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Something Special About Small-Stream Smallies

Big lakes and large rivers aren’t the only habitat for brawny bronzebacks

Anglers are notoriously tight-lipped about where they go to rip fish lips. And that’s especially true among those serious about stalking skinny waters in search of fat bass.

But one of the great things about Middle Tennessee and the Upper Cumberland is that opportunities abound around here for escaping the mechanized weekend multitudes by sequestering yourself on backwoods bodies of moving water. There’s no shortage of covert creeks, secluded streams and secret side-channels that house hidden lairs holding lunker smallmouths.

Fervent fly fishermen like Sawyer Campbell are, of course, forever in thrall to the thrill of landing a big wily trout on an isolated run of fast-flowing river. Campbell, a Tennessee Tech grad, is Outdoor Experience of Cookeville’s floor manager and in-house fly shop tutor. But when he wants to steer clear of the Caney Fork’s flailing fleets of summer pleasure-floaters — or if an overnight excursion to East Tennessee’s South Holston River isn’t feasible — he likes to trek out to undisclosed stretches of tributaries feeding the Cumberland River in search of the copper-tinted kings of lower-elevation creeks and streams.

“It really doesn’t get much better than this,” Campbell remarks as he admires yet another plump, vermillion-eyed smallie he’s wrestled to submission on his 6-weight fly rod somewhere deep in the Roaring River watershed.

Creek-bass angling in the Upper Cumberland offers opportunities to connect with fish both in numbers and for size. That’s a pretty seductive win-win proposition for any fanatical sport fisherman, says Campbell, who’s always game to gab about fly-angling pursuits with customers browsing in the store. One of his specialty topics is discussing tips and tactics with trout anglers interested in crossing over into the realm of bass-catching.

Always Ready to Rumble

Anybody who’s ever caught a smallmouth will tell you they’re among the fightingest fish, pound for pound, of any inland North American warmer-water species. In moving currents, the initial hookup and subsequent thrashing fracas is especially vigorous.

“If you’ve caught smallmouth on lakes before, then you will understand,” said JG Auman of Mt. Juliet-based Tennessee Moving Waters Guide Service (tnmovingwaters.com). “I’d say these stream fish are on average twice as strong as a reservoir smallmouth.”

Auman and his business partner, Nick Adams, guide almost exclusively in Middle Tennessee on, as their name denotes, moving waters. One of their sought-after talents is putting customers — typically using traditional spinning rods — on secret holes in unfrequented streams that support large smallmouth.

When Auman and Adams head out for a day on the water, they ask clients if they’re looking to catch lots of fish, or just interested in targeting the big ones. If it’s the later, wielding a rod and line with some heft is imperative.

Big Fish Require Bigger Tackle

Battling a bruising five-pound smallmouth in swift current is probably a losing proposition with light gear and tackle, Auman said.

JG Auman of TN Moving Waters

“We do tend to use heavier tackle than what people often associate with stream fishing, because we often try and target trophy fish,” he said. “They will either break the rod off or break off the line when they pull it up under a tree or rock.”

Auman, who also works as an aquatic biologist for the Nashville Zoo, said a creek smallmouth that’s 20 inches long is probably 15-20 years old. “It knows every rock, every tree, every branch in its home,” he said. “And when you hook it, those are the places it’s going. You are not going to be able to stop them if you’re tackle is too light — you just aren’t going to keep them out of the cover. We learned that from experience long ago.”

In 2015 Adams and Auman were featured on Chad Hoover’s popular Youtube channel, KayakBassinTV. Hoover, who also lives in Middle Tennessee, is usually partial to chasing largemouth. But in the episode with the TMW crew, he acknowledged there’s little not to love about paddling for smallmouth on the region’s scenic rivers and creeks.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t done as much (smallmouth fishing) for the show — primarily, because I’m selfish,” Hoover said. “I really like to keep these smallmouth places to myself.”

Destinations Classified 

Auman said he gets a fair number of people calling him up not so much looking to book an outing, but just “fishing for stream names.” But he’s a devoted practitioner of the fisherman’s code of secrecy, especially on the matter of small-stream smallmouth fishing.

Holes that hold big fish will fizzle in a hurry if they get publicized, he said.

Not only doesn’t Moving Waters give out stream names, but some of their highly classified hotspots are designated for tourists only. “If I have clients that are local, I take them to streams that are somewhat known,” he said. “Then I have others that I fish only with out-of-town clients, because I know they aren’t going to tell people or come back later. In this day and age of social media, all it takes is one person to get on a Facebook page that has 5,000 members and start giving out creek names, and it’s ruined.”

All the same, Auman encourages anglers to get out and explore for their own patches of highly productive moving bass waters. Most anybody can be successful if they just scout around and study some maps, he said.

“You want to find streams that flow directly into larger bodies of water — that’s the best way that I tell people to find good smallmouth streams,” he said. “If you can find a stream that is a direct tributary to the Cumberland River or the Caney Fork River, then those are the streams you are going to want to look for. You probably don’t want the streams that just feed into another little stream.”

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Forecast: Center Hill Fishing Frenzy Starting in 2018

Everyone eagerly anticipating completion of dam work

Anybody who’s spent any serious time fishing on Center Hill Lake before and after the reservoir was lowered for work on the dam will likely tell you the bite isn’t what it used to be.

A standard gripe among seasoned crappie stalkers and unabashed bass bums is that years of diminished lake levels has dampened prospects for consistently landing boast-worthy gamefish. Reason being, there’s relatively little submerged wood and plant cover anymore to attract and provide refuge for fish and their prey.

Center Hill’s “monster walleye” may become more commonplace once dam work is complete and the lake level gets elevated next year. This is L. M. Davis of Nashville holding a 9-pounder he landed back in October 1953. (Photo via Tennessee State Library and Archives)

Despite the difficulty fishermen may have experienced honing in on reliable Center Hill hookup holes, the government’s full-time fish-watchers maintain that adequate numbers of the scaly subsurface lake-dwellers are down there, even if they’re hard to find.

After perceiving a decline following the initial lake draw-down nearly a decade ago, various TWRA methods for gauging attendance in fish-schools show they’v bounced back, said Mike Jolley, regional biologist for the department.

“The most recent surveys show that things are coming back to where they were at the start of the dam project,” Jolley told Center Hill Sun. “We have not seen a big downward trend.”

He added, though, that “fish populations do, even when there is not a lot going on, kind of come and go” as a result of natural survival and spawning fluctuations.

Primed to Thrive

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the nearly $400 million dam repair projects that have been going on for all these years are slated for completion in 2018.

That means that by next summer — hopefully — lake levels are expected to be maintained at up to ten feet higher than what standard summer pools have been of late, according to Army Corps projections. That in turn means anglers can maybe start reaping some silver-lining rewards to a long stretch of consistently mediocre fish-catching potential on Center Hill.

The drawdown over the last several years “has allowed time for trees and other vegetation to grow in the backs of pretty much all the creeks,” said the Army Corps Center Hill biologist, Gary Bruce. “There are now some pretty large trees that are going to be excellent habitat when the water does come back up.”

Often, lakes are at their most productive, fishing-wise, soon after they are created. Dale Hollow, for example, was impounded in 1943. In 1955 a local angler there landed what remains to this day a world record smallmouth, weighing an ounce shy of 12 pounds and measuring 27 inches long.

“Generally, when you build a new lake, you get this surge of nutrients, very good spawns, and everything just proliferates for the first four or five years of a new impoundment,” Benjy Kinman, a retired Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, noted in a short documentary about the record Dale Hollow bass.

Anglers and aquatic-species scientists alike are hopeful Center Hill Lake is now poised for something akin to a re-boot that may even usher in a repeat of the golden angling years of the 1950s, the decade after the dam was completed.

“There were a lot of big fish caught in Center Hill right after impoundment, some big bass and monster walleye,” said Bruce.

Jolley, who has worked around Cumberland Plateau regional lakes for more than 20 years, said TWRA has been stocking Center Hill the last couple years with an eye toward further bolstering a brighter future.

“Center Hill is probably one of the very few lakes in the whole state that gets any smallmouth bass,” he said. “Those were put in with the idea of possibly trying to enhance the abundance of smallmouth. So when the lake does come up, there will be an adult class of fish that can really take advantage of the habitat and really boost their productivity.”