It’s prime time to catch saugers and walleyes. Yeah, I know, some of you have been bouncing jigs since last November for the best-tasting fish to swim in Tennessee’s waters and are starting to think about casting for other species since the weather is warming. Big mistake! It’s prime time for to be hitting creek mouths and the tailwaters for these larger members of the perch family.
Whether you say pre-spawn begins in the fall or some time later, walleyes and saugers are now in position waiting for Mother Nature’s signal to commence spawning. That signal (or series of signals) for the spawn is a combination of rising water temperature and increasing daylight.
Male saugers and walleyes lead the pre-spawn run upstream to spawning areas. Creek mouths are usually high on their list of stopovers on their trek. The females follow, and anglers looking for a trophy should come very soon thereafter.
While talking about trophy-sized saugers and walleyes, I personally hope you will take a photo and release the females. Tennessee populations of these fish could be stronger than they are. But releasing egg-laden females is up to you.
As for getting yourself into a position to decide whether to release fish or not, let’s take a look at how you get them to bite in the first place.
Four-inch shad, creek minnows or small bream fished in deep holes during the day helps you cull the smaller fish from your hook, which should be No. 2/0 to No. 4/0. A walleye rig works well for displaying your bait. A slip-sinker above a 2-foot leader separated by a barrel swivel allows the bait to swim and attract the predator.
When angling for numbers of fish rather than trophies, 2-inch shad, shiners or tuffy minnows on a floating jig attached to the walleye rig increases your prospects of attracting predators. Walleyes and saugers tend to hold off the bottom when they are not active. Lengthening your leader and using the floating jig can put your bait in the strike zone.
Walleyes and saugers move into the shallow gravel or rocky areas at night to complete reproduction. This is not the time to fish. You want to be there the nights before they spawn, when they are making practice runs. Getting a fish to hit your bait when in the throes of passion is not unlike trying to get you to leave your lover under similar circumstances for a sardine sandwich. Fortunately, the “wanna-bes” not actively participating will be in the area and they will take a bite.
Also, fortunately for us, not all walleyes or saugers spawn at the same time. We probably have a month of spawning, which usually peaks in Tennessee in mid-April. That means anglers enjoy a fairly long period during which a good portion of the fish are in the pre-spawn part of their cycle.
Once you’re rigged up, you’ll want to put your bait in a productive place for saugers and walleyes. The most productive places to fish are below dams for about 12 miles downstream and at the mouths of creeks.
Creek mouths have deltas and these are typically mud, gravel and debris. The more gravel, the better. My best catching comes when I anchor upstream in the creek from the delta dropoff but close enough to cast beyond the dropoff to the edge of the main channel. Frequently strikes occur as I bring the bait up the drop and when the bait is on top of the breakline. Neutral fish seem to hold at the bottom of the delta or downstream of the delta.
Dam fishing depends on the amount of water being released. Fishing is better if there is some current. I have heard anglers complain about too little and too much flow, but if you keep trying, you can locate fish.
They are somewhere near the dam, so spend some time watching your sonar and crisscrossing the tailrace from bank to bank.
BEST SAUGER WATERS
The best tailraces for saugers in Tennessee are Pickwick, Cheatham, Old Hickory, Cordell Hull, Watts Bar, Melton Hill and Fort Loudoun. Saugers are also in Nickajack, Chickamauga, Douglas, Cherokee and South Holston. Traditionally, your best chance to catch saugers lies in the tailwaters of Pickwick, Watts Bar, Melton Hill and Fort Loudoun.
BEST WALLEYE WATERS
The best lakes for walleyes are Dale Hollow, Center Hill, Watauga and Norris. Secondary walleye holes are Tellico, Chilhowee, Tims Ford, South Holston and Woods.
Focus On Middle Tennessee
Let’s start with the upper Cumberland River at Cordell Hull Lake. Darryl York of Carthage said the lake is full of saugers.
“TWRA shocked them not long ago and they said you could catch saugers about anywhere you fish. It has probably one of the highest concentrations of saugers in the state. Many of the fishermen catch saugers while casting for bass.” (Continued)
York fishes from Defeated Creek upstream to Indian Creek.
“I start trolling sandy points and gravel bars in the spring,” he said. “The sand and dirt warm up faster in the spring and the fish tend to hold on those points and bars on the main channel. I troll around the dam area.
“I troll the crankbaits from spring until winter,” he added. “The Series 300 Bandit, No. 5 and No. 7 Bomber, and Excalibur are all good baits.”
York trolls 15 or 20 feet deep using 8-pound-test line.
The tailwaters of Cordell Hull Dam is another place York likes to troll in the spring. “I troll crankbaits for walleyes and saugers below the dam. Fishing is good until around mid-June. I’ll fish all the way down to Hartsville the same way I fish up on the lake,” York said.
Guide Jim Duckworth (615/444-2283) of Lebanon said you will catch saugers year ’round using deep-running crankbaits and soft-plastic baits on the main points and bluffs of the river.
“Stealth is most important when fishing gravel bars or deep holes. Use only your trolling motor,” he cautioned. “When you need your big motor to get back upstream to drift an area again, get far away from your fishing zone. Trolling also works. The saugers are going to be about 20 feet deep.”
Old Hickory Lake
Walleyes aren’t as numerous as saugers in Old Hickory, but they’re there and can be caught. Jim Duckworth spends much of his time on the upper portion of Old Hickory Lake, from Highway 231 to Carthage.
Some of what Duckworth knows about saugers he learned as a diver for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He has observed saugers while swimming right alongside them.
“I have seen how saugers like to get under logs that sit parallel in the river about a foot or so off the bottom,” Duckworth said. “If I can locate these logs with my sonar, I bounce a jig on top of them and then let it roll off.”
Many logs (and quite a bit of other cover) are found in deep holes below bluffs.
The section of water from the mouth of the Caney Fork River and upstream to Center Hill Dam holds walleyes and saugers. You can’t take a boat up the 17-mile stretch, but you can make it to some deep holes.
Below the mouth of the Caney Fork on the Cumberland River you can find deep holes. Some of the best holding areas for saugers and walleyes are where the bank has given way. These rocky slides often create good spawning areas.
Although walleyes used to be plentiful in the Cumberland River, they are no longer so numerous, because the dams created siltation that destroyed their habitat. Saugers are more prevalent than walleyes in Barkley (below Cheatham Dam) and Cheatham lakes (below Old Hickory Dam).
Fishing from sunset until dawn with topwater imitation minnows, such as Rapala and Rebel, pays off in shallow water near the river channel. Cast downstream and “twitch” the minnow back to the boat. Shallows inside of the river’s bend, the shallows just above or below a creek junction and humps, ridges or bars in the river are the likely night spots.
David Woodward of Nashville fishes vertically at the lock and lock walls below Old Hickory Dam. “I jig a minnow on a 1/4-ounce jig or use a Carolina rig with a floating jig to get the minnow off the bottom some. One of my most productive rigs is the double-hooked, bottom-bouncing crappie rig. I have two droplines about a foot and a half a part. I put more lead on this rig because I use it where there is more current. I’ve found that saugers don’t always stay in swift current, but you’d think so by looking at where most sauger fishermen are fishing.”
He catches many saugers just to the slow side of the seam where there is fast current mixing with slow current.
“I can almost always catch them in eddies below the lock walls. One thing I have noticed: If I stay in one good place, a school will swim by and I’ll catch three or four in a few minutes, and then they’ll leave. They either come back or another school comes by before long. So I anchor in a spot that I’m sure they’ll come by because I like to wait for them to come to me. And I usually catch more than the fishermen drifting and fighting the current do.”
William Emerton of Sparta has more than 20 years experience fishing the riverine portion of Center Hill Lake near Rock Island State Park, catching countless limits of walleyes from its headwaters.
Walleyes feed aggressively before they begin their spawning run. Emerton catches walleyes in late February and early March, but works slowly in cold water to solicit strikes. His favorite winter bait is a 1/4- to 1/2-ounce hair jig tipped with a tuffy minnow.
“I occasionally use a 1/8-ounce fly if the wind is still, but most of the time I use a 1/4-ounce jig,” he said. Chartreuse is Emerton’s favorite hair color, but yellow, red and orange also attract walleyes.
Emerton hopes for wind because it helps move his boat gently over walleye holes. Later, when Center Hill starts rising, current from nearby Great Falls Dam replaces wind as his main boat propellant.
“I drop my line to the bottom, crank it just a little, and then barely flick the fly, just enough to make it move.” Emerton fishes the main channel and uses his trolling motor for control. He locates numerous walleyes between the Sandbar Ramp in Rock Island State Park and the mouth of Sink Creek near Pate Ford’s Marina.
As the water level rises, Emerton fishes as far upstream as the rocky river allows. Two generators below a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ hydroelectric plant at Great Falls Dam create a strong current there. The higher the lake rises, the farther upriver Emerton can go. When the current is strong enough to replace wind as his main boat propellant, Emerton switches “to the heavy stuff.”
“I know I have to stay in touch with the bottom, and that’s difficult when current is strong,” Emerton said. “That’s why I start using a 1/2- to 5/8-ounce Sonar. Water level can change quickly. I might be fishing in 10 feet one second and 20 feet the next.”
Emerton fishes as close as possible to the powerhouse, but is careful around shallow rocks. He jigs vertically in the fast current and works holes repeatedly where he gets strikes. As Center Hill rises, he often fishes close to shorelines. Large rocks and boulders provide excellent walleye habitat.
Beginning 100 yards upriver of the Sandbar Ramp and extending to the hydroelectric plant, only lures with single hooks are legal from Jan. 1 through April 30. TWRA prohibits the use of multiple hooks because biologists believe they snag numerous walleyes.
Walleyes longer than 16 inches are common once females enter Center Hill’s headwaters, Emerton said. “I even hear of 7-pounders being caught, and occasionally a 10-pounder, but most of the time I catch smaller fish than that,” he said.
Bank-fishing is good close to the hydroelectric plant because water is swift and shallow there. Bank-anglers toss lighter baits to minimize the chance they’ll lose their lures. A 1/4-ounce leadhead jig fished with a chartreuse twistertail is a popular bank lure.
Most walleyes have spawned by mid-April, and daylight fishing for casting anglers is good only until about 7:30 a.m. “Right around daylight is the best time for fishing after the spawn ends,” Emerton said.
Some anglers who troll crankbaits from Blue Hole to Sandbar catch walleyes. For Emerton, walleye fishing is best at night after the spawning run ends.
After the sun sets, Emerton casts a crankbait to the shallow water between Rock Island State Park and the Corps of Engineers’ hydroelectric plant. His favorite lures are black and silver No. 7 Shad Raps and No. 9 Countdown Rapalas.
“I usually throw downstream and work my lure as close to the bottom as possible,” Emerton said. “I even bounce them off rocks. A lot of fishermen don’t seem to know that walleyes can be caught this way, but they hit crankbaits at night from spring into fall.”
Emerton often anchors in water 20 to 30 feet deep and casts into water 10 feet deep or shallower. Sometimes he works his bait across the surface. “I’ll let it sit a few seconds and then give it a twitch or jerk,” he said. “Fish tear my lure up if they are anywhere close.”
Moonlight is also important, he pointed out.
“Fishing is good all night if the moon is near full, but if it’s in a dark phase, I fish until about 10 o’clock, quit awhile, and then come back from 3 to 5 in the morning, which is a super-good time to catch walleyes,” Emerton noted.
When crankbaits fail during dark moon phases, Emerton heads downriver a half-mile or so, pulls out a floating light, and waits about an hour for shad to collect under its glow.
“I don’t have to be in the current when I’m fishing this way,” he said. “Walleyes come to me.”
Emerton uses a cast net to catch schooling shad for bait, or he works a spoon or Sonar beneath gathered baitfish. A No. 1 or No. 2 hook and a small split shot is all that is needed to fish live bait.
Anglers catch walleyes by trolling deep-diving crankbaits (Shad Raps, Bang-O-Lures, Bombers, Hot ‘n’ Tots, Hellbenders, etc.) in channels, beneath bluffs and over gravel bars. Many anglers fish near Sligo Marina, Johnson Chapel or Ragland Bottom Recreation Area where Center Hill widens, Emerton said.
Spinner rigs, such as a Hot ‘n’ Tot Pygmy, are also good artificial baits when fished with a trailing night crawler or minnow.
Try Emerton’s techniques in your favorite sauger and walleye waters. The fish behave the same way statewide and you can capitalize on this.
CATCHING THEM ON THE COMBO RIG
To close, I’m going to share one of my favorite techniques that I learned catching walleyes in Minnesota.
It’s one of the most effective ways to fish tailwaters and deep holes. It’s called the three-way swivel combination rig.
Tie an eight- to 12-inch leader to the swivel for your weight, which can be a 8-inch length of coat hanger coated with lead or a 3/4-ounce bell sinker, or heavier. For your bait, use a 1- to 3-foot leader between your swivel and hook. Tie on a No. 1 to 2/0 hook for your small shad, minnow, shiner or night crawler.
The coat hanger wire gives you weight but rides at an angle that doesn’t get snagged like a split shot or bell sinker. Clip a 6- to 8-inch section of coat hanger or similar wire, slip one end through a snap swivel, then bend a loop in the wire so the swivel stays in the loop. To make the wire heavier, dip it in molten lead. Make it as heavy as you want, but don’t make a ball on the end. You need it be straight like a stick so it doesn’t hang up.
This rig is effective when drifted in the current below dams and slowly trolled upstream. Make a mental note where you pick up fish so you can go over that area again.
The combination rig is versatile because it is easily modified. You can use a jig (with or without a minnow) for your weight and a curlytail grub on your hook for bait. Tie on a floating Rapala or a shallow-diving Rattlin’ Rogue. Look in your tackle box and use your imagination for other combinations — this is why it’s called a combination rig.
Armed with all the information these expert anglers have shared with you, you should be ready for plenty of happy hooking!