Highland reservoirs don't make very good first impressions. Anglers new to these waters see nothing but sheer rock walls, banks that angle sharply into the water and an overall lack of obvious cover. It's enough to give a lifelong Florida bass fisherman the creeps.
These highland reservoirs hold plenty of bass, all right, but for those used to flat, relatively shallow lowland lakes, deciphering a steep, deep reservoir is like trying to learn bass fishing all over again — or at least that's how it seems. But don't be fooled.
For anglers like Jerry Farmer, finding largemouth in such lakes isn't the challenge that some flatlanders might think it is. Sure, the lakes he fishes can plunge to 200 or more feet at the dam, but he grew up fishing the deep, clear reservoirs of east Tennessee. Finding bass in these lakes is nothing short of ordinary to Farmer.
Arkansas guide Mitch Looper also knows how to catch bass from such waters. Like Farmer, he was raised on these types of lakes, so a day on a steep, deep lake for him is just another day on the water.
While some bass in these reservoirs utilize deep water, many don't, Farmer and Looper agree. In fact, both guides are convinced that many largemouth in these lakes never go deep at all. That's good news for anglers who feel a bit intimidated by clear, deep reservoirs.
"Most people think that because these lakes are 200 feet deep, they need to be fishing 50 feet deep or more, and that's just not true. Bass are bass, whether they live in Norris or Kerr," says Farmer, a guide and tournament angler from Bristol, Tenn. "They need food and cover, and they can often get those things in 20 feet or less on these deep lakes."
Seasonal hot spots
Like bass in a typical lowland reservoir, largemouth in steep, deep reservoirs follow seasonal routes and behave in similar ways. They migrate in and out of creeks during the spring and follow baitfish in the fall, so finding and catching largemouth from highland reservoirs really isn't that difficult.
"In the winter, I'll head up to the upper end of a lake and even up into the river if there is a major river feeding a highland reservoir," says Farmer.
"The reason I go there in cold weather is because the water is usually shallower, and the bass can't go 30 or 40 feet deep — they generally only have to move a little ways to come up shallow."
In the early spring, Farmer will head back down to the main lake, where he targets bends in creek channels in 30 feet of water, staging areas for pre-spawn bass. He especially likes shallower coves with pea gravel near bluff walls, and he'll throw a 1/4-ounce jig with a small pork trailer to the ends of those bluffs.
Looper catches respectable bass from the highland lakes near his home in northwestern Arkansas all year, but he says the absolute best time to catch the biggest bass is right after a lengthy, warm rainfall in the spring and fall. That dirties the water, which helps hide him and his boat.
"The bass will be right under the surface along steep bluff walls under those conditions, and I'll pull a spinnerbait or flip a jig right against the bank. I think the fish are always there, but when the water is real clear, they are extremely difficult to catch," he explains. "When you've got a little color in the water, they can't see you, so they aren't spooked."
Like spawning bass in lowland reservoirs, largemouth that live in these highland lakes will utilize shallow pea gravel flats toward the backs of creeks in April and May. Some bass will even fan out a bed on a small shelf jutting from the face of a bluff, and Looper occasionally sees them bedding on a slide of flat rocks. The pre-spawn period can be one of the best times to catch big bass from these lakes, but like pre-spawn bass anywhere, they can be fickle.
"The largemouth really seem to scatter in the summer. They could be anywhere," notes Farmer. "Night fishing is real good, but in the daytime I'll stick with pitching and flipping the ends of fallen trees. I also like to crank a Norman DD22 around steep points and humps. Floating docks and houseboats are also good places to pull a spinnerbait. For some reason, though, the topwater bite seems to be inconsistent, even early and late in the day."
Looper agrees, and says he'll spend 90 percent of his day running and gunning in an attempt to hit the high percentage areas that he knows are most likely to hold bass.
"You can go down a bank and not catch a fish for 100 yards and then hit the right spot and catch two or three from one small area," he notes. "With a little practice, you can figure out which areas are going to hold bass and which ones aren't."
In the fall, both Looper and Farmer will search for largemouth in creeks. That's where the baitfish tend to concentrate, so the bass will follow. Both anglers target obvious cover, such as fallen trees, and both like to work bluff walls this time of year.
The hottest spots
Take a look at a highland reservoir from a distance, and it's easy to see why these lakes can be so intimidating. They appear to be void of cover, and much of the shoreline is indeed deprived of the standard cover lowland reservoir anglers are used to. Docks are rare, and those that are available are typically floating docks clustered around a marina. Aquatic vegetation is also nonexistent on such lakes. But take a close look at a place like South Holston, Beaver Lake, Dale Hollow and Table Rock, and you'll see plenty of great looking cover — just not the kind lowland anglers are used to fishing.
Fallen trees are abundant, and the rocky shores offer a wide variety of habitat, from huge boulders and chunk rock to pea gravel coves and points made from broken shale. Many of these lakes have stumps left behind by the bulldozers. Even those sheer cliffs that plunge straight to the bottom of the lake hold largemouth throughout the year. They offer crevices, ledges and rock slides that hold bait and attract largemouth.
"When I come to a half-mile-long bluff wall, I start looking for something different. A shelf, a point or a cut are all good places to look for bass. I also really like the end of a bluff, where it kind of tapers off," says Looper. "If there's a fallen tree that runs out into the water, that's even better."
Farmer likes bluffs also, but he'll pitch jigs to cracks in the wall, particularly in the fall. He also favors little pockets in creeks that have a large amount of wood cover. These typically form in the backs of coves where two hills join to form a small "V" that drops sharply into the water. Floating wood often becomes trapped in these spots, creating a tangle of habitat. He'll work those areas over thoroughly with a variety of lures, and it's not out of the question to pluck a limit of largemouth from one small area of fallen trees.
Both guides will search out flats, particularly those with boulders or a chunk rock bottom. Such areas are rare, but they can hold good numbers of fish.
"Bass are kind of like deer," explains Farmer. "They like edges and transition areas. They also like little isolated pieces of cover. If you can find something that offers a variety of habitat in one small area, there's a good chance it will hold largemouth."
While lowland anglers are content to position their boats 20 or 30 yards from the bank and cast in, Farmer and Looper prefer to keep their boats right against the bank much of the time. That way, they can work lures parallel to the steep shore and keep their baits in the strike zone for the entire retrieve.
At times when targeting fallen trees and narrow points, a parallel retrieve isn't the best way to fish. Instead, Farmer and Looper back out from shore and cast in. Farmer even gets close enough to the cover to flip or pitch a jig to it.
"I'm not always worried about spooking fish, because I'm working the thickest stuff I can find. A lot of times, those fish are buried in the ends of those trees, so I think they feel safe enough to eat even with me sitting above them," he says. "It's not out of the question to actually watch a bass eat my jig."
One of Looper's favorite tactics is to burn a spinnerbait parallel to a bluff. He'll use anything from a 3/8-ounce to a 1-ounce Excalibur spinnerbait with Colorado blades, varying the weight of his lure so he can vary the speed of the retrieve until he figures out what the bass want.
"The trick is to 'wake' it right under the surface. If the fish slap at the lure but don't hit it, I'll use a heavier bait and a faster retrieve. That seems to trigger them to actually eat it," says Looper.
To burn a heavy spinnerbait, Looper relies on a Daiwa PT33SH, which has a 7:1 gear ratio, the fastest available, and since the fish don't have time to take a close look at his lure, he'll use 17- to 25-pound Excalibur Silver Thread monofilament.
He also likes to pull crawfish-colored Bomber crankbaits parallel to the same rock bluffs. A Model 6A loaded on 10-pound Silver Thread will run about 10 feet deep, perfect for active bass suspended next to sharp bluffs. Suspending jerkbaits also are good, and Looper will use them primarily in the fall.
Since Farmer's home lakes consist of a main lake and an endless array of creeks, coves and arms, he has plenty of points to fish. Although many of these points drop into deep water quickly, others taper much more gently. Those are ideal places to pull a Carolina rigged lizard. For the deeper points, he'll use a deep diving crankbait. He also likes to cast across shallower points with such crankbaits as Bandits or Shad Raps that will dive deep enough to touch the bottom as they come up and over that point.
He likes spinnerbaits nearly all year, but unlike Looper, he prefers to slow roll them, particularly in the winter. One of his favorite tactics is to cast spinnerbaits parallel to bluff walls, allowing them to fall to 20 or 25 feet. He then tries a variety of depths and retrieves until he figures out the best tactic for the day.
When it comes down to it, these highland reservoirs are no different than the shallow, flat lakes found throughout the South and East. Sure, they may be 300 feet deep in some places, but bass are bass, and they will utilize the same cover, no matter how deep the lake.