local favorite. Despite the pressure, the opportunities to catch big largemouths are real. And the full reality is May is the merriest month to be on its waters.
Todd St. John is the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) Region II reservoir biologist, and you could say this lake is his playground when it comes to knowing largemouth bass. The factors that keep Old Hickory consistently among the top largemouth destinations in the state are simple, according to St. John.
"Ultimately, the success of any fishery is determined by the frequency in which strong year-classes are produced," he explained. "Recruitment patterns in most Tennessee reservoirs are inconsistent and have been correlated to unstable environmental variables."
In recent years, however, Old Hickory's largemouth bass population has consistently produced strong year-classes, providing a high abundance of fish. St. John said for example, four consecutive strong year-classes occurred from 1999-2002. These strong spawns are currently providing an excellent fishery in terms of catch rate and size structure. That doesn't mean the lake doesn't experience what St. John calls "boom-and-bust" cycles. As recently as the late 1990s, bass fishing was below average here. For now, however, and for the next few years at least, there are high numbers of bass in the lake.
There's no doubt Old Hickory Lake is a top largemouth destination, as it had the highest number of targeted largemouth bass trips among Tennessee reservoirs in 2003 and is frequented by many major bass tournaments.
Good year-classes may be the key to the lake's current success, but a strong forage base also plays a major role. St. John said gizzard shad are abundant and the primary food source for bass. The TWRA has noticed recent declines in threadfin shad abundance, which is cyclic. However, the largemouths in the reservoir have remained in good condition, suggesting they're finding adequate forage.
When asked if the future is still bright for Old Hickory largemouth anglers, St. John answered with a resounding, "Yes! This reservoir has a long-term history of providing an excellent largemouth bass fishery, which is a good indicator for future success."
But the experienced biologist is quick to add that the great fishery anglers have experienced in recent years will not continue forever. Unfortunately, all fisheries cycle with periods producing lower angler catch rates due to weaker year-classes.
For example, 2003 and 2004 were wetter years (more rainfall) compared to the previous four. More rain resulted in more turbid or muddier water conditions and milfoil was much less abundant due to less sunlight penetrating the water column. St. John indicated TWRA personnel have documented weaker largemouth year-classes during these recent years.
The bass population will slightly decline and angler catch rate will be affected as well when bass from these relatively weak spawning years mature. But the strong 1999-2002 year-classes will continue to provide a good fishery. St. John also credited the 14-inch minimum length limit as conserving fish and dampening the effect of weaker year-classes.
The grass on Old Hickory still plays a significant role, and St. John said the lake has excellent nursery habitat for largemouth bass fry, providing food and shelter critical to year-class formation. As we anglers know, milfoil also provides excellent habitat for older bass, enabling them to be more efficient predators.
St. John said he thinks milfoil will remain in Old Hickory. Its abundance will change from year to year due to water clarity, which in turn is dependent on rainfall. Milfoil will be more abundant during drier or drought years.
For now, according to creel reports, St. John said Old Hickory Lake is the cream of the crop in Tennessee.
Biologists use spring electrofishing catch rates (number of largemouths sampled per hour) as a measure of bass abundance. The 2003 catch rate was 188 bass per hour, also highest among sampled lakes. St. John said that equates to dipping one largemouth every 20 seconds.
Total sample time was 3 hours, 45 minutes.
As he put it, "That is a lot of bass!"
The catch rate in 2004 remained high at 150 largemouth bass per hour.
Also, electrofishing catch rates of largemouths greater than or equal to 15 inches are indicative of the abundance of preferred size bass. Old Hickory's catch rate for bass over 15 inches has been 30 per hour since 2001. These larger bass may be harder to catch due to the excellent oxygen concentration from lake bottom to surface throughout the year.
On up the TWRA ladder, Tim Churchill, Reservoir Program Coordinator, said their creel survey does little to evaluate fishing quality, but the catch rates were up near the top end of values for the state in 2003. The TWRA's BITE program data (Bass Information from Tournament Entries) showed the lake in the upper 50 percent of lakes surveyed for number of hours required to catch a bass 5 pounds or larger, but nowhere near the top.
Churchill said St. John's sampling shows that the lake has one of the best bass size distributions in the state, but the fact that anglers in tournaments need to put in relatively long hours to catch large fish may reflect just how tough the lake can be to fish. He added cold water from upstream and patchy distribution of physical habitat may be some reasons many of our best bass anglers find it hard to learn how to find the big ones on Old Hickory.
ON THE WATER
Guide Jim Duckworth spends a lot of time talking to and even fishing with TWRA biologists. His testing methods vary just a little from biologists, though: For the most part, Duckworth's sampling of the bass population involves using a bait with red treble hooks on it.
Duckworth said May tends to be the prime spawning month for Old Hickory largemouth bass. He's also quick to tell you fish don't have calendars, but this month can be the best of the year when normal weather conditions exist.
His experience tells him that deep water has to warm up first for bass to get active and move to shallower habitat. The amount of sunlight has a huge impact on the surface temperature in early spring. The temperature Duckworth is looking for is 62 degrees.
The first pre-spawn action can be found in mouths of creeks and in creek channels next to spring flats and shallow bays in 3 to 5 feet of water.
When the water hits that temperature, an angler can have great "numbers" days on the lake because this is when bass make their first real moves to the shallows. They are feeding, and become susceptible to the action of a crankbait.
Duckworth takes a Bandit 200-Series crankbait out of his tackle box and works it parallel to creek ledges. As the bass move up shallow on warm days, he'll switch to a Bandit 100-Series. His crankbaits always have a red Daiichi Bleeding Bait Hook on the front to trigger a feeding response and are fished on 10-pound-test.
When a bit later the bigger females follow the buck bass into the shallows, Duckworth will opt for a big-bass bait. His tactics change to fishing with either a Jay Yelas model Berkley Power Jig or a 10-inch Berkley Power Worm. For the worm, he likes either a black or tequila sunrise color with a 1/4-ounce weight and a 5/0 X-Point Hook tied on 17-pound line.
KNOWING YOUR ADVERSARY
Duckworth advised anglers to pay attention to where they catch the first fish; that'll help you pattern them the rest of the day. He said largemouths aren't as baitfish oriented this time of year as they are later, but they do relate closely to structure. Forget worrying too much about matching the baitfish available, Duckworth said. The key is to put the bait close to the fish. To do that, you have to figure out the patterns of preferred structure and cover as quickly as possible.
Most of the largemouths in early May are waiting on the right water temperature to spawn. Duckworth feels that 60 to 75 percent of Old Hickory's largemouth bass will spawn with one of May's moon stages if water temperatures have warmed enough. He said 80 percent of the bass will spawn on the full moon and the rest on the new moon.
When water temperatures hit 62 degrees and stay there, Duckworth said good days of as many as 50 largemouths aren't rare. They'll run anywhere between 10 inches to 4 pounds, for the most part.
He added that you'll get a 5-pounder about every second day in the spring if you're fishing for a quality bite. The bigger bass can definitely be caught this time of year. In the spring, Duckworth said you have the likelihood of catching a 7- to 8-pounder about every third week. He also noted Old Hickory produces one or two 10-pound largemouths each year.
Most "good" fish on this lake have been in the 5-pound class in recent years. Bigger fish swim in the lake, of course, but a 5-pound bass would anchor most creels on most days. Duckworth said the middle third of the lake is a good starting point for anglers seeking these fish, because 60 percent of the bass you catch in the vicinity of the Highway 109 bridge will be of the keeper variety.
There are probably a number of factors that make this part of the lake a good spot to look for better-than-average bass, but one factor is almost certain that many of the lake's numerous tournaments go out of the Bull Creek Ramp, and that's where the spoils of the tournaments are released after the weigh-ins.
The ramp at Bull Creek as well as the ramp at Drake's Creek are prime put-in areas in the springtime. Duckworth said the fishing is very good in Drake's Creek, which has plentiful docks that present a lot of targets to anglers who like to flip baits.
Drake's Creek is one of what Duckworth calls "key springtime areas." Another is the Station Camp Creek area. These two regions are downstream from other strategic spots. Being located below the warm waters of the Gallatin Steam Plant is a plus, as is being below the tournament release site.
The area below the steam plant attracts high numbers of bass; if you want a "numbers" day, you could do far worse than fish here. From there to Bull Creek, Duckworth said the bass are concentrated due to the warmer waters. That situation can lead to some good crankbait opportunities as well as a fun topwater bite. He said it's also a special place to throw a spinnerbait like a white Terminator with double-willow blades.
Duckworth said the midlake section is where you'll find the lake's popular grass. That's a prime place to swim or work that big worm pattern. The lower end of the lake is the area with all the wood cover suitable for flipping a jig. The creek channels are more suited for the crankbait attack.
Duckworth's technique for taking Old Hickory's springtime pre-spawn bass isn't complicated. It starts with a game plan based on a single factor, water temperature, and then the rest of the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. He has learned that water clarity, time of year, and air temperature play second fiddle to water temperature in the springtime. Weather and water temperatures and conditions are also variable in May, but Duckworth said bass are more temperature sensitive than anything else.
With the water at 62 degrees, he said largemouths start to move up to ledges. Most of the time you'll find them in 5 to 10 feet of water, and if you like flipping a jig, you're in business.
When water temperatures reach the 64-degree mark, the bass will move up over the ledge into more shallow water -- a move that signals crankbait time. With 65- to 66-degree water, Duckworth said they'll move up on the shallow banks. That's the time for worms and topwaters. He said once 66 degrees is maintained, the bass will be in 1 to 3 feet of water and that's for sure topwater time.
As for weather conditions, Duckworth pays close attention to the barometer. He likes a 30.00 barometric pressure and a wind out of the west; that's when you have to drop everything and get on the water.
His last tips involve being aware of your surroundings when in shallow water. Duckworth said most anglers don't realize the importance of stealth in this situation. He turns his depth-finder totally off in shallow water and puts out depth markers to keep his boat where he needs it. A depthfinder can be very loud underwater in shallow conditions. Duckworth turns off all of his electronics to keep from putting the largemouth bass he's targeting on alert.
Duckworth said you'll also find that you have more success by keeping your trolling motor on a low steady power instead of an off-and-on interruption. Stealth will put more and bigger bass in your boat in shallow water.
To learn more about Duckworth's s
pringtime Old Hickory largemouth bass techniques, call him at (615) 444-2283 or check out his Web site at
Old Hickory Lake is full of big bass, and at times can provide an angler with plenty of bites, too. The lake can be tough and it can be easy, but I haven't heard a lawnmower engine yet that sounds anywhere close to as good as an outboard headed out into shallow, pre-spawn bass waters.