Category Archives: Summer Fishing
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.
Not 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 strained for a clear view of my adversary 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 serenity. 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.
So 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.
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.
Good 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.
Good 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 spawning 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.
The 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 Duckling. 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 place 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.
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.
It’s been a hot, dry spring in east Tennessee. Summer’s just begun yet local rivers and reservoirs are unusually clear with temperatures above seasonal averages. Water temperatures higher than eighty-degrees are above the preferred range of many popular game fish but bass, bream and several others offer good fishing in early summer. However, many anglers are still out in force on most reservoirs and high fishing pressure often has a negative effect on fishing success. Too many pleasure boaters have a similar effect. I don’t resent any of them enjoying themselves, but I prefer not to set in line waiting for a fishing spot while I bob and sway in churning boat wakes. Bless their hearts; I hope all of them have the very best time but I excuse myself and spend my time where conditions are more favorable for catching fish. So when my longtime fishing buddy, Rodger Davis, called and told me he was coming from Atlanta to fish through the new moon, I knew I had to find places we could fish with lower water temperatures, fishing pressure and boat traffic. Because he doesn’t visit often and is an accomplished angler, I wanted to take him where we could catch some good fish with a few eye poppers mixed in. After checking area water generation schedules, I decided we should go see what the local smallmouth bass were up to.
The first afternoon we packed our tackle, plenty of bottled water and headed up a local river under overcast skies. It was the only day in the five-day forecast that called for mostly cloudy conditions so I knew it would be our best chance to catch some river smallmouths without suffering heatstroke. The water level was so low we had to walk my jet-drive boat upstream through one shoal, though the flowing current was cool and refreshing in the afternoon heat. Generation from an upstream dam was holding water temperatures in the mid-seventies, an ideal range, but as we continued up river I realized exploding weed growth and shallow, crystal-clear water were going to limit the type lures we could use. Subsurface lures with treble hooks were out of the question in most places so we started with small surface lures. We each tied a Rebel Pop-R on a medium action spinning combo and went to work. I had one good blow-up by an impressive fish but it soon became obvious the smallmouths wouldn’t take surface lures in the bright, clear conditions. We decided to make a change.
We needed a realistic, weedless lure we could fish quickly at various depths and through shallow, dense cover so I grabbed a box of soft-plastic stickbaits and began rigging a second rod. My second rod and reel, also a medium-action spinning combo, was spooled with Flame Green, four-pound diameter/ten-pound breaking strength Fireline. To keep the fish from seeing my bright primary line I added five feet of fluorocarbon line in a comparable breaking strength using a double uni-knot. With this combo and rigging, I could cast a mile, see the slightest line movement, and present the lure with an invisible, highly abrasion-resistant line attached. After Rodger rigged a similar combo we moved back upriver and began fishing the same water, this time with much better results. We discovered there were plenty of fish in the scattered grass beds and deeper pockets around rock shelves. Shallow shoals produced nice bass on the upstream face and in spots where the water began to slow downstream. In the low, clear water soft-plastic stickbaits attracted strikes from various sizes of smallmouths to nineteen inches with several weighing between one and three pounds.
Weedless soft-plastic stickbaits fished in river current offer realistic presentations. Four- and five-inch sticks rigged on weighted wide-gap hooks glide along bottom contours and through weeds with erratic, natural actions. To present these little fish-catchers, make a long cast, twitch the bait, let it drift a couple feet, then twitch it again. Vary the number of twitches and the time you let the lure drift. However, don’t let it drift too far or it may wash under something and hang. It’s best to work soft-plastic stickbaits close to bottom though dragging the lure on bottom is a good way to snag one. Increase the amount of drift time in slower, deeper water and increase the frequency of twitching in swifter water to make the lure run shallower. Keep the little minnow moving with a darting and drifting motion and it will slide through weeds and over rocks with a natural appearance and few snags. At times, a smallmouth will grab the lure and you’ll feel a distinct tap but it’s more common to see the line jump or begin moving without feeling the fish. If you feel a fish strike, see the line jump, begin to tighten or move to the side, point the rod at the fish, reel until the line begins to tighten and set the hook. If it’s not a bluegill or pip-squeak bass, the rod will bow and you’ll suddenly have your hands full.
Late in the day the clouds cleared and it became brutally hot so we moved to a shaded shoreline to take a water break. When the sun began to set, we headed back upriver to fish some spots that had produced fish. Stickbaits continued to catch good fish but as the sun touched the horizon and light faded, I had to try my little topwater lure again and found bass eager to strike it in the waning light. I caught several more bass on my Pop-R before darkness settled and we headed for the ramp, though most were smaller fish. On this day, under these conditions, soft-plastic stickbaits were top choices and by choosing the right tackle to present them, we enjoyed a productive afternoon of fishing under some tough conditions. Though the river was low and clear, water temperature was ideal and smallmouths were active and feeding. The heat and low water kept most anglers off the river because we saw only one other boat all afternoon. I’m not sure how many smallmouths we caught by day’s end but I’m certain between fifteen and twenty. With a nineteen-inch, dark-barred beauty topping the list we felt good about our first day on the water.
Late the following afternoon we headed for a highland reservoir along the mountainous western edge of Cherokee National Forest to try some night fishing for smallmouth bass. The eastern half of Tennessee is blessed with many highland reservoirs including Dale Hollow, Norris, Watauga, and South Holston and each offers good fishing. South Holston is closest to home, the most beautiful and has an excellent smallmouth bass population so we repacked the boat and headed for the nearest ramp. We arrived on the dam end of the lake as darkness fell, rigged a pair of blacklights, and eased toward the first in a series of points that had produced tournament winning bass for me. As we idled across open water in depths approaching 250 feet the cool night air felt refreshing, a much more pleasant environment than baking in the heat on a sunny, shallow river. Surface water temperature varied between the mid-seventies and eighty degrees, ideal considering temperatures in many local lowland lakes had already moved well into the eighties. In tackle, we chose the same spinning combos spooled with thin, bright-yellow line that we’d used for stickbaits on the river, but changed lures to tiny 1/8-ounce jigs with plastic trailers. With thin line and light jigs, we could thoroughly explore the bottom down to twenty-five- or thirty-feet. Time to set back, relax, enjoy the beautiful night sky and slowly crawl a jig.
Slowly crawling a tiny jig across bottom may sound boring to those used to fishing faster moving lures but set your mind to focus on what the jig’s telling you and it’ll hold your attention like a vice. With four-pound diameter braided line and a jig that weighs little more than an eighth ounce the lure will float along bottom, climb everything in its path and telegraph a steady stream of information about the lake bottom. Occasionally a jig will hang and be lost so it’s wise to bring a few extras; however, match the right line diameter with the weight of the lure and the system is surprising weedless. You’ll feel the jig strike and crawl over a rock, the bottom change from mud to gravel, and weightlessness as the lure falls down a steep incline. Line watching is equally important because you can learn to read water depth based on the time it takes the lure to hit bottom after a cast and when it falls along drop-offs. Water depth is an important detail to track because most fish will feed at a particular depth during the night and the key to success is finding and fishing that depth. If that isn’t enough to keep your mind busy, occasionally a nice bass will come along and attack your lure. Many times when a smallmouth bass strikes a jig, you’ll feel a distinct tap through the rod and the line will jump, though it’s equally common to see the line twitch without feeling anything. Then of course there are the sneaky ones, often larger fish, which simply pick up the jig and start swimming away. If you let your mind drift, you’ll suddenly notice your line has started moving to the side, or is mysteriously under the boat. After that happens a time or two you won’t be able to close your eyes for hours. So there’s nothing boring about this method of fishing. Learn to do it well and you’ll be hooked and so will some nice smallmouth bass.
In the first hour or so, we couldn’t buy a strike though we fished some of my most reliable spots. But soon baitfish started coming up, flipping along the surface over shallow points and along shorelines. Then I started hearing walleyes popping along shore, feeding on the baitfish. One point was so full of walleyes we changed tackle and lures and started casting to them. But that’s another story; we’ll talk about walleyes in highland reservoirs another time. After we fished my favorite series of points with little success on bass we decided to move, give the area a rest, and try another place. I was confident the bass would move shallow and feed soon because baitfish were now up and plentiful. On the next series of points, some nice smallmouths were also up and feeding. After the action began we caught bass on most points we fished, including some we had worked earlier with no success. Action remained steady the rest of the night with some nice smallmouths coming to the net. We were so busy and had such a good time we didn’t notice when the sky starting to lighten, but as I unhooked a good bass I looked up and saw the eastern sky glowing. We were shocked; we’d been there all night without checking the time once.
The following two nights we returned to the same creek arm on the lower end of South Holston Lake. We didn’t catch any of the giant smallmouths this lake has a reputation of producing but we caught many nice bass and our time on the water was packed with excitement. With few exceptions, the fish fought like cornered tigers displaying frequent airborne bursts and drag-screaming runs. I vividly remember one three-pound bully who tried to eat the trolling motor prop. I’m still not sure how I got the fish untangled but I distinctly remember collapsing in my seat, hands trembling, when Rodger laid the net full of struggling bass at my feet. And it wasn’t an isolated incident because several smallmouths shocked us by fighting like much larger fish. Then there was the double we caught on the last point we fished on our last night. We were talking some smack as we stood in the dim blue light with bowed rods. If you’ve never night fished with jigs and florescent line under a black light, it’s an otherworldly kind of experience. The dim light illuminates shorelines and overhanging trees just enough to help navigate as you quietly ease about. But the glowing florescent lines look like one-inch well rope, making it easy to watch your partner’s line out the corner of your eye. So when either angler sees line movement or feels something unusual, the response often becomes a shared process. The angler who thinks he had a strike begins a commentary that not only describes what he’s feeling and seeing, but begs for confirmation from the supporting audience. Though the dialogue may be brief, it’s oftentimes punctuated with laughter and an exciting ending. So night fishing with black lights is an entertaining as well as productive way to catch fish.
About half the smallmouths we caught weighed from one-half to two pounds with several pushing or exceeding three. We didn’t weigh any of the bass we caught because we wanted to release them quickly in the warm water, but our largest measured from seventeen-and-a-half to more than nineteen inches. Most were caught in depths between fifteen and twenty-five feet with a few striking in shallower water. And under stable weather, the bass moved up and started hitting around the same time each night. We saw few other boats in three nights so we had the lake to ourselves and our choice of places to fish. Not a bad way to spend time during an early summer heat wave and drought.
If you’d like to learn more about fishing for smallmouth bass in rivers and reservoirs, pick up a copy of my book and refer to the chapter on summer fishing. You’ll find plenty of useful information that will help you catch these great game fish in waters close to you including tips on finding fish, night fishing safety, choosing tackle, smallmouth color preferences and more. Be safe and great fishing!