Most people think of warm sandy beaches and oceans when you talk about spring break but when it comes to bass fishermen, anywhere with open water will do. That has been hard to come by this spring so when myself and a few club members planned a spring fishing trip to Tennessee last winter we had no idea it would be the first time we’d see open water in 2014. Norris Lake in Northeast Tennessee was our destination and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Only Jim Vanaken had been to Norris but never in the spring so it was pretty much a new fishery to everyone when we arrived last Thursday morning.
Sprawling reservoirs are not something any of us are familiar with but figuring out how to catch fish was half the fun. Many creeks, points and shallow main lake bays make up Norris and it was quite a chore just figuring out where to start. We had three boats, 6 fishermen and being bass guys we had to have a tournament. In fact we had one each of the three days down there which added to the excitement.
Day one was a little breezy but sunny with air temps in the low 70′s, a welcome feeling for many of us after such a long winter. My partner was Mike Maske and we did a good bit of research before arriving at Norris so we had a few places we wanted to start on. It is known as a deep clear impoundment with all 3 species of bass available. And after seeing the boats parked in the marinas, I’d assume the pleasure boating would be unreal in the summer. But we weren’t there to party (not a lot anyway) and we knew that to catch fish here it would take an open mind and lots of casting.
Mike and I planned on fishing the mid-lake section where we had hoped to find a little stain to the water and possibly some spawning fish in a few creeks. Our first two stops proved fairly productive and we had a few keepers in the boat within the first half hour. Water temps were in the mid-50′s but would climb to 60 by the end of the weekend. We assumed most of the fish would be in the creeks and the ones we chose were a little bigger and had flats towards the back ends where we figured the fish would spawn. Mike threw a spinnerbait primarily and I cranked, flipped a jig and threw a jerkbait just to see what they wanted. We paid close attention to the bank transitions, types of rock and the slope of the banks. These would all play a part in our pattern.
Our first day went pretty well as we caught a limit and actually culled a few times. We stuck mainly to large creeks that had flat spawning water but tried many other types but just couldn’t catch them like we could in the level ones. The spinnerbait was by far our best bait and Mike caught most of our fish. I tried to get bit on everything else but he out-fished me 3 to 1 I’d say.
The water had about 3 ft visibility which was perfect for what we were doing. We found some that was very clear but I felt the fish were just moving up and pretty skittish still. The water level was pretty low and much of the brush and wood we hoped to fish was high and dry. The weather had just started to warm up a few days earlier so the water was doing the same. We knew it wouldn’t be easy but we had a good handle on what the fish were doing and what we’d have to do on day two.
After fishing we headed back to our “cabin” which was actually a 3 story condo overlooking the lake. The first picture was actually our view from the back deck and it was much nicer than we expected. Special thanks go out to Jim Vanaken for hooking us up with such a nice venue, it was way too nice for us but we weren’t complaining.
The day ended with our weigh-in and our team took first place honors with around 10 pounds. The other teams found the fishing a little tough as we did but luckily a few of ours were keepers and we gladly took their cash. The nights usually consisted of us prepping tackle for the next day, wiping down the boats and of course drinking a few cold beers. Someone always took over grilling duties each night and with a little country music on the ipod, what more could you ask for? It was a great day and we couldn’t wait to get out for day two. Our tourneys usually ran from 8am to 5pm and Friday called for more warm temps and wind, perfect.
Day two would be very similar to our first day and it would be our best fishing day in my opinion. We were going to have more wind but warmer conditions and we thought it would resemble the first day bite. We knew that the fish were spawning in our areas but with a little stain to the water we couldn’t see the beds. I figured the fish would be spawning just deep enough (6-12 fow) for us not to see but if we knew they were there then we could target them. Mike continued with the spinnerbait and I threw deeper with crankbaits and jigs.
All of our areas had wind on them which we believed would help conceal our presentations and allow us to power fish like we wanted. My theory of targeting the deeper beds didn’t pan out too well but fortunately my partner continued to have success with the spinnerbait. I switched up quickly and we were catching fish everywhere we went. On Norris the minimum length for smallmouth is 18″ which allows for the brown fish to grow big but it’s frustrating when you catch a fish close to 3 lbs and have to let it go because it’s too small. That happened a few times to us on this day and I lost a big largemouth at the boat as well so our day two haul didn’t quite represent our success. Our best 5 went around 11 pounds but we caught nearly 3 limits and probably around 25-30 fish on the day. We had our spots and baits dialed in and couldn’t wait for day 3.
Our group had decided to have a tourney each day and also a cumulative 3 day weight competition. Mike and I had about 20 pounds for 2 days and with the other teams still trying to piece together productive areas, we had built a decent lead. But our weather had changed and Saturday would also bring more boat traffic which would affect our areas more so than the other two teams. We knew we would have to adapt on the fly but would just stick to our original spots and go from there.
As usual we got a little too cocky Friday night and unfortunately probably celebrated with a few too many cold beers. Day 3 was a little tougher for us and the other two squads wanted a big piece of us. Mike and I did get a few small keepers early but the sun was shining, the temps were near 80 degrees and with no wind and more fishing pressure, our hotspots were not producing. We decided to scrap our flat creek pattern that had been so productive all week and sought out new water. We decided to fish some main lake bluffs that had shade on them in hopes of catching a few staging smallmouth.
Our first stop didn’t produce much but we approached a small main lake point and I hooked my best fish of the week, a giant smallmouth on a suspending jerkbait and it had 5 fish with it. Those river smallmouth fought like no smallie I have ever seen and of course I lost it at the boat. I fired back out and hooked another but this one was only 17″ and we had to throw it back and that was the last one we could get to bite on that point.
We wanted to run some more main lake stuff since these smallmouth looked to be more dependable but we ran back to one of our trusty creeks for one more try. It was a good call since Mike promptly hooked a big largemouth that went 4+ and ended up being the big fish for the week. It again bit a spinnerbait but that was the only fish were could entice in the backwater.
With about two hours left in the day we still had only 3 fish in the livewell, 2 smalls and the 4 pounder. We were now fishing main lake rock walls and had numerous followers but we couldn’t convert. I did catch another smallie that was about 2 1/2 but again it was too small. But the wind was picking up and we decided to fish anything that had rock, wind and shade to try and fill out our limit.
Over the next 90 minutes or so we had some interesting things happen to us, some good and some bad. Like I mentioned earlier, these river smallmouth are vicious and very tough to get into the boat once you hook one. We both hooked big smallmouth on these rock banks and both were 3+ pound fish but neither of us could land them. We did however catch a few keeper largemouth and did cull a few times to fill out our limit but it left us wondering what could have been had we landed a few of the big ones and why we didn’t investigate this pattern earlier!
Our limit weighed just under 10 pounds and Scott Hartman and Matt Zelenka brought in 10 1/2 to take the day 3 challenge. Scott flipped a beaver style bait to flooded brush on main lake walls and Matt hooked and landed a 3 pound smallie that was their kicker fish. Mike and I did take the overall honors with close to 30 pounds but it was a great effort on the Hartman/Zelenka team to shake off two slow days of fishing and put together a solid limit. Scott also suffered from kidney stone issues the night before but obviously he didn’t let that deter him from going out and getting the job done. Great job fellas.
Although the fishing was challenging, that was part of the fun and the accommodations, the scenery and the great group we had all made for an awesome vacation. I’d love to go again and feel we could do even a little better since we now know the lake a little and how these fish behave. It’s really interesting that the lake is so different from what we have up north but the fish always adjust to their surroundings and trying to figure that puzzle out and actually doing it is cool. I never saw a weed in the lake and actually caught my first spotted bass and Mike caught a decent striper during our stay. We talked to some of the locals and they commented on how we need to use carolina rigs next time but that’s all part of the learning process. I’d like to see some of those Tennessee boys come up north and fish Michigan Center Lake and see how well they do. They were just trying to help and all the folks around the area were quite nice, a little slow but nice.
As we drove back into Michigan we were pretty worn out but did get a little pumped up when all the lakes seemed to be open and free of ice. Even Devils lake which was still ice covered 4 days earlier was ice free and just screaming for me to throw a jerkbait on it. We still have a week or so before the catch and release season opens but I’m sure we’ll be ready by then. It’ll take a little adjusting going from 60 degree water to water temps in the 40′s around here but hopefully the fish will start biting quickly. Time to get out of vacation mode and into bass fishing mode. Hopefully I’ll have some reports to pass along next weekend. Thanks again Jimmy V!