An end-cap display in the Knoxville, TN, Bass Pro Shop, caught my eye.
"The guy who’s taking me fishing this week must be a pretty big deal," I told my wife, briefly holding her up as she made a beeline to “Santa's Wonderland,” where our niece and nephew were in line to see Santa Claus. Unlike me, she was unfazed walking by the rows upon rows of bass baits, hardly breaking stride even as bright-yellow "Sale!" signs beckoned me with their Sirens' songs.
"Oh, how so?" she said, feigning mild interest, as she does with most of my fishing stories.
"That's him on the cover of the DVD on this end-cap," I pointed out. "Stephen Headrick — The Smallmouth Guru."
"Whoa! That is pretty cool!" she said, genuinely impressed.
Pretty cool indeed.
Smoky Mountain Christmas
It was Christmas Eve day. We were in Knoxville visiting my wife's sister's family, who moved from Minnesota after my brother-in-law was accepted into a medical school in Harrogate, TN. The trip to Bass Pro was a welcome surprise. Although my father-in-law recently became a North American Fishing Club Life Member, the rest of my in-laws don't quite understand my fishing obsession — many times has my niece exclaimed, exasperated, "You're going fishing AGAIN!?? You already went last week!"
Such was their reaction when they learned I had scheduled ANOTHER fishing trip whilst on a vacation to visit them. Last Easter weekend, I'd hooked up with a couple NAFC members to fish nearby Lake Norris. We zeroed on that trip, however, so I've been eager ever since to catch my first Tennessee bass.
So prior to our Christmas trip, I contacted NAFC Guest Blogger Mark Bilbrey, who lives down the road an hour or so from Knoxville, in Crossville, TN. It was Mark who arranged for The Smallmouth Guru, Stephen Headrick — he of the DVD on the Bass Pro end-cap — to guide us on an excursion to catch huge smallmouths on famed brown-bass fishery Dale Hollow Lake, home of the reigning world-record smallmouth, 11 pounds, 15 ounces. Ten pounders are not unlikely there.
Although I vacillate every several months between smallmouth and largemouth being my favorite quarry, I've been in an extended Smallie Craze since catching — and then losing at the boat as I waited for a net — what I swear was a 7-pound-plus smallmouth. So, suffice to say, I was supremely stoked when I learned I'd be fishing with a guide known as the Smallmouth Guru and on Dale Hollow, no less — the best fishery outside of Canada to land huge bronzebacks! Here was my chance to redeem myself!
tephen Headrick, I learned from Mark Bilbrey, owns Punisher Lures. He earned his moniker guiding on Dale Hollow, putting into practice and improving upon tactics he learned from local bronzeback pioneers like Charlie Nuckols and Billy Westmoreland.
"His knowledge of the lake and the smallmouth have helped him to earn his nickname, 'Guru,'" Mark Bilbrey wrote in his blog.
The Float 'N' Fly explained
Headrick is among a cadre of innovative East Tennessee anglers who developed and improved upon an innovative cold-water smallmouth-catching strategy, the “float ‘n’ fly.” Indeed, that was the tactic with which Mark, The Guru and I were scheduled to ply the waters of Dale Hollow — and the tactic featured in that DVD I pointed out to my wife on the shelf at the Knoxville Bass Pro (pictured above). (Here's a link to a trailer for the DVD: http://youtu.be/3Y0zXzr5sNg. Or, you can watch it at the bottom of this blog, where I've embeded it below my tagline)
"The float 'n' fly technique is one of the best cold-water techniques to be developed by anglers," Mark Bilbrey wrote in his blog. (Click the link for Mark's detailed history of how Tennessee anglers such as Charlie and Eddie Nuckols, Bob Coan and Bobby Gentry developed the tactic and Headrick, Billy Westmoreland and others improved on it.)
The technique employs a long, limber rod, a tiny hair or feathered jig – i.e. the “fly” in East Tennesse parlance — a long leader, a three-way swivel, very light line and a weighted float. The float and leader gets the fly in front of suspended, cold-water smallies not apt to move too far for a meal. The light line and specially-designed float register even the lightest bites.
“You have to keep an eye on [the float] all the time, because it will tell you exactly what’s happening every second,” says Dale Hollow guide Bob Coan, an expert source in a FishingClub.com article by North American Fisherman Editor Kurt Beckstrom.
“Most guys make the mistake of only watching for the float to go down when a fish hits,” says Coan who devised the modified weighted float and collaborated with Headrick, a lifelong friend, to perfect the float ‘n’ fly system.
Float 'N' Fly gear
Coan outlined his set-up in Beckstrom’s article: 9-foot, light-action All Pro spinning rod, 6-pound test (2-pound diameter) FireLine, a 4- or 6-pound, 11- to 14-foot fluorocarbon leader, a weighted Punisher float and 1/16-ounce hair or feather jig.
“Punisher floats are weighted internally so they’re top-heavy, but the weight of the swivel, along with the 1/16-ounce jig balance it perfectly,” Coan told Beckstrom. “When the jig hangs below the float, the float stands straight up.”
Purposely weighting the float in this manner offers a number of advantages, Coan said. “With a standard round float, it’s often difficult to recognize a strike when a fish takes the jig and continues swimming upward,” Beckstrom wrote. “A top-weighted float, however, immediately rolls on its side. Likewise, when a fish strikes as the fly falls to terminal depth, the float won’t stand up at all.”
The float ‘n’ fly is effective for smallmouths from December through March, in water 50 degrees or lower, at about 11 to 12 feet of water.
“That’s the depth where baitfish tend to hold that time of year,” Coan told Beckstrom.
Rained out ...
I had hoped to report on the technique first-hand, and post video of Headrick covering float ‘n’ fly 101, but unfortunately the East Tennesse weather intervened – Tuesday’s forecast called for a torrential downpour with the potential for lightning. As stoked as we were to fish together, neither Mark, myself nor The Guru were too keen on whipping around 9-foot, graphite rods in a lightning storm. So we erred toward safety and cancelled.
Good thing The Guru already released his own DVD on the technique.
And I know just where to find it …
You can contact North American Fishing Club Social Media Editor “Web Guy Greg” Huff at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow him on Twitter at lazy_ike, or friend him on Facebook at Web Guy Greg. He’s also the editor behind most of the posts on the Fishing Club’s Facebook page and the tweets at @NAFishClub.