Fishing on Dale Hollow Lake: smallmouth capital of the world

Dale Hollow is known for many things: house-boating, clear water, rustic beauty, but Dale Hollow is known most for one thing – fishing.

Dale Hollow Lake smallmouth bass fishing legend Billy Westmorland.

And that fishing can be narrowed down to a particular kind – smallmouth bass, and for good reason.  Not only does Dale Hollow hold the recognized world record for smallmouth bass (and some other records down through the years), but the lake has been the home of two smallmouth fishing celebrities.

Not long after its impoundment, Dale Hollow’s reputation as a fishing hotspot started to grow.  That reputation reached worldwide proportions way back in 1955, when David Lee Hayes landed the world-record, 11.9375-pound “smallie” from the Kentucky side of the lake.  Hayes’ world-record has survived a great deal of scrutiny through the years, and stands undisputed as the biggest-ever smallmouth landed.

Record catches for other species

But don’t think smallmouth bass fishing is the only type Dale Hollow is recognized for, or still heavily visited for.  The lake, and the Obey River directly below it, has held multiple records for other species through the years.  Dale Hollow once held the state record for lake trout (12 pounds, 13 ounces), while the Obey River below Dale Hollow Dam once produced a state record rainbow trout (14 pounds, 8 ounces) and brown trout (26 pounds, 2 ounces).  Those marks have fallen through the years, but the brown trout and rainbow trout former records are still close to the current state records.

Dale Hollow still holds the Kentucky muskie title (43 pounds). If you’re looking for big fish, this can be the place.

If you want to fish for something else, there’s largemouth and Kentucky bass, walleye, crappie, drum and a variety of other species to choose from.

A rainbow trout hatchery that stocks waters around the entire Southeast is located on the Obey River. The Obey is also directly stocked from the facility, which we’ll look at in-depth in a future issue.

Reputation is well-deserved

Back to smallmouth bass, is Dale Hollow’s reputation as the smallmouth capital of the world deserved? Many times, claims like that are nothing more than hype or opinion.  A look inside the numbers tells the real story of Dale Hollow.

Figures compiled by Bassmaster through the years (see accompanying chart) are eye-opening.  Dale Hollow Lake has yielded not only the biggest smallmouth of all-time, it holds the top three spots.  In addition to Haye’s luncher, John Gorman (10.875 pounds in 1969) and Paul Beal (10.5 lbs. – 1986) stand second and third (tie) in the record books.

Alabama and North Carolina waters hold the next two spots, but Dale Hollow takes the next two spots.  Celina’s late Billy Westmorland (see more below and in publisher Don Napier’s column) holds down the number six and seven spots, giving Dale Hollow five of the top seven spots.

Celina attorney and judge, the late Willis Spear, is tied for the 9th overall spot.  Dale Hollow has also yielded spots number 13, 15, 19 (Westmorland again) and 21.  That gives Dale Hollow 10 of the top 25 smallmouth bass ever caught.  All but one of those 10 fish were caught on the Tennessee side of the lake. Various Tennessee lakes have given up a majority of the top 25.

Two smallmouth heavyweights

Dale Hollow and Clay County are also the home of two smallmouth bass celebrities.

The late smallmouth bass legend Billy Westmorland was a highly-successful pro fisherman on the Bassmaster Tournament Trail in the 1970’s and 80’s. He also authored two books on fishing, hosted a television show, and was something of a legend in his time.

Stephen Headrick, known as the “Smallmouth Guru,” is a professional fisherman who resides in Celina, as Westmoreland did. Headrick writes fishing articles for a variety of publications and websites, and is the owner of Punisher Lures.

Dale Hollow Lake in early fall is quite a sight.

BILLY WESTMORLAND was a true legend in bass fishing, and one of the pioneers on the Bassmaster Tournament Trail,” says an article on  worldfishingnetwork.com.  “He was a much loved source of information and tips for articles in the early Bassmaster Magazine on the subject of smallmouth bass, which was his lifelong specialty.”

Author, TV show host

Westmorland (he dropped an “e” after the “r” from his name to be able to sign it more easily) was a pioneer in his chosen profession. He was one of the first, if not the first, to host a weekly, nationally-syndicated television show.  He co-authored two books about smallmouth fishing with outdoor writer Larry Mayer, made a huge impact in the early days of smallmouth tournaments, and was the first person to be inducted posthumously into the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame. Westmorland also had a syndicated newspaper column.

Headrick also had some insights about Westmorland in an online column he authored last year. “Lately I’ve been thinking about smallmouth bass in the early days, and about the men who were pioneers when it came to chasing them,” Headrick wrote. “One of the greatest — in my opinion the greatest — was Billy Westmoreland.

“Physically, he was no giant, although he did have broad shoulders and a stocky appearance. But when it came to catching smallmouth bass, his stature was unequaled.”

Long before being a fishing celebrity, he was a guide on Dale Hollow in his early teens, and earned a football scholarship to Middle Tennessee State University.

Highway named in his honor

A stretch of highway leading to the marina he once co-owned was recently dedicated in his memory. The dedication ceremony was attended by a who’s who of bass fishing, and many stories were shared about Westmorland.  They ranged from his great fishing accomplishments, to his generosity, and once saving the life of a pair of fishing competitors whose boat had capsized in a terrible storm that hit the lake where the tournament was being held.

It was also pointed out at that ceremony Westmorland is the only man to have ever landed two 10-plus pound smallmouth.

“In the eyes of many, he was the greatest smallmouth angler who ever lived,” outdoor writer Ken Duke wrote in 2010. “He is also almost certainly the only man to catch both largemouth and smallmouth bass that exceeded 10 pounds.”

Westmorland passed away in 2002 at the age of 65.

Stephen Headrick, the “Smallmouth Guru” and owner of Punisher Lures.

STEPHEN HEADRICK, known as the “Smallmouth Guru, is another Dale Hollow and Celina angler who has made a big mark on his sport.

Headrick’s road to smallmouth fame followed a bit of a different path.  He has been interested in fishing virtually his entire life. Headrick has written about his admiration for Westmorland and getting to meet and fish with him as a young man, and also later in life.

Headrick sustained a serious back injury as he worked in a local factory.  He could have drawn disability benefits as a result of that, but turned it down. “I was raised and taught to work hard,” he said in an interview for Crossville Life.  “My parents always taught me to have a work ethic.”

Popular lure business

One of Headrick’s claims to fame is Punisher Lures, which he started after turning down the disability. “I started in my basement tying (fishing) jigs, and my mind started clicking with possibilities,” Headrick said. The operation soon moved out of his basement to a larger site.  Today, Punisher Lures has grown from that single jig to 900 UPC codes, Headrick said.  Tackle Warehouse, Bass Pro and Academy Sports are just three of the major retailers carrying the Punisher Lure line.  Punisher also has fishermen on its “pro” staff.

“We’re a family owned business that specializes in building premier quality fishing lures that are still made one at a time,” Headrick said.  “We are proud to be an American small business built on high moral standards that puts our customers first.”

About a year after starting the lure company, a group of Southeast Outdoor Press Association writers came to Dale Hollow.  Headrick took one of the writers fishing and they “had a great day” using the “float ‘n fly” method, Headrick said. That helped Punisher Lures get on a bigger map, and also led to Headrick becoming a featured writer for a handful of magazines, and various websites, also earning him his Smallmouth Guru nickname.

As Westmorland was, Headrick is a regular on the outdoor show and fishing seminar circuit, conducting events for Gander Mountain, Bass Pro and others.

He says he owes his success to “putting God first,” and to the support of his wife and family.

Headrick says there’s nothing “like the beauty of Dale Hollow Lake.  “There’s nothing developed on or surrounding the water. It just really shows you how beautiful God’s creation is.”

Fishing on Dale Hollow Lake

HEADRICK ALSO OFFERED some fishing tips for those who may want to visit Dale Hollow.

“I would recommend people using a guide to fish here,” he said. “I would hire a couple of different guides in different seasons.  That way, you can learn different methods that are successful at different times.

“Guides have specialities they are good at,” Headrick said. “If you hire different guides with different specialities, it will help you understand how to fish successfully at Dale Hollow. A lot of folks will hire a guide and stick with that one, but I believe this will be the best approach.”

In the end, “fish are a lot like humans,” he said. “When they get hungry, they’re going to find something to eat.  They are going to be wherever the bait fish are. Water temperature and water color will also play a big part in catching fish.”