Catch a Trifecta: Smallies, Kentuckys and Largemouth Bass
Wherever you set on Center Hill Lake mountain peaks surround you. The Center Hill Dam backs up the water in the valleys and around the mountains to produce a scenic wonderland and a bass fishing bonanza. There are other species too, but bass fishing is reason enough to visit Center Hill. Any given cast may produce a beautiful smallmouth, a perky Kentucky or a brute of a largemouth bass.
Center Hill Lake is a deep highland reservoir in Middle Tennessee. When flooded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers the lake had the dual purposes of electric power generation and flood control. Today it is a great bass destination.
The lake is one of four major flood control reservoirs for the Cumberland River; the others being J. Percy Priest Dam, Dale Hollow Dam, and Wolf Creek Dam.
David Bell is a tournament angler and sometimes fishing guide. He knows Center Hill quite well. Bell defines the geography of Center Hill as deep and rocky. “You can find some shallow water but it is not a shallow water lake,” proclaimed Bell. You have to get into the backs of the creeks and cuts to find really shallow water.”
Actually, that is a good thing, because you find fish both in the shallower feeder creeks and the deeper main lake. The limestone outcroppings in the main lake make perfect bass habitat. “You can look at the outcroppings above the water and just imagine what it looks like below the surface,” said Bell. “There are miles of rocky shoreline, flat ledges, crooks and crannies for the fish to hide in. Most of it is limestone and everything is deep.”
Bell chooses different rods for different crankbait applications. “I will use a 6 foot 9 inch medium action rod when fishing the Bandit 100 or 200 model,” advised Bell. “I step up to a 7 foot medium heavy action with the 300.”
Fishing line is an important element in Bell’s strategy on Center Hill. “I will use 6- to 10-pound test line with the Bandits. If the water is super clear I opt for the 6-pound fluorocarbon line. If the water is stained I use 8 to 10 pound test. This lake is so clear I want as small a diameter as possible and the fluorocarbon helps too. On other area lakes, like Percy Priest where the water is murky, I’ll just use monofilament.”
The banks slope off so quickly on Center Hill that fishing perpendicular to the bank has your bait in inches of water near the shore an multiple feet of water just a little ways off. “One of the keys here on Center Hill is recognizing that the banks slope off fast,” said Bell. “If you fish like you were fishing a flat reservoir you’re going to miss a lot of your vertical fall and miss a lot of fish.”
Positioning the boat close to the bank or a steep bluff and casting Bandit crankbaits parallel to the bank will usually find some bass. “I have caught fish as deep as 30 feet in this lake,” explained Bell. “That’s normally in the winter time. Usually the bass are 15 feet or above on Center Hill.”
“I let the fish tell me what they’re going to bite on a particular day,” instructed Bell. It is trial and error until you find out what hey want. You have to figure that out.”
“Sometimes they like it right down the bank and sometimes they like it coming off the banks,” offered Bell. “If they are relating to 0- to 10- to 12-feet of water I will probably get tight to the bank and work straight down the bank. Throwing a Bandit 100 parallel to the shoreline will usually do the trick if they are in close. The 100’s will run from about 3- to 7-feet deep. If they are a little further out and a little deeper I move on up to the 200 which runs about 7- to 12-feet deep.”
“I use the 300 when I fish a bluff with deep water. The Bandit 300 will run 9- to 17-feet deep. I like to cast parallel to the bluffs coming out of the creeks with a 300 series Bandit in a shad color. I would fish the main river channel swings the same way.”
“If they want it coming off the bank I position the boat out away from the shore and cast back towards the bank. In this case I would throw jerk baits and work straight back to the boat. If there is a point running out I would cast straight at the bank and retrieve back across the top off the point.”
Top water baits like the Zara Spook will catch plenty of fish too. “If the fish are suspended I will set off the bank and cast to the shoreline. If I set the boat over 30-foot water I would normally be about 60 feet from the bank and it is no problem to cast all the way in to the shoreline. I will fish the Spook back to about the 15 foot depth range.”
Jim Duckworth also guides in the highland lake. “I like the One Knocker Zara Spook on Center Hill,” says Duckworth. For largemouth, stripers and hybrids you can’t go wrong. If I am targeting smallmouth I like the Super Spook Jr. The smallmouths just seem to like it better. (Click here to see a video on how Duckworth dresses his Spooks before taking them to the water.)
Bell doesn’t worry a lot about lure color. “If the fish are on a shad pattern I’ll try to stay on the shad color,” explained Bell. “If they’re on a crawfish pattern I might want the crawfish color. I just like to stay on what ever they’re feeding on. I like the browns and oranges early in the year and as the spring comes on I get on into some blues and watermelon. I keep it pretty simple. There are a lot of baits out there that catch your eyes but don’t catch fish. I think it’s a confidence thing. Whatever you have the most confidence in is probably what you’re going to throw most of the day.”
Lodging: Edgar Evins State Park
Center Hill is well known for the fishing, but that’s not all it’s known for. Edgar Evins State Park is located on the shores of Center Hill Lake. The steep hilly highlands create an angling and sightseeing paradise just waiting to be explored. Day trips to other highland reservoirs in the area can be easily accomplished from this one central location.
Full kitchens and two level accommodations characterize the cabins. They are clean, roomy, efficient and economical. A large window opens up to a view of the lake with a patio just outside. The park has a large onsite marina with restaurant and gift shop as well as seasonal campgrounds.
Other Outdoor Opportunities
Non-anglers in the party will enjoy the abundant wildlife the area has to offer. The park itself boasts of three different owl species, numerous hawks and wintering bald eagles as well as the rare Cerulean Warbler, a summer resident of the park’s mixed hardwood forests.
Kayak and canoe enthusiasts can enjoy all of the above and more with an adventuresome paddle down the river below the dam. Deer and turkey are often spotted watering along the shore.
Walking trails wind through stands of Tulip Poplar, Oak, Hickory, Buckeye and Wild Cherry. Adventuresome visitors can climb the spiral staircase at the observation tower to gain a spectacular view of Center Hill Lake and the surrounding hillsides. Truth is, however, you don’t even need to climb the tower to view some stunning vistas.