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Fred McClintock is dale hollow lakes smallmouth bass fishing guide professional. Call if you love bass fishing smallmouth where the world record smallmouth was caught.
Source: Bassmaster – March 1995
Smallmouths in Weeds
Some of the Biggest Bronzebacks in a Lake Can Be Found in Weedy Cover by Don Wirth

Judging from what many Bassmasteres believe about smallmouths, this is a fish that prefers to hang around rocks. Largemouths, by contrast, love weeds.

But put smallmouths in a weedy lake, and a strange thing happens. Not only will bronzebacks relate to many varieties of common aquatic plants, they sometimes choose weeds above all other types of structure.

Dale Hollow Reservoir guide Fred McClintock knows that submerged grass and smallmouth bass are a winning combination. This big lake on the Tennessee/Kentucky border is famous for giant smallmouths, including the 11-pound, 15-ounce world record caught in 1955. Dale Hollow is unique among southeastern highland reservoirs in that it has extensive beds of aquatic grasses, some of which grow nearly 40 feet deep.

But McClintock’s experience with bronzebacks and weeds isn’t limited to Dale Hollow. A native of Pennsylvania, the guide fished weedy northeastern lakes for years. It was there that he discovered the amazing drawing power of submerged vegetation for smallies.

Northern Exposure
“There’s no doubt that northern anglers have far more exposure to smallmouths in grassy lakes than do southerners,” McClintock says. “As a kid, I fished in the St. Lawrence River, which is loaded with grass. If the smallmouths weren’t on shallow shoals, they’d be on the grassy perimeter of the channel.”

Midwestern anglers whom McClintock has guided on Dale Hollow have reported their home lakes, too, have weedy patterns for bronzebacks.

“Fishermen in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin know that smallmouths love grass,” he says. The rapid spread of “junk weeds” such as Eurasian milfoil and hydrilla into river-run smallmouth lakes in the Southeast?especially Kentucky Lake?is beginning to open the eyes of many anglers to this “new” pattern, he adds.

“Kentucky Lake anglers are reporting catching smallmouths in the 7-pound class while they are flipping the grass for largemouths,” McClintock says. “But few southern anglers are using techniques specifically designed for bronzebacks in weedy cover. And a great many Yankee fishermen still associate smallies with rock, not weeds.”

The fact that most information smallmouth fishermen read or see on television depicts their favorite bass as a deep-water rockhound further perpetuates the problem. “I know people who have fished Dale Hollow for years and who aren’t even aware the lake has grass in it,” McClintock says. “Many avid smallmouth fishermen look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them we’re gonna spend the day fishing the grass.”

McClintock has found that smallies basically relate to grass in Tennessee just as they do in New York or Pennsylvania or Minnesota. And, he emphasizes, this tends to be different than the way largemouths relate to this cover.

A Different Niche
“The first hurdle bass anglers must overcome is accepting the fact that smallmouths love grass, when it’s available to them,” McClintock believes. “The next hurdle is understanding that smallies usually don’t relate to submerged vegetation the same way largemouth bass and other predaors might.”

This realization came to McClintock when he used to fish New York’s Chataqua Lake for its monster muskellunge. “There, I could tell if there were muskies in a particular patch of grass by watching the smallmouths,” he notes. “If I would raise or hook a smallmouth, I’d usually know that the muskies weren’t there. Chataqua is a tremendous smallmouth lake, but I was chasing muskies back then.”

Over time, McClintock realized that different predators occupy different niches in weedy cover. “The grass will draw in muskies, northern pike, largemouths, smallmouths, and walleye,” he explains. “It isn’t uncommon to catch all or several of the above in a single day from a single stand of grass in a northern lake.”

The muskies and pike would relate to the weed edges and to thin grass points that feathered out from the main body of vegetation. Smallmouths would most likely be on top of submerged weedbeds, while largemouths might bury into the thicker weed areas. Walleye? “They’re the wild card,” says McClintock. “You might catch them on the points or edges one day, then in the thick grass the next.”

Some types of grass have a universal appeal for predators, while others are favored more by one species than others.

“I’ve never found lily pads, for example, to pull in smallmouths the way they will largemouths,” he says. “The so-called ‘muskie cabbage’ in many northern and Midwestern lakes (a big, broad-leaf aquatic plant) seems to attract both species of bass as well as pike, muskies, and walleye.

“At Dale Hollow, smallmouths seem to relate to coontail moss best, even though there are other species of grass to choose from.”

Whatever type of grass the smallmouths choose, sometimes factors other than the plant species alone have a bearing on their location. “Invariably the best grassbeds for smallies will be very close to deep water, usually a channel drop-off,” he explains. “Largemouths, on the other hand, seem to occupy pockets of grass in wide expanses of shallow water. Also, the type of bottom appears to be extremely important for smallmouths. They especially favor a weedy area with gravel, or gravel mixed with mud or clay.”

McClintock finds smallmouths tend to move in and out of weedbeds more than do largemouths.

“This can be very frustrating to the angler keying on grass, because he may load the boat with big smallmouths one day, then draw a blank the next,” he says. But this fits with the overall character of this bass?they’re generally harder to pattern than largemouths. Smallmouths are very big at pulling a disappearing act.”

Do smallmouths ever bury in grass? Sometimes. “This happens most often in the spring, when a severe cold front blows through,” McClintock says. “They’ll get into the grass more like largemouths do. You may even have to flip for ‘em.”

Smallmouths often occupy the open water between isolated clumps of vegetation, while largemouths tend to bury in the clumps. “This fits with the way smallmouths normally relate to objects rather loosely,” McClintock explains. “They do the same with stumps. A largemouth might be right up against the stump, but a smallmouth might be sitting a yard or so from it.”

Dale Hollow, like Chataqua, has muskellunge, although the lake’s population of this toothy predator is sparse. Again, McClintock has found a nervous association exists between muskies and smallies. “One day last March, I was fishing some deep grass and caught several big smallmouths along the weed edge. I came back to the spot in the afternoon and hung a big muskie on a little crankbait and 6-pound line. It took forever to get it in, but when I did, the fish weighed over 38 pounds. Then the next day, the smallies were back on the grass.”

Seasonal Grass Patterns
McClintock begins combing grassbeds for big smallmouths in March. “I’ll look for grass on gravel or gravel/mud/clay spawning flats in 12 to 15 feet of water,” he says. “The great thing about patterning grass in the pre-spawn is, the big females will move up out of deep water and stay there longer if there’s grass. Without it, they move in and out more.”

The guide uses a leadhead grub without a weedguard when searching for this early spring pattern. “I’ll move onto the flat with my trolling motor and fan-cast until I contact grass.” He likes a 1/8-ounce leadhead, which is light enough to “float the grub over the grass so you’re not hanging up constantly.” Depending upon water and light conditions he’ll choose a smoke, pumpkin, or chartreuse curled-tail grub. “I like chartreuse on cloudy days, smoke on bright days, and pumpkin if the water is murky.”

These pre-spawn weed patches that draw big smallies aren’t like the weedbeds largemouths favor, McClintock emphasizes. “They’re usually far from the bank, with 20-foot water or deeper only a cast away.”

Frequent cold fronts always vex early-spring smallmouth chasers, but McClintock has found that a Carolina-rig lizard can produce strikes in the grassbeds. “Rig your leader so the lizard floats just above the level of the grass,” he advises.

In those happy instances when big smallmouths are superaggressive in early spring, he favors a small crankbait. “Pick one that barely ticks the grass at its deepest level,” he says. “They’ll almost pull the rod out of your hands when they hit it.”

As the water warms to the 60 degree range, McClintock finds spawning smallies in holes in the grass, or in sparse grass on mixed gravel and clay. The magic depth in Dale Hollow Lake, an exceptionally clear lake, runs from 8 to 15 feet. A few stumps peppered along the flat add gravy to the structure. McClintock, like other conservation-minded smallmouth hunters, doesn’t fish for spawners, but moves to other areas of the lake where the bass may be in a pre- or post-spawn mode.

The post-spawn period, McClintock is convinced, is the most exciting and productive time to fish for smallies in grass. “This is the time to catch a really big smallmouth in the weeds. It’s almost scary fishing,” he says.

He uses a big Heddon Zara Spook on a baitcasting outfit to test the waters, the same way a tournament angler might comb an area for active fish by using a crankbait.

“The sight of a giant smallmouth blowing up on a Spook is, to me, one of the great thrills in freshwater fishing,” he says. “I’ve had smallmouths over 9 pounds chase the Spook. It’s a sight that totally unnerves you!”

McClintock keeps his boat a good distance away from the weedy area, and makes a long cast over the cover. He then works the lure all the way back to the boat, and he expects a strike at any moment. “Largemouths usually nail a Spook close to cover, but smallmouths might be suspending yards away from the weed edge, hugging the weedline, or sitting on top of the grass,” he notes. “Unlike largemouths, when they hit it, they usually run for open water.”

If a smallmouth blows up on the Spook but doesn’t hook up, the guide immediately switches to another rod rigged with a Slug-Go or other soft jerkbait.

“Fishermen think the fish miss the lure when they blow up on a topwater without getting hooked, but I think most of the time, the fish are just hassling the bait,” he says. “Some days, you’ll get 10 strikes on a Spook and not hook one fish. It’s just a mood they get in.” A slow, dart/settle/twitch presentation with a Slug-Go will often call the fish back for another look.

“Usually, if I can get it to come back up on a Slug-Go, it’ll hit it. This lure works especially well in patchy clumps of grass, where you can let it settle down into the pockets between twitches.”

McClintock also likes a minnow lure such as the A. C. Shiner during the post-spawn. “This is great on flat, calm days when you can see a mile down into the water,” he says. “Cast it over the weeds and use extremely slow twitches with lots of dead time in between. Don’t be afraid to let the lure just sit there for extended periods. some of my biggest fish have come when I’m dead-sticking the lure.’ On overcast days, he likes a bone/orange bait; on bright days, a reflective silver finish.

Occasionally, high winds kick up in the post-spawn period, and this is when McClintock reaches for a spinnerbait. On the day I shot photos for this article, gusts exceeding 30 mph hammered Dale Hollow, and McClintock and I caught several big smallies, including a 5-pounder, in shallow, weedy, main lake pockets being hit directly by the gale. Extremely rough water made boat control difficult, but the fish would nail the “blade” in as little as a foot of water. “The key is fishing isolated clumps of grass,” McClintock explained. “The fish will hold in it and venture out shallower when the wind roils the water.”

He begins night fishing on Dale Hollow after Memorial Day, when daytime temperatures become uncomfortably hot. The first places he heads for are coontail beds in the 12- to 20-foot zone, usually at the edges of spawning flats.”

“No Number One lure is now a spinnerbait,” he said. “If it’s a moonlit night, I like a light-colored one, such as white or chartreuse. On a dark night, I’ll switch to black, purple, or brown,” he relates.

The bronzebacks are often hanging on top of the deep grass at this time, so McClintock attaches a big pork frog to his lure to float the bait over the cover. “I’ll begin by slow-rolling the spinnerbait right over the top of the grass, but if they don’t like this presentation, I’ll yo-yo it back to the boat?just tight-line it down and hop it back up to the top of the cover.”

On nights when a spinnerbait won’t produce a strike, he switches to a jig-type lure, such as a Zorro Hoot-N-Ninny, a large spider jig manufactured by former B.A.S.S. pro Stan Sloan. “At the beginning of the night fishing season, I’ll use a 1/4 ounce jig, but as the water warms, the bass move to deeper grass, and I’ll go to a 3/8-ounce lure. Pumpkin, red, and purple are always good color choices.”

He uses a lift/drop retrieve, bringing the jig through the grass and into open water. If he feels the jig hang momentarily on some grass, he tightens down with his reel handle. “Usually, the lure will shoot off the cover; this is often when they’ll nail it,” he has found.

If you’re catching only largemouths from a certain grass area, move deeper, McClintock advises. “You’ll catch big largemouths and big smallies back-to-back on some nights, but normally largemouths are an indicator that you’re fishing too shallow.”

A night, he has caught smallmouths from grassbeds as deep as 30 feet. “This takes a slow retrieve with a jig, and a powerful hook-set with a stiff baitcasting rod,” he notes.

Fall is perhaps the least likely time for a smallmouth to associate with grass, McClintock believes. The fish begin to relate to schooling baitfish, and this can put them off main lake banks over extremely deep water.” He keys on 45-degree shale banks, where he may find a thin, stringy type of grass.

“I’ll fish a Silver Buddy or a 1/4-ounce grub there, dropping it down these banks into deep water,” he says. “Smallmouths may be as deep as 70 feet at this time. The grass is usually evident down to around 30 feet, but I can’t say that it definitely attracts smallmouths at this time.”

In winter, McClintock finds that these same deep, sloping banks with thin grass will indeed attract bronzebacks.

“The bass will relate to small ledges, sometimes less than a foot wide,” he says. “These normally have this thin grass on them. It can be tough fishing a Silver Buddy through this stuff, but if you rip it up when it falls, it’ll usually come through without getting hung up.”

McClintock has boated smallmouths weighing 7-15, 7-14, and 7-12 from grass areas on Dale Hollow, and he believes similar results can be expected by dedicated Bassmasters who spend time acquainting themselves with weedy patterns.

Note: Contact Fred McClintock at 931-243-2142.

Overlooked and Unexpected
Most smallmouth fancies overlook grass. Hopefully, Fred McClintock’s positive experiences with this type of cover will convince you to give it a try. The amazing pulling power of aquatic vegetation will, time and again, provide the key that helps unlock the mysteries of what Dr. James A. Henshall referred to over 100 years ago as “the gamest bass.”

Heavy Hittin’ Winter Bass
Guaranteed To Increase Your Catch From Late Fall Through Early Spring If You:
Fish For Bass – Smallmouths, Spots, Largemouths ? When Water Temperatures Fall Below 50ºF
Target Bass Holding Deeper Than 25 Feet

The In-Fisherman – February 1994

by Fred McClintock as told to Don Wirth* with the In-Fisherman Staff

(Fred McClintock, a frequent In-Fisherman contributor, guides for smallmouth bass and stripers on Dale Hollow and other Tennessee impoundments. He can be reached at Rt. 3, Box 272, Celina, TN 38551; 931-243-2142. Don Wirth is a freelance writer who has worked with fishermen such as McClintock to bring top-notch information to In-Fisherman for almost a decade.)

Winter Bass. Livebait scores and jigs annually account for thousands of bass. But I propose that bladebaits, tailspinners, and jigging spoons are the most versatile and effective baits for bass during winter. People have e-mailed and called on the telephone for Spinrites and Tailspinners. I now keep a supply I can sell for my cost and if you e-mail, I will send pictures and details.

Heavy meal lures have changed fishing patterns for bass on the highland reservoirs I fish in Tennessee. Most of these impoundments contain largemouths, smallmouths, and spotted bass, with largemouths over 9 pounds, smallmouths over 6, and spots over 5. These chilly times are especially good for trophy bass.

The In-Fisherman staff, with their national (and international?Canada and Mexico) perspective assure me that the patterns highlighted here will work for black bass in every part of the country. In Minnesota, Canada, and such parts, we’re talking mid-September until freeze-up, and then again for a short period after ice-out. In California, Texas, and other milder climes, prime time runs from October through February.

Bladebaits are effective once water temperature drops below about 55º and until it cools to just below 45ºF. Water around 49º is ideal, though in northern lakes and reservoirs, the lower limit probably is around 40ºF.

These fast-sinking flat-sided lures have been available for years. At Dale Hollow, however, the Silver Buddy only recently became the top lure for small-mouth bass in cold water, taking more 6-pounders than hair jigs or grubs.

The Bullet Bait and Cordell Gay Blade have fans, too, and the Reef Runner Cicada is established as the “finesse” member of the blade family. The appeal of these baits comes from their subtle flash and tight vibration in combination with their relatively small size.

Blades excel when bass hold tight to deep-lying fast-breaking banks, often the case in hill-land and highland impoundments and many deep natural lakes. Productive banks or bars may break at angles of 45 degrees to almost 90 degrees. Some are composed of shale or chunk rock. Others have smooth basalt faces. Ledges or steps often interrupt the slopes, providing features for bass to relate to.

Most of these spots lack brush, stumps, weeds, or other cover. The presence of baitfish and the variety of available depths apparently attract bass. Bass may hold at 25 feet one week and at 50 feet the next, despite consistent water temperatures.

Blades fall fast to reach these depths and can be worked parallel to the steep banks. Whether fished parallel or perpendicular to the bank, blades allow a fisherman to quickly cover water to locate groups of bass. I believe I can search for bass three times faster with a blade than with a fly and rind or a grub.

Blade size, too?typically 1½ to 3 inches?matches the size of shad that bass eat during winter. Once the water temperature falls below 50ºF, larger baits lose some of their appeal, even to 24-inch bass. (I caught my largest smallmouth, a 7¾ pounder, on a blade.) I favor ½-ounce blades, switching to ¾-ouncers only when fish are very deep. Larger, heavier blades have a wider-working exaggerated action that becomes less attractive in these conditions.

On clear days, try a gold or silver-plated bait, switching to white, chartreuse, or other colors on overcast days or at dawn and dusk.

Presenting a Blade
I like a medium-heavy baitcasting rod about 6½ feet long. The rod should have a fast action, which helps transmit vibrations. Fast-action rods, you probably realize, are stiff throughout with just a little give in the final quarter of the rod at the tip.

A longer rod helps you stay with the bait as it falls on semi-slack line; plus it helps keep constant tension on big fish as you work them toward the surface from deep water. Your favorite 14-pound-test mono is just right. Make it fluorescent to help you see your line. Always use a split ring or snap for attaching your lure to the line.

“Feeling” your bait to the bottom as it falls is vital. But if you tight-line the bait as it drops, it pulls away from the steep bank and the bass. Keep a semi-tight line to the bait as it falls. You may even have to strip line instead of retrieving it if the drop to the next ledge is more than five feet or so below the ledge above.

Along steep banks, a blade free-falls for only a second or so before landing on the next shelf. Just as the lure touches, pop it off before it snags in a rock crevice or hangs on an old root. When it hangs, don’t bury the hook by pulling. Move directly over the snag, then pop and jiggle the rod tip. A blade’s weight and offset balance helps to free it. I fish most of the winter and lose only a few baits.

Experiment with how high you pop the blade off bottom. Sometimes a slight jump triggers strikes best; other days, the fish want it ripped up three feet. Try varying the intensity of the pop before you change baits or move to a different area.

Blades vibrate as you pull them up, but slip-side through the water without wiggling as they drop on a semi-tight line. Most bites come as the lure falls, either nose-down and sliding slightly to one side if you semi-tight-line it down, or spiraling crazily if it falls free. Bites are telegraphed by slight bumps or twitches in your line. Some days, bass swim off with the lure as if it were a soft plastic or livebait.

I tinker with blades, bending the tail to change action. Some models have two or three line-attachment holes that produce different actions and running depths. The forward hole gives the tightest vibration and allows the greatest running depth on a straight retrieve. The rear hole produces a wider wiggle, stronger vibrations, and the shallowest running depth. In this case, though, running depth isn’t important because you aren’t running the bait constantly. I usually use a bait attachment that allows the bait to run on high-vibration mode when I pop it.

Tailspinners, typified by Mann’s Bait Company’s Little George, were developed by dredging bottom in deep-lying creek channels and on ledges in murky southern lowland impoundments like Lake Walter F. George. But they work well in clear highland reservoirs and remain a mostly untapped tool for clear natural lakes and bays of the Great Lakes.

Tailspinners are a backup for my blade patterns. If a cold front moves through and bass become reluctant to hit blades, try a tailspinner. The difference in design and action can mean the difference between a biteless day and a dozen big bronzebacks. But a blade will outfish a tailspinner on most days.

Marabou tailspinners are particularly effective, probably because few anglers use them. The original model was the Pedigo Spinrite, which the Uncle Josh Bait Company purchased and sold as the Uncle Josh Spinrite. This bait is no longer in production, but a similar bait, the Tennessee Bank Runner, is produced by the Bank Runner Lure Company.

The Spinrite featured in a wire protruding from a weighted head with a loop at the end to tie to, and a tail section of wire with a treble hook adorned with outrageously puffy marabou. An Indiana spinner on a clevis made the bait look like it belonged on some tourist’s hat. But it was, and the Tennessee Bank Runner remains, one heck of a bait. Smallmouth legend Billy Westmoreland caught a 10-pound 1-ounce smallmouth on a Spinrite.

Presenting a Tailspinner
Fish marabou tailspinners any way you would a Little George. To hook a giant smallie, though, run the bait horizontally. Not like a crankbait?too fast. Swim it, ease it, finesse it, just over the bottom. Slow!

Fish a Bank Runner over deep flats where smallmouths spend most of the winter, often in the company of spots and largemouths. Most of these flats have a mud or clay bottom; in reservoirs, stumps may provide cover. The best flats run 25 to 35 feet deep with a deep-lying channel nearby.

Tailspinners also excel in wind. When rollers break over long flat points, bass (particularly smallmouths) leave the depths and venture into turbulent water on the bar, apparently to feed on disoriented baitfish or crawdads. These fish are much more aggressive than when they hold in deep water. Tailspinners cast easily into or with the wind, and they work smoothly through rough water.

I fish tailspinners with a medium-action spinning rod about 6 feet long, coupled with 6-pound-test monofilament. Light line lets the lure sink quickly and stay deep. Use ½-ounce tailspinners most of the time, switching to a ¾-ounce model for fishing deeper than 35 feet. Ten-pound-test line matches better with the heavier bait. I found a large supply of Spinrites made by several Smallmouth Fisherman and I will sell them for 5.00 each. That is exactly what I paid for them.

Jigging Spoons
Jigging spoons are the tool of choice when sonar shows fish suspended off bottom. These fish usually are holding near large groups of baitfish. Search for bait with your sonar. Try to find schools grouped in a ball instead of spread horizontally. Shad holding in that formation are defensive, indicating predators nearby.

Jigging spoons work for very deep water. In Lake Lanier, Georgia, anglers using spoons catch spots in 100 feet of water. Last winter, I caught many smallmouths from 50 to 70 feet deep with spoons. All three species of bass sometimes hold near the same baitfish.

I know most anglers using jigging spoons for largemouths holding in deep-lying channels and along ledges during summer. In winter, though, black bass use different types of structure in hill-land and highland impoundments. Large schools of baitfish gather in hollows?short creek arms with steep banks that rise like hills on either side.

Hollows typically produce a slight flow either from a creek or from runoff. Current, increased nutrients, and sometimes warmer water seem to draw baitfish and bass into these areas. Idle through hollows and eventually your graph will turn black with baitfish holding between 20 and 60 feet down.

Other good spots for winter spooning include deep-lying main-lake points, bluffs, and manmade features like bridge pilings or abutments like roadbeds. In reservoirs with standing timber, trees that top out about 30 fee below the surface attract black bass as well as stripers and hybrid striped bass. Spoons are the most effective lures in this cover.

When you’re fishing spoons, watch your sonar. Stay directly over the fish or risk a fishless day. You’ll be surprised how many fish you have to shake a spoon at to get one to bite. Cold water and the suspended position of bass make them neutral, at best.

In addition to the three species of black bass, you may also catch walleyes, crappies, drum, white bass, stripers, yellow perch, and trout. I take lake trout in Dale Hollow, too. A 36-pound muskie was spooned up there three years ago.

Presenting a Spoon
A ¾-ounce Hopkins with a hammered silver finish is my favorite spoon. At times, however, gold Hopkins or Smoothie models with reflective tape work as well or better. Cordell, Bullet, Mann’s, Luhr-Jensen, and other companies also produce spoons you might prefer. Bass’N Bait’s Rattlin’ Snakie Jigging Spoon has been deadly on Lake Erie, catching the Ohio 9½-pound record smallmouth.

Attach spoons to your line with a snap. Your line twists, but the spinning lure helps trigger bass. Just drop the spoon to the fish and let it untwist, while you hold your rod still. Something will take a whack at it.

I prefer the same outfit for blades that I use for jigging spoons?a 6½-foot medium-heavy baitcaster with 14-pound-test line. Occasionally, I use spoons as light as 1/8 ounce, matching them with a medium-heavy fast-action spinning rod and 8-pound test.

Winter fishing rarely produces the hottest action of the year. I guide most days?that is, I spend lots of time on the water. Some days, we don’t get bit. But if you study your local waters and the habits of the fish, you can consistently catch fish.

In-Fisherman April 1996

by Steve Quinn with Fred McClintock* and James Lindner
*Fred McClintock, Celina, Tennessee, guides for smallmouth bass, muskies, and stripers (931-243-2142).

Boring. That term best describes “the flats,” stretches of lakes or reservoirs with gradual slopes or none at all. Our angling education seems founded on the principles that major changes in bottom shape or substantial cover objects attract fish. Find a deep hole, a submerged tree, or a sunken island, and you’ll score. Linger on featureless spots, and you’ll be lucky to stumble onto a fish or two.

Whoever founded those principles probably wasn’t a smallmouth angler. Or that person surely didn’t fish smallies during spring. Visions of boulder-strewn banks or rock reefs seem to conjure brown bass, and that’s probably why early-spring smallmouth fishing often frustrates the best anglers, teasing us with a hot bite, then slamming the door as soon as think we have it figured out.

Years spent targeting smallmouth bass during spring have revealed several patterns that apply in lakes and reservoirs across the smallmouth’s range.

Spring Location
Once frozen lakes thaw or reservoir temperatures rise into the mid-40ºF range, the progression toward the spawn has begun, though nest building may be two months away. Bass leave deep winter sanctuaries and move to breaks adjacent to shallower flats; some fish move onto shallower flats during warm, calm weather.

Cold fronts seem to push bass deeper, back nearly to the 30-foot depths they occupy in winter. But average holding depth gradually declines as spawning time nears. Smallmouths generally favor shallower flats that lie close to deep water. And where the lake basin rises abruptly to large flats from 2 to about 8 feet deep, bass may move onto flats quickly, once the water begins to warm.

Prespawn patterns in the main basis of highland and hill-land reservoirs of the mid-South generally reflect patterns in natural lakes, though fish in reservoirs seem to make more drastic shifts in depth. And the progression is more gradual.

Fred McClintock, ace guide on famed Dale Hollow Reservoir on the Tennessee-Kentucky border, thinks deep for prespawn smallies on this highland reservoir. “On Dale Hollow and other reservoirs,” McClintock says, “bigger fish stay deeper than small fish throughout all seasons. That fact alone makes them harder to catch because deeper fishing is slower and tougher, and few folks are efficient at it. I’ve found big females on beds in 18 feet of water. That’s probably the shallowest some of ‘em go all year.

“Folks want to move in and fish the banks as soon as the weather warms. They catch some fish all right, but not the ones I’m after. In reservoirs, the first flats to produce prespawn smallies are in creek arms, which warm faster than the main lake. Creek arms that point north are protected from winds and warm faster in spring. Flats that break abruptly into the creek channel, which may run 50 feet deep, are best.”

Some experts on lakes and reservoirs consider 49ºF to be the turning point for fast spring fishing. On natural lakes, points with broad flats and main-lake shorelines draw fish.

During mid-prespawn, groups of smallmouths cruise chosen areas, looking for prey. This phase of prespawn can bring the hottest bite of the year. A crankbait’s erratic wiggling and crashing into cover provide arm-straightening strikes from grouped smallies.

During early morning, smallmouths cruise the outer reaches of extensive flats, where depths may run from about 6 to 10 feet. Afternoon warming on fine spring days lures bass shallower, where they find small yellow perch and clouds of shiners.

As water temperature approaches 60ºF, bass seem more cautious in their feeding and cruise less in groups than a week or so earlier. Early morning and evening now offer the best bites. Trophy hunters like Fred McClintock also find average size declining at this time.

In natural lakes, cover on flats that stretch from about 3 to 10 feet deep holds smallmouths. As fish establish loose territories, they hold by bulrush stalks, patches of cobble, bottom transitions, ditches, and remnant weedbeds.

In both lakes and reservoirs, water clarity affects the depth where smallmouths hold and feed during this period. In murky water, check from 2 to about 8 feet deep, increasing to the 4- to 10-foot zone in moderately clear water, focusing on 6 to 12 feet in clear water. As Lake Erie has cleared, reports indicate that smallmouths have shifted deeper during spring and nest deeper than before zebra mussels invaded and cleared the water.

Flats Features
Major portions of most lakes qualify as flats, and these relatively structureless forms of structure also adorn topo maps of hill-land reservoirs, showing as widely spaced contour lines adjacent to the bank. Obviously, they won’t all produce smallmouths during the Prespawn Period.

Lake Features
In large lakes, smallmouths favor flats protected from wind and wave action from the main lake. Islands, jetties, harbor mouths, and major points shield some flats, particularly if they’re positioned to block prevailing northwest winds. These windblocks also block movement of sand across flats, which can harm their spawning potential and thus their use by prespawn smallmouths.

One feature of many large lakes that support strong smallmouth populations is What In-Fisherman TV producer James Lindner calls “berms.” “I suppose the pressure of ice sheets pushed by strong winds at ice-out forms these berms,” he says. “If a flat runs about three feet deep off 100 yards offshore, curved ditches are found about 1½ feet deeper. Also, gravel and rocks are exposed at the edge of the berm. And bulrushes may grow there, though not always. Search these spots because they always hold prespawn smallmouths.

“Some flats contain a series of parallel berms. In other spots, there’s only one, and it parallels the shore. In addition to berms, look for large boulders on the flat, for on sunny, calm days during a warming trend, a big smallie can be found near every one. And always, bigger is better when it comes to flats.

“Expansive flats with minor depth variations and diverse types of cover attract the most prespawn smallmouths, and they spawn in the same locations, too. Attractive cover includes old weed or reed stalks, transitions in bottom type, logs, boulders, or slight variations in depth, such as berms provide.”

The proximity of a flat to deep water also is important, as it gives smallmouths the option to abandon the shallow flat under adverse conditions and move to the vertical freedom of a sharp break. In lakes, the deep area need be so deep as in a highland reservoir, just 15 feet or so.

Reservoir Features
On southern reservoirs, Fred McClintock finds somewhat different types of flats most appealing. “Too many anglers equate smallmouths with rock,” McClintock says. “The best spring spots on our hill-land reservoirs and on the shallower portion of highland reservoirs often look barren. We call ‘em nuthin’ banks because they lack wood or weedcover, or even sizable rock or any depth contour.

“Smallmouths seem to like flats with slick clay bottoms, particularly late in the Prespawn Period. Moreover, the best ones have only slight slopes. They’re only a couple feet deep 100 yards out, increasing to 12 feet or so before dropping into the channel. When I fish the deep edge of these spots, it looks like I’m in the middle of the lake.

“Another category of productive flats runs a little deeper, though,” McClintock continues. “In large creek arms of high-land reservoirs, some shorelines break at about a 45-degree angle to about 5 feet deep, then drop little for another 50 yards or more. Finally, the flat breaks into a creek channel that may run 25 to 35 feet deep.

“On high-land reservoirs, smallmouths often move onto the outer edges of deep flats on mild winter days and during the early phases of the Prespawn Period. They yo-yo in and out of the flat as weather changes, but gradually push shallower. Males may run close to the bank, holding by stumps, pockets, or undercut areas.

“While some spawning takes place on these flats, smallies mostly feed on them, since large schools of shad move across the flats as water temperatures rise. Since smallmouths in reservoirs don’t all spawn at the same time, these flats seem to always hold fish during spring.

“Big females move onto these deeper flats, too, but not as close to shore. They may make fleeting trips to spawn in beds located in 4 to 6 feet of water, but they don’t linger there. The rule of thumb is that bigger females spawn deeper.

“When water temperatures reach 50ºF range, also check what we call hollows, steep-sided V-shaped secondary creeks. Banks along hollows hold fallen trees and big rocks, but smallmouths tend to feed in the deep middle section, corralling shad against the steep walls or at the back end of the creek. Fish suspend over the channel from about 8 to 20 feet down and are spooky. Kill the outboard before getting into the hollow, and use the trolling motor sparingly.”

Lure choice naturally shifts as smallmouth bass advance toward the spawn.

Early Prespawn
Smallmouths move shallower at this time, but may remain in the 20-foot zone during a transition period before they shift onto shallow flats. In natural lakes, anglers often fail to contact these fish since they’re not aggressive and are willing to take only small baits presented slowly and precisely on structural elements. Such fishing takes time, and veering water is difficult.

Find deep inside turns in the break located outside large flats with potential spawning sites. On such spots, In-Fisherman contributor Rich Zaleski fishes slowly across the bottom with ¼- and ?-ounce hair jigs tipped with a small pork eel or a smoke grub, much as he fishes them in late fall once they move to wintering sites.

Medium-power spinning tackles is most appropriate, including low-stretch 6- or 8-pound-test monofilament. Deep-diving crankbaits can reach smallmouths at this depth, but they retrieve speed needed to get them deep generally moves the bait from the fish’s strike window before it’s tempted to bite.

For early-prepspawn smallies holding deep, reservoirs anglers like Fred McClintock also traditionally have relied on the fly-and-rind, a hair jig with a trimmed #101 chunk of Uncle Josh Pork fished on bottom or merely swum steadily through the depths. Curlytail grubs and spider jigs on ?- to ¼-ounce heads work in the same fashion.

McClintock also capitalizes on the innately aggressive nature of brown bass by using flashy lures that can be fished slowly in deep water. “In the 20- to 30-foot zone, slab spoons like the Hopkins or Cordell CC Spoon fish efficiently by falling quickly. Once the spoon is down, pop it up a foot or so and let it fall back. It remains in a small area long enough to tempt smallmouths.

“I fish spoons on baitcasting tackle with 12-pound-test mono and a 6½-foot medium-action rod,” McClintock says. “I fish the Silver Buddy by casting it out rather than dropping it vertically, but I pop it off bottom with a short sweep of the rod. It covers water faster than a spoon, but doesn’t seem to move too fast. A Spinrite or Little George can be fished the same way. Flash triggers bass during early spring and on mild winter days, too. Many baits, such as Tennessee Bankrunner, Spinrite, Tailspinners, spoons and so on, in these articles can be bought through Fred.

“I’m no bass fishing purist, either. Drifting livebait through hollow or across the deep breaks off flats can catch more bass than anything else. I fish crappie minnows early, then shiners, chubs, or any other baitfish native to the reservoir.” Although Bullet Bait’s Flat ‘n Fly system has been tried mostly during winter, it likely will work when smallies pull off breaks and suspend, in response to weather changes.

Mid-Prespawn Period
Water temperatures rising into the 50ºF range bring a focus on crankbaits, due to their tremendous triggering qualities and ability to quickly check large areas of flats, shoreline, or offshore bars. Deep divers work well, even in depths less than eight feet, because their digging action into the bottom causes baits to kick silt and run erratically. Sometimes, though, the more constant cadence of a medium diver or a rattlebait retrieved at moderate speed works better.

Indeed, lipless rattlebaits or crankbaits with rattle chambers often outproduce silent baits. This auditory cue seems to fire the aggressive drive of the brown bass, similar to McClintock’s use of flash in cold water to entice bass visually. And Rich Zaleski uses large stick-baits like lipped Bagley Bang-O-Lures and Magnum Rapalas to trigger smallies on the flats.

His sharp, twitching retrieve produces a visual trigger with a component that undoubtedly grabs the fish’s attention by its unorthodox underwater vibrations. On a given day, Zaleski is prepared to finesse smallies with a 2-inch smoke grub or run to the other extreme by working an outsize minnowbait with exaggerated movement.

Many times, though, smallmouths in spring seem in no mood to chase. Cold fronts and fishing activity put them down, and they often seem “off” for no discernible reason. James Lindner has found a 1/16-ounce Gopher mushroomhead matched with a tiny grub or 1-inch Berkley Power Tube the best option when bass are off. “I can see the fish cruising over flats,” he says, “but they refuse cranks, spinnerbaits, and topwaters.

“Tiny tubes will take the biggest fish in the lake at this time of the year, and also in summer when they’re turned off. Under normal conditions, a standard 3½-inch tube makes a great smallmouth bait. Also, the floating motion of an online spinner like the Mepps Aglia or Blue Fox Vibras entices smallmouths better than anything else. If rocks, brush, or bulrushes make an open-hook bait impractical, work a small-profit ¼-ounce spinnerbait slowly and smoothly across the flats.”

Late Prespawn
As span time approaches, smallmouths roam less, and males focus on small territories where they will construct a nest. Females also select specific deeper breaks and holes that provide quick access to nests and also to the sanctuary of open water.

The right kind of day can yield an incredible topwater bite, whether you twitch a balsa minnow, walk a Zara Spook, or pop a chugger. Smallmouths in shallow water tend to hold near cover like boulders, bulrush stalks, stumps, or in slight depressions like the berms James Lindner seeks.

James has also found that they may actually bury beneath rocks. “They must use their snouts to move gravel and pebbles from under a boulder,” he says, “creating enough of a cavity to sit in, invisible from above.” In addition to topwater baits, rattlebaits, crankbaits, and spinners continue to produce until the spawn begins, though negative conditions can quickly make tubes or small jigs the best option.

In large lakes and reservoirs, smallmouths don’t all spawn a the same time, so while fish in warmer, more protected sections begin nesting, other in more open waters or in deeper parts of a reservoir may yet be in mid-prespawn. Even within an arm of a lake, some variation occurs in spawning time.

Once the last wave of smallmouths begin spawning, the best fishing of the prespawn has passed. Summer patterns begin after spawning duties are complete, offering good fishing on the same flats, but usually less predictable than before the spawn. Understanding the stage that prespawn bass are in offers clues to the types of flats that hold bass and the depths they may be holding.

Success demands an open mind when assessing the progression of the spawn, testing water temperatures and plying various areas with an array of lure types. The reward is anything but boring.


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