A couple of weeks ago, I was asked by a good friend of mine to speak to a fly-fishing group he started here in Murfreesboro. The topic was "Fly fishing warm-water streams in Middle Tennessee." While I'm certainly no expert, I've spent my share of time getting wet in the creeks and rivers near my home ... often trying to fool fish with the long rod. The following, rather long post is the basic text of what I presented last night. Hope you enjoy.
While Middle Tennessee presents several very good and relatively-convenient cold-water fisheries, the search for trout – at least for the wading angler – can be adversely impacted by aggressive generation schedules (most of the best trout rivers are tailwaters), heavy rains, fluctuating temperatures, limited walk-in access … and in many cases, oppressive crowds.
But, just outside your door, probably just minutes from the house are a plethora of warm-water fishing opportunities. Middle Tennessee is crowded with streams that, in many cases, are relatively un-fished, un-bothered and teeming with fish willing to bite … and fight.
The area of the state that stretches from the Tennessee River in the west to the eastern range of the Cumberland Plateau is home to the best smallmouth fishing in the world. Additionally, you can find spotted and largemouth bass, assorted panfish, seasonal runs of stripe and striped bass and the year-round presence of carp. All of these are excellent quarry for fly-fishers … so what are you waiting for. Grab a 6-wt, some cheap poppers and that beat-up clouser and hit the streams!
Its description is legendary: pound for pound, the gamest fish that swims. To most stream anglers, smallmouth bass are at the top of the list when it comes to gamefish. It’s an accommodating biter and an extremely hard fighter. Its broad tail allows for powerful runs, acrobatic jumps and a seemingly endless supply of energy.
Smallies prefer faster-moving, relatively cool, clear water. They are often found around or near structure, especially chunk rock (look for dinner-plate-size-or-larger stones), gravel and rock-bottomed sections of stream.
Its diet primarily consists of crawfish, creek minnows and assorted species of small fish, hellgrammites (Dobsonfly larvae), frogs, large bugs and terrestrials of all sorts.
Most of the fish you encounter in the area streams are in the 1- to 3-pound range, although even small streams can house some true trophies. But, a three-pound smallie on a fly-rod is the something you’ll remember forever.
· 8 ½- to 9-foot, 5 to 8 wt rods are appropriate, with a relatively-stiff or fast-action 6-wt being the all-around favorite.
· The rod needs to have enough backbone to cast larger-than-average flies. There’s not much daintiness to smallmouth fishing. You’re targeting a pretty pugnacious adversary. It’s best to come armed and ready.
· For most of the area streams, a floating line will work in a variety of situations. In winter and early spring, a sinking or sink-tip line can be employed, although it’s not always necessary.
· Typically, smallmouth are not leader shy, so save your 12-foot 6x fluorocarbon leaders for East Tennessee brook trout. I like to keep it simple … a 7-foot leader (or even shorter) in the 0X to 3X range works fine. Or, you could always go with an 18-to-24-inch section of 12 pound test tied to an 18-to-24-inch section of 8-pound line. This simple leader works best when using larger poppers that tend to “hang up” in the wind on the forward cast.
· When using sinking line, you won’t need much leader at all. Again, simple is better. The fish won’t care.
· Any reel will do. While smallmouth can crank out a brief run or two, they’re not known for going into your backing. Most of the fight will take place right in front of you.
Flies to use
· Poppers – foam, deer-hair, cork and balsa-wood. The key is to make sure the popper has a good-sized hook. Many topwater flies – especially those that target panfish -- offer hooks that are just not wide enough to accommodate a smallmouth’s deceptively large and bony maw. While deer-hair poppers are usually works of art and often the product of hours of practice at the vice, cheap balsa poppers have always out-performed them for me. White rubber legs on the sides tend to solicit more action, for whatever reason. Pencil poppers – including smaller crease flies traditionally used for saltwater species – also work very well. But, try whatever you like. Once you get on a topwater bite for smallies, you won’t want to fish any other fly.
· Wiggle minnows
· Clouser minnows (No. 2 through 8)
· Crawfish patterns
· Woolly buggers
· Hellgrammite patterns
· Various terrestrials, including hoppers
· Muddler minnows
Where to fish
In middle Tennessee, there are plenty of smallmouth streams. Most of the rivers and creeks that feed the area lakes (J. Percy Priest, Center Hill, Tim’s Ford, Old Hickory, etc.) have smallies swimming in them … and some of the smaller streams that flow into those rivers and creeks are even more plentiful with our favorite fish.
Your best bet is to explore. Buy a Tennessee Gazetteer, and look for creeks and streams … especially those which are a little off the beaten path. Typically, they don’t receive as much pressure, which can certainly work in your favor. You may need to seek permission from landowners to fish many of these, but normally, a polite inquiry will gain you access. If you do get access, make sure you pick up some trash and try to leave the stream in better shape than it was when you got there.
Knowing how to read a stream will really come in handy when fishing for smallmouth. While they tend to claim and stick to a territory, they will move to various places within that territory during the change of seasons. To assist with this effort, we’ll break down smallmouth haunts accordingly.
Trips to the streams in the spring can be epic … or a complete waste of time. Weather and water levels are often the biggest issues. If the water levels are conducive to wading and floating, try to focus on typical feeding areas such as above and below riffles, in eddies and around obstructions.
The water is usually pretty clear and fish can be spooky. However, many pre-spawn fish are quick to feed … so aggressive presentations can work. Wiggle minnows fished down-and-across the current can result in powerful hookups. Also, be on the look-out for feeding fish. If you see fish chasing minnows, cast a slider, popper or wiggle minnow to the swirl.
This is also a good time to fish crawfish imitations. Fish them shallow or deep, bouncing them across the bottom.
Despite the need to feed, spring smallies can be very finicky. And, once they get on beds, they can be very difficult to both find and to entice into biting. I just leave the bedding fish alone … and focus on other species.
A quick note on hook-sets: make sure you strip-set your flies on the take. Position your rod away from the pull of the fish, keep it very low to the water and aggressively pull on your fly line. This will imbed the hook deep into the bony mouth of the fish. Keep in mind, this is not a stocker trout on the other end of your line. You will not pull the hook. And you’ll be thankful for this action, because watching a five-pounder jump and spit your fly back at you is a demoralizing thing.
When June and July roll around, your best bets are to fish riffles and faster moving runs, especially runs that feature sections of chunk rock bottom. Look for eddies and obstructions such as downed trees, root balls and large boulders. Like during the spring, be on the watch for feeding fish – specifically, fleeing minnows, large swirls and subtle wakes.
Summer is time for poppers and sliders, as top-water fishing really gets going when it gets warm. When fishing a popper, look for eddies and slack water adjacent to faster moving riffles or runs. Also, an accurate cast to an area directly behind an obstruction like a large rock or downed tree can result in a violent take.
Large fish will also hold deep. In my experience, these fish are difficult to get to bite. It’s almost as if they’re resting and waiting for their next trip to the feeding zone. But, smallmouth are opportunistic, so if you have they patience, try bottom-crawling a large woolly or crawfish imitation. Fish it slow. This is much like winter fishing.
In the summer, it’s best to be on the water either early or late. Mid-day – especially during sunny days – does not consistently produce. However, rainy days can be outstanding … just watch for lightning. If you see it, get the heck out of the water and take cover.
Until the weather really cools off, the fall can be very much like the summer. However, the feeding period seems to actual increase during the fall as the mid-day heat decreases substantially. Fish are also looking to fatten up for the winter, meaning they’re prone to stay very near their traditional feeding zones. Like the summer, concentrate your time on riffles, eddies and runs featuring chunk rock. Top water will continue to produce late into the fall months.
Fish, and especially smallmouth, get very sluggish in colder months. They can be caught, but it takes patience and a willingness to fish for a long time with very few bites. However, the fish I catch in the winter are almost always the biggest fish of the year.
Fish deeper holes, bottom-crawling large streamers and crawfish patterns. During winter, smallies will feed if a protein-rich food presents itself … they’re just not going go far to get it.
Winter smallmouth fishing is not for everybody. You certainly can catch more fish this time of year by hitting a nearby tailwater and trying for trout. If you’re into that kind of thing …
Smallmouth are at the top of my list when it comes to stream fishing, but there are many other species to target. Almost all of these are willing takers to fly-fishing presentations. We’ll go quickly through the list.
Largemouth Bass – the smallmouth bass’ bigger cousin is found in almost all of the waters around middle Tennessee. Unlike smallies, they prefer slower-moving stretches of streams and especially backwater sloughs. They do not like to roam far for their food, preferring to ambush it from cover.
They’re America’s favorite sportfish for a reason, though. They’re aggressive and they fight hard. While they won’t put up as dogged a fight as the smallies, they make up for it with powerful leaping ability, violent head-shaking and the propensity to dive for stumps, tree limbs and other structure in order to break the line. As a result, they are a challenge.
In streams around here, you’ll find them up to five pounds or better, although the majority of fish are in the 1-2 pound range. Top-water poppers are your best bet to entice a big largemouth, especially versions that resemble frogs. Clousers and wiggle minnows (a slowly-tugged minnow which barely wobbles in the water can get absolutely killed by an opportunistic largemouth) are also great options. Again, make sure your hook is plenty big, with a substantial gap and a sharp hook. These fish are aptly named.
Spotted bass – Also called Kentucky bass, spots are prolific denizens of middle Tennessee’s water ways. While they tend to be much smaller than their two black bass brothers, they are aggressive feeders and can put up a tremendous fight on a fly-rod. The same flies used for smallmouth will work for spots.
They prefer the same water as smallmouth, and are most often found near broken-rock bottom. If you’re wading through a run and you encounter a sudden patch of chunk rock, I can almost guarantee you that there will be several spotted bass nearby.
White bass, Hybrids and Striped Bass – During the spring, all three of these species make their way up the tributaries of the lakes that contain them. Once the dogwoods bloom, the water warms to 55 degrees, and the fish make their annual run up the feeder creeks. They can travel in huge numbers, and while the majority of the fish are smaller ones, there’s always the chance of running into some true giants.
I like to target these fish with a 6- or 7-wt rod, a 12 lb leader and a handful of wiggle minnows and clouser minnows. Depending on current and water depth, sink-tip or sinking lines can be employed, but floating lines will work fine in most situations. Cast perpendicular to the current, and then mend downstream to put a bow in the line. The current will pull your fly under and down. Then, retrieve steadily, allowing the fly to swim across the current. Most strikes will occur when the fly line begins to straighten and the fly rises in the water column. Hang on. In current, a 5 pound hybrid will feel like it weighs 20.
Panfish – The area rivers are loaded with panfish of all types, including bluegill, red-breasted sunfish, shellcrackers, pumpkinseeds, long-eared sunfish and rock bass. In the summer, a 5-wt and a few poppers will give you all the topwater fun you can have with these colorful little fish. Most of the fish will be small (you’ll be amazed how small sometimes), but what they lack in size, they make up for in spunkiness … and, in many cases, beauty. I challenge you to find a more beautiful fish than a spawning longeared sunfish.
Dedicated panfish fly-fishers will also tie droppers on their top-water offerings, giving a subsurface bonus fly a chance to dangle in front of larger fish. Nymphs of various sizes will work.
Carp – These are the most maligned fish in our waters … but the toughest to catch and one of the biggest brawlers you’ll encounter. Fishing for them can be extremely frustrating, as it takes a combination of luck, skill and good fortune to even present a fly to a carp.
In spring and early summer, carp are on the move and most are feeding. The key to fishing for them is to see them before they see you. This is as close to stalking bonefish as you’ll come to in middle Tennessee. The best way to approach them is by boat. Wading for them will normally only work if you spot “tailing fish,” meaning the carp have buried their noses in the bottom while their tails stick out of the water like flags. Regardless, carp will betray their feeding by creating large plumes of silt in the water as they probe the bottom for food.
Once you’ve spotted a school of carp, find the lead fish, and cast several feet in front of it. Do not let your line cross their backs, as it will almost assuredly spook them. When the lead fish moves toward your fly, move it slightly. If the carp is hungry, it will visibly take the offering. Set the hook quickly, and then move your hand away from your reel handle. You’re about to see that orange stuff you tied on before you put your fly-line on about three years ago.
Carp take a very long time to tire and due to their soft, rubbery mouths, you have to be careful not to put too much pressure on them. This is great experience for what it takes to land big fish. You’ll have to employ all of your skills to keep the fish from wrapping your line around obstructions.
Catch and release
Please practice catch and release. Most of these streams are small, and the bigger fish that inhabit them are often many years old and possessing the genes needed to produce a steady supply of larger bass. Take a photo of your big fish and let her swim back to her home to one day make more big fish.
If you want to keep any fish, rock bass (red eye) are known to be as good if not better than bluegill to eat. And, there are plenty of them in the same places as the smallies.