So there you are, sitting by a warm fire or huddled around the TV set watching your favorite fishing show or sporting event. It’s too cold to go fishing, right? No, it’s not too cold when you consider the winter bite of big smallmouths can be the best of the year. And there’s usually no one else around ‘cause they’re doing what you’re doing: reading articles about fishing, watching fishing shows, sports or the Weather Channel. You should quit wishing—and get out and go fishing. This is especially true if you plan on hooking onto a bruising bronzeback or two!
There aren’t any places any better, in the entire world, to smallmouth fish than on the following three Southeast impoundments: Dale Hollow Lake (in Tennessee and Kentucky), Pickwick Lake (in Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama) and Summersville Lake (in West Virginia). Let’s start out with Dale Hollow, since that’s where the world-record smallmouth once lived, and the lake’s record-producing potential is still strong.
Dale Hollow Lake
On Dale Hollow’s 30,000-plus acres, the smallmouth is king. Don’t even mention largemouth bass unless you want to receive ugly stares. And big smallies are the name of the game when winter’s north winds chill the bones of even the hardiest of anglers.
This winter fishery starts around Thanksgiving and lasts through March. Fishing for big smallmouth bass becomes hot as the lake’s waters cool to 50 degrees or less. That’s when a pattern develops where smallies follow shad up Dale Hollow’s many creeks and coves. As this pattern stabilizes, large smallies will hold at 12 to 15 feet deep, waiting for a hurt or stray shad to come within striking distance. And that’s when a time-tested but relatively new technique—float-and-fly fishing—comes into play.
For Dale Hollow smallies, the float-and-fly rig is the day-in, day-out producer. (Photo by Ken Duke)
What is float-and-fly fishing? Basically, it’s a technique that uses a 9 to 10 foot long, limber rod aptly called a float-and-fly fishing rod. In other parts of the country this pole is often referred to as a noodle rod, although famous Dale Hollow Lake guide Bob Coan seems to dislike that terminology.
“They call it a noodle rod in Michigan and up north. I’ve never fished with a noodle, though I’ve eaten some. Down here we call them float-and-fly fishing rods.”
The limber float-and-fly rod is used to cast a light bobber and the necessary 9- to 10-foot leader. On the end of the leader is a 1/32 or 1/16 ounce hair jig. These long, limber rods allow the angler to throw the light hair jig and Styrofoam float the necessary distance out from the boat. The technique is quite simple, but awkward to master at first. Most experienced anglers, however, can get the hang of throwing these rigs in a short time.
On the terminal end of the line, guide Bob Coan uses a three-way swivel. Berkley Fireline is used from the reel to the swivel; it doesn’t stretch so subtle hits are better detected. The leader to lure is clear “Vanish” monofilament by Berkeley in 8-pound-test. He adds a slightly weighted Styrofoam float to the final ring of the swivel to complete his big smallmouth-catching rig.
A cast is made by allowing the hair jig to touch the water behind you, then following through with an overhead motion. Hopefully, you’ve allowed the hair jig to touch the water in order to straighten the line and to provide the proper tension for the cast itself. If you haven’t quite done it correctly, you’ll know by the lousy distance of your cast—and possible tangles. If you do it right, your cast will sail true and accurately.
Once the bobber and jig have made their respective landings, you wait until the jig pulls the float with the orange top facing skyward. Your bobber should stand up straight unless your jig is touching bottom or a bruising smallie takes it under. The trick now is to jiggle your rod tip to make the hair jig dance enticingly some 9 to 10 feet down. Reel in and cast again when the jig is about halfway between the bank and the boat.
Any hungry smallmouth bass that sees the jig is apt to go for it, as long as it doesn’t take much effort on the bass’ part. Remember, it is wintertime and even aggressive game fish like smallmouth bass are less active. You wouldn’t know it, though, once one grabs your hair jig! That’s when the battle joins. You’d better be ready!
Ready for what, you may say? Well, the slot limit on Dale Hollow Lake is 16 to 21 inches. Smallmouth bass over 5 pounds are common on this lake and 8-pounders are caught frequently, too. So be ready when one hits, especially in the dead of winter when you might be a tad slower to react.
Some of the tricks to finding smallies now include working the back coves of creeks. The reason being that smallmouth bass are following shad right now. The shad are looking for the slightly warmer waters coming out of Dale Hollow’s many feeder streams. Even so, look for shade and cloudy water to better your chances of hooking up, according to Coan.
Why shade and cloudy water? Well, like many established lakes, old structure has deteriorated. So there isn’t much structure in most areas of the lake. Thus, smallies will use shade and color break lines as “structure” to hide in, especially on sky blue winter days.
Winter bassing on Dale Hollow is not easy. Though the bass can be patterned and will most likely be located up the lake’s many creeks, the wintertime does slow their metabolisms down. Yet, they’re very catchable, and the biggest bass are more inclined to feed even on the coldest of days.
Tailrace areas contain slightly warmer water than main-lake portions, and may bring bronzebacks as shallow as 6 feet in winter. (Photo by Ken Duke)
The next winter hotspot to try is Pickwick Lake, which takes in three states: Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama. This hot smallmouth impoundment fills out at a very expansive 47,500 surface acres, though the water levels will be down during the winter season to prepare for spring runoff. Lots of 3- to 5-pound fish abound, and 7-plus lunkers are fairly common.
The winter pattern, according to world-renowned hunting and fishing guide (and DTO contributor) Stan Warren, plays out much the same as on Dale Hollow. That is, look to go up the creeks to find the best action right now. After all, that’s where the baitfish will be.
“In the tailwater area below Wilson Dam (the riverine section of Pickwick), where the water comes from below the surface of the lake, is the place to be in early winter. The water is not so cold and it’s not uncommon to find good fish at depths of only 6 to 8 feet. In the main body of the lake, the bass may be 20-plus feet deep, but they won’t stay there for long. Sunny days will bring baitfish up and the smallmouth will follow,” Warren said.
But in the dead of winter, Warren will work deep main-river and secondary points, with those ending at or adjacent to a deep channel being the best. Those points with broken rock ledges or chunk rocks ending in gravel are top places to fish.
Two main ways to catch fish right now at Pickwick include using live bait (shad or shiners fished with a split-shot rig) or stair-stepping jigs. Warren prefers working a jig so that it makes contact with every level of Pickwick’s shelved rock banks. The smallies will hold tight along these breaks and the only way to get them to bite at this time of year is to drop your offering right in their faces.
“Live bait is very good although I like soft plastics or my own hand-tied jigs. These jigs are made of dyed natural hair. I use a light head, no more than 1/4 ounce, unless the wind is blowing. The jig’s body size is fairly large, 3 to 4 inches to imitate shad. These big jigs allow for a very slow fall, which tempts non-aggressive fish. My hook sizes vary from 3/0 to 4/0—I don’t fool around. With live bait I’ll run with a 2/0 Eagle Claw salmon egg hook, although a 1/0 hook will do,” Warren said.
“I think more big fish are caught during the winter on a per-trip basis because they are easier to locate,” he added. “During the warmer month when the forage is scattered, they can be anywhere due to the number of wide flats, channels, dips, submerged islands and other cover found in the lake. In cold weather, the bass are usually holding adjacent to some kind of vertical structure (i.e. channel edges) or spring holes. They don’t have to eat much because their metabolism is slow and one shad a month would probably be enough to carry them over.”
That’s unless you put something enticing right in front of their mouths!
Summersville Lake is located in the hilly terrain of West Virginia’s Nicholas County. At 2,750 acres, Summersville is the Mountain State’s largest reservoir and is home to almost heaven smallmouth bass fishing, with lots of 12- to 15-inch fish and bruisers up to 6 pounds.
Kevin Yokum is a fisheries biologist for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. Since Summersville Lake falls within his district, he knows a lot about the fishing on this particular bronzeback hotspot.
“This lake is full of steep dropoffs and the bass may be as deep as 50 to 60 feet,” Yoakum said, “so vertical jigging with a tube jig is a way to find the fish and to keep your offering in the strike zone.”
Bright, sunny days usually call for vertical jigging, and light line is the rule, especially in gin-clear waters. (Photo by Ned Kehde)
You can locate suspended smallmouths with your depth-finder and then work your jig down to where they are holding. Big-lipped, deep-diving crankbaits also work well during the winter season, especially when they’re danced in front of lethargic cold-weather smallies. Of course, the bass can be much shallower at this time of the year, too. It all depends upon the severity of the winter and prevailing temperatures. Smallies may be only 15 to 20 feet deep. They’ll move up and down depending up weather. When the bass are relatively shallow, a second pattern becomes effective in eliciting strikes.
“If the fish are on structure, anglers will do well working a Carolina-rigged worm or lizard,” Yokum added. “Work your bait along the bottom slowly for best results.”
As for colors to use, Yokum says pumpkinseed and watermelon plastics will do the trick and crankbaits in silver or black are his personal favorites. Another aspect of this lake is its waters are extremely clear, so go with light lines to avoid spooking any winter bass you encounter.
Since Summersville is drawn down some 78 feet during the winter season, Yokum recommends two ramps where you can launch your boat safety. The first is known as the “Dam Access” ramp, which is located, of all places, at the lake’s dam. The second ramp is called the Salmon Run launch and it is located in the middle reaches of the lake. Both ramps have been upgraded to winter courtesy docks and are open year-round. For more information on the lake, call biologist Kevin Yokum at (304) 924-6211.
There you have it, three of the Southeast’s best impoundments for winter smallies. Now get away from that television and put that case of cabin fever behind you. The smallmouths are calling!