Paul "Buddy" Banks
Dale Hollow's Smallmouth Bonanza

By: Soc Clay

Dark clouds scurrying across a leaden February sky hold a threat of snow as Buddy Banks eases the bass boat into position several yards off a long, jutting point at Dale Hollow Lake.

The wind that snaps briskly out of the north, pulls the chill factor down into the icicle zone, causing me to flip on the heat switch of the Polar Suit that has become almost standard equipment for winter fishermen on this 35,000-acre reservoir. Wearing this amazing suit that weighs a mere 4 1/2 pounds, I no longer have to bundle up like an Arctic explorer to remain comfortable for long periods on the frigid lake. Even the lengthy and fast runs from the marina have become a cozy experience when wearing this unique Kentucky-made garment.

"There’s a shelf located about 15 feet down that’s been giving up some nice fish during winter." Banks’ low voice could barely be heard against the gusting winds. There was little need for communication. The positioning of the boat, the LCR showing the break below and the selection of lures was enough to show anyone who cared to notice that we were engaged in the pursuit of winter smallmouths. It is a sight that grows more common on this large reservoir each year.

The popularity of Dale Hollow’s smallmouth-producing capabilities during winter was started several years ago by Billy Westmorland, whom many consider America’s undisputed smallmouth champ. The noted angler and television fishing show personality who lives near Horse Creek Marina on the lake, finally let the news out that some of his best catches were occurring during the so-called off- season, when almost no one was fishing the reservoir.

His close relationship with a group of anglers from northeastern Kentucky who helped originate the annual Billy Westmorland Invitational Tournament held each year during December on the lake, furthered the popularity of winter fishing on Dale Hollow.

Out of this group, Buddy Banks, my fishing partner on this trip, would eventually develop his line of Silver Buddy lures that Westmorland and hundreds of other smallmouth fishermen now proclaim is one of the finest winter small mouth lures ever made. Banks, who worked closely with Westmorland during the design and testing of the Silver Buddy, learned many of his winter fishing tactics from the smallmouth specialist. Like Westmorland, Banks is now convinced that winter is the only time to try for trophy-size smallmouths in this gin-clear impoundment. He also knows that a long, needle point such as the onewe were then casting to on a cold February day, is capable of producing either a world-record smallmouth or, indeed, no fish at all on any given day in winter when water temperatures might range from a high of 40 degrees all the way down to near freezing.

Long days of fishing the winter waters of Dale Hollow with Westmorland, has taught Banks a lot of things about the behavior of trophy-sized bronzebacks in this large upper South reservoir. For one, he believes the key to finding smallmouths during the late season is to know if the power plant located below the dam is pulling water for hydroelectricity production. If it is, he is keenly aware of the need to concentrate his efforts on main-lake points where current movements often trigger smallies into a feeding spell. On the other hand, if the generators are silent and the lake level is stable, he has no hesitancy about turning the bow of the boat up some of the major creek arms. In such places, the secondary points are targeted, but he stays away from the primary ones. Banks isn’t sure why these first points up the creek arms fail to produce during winter, he only knows that it is very difficult to find smallmouths in such places when water levels are stabilized.

How far to go up a creek arm when searching for winter smallmouths at Dale Hollow is a much-debated topic around the potbellied stoves in some of the lakeside hangouts. Banks is convinced that schools of smallmouths can often be found far back in the creeks. In fact, he says that one of his most productive spots is located no more than 500 feet from the very head of a tributary. Other experienced smallmouth anglers, however, won’t venture farther than the third point up the creeks and that’s counting those found on both sides.

Because of the past history of big bass catches, Banks is convinced that if the angler is searching for a record-book smallmouth, he should fish above Goat Island, preferably near where the Wolf and Obey rivers join.

This is the area where David L. Hayes of Litchfield trolled a pearl-colored Bomber lure across a point in the late summer of 1955 and caught the 1 1-pound, 15-ounce smallmouth that established the all-tackle world record for the species. It was in this same general location, too, that Westmorland landed his biggest bronzeback, a 10-pound, 2-ounce prize on a yellow Doll Fly and pork rind combo. In early April of 1986, Paul Beal of Noblesville, Ind., also proved this area of the reservoir is productive for the "largest" smallmouths when he cast out a Bass Pro Shop leadhead and smoke-colored grub combo and found himself hooked to a 10-pound, 8ounce smallmouth that has been judged the second largest of the species ever caught on hook and line.

Banks learned from countless hours of on-lake application, that big smallmouths have a tendency to school up off certain points in the upper reaches of the reservoir during winter and at times they will move in to clean up on any shad or other baitfish that might be holding to the shale or gravel-covered promontories.

Early on, the hair jig and pork combination was the best lure offering available for the slow-down tactics required to catch smallmouths in freezing water. A 1/8- or 1/4ounce black- or brown-colored leadhead dressed out with a No. 101 pork chunk somewhat resembles crawfish which is the principal food supply for smallmouths at Dale Hollow. Even at great depths, biologist have determined that crawfish can live in this super-dear impoundment. In fact, John Wilson, a spokesman for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, believes that crawfish, minnows and smallmouths alike can live from the top of this lake all the way to the bottom. That’s because the gin-clear water allows sunlight to penetrate to great depths and studies indicate there is enough dissolved oxygen even at great depthsto support a food chain for smallies.

Knowing that smallmouths can be caught from water as deep as 50 or even 60 feet in Dale Hollow, Banks and other winter anglers relied on the jig almost exclusively until reports began to drift in from more northern climes where a version of the old Heddon Sonar lure was being used to catch smallmouths when water temperatures were far below the comfort range.

A fast vibrating creation, the all-metal sonar-type lure seemed like the perfect answer to Dale Hollow’s deep-water fishing requirements. It cast like a bullet, sank quickly without tangling up in the line, and gave off a vibrating action with the slightest movement of the rod tip.

An acknowledged tinkerer, Banks began to experiment with his own variation of the metal lure, us Westmorland as an on-the-water Geld tester. The lure on which it was modeled came in 3/4ounce size and was designed primarily for walleyes. Westmorland was convinced some alterations were needed to suit the finicky taste of Dale Hollow smallmouths. Eventually, Banks created a thinner, 1/2-ounce model featuring a different hook placement.

The results of the lure-maker’s tinkering and Westmorland’s testing is the Silver Buddy, a lure that is growing in notoriety among winter smallmouth anglers throughout the upper South.

Banks says that angles wishing to sample the winter action for smallmouths at Dale Hollow need only to arm themselves with proper clothing to stay comfortable for long periods of time, collect an assortment of jigs and his own Silver Buddies and locate upward to 30 points that have a reputation of holding bronzebacks during the late season. These are primarily identified as having shale or pea-gravel coverings with a bench or shelf located in 13 to 20 feet of water that falls off into much greater depths.

If there’s a key to catching winter smallmouths at Dale Hollow, Banks believes, it’s knowing the precise depth at which the fish are holding on the points.

He notes that anglers have two schools of thought concerning the best depth to fish for smallmouths at Dale Hollow

"If I call Billy Westmorlandand he says the smallies are biting at 14 feet, that’s precisely the depth I fish." Other anglers, he said, believe the lake’s best fish are caught during late winter from main-lake point drops that are located between 25 to 35 feet.

Both depths are perfect targets for Bank’s Silver Buddy.

"The die-hards down here use a jig mostly for winter smallmouths, but most newcomers to winter fishing prefer to throw the Silver Buddy 95 percent of the time," Banks said.

The reason his lure is so popular among this group is a combination of several key factors. First, it has the same size, shape and flash as spring-hatched shad; second, it is one of the most controllable lures made, and third, it vibrates the instant it moves. This latter point is highly important for winter smallmouth success. Banks believes the lure is most effective when it is movedjust enough to turn it over. That means snapping it no more than about 6 inches off bottom. He warns anglers to have complete control of the line during the drop, because fish bite the bait when it is falling almost all of the time.

But even before the first cast is made, it’s good council to know where the fish are. Banks and Westmorland both say that a school of the big smallmouths are apt to be any place along a contour or drop within the 13- to 20-foot range. Focal points would be a stump, a large boulder or perhaps a sunken log, preferably located on the lip of the drop.<

Fishing "around a point," is one of the most productive ways to catch winter smallmouths at Dale Hollow. Essentially, this means locating a ledge or shelf at the proper depth that has a steep, outside drop falling off into water 40 to 50 feet deep. A graph, LCR or depthfinder is a must for locating such places, but Banks says it’s equally important to listen to what the local anglers have to say about where the best fish are being caught. Another tip from the lure-maker is to not use the big motor or even the trolling motor when graphing points that are to be fished the same day. He is convinced the hum of the engine, be it large or small, is enough to spook the always wary smallmouths from the more shallow-holding places.

Once the shelf is found, Banks lines the boat up directly above the outside break and begins fishing straight ahead, tight-lining the Silver Buddy to the bottom, then just barely moving it back to the boat with a series of short hops. The idea is to keep the boat directly above the drop for as far as it extends around the point. To accomplish this feat, Banks rigs the transducer of the front-mounted depthfinder to the foot of the trolling motor. By keeping the bow of the boat lined up with the outside break, it is relatively easy to keep the lure working at the proper depth, along a route that will be the most productive. Sometimes he starts fishing the shelf as much as 200 feet to one side of the point then follows it around to the other side an equal distance or until the shelf peters out. Somewhere in between start and finish, he is fairly certain he'll run the lure past a few good bass.

The sensitivity of a good-quality graphite rod, plus the trained ability to "feel" the lure is the key factor in catching smallmouths at Dale Hollow during winter. Banks relies on casting reels spooled with 8-pound-test, coldwater-type monofiliment for most winter fishing at Dale Hollow. And he sets the hook the instant he believes a fish breathes on the lure.

Like his old friend, Westmorland, Banks believes that ever rocky, gravel or shale-covered point in the lake holds smallmouths at one time or another. But for finessing winter smallies, he is prone to pick the Kentucky side of the reservoir as the best areas for lunker-class fish. Illwill Creek has long been a favorite for winter fishing ventures as have Fannys Branch – a tributary to Illwill – and the Wolf River arm near Albany.

The lure of big smallmouths that school up off points in winter is what drew Banks to seek out the advice and fishing council of his old friend, Westmorland, more than a decade ago. Today, the same attraction is being felt by an ever growing number of fishermen who brave the elements of chilling days in pursuit of some of the largest smallmouths that swim anywhere in the world.

Article published in Kentucky Game and Fish

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