Every year, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency collects data to determine what anglers can expect from lakes in the Volunteer State. Fisheries biologist Pat Black digests that data for the statewide reservoir creel program.
"We don't sample all reservoirs every year," said Black. "The most recent creel report is 2013. The most notable omission from 2013 was Chickamauga, which will probably shake out as one of the top bass reservoirs, at least in the minds of tournament anglers.
"There are four possible categories that bass anglers can choose as their target preference: Any Black Bass, Largemouth Bass, Smallmouth Bass and Spotted Bass. No single category provides a complete picture of angler success on a reservoir. All of the intended angler catches from the four categories are divided by all of the angler efforts (hours) from the four categories to get an accurate catch rate for all bass."
Watauga Lake's deep structures are ideal for smallies. A 3-inch smoke colored grub on a 1/8-ounce jighead angled down the bluffs and main points near the dam are the places to hook the bronze beauties.
"A float-&-fly is the ticket through early spring," said Tom Richards from Kingsport. "I've used it for years and I've absolutely torn the fish up. You've got to fish those deep bluffs at about 20-feet deep.
"What I do is pile the line up behind me in the water, make one hard cast that jerks it out of the water and before the line gets tight I stop it in midflight. This swings the fly close to the bank but the float is out from the bank. This lets the fly fall down along the face of the bluff and then slowly swing under the float. The best position is beside the bluff to cast parallel to it."
Richards also suggests finding bluffs that are close to shallow water with pea gravel and bedrock — spawning areas. Smallmouths don't travel far from these areas during the non-spawning times of the year, moving more vertically than laterally.
"In the spring, cast a small fly or a small Crippled Herring spoon," said Richards. "I've also had good success with topwater baits. I keep a topwater bait ready to cast during the spring, when smallies come shallow."
Cherokee Lake has an excellent black bass catch rate per hour, and stripers in the lake are big and plentiful.
"Stripers run nearly 45 pounds," said Ted "Yank" Kramer from Morristown. "In early spring, you can find the fish all the way from Rocky Hollow to Cherokee Boat Dock near Points 28 or 29. If you get out there early casting a white fly or a Red Fin around the points, hold on because they are all over the place."
As the water warms Kramer uses a 5/0 Kahle hook with a large shad and a side planer board. He ties 17-pound test on his spool, attaches a barrel swivel and adds a 3-foot leader of 12- to 14-pound test below the swivel without any weight. This places about 15 feet of line between the hook and side planer, which acts like a float to keep the line away from the boat.
"Springtime is a good time to fly-fish for stripers because they are shallow," said Kramer. "Be prepared with 200 yards of backing on a good-quality fly reel and a nine-weight outfit."
Benny Hull loves smallmouth fishing on Nickajack Lake on the stretch of river between Chickamauga Dam and Walnut Bridge. Hull rates the shoals below Chickamauga Dam comparable to the famous smallmouth waters below Pickwick Dam.
"Most smallmouth anglers stay in the cool water between the dam and five miles downstream," said Hull. "That's where the largest concentrations of smallies reside."
Much of the river in this area is only about 9 feet deep, but 30-foot holes abound. As such, most anglers catch fish by bouncing shiners off the bottom, watching for the deeper holes on a depth finder to determine where smallmouths are suspended and waiting to ambush baitfish.
"I'm always ready to feed out line when I cross deep holes," said Hull. "I watch my line and keep it bouncing. I stay hung up if I don't."
Hull typically hooks shiners through the mouth on a No. 2 hook and places a 1/4-ounce sinker 12 to 18 inches above the hook on 6- to 8-pound-test monofilament. He lowers his bait by casting downriver and letting it fall as he drifts toward it.
Other anglers increase their sinker size and drop shiners straight down. Hull believes, however, the best way to catch the greatest number of smallmouth is by trolling a Hot Lips Express.
"I can catch maybe 20 smallmouths a day with shiners, but I've caught 30 to 50 smallmouths by slowly dragging a crankbait about 35 feet behind the boat," said Hull. "I don't have to let out a lot of line. I catch most of my fish 8 to 12 feet deep because they usually grab it as it comes across a shoal just before that shoal drops off."
Center Hill Lake
Jim Duckworth, fishing guide from Lebanon, spends a lot of time fishing Old Hickory, Center Hill and Percy Priest lakes. Center Hill is his favorite, which he often hits in February and March in search of monster smallies.
"In this pre-spawn period, the big smallies are in very specific spots and act in very consistent ways that makes them easy to target if you understand their mood," said Duckworth. "One of four patterns will work this time of year."
Duckworth's first method in February is the float-&-fly, for which he worked with BnM poles to develop the "Jim Duckworth Float-&-Fly and Crappie Special" rod. He attaches a Revo STX spinning reel with 6-pound test to work the steep main lake points.
Duckworth's second smallie mood-pleaser is casting a 1/2- to 3/4-ounce Silver Buddy on a 6-foot, 6-inch medium-action rod with a spinning reel into water about 20 feet deep. Then he hops or drags the rig down the point to about 40 feet, targeting smallmouths that wouldn't rise to the fly.
His next method is a jerkbait on a 5-foot, 6-inch Berkley pistol grip Lightning rod. According to Duckworth, the secret is for the bait to start off fast, stop fast and only travel a short distance. This is important because fish won't chase the bait, but he believes the aggressive movement of the bait makes them mad. He uses this method on main lake points to points about halfway back in the major creeks.
"If they won't eat the jerkbait, I tie on a red Buckeye Shad to cast to the bank," said Duckworth. "I let it fall about 10 feet and then slow-roll it back to the boat with me putting no action into the bait. I want the bass to see this lure as an easy to catch meal."
In March and April when the high water is flooding the shoreline, he says casting a 1/2-ounce white Zorro Aggravator spinnerbait with silver blades among the bushes is about the best technique.
However, he admits that a Carolina-rigged lizard thrown onto mid-lake humps and secondary points is a good method, but don't ignore the flats.
Old Hickory Lake
On this lake, Duckworth believes that the best place to catch bass is near the discharge channel at the steam plant and downstream to Bull Creek. Here, he casts a shallow-running Bandit 100 series in Pearl Splatterback or 1/8- to 1/4-ounce leadheads with 3-inch white grubs.
Once Duckworth gets about half a mile below the steam plant he switches to a suspending jerkbait, a Bloody Buckeye Shad and the same leadhead to fish along the bluffs on the same side of the river as the steam plant. He fishes the bluffs slowly, but fishes at normal speed at the steam plant, with stops and starts.
"When the water temperature warms to the mid-50s, largemouths begin migrating toward bays to spawn," said Glenn Stubblefield. "I follow them into the bays and eventually all the way to the back of them. I fish secondary points in early spring with plastic worms and spinnerbaits."
His favorite lure is a 3/8-ounce tandem spinnerbait with a small Colorado blade above a large willow leaf blade. He throws copper blades on cloudy days and silver blades in sunshine.
"There are only two spinnerbait colors as far as I'm concerned; they are chartreuse and white and solid white.
"It takes bass about two weeks to get back to where they spawn," he noted. "Once they get there I move real slowly so I don't spook them. That's when I flip or pitch around structure with plastic lizards or jig-&-pig combo."
Sometimes he entices strikes with a topwater lure, believing that a No. 11 gold Rapala is best. He uses a baitcasting reel spooled with 10-pound-test monofilament when tossing light lures. Because bass are shallow, he often sees them before casting. When that happens, he lobs the lure lightly and starts twitching.
Guide Billy Blakely claims that Reelfoot is excellent for largemouth bass. As spring approaches, he works Buck Basin for largemouths suspended above stumps.
"This is when I catch big fish while other people catch little ones," said Blakely. "Most fishermen stay in shallow water and go after numbers instead of size. I fish deeper stumps that get overlooked because I know that's where the big sows are — bass that weigh 5 pounds and more."
Blakely often uses spinnerbaits that he retrieves over stumps, but 7 1/2-inch black-and-blue plastic worms are his favorite early spring bait, which he tries to lay right in the middle of their eggs. He increases his line strength to 17-pound test to fish worms Texas style on a 3/0 hook tied below a 1/4-ounce sinker.
After the spawn, which usually occurs from mid-April to mid-May, Blakely fishes about 6 feet deep alongside living cypress trees. This is when he catches his biggest bass, even larger than spawning sows.
"Reelfoot bass don't often reach 8 pounds but many exceed 5," said Blakely. "Mid-April to mid-May is when I catch my best fish."
Of course, there are a great many other lakes in the Volunteer State that provide excellent bass fishing, but these are some that you should definitely try at some point this year.