Skip to main content

Smallmouths Booming in Southern Waters

Warmer temps mean smallmouths can be caught all winter.

Smallmouths Booming in Southern Waters

Guide Jake Davis displays a 22-pound 5-fish limit from local waters.

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.


Angler holding a smallmouth bass, sitting on kayak on shore
Blace Hutchens fishes the New River, Virginia-West Virginia, often using a kayak below Sandstone Falls.

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.


Growth

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.

Best Waters

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.    




chart of smallmouth bass fisheries and when to go

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.”

Recommended


angler in yellow hat holds a smallmouth bass
Scott Lefevers fishes Dale Hollow, relying on float-and-fly tactics when water temperature drops below 45°F.

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.

angler holds a smallmouth bass with fish grips in a kayak
Kayak angler Chris Shafer chases New River smallmouths, often using topwater lures from late spring into fall.

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.

Expectations

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.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

Recent Videos

Pro angler Bill McDonald compares the classic Rage Bug compared to the new Rage Scoun Bug, which is a new profile that i...
Fishing

Always Ready

Pro angler Bill McDonald compares the classic Rage Bug compared to the new Rage Scoun Bug, which is a new profile that i...
Learn

How Jay Pzrekurat RIGS a Dropshot for Smallmouth Bass

Pro angler Bill McDonald compares the classic Rage Bug compared to the new Rage Scoun Bug, which is a new profile that i...
Learn

The BEST Smallmouth Bass Bait EVER?

Pro angler Bill McDonald compares the classic Rage Bug compared to the new Rage Scoun Bug, which is a new profile that i...
Learn

Josh Stracner Shares his FAVORITE Fall Baits for Bass

Pro angler Bill McDonald compares the classic Rage Bug compared to the new Rage Scoun Bug, which is a new profile that i...
Learn

Josh Stracner talks about why you NEED 2D Sonar

Pro angler Bill McDonald compares the classic Rage Bug compared to the new Rage Scoun Bug, which is a new profile that i...
Learn

Why Josh Stracner LOVES the Strike King Rage Swimmer for Fall Bass

Pro angler Bill McDonald compares the classic Rage Bug compared to the new Rage Scoun Bug, which is a new profile that i...
Learn

Mark Zona talks about his SIGNATURE SERIES Rods from Lew's

Pro angler Bill McDonald compares the classic Rage Bug compared to the new Rage Scoun Bug, which is a new profile that i...
Learn

Mark Rose talks about the POWER of the Strike King Zeus Worm

Pro angler Bill McDonald compares the classic Rage Bug compared to the new Rage Scoun Bug, which is a new profile that i...
Gear

Mark Davis DEMONSTRATES that Less is More with a Dropshot

Pro angler Bill McDonald compares the classic Rage Bug compared to the new Rage Scoun Bug, which is a new profile that i...
Gear

Veteran Pro Angler Mark Davis says you NEED to Take Another Look at the Carolina RIG!!

Pro angler Bill McDonald compares the classic Rage Bug compared to the new Rage Scoun Bug, which is a new profile that i...
Learn

Mark Rose's TOP 5 Fall Bass Fishing Baits

Pro angler Bill McDonald compares the classic Rage Bug compared to the new Rage Scoun Bug, which is a new profile that i...
Learn

Bill McDonald talks about the NEW Rage Scoun Bug

In-Fisherman Magazine Covers Print and Tablet Versions

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

Buy Digital Single Issues

Magazine App Logo

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the In-Fisherman App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top In-Fisherman stories delivered right to your inbox.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All In-Fisherman subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Enjoying What You're Reading?

Get a Full Year
of Guns & Ammo
& Digital Access.

Offer only for new subscribers.

Subscribe Now