Jerry Crook sees a lot of green faces—fishermen go green with envy as Crook and his clients battle big brown bass on days when no one else is putting fish in the boat. Adding to the other anglers’ frustration is the fact that they’re all using Crook’s basic technique—drifting with live bait on a split shot rig—they just haven’t mastered its nuances.
When the bite is right on tailwaters, usually during spring or fall, most drifting anglers will catch at least a few smallmouths, and some will even stumble across giants. However, to consistently catch jumbos from vast, complex tailwaters like those on the Tennessee River, anglers must go beyond the basics and do the little things right.
Here are his top four ways to trump trophies. Wrap them into your approach and you’ll soon be attracting envious stares of your own.
1. Walk The Line
Crook drifts with his line at a 45-degree angle and his rig just off bottom—he says both elements are critical. That sounds simple, and it seems easy when Crook is controlling the boat and coaching you along the way. But left alone to deal with powerful, multidirectional currents and fresh, lively baitfish, many anglers wind up chronically snagged or dragging their baits inches beneath the surface—well away from fish.
“A lot of fishermen are too eager to get baits in the water at the beginning of a drift,” he says. “If you don’t let the boat turn sideways and then gain some downstream momentum before pitching your bait out, the rig will get dragged behind the boat where there’s no control, and the drift will be over before it starts.”
Crook waits until the boat is angled properly and drifting before making a 12-foot pitch, always aiming toward a seam between current lines. He lets the rig fall until it ticks bottom; then holds the line with his finger for better sensitivity, being careful not to drag bottom. “Hit the bottom three times in a row, and on the fourth one you’ll be hung.”
As important as it is to avoid snags, it’s also essential that the bait remain deep enough to attract large fish. Crook points out that fresh baitfish sometimes swim to the surface. “If you’ve been feeling the baitfish tug and then you notice you’re not feeling anything and the line angle has changed, your bait may be right at the top. Reel it in and pitch back out or wait for the next drift,” he advises.
2. Find The Spot
Large smallmouths stack up in eddies beside strong currents and along seams, so if Crook sees a current run steady and then split, he drags a bait through that “Y.” Specific spots vary by the amount of water running and can change hourly.
He also targets areas where skipjack herring are busting shad on the surface. “The big smallmouths will hang under the skipjack, picking off wounded shad that fall through,” he explains. “You have to start your drift well above them to have your bait near the bottom when you come through. If you pitch in where they are breaking, you’ll never get your bait past the skipjack.”
Smallmouths typically swim closer to a dam when less water is running and hold farther downstream during high flows. They also tend to be closest to the dam during spring and gradually move down the tailwater as the season progresses. Some of Crook’s favorite fall areas are shell mounds several hundred yards downstream from a dam.
He also has found that large smallmouths tend to share a common spot. “If you’re catching a bunch of small fish, try somewhere else. You’re in the wrong place.”
3. Go Wild
“A wild minnow will outfish a bait shop minnow 10 to 1,” Crook says. “The hatchery-raised fish has no predator-prey experience. It doesn’t react to a big smallmouth, and therefore draws no reaction.”
In addition to catching his own bait, he works hard to keep his baitfish in excellent condition, using a lot of salt and changing water often in his large circular tank. “No self-respecting trophy will eat a shad that has black on its sides or a red nose,” he says.
Crook’s mainstay is live threadfin shad. When skipjacks abound, they’re prime, but they are extremely hard to care for. He catches them as he needs them with a modified sabiki rig (like those used by saltwater anglers) with only two flies. “If you catch six at a time, numbers one through five will be useless by the time you get number six off the hook,” he explains.
And if you can catch “crawly bottoms” or “log perch”—darters that hold near dam structures during spring and fall—you’ve struck batfish gold.
4. Open The Floodgates
“When floodgates are open, they can be phenomenal–not when they first open, but after the water has been running for a couple days,” Crook says. “By that time, the floodwaters have drawn every big smallmouth in the lake below to the dam.” His amazing floodwater catches have included seven or eight smallmouths weighing more than 6 pounds apiece. In fact, he boated his top fish, a 7½ pounder, under flood conditions.
When floodgate fishing, Crook recommends that you run as close as safety allows to the concrete wall that separates the floodgate side of the tailwater from the turbine side; then drift straight down the current line that extends downstream from the wall.