By Jeff Samsel
It can feel a tad chilly when the sun’s still below the horizon on a January morning. Few things will break a chill, however, like the sound of a 30- or 40-pound striper annihilating a 7-inch plug on the surface in absolute darkness.
January? Topwater? You bet. When the water temperature is in the 60s from a power-production plant’s warmwater discharge, it doesn’t matter how cold the air is. The fish act like it’s mid-May, and veteran striper guide Ralph Dallas does, too. He gets out while it’s still dark and starts the morning fishing big topwater plugs in the Gallatin Steam Plant discharge for heavyweight Old Hickory Lake striped bass.
Few anglers – if any – know more about catching super-sized stripers than does Ralph Dallas. A Nashville-area taxidermist and guide, Dallas has been striper fishing on the Cumberland River for more than 30 years. He and his clients have caught hundreds of 40-pound-plus stripers, with several having eclipsed the 50-pound mark.
Dallas holds the current state record with a 65-pound, 5-ounce giant that he pulled from Cordell Hull Lake in 2000. In addition to that fish, which missed the all-tackle world record by less than 2 pounds, he has to his credit a 62-pound fish, which was the state record when he caught it in 1997.
During January, Dallas does the bulk of his striper fishing in the vicinity of the Gallatin Steam Plant, just northeast of Nashville. Here, water taken from the Cumberland River is converted into steam for power-production purposes. Water returned to the river has been warmed artificially, and the result is a literal hotspot for baitfish and game fish alike. The warmest water is right in the discharge canal, but the entire area on the canal side of a long island that divides that part of the main lake stays warm when power is being produced, and the river is affected to a lesser extent for several miles downstream.
Steam plants create fishing hotspots throughout Tennessee, as do nuclear plants, which use river water for cooling functions and also discharge warmed waters back into rivers they are built along. The Gallatin Steam Plant is arguably the best of the best for overgrown stripers because Old Hickory is arguably the finest trophy striper fishery in the state (and possibly the nation).
Another popular and extremely productive hot hole is formed by the Kingston Steam Plant discharge into Watts Bar Lake. The plant draws water from the Emory River arm of the lake and releases it into the Clinch River arm. The outflow warms a big bay and then dissipates through a long outside bend in the Clinch River channel.
Watts Bar supports high numbers of high-quality stripers, and is generally considered the premier striped bass fishery on the Tennessee River. Big stripers pile into the Kingston hot hole during the winter, producing excellent fishing, with very good trophy prospects.
Chickamauga Lake, one pool downriver from Watts Bar on the Tennessee River, also produces big stripers, although it does not receive the regular stockings that Watts Bar does. The hottest winter fishing occurs on the warm-water side of the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant, which is about midway down the lake.
For jumbo stripers, another very good winter pick is the outflow of the Bull Run Steam Plant on Melton Hill Lake, which impounds the Clinch River just west of Knoxville. Melton Hill doesn’t get stocked, but some stripers come through the floodgates from Watts Bar downstream. Additionally, the TWRA occasionally releases brood fish in Melton Hill after getting eggs from them. The population density is low, but many of the fish grow huge, and the lake is now managed with a 32- to 42-inch slot limit. Among the big stripers Melton Hill has produced was a previous state record.
Ralph Dallas sticks with the Gallatin Steam Plant simply because he has no reason to go anywhere else. His “home waters” are as good as it gets. His hot-hole tactics, however, will work anywhere there is a warmwater discharge into a lake or river that supports a quality striped bass population. The only variation worth noting is that anglers might want to scale down a bit on their bait size for some other waterways.
Old Hickory Lake, with its fertile waters and dense forage base of skipjack herring and gizzard and threadfin shad, supports an amazing population of heavyweight stripers. Thirty-pound-plus fish come into Dallas’ boat with amazing regularity, and 40-pounders are not at all uncommon.
Dallas noted that smaller fish (5 to 20 pounds) are much more common than they once were because the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has stocked high numbers of stripers in the lake for each of the last four years. However, he “culls” a lot of those fish before they ever bite, simply by using baits that are so large that the “small” 20-pounders are unlikely to strike such big baitfish.
Dallas typically begins his day fishing topwater plugs. He likes to be actively fishing by daybreak, and if air temperatures and his clients’ durability allow, he will start an hour or two before first light. The topwater bite typically stays good through the first couple hours of daylight, he said.
Dallas’ No. 1 lure for big surface-feeding stripers is a 7-inch plug. His biggest topwater fish, which blew up on the bait in the darkness of an early-spring morning, weighed 57 pounds. Dallas twitches the plug across the top with fairly good pops, instead of “V-waking” it, as many striper fishermen do.
If the fish won’t take the 7-inch bait, Dallas will turn to a 10-inch bait, which darts and dives at the surface and just below it with every twitch of the rod tip and often will bring up even the most finicky fish. Dallas runs a 3/0 heavy steel treble as a trailer, hanging it off the stock hook (this bait comes with a single hook) and leaving all three points exposed.
When the topwater bite wanes, Dallas turns to fishing with fresh skipjack, which he catches from the same waters. Occasionally, he will fish gizzard shad instead. Skipjack are his baitfish of choice, however, and the bigger the better.
“A 22- or 24-inch skipjack is not too big if you want to catch big stripers,” he said.
Dallas generally will anchor, positioning the boat to put several baits in potentially productive areas. Time has taught him prime areas within the Gallatin Steam Plant hot hole, but generally speaking, he likes the shallowest spots he can find with the warmest water and ideally with a bit of current.
e will rig his baits a few different ways for winter hot-hole fishing, and often he will experiment during a morning. If a lot of baitfish are close to the surface, which generally occurs when the water is quite warm, he often will start with live skipjack fished on free lines, spreading a few big baitfish around the boat and letting them swim where they may. If most baitfish show up deeper on his graph, he will add enough weight to hold the same baits on the bottom.
Often the most effective winter approach is to fish cut skipjack right on the bottom, Dallas said. Cut bait pieces can range from an entire dead skipjack strung on a hook to big strips of bait to just a head.
“I have found just a head to be extremely effective this time of year,” he said.
Because of the size of the stripers that Dallas expects to catch, he loads for bear. He spools large casting reels with 130-pound line and matches them with saltwater rods, which have roller eyes. He rigs skipjack on 9/O hooks.
Dallas stressed that a good temperature gauge and graph are critical for effective hot-hole fishing. The water temperature, which varies according to power-production schedules and the amount of current running through the river, needs to be at least in the mid-50s for good prospects, and he prefers the 60s. A graph is critical for identifying shallow areas to concentrate on and for seeing what depths the baitfish and consequently the stripers are using.
As a final note, Dallas cautioned anglers not to run their outboards when they come into a hot hole. Stripers – especially big stripers – can be very spooky fish, especially in shallow water. Anglers who run into hot-hole areas can ruin prospects not only for themselves but also for other anglers.
For obvious reasons, hot holes tend to be extremely popular during winter, and Dallas noted that there are even more boats than there used to be, as bank access has not been permitted since 9/11. Crowds acknowledged, he said there is enough room for several boats if anglers respect one another and don’t make a lot of noise with their motors.
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