Fishing for smallmouth bass in rivers is one of my favorite summer pastimes. Floating a river while watching the sun rise or wading in the cool water below a favorite shoal are good ways to beat the summer heat and catch fish. Nonetheless there’s another way to catch plenty of smallmouths that requires less planning and exposure to the brutal summer sun; night fishing. So when my long-time friend Rodger Davis came to fish with me during a record heat wave, fishing at night was at the top of our list of choices. After spending a hot but productive day on a local river, we headed for a highland reservoir along the mountainous western edge of Cherokee National Forest to try some night fishing for smallmouth bass. The eastern half of Tennessee is blessed with many highland reservoirs including Dale Hollow, Norris, Watauga, and South Holston and each offers good fishing. South Holston is closest to home, the most beautiful and has an excellent smallmouth bass population so we repacked the boat and headed for the nearest ramp. We arrived on the dam end of the lake as darkness fell, rigged a pair of blacklights, and eased toward the first in a series of points that had produced tournament winning bass for me. As we idled across open water in depths approaching 250 feet the cool night air felt refreshing, a much more pleasant environment than baking in the heat on a sunny, shallow river. Surface water temperature varied between the mid-seventies and eighty degrees, ideal considering temperatures in many local lowland lakes had already moved well into the eighties. In tackle, we chose the same spinning combos spooled with thin, bright-yellow line that we’d used for stickbaits on the river, but changed lures to tiny 1/8-ounce jigs with plastic trailers. With thin line and light jigs, we could thoroughly explore the bottom down to twenty-five- or thirty-feet. Time to set back, relax, enjoy the beautiful night sky and slowly crawl a jig.
Slowly crawling a tiny jig across bottom may sound boring to those used to fishing faster moving lures but set your mind to focus on what the jig’s telling you and it’ll hold your attention like a vice. With four-pound diameter braided line and a jig that weighs little more than an eighth ounce the lure will float along bottom, climb everything in its path and telegraph a steady stream of information about the lake bottom. Occasionally a jig will hang and be lost so it’s wise to bring a few extras, however, match the right line diameter with the weight of the lure and the system is surprising weedless. You’ll feel the jig strike and crawl over a rock, the bottom change from mud to gravel, and weightlessness as the lure falls down a steep incline. Line watching is equally important because you can learn to read water depth based on the time it takes the lure to hit bottom after a cast and when it falls along drop-offs. Water depth is an important detail to track because most fish will feed at a particular depth during the night and the key to success is finding and fishing that depth. If that isn’t enough to keep your mind busy, occasionally a nice bass will come along and attack your lure. Many times when a smallmouth bass strikes a jig, you’ll feel a distinct tap through the rod and the line will jump. However, it’s equally common to see the line twitch without feeling anything. Then of course there are the sneaky ones, often larger fish, which simply pick up the jig and start swimming away. If you let your mind drift, you’ll suddenly notice your line has started moving to the side, or is mysteriously under the boat. After that happens a time or two you won’t be able to close your eyes for hours. So there’s nothing boring about this method of fishing. Learn to do it well and you’ll be hooked and so will some nice smallmouth bass.
In the first hour or so, we couldn’t buy a strike though we fished some of my most reliable spots. But soon baitfish started coming up, flipping along the surface over shallow points and along shorelines. Then I started hearing walleyes popping along shore, feeding on the baitfish. One point was so full of walleyes we changed tackle and lures and started casting to them. But that’s another story; we’ll talk about walleyes in highland reservoirs another time. After we fished my favorite series of points with little success on bass we decided to move, give the area a rest, and try another place. I was confident the bass would move shallow and feed soon because baitfish were now up and plentiful. On the next series of points, some nice smallmouths were also up and feeding. After the action began we caught bass on most points we fished, including some we had worked earlier with no success. Action remained steady the rest of the night with some nice smallmouths coming to the net. We were so busy and had such a good time we didn’t notice when the sky starting to lighten, but as I unhooked a good bass I looked up and saw the eastern sky glowing. We were shocked; we’d been there all night without checking the time once.
The following two nights we returned to the same creek arm on the lower end of South Holston Lake. We didn’t catch any of the giant smallmouth bass this lake has a reputation of producing but we caught many nice fish and our time on the water was packed with excitement. With few exceptions, the smallmouths fought like a cornered tigers with frequent airborne bursts and drag-screaming runs. I vividly remember one three-pound bully who tried to eat the trolling motor prop. I’m still not sure how I got the fish untangled but I distinctly remember collapsing in my seat, hands trembling, when Rodger laid the net full of struggling bass at my feet. And it wasn’t an isolated incident because several smallmouths shocked us by fighting like much larger fish. Then there was the double we caught on the last point we fished on our last night. We were talking some smack as we stood in the dim blue light with bowed rods. If you’ve never night fished with jigs and florescent line under a black light, it’s an otherworldly kind of experience. The dim light illuminates shorelines and overhanging trees just enough to help navigate as you quietly ease about. But the glowing florescent lines look like one-inch well rope, making it easy to watch your partner’s line out the corner of your eye. So when either angler sees line movement or feels something unusual, the response often becomes a shared process. The angler who thinks he had a strike begins a commentary that not only describes what he’s feeling and seeing, but begs for confirmation from the supporting audience. Though the dialog may be brief, it’s oftentimes punctuated with laughter and an exciting ending. So night fishing with black lights is an entertaining as well as productive way to catch fish. About half the smallmouths we caught weighed from one-half to two pounds with several pushing or exceeding three. We didn’t weigh any of the bass we caught because we wanted to release them quickly in the warm water, but our larger fish measured from seventeen-and-a-half to more than nineteen inches. Most were caught in depths between fifteen and twenty-five feet with a few fish striking in shallower water. And under stable weather, the bass moved up and started hitting around the same time each night. We saw few other boats in three nights so we had the bass to ourselves and our choice of places to fish. Not a bad way to spend time during an early summer heat wave and drought.
If you’d like to learn more about fishing for smallmouth bass in rivers and reservoirs, pick up a copy of my book and refer to the chapter on summer fishing. You’ll find plenty of useful information that will help you catch these great game fish in waters close to you including tips on finding fish, night fishing safety, choosing tackle, smallmouth color preferences and more. Be safe and great fishing!
Editor's Note: PIctured are the hair-flies Bartlett uses at night for smallmouth bass are made by R&S Bait Company in Gray, TN. They’re a standard bucktail jig tied on an arkie-style head with a wrap of plastic skirt added. Hooks are light wire, an advantage because on a dead pull you can free many that snag, though the single wire weed guard minimizes hang-ups. Bartlett uses rootbeer colored jigs most but occasionally test the bass’s color preference by using other colors or adding color to plastic trailers with a marking pen. If you’d like to try these flies in your home waters, contact Rodney Williams with R&S Bait Company at 423-791-2180. They offer a variety of fly colors and head weights to meet any anglers need. Bartlett, a 1971 graduate of Bridgeport High School, is a published author with the book “The Weekend Angler’s Guide to Good Fishing.” Follow his fishing exploits on his Blog at http://theweekendanglersguidetogoodfishing.wordpress.com/ or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.