Go deep for smallmouth, shallow for largemouth at Cherokee Lake

Nestled in the Great Smoky Mountains foothills awaits an opportunity like none other in the state of Tennessee. You can enjoy prime springtime smallmouth and largemouth fishing. There is the added bonus of day trips to a national park known for great hiking, wildlife viewing and scenic drives.

You can do all of that at Cherokee Lake. Brandon Card, a Knoxville native and Bassmaster Elite Series pro, grew up fishing there and he goes for fun whenever his hectic schedule allows the time.

“What I like about Cherokee in the spring are the extremes of catching bass shallow and deep,” he says. “Find smallmouth in the main and lower lake, while the largemouth are shallow in the upper lake.”

Indeed, you get the better of two worlds during springtime on Cherokee. Card’s simplified approach to breaking down both bites is easy for a newcomer to do.

For the smallmouth, focus on the many long, tapering points that attract baitfish — and smallmouth — during spring. And not just any points. Finding the baitfish is made easier by cruising over them with both eyes on the screen of your fishfinder.

“You are looking for balls of alewive in deeper water, from 20 to 40 feet, on the deep sides of the points,” says Card.

He adds the ideal setup is anywhere that deep water intersects with a shallow flat. Smallmouth will push alewive onto the tops of the flats and feed on them. Card rigs up with a soft plastic swimbait rigged on a heavy jig head that can quickly sink to the strike zone in 20- to 40-feet of water. He only stops to make casts after finding the baitfish and the bass on his Lowrance electronics.

Far up the lake the scene is completely different. Card focuses on current breaks in the main river and creek channels. Those slack-water areas provide ambush spots for the largemouth to dart into the current to feed upon passing baitfish.

“Visually, you can see those current breaks by looking for calm water,” he explains. “During spring there is a lot of runoff from the rain, and that does a couple of things to improve the fishing.”

First, the normally clear water gets dingy. The baitfish cannot see the bass up close, thereby increasing their vulnerability to the predator bass. Next, the runoff creates the current — and the current breaks — needed to make the pattern work.

Eddies can be natural — a shoreline point, rock or laydown that breaks the current — or manmade like a bridge or concrete drainage culvert.

Card ties on a medium-running crankbait and makes casts beyond the current break. He then retrieves it through the slack water. Or, he will position his boat parallel to a bridge or shoreline and retrieve the crankbait through the strike zone.

“Depending on which fish are biting, or not, you can switch back and forth to be sure to have success,” says Card.

What else you can do is make the most of the trip by exploring the nearby tourist areas. Great food, fun attractions, plentiful shopping and of course, venturing into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You can get a complete vacation from a trip to Cherokee Lake.

Gear up: For smallmouth rig a 4-inch Yamamoto Zako Swimbait on a 1/4- or 1/2-ounce jig head. “Go heavier for deep water,” says Card. He opts for 15-pound Yo Zuri Superbraid spooled on an Abu Garcia Revo MGXtreme Low Profile Reel, on a 7-foot, 6-inch medium action Abu Garcia Fantasista Rod. For largemouth, use a medium-running crankbait, like a Yo-Zuri 3DB 1.5 Squarebill. Card uses 10-pound Top Knot Mainline, spooled on Abu Garcia Revo SX Low Profile Reel, with an 7-foot, 6-inch Abu Garcia Veritas Winch Crankbait Casting Rod.

About the lake: Cherokee Lake covers 28,700 acres over nearly 400 miles of shoreline. In a normal year, the water level fluctuates over a range of about 30 feet. The lake is impounded by the Holston River, which feeds into the Tennessee River in Knoxville.

Other fun: Minutes away from Cherokee is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the tourist havens of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. For a memorable Tennessee vacation, plan day trips to sample the shopping, activities and dining that are unique to the area. The park entrance is in Gatlinburg for easy access to hiking trails and scenic drives.

Craig Lamb, Bassmasters, March 13, 2020