Adapting to Changing Conditions

Big rainbow release

After turning the page on my office calendar to August, I paused to reflect on where the time had gone. Notes on the last few pages confirm each month was a whirlwind of activity, mostly of the non-fishing variety. Not that there wasn’t some time to fish, but much of my spring and early summer seasons were filled with other time-consuming activities; more on that later. Furthermore, favored places to fish were limited this year. Another hot, dry spring reduced flow on local rivers so much that productive fishing for smallmouth bass was affected and repairs at a local dam transformed some of my favorite spring fishing waters so completely I was forced to search for new ones. Nonetheless, the search for good fishing led to the discovery of new opportunities and limited choices encouraged me to invest more time in spring patterns still available. The extra time spent pursing two of my favorite game fish, rainbow and brown trout, produced an exceptional season of spring and early-summer trout fishing.

I learned to fish for trout long ago, limited then to fishing small mountain streams and stock ponds for freshly stocked fish. Many years later after moving to Tennessee, my focus changed to catching holdover tail-water trout; those that had lived for years on a diet of abundant natural prey in cool, swift water. This spring has been a testament to what I’ve learned about fishing for larger tail-water trout. We caught many rainbows and browns above eighteen inches but some special fish and one exceptional encounter come to mind. My most memorable tail-water trout adventure so far in 2015 included my best fishing buddy Andy and his 12-year old son, Harrison. Harrison had already proved he could catch trout by trolling for them. On his best outing he was credited with catching twenty-eight rainbows, though Andy and I reeled in a few of them because we had several doubles hookups. However, this trip was Harrison’s first to cast for them so when we arrived on good water, casting practice began. Andy helped with the casting part but each time the lure hit the water, Harrison took control of the rod and the retrieve. Soon we were coaching him on ways he could vary his presentation by changing speed, pausing or adding subtle twitches.

Sixteen inch tailwater brook trout 1Not long into our second drift, Harrison’s rod bowed deeply and a big trout thrashed the surface. With a firm grip on his rod, he fought the big fish well while Andy coached and I controlled the boat in swift water. When Andy slipped the net under the struggling fish, shouts of victory filled the air. It wasn’t just a big trout; it was a huge brook trout. For those of you not familiar with brook trout, let me put the size of this fish in perspective. In the State of Tennessee, if you catch a brookie ten-inches or longer, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency will award you with a colorful Trophy Fish Award, suitable for framing. The brook trout Harrison landed was sixteen-inches long. Before the day was over, he also landed a rainbow and brown trout above eighteen-inches. So on his first trip casting for them, Harrison landed the Eastern equivalent of the trout trifecta and did so with some remarkably nice fish.

My most exciting fishing experience this season came on a day when time to fish was limited. With but a few hours free and no fishing partner, I loaded my boat and headed for the closest tail-water. Local weather and water generation schedules were favorable for trout fishing, though it was midday under a sunny, blue sky. After making the first drift through prime water without so much as a follow, I changed to a larger lure, returned to my starting point and began again. A few casts into the second drift a big fish smashed my plug hard and began stripping line. The fish moved so fast and with such power, I was sure it was a big hybrid and quickly realized my hands were full.

I was adrift in fast water and approaching a shoal so shallow that hitting rocks with the trolling motor prop was a probability, but didn’t want to raise the motor and let the boat spin during the fight. With one hand on the trolling motor and the other controlling the surging fish, it became a very busy time. If I had a third hand, I’m sure it would have been equally busy. Suddenly, the fish charged the boat and did its best to tangle my line in the outboard. After a few tense seconds, it came free from the lower unit as the river bottom came up along the upstream face of the shoal. Then, out the corner of my eye I saw the big fish jump clear of the water. Even in my adrenalin-filled state I realized that hybrids don’t jump so my eyes Twenty nine inch eleven six tailwater brown edit 1strained for a clear view of my advisory as it approached the boat, then in less than two-feet of water. As we drifted over the shoal, the big fish swam closer and was soon swimming parallel to the boat in water so shallow it could clearly be seen. The light-brown color and big spots along the fish’s back confirmed it was a huge brown trout. After drifting into deeper water, it became a battle of patience and the big fish was in trouble. Finally, I led her into the net and lifted my largest brown trout ever into the boat; a beautifully marked twenty-nine-inch female. There was little time to set up and take pictures because my greatest concern was for the fish’s health. But after a few quick shots and gentle handling beside the boat, she recovered, surged from my grip and disappearing into the rushing water. I collapsed in my seat, took several deep breaths and talked to myself until my heart-rate slowed. Drained after the battle, I set out trolling rods and trolled back to the ramp. Several smaller fish up to sixteen inches came to the net on the relaxing cruise back that sunny afternoon. It was a brief though memorable outing and invigorating dose of outdoor therapy; one to remember for a very long time.

Though my time on the water this season has been limited, a few trips for other fish were also rewarding. During early spring, a couple night-fishing trips for river-run walleyes produced good results. In spring, walleyes in most southern reservoirs migrate into primary feeder-rivers to spawn. This concentrates them in sections where water depth and flow are favorable and prey species are present. Find walleyes and what they’re willing to strike and it can produce good catches of one of the best-tasting fish in fresh water. My preferred method of catching spring river-run walleyes is trolling at night so I scheduled a couple evenings free to go after them. Our priority on the first night was finding places on the river that held fish and we soon caught enough for a meal of fresh fillets. In just a few hours on the follow-up trip, under a star-studded sky, we stayed busy catching and culling fish. Repeated trolling passes along a sixty-yard stretch of water produced more than two-dozen walleyes including a few double hookups with a smallmouth bass and catfish or two mixed in. Trolling at night on a river may sound like a recipe for trouble but it’s an effective method of fishing if you follow a few simple safety rules and employ the correct lures and methods of presentation. To learn more about trolling for walleyes and other fish at night on rivers, refer to the chapter on “Winter Fishing” in my book, The Weekend Angler’s Guide To Good Fishing.

Several outings for bass produced nice catches, including both river and reservoir trips. We fished at night for reservoir largemouths when fishing pressure was lowest and smallmouths during the day on a river where only kayaks disturbed the Five four Boone Lake largemouth bass on an R&S jigserenity. Our first bass-fishing trip of the season to search for largemouths was interesting; a rough start that bloomed into a rewarding finish. We arrived late at the ramp and had to wait in line until almost dark before launching. Then, as we prepared to take off down lake I noticed some nasty looking clouds coming our way. By the time we reached a nearby bridge for shelter, it was raining steadily. An hour later we started down the lake, one we’d not seen before, to find a place to fish in total darkness. Radar on a phone app, a depth finder and some blind luck led us to a shallow point with a distinct offshore break-line that merged with a shoreline filled with alternating layers of rock, red-clay and gravel. I was confident the diverse mixture of bottom types would attract some fish. In the next few hours we landed sixteen bass along a hundred-yard stretch, mostly smallmouths, with a five-pound, five-ounce largemouth taking top honors. Small finesse jigs with plastic pork-chunk trailers caught all our fish though we tried several soft-plastics. Regrettably, I haven’t had time to go back and fish that spot again.

A few half-day trips for river smallmouths produced good fish though larger bass were less than plentiful in the low, clear conditions. The realistic action of swimbaits and soft-plastic stickbaits caught the majority of our fish with Keitech Easy Shiners and Zoom Super Flukes catching the most. Various rigging methods worked well with the Flukes when matched to water flow and natural colors were consistently good choices. However, at times four-inch swimbaits caught more fish so we had to find the best lure and method of presentation on each trip. And I often mix in some variety when fishing so we did raise a few bass on other lures. One encounter that comes to mind didn’t end with a big smallmouth photo-op, but left a vivid memory. It was a day when water generation at an upstream dam was brisk. The water level was high and moving with scattered clumps of grass drifting on the surface. However, water clarity was good and the temperature was an inviting seventy-two degrees; ideal for active river smallmouth bass. In warm moving water, fast retrieves often work well when patterning river smallies so I grabbed a spinning combo rigged with a Pop-R and began quickly covering water. No more than a dozen casts later, a bruiser smallmouth crushed the lure. I set the hook and began reeling quickly, but then my line went slack. Before I could describe what had happened and add a closing expletive, my line suddenly started streaking up river. Panicked reeling soon pulled a bow in my rod and the battle was on. However, after a hard head-shake and short burst downstream the big fish spit the lure back toward me. I thought the bass had thrown the plug because of the poor hook-set but found it had violently removed the rear treble hook, split ring and all. It was a fast and memorable tail-whipping by a big, powerful river smallmouth bass. I hesitate to estimate the fish’s size but the boil it made on the strike must have weighed four-pounds.

Bass Pro Shop Bristol TNSo my spring and early summer excursions, though limited, included some exciting and memorable fishing. Furthermore, a recent development that kept me off the water during much of the season produced many opportunities to meet other anglers and learn more about catching fish. On April 1st, I accepted a Sales Associate position in the Fishing Department at the new Bass Pro Shop store at Exit 74 in Bristol, Tennessee. I’m working there part-time, including many weekends, and enjoying the interaction with other anglers immensely. So if your travels include a trip along the I-81 corridor through Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee, take a few minutes to stop and ask for me there. I’d enjoy meeting you, swapping some fishing stories and helping you choose some lures and equipment for your next fishing adventure. Come by soon and let’s talk fishing! Hope to see you there.

Cold Water for Big Fish

Header - Pair of twenty-one inch largemouths

It’s been too long since last posting new material on my Blog but the past few months have been extraordinarily busy. A heavy book signing schedule from Labor Day through Christmas produced high book sales and kept me on the move. I always enjoy meeting new angling friends at signing events, reliving outdoor experiences and learning things from others. However, many book signings, travel, visitors and get-togethers kept me off the water during much of autumn and the Christmas Holiday season. No complaints, because every minute spent with family and friends was enjoyable. Yet when time, weather and my schedule permitted, I reveled in some fine fishing for trout and bass. The late-fall and early-winter periods are good times to pursue big fish including our most popular game fish; largemouth bass.  Fishing for the big largemouths can be rewarding during the cold-water period because fishing pressure is lowest, shallow cover is much less and bass often concentrate in predictable, easy-to-fish places. I caught some nice bass the last few months and learned some things about them that increased my interest in larger fish.

One afternoon, after some productive jig and pig fishing for largemouths, I pulled in at a launching ramp and ran into an old friend. The gentleman’s name is Doug Harper, a coworker from the glass company where I worked for many years. He also is a fishing addict and though we have never fished together, we competed in several bass and walleye tournaments, are longtime acquaintances and have always taken time to swap fishing news and experiences when meeting. I smiled like a Cheshire cat after recognizing him because the rumor was Doug had caught a huge record-class largemouth and it was going to be my first opportunity to hear about his experience firsthand. After asking about the fish, he confirmed the rumor was true and began telling me about his encounter with a very special fish.

Doug Harper and I near the spot where he caught and released his fifteen-pound largemouth bass.

Doug Harper and I near the spot where he caught and released his fifteen-pound largemouth bass.

Doug was fishing alone on the Holston River drainage north of Knoxville last May on a day he’ll never forget. Conditions were not the best; the water was off-color and well into his day the bass had refused to strike everything he’d thrown. But Doug remained focused on each cast because he’d caught a largemouth above twelve pounds in the same area a month before. Anglers in another boat confirmed fishing was poor so Doug decided to downsize his lure and slow his presentation. He switched to a spinning combo filled with twelve-pound test P-Line and began rigging a small finesse-bait, a four-inch straight-tailed worm in green pumpkin. Soon after, a small bass confirmed he’d made a good choice when it swallowed the worm. Then a disturbance along shore attracted Doug’s attention so he cast to the spot and began working the worm slowly back to the boat. Soon he felt a barely perceptible tic and the line began feeling heavy. The giant bass had picked up the small soft-plastic bait so lightly that a subtle tap and increased tension were the only indications of a strike. Doug knew it was a monster soon after setting the hook because it ripped line freely from his reel and was difficult to work back to the boat. His heart nearly exploded when the big largemouth finally surfaced. He knew it was his largest bass and close to a state record, so after landing it he carefully placed the fish in his livewell and left for the closest certified scales. With several witnesses present, the fish was weighed at a local market and pulled the scales to exactly fifteen pounds, clearly surpassing the long-standing Tennessee State Record of 14-pounds, 8-ounces that was set in 1954. The fish’s length and girth were not recorded because Doug was concerned additional handling would threaten its survival. Doug was given a weight-verification certificate at the market and left for a local TWRA office for further verification but found it closed when he arrived. With increased concern for the fish, he decided to pass on further recognition and left for a ramp close by to release the giant. After his grandson arrived and took some pictures with an inexpensive cell phone camera, the big bass was released and disappeared into water not far from where it was caught. I admire Doug for refusing to kill such a special fish in favor of watching it swim away to perhaps be caught again. It takes a special kind of outdoorsman to do that. And on a personal note, it will greatly increase my focus and enjoyment when fishing that area, knowing such a fish was released there.

Hearing Doug’s story was a highlight to the beginning of my winter-fishing season though it was not the only news I heard about giant largemouths caught in Tennessee. Last month at the East Tennessee Fishing Show in Knoxville, another angler told me about a giant bass caught in Lake Chickamauga that challenged the current state record. It was not the first big-fish story I’d heard about the largemouth-factory that lake has become, but that story raised my interest. Tales of bass above ten pounds and five-fish tournament weights approaching fifty-pounds are becoming more frequent on Chickamauga so I decided to do some research and learn what was behind the lake’s surge of big fish. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency began stocking Florida-strain largemouths in several small Agency-owned lakes in 1998 as part of a pioneer program. In 2000, Chickamauga became the first large reservoir stocked with the Florida-strain, with goals of increasing Florida genes in the population to at least 15% and growing larger bass. The latitude across the southeast where Chickamauga lies is a natural integration zone where Florida- and northern-strain largemouths native to Tennessee overlap; average annual water temperature is the feature that identifies that zone. Other factors TWRA considered when deciding where to stock Florida bass included: the presence of ideal habitat and abundant aquatic vegetation, productive shad populations as forage and acceptance by a trophy-management-minded angling public, which equates to a higher commitment to catch and release. After several years and some adjustments to the stocking-program, TWRA testing in 2013 confirmed the Florida-strain genes present in Lake Chickamauga had increased to about 45% and by then there was no question stocking had increased the number of larger bass in the population. The lake has become such a dynamic fishery for largemouth bass that in Bassmaster Magazine’s list of Top 100 bass lakes for 2014, Chickamauga ranked 7th best in the country. Furthermore, yesterday I stumbled across an announcement while doing further research that the Tennessee state record for largemouth bass has now officially been broken. On February 13th, Gabe Keen landed a 15.2-pound largemouth from Lake Chickamauga that smashed the long-standing record by more than half a pound. I’m not surprised the monster bass was caught during the cold-water period in mid-February. If you enjoy fishing for big bass, or have aspirations of catching the trophy largemouth of your dreams, you too should be fishing for them during the cold-water period. A trip to Chickamauga has already been added to my bucket-list of largemouth bass fishing destinations for next fall and winter.

Though noteworthy, my fishing adventures this winter have not been limited to the pursuit of largemouth bass because I’ve enjoyed some good river fishing for big smallmouths. The Holston River where I fish has had lower than normal flow this year because of reduced water generation upstream at Boone Lake Dam. Nonetheless, the smallmouths are still in the river so adjustments to the reduced current have produced some beautiful fish. Throughout the cold-water period, I prefer fishing in rivers for smallmouth bass when water flow is highest because it concentrates fish in eddies, often close against the shoreline. When river bass are pushed into places with reduced current, they’re easier to find and catch rates are higher when the correct lures and methods of presentations are employed. In low current, fish scatter, so it’s more difficult to find and catch them. Most River fishing for big winter smallmouthstimes when fish are scattered, it’s best to use high-speed search baits to find them. However, the best way to find and catch smallmouths during winter in a cold river with reduced flow is to use a slow-and-steady horizontal retrieve, a method of presentation that requires discipline and patience. I’ve learned that small, slim-profile swimbaits make excellent search baits in cold-water rivers but using the correct retrieve speed is crucial to success. A variety of swimbait brands work well but those in three-and-a-half to four-inch lengths work best. Vary lure color based on water clarity, depth and light penetration. Less-visible, natural colors draw more strikes on sunnier days in clear water so smoke- or clear-colored bellies with some flashy metal-flake and green or brown backs are top choices. Brighter colors are more visible to fish and draw strikes under overcast skies or in stained water. Even so, with the best color, a tight line and slow, steady retrieve strikes are often difficult to detect. Many times there will be a light tap when fish strike, often engulfing the lure from the rear, but it’s equally common for the line to gradually become heavy from the fish’s weight. It takes practice to tell the difference between a clump of weeds and a strike so when in doubt, set the hook until you develop a feel for a river smallmouth grabbing a swimbait in cold water.

Trout fishing is another top choice during winter because trout are a cold-water species and active in lower temperatures, more than other game fish in southern waters. During brief warm-ups I may slip away to fish for bass but during the cold-water period, I fish most for trout. Furthermore, it’s a good time to catch big fish because browns spawn from late-fall through early-winter and larger spawners are active. Rainbows spawn in early spring so they are at peak bodyweight during winter and many become beautifully colored as the spawning period approaches. Similar to river smallmouths, some adjustment in lure selection and presentation will reward you with some of these beautiful salmonoids. As with any game fish, water temperature below a trout’s preferred range slows its metabolism so slower presentations are often best. Trout become less willing to move far to strike lures in lower temperatures so repeated casts or trolling passes are often necessary to make fish strike. Therefore, midwinter trout fishing is often a lower-numbers game but the possibility of catching larger fish can offset the decline in Six and a half pound brown troutnumbers. Lure selection during winter in the waters I fish is simplified because of shad die-offs. During the coldest period of winter, generation below dams spews dead and dying shad pulled through intakes into the tail-waters below. Trout, stripers, catfish and other predators become so focused on this regenerating supply of easy-to-catch food they may ignore other food sources. Take a close look at shad or alewives you see floating along the surface below dams you fish and it will simplify lure selection because choosing the correct lure size is often more important than color. Color and flash draw attention and determine visibility at distance; lure size sells the offering. All three are important when dialing in the best choice in lures but most times lure size trumps the other two.

Though I’ve also fished less for trout this winter, I took one special trip to fish for them that was most memorable. My good friend John Flanagan called one dark, wintery day and asked if I’d like to join him for an afternoon of fly-fishing for trout on one of his favorite streams. I had never fly-fished but eagerly accepted the invitation. I met John at a book-signing event in Abingdon, VA last summer and we quickly became good friends. John is a highly skilled angler and serious fly-fishing enthusiast whose credentials include appearances on my friend Curtis Fleming’s television show, Fly Rod Chronicles. So I couldn’t have been more honored to join him and receive some hands-on training from such a talented fly-fisher. We scheduled our trip on a day when the air temperature was forecast to bump fifty-degrees, set a time and place to meet and our adventure was set.

A beautiful four-pound rainbow trout I caught on my first fly-fishing trip.

A beautiful four-pound rainbow trout I caught on my first fly-fishing trip.

When we arrived at the stream, the water was high and stained but our enthusiasm was little affected. John chose flies he believed would produce fish and rigged our fly rods for battle. For the rookie, John set up the fly-fishing equivalent of a bobber and nightcrawler; a float called a Thingamabobber and a fly that looked like a tiny garden redworm called a San Juan Worm on a 3x tippet, known among the uninitiated as eight-pound test line. After an extended but patient class that armed me with a clumsy roll cast and traditional delivery, serious fishing and further casting practice began. I was all thumbs when casting but was very familiar with the quarry, comfortable fishing a small stream and experienced when selecting spots that should hold trout. And the mental image of casting a bobber and nightcrawler increased my confidence. Soon I was attracting strikes and follows from hungry rainbows and in little time landed my first trout. I was most impressed with the battle on that long, limber rod and John had the drag set perfectly on the reel. I gained the greatest confidence in my tackle after hooking and landing a beautiful four-pound rainbow. The big fish charged downstream to the far end of the pool like a torpedo but with patience, I had little trouble working her back upstream to the net. By the end of the afternoon I had proudly landed five nice rainbows, though I’m sure it was not a graceful thing to watch. So I enjoyed my first fly-fishing trip immensely though I expect it may be a long time before Curtis Fleming asks me to be a guest on his show. However, I hope John invites me back soon for more casting practice and great stream-fishing for rainbow trout.

If you’re setting at home wishing for an early spring so you can go fishing, you’re missing some good fishing now. Bass, channel catfish, walleyes, crappie and others are grouped together in high numbers this time of year and offer exceptional fishing after you find them. If you prefer fishing streams and rivers, trout and smallmouth bass await. And there are few periods during the year when your chances of catching a trophy are better. If you need help getting started, pick up a copy of my book, The Weekend Angler’s Guide To Good Fishing and you’ll find the information needed to help you catch big fish throughout the cold-water period.

Be safe and good fishing!

The Summer Transition to Fall Fishing

Header - Twenty pound river striped bass

It’s been a hot, beautiful summer across much of the south. Temperatures ran above average with rainfall well below; ideal weather for most outdoor activities. Limited rain early in the season baked my lawn, reduced mowing time and provided more free time for fishing but that’s where the good news ended. 2014 was one of the toughest years for summer fishing I can remember. Lack of rain held water generation rates down on the upper-TVA system and free-flowing rivers became crystal clear and shallow, encouraging dense aquatic weed growth. Both provided good conditions for anglers who wade and fish for trout, smallmouth bass and others, but created impassable conditions in most places for those with jet-drive outboards. Several trips to check various sections of my favorite smallmouth river produced disappointing results. When we caught respectable numbers of fish the average size was below normal, partly because we were limited on where we could fish. The river sections that normally produce our largest smallmouth bass of the season were inaccessible this year by jet-drive because of reduced flow and heavy weed growth. Even my favorite section of big carp water was so filled with weeds it was unfishable. This was the summer I wished I owned a Kayak. Night-fishing on reservoirs for smallmouth bass was equally challenging. Local highland reservoirs eventually reached full pool but hot weather drove surface water temperatures to well above normal. We adjusted and fished deeper to catch many bass but our catch rate of big fish, those pushing or above four pounds, was less than normal. So when September brought the first cool night air, falling surface water temperatures and increased generation to drop reservoirs to winter pool, I was eager to find improved fishing and some larger fish.

Soon after water generation increased, tail-water fishing began to improve. The flow of cooler water drew fish into shallow, fast water and on our first trip to check my favorite local tail-water we caught a nine-pound hybrid and several trout. On our second trip, on our first drift in the fast water, a big brown trout smashed my minnow lure so hard it almost jerked the rod from my hand. I looked back in time to see the angry fish clear Twenty five plus tail-water brownthe water by two-feet and the battle was on. It was one of the hardest fighting browns I can remember with multiple water-clearing cartwheels and line-stripping runs. When we finally netted the twenty-five-inch-plus beauty I was trembling like a shy teenager on a first date. Fishing improved so quickly, I talked my wife Tammie into making a short trip after work one evening to try catching some fast-water trout. True to her reputation, she soon caught a beautiful male rainbow, as if it were no big deal. If you’ve not read my book, there’s a story in the last chapter that recounts how Tammie learned to fish and eventually earned the nickname, “Big Fish Woman”, emphasis on “Fish”, not “Big” as she always explains. Our success in that tail-water soon had me wondering when the exciting fall topwater fishing on area lakes would begin so I decided to visit a favorite reservoir and begin the search under the next major moon phase. My goal was to find some surface-schooling striped bass or hybrids.

A week later, on a mild, partly cloudy afternoon two days after a new moon, a friend and I launched his boat in the headwaters of a local reservoir. Surface water temperature at the ramp was in the low-seventies; not as low as we had hoped but close enough I thought we might find some surface feeding black bass or hybrids. We ran down the narrow lake arm until we found a broad, open section with a large cove, a place that should attract some shad and schooling predators. As we idled across open water, the depth finder showed clouds of baitfish close to the surface and an impressive concentration of larger fish below them. There was no question this area was going to provide some good fishing when the feeding blitz began. However, the temperature had increased since we’d left the ramp. In my experience, the best surface feeding action in fall begins as the water temperature falls through seventy degrees into the mid- and upper-sixties. We sat and watched for breaking fish for more than thirty minutes and covered one point with casts where we saw some smaller fish feeding. But soon we decided to move on. Further down lake the temperature increased further and though we found many schools of baitfish dimpling the surface, they were very small and the larger fish we expected to see below them were absent. It was time to change strategies.

After discussing our options, we decided to move back up the lake into the headwaters to a place where my friend and his wife had seen surface schooling shad the previous week and we had found some striped bass during late-summer last year. It was shallow and hazardous, more river-like than lake, but the shad were still there and my confidence increased when I noticed the water temperature had dropped below seventy degrees. So we slowed and moved ahead, though the waning daylight was beginning to make navigation even more hazardous. Soon, it became so shallow we turned off the big motor and cautiously moved forward with the trolling motor. We decided to continue as far as depth would allow, then cast our way back out toward deeper water. By the time darkness fell, we were in water less than three-feet deep in a river little more than two casts wide so we slowed the trolling motor to a crawl, grabbed our rods and prepared to start casting. My friend grabbed a long spinning combo rigged with a five-and-a-half-inch Storm Jointed Thunderstick and I a heavy baitcasting combo with a seven-inch Cordell Red Fin. If there were stripers or hybrids present, one of these lures retrieved slowly along the surface should elicit a response. Expectations were high when we made our first casts but we didn’t expect what was about to happen.

Striper on a Jointed ThunderstickSeveral casts into our adventure, the water exploded under my friends Thunderstick and “Fish on!” echoed through the darkness. But after a brief, thorough thrashing of the water, the big fish pulled free. Two casts later, a big boil rose beneath my Red Fin, but the fish didn’t touch the lure. Whether they were stripers or hybrids, I knew they could be very size-selective and quickly exchanged my baitcaster for a heavy spinning combo loaded with the same Storm Thunderstick. In minutes my rod bent under the weight of a fish, a small striper between three and four pounds. Soon after my friend landed another; a hybrid between five and six pounds. In the next few hours, the topwater action we experienced was nothing short of incredible and the stripers got larger as the night progressed. We moved slowly upstream and later learned we were in the last hundred yards or so of water deep enough to float the boat, or hold fish. So when we finally reached the farthest point, we turned the trolling motor off and quietly drifted back downstream. Several times, large wakes streaked across the shallows in the dim starlight and we could see baitfish leaping clear of the water to escape. We had several more hits and misses but landed four striped bass between eleven and eighteen pounds. The most impressive event of the evening occurred around midnight while drifting silently downstream. We cast simultaneously toward the far shoreline and our lures landed not more than thirty-feet apart. After a short retrieve, both lures exploded as if on timers. We’d already caught several good stripers but quickly realized these must be older relatives, perhaps grandparents. My fish turned and headed down the river so fast I had no time to react. In seconds, it stripped off thirty feet of line as if my reel had no drag and then pulled free. My partner’s fish decided it wanted to play first. After a few energetic wallows, short screaming runs and an explosion or two, the giant simply spit the lure back at him at boat side. That’s little exaggeration because there wasn’t much left of the hooks on the plug; just fragments of twisted metal. And the split ring mounting loop on the front of the plug was bent at a forty-five degree angle. I was surprised the split rings weren’t straightened and gone. It was an impressive display of power by two huge striped bass.

Several nights later, we returned for a rematch. This time we brought two boats; my friend with his wife, and I in my boat with frequent fishing partner Andy Barnes. Both our passengers had limited experience fishing for striped bass but were about to be fully initiated. In the next several hours, we collectively boated thirteen stripers up to fifteen pounds. I had another mid-teen fish pull free at boat side while Andy stood ready to net it. I waved it off as a victory because the fish had fought to near exhaustion. After quickly checking the hooks for damage, the topwater minnow again sailed into the darkness; no time to pout over a lost fish when the next cast might produce another. We all had more blowups and a few fish were lost but it was one of the most memorable trips I’ve had fishing for striped bass. This trip was made most special because we introduced newcomers to the exciting topwater fishing these powerful game fish offer. And the occasional shrill screams of a female voice echoing through the darkness made me chuckle every time. Later, as our companions drifted by us to leave, my friend’s wife started describing all the things she’d experienced. Her dialog began before we could hear her well, continued as fast as she could talk while they drifted slowly by, and finally dimmed into a series of high-pitched notes as they disappeared into the darkness. It was hilarious to hear that level of excitement in a grown woman’s voice. I was happy for her and proud of what she had achieved.

Many days of rain and high winds kept us from returning to our newly found striper honey-hole though we were impatient for one last visit before draw down of the lake erased the possibility. I was also concerned the cooling weather would drop the water temperature low enough the stripers would disperse back into the lake. So one calm, overcast evening when Andy called and said he could spring free for a few hours, we scrambled to pack the boat and leave for the lake. What we found was disappointing. The lake had already dropped so low that our previous fishing area was no Insert 3 - Andy's pic of striper 2longer accessible. After repeated attempts to find a channel deep enough to reach our hotspot, we decided to start fishing as far upstream as possible and fish what we could. We had a few boils on our topwater minnows but landed only two stripers. But to end on a high note, Andy caught his largest striped bass ever; a long, slender fish that pulled the scales to more than twenty pounds. To reinforce his memory of these powerful fish, he hooked another not long before we had to leave. It was another giant that easily ripped line from his reel as it streaked toward the main lake, then pulled free. It was an impressive way to end a late-summer encounter with one of our most powerful freshwater game fish.

So my focus has again returned to the great fall fishing that is about to occur on reservoirs across the south. It’s time to renew the search for surface feeding stripers, hybrids and black bass. And very soon, shallow water fishing for largemouth bass will rival the great fishing of spring, minus the heavy fishing pressure and recreational traffic. However, I’m sure it will be some time before our thoughts and conversations drift away from the incredible striped bass fishing we experienced as summer passed to early fall. If you’d like to learn more about finding and catching striped bass in small rivers throughout summer, refer to the “Hunting for Trophies” chapter in my book, The Weekend Angler’s Guide To Good Fishing. And if you need help finding some great fall fishing on your home waters, the information you need to get started is there as well. Be safe, have fun and great fall fishing!

From My Friends at R&S Bait Company

R&S Jigs 1

My journey as an author and writer has been filled with new experiences and adventures. Promoting my book, writing stories about fishing and doing related research has helped improve my writing and angling skills while creating opportunities to make new friends. As an author, the work I enjoy most is book signings because of the interesting people I meet and things I learn from them. Occasionally, fate will creep into what would otherwise be a chance encounter and one such meeting has evolved into a special friendship and business relationship.

Not long after my book was published in 2011, I attended an open house at a local fishing tackle shop in Bristol, VA to sign and sell books. The little shop was packed with vendors and customers when I arrived and soon found space at a table to set up. As I set out books and other materials, a soft-spoken man beside me extended his hand and introduced himself as Rodney Williams. While we exchanged greetings, I noticed he had a fly-tying vise set up with thread, hair, rubber skirt material and other supplies. But the jigs lying on the table in front of him grabbed my attention like a topwater strike. “Where did you get these jigs?” I asked while inspecting one with bulging eyes. “I make those jigs,” he replied and began telling me about his lure company’s history and products. As we talked, I picked up one of my books, flipped to a page in the “Summer Fishing” chapter, handed him the open book and pointed to a picture. “These are your jigs in my book,” I said as he looked closely at the picture, then also with bulging eyes. When he looked up smiling I said, “Mister Williams, I’ve been looking for you for a long time.” That was the beginning of what has become a close and trusted friendship.

There’s a feature story in the summer chapter of my book called “Smallmouth Bass in South Holston Lake” that describes how to fish the lake for smallmouths at night using black lights, fluorescent fishing line and small jigs. South Holston Lake is the setting but only because it allowed me to describe the lake, its nature, access points and other details of interest for visiting anglers. It’s also one of the top smallmouth bass fisheries in the South. The rest of the information provided in the story including how to find fish, recommended rod and line combinations, best methods of presentation, and other details were learned on various lakes across the southeast but with one exception; my first choice in jigs. At the time I Insert 1 - Arky Weedless Smallmouth Jig - rootbeerwrote my book Rodney Williams was making R&S Smallmouth Jigs part-time at his home in Gray, TN with limited distribution through local sources, primarily close to South Holston Lake, so they were very difficult to find. When I did find a few in sizes and colors I needed, often unpackaged and dumped in a small plastic container, I bought them all because there was no reliable source for replacements. After meeting Rodney Williams that day in Bristol, my worries about having the right jigs for smallmouth bass fishing disappeared.

But a jig is a jig is a jig, right? Not in my world. I’m as picky about choosing lures as most tournament professionals. I look at lures, actually all fishing tackle, as tools designed for particular jobs. I don’t tie on a lure or pick up a rod and reel combo because it’s a favorite but choose tackle because it’s the best choice for creating the presentation needed based on species, water depth and conditions. When presenting a crawfish profile to smallmouth bass there are specific attributes to look for in a jig. A small jig with a stand-up head and matching trailer resting on bottom looks much like a threatened crawfish in a defensive posture; a realistic profile that feeding bass often see. The Arky head used on R&S Smallmouth Jigs is among the best in stand-up designs. Sharp, premium hooks, an effective weed guard, quality-made construction and a selection of natural colors in the correct sizes rounds out my list of requirements and describes the R&S Smallmouth Jigs precisely. I’ve enjoyed consistent success using them over the years, including a few tournament wins, and have taught many friends how to fish with them. Of all the kinds of fishing I enjoy each year, more friends and family come to stay with me and fish using R&S Smallmouth Jigs at night with black lights for reservoir smallmouth bass than all others. They are that effective, and it is that enjoyable to fish with them.

Over time, R&S Bait Company owner Rodney Williams and I have become good friends. Visits to his home to replenish jig inventories evolved into reunions to catch up on business, family news and new fishing experiences. He invited me to attend the East Tennessee Fishing Show in Knoxville, TN in 2013 and again in 2014 to sign and sell books in their booth and help sell their line of fine fishing products, primarily their Arky Weedless Smallmouth Jigs. I was grateful for the opportunity and enjoyed recommending R&S jigs to the angling public. It’s fun to promote and sell fishing products you use and believe in to people who share your passion for catching fish so we sold out of smallmouth jigs early at both shows. Furthermore, the feedback we received from visiting anglers was complementary and sometimes entertaining. One morning, a gentleman elbowed his way to the front of our booth and openly gave thanks R&S was back for the 2014 show. With increasing animation, he described his success with the smallmouth jigs, how he’d lost his R&S contact information, and searched everywhere for replacements. I thought for a moment he was going to cry. A middle-school-age young man helping in another vendor’s booth came by one afternoon and bought a couple smallmouth jigs to try. The next morning before the show opened he ran straight to our booth to tell us he’d gone to the river in downtown Knoxville and caught one of his largest smallmouth bass ever on one of his new R&S jigs. It’s always a joy to share in the excitement and success of our angling youth. Endorsements like those can’t be topped.

Insert 2  - R&S product selection collage editR&S Bait Company has expanded their product line and is now ready to offer their fishing lures and accessories to the angling public on a grand scale. Rodney Williams has recently retired after thirty-seven years in law enforcement and is devoting his energy fulltime to manufacturing and selling hand-crafted lures and other fine fishing products. Their new Web site, rsbait.com, displays their line of products, company history, instructional videos, photo gallery and a few stories from my Blog. The Arky Weedless Smallmouth Jig will continue to be R&S’s showcase product but they also offer a selection of other jigs, swimbait heads, weighted hooks, spinnerbaits and buzzbaits and all are made with the same attention to detail and high-quality workmanship. Their newly designed swimbait head with stainless-steel screwlock has already attracted the attention of top tournament anglers. To compliment their line of hand-crafted products, R&S is also offering some carefully selected lures produced by other manufacturers including P60 and P70 Pop-R’s, Luck E Strike blade baits, Zoom soft plastics, a new line of swimming jigs from Snow Spin and Basstrix Swimbaits, perhaps the top selling swimbait on the planet. Fly-tying materials such as thread and craft hair are also available so there are products at rsbait.com for anglers with various interests.

The item in their premier product listing that I’m most proud to announce is copies of my book, The Weekend Angler’s Guide To Good Fishing. I was flattered when Rodney asked if he could offer my book as one of the products selected for their new Web site. It’s an honor to be associated with an honest, family-owned and operated small business that is committed to providing top-quality products and services. Their Web site was designed and produced by my good friend and frequent fishing partner Andy Barnes with The Possible Zone in Kingsport, TN, also a local small business, that specializes in online marketing, branding, web design, even boat wraps and graphics; a service of special interest to serious tournament anglers. I think you’ll find the R&S Web site attractive, well designed and user friendly; comparable to many leading industry manufacturers. So if you’ve considered buying a copy of my book, you can now add one to your shopping cart when ordering products from R&S Bait Company. I highly recommend you try their Weedless Arky Smallmouth Jigs in your favorite smallmouth waters. And don’t overlook the Zoom Tiny Chunk trailers for the jigs or their selection of lead heads designed for almost any method of presentation with soft plastics. If you see something of interest on the site but have a question about hook size, other colors or custom work, contact information is provided so you can get an answer directly from Rodney Williams. Whether you fish for bass, stripers, walleyes or panfish, R&S Bait Company offers products to help you catch them. Welcome a new small business to the fishing tackle industry by visiting their Web site and placing an order. I’m sure you’ll be pleased with their selection, workmanship and services.

Be safe and good fishing!

           

Hot Fun In The Summertime

Female shellcracker

As a longtime outdoors person, there’s one thing I’ve noticed through the years; when winter is long and cold with above-average snow, spring is often short and hot. Such was the case in East Tennessee this year. I had barely recovered from the last snowstorm when air temperatures shot into the eighties and stayed there. I continued to carry cold-weather clothing in my new boat-hauling vehicle until it became obvious it was no longer needed. I had to laugh while unloading a goose-down jacket from the back one morning in shorts, no shirt and bare feet. The hot weather was welcome until it became apparent that area water temperatures were climbing quickly and seasonal rainfall had disappeared with the lower temperatures. Furthermore, TVA had been forced to reduce water generation through dams to allow upstream lakes to reach summer pool, which meant extended periods of no flow in local tail-waters and reduced flow in many rivers. After realizing it was going to be a short, hot and dry spring the rush was on to enjoy the remaining good spring fishing while it lasted.

Nineteen and a half female rainbow troutGood spring trout fishing was the first to diminish. With reduced water flow, my favorite area tail-water soon warmed to temperatures above the trout’s preferred range and my best trophy-trout river became so shallow it could no longer be fished from a boat. My friends and I continued to catch some good trout by moving downstream toward reservoir headwaters into deeper, cooler water, though the average size and number of fish we caught was less than normal. We missed the extended period of fine spring trout fishing this year and the great night fishing for shallow-water hybrids was equally short. After several successful trips, lake surface temperatures moved into the low- to mid-80’s and larger hybrids retreated from the shallows. On our last trip to fish for them we found a few fish breaking and threw everything we had at them before finally catching one that barely stretched to the fifteen-inch minimum legal size. After that fruitless night, the spring hybrid blitz was over. Hybrids are one of my favorite fish, to catch and to eat, so I was disappointed that the best shallow-water fishing for them was over for the year. Little did I know; it wasn’t the last I’d see of Mr. Hybrid.

A few weeks later, we went to a local highland reservoir on our first trip of the season to fish at night for smallmouth bass. At the first place we stopped, we found a young couple stranded in a broken-down pontoon boat in the back of a small cove. After a long, slow tow to the closest marina and safety, we returned to our starting point and started fishing. On my second or third cast into the darkness with a tiny jig and 4-pound diameter line, a gorilla of a fish grabbed my lure and bent my rod in half. I struggled to loosen my drag while the monster headed for deep water, ripping line from my reel. I was sure I’d hooked the smallmouth bass of my dreams. After a long, exciting fight, my fishing partner netted the beast in the dim light and we could see the profile of a huge fish struggling in the net; it was Moby Smallmouth. When we turned on a flashlight to admire the fish, shock struck both of us. It was an eight-plus-pound hybrid striped bass; from a lake that has never been stocked with hybrids or striped bass. What are the odds of that?! We could not believe it was a hybrid. After regaining my composure, I decided that fish was a gift, a reward for rescuing the young couple from a long dark night on the lake or compensation for the shortened spring hybrid fishing. I was not sure which but was no less thankful for catching it and decided to make it my last grilled hybrid of the season. My policy is: Don’t insult the giver by not accepting and appreciating a gift. That experience, and the marvelous meals that followed, marked the end of my transition into summer fishing mode.

Twenty-inch smallmouth from Boone LakeGood summer night-fishing for smallmouth bass in reservoirs is now underway. I’ve made several trips to fish for them and enjoyed success. Surface water temperatures in most area reservoirs are well into the eighties and the bass are staged on normal summer structures and feeding heavily at night, though most are holding deeper than normal. In early summer, it’s common to find smallmouths holding and active between twelve- and eighteen-feet. Most nights this is the range where you can find and catch many fish. However, it’s not uncommon to catch smaller fish in shallower water, or an occasional larger one that has moved shallow to feed, but twelve- to eighteen-feet is a reliably productive range. When fishing this depth range, it’s best to hold the boat over thirty-feet or a little deeper water. With higher surface temperatures this season, the best action has been between eighteen- and twenty-five feet. Again, we’ve caught some bass shallower including a few nice ones, but most fish caught and all the larger smallmouths have been hooked at twenty-feet or a little deeper. To fish this range without moving on top of the bass we’ve changed our holding depth to between thirty-five- and forty-feet deep. To the inexperienced, this may sound like a complicated way to fish and difficult to learn, but it’s not. It’s a productive way to catch smallmouth bass throughout summer when boat traffic and fishing pressure are lowest and the fish are active and feeding. For a complete guide on finding and catching them at night on reservoirs including the approach, tackle, and lures I use, refer to the chapter on summer fishing in my book, The Weekend Angler’s Guide To Good Fishing.

One of my goals this year is to spend more time fishing for panfish. Last fall I found a tiny lake in the mountains of Southwest Virginia with a reputation for producing good bluegills and shellcrackers so when the weather began warming I bought a Virginia fishing license, inventoried and added a few items to my bream fishing toolbox, confirmed a reliable source for buying crickets and started watching the Moon phase and weather forecast. This little lake is the kind of small waters to search for when targeting larger bream and largemouth bass. It’s less than one-hundred acres, has several fresh water sources, a good mixture of deep versus shallow water, and a balanced population of panfish in various age classes including trophies. To add to the lake’s potential, gasoline-powered motors are not permitted and much of it is covered with flooded timber, making boat navigation hazardous. These features help reduce fishing pressure. A combination of thunderstorms and high winds kept me off the water during the first major spawning period of early summer but the next full moon arrived with a free morning when the probability of thunderstorms was low enough to warrant an exploratory trip. In a half day, I fished about a third of the lake and did find a few Late May in bream heavenspawning beds; difficult because the water was heavily stained. The lake’s dark, tannic water reminds me of those in Ontario but recent heavy rains had dropped water clarity to almost zero. Many smaller fish were caught that first morning but several large bluegills and one nice shellcracker were included in the catch. It was enough to whet my appetite so I began making plans for a full day of fishing, despite Moon phase, as soon as my schedule and the weather forecast permitted.

It was a partly cloudy, hot, muggy morning the day before a new moon when I next launched my boat on my newest fishing hotspot. Because the fish would not be on spawning beds, I’d rigged several ultralight spinning combos to help me find and catch fish. With a few crickets on hand, one was filled with fluorescent braided line and a six-pound fluorocarbon leader tipped with a small hook and split shot to present them along bottom. I also brought several tiny spoons to fish with this combo and quickly cover various bottoms depths, if needed. A second combo was set up with a drop-shot rig to present tiny one-inch Gulp Minnows a foot or more off bottom after finding concentrations of fish. A third combo was rigged with a fluorescent monofilament mainline, a six-pound fluorocarbon leader and a tiny snap for presenting small lures horizontally and closer to the surface. I had done more homework since my first visit and found a map of the lake on the Internet showing the maximum water depth and what sections held the deepest water. On my first trip, I hadn’t gone far enough out on the lake to reach the deepest water but this time went there first. When water temperature peaks in summer, many fish move to areas close to deep water so my plan was to begin fishing shorelines close to the deepest water in the lake. I moved to a point leading into a large lake arm where depth was greatest, slowed my trolling motor speed and began watching my depth finder as the boat eased along the edge of a wall of weed growth that extended several feet off shore. My first objective was to find fish and determine the depth at which they were most concentrated.

Trolling using the depth finderThe weed edge along shore varied in width and density depending on changes in bottom depth but created a vertical wall that ended abruptly at five-feet deep. Water depth outside but close to the edge varied from seven-feet to around twelve-feet. Moving far out into the lake wasn’t wise because the middle of the lake arm was full of protruding dead trees and stumps hidden just below the water’s surface. I soon learned to watch carefully and move about slowly because my boat struck hidden stumps several times. Once, after becoming a little overanxious, the boat hung securely on top of a big stump and I briefly thought swimming might be the only way to free it. But other than where a couple trees had fallen, there was an open boat lane for a long way close to shore. Before moving far, suspended fish appeared on the depth finder between three- and about five-feet deep so I quietly turned the boat, moved offshore as far as possible without crashing into wood and returned to my starting point. The boat lane continued for several hundred yards so I decided to troll a minnow imitation along the weed edge and continue the search. I’d brought several small hard-baits from my trout toolbox and chose a tiny crankbait with a green back, white belly and diving lip that would take the lure to the correct range of depths. It was a good choice because that one lure caught fish almost nonstop the rest of the day.

I trolled along shore with a single rod and reel until water became too shallow or flooded wood created a barrier. Where forward movement was blocked, I reeled in the lure, moved around the obstacle or turned and began trolling back along the same path. Trolling along at a slow, steady pace of about one mph worked surprisingly well when action was added to the presentation by pulling the lure forward, then dropping line back until the lure slowed or stopped. Twitching the lure erratically produced similar results. I had many strikes doing this and soon learned not to set the hook until a fish pulled a bend in the rod. It was entertaining to troll along, suddenly see suspended fish on the depth finder, feel them begin striking at the plug and finally see the rod bend under the weight of a fish. Multiple thumps on the lure before hookups were common. Larger bream are determined fighters and test an angler’s fighting skill on light tackle in cover. After several fish pulled free, including a couple jumbos, I decided the hooks on my crankbait were too small to hold harder pulling fish so I paused for a few minutes to inspect my newest fishing tool. I’d brought four of these diminutive crankbaits in various colors, all the same length at one-and-a-quarter inches, and each with a tiny set of size 14 treble hooks. After a close inspection of each, I found the lure’s name on the bill of one: Ugly Shellcracker on an Ugly DucklingDuckling. I recognized the name but couldn’t remember buying or ever fishing with them. But I vowed to find and buy a couple more in brighter colors because they’re impressively effective fishing tools for panfish, run true, adjust easily when they don’t, produce a lively throbbing action, and have nice paint jobs. After studying the lure, I upsized the rear treble to a size 12 and didn’t lose another fish the rest of the day. The change made the hooks more likely to tangle but it was a minor inconvenience while trolling with a short line. Furthermore, the added weight caused the Ugly Duckling to suspend right under the surface instead of float though the change didn’t alter the lures action or running depth much because bluegills, shellcrackers and crappie attacked it equally well after the rear hook was changed.

I spent most of the day trolling the Ugly Duckling, including a second color, but stopped occasionally where fish were most concentrated to present Gulp Minnows on a drop-shot rig. Where fish were holding closer to bottom, the drop-shot rig attracted strikes and produced some of my largest bluegills of the day. However, it was difficult to stop trolling when the fish were whacking those tiny crankbaits so well. A variety of mini crankbaits and minnows are available for panfish anglers today including those made by Rapala, Rebel, Yo-Zuri, and others. If you decide to try trolling for bream this summer on your home waters, choose two or three brands of hard baits that run at various depths in natural colors for clear conditions, brighter patterns for periods of low visibility and make sure each is well tuned and runs true. Then, go take a drive along shore close to deep water where dense cover or weed growth attracts panfish.  I’m going to spend more time fishing for these wonderful fish this summer after finding a beautiful Bream Dinnerplace that offers good fishing for them. Next trip, I’ll take along some slip bobber rigs, small jigs and other tools to continue my search for trophies and more fresh-fish dinners. Bream are fun to catch on ultralight tackle and delicious deep fried. But if you find a special place with a good population of larger fish, keep midsize and smaller fish for the table and release the largest to conserve the resource and support continued good fishing.