Winter smallmouth fishing is huge in Tennessee because our deep highland smallmouth reservoirs remain ice-free. In January, these fish will suspend off steep limestone bluffs where they feed on immature baitfish. We catch ’em on the float-and-fly, a tiny (1/16- to 1/32-ounce) hair jig fished below a bobber, when the lake temp is 37 to 39 degrees. (Note: Duckworth offers an informative video showcasing this finesse method on his website.) By late February, we’ve usually had a couple of unseasonably warm rains, causing the lake temp to jump up quickly into the 44- to 45-degree range. This triggers smallies to enter their early prespawn phase by gravitating to deep, steep points on the main lake and in the bigger tributaries. Here, they’ll suspend 15 to 30 feet deep, sometimes over 100 to 120 feet of water. If it’s not too windy and the lake is clear, you can catch these suspenders on the float-and-fly. On windy days, however, I’ll switch to a silver 1/2-ounce Silver Buddy on those same deep points. Many of our highland reservoir points have a series of “stairsteps” or short ledges on them; smallies will sit on those little steps, often 18 to 35 feet deep, then rush out and grab passing baitfish. I’ll cast the blade to the point, let it sink on a tight line, then hop it down one ledge to the next in 5-foot increments.
In March, when the water first hits 50 degrees, you can have a blast casting a clown-pattern Rapala Husky Jerk or a 200-series blue splatterback Bandit crankbait to rocky points and 45-degree channel banks, especially on days when the wind is howling out of the south or west. Waves crashing against the rocks will put those big boys right against the bank, and they’ll bite savagely. On calmer days, they’ll back off these structures and suspend; now I’ll fish the jerkbait with hard, repetitive snaps, jerking it bam-bam-bam, then pausing, then bam-bam-bam, repeating this pattern all the way back to the boat. I’ll also throw a Big Hammer swimbait now, casting it shallow and slow rolling it out from the point or bank over deep water — they’ll swim up a country mile to eat it. Early prespawn smallies will often relate very loosely to structure; sometimes they’re two or three cast-lengths off a point or channel bank. So if you’re not getting bit by casting to shore, turn and cast out toward open water — that’s probably where the fish are.
Our smallies enter their immediate prespawn period once the water hits 55 degrees, typically by mid- to late-March. They’ll move to long, slow-tapering gravel or clay points within a few casts of their eventual spawning areas. The water can get pretty roiled up on these points due to seasonal rains and gusty winds, and big smallies will move up surprisingly shallow on them to forage for crawfish. I’ll cast a red craw Bandit crankbait up shallow and root it down the point to 8 feet or so, alternately grinding it into the bottom and then killing it so it starts to float back up. I once caught an 8-pound smallmouth on this pattern and have had mornings where I’ve boated a dozen between 5 and 6 1/2 pounds crankin’ those flat points.
Southeastern reservoir smallmouth start spawning in 58-degree water and will continue bedding until the lake heats up to 66 degrees. They prefer pea-gravel flats with a few scattered stumps for nesting. Unlike the North Country where Noffsinger guides, I very seldom see them on beds down here where I fish, either because they’re not shallow enough or the water is too stained.
Thinking about it, every place both Noffsinger and I mentioned where we catch big prespawn smallmouth is either in or close to deep water. That’s just the nature of these awesome fish, no matter where they live.