Linesiding The Tennessee River
September 28, 2010
Downstream of the dams on this waterway, the springtime action for striped, hybrid and white bass can be outstanding. Don't miss out on this April bonanza. (April 2007)
Photo By Ron Sinfelt
Even though the state hasn't stocked saltwater stripes or hybrids on the Tennessee River in a few years, the fishing for those linesides is still outstanding on the big river in North Alabama during the spring run. The tailwaters of Wilson, Wheeler and Guntersville dams are particularly good places to try your luck for stripes this time of year.
"The fishing is as good at one dam as it is another," said Keith Floyd, the fisheries biologist for that section of the state.
Saltwater stripes and hybrids don't occur naturally in the Tennessee River but were stocked there many years ago. A remnant of the stocked fish survived and continue to thrive. It's widely believed among diehard stripe anglers that some of the fish migrate out of the Tennessee River and spawn in tributaries such as the Paint Rock and Elk rivers each spring.
State fisheries research also bears this out. Jerry Moss of the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries said they observed fish running into Big Nance, Cypress and Shoal creeks, as well as the Paint Rock River, during sampling operations in 1992 and 1993.
A related species, the white bass does occur in abundance naturally in the Tennessee River and also offers fine angling opportunities this time of year. White bass don't grow as large as hybrids or stripes, but they're good fighters and terrific table fare.
"Stripers and white bass normally make a spawning run in the spring, and that's why they congregate below the dams," Floyd explained.
The best time to fish for them is when water is running through the dams, he added, and the best places to toss your bait are in the boils of the current.
When the state first began its program of stocking, sportfishermen worried that the big predators would hurt populations of native game fish such as bass and crappie. The DWFF addressed that by sampling the contents of striper bellies. They found that the fish feed almost exclusively on shad. The stripers and hybrids also live primarily in open water, limiting their competition for food with other species. Similar studies in Arkansas, Florida, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia turned up the same results.
Stripers in Southern waters -- particularly the larger fish -- have one major problem. They suffer from thermal stress during hot weather. When that happens, large stripers forgo feeding as they search for cooler water, such as that provided by springs.
That phenomenon has led fisheries managers to do more stocking with hybrid stripers, which don't grow as large but tolerate warm water much better. Hybrids are voracious feeders and can grow as large as 18 inches in as little as two years.
It has been three or four years since any striped bass have been stocked in the Tennessee River.
"We just haven't had any demand for it or any positive feedback indicating that we needed to resume the program," state fisheries biologist Keith Floyd said.
Dan Myrick of Guntersville is a longtime fan of targeting stripes downstream of the Guntersville Dam.
"The dam used to be crowded with stripe fishermen, but a lot of them quit when the state stopped stocking," Myrick said. "But it can still be worth your while to spend some time there."
The last time he was there, only a handful of anglers were fishing "the wall" next to the dam, and Myrick watched as one of his fellow anglers landed a pair of 10-pound hybrid stripes.
"Most of what you see nowadays are hybrids," he said. "About 20 pounds is as big as they get."
There are different ways to go about fishing for the stripes. Although he owns a boat, Myrick most enjoys fishing from the bank.
"I like to fish Sassy Shad artificial lures," the angler said.
It takes a substantial leadhead jig to hold such a lure down in the turbulent current of a Tennessee River dam. Myrick uses 3-inch, 4-inch and even 6-inch Sassy Shads and often employs as much as an ounce of lead. Myrick readily admits he likes the bigger baits, operating on the "big bait, big fish" theory. He uses a variety of colors, including pearl, bronze, shad and green.
"The Sassy Shad mimics a threadfin shad, which run below the dams by the thousands in the spring," Myrick offered. "You need the heavy weight to get you below the shad, which are stacked near the surface. You want your lure falling below the column of shad so it looks like a dead or dying shad to the stripers underneath."
The trick is to throw your lure right beside the concrete wall of the dam and then let it drift downstream with the current.
"In the heavy current, you don't have a lot of control over where it goes," Myrick said. "Just let it drift."
When the stripe bite is right, you get a hit on nearly every drift. Or you might hang up in the jagged rocks below the dams before the fish can find the bait.
"Take a lot of tackle with you," cautioned Myrick, whose dedicated striper tackle box feels as though it weighs 40 pounds. "You will lose some rigs in the rocks. You need to even take extra line with you. It's not uncommon for a big striper to take all the line you've got on your reel and then break off."
When you get a bite, especially if it's a good fish, the common procedure for landing the fish is to walk down the wall, holding your rod over the heads of other fishermen, and their rigs if necessary, and get onto the rocks below the wall.
Myrick explained that it's a heck of a lot easier to land a fish in the rocks than it is to try to manhandle one up the wall.
The other technique for catching stripers from the bank is to catch some of the threadfin shad and then use them for live bait. The fishing technique is similar to using the Sassy Shad and jig.
The added ingredient in this technique is the challenge of catching the bait. Some anglers use a cast net to catch their bait, but Myrick said it takes more effort to catch them that way. He prefers dropping a wire basket int
o the water.
"The shad are right there at the wall, and they look like they're thick enough that you could walk across them," he noted. "All you have to do is drop your wire basket into the water right there and you'll catch all the bait you need."
Threadfin shad are notorious for dying pretty quickly once you pull them out of the river. Myrick advised putting one on your hook, tossing four or five others into a bucket of water for later, and then letting the rest go.
"You'll get like a million of them with one dip of your wire basket anyway," he said.
You need to use a lot of lead with your live shad, too. That's because you want it to fall out of the area where the shad are running, just like you wanted that Sassy Shad jig to fall.
"You have to use as much as an ounce at times," Myrick noted.
Myrick's favorite striper rod is an old Ugly Stik spinning rod with a Mitchell 500 spinning reel.
He said the hybrids have always been his favorite of the striper family, especially when they were more abundant back when the DWFF was actively stocking them in the Tennessee River.
"You could just go out and catch so many," he said. "They were mostly 2- and 3-pounders, but there were loads of them. I remember once when my father Willie came up and just wore out the stripes below Guntersville Dam. He unbuttoned his shirt and showed me his belly because he had a circle bruise on it where he'd held his rod and fought all those hybrids."
Myrick said anglers shouldn't be surprised if they catch other fish while they're targeting stripers on the Tennessee River.
"My dad caught trophy-class smallmouths while stripe fishing," he said. "People catch catfish sometimes. I've caught some 20- and 30-pound freshwater drum while stripe fishing."
The stripe bite starts in March and can carry all the way into June, but most stripe enthusiasts consider April the peak month.
Keith Floyd said curly-tail jigs are another bait that striper fishermen regularly try. He likes to use jigs in chartreuse, white or smoke. Other popular striper baits include spoons and even topwater lures.
"There can be a good topwater bite, especially early in the mornings," Floyd added.
While bank fishing can be good, boat fishing is also a solid bet for stripers, according to the biologist. Boat fishermen have a distinct advantage for topwater fishing if they see stripers busting on the surface.
Chasing schooling stripers with topwater lures is a specialized tactic. The more common tactic for boat fishermen is to drift. Drifting for stripers is essentially the same tactic that Tennessee River anglers employ for smallmouths.
You motor up to the dam, toss out a jig or a live threadfin shad, and then drift with the current. Once you've gone a few hundred yards, you motor back up to the dam and start the drift all over again.
"The break lines of the current and eddies are the best places to catch stripes," Dan Myrick suggested. "The bank fisherman is fishing the break line closest to the bank. The boat fisherman is fishing the same kind of break line farther out."
One advantage that a boat fisherman has over a bank angler is that he can give chase if he ties into an extra-large saltwater striper. That's exactly what Greg Burgess of Huntsville did when he and a partner hooked into a 43-pounder below Guntersville Dam. That story was presented in the May 2006 edition of Alabama Game & Fish.
When a bank angler hooks into a big fish below Guntersville Dam, it's fairly common for a complete stranger out in a boat to come in, pick him up and help him follow the fish.
Myrick said there have been times when he's needed that kind of help himself.
"It's pretty easy to adjust the drag on the old Mitchell reel of mine," he said. "I can remember hooking big ones when the fish would peel out 200 yards of line. It's just stripping off and you're trying to slow it down with your drag. You see your knot coming up and there's not a whole lot you can do and -- ping! -- it breaks."
There's no way of knowing for sure, he added, but he always feels it's a giant saltwater striper when that happens.
There are good boat ramps below Wilson, Wheeler and Guntersville dams to access the waters for boaters. The ramp on the south side of Guntersville Dam has been under repair, but it's expected to be back in service by now.
Keith Floyd said there's one bit of advice he would give newcomers to the world of stripe fishing.
"Hang on," he said, grinning.
The fish are terrific fighters, and that's what keeps people coming back again and again to tangle with these fish with lines on their sides.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
The combined creel limit on white bass, yellow bass, saltwater striped bass and hybrids in Alabama is 30 fish per day per angler, but there are a couple of qualifiers as well. No more than six of the 30 can exceed 16 inches in length and no more than six can be saltwater striped bass.
The hybrid bass is also known by a number of other names, such as palmetto bass, white-rock bass, wiper or sunshine bass. It is produced by artificially crossing a male white bass with a female striped bass, according to the DWFF.
The offspring can exhibit a wide variety of color patterns and can be confused with either parent species when they are all young.
A hybrid bass can usually be distinguished from a striped bass by its broken lateral stripes along the lower sides of the body. The stripes are continuous or unbroken on a striped bass. Hybrids are generally shorter and thicker than true stripers.
Hybrid bass can be distinguished from white bass by a pair of tooth patches on the tongue, as opposed to only one such patch on the white bass.
The state record for a striped bass is 55 pounds. That fish came from the Tallapoosa River in the 1960s. The state mark for hybrid bass is 23 pounds, 2 ounces, with that fish coming from the tailwater of Lewis Smith Lake on the Sipsey Fork of the Warrior River in 1989. For white bass, the state record weighed 4 pounds, 9 ounces, and it came from the Black Warrior River.