I enjoyed a busy holiday season filled with good food and time spent with family and friends. Shopping, book signing events and travel filled most of my remaining time and the heart of winter passed quickly, though a nasty battle with that new strain of flu could have passed more quickly. Here in East Tennessee, we had frequent snow with record rainfall during January and February followed with much of the same. My friends and I enjoyed fine fishing for trout and bass in local rivers and reservoirs before the rain and snow began. But as my schedule filled with Holiday activities, book signings, then midwinter weather restrictions, my time on the water became all too limited. Nevertheless, the many signing events I scheduled kept me from lapsing into fishing withdrawal and provided opportunities to meet many new friends who share my passion for our sport. I enjoyed meeting and talking with them all, from newcomers to seasoned veterans and industry business professionals to fishing celebrities. Also, I was intrigued by many new products I saw including electronics, an array of new lures, other tackle and creative local artwork. However, some people I met left the most memorable impressions.
Before the doors opened at the East Tennessee Fishing Show in Knoxville one morning, I bumped into Hank Parker on the show floor as he stood admiring a new boat. I enjoyed the most pleasant, relaxed conversation with him and confirmed he is the likeable down-to-earth gentleman I’d always thought him to be. My most surprising encounter began when I got into a lively discussion with a young man, a tournament angler who I did not recognize, about smallmouth bass. He had an obvious out-of-town accent, from Michigan I learned, as we discussed the differences between longer Tennessee smallmouths and the thick-bodied smallmouths found throughout the great lakes. I’m sure he enjoyed our conversation as much as I did, a discussion born from shared admiration for one of North America’s greatest game fish. We talked until he was called away and I was drawn to others waiting to chat. Later, I learned he was Jonathan VanDam, the hottest rising star in professional bass fishing and nephew of all-time money winner and legendary tournament angler Kevin VanDam. I was most entertained by a fellow fishing fanatic I met less than two weeks ago at a boat dealer open house in Morristown, TN. I recognized him immediately because I’d read about his past tournament success with BASS and enjoyed his humorous antics on television. During our conversations that day, I learned that Fish Fishburne and I share a special interest in catching smallmouth bass in rivers. We once cut up like ten-year-olds as we laughed and talked about setting up a trip to run up a local river we’ve both long wanted to fish in my jet-drive G3 boat; a model similar to one he’d recently sold. I hope we make that trip sometime because anyone with that much energy and such a great sense of humor would make an entertaining companion for a day on the water. So it’s not been a boring winter because I’ve been very busy, studied a variety of new angling tools and talked with many experienced anglers. But with the earliest spring flowers blooming and average air temperatures beginning to rise, my mind has shifted back to the sound of water lapping along a shoreline, cool clean air, and the thought of a sudden bend in a fine graphite rod. It’s time to get back on the water and enjoy some good fishing.
In the last few weeks, area lakes and streams have started clearing and water generation rates have decreased. Trout are one of my preferred target species throughout the cold-water period and a couple visits to the closest tail-water confirmed they’re adapting well to the clearing conditions. Both rainbow and brown trout remain active in cold winter water though the lowest temperatures of the season reduce movement and feeding. Browns have recently finished spawning and should be feeding more frequently to regain strength and body weight. Rainbows are active, will spawn soon and should be at their heaviest weights of the year. However, I found trout fishing a little too slow in the tail-water I checked. There’s no question the recent flooding affected fish location and cold, snow runoff slowed their metabolism but I quickly discovered why they weren’t hitting as well as expected. The winter shad die-off must be peaking because the water I fished was littered with dead and dying shad in various sizes. With so much nutritious food available, trout feed less often because they can quickly fill their stomachs with little effort or movement. I don’t consider that a problem, but a promise of things to come. As the shad kill diminishes and the water begins to warm, the trout will continue to focus on that limited but easy to catch source of protein. So, tail-water fishing will soon be excellent for some beautiful pot-bellied trout using shad-imitating lures and I’ll be there to enjoy it.
A check of the local smallmouth bass population produced better results. A single trip to a highland reservoir confirmed most smallies there were still deep and suspended. After many hours on classic winter structure I caught only one nice bass on a silver buddy and inquiries at the ramp later confirmed fishing was poor with several zeros reported, though one boat reported a few fish caught on Damiki Rigs in fifty-feet of water. However, the river smallmouths I checked were much more cooperative. I fish for river smallmouths throughout winter, focusing on periods of high flow when they’re pushed to shoreline eddies and easier to find. But with the recent drop in water generation and little rainfall the last two weeks, many of my most productive eddy areas were so shallow I could see bottom. I caught a few bass but concluded they were scattered and holding behind larger scattered structure or in deeper holes, sheltered from the cold, swift current. So I replaced my Texas-rigged soft plastics with something I could fish horizontally to cover water; swimbaits.
If you’ve read my book, you know I’m a match-the-hatch kind of angler. Therefore, when fishing for smallmouth bass in rivers I prefer long, slender swimbaits that mimic shiner, chub or darter minnows. So I grabbed several packs of skinny swimbaits, hooks and other gear and went to my favorite local river do some testing on a cold, breezy afternoon. Thirteen smallmouths later, I was convinced I’d found the right formula. A few days later, a friend and I caught sixteen more including several two-pound-plus beauties. I’ve tried several brands, sizes and colors of swimbaits in the last two weeks and found the best choices share some common traits.
Slender plastics in three-and-three-quarter to four-inch lengths have been equally attractive to smallmouths. Natural minnow colors with grey, light-brown or green backs and white or pearl bellies have all caught fish. Silver, gold or other colors of fleck in the plastic added flash to the bait’s lifelike appearance though I’m not convinced the fish showed a preference. Also, I’ve tried various rigging methods including Owner Ultrahead Bullet Rigs and weighted EWG hooks in 1/16 and 1/8 ounce models and found all equally effective, and weedless, when properly matched to the size plastic used and water depth. I’m sure screw-lock or other similar weighted, weedless hook designs will also work well; I simply haven’t tried them. Finally, I always use an attractant or masking scent when presenting slow-moving plastic lures. When my friend and I went, he used Yum F2 Spray in Shad and I used Berkley Gulp Attractant in Shad, and we each caught eight nice bass. But the most crucial variable common to all the lures we tried and places we fished was the need for a painfully slow, steady retrieve. Get a little excited over the chunky fish you’d just released, increase retrieve speed and you’d quickly go from hero to zero. With the proper choice in hook weight, the lure should tap bottom frequently during the retrieve. When the lure starts dragging bottom, lift the rod tip to raise the bait but continue the same slow, steady rate of retrieve. If you live close to a river that offers good smallmouth bass fishing during summer, don’t wait, grab some skinny swimbaits and weedless hooks and go catch some nice fish. But remember; use a slow and steady retrieve speed to catch river smallmouth bass in cold water.
Soon, good fishing will be available everywhere. As longer periods of daylight begin warming the shallows, bass and crappie will move to sheltered shorelines to begin their prespawn ritual and offer good fishing. And rivers will soon fill with white, striped bass and other river spawners; walleyes are already there and scheduled next on my list for a visit. So if you haven’t prepared for early-spring fishing, it’s time to get your boat out of storage, spool up with fresh line and get tackle ready to go because we’re about to begin another promising new fishing season!
The fall period offers some of the best fishing of the year because most game fish feed heavily as day length decreases, many in shallow water where baitfish are attracted to cooling surface temperatures. However, finding good fishing is rarely that easy. Weather patterns, water temperature and condition are still important considerations when deciding when and where to fish. Ignore any of these factors and you may drive by great fishing on the way to a long day of poor results.
The impact of weather on fish activity during fall is similar to that in spring, though the effect of high-pressure systems and accompanying lower temperatures is less intense because falling water temperatures won’t drop below the preferred range of most game fish until late in the season. Nonetheless, most shallow water feeding activity decreases with clearing skies so anglers must make adjustments in time-of-day, location and presentations to enjoy good fishing success as weather patterns change. I monitor barometric pressure to help me decide when and where to fish and what species I’ll fish for based on whether the barometer is rising, falling or stable. Stable or falling pressure often supports the best shallow-water fishing but changes in location and target species can keep you catching fish when the barometer is rising and skies are clear and blue.
Fishing for largemouth bass moves to the top of my preference list this time of year. When surface temperatures begin falling and baitfish move shallow in October, I grab my tool box of largemouth lures and go to work. As water levels drop in reservoirs during fall, many bass move and feed closer to deep water along main-lake shorelines so shallow coves and smaller tributaries that produced good catches during spring often hold few fish. Because the best bass fishing occurs most around shallow structure, I have many lures that fish well through heavy cover so scattered floating leaves are little deterrent when choosing places to fish, though I avoid places where the surface is covered with mats of fallen leaves. In heavily fished waters, I use lures with natural finishes and actions like swimbaits, soft-plastic stickbaits and topwaters to fool educated fish conditioned by fishing pressure. Where floating leaves are present, I use weedless versions of these or similar lures. When deciding when to fish for largemouths, weather patterns must always be considered. Rising barometric pressure and bright clear skies offer poor conditions for largemouth fishing in shallow, open water anytime so I schedule my fishing time during periods when the barometer is falling or stable. Also, a major moon phase or lunar feeding period during time spent fishing for bass can make the difference between a good day and great day of fishing. Water temperature isn’t an important consideration for shallow-water largemouths during fall until surface temperatures begin dipping below about sixty degrees. Bass remain active and shallow in these and lower temperatures but deeper water and slower presentations begin to shine in cooler water. Also, as in spring, the colder the water the more likely the best fishing will occur in mid-afternoon when surface water temperature and the fish’s metabolism peaks.
Hybrid striped bass are another favorite target species during fall, and for good reason. Catching big fish on topwater lures is an adrenaline-pumping experience and hybrids offer some of the most exciting topwater fishing of the year throughout the fall period. In reservoirs where they’re present, you can find hybrids in places that hold the highest concentrations of baitfish in mid-lake sections or where large tributaries join the main lake. Dense baitfish concentrations always attract schools of game fish so be prepared to cover water with your depth finder on until you find them. Feeding hybrids are voracious predators that often circle and drive baitfish against the water’s surface before attacking. When feeding begins, it’s hard to miss jumping baitfish as they try to escape the onslaught among the splashes of feeding predators. My first choice in lures for surfacing hybrids is a Super Pop R or other popping lure. Zara Spooks are another good choice and similar rubber-bodied weedless versions work well where the water’s surface is littered with leaves. When surface feeding stops, it’s hard to beat a 1/2-ounce rattling lure like a Rat-L-Trap with a chrome finish. You can cast these lures a mile, cover water at various depths and they’ll attract strikes from many species of shallow-feeding game fish. Hybrids have a tendency to stay close to the dinner table so unless conditions change they frequently stay in the same area for extended periods and often becoming predictable in their feeding habits. If you see them smashing baitfish between five and seven o’clock in the evening, be in the same spot the next day by four-thirty with fresh line, sharp hooks and high expectations because the same scenario is likely to repeat. But hybrids, like largemouths, respond negatively to weather changes that bring clearing skies and a rising barometer. When this weather pattern develops, you may find some surface activity but feeding usually shifts into deeper water with less intensity.
So under stable weather, or when the barometer is falling, I prefer fishing in reservoirs with good populations of largemouth bass and hybrids during fall. I choose lake sections with the highest concentrations of baitfish and cast to main-lake flats, points and fallen trees for bass while I watch for signs of surface feeding along the main river channel. Fish this setup under stable weather or an approaching front and you’ll often find good mixed-bag fishing for bass, hybrids and other shallow feeding predators. But as in spring, the arrival of cold fronts is common so high blue-bird skies, falling temperatures and rising pressure are frequent visitors. When this weather pattern arrives I shift from shallow-feeding predators in still water to those in moving water. Smallmouth bass fishing in rivers is a good choice if you use lures weedless enough to fish through the plentiful fallen leaves and other floating vegetation. Leave lures with exposed hooks at home, pack your most reliable weedless soft plastics and you can enjoy good fishing for smallmouth bass in rivers throughout fall when water clarity is normal. However, when skies are clear and blue, I prefer to move to cleaner water in tail-waters where trout are plentiful and active.
Trout fishing in tail-waters is a more reliable choice during cold-front conditions when most shallow water fishing is poor. Moving water negates some of the affect of clear skies and rising pressure and trout are less affected by clearing conditions because of their feeding habits. So when a high-pressure system moves in during fall, I start checking generation schedules below local dams to find the right combination of water flow and time of day. When generators are off or flow is lowest I fish for trout during low-light periods in early morning or the last few hours before dark. Under these conditions, thin low-visibility lines and small lures are the best choice in tackle and trolling is the best approach for covering water to find feeding fish. When generation is moderate to high, I move to swift water closer to the dam and cast to current edges with larger lures and heavier tackle. In high swift water rainbows and browns may feed all day under the clearest skies though periods of low light often produce the most and largest fish, especially big browns. Hard-bodied minnow lures in natural baitfish colors are top choices for tail-water trout throughout fall if you match lure size to the rate of flow. Smaller sizes fool feeding fish in slow current where visibility is best; larger sizes often run better in swift current and are easier for trout to see in turbulent water. Where floating leaves are present, swimbaits rigged weedless in similar sizes and colors are good choices. Tail-water trout fishing remains good well into winter because these fish prefer a lower range of temperatures than most game fish. Then, as water temperatures continue to fall, tail-water trout become a more reliable choice for good fishing.
So weather patterns, water temperature and condition are important factors to consider when deciding where and when to fish as well as which species to target. Make the correct decisions and adjustments in tackle and lure selection and you’ll catch more fish during this beautiful season of change. If you’d like to learn more about how I apply changing weather, water temperature and other environmental factors to my seasonal fishing game plan, pick up a copy of book and refer to Chapter 4: Peak Fishing Periods. With a basic understanding of how various fish react to changes in their environment, you’ll enjoy greater fishing success.
It’s that time again. Day length is decreasing, surface water temperatures are falling, and baitfish are beginning to ring the surface on reservoirs across much of the country. Depending on where you live, great fall fishing may already be underway or about to explode. Once it begins, good shallow-water fishing will be with us until cold temperatures drive fish into deep water and all but the hardiest anglers to a warm recliner in front of a TV. If you’re not prepared, it’s time to get tackle in good operating condition, take an inventory and restock favorite lures in your toolbox. I fish often throughout the year so I put a lot of mileage on tackle and lose, break or strip the finish from many lures. Therefore, I service my tackle and lure inventory twice a year; during midwinter and again during late summer. If you’re a part-time angler, it’s still a good idea to do some midseason maintenance on tackle because inactive equipment may need attention as much as heavily used equipment. Depending on how you store your rods and reels, they may need some TLC worse than those heavily used but with good routine care and storage.
You can quickly and easily provide adequate midseason service to any type of reel if you have the materials needed to do it and get organized before you start. Before removing anything lay out a lint-free cloth to hold parts in the order in which you remove them and set out a small screwdriver, wrench, toothbrush, cotton swabs, cleaning solution, oil and reel grease. If you intend to remove more than the handles and spool, it’s a good idea to find the schematic that came with your reel. The schematic will show each part inside the reel, where it goes and the order in which each is assembled. A schematic will also show how parts should be turned before reassembly including the slightest bends in otherwise uniform washers or spacers; an important thing to know because you can reverse a single crucial component in a reel and it won’t work properly. If you don’t have a schematic for your reel, you can find and download one free at Mike’s Reel Repair online. Mike’s also sells replacement parts if you need to replace something or buy an extra spool for your favorite spinning combo and they’ve always provided me with good customer service.
To provide minimal service, take each reel off the rod, remove everything that can easily be removed such as handles and spools, spray them with WD40 or a good cleaning solution and wipe them clean of dust and grime. Use WD40 sparingly because it’s a degreaser, not a lubricant, so anything it touches will need fresh oil or grease. Use a toothbrush or other small brush to remove dirt and old lubricants; use cotton swabs for hard-to-reach spots being careful not to leave cotton fibers on moving parts. After external parts and casings have been well cleaned, apply a small amount of oil to all moving parts before reassembly. Unless the owner’s manual that came with your reel advises otherwise, apply oil to all moving parts and grease only to main gears. Apply grease to main gears with a finger tip or other handy tool and be sure the grease doesn’t contact adjoining parts. Where metal rubs metal or other material, apply a little oil. Many manufacturers offer good-quality lubricants and cleaning solutions for fishing reels. I use those made by Quantum and Ardent, who offers a full line of cleaning and lubricating supplies for reels.
After cleaning spinning reels, apply a drop of oil to the spool shaft, any spacers or drag washers on the shaft, the line guide and rotor arm on either side of the bail, and the bearings through which the handle mounts; less is better if each part is adequately oiled. Place a couple drops of oil into the maintenance port, if the reel has one, and include any spare spools you use in the cleaning and lubrication process. After cleaning baitcasting reels, apply oil to the bearing under the handle, the case for casting brakes and all spacers and washers before reassembly. After reinstalling the handle, use a cotton swab or lint free cloth to clean the worm gear. Turn the reel handle to turn the gear and move the line guide while wiping the length of gear until it’s clean. And again, on moving parts and gears is not the place to leave cotton fibers or lint from an old rag. When the worm gear shines and looks clean, add a drop of oil to it and the levelwind shaft and turn the reel handle several times to spread oil along each; then wipe away the excess with a cotton swab or cloth. As you reassemble your cleaned and lubricated reels, check and tighten all external screws. Don’t over-tighten them but ensure each is snug. If you find one loose, remember to check it occasionally because it may need replaced. Follow these simple steps and you’ll be impressed with how much better your reels feel and operate. A more thorough cleaning should be done annually. If you’re not comfortable fully disassembling a reel for cleaning, many local tackle shops offer reel cleaning services at reasonable prices. Bass Pro Shops and a few others also offer mail-in services for reels including parts replacement and cleaning. Invest a little time and money once a year and you can get many years of good, problem-free service from most mid- to upper-priced reels.
While the cleaning supplies are out is a good time to clean and inspect rods. I spray each rod blank with WD40, wipe it clean, then check and clean each line guide individually. After cleaning, run a clean cotton swab around the surface of each guide to check for cracks or wear from braided lines and carefully straighten those that are slightly bent. I also touch up darkened cork handles by holding them under running water and lightly scrubbing them with a steel-wool soap pad. My brother-in-law, the musky hunter, likes his rod handles dirty; “Gives them character”, he grumbles. Whichever look you prefer, it only takes a few minutes to make old cork look like new.
The final step in getting tackle ready is replacing lines on reels. I change monofilament often because of line memory, a leading cause of poor line performance and reduced casting distance. And monofilament is inexpensive so when I know fishing is about to get hot, I always spool up with fresh line. However, before replacing it I consider what type fishing I’m going to do. For fishing shallow cover, I choose heavier, abrasion resistant line; for chasing schooling fish in open water, I use thin-diameter, limper lines that support greater casting distance. Fluorescent lines are good choices for high-speed search baits, where line color is less noticeable, or when fishing along bottom with slow-moving baits where line watching is important. Clear monofilament, even fluorocarbon, is a better choice for medium retrieve speeds in clear water. So choose a line that matches best with the type fishing you plan to do then replace enough for a long cast plus a respectable amount of backing and a single replacement spool of monofilament will keep you in fresh line the rest of the year. I recycle most braided lines because they have low or no memory and are expensive to replace. To replace worn, discolored braid, I tie a bright rubber band or other object to the end of the line and walk in well-spaced loops around my yard as I feed line until all has been removed. Then I cut the line, walk back to the rubber band and blood-knot the used portion to the backing left on the reel. If the spool wasn’t full, I add more backing to insure the spool is properly filled after respooling. When finished, I have like-new braided line on the business end of the spool and I’m ready for the toughest fish.
I often replace my most dependable lures well before the fall bonanza but am especially attentive of hook condition on those that remain in my toolbox. I do a thorough inspection of hooks on all my lures and sharpen or replace them if they’re dull or bent so my most common expenditure during restocking is for replacement hooks. I may do a little touch-up on lure finishes with fingernail polish or jig paint but rarely replace them unless they’re proven favorites and mangled beyond use. But hooks are the single piece of equipment that connects me directly to fish so I don’t compromise on quality and always choose the best-of-the-best available, mostly chemically sharpened models. And because the fall period offers great shallow-water fishing, it’s a good time to try new lures or new colors of old favorites. When fish are biting well is the best time to experiment with new things. It takes discipline to test new lures or methods of presentation when fish are biting well but there isn’t a better time to learn new ways to catch fish. So get your tackle ready, restock on old favorites and grab a few new products you’ve been dying to try. Great fall fishing is upon us and it’s time to go catch our share!
During the peak of summer when shallow water fishing opportunities are limited I often take time to reflect on past fishing trips, look through photo albums, and contact old friends and family to relive some of our most memorable adventures on the water. Many include flashbacks of great fishing, trophies or unique experiences; however, many are of times when unexpected things happened. One reality of fishing trips is that sometimes things don’t go as planned and worse yet, sometimes the fish win. Fortunately I’ve been blessed with a sense of humor so even though some of my adventures weren’t funny at the time, I can appreciate the humor in them now.
My first father-and-son trip to Canada with my son Eric comes to mind; our destination, Lake Nipigon in Ontario to the waters where the world record brook trout was caught. A five-pound brook trout for each of us was the goal and we were prepared to sort through three-and four-pounders to catch one. After months of planning and preparation, we met one of my deer-hunting friends who had fished Nipigon for many, many years and made the long drive to his favorite fish camp on the southeast corner of the lake to start our adventure. Whether it was fate, poor planning, or another reason we arrived much too early because the ice had just receded off the lake the previous week and water temperatures were slightly above freezing. After several days of fishing some incredibly scenic wilderness among eagles, bears, moose and icebergs the size of cars, we confirmed the brook trout hadn’t yet moved shallow and probably wouldn’t for the next several weeks. To say we were disappointed, as well as surprised, is an understatement. Fortunately we were catching a few nice northern pike, double-fortunately because we were counting on pike fillets to offset our low stock of food. Late in the week, our “guide” talked us into making a twenty-plus-mile run toward the middle of Lake Nipigon to an island that held a small lake where we might catch some large pike. After much prodding and assurances we wouldn’t die and never be found, we reluctantly agreed to make the trip. The next morning we loaded enough provisions in our sixteen-foot aluminum boat to keep us alive for several days and pushed away from the dock. I felt well prepared and confident until our friend reminded us it didn’t matter how well-prepared we were because if the boat sank we’d be dead in minutes and our bodies eaten by scavengers. After hearing that, I left indentations in the boat’s gunwale from holding on so tightly.
Lake Nipigon, often called the sixth great lake, is a huge oval-shaped body of water with many islands, reefs and bays. It’s the largest inland lake in Ontario, spanning about sixty-miles wide by more than eighty-miles long with a maximum depth of 540 feet and close to 180,000 surface acres. The only access roads on the southern portion of Nipigon are along the southeast corner and at an Indian Reservation on the southwest shore, a place we were warned would not welcome us because of some recent issues. We felt very alone that morning as we pulled from camp because seeing another boat after we left, or human being for that matter, was highly unlikely. It was a crisp, cold morning with thin ice scattered along the lake’s surface. The sound of breaking ice was deafening against the aluminum hull, though we were wrapped from head to toe in many layers of clothing and couldn’t hear well enough to converse anyway. Hand signals were our only means of communication and I was tempted to use one several times before we lost sight of camp. When we finally broke through the ice into open water I felt relieved, until the snow squall hit. It wasn’t heavy snow but was blinding, steady and stuck to everything in the frigid air until we looked like three snowmen sitting in a boat-shaped sled. Later as we approached a large island and idled down, we stood and layers of ice and snow fell from our bodies, snapping and tinkling as they piled at our feet. We approached a rock reef where a small stream emptied from the island into the lake, pulled up the outboard and used a paddle to slowly push the boat through openings in the rocks until we found deeper water. When depth increased we dropped the motor and slowly idled up the narrow, winding flow. We saw some nice pike dart by the boat as we maneuvered upstream and soon forgot the long hazardous ride. A half-mile later, the stream opened into a fifty- to sixty-acre lake and we scrambled to grab rods and start fishing. The pike fishing we experienced the next several hours was nothing short of incredible. Armed with spinning tackle, light line and minnow lures, we caught pike until we tired of catching them. We weighed the first dozen fish of various sizes until we could accurately judge their weight and started a running total of combined weight. In the next few hours, I’m sure we landed more than three-hundred pounds of northerns. We didn’t catch any giants but all caught fish in the teens including my largest; a beautiful forty-inch specimen weighing more than seventeen pounds. By the time we stopped fishing, we were covered with pike slime from handling so many fish. If you’ve never been coated with pike slime, in the middle of vast wilderness, with a guide of questionable sanity, in a small boat, with no hope of help if a problem develops, you simply haven’t lived. The long ride back to camp was no less hair-raising because while we massacred pike on that tiny sheltered lake a light northwest breeze on the main lake transformed into a stiff wind. We were fortunate because the swells hadn’t yet peaked in the ten-foot range, though frequent four-to five-footers made for a very uncomfortable and punishing ride. Fortunately, I already had a solid handhold formed in the boat’s gunwale so I could hold on. If Eric didn’t already have one, I’m sure he made one before we arrived back at camp. In forever, we arrived at camp without further incident. I never dreamed a lumpy mattress and the smell of half-burnt kerosene could feel so cozy and safe.
So Eric and I didn’t catch a single brook trout on our first trip together to Canada. Inquiries around camp confirmed the other anglers brave enough to try didn’t catch one either. However, that one day of pike fishing produced some special memories. The fact both of us had to see chiropractors for several months to have our spines realigned helped reinforce some of those memories. On a more positive note, we both lost a little excess weight during our trip and developed a greater appreciation for life, our families and the comforts of home. We stopped at a neighboring fish camp before heading home and learned there are some nice lake-side accommodations available if we ever return to Nipigon. We toured their facilities, limped through a couple cabins and agreed we would enjoy staying there our next trip because everything was well kept and the smell of kerosene noticeably absent. Lake Nipigon is a premier drive-to Canadian fishing destination with breathtaking scenery, abundant wildlife, and tremendous fishing. If you decide to go, choose a reputable place to stay and plan to hire an experienced guide with references to get you started. Pack a camera, a good map, and emergency provisions and you too can make special wilderness memories.
When summer temperatures peak, good daytime fishing opportunities become more limited. The blazing sun, high temps, high recreational use, and other reasons prompt many anglers to stay off the water during daylight hours. However, I’ve discovered a cool summer option that produces some of my most impressive daytime trophies of the year; fishing for big rainbow and brown trout in tail-waters. Every tail-water is a unique environment in that water depth, flow, temperature and other characteristics vary. Not all tail-waters offer good year-round trout fishing because of high water temperature during summer months. Most are stocked during spring, many in fall, but those with low carryover in summer are poor choices for numbers and worse choices for big trout. The tail-waters I fish most in East Tennessee commonly run between fifty and sixty degrees throughout the summer period with extremes in the high-forties and low-sixties; ideal temperatures for trout. Find a tail-water close to you that is well stocked with year-round temperatures in this range and you may have found a gold mine of summer fishing.
State fisheries agencies are a good source for information about which tail-waters in your area offer the best summer trout fishing as well as which have the potential to produce trophies. And many Web sites and chat rooms tailored to area fishing provide reports by member anglers that can guide you to good tail-water fishing. Do your homework, find a tail-water or two with good potential closest to you, and the next thing to consider is access. If your goal is to wade and spin or fly-fish, water depth, flow and plentiful access points are important considerations. If you plan to float in a drift, Jon or other small boat, you must consider the distance from launch to takeout points and the nature of the river. Talk with other anglers at ramps, in chat rooms, at a local tackle shop or other places and develop a plan for fishing that puts safety first, always, and good fishing a close second.
After choosing a promising tail-water, it’s important to find a source for water generation information. TVA has a user-friendly Web site where you can check planned 24-hour generation schedules and flow rates for any dam in the TVA system. The Army Corps of Engineers provides a US map on the Corps Lakes Gateway page on their Web site where visitors can select a state and go to a listing of that state’s lakes and waterways under Corps control. Choose the dam and tail-water in question and you’ll be directed to an information page where a link or phone number is provided to check lake information, including planned generation. You can find a link to both these Web sites at the bottom of my home page under the “Blogroll” heading. Unless you’ll be limited to fishing close to a dam, it’s helpful to know how long it takes for the change in flow at the dam to reach key points downstream. If your target fishing area is many miles long, choose a place or two along the way where you can monitor the flow and determine how long it takes for a change in flow at the dam to reach that point. Then you can plan fishing time under the best and safest conditions in that section. But remember; planned generation schedules are planned, not chipped in granite, so schedules can change without notice. On the tail-waters I fish, I’ve found them reliable and accurate but I have seen variances. Plan your fishing time based on published schedules, plan for the unexpected, and you can enjoy productive and safe fishing for some beautiful summer fish.
Tail-waters offer good fishing for trout anytime during the day when generators are running and water flow is high and swift. Primary moon phases, overcast skies, prefrontal conditions and low-light periods at dawn and dusk can intensify activity and improve the odds of catching more and larger trout but many feed in fast water on the clearest days under sunny skies. Therefore, tail-water trout fishing is a good choice anytime if generators are running, you choose the best sections of water available and the right lures and methods of presentations are employed. Because water is pulled from well below the surface at most dams, water temperatures are lower during generation and trout become active in the cool swift water, especially larger fish. Smaller fish that feed mostly on insects may be more active when generators are off and the water is flat and calm but when the current increases and visibility decreases, larger fish leave hiding spots to hunt and feed on larger prey. Both rainbow and brown trout move and feed during the day in swift tail-waters but after the sun sets, brown trout become the dominant predator despite the rate of generation. Some of the largest browns I’ve ever landed were caught at night in tail-waters when no generators were running and the water was still and flat. You have to be cautious and as sneaky as a cat when night fishing for browns in still water but the rewards can be incredible. Rainbows seem to disappear with the sun but browns become active and very aggressive at night. Find a section of tail-water with mixed deep and shallow areas that you can safely fish after darkness falls and your chances of catching a giant brown trout will increase greatly.
Tail-water fishing for big trout is an adventure most anglers adapt to quickly. If you fish most for bass, walleye, or hybrids you’ll feel at home with the tackle and methods of presentation required for success, especially so if you’re used to fishing rivers. Medium to medium-heavy spinning combos with six- to ten-pound diameter monofilament or braided lines are the equipment of choice, though baitcasters and slightly heavier lines work well with larger lures. I use a six-and-a-half-foot medium-heavy spinning combo spooled with 6/14 smoke colored Fireline for lures up to 3/8-ounce and a seven-and-a-half-foot heavy action combo with 8/20 Fireline for heavier lures. Ten- to fourteen-pound leaders of monofilament or fluorocarbon help prevent break-offs in shallower tail-waters so don’t hesitate to add them when needed. Add a quality-made snap to the business end of your line to support quick lure changes and always test retrieve lures before use to insure natural actions; tune or replace those that don’t run true. Floating and suspending minnow lures in various sizes and colors round out equipment needs though particular tackle and lure choices should be made based on the target species because rainbow and brown trout preferences differ.
Rainbow trout favor shallower areas with swift, broken water and clearly visible seams and current breaks. Work lures along current edges and through eddies while fan-casting large areas with more uniform flow. Slow steady retrieves or fast retrieves mixed with intermittent erratic twitches that make lures dart and change direction are reliable methods of presentation so it’s best to alternate between these until fish show a preference under current conditions. Rainbows have small mouths compared to their body size and prefer smaller lures to about three-and-a-half inches long. Minnow lures with shad profiles like Lucky Craft Pointers in smaller sizes and Yo-Zuri Sashimi Jerkbaits have fooled many big rainbows, including some of my largest, but rainbows often strike slender minnow profiles best like Rapalas or Lucky Craft Slender Pointer MR’s so it’s best to carry a few in each body shape. Floating models are better choices in shallower areas because many times they’ll float free of hang-ups when the retrieve is stopped. But suspending models offer more natural presentations with erratic retrieves because they retain their depth and pause directly in the face of following fish. When a big rainbow strikes, most will quickly announce their presence by shooting through the water’s surface like a fat missile. An angry rainbow trout in shallow, fast water is the gold-medal gymnast of the fish world with more tricks than a circus monkey. You can expect drag screaming runs and an impressive aerial show so a properly set drag and longer, more shock absorbing rod are important factors that may determine who wins the fight.
Brown trout have different personalities than rainbows so when targeting them it’s necessary to make a few adjustments in presentation and lure choice. As a rule, browns prefer spots with a little less current and some overhead cover. Search for them in current breaks behind logs or large rocks along shore, in deep holes where current slows or on inside bends in the river. Not that you won’t catch one in swift, shallow water in mid-river but when you do, the fish probably followed your lure from slower water before deciding to strike. Big brown trout are notorious for following lures all the way to the rod tip so a little figure-eight action at boat-side is a wise addition to the presentation process. Because browns like to follow, slow to medium retrieves with occasional stops are highly effective methods of presentation. This tendency to follow makes suspending lures top choices for big brown trout in tail-waters. Stop the retrieve for a few seconds to a half minute and let the lure suspend and drift with the current as you watch your line. If the line jumps, suddenly begins to move or you feel a light tick, set the hook fast! Smaller three-and-a-half inch lures will catch many small- to medium-sized fish but to catch big browns use large lures, larger than many would believe for trout. Four- to six- inch minnow lures are good choices for large brown trout in tail-waters and when in doubt, err to the large side. I use four-inch sizes most during daylight hours in summer because during years of normal weather, the water is very clear. To create the illusion of larger prey, I often use lures with chrome, holographic or other highly reflective finishes to increase flash and make them look larger without letting trout see the lure too clearly. Under low-light conditions, I use larger lures in the same color patterns or those with brightly painted finishes. Most brown trout don’t explode with the same level of energy as rainbows when they strike. It’s most common for the rod to suddenly bow and the drag to slip in short bursts, depending on the size of the fish and the drag’s setting. Occasional you’ll meet an aerial acrobat but most big browns wallow on the surface like a stuck pig, sound and move off steadily against the drag.
As different as the two species are, they do share some common traits. In most tail-waters, larger prey items that big trout feed on are limited to some type of shad minnows and smaller trout. So shad or minnow profile lures in colors that mimic these prey species are highly attractive to both rainbows and browns. My top three color choices for browns and rainbows are shad, rainbow and brown trout color patterns. However either species, at any time, may climb all over a lure with a gold flash or brilliant color pattern so it pays to carry a few of these in favorite lure models and sizes. And changing to deeper diving lures when water depth increases isn’t necessary. In the clear water common to most tail-waters, rainbows and browns will rise many feet to strike shallow running lures, eliminating the need to carry a selection of sizes and colors in deep diving models. The most important trait these fish share and one all anglers should remember is how sensitive trout are to high air temperatures and handling. It’s best to unhook a trout while in the net where you can quickly and safely remove hooks, then let it rest in the net while you get a camera ready. Wet your hands and lift the fish long enough to take a couple pictures, then set it back in the net until it recovers. If the trout cannot swim upright, move to a safe place in still water and hold the fish upright until it recovers. Take time to insure each fish is released in the best condition possible. Remember, if you’re ever going to catch that eight- to ten-pound trophy trout of your dreams, you must release the four and five pounders in good condition.