December 14, 2022
It was my first day on the water at the start of a long-awaited fishing vacation. I was tossing a drop-shot rig to the break on a rock-strewn shoreline on one of my favorite Minnesota smallmouth lakes. A light peck triggered a hook-set and a few turns of the reel handle raised the fish off bottom. In a blink, it did what smallmouths often do—a power dive into deeper water. I boated it, a heavy 4-pounder, but fished the rest of my trip with a sprained right wrist. Ah smallmouths!
The native range of smallmouth bass extends from the Great Lakes states and provinces east to the Appalachians, west to Iowa and the eastern half of the Dakotas, southwest into the Ozarks, and south to the Tennessee River valley. Although often regarded as a northern fish, outstanding brown-bass fishing is available in the South, too.
The Nature of Southern Smallmouths
Smallmouths are smallmouths, wherever they roam, but their behavior—and your fishing success—is influenced by habitat and forage. The southern reservoirs where smallmouths thrive share similar characteristics: deep, rocky, and with clear water. Water clarity, though, is variable. Because they’re impoundments of streams and rivers with large watersheds, precipitation often results in sediment inputs and muddy water. Late winter and early spring are the wet seasons, and rain often comes as erosive torrents. So even clear-water reservoirs can get turbid seasonally or for brief periods at any time.
All reservoirs were built for a purpose. In hydropower impoundments, generation schedules vary seasonally, with strong impacts on current, which strongly affects bass activity and location. Current also prevents stratification and development of a thermocline, so bass can be anywhere. Flood-control reservoirs can have drastic—as much as 40 to 60 feet—seasonal fluctuations with drawdowns beginning in fall, low water in the winter, and then a return to full pool after spring flooding passes. Productive habitats vary seasonally, as they do everywhere, but drastic water-level fluctuations make for steep learning curves.
For better and for worse, temperatures in southern waters are warmer. Ice is a rarity, and smallmouths can be caught all winter. But summer brings heat. I’ve seen my temperature gauge read 95°F on Pickwick, a mid-afternoon reading in the upper 1 to 2 feet of water. Nevertheless, when water temperature climbs into the mid-80°F range, the best bite is early or late, and tough in between. Heavy summer rains, although they bring muddy water, can provide cool, fish-attracting inflows in the backs of coves. Fishing effectively in 100-degree heat without a breeze requires mental discipline, so night-fishing is a popular option.
“The biggest difference between northern and southern smallmouths is forage,” says four-time Bassmaster Classic champion Kevin VanDam of Michigan. “They’re opportunistic predators and crayfish are a dietary staple everywhere, but gizzard and threadfin shad are their dominant prey in southern reservoirs. Shad are pelagic, nomadic, so the location and availability of desirable-size (2- to 5-inch) shad is seasonally variable. Follow the shad.”
Southern streams provide excellent smallmouth opportunities but also present challenges. They fluctuate in stage, current velocity, and turbidity and these variations are often magnified there. Rainfall patterns tend to make southern streams flashier and more vulnerable to muddy conditions.
Although many factors affect growth rate, an analysis of 409 smallmouth populations throughout North America found faster growth in the South where the growing season is longer. State-record catches indicate southern waters tend to grow larger smallmouths, but state-record fish exceed 9 pounds in three northern states and 8 pounds in four northern states. Faster growth rate is conducive to a larger size structure in heavily fished populations.
I relied on B.A.S.S. Nation State Conservation Directors to identify lakes (reservoirs), rivers, and streams regarded as the best smallmouth waters and direct me to experts on those waters. Listing only one waterway per state grossly understates the opportunities available in most southern states. For example, in smallmouth-rich Tennessee, Center Hill, Percy Priest, and Tims Ford reservoirs and the Elk and Holston rivers all offer excellent smallmouth fishing.
When to Go
Winter is the best time for quality smallmouths in most reservoirs, but spring, fall, and even summer can offer excellent fishing. The best waters attract crowds of recreational and tournament anglers and pleasure boaters, so avoid weekends and holidays in the warmer months.
Streams also offer good winter fishing for smallmouths, and most provide good action year-round. Tom Kirkman, who plies the North Carolina waters of the Little Tennessee River with a flyrod, has his best days when water temperatures are 60°F to 65°F. Kentuckian Jimmy Gayhart says Elkhorn Creek is good year-round, but April and May usually provide the best conditions for floating. Tennessee guide Capt. Jake Davis knows smallmouths are more active in cooler water and prefers springtime on the Duck River. Good stream fishing depends on river stage and discharge. And many southern streams are affected by dam discharges.
Patterns and Presentations
VanDam has fished dozens of southern waters and his insights provide a foundation for fishing many southern lakes. “Smallmouths are current-oriented, and their behavior is influenced by power-generation schedules and tributary inflows,” he says. “Gravel is an essential ingredient of many patterns, but the type of gravel varies with the season. Lure choices are based on forage type and water clarity.”
He opts for bottom presentations with crayfish-color crankbaits, a Strike King Structure Bug, or a football jig with a Rage Craw trailer. In lakes with current, swimbaits and heavy spinnerbaits slow-rolled along bottom are effective. “Jerkbaits are deadly in clear water, and I always have a tube and drop-shot ready,” he says.
In winter, patterns often involve fishing jigs on primary and secondary points, working jerkbaits and crankbaits on windblown flats, and tossing umbrella rigs around concentrations of shad. When water temperature drops below 45°F, veteran Dale Hollow angler Scott LeFevers relies on a float-and-fly. On calm, cold bluebird days on Lake Cumberland in Kentucky, Jimmy Gayhart tempts big smallmouths by casting small swimbaits on light jigs along bluff walls and allowing the lure to pendulum back.
The Prespawn Period is a time for crankbaits, jerkbaits, and Carolina-rigged creature baits fished on gravel bars, as fish transition from deeper structure to shallower areas. After the spawn, smallmouths move to main-lake points outside spawning pockets and then to river ledges and can be caught on deep-diving crankbaits, swimbaits, and hair jigs.
Dark-color spinnerbaits with big Colorado blades fished at night account for lots of big summertime smallmouths. Fall is a time to key on concentrations of shad with shad-imitating crankbaits, jerkbaits, spinnerbaits, and swimbaits, as well as topwaters. Finesse presentations work, but anglers pursuing big bass lean toward larger presentations when water temperature is above 50°F.
Downsized lures like grubs and tubes produce in southern streams, but power presentations like spinnerbaits, crankbaits, and jerkbaits are effective where big fish prowl. West Virginia angler and promotional director for Mountain State Kayak Anglers Chris Shafer chases feisty 5- to 6-pound New River bass with a #130 River2Sea Whopper Plopper from late spring through fall.
In southern lakes, “good days” range from a few fish to 30 to 40 per day with most from 1.5 to 3.5 pounds. Many waters regularly produce fish over 5 pounds. LeFevers reports that on a good day, Dale Hollow produces 20 to 40 bass in the 16- to 21-inch protected slot with a few over.
Rivers and streams are outstanding and overlooked southern smallmouth fisheries. Among the anglers I interviewed, 20- to 60-fish days are common, and many rivers offer good numbers of fish over 4 pounds with a shot at a 6-plus.
*Dr. Hal Schramm, Counce, Tennessee, is an avid bass angler, fishery biologist, and freelance writer. He frequently contributes to In-Fisherman publications. Contact: Capt. Jake Davis, midsouthbassguide.com.