Bob Coan's relationship with smallmouth bass and Dale Hollow Lake in north-central Tennessee — a relationship based on respect and admiration — spans five decades. He's generally credited with refining the float-and-fly technique and making it one of the most productive wintertime smallmouth fishing systems ever devised.
Known for his attention to detail and for his ability to regularly boat 5- and 6-pound smallmouths, Coan views himself as a teacher. He's a man whose life mission is to spread the word about smallmouth bass, the float-and-fly technique and Dale Hollow Lake.
Bob Coan is a "SuperGuide."
"I grew up in eastern Kentucky, near the headwaters of the Cumberland River, where I fished for smallmouth as a kid," he explains. "And, every so often, I traveled with my grandfather and my uncles to Dale Hollow where we fished for them some more. Smallmouth bass was all I knew in those days.
"After high school I moved to Louisville, Ky., where I worked for Ford for 30 years. Good smallmouth bass fishing is hard to find in that part of the state so I went back to Dale Hollow every chance I got, usually two or three times a month. When I retired I moved there full-time.
"With the benefit of such a great fishery and teachers like Billy Westmorland I learned something about these magnificent fish and how to catch them. It's been a lifelong experience, but one well worth the effort."
Coan is a detail man, little things matter to him. In his world learning about them meant learning the details, the small refinements that separate good fishermen from great fishermen.
For years he caught cold water smallies by bouncing blade baits and jigs off the bottom. He developed strategies and techniques that worked. Days with a half-dozen really good bass were common. But that didn't satisfy Coan. He believed there was something better, something that would take advantage of the bass in the warmer layer of water that lies along the top of the reservoir in the winter.
"I knew there were two groups of smallmouths in Dale Hollow. The first fed on alewives and lived deep. They were plentiful and big but not like the ones that lived shallow and fed on the threadfin shad.
"That second group was what I wanted to target. That's where the giants lived and fed during the winter. But I couldn't get them to bite. My problem was finding a lure that moved slowly and looked natural but that would still ride along between 9 and 15 feet deep.
"I tried everything I could think of but never did come up with a satisfactory solution until the early 1990s when I first saw the float-and-fly. I knew as soon as I saw it that it would catch them. In those days it was a simple rig — a small hair jig tied with a long leader under a fixed bobber. We'd cast it out wherever we could find threadfin shad. The feeding smallies would take it like a crappie takes a minnow."
Over the past 15 years Coan has developed and refined the float-and-fly technique and its associated tackle into one of the best cold water smallmouth systems ever devised. He now targets specific areas with specific rods, reels, line, swivels, flies and attractants. Four- and 5-pound smallmouths are now common from the Hollow.
And true to his teaching philosophy, he willingly shares his system with his clients every year from late November through the middle of March.
"I try to teach my customers the mechanics of float-and-fly fishing and show them what tackle they need as well as help them put a few big smallies in the boat. But I also want my guests to understand smallmouth bass.
"They need to see for themselves the two groups of smallmouths and how each group relates to their choice of forage, how wintertime smallmouths will hold over open water below threadfin shad and why small, nearly motionless baits catch the biggest fish in cold water.
"Most of all, however, I want them to leave with an appreciation of smallmouth bass and Dale Hollow Lake — two of the greatest natural treasures on earth."
To fish with Bob Coan, contact him toll free at 866-233-2471. To see more of what he offers as well as client photos of wintertime, Dale Hollow smallmouth bass visit his Web site at www.bobcoanfishingguide.com.