Mother Nature Throwing Curveballs at Central Division Field on Dale Hollow - Major League Fishing

Mother Nature Throwing Curveballs at Central Division Field on Dale Hollow

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March 31, 2021 • Justin Onslow • Toyota Series

Last weekend’s multi-day deluge has plunged Dale Hollow into a state of unusually high, unusually muddy water. Luck being what it is, more rain has already landed with the arrival of yet another early-spring storm front that should persist throughout the morning of Day 1 of the second Toyota Series presented by A.R.E. Central Division event of the 2021 season.

The lake level as of publication of this article is 655.33, which is well above normal lake levels for this time of year and 4.33 feet above full pool. Prior to last weekend’s major rainfall event, Dale Hollow was more than 7 feet lower (648 feet). There’s a good chance those numbers continue to increase over the next couple days as area rainfall rushes into the Cumberland River reservoir.

With the rain comes masses of floating debris and water color closer to strong coffee than bottled water. In addition, air temperatures are expected to fall well into the 20s overnight heading into Day 2 of the event with highs in the mid-40s on Thursday.

Add it all up and the Central Division, which is presented by Neat Companies, anglers are facing conditions that make any practice time prior to Sunday all but worthless. The playing field is about as even as any in recent memory.

About the Fishery

Straddling the Kentucky and Tennessee border, the 27,000-acre impoundment was created with the damming of the Obey River above the Cumberland River. It’s one of four major flood control reservoirs on the Cumberland River and covers about 620 miles of shoreline at full pool (651 feet).

Because it’s a flood control reservoir, water levels at Dale Hollow can fluctuate enormously, though usually the change in water level is much more gradual than we’ve seen over the last few days, even in the spring. The Tennessee Valley Authority is going to be pulling water this week, but lake levels aren’t predicted to drop more than a few inches in total.

Rocky with plenty of shoreline cover (and usually ample grass), there’s almost always a shallow bite to be had at Dale Hollow, especially in the lake’s many creeks (like Sulphur Creek) and major tributaries (like the Wolf River). With fish moving up to spawn and water in the bushes, it’s a good bet that much of the field is going to be focused on finding those shallow prespawners and spawners.

Current Conditions

Nick Ratliff, who finished sixth at Dale Hollow in the 2020 Central Division finale and who calls the lake his home fishery, is especially puzzled by the current conditions the field will be facing this week. He knows Dale Hollow well – at least well enough to know that huge influxes of water aren’t typically beneficial for the fishing.

“This lake doesn’t really react well to a quick change like this,” he explains. “This lake typically comes up slower, and the two times the water’s come up so far this spring, it’s been big events. Both times it’s really messed with it.

“It’s really going to level the playing field. The last time we had water this high it was 2019, but it was a lot earlier than this and it came up 2 feet at a time over several rain events. Factor in the cold front we’ve got coming and it’s going to be interesting.”

Like Ratliff, last year’s winner, Adam Wagner, is a hammer on Dale Hollow, and while he found some good fish in practice, he’s not all that optimistic about his program.

“I’ve been up in the bushes and I’ve patiently waited for them to get up on beds, but it doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen,” he says. “It’s going to be tough. I’m comfortable getting in the trash and the trees and trying to get five bites a day. Live or die with it. It may work, it may not.”

Regardless of the current conditions, big bass are trying to move shallow to start spawning. With high water and plenty of new cover (which is unlikely to change before the end of the tournament), there’s still a chance the shallow bite ends up being the deal.

Tactics in Play

For anglers looking to avoid flipping miles of shoreline for five bites or who don’t want to contend with chocolate-milk water color, there’s still some clearer water on the main lake that could lend to a solid jerkbait or umbrella rig bite out on points in deeper water – a staple on Dale Hollow almost year-round. Even a Carolina rig on those same gravel points could play.

For everyone else, it’s probably going to come down to a spinnerbait and flipping baits up in the bushes to target spawners. That’s what Drew Boggs plans to do, focusing primarily on pockets and cuts in which he expects fish to either already be spawning on preparing to move up.

Boggs finished eighth at Dale Hollow last fall, and he did so by running way up the Obey River to avoid the crowds and find a consistent shallow bite. This week, that’s likely not going to be an option.

“I was hoping to find something (in practice) that scares everyone else, but it just wasn’t happening,” Boggs says. “This lake has humbled me several times in the past and it very well might do it again.

“I think these fish are wanting to be [on the bank]. The fish I caught in practice look like they’re about to pop. I’m going to focus on those spawning pockets off the main river.”

Wagner agrees with Boggs’ assessment and figures someone is going to get on the right fish at the right time this week.

“If somebody pulls up in the right pocket, they’ll get right on a spinnerbait,” he says. “Somebody could pull up on a point somewhere with a jerkbait or a crankbait with this water color and find the motherlode of largemouth on a point somewhere. Sometimes you pull up on the right spot at the right time with the right bait and it’s crazy how good it can be.”

And that’s really the biggest factor this week: As bad as the conditions are proving to be, Dale Hollow contains some excellent quality, and those fish have to be somewhere.

Critical Factors

  • Slot limits – Dale Hollow has specific rules about its famed smallmouth population. Namely, anglers can only possess two smallmouth in their livewells – one under 16 inches and one over 21 inches. That means a ton of smallies in the 3- to 5-pound range are going to be released this week. Anglers who manage to either avoid the smallmouth to catch five quality green ones or happen upon legal keeper smallies are going to be in good shape.
  • Water color – Again, it’s hard to overstate how muddy much of the water on Dale Hollow is right now. It’s going to make presentation key, as anglers are going to need to be picky about their bait colors and how fast they fish. Expect anyone not keen on being in the bushes fishing muddy water to congregate on the main lake in areas with a few feet of visibility.
  • The weather – Having a little more water pouring into the lake might not make much of a difference this week, but air temperatures might. With a forecasted high of 45 on Thursday, Days 2 and 3 could prove to be a little tricky if bass use it as an indicator to pause their push to the banks to spawn.

Dock Talk

Boggs, Wagner and Ratliff are all fairly optimistic about weight totals this week, even with the adverse conditions. Boggs expects it to take about 16 pounds a day to make the Top 10 cut, while Wagner and Ratliff estimate anywhere between 12 and 15 pounds a day.

“The biggest stringer I ever caught off a bed was March 31 a couple years ago,” Wagner recalls. “I still don’t know that they won’t pull up, but it hasn’t happened yet. They don’t all have their nose up on the bank, but I have a feeling quite a few of them do.”

Boggs agrees, noting that he’s never fished Dale Hollow in the spring, but he knows they’re going to be a shallow bite at some point.

“I’ve never been here around the spawn,” he says. “For me, it’s just trying to find an area that has a bunch of fish in it. I feel like the fish should be moving up, and today is not as good as tomorrow will be and tomorrow not as good as the next day.”