Hot Tips for Better Smallmouth Action on Wilson Lake
Let’s face it – come summer when temperatures reach some of the highest yearly points on the thermometer, a lot of us would rather sit in a cool, air-conditioned room sipping a cold drink while watching a ballgame than in a boat wiping sweat from our foreheads between casts.
Yes, it’s hot out there! As a young man learning to hunt and fish, my uncle made a statement to me that has stuck to this day.
“When my fun begins to feel like work,” he said, “it’s time to quit!”
Yea, but this is fishing! To guys like me, giving up so easily on a sport that I love so much just doesn’t seem to sit well.
For anglers accustomed to fishing impoundments on the Tennessee River during the day, midsummer can be one of the toughest times of the year for catching fish. Period! The heat we feel causes previously cool water temperatures to rise, thus, driving many species of the fish into the deeper, cooler waters. For smallmouth bass, in particular, that usually means they’re holding deeper and even tighter to the bottom. No easy, shallow water pitching of baits at this time of year!
Learning From Experience
To assist me in fishing a portion of Wilson Lake, an impoundment on the Tennessee River, I enlisted fulltime professional fishing guide, Capt. John Maner. John’s abilities to consistently put both large and smallmouth bass in the boat on a consistent basis have shown me just how much more I have to learn about these fish. I’ve heard so much about the smallmouth bass on Wilson that I figured that I’d pick his brain with all the info he’d be willing to give me. As it turns out, he seemed quite willing to share his knowledge.
To get started with my interview, I asked the captain to describe Wilson Lake and give some of the differences between it and the neighboring bodies of water, Pickwick and Wheeler Lakes.
“A benefit that we have as anglers around here is that much of the Tennessee River has an ideal environment for smallmouth bass,” the captain told me. “There are two reasons that Wilson Lake is known for large numbers of smallies as well as plenty that can be classified as real trophies. First, is the location of this 15-mile long impoundment. Wilson runs along the southern most boundary of habitable climate preferred by smallmouths. This gives them the advantage of a long growing period. Second is because it’s also at the northern border for threadfin shad, which, of course, just happens to be right at the top of a smallmouth’s list of favorite prey. When you throw in stiff current, deep rocky points, a couple sunken islands, it doesn’t take long to understand why Wilson Lake holds the number and size bass that it does.
“Wilson Lake is a bit different from Wheeler and Pickwick lakes,” Captain John continued. “It doesn’t have the ledges along the river channel that Pickwick has or many of the shallow flats found on Wheeler. It’s pretty much deep water all the way to the bank. In fact, it’s often called “The big bathtub.”
According to John, some areas of Wilson Lake dip to 90 feet deep with an average depth of 40 feet.
“There are a couple underwater islands on this lake,” Maner tells me. “However, there just aren’t the river channels or flats like those found on Wheeler, Pickwick or Guntersville. On Wilson, you’re more likely to find feeder creeks tapping into the river as well as a number of bluffs that seem like they’re climbing 90 degrees straight up out of the water. Because Wilson Lake often has a stiff current flowing past the rocky points that meet up with the creeks feeding into the river, smallmouths thrive there.
“There’s not a lot of shallow water along the river portion of Wilson,” John continued. “There are, however, some weedbeds tucked into some of the small pockets along the bluffs. These pockets aren’t very large. Usually six or eight casts are about all you’ll get. These can be some of the better spots to fish when the water temperatures are cool or, especially at night for an occasional largemouth.”
TVA Lends a Hand
The Captain explains that current plays an important role in smallmouth success.
“Current is a real player when it comes to the smallmouth fishing game,” he said. Of course, current alone isn’t the only factor when it comes to finding these fish. Throw in a number of breaks and eddies created by the creeks or pockets on Wilson and you can have one whale of a smallmouth fishery. Most lakes or rivers have points, bends or other structural shapes that’ll change the flow of the water and Wilson certainly has its share. Instead of searching out food, smallies like to get behind some of these and wait for the food to flow past. These prey species become easy meals for smallmouth with little effort expended.”
“Current is a real player when it comes to the smallmouth fishing game. Throw in breaks and eddies created by the creeks or pockets on Wilson and you can have one whale of a smallmouth fishery.” — John Maner, fishing guide
At one time, anglers used to depend on visual inspection of the current to determine if the smallmouth would likely be active. A slow drive over a bridge or one of the dams that separate the river sections told them what the water flow was like. Those who found it hard to tell by doing this would often launch their boats just to check the water flow. Even then, a change could be only moments away. Today, modern technology can erase all the guesswork.
The Tennessee River and each of its dams are controlled by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Today, anglers can download an app to their phones or computers that will allow them to check the current or water flow on any particular day. This app makes for a quick review of what to expect in the way of water levels and movement while on Wilson or many of the other lakes along the Tennessee River.
“There are days, nights or particular times when the TVA will change the amount of water they’ll pull through the dam,” the captain stated. “With this type of information, we can determine if it would be worth spending our time on the water or not.
“When using the TVA app, we can tell how much current will be on the lake by looking at the ‘Average Discharge’ portion of it,” Maner continued. “I’d expect to have a fair to good day of fishing when it reads 50,000 or higher. The fishing can be particularly good when the discharge is above 100,000. At one time, we could judge the current by the number of generators running at any particular time. However, some of the newer generators and turbines discharge much more water that the older ones.”
Time to Change Tactics
Since we can’t alter the weather or lower the outdoor temperatures to suit our comfort zone in a boat, the obvious alternative is to change the times we spend fishing and the tactics we use. We already know that the fish are still there and that they must eat. All we need to do now is understand how to transition from the hot days to cooler night fishing and what’s needed to continue putting smallmouth bass in the boat.
“To have much success in July, anglers will want to focus their efforts at night.” John told me. “Let’s face it, it’s usually hot during the daylight hours and it can be pretty miserable at times. Besides, the hope of catching as many as during the cooler months can be pretty bleak. Once we hit July, I focus much of my attention to catching smallies at night.”
Putting First Things First
When moving our efforts to catch fish, any fish, into the night, one of the primary concerns must be safety. As a previous owner of Hunter Safety System, one of my main jobs was to write our company instructions and warnings. Prior to this period of my life, I was like some other outdoor enthusiasts who put safety as secondary to success. Safety in my sports lay somewhere in the back of my mind and rarely came to the forefront. After hearing an unimaginable number of horror stories about previous accidents and what can happen to anglers and hunters, you can believe that my tune has changed in that regard.
Before leaving the dock, make sure that your boat lights work well. Of course, make sure your life jackets are easily accessible as is a throw cushion. Hitting a floating log or other structure in the water at night is much easier than during the day. Don’t laugh, but even buoys can sneak up on you while underway. Remember, don’t let something you enjoy doing harm you or worse!
Lures, Locations and Tactics
Okay. It’s one thing for a guy who makes his living catching fish to give you basics on the what, where and how-to of his profession, but with the proficiency I’ve seen from Captain Maner in boating more bass in a trip than I’ll catch in several weeks, I HAD to push as far as I could to get specifics if possible.
“During July, the majority of my night fishing on Wilson will take place off the feeder creek points in about 10 to 20 feet of water,” the captain says. “I mean, you can occasionally catch them shallower than that, but my main efforts will be at those depths. I start with the closest point to me while still in the deeper water. I’ll then gradually move shallower looking for fish. Once I’ve either caught several or determined that there aren’t any, I’ll move over to the adjacent point and do the same thing.
“I’ll start throwing 1/2- to 3/4-ounce spinnerbaits. Once I’ve covered as much water as possible quickly with a spinnerbait, I’ll slow down my presentations with a Texas-rigged worm, shaky head or jig,” — John Maner, fishing guide
“Another good place to fish is the areas around either of the two sunken islands in Wilson Lake,” he continued. “While hard to describe their exact location verbally, you can find them while checking almost any chart on Wilson. When searching for them, just look for humps extending off the bottom. That’ll likely be them.”
Pushing even further, I asked about bait colors, size and types.
“In each of the depths I mentioned, I’ll start throwing 1/2- to 3/4-ounce spinnerbaits,” John willingly told me. “I really like the blue and black combos or a red and black one with a Number 4.5 to 5 nickel Colorado blade. You’d be surprised at how one size can make a difference over the other at times. When retrieving the bait, I like to let it fall to bottom and work it back to the boat slowly with a lift-and-fall method. Usually, they’ll really hammer it!”
After memorizing this tactic for future use, I asked about other baits the captain likes to use.
“Once I’ve covered as much water as possible quickly with a spinnerbait, I’ll slow down my presentations with a Texas-rigged worm, shaky head or jig,” John told me. “Colors will remain the same as my spinnerbaits. If the night is moonless and quite black, I’ll throw a black or dark jig tipped with some form of plastic crawfish. With worms or shaky heads, I like using some sort of finesse style plastic.”
Pound-for-pound, smallies have a real capacity to show a distain for nets and livewells. Drag-pulling power combined with the acrobatic abilities of an Olympic gold medalist make smallmouth bass among our state’s most popular gamefish. In fact, I’d imagine that anywhere smallmouth bass live, there’ll be a following of hardcore anglers in hot pursuit.
One advantage I have as a writer is the opportunity to get with great guys like Capt. John Maner and to learn from them. I want thank him for his willingness to share these tips and information with me. I’m looking forward to getting back into his new Phoenix boat again and learn even more on the next trip. If you’d like to join Captain Maner for a day of fishing education and fun, call him at 256-227-3277 or visit his website at www.johnmanerfishing.com.
The TVA app can be downloaded free from a phone app store or from the TVA website at www.tva.com/Environment/Lake-Levels/TVA-Lake-Info-App.