Northbound for Tennessee River Largemouths
October 04, 2010
From the Alabama border all the way to Kentucky, the northerly flowing portion of the Tennessee River serves up super bassin' action early in the year. Here's what you need to know.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
By Jeff Samsel
From border to border, the Tennessee River forms a south-to-north band of bass-producing waters. Beginning at the tri-state border of Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee and running all the way to the Kentucky border, the northbound section of the Tennessee River extends nearly 200 miles.
Along the way, Tennessee anglers find an enormous range of opportunities. From the lower end of Pickwick, legendary for world-class smallmouth fishing, the river pours through a powerful tailwater, winds many miles though a remote river bed and then begins backing into the massive Kentucky Lake basin. Kentucky Lake, which spreads over 164,000 acres (109,000 in Tennessee), is legendary for its largemouth bass offerings.
Between the two big impoundments and the riverine section between them, this long stretch of the Tennessee River offers anglers a little bit of everything. Whether an angler enjoys pure river fishing, open-reservoir structure fishing or casting to cover in creeks or backwaters, he can find it somewhere in this section of river. Adding greater variety this time of year, any given spot along the way can vary enormously in character according to conditions during recent days and weeks within the Tennessee River basin.
Late winter is a great time to fish the Tennessee River because normal crowds are nowhere to be found. More significantly, big bass tend to be a little more apt to bite during the winter than at other times. Let's take a closer look at the winter fishing, beginning beneath the impounded waters of Pickwick Lake and then following the river north all the way to Kentucky.
Many anglers don't consider Pickwick when they think about Tennessee fishing lakes because only the far lower end of the lake is within the Volunteer State. However, the Tennessee part of the lake contains some extremely good waters for largemouths and smallmouths. Plus, a partial reciprocal agreement among the three states that border Pickwick roughly triples the amount of waters that Tennessee anglers are able to explore without having to purchase any additional fishing licenses.
Deeper, clearer and less productive than Kentucky Lake, Pickwick offers better habitat for smallmouths than largemouths overall, according to Tim Broadbent, Region 1 fisheries biologist for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Nevertheless, he rated the largemouth fishing as good, and noted that the fishery seems to be pretty stable. "It doesn't seem to experience the 'boon or bust' that Kentucky Lake does," he said.
Few places in the entire nation have more of a mystique among smallmouth fishermen than Pickwick Lake, especially during late winter and early spring. Any smallmouth that strikes could be a real giant - even a new world record. Virtually all serious smallmouth fishermen agree that the pre-spawn period is the best time of the year for the opportunity to catch a truly massive smallmouth bass.
"You won't catch big numbers of bass during the winter," said Todd Rasberry of Lawrenceburg, who has fished Pickwick all his life, guides part-time on the lake and is a very serious threat to win any tournament held on Pickwick. "Most fish you do catch will be high-quality fish, though, and there's a chance you'll catch a real giant."
January is generally slow, but produces some really big fish. February is somewhat similar, but it usually includes a few of what Rasberry calls "magical days," when three four warm days in a row have created perfect conditions and the big bass move up and feed hard. March produces some of the best days of the year, and usually there is a period of 10 days or so during March when fishing simply couldn't get much better.
Rasberry admits that January has its challenges. The lake is usually quite low, which puts a lot of great waters high and dry or too shallow to be productive, and the bass can be pretty lethargic. Plus, the air can be really cold. The flipside is that anglers can have Pickwick's normally crowded waters virtually to themselves in January and February, and fish sometimes pile up on spots.
"If you do find them and can figure out the right lure and presentation, you might be able to catch several fish," Rasberry said.
Rasberry typically fishes for smallmouths when money is on the line, fishing either the main river or the far lower end of a creek, but always close to deep water. During January and most of February, he keys on sharp drops, often along channel edges. Late in February and throughout March, he turns to gravel bars on the main channel, where big smallies move as they get ready to spawn.
Largemouths, Rasberry has found, often will be in the bottoms of creek channels during midwinter. "They'll be a little behind the smallmouths. What you want to do is figure out where you'd expect them to be in April and follow that channel on out."
Rasberry, who does the bulk of his fishing in the lower third of Pickwick, also spends a lot of time fishing points when he has largemouths in mind during late winter and early spring. The bass move up and down points, both on the main lake and in creeks, using them as highways from flats to deeper water. Rasberry especially likes points that have stumprows on them.
For largemouths or smallmouths, Rasberry really likes a Strike King Premier Elite jig during late winter. "You can work it slowly, close to the bottom, where the largest fish tend to be." He also catches a lot of winter fish on Strike King Suspending Wild Shiners and on 4-inch chartreuse grubs, fished on 1/4-ounce jig heads.
As late winter gives way to early spring, Rasberry will add one more tool to his arsenal. A "Stegall special" spinnerbait (for Pickwick legend Roger Stegall), which is a modified Strike King Premier Elite Spinnerbait, and is the best bait he knows of once the bass get into their pre-spawn mode.
The 3/4-ounce spinnerbait, which has a chartreuse head, is rigged with a bright chartreuse skirt and only a single blade, which is a gold No. 5 willow-leaf blade.
"Taking the extra Colorado blade off helps the bait sink faster and get down where the fish are," Rasberry explained.
Under a reciprocal licensing agreement with Alabama and Mississippi, anglers who possess a Tennessee license may fish that portion of Pickwick Lake from Mile 224.8 at the mouth of Bear Creek to Pickwick Dam, not including the Bear Creek arm or the portion of Yellow Creek above the state Highway 25
bridge. The statewide combined limit of five black bass applies on Pickwick Lake. The minimum size for largemouth and smallmouth bass is 15 inches.
To book a guided trip on Pickwick Lake with Todd Rasberry, call (662) 423-3869; visit www.fishpickwick. com on the Internet.
Kentucky Lake officially begins where Pickwick ends; however, the first several miles of the lake are purely riverine. This section, which is generally swift and contains few significant backwaters, has a pretty limited largemouth population, according to Broadbent. "South of where the Beech River comes in, population densities are fairly low," he said.
From Pickwick Dam to the Beech River, which is just south of the U.S. Highway 412 crossing, bass fishermen need to get out of the main channel, fishing the back sides of islands, creek coves and other backwaters. On most winter days, largemouths will be in deep cuts in these creeks and backwaters. Following strings of sunny days, the bass will move amazingly shallow on creek flats, which warm quickly with the first hints of spring.
Because quality largemouth habitat is quite limited in this part of the lake, an angler can select a single creek, like Whites Creek or Cedar Creek, and fish it thoroughly to find the bass. Once a pattern is established, it's often easy to find similar spots by running up or down the river to other creeks. This section gets light largemouth pressure, even during the warm months, so an angler who unlocks a good winter pattern is unlikely to run into other anglers as he moves from one creek to the next.
From Beech River to the New Johnsonville area, Kentucky Lake becomes more of a serious largemouth destination. Several tributaries, including the Duck River, add their flows and form intriguing backwaters. Meanwhile, the main body opens enough to offer good-quality largemouth habitat, especially in cuts just off the Tennessee River channel and in eddies behind islands. Bass densities still are lower overall than in the northern half of the Tennessee portion of Kentucky Lake, according to Broadbent. However, populations tend to be more consistent from one year to the next in this part of the lake.
Of special interest during the winter is the area round the New Johnsonville Steam Plant. The warm-water discharge from the plant warms this part of the lake significantly, creating concentrations of baitfish and game fish alike. Some of the best baits around the discharge are chrome-colored lipless crankbaits and various soft-plastic offerings that resemble shad.
While the warmest water and the biggest concentrations are close to the actual steam plant, the discharge can have some influence on water temperatures along the main river channel for several miles, especially if much water is running through Pickwick and Kentucky dams. Anglers can do well fishing jigging spoons over offshore humps during the winter in waters that are even slightly warmer than other waters in the same general area.
North of the U.S. Highway 70 bridge, which crosses the Tennessee River between Camden and New Johnsonville, Kentucky Lake broadens into the lake that comes to most anglers' minds when they think of this lake. While most of its acreage remains contained in a single, relatively narrow body, that body is much more open, and extensive structure borders the old channel. In addition, dozens of drains between ridges and creeks of all sizes form bays and lake arms on both sides of the Tennessee River .
The Kentucky Lake bass fishery is on an upswing after several down years, according to Broadbent.
"We are seeing far more quality bass - fish in the 15- to 18-inch range - than we had for several years," he said.
Several years of erratic recruitment had caused a decline in the quality of the bass fishing through much of the '90s and the first couple years of the new millennium. However, improved recruitment in recent years along with the establishment of a 15-inch minimum size for largemouths and smallmouths have brought the fishery back significantly. A few years ago, most local tournaments were being won with 10 to 18 pounds of fish, Broadbent noted. Today, winning weights often exceed 20 pounds.
Through most of January, the majority of Kentucky Lake's largemouths will be caught over open water, either in the main body or near the lower end of a significant creek. The fish will be in channels, usually right along their edges, or at the deep ends of points that reach out to the main channel. Anglers typically spend a lot of time searching for baitfish and bass with their electronics and then fish potentially productive areas at a painfully slow pace with jigging spoons, jigs, slow-rolled spinnerbaits or Carolina rigs.
Whatever the style of offering, anglers should stick with smaller-than normal baits this time of year, according to veteran Kentucky Lake guide Garry Mason. Mason noted that most forage fish in Kentucky Lake are small during the winter. He also emphasized the need to fish baits slowly under normal winter conditions.
Occasional strings of sunny days in January and February can radically change the character of the fishing, as can heavy rains that bring the lake level up and stain the water. Either condition will cause the fish to move shallow for a couple days, offering a foreshadowing of spring. While the right conditions can cause bass to stray quite shallow, they almost always will stay quite close to significantly deeper water. Mason looks for fish that have moved up in shallow cuts along the channel side of the main body and atop points that stretch out to major channels.
As winter gives way to spring, the increasing number of warm days will cause the fish to spend more time shallower, and they will stop dropping quite so far back during the cold snaps. Throughout the first part of the year, main-lake points and points that are close to the lower ends of major creek channels become critical on Kentucky Lake. Anglers who know little else about the lake often can find fish and figure out patterns by identifying significant points and searching them from top to bottom.
Kentucky Lake bass fishermen also shouldn't overlook smallmouths. While largemouths remain the dominant black bass species, by far, smallies have come on strong in recent years and sometimes grow to tremendous sizes.
"It seems like a lot of times, the guy who figures out how to catch a big smallmouth or two is the one who wins the tournament," Broadbent said. "I still don't know if I'd send someone out there just to fish for smallmouth bass. However, the smallmouths definitely are out there and they provide some good extra opportunities for bass fishermen."
A great boon to Kentucky Lake fishermen to go along with an improved fishery is a larger area of open water to explore. A year or so ago, Tennessee and Kentucky came to a partial reciprocal licensing agreement that allows anglers much more freedom in selecting areas. The Tennessee/Kentucky border follows the center of the channel for close to 15 miles, so in the past open-lake fishermen who only had a single state's license had to avoid the area altogether
or be very careful to stay on the right side of the line. Beyond allowing anglers to fish all the way across the river throughout this part of the lake, the agreement adds another 10 miles of open waters for Tennessee anglers.
Under the reciprocal agreement, anglers who possess a valid Tennessee fishing license may fish the Kentucky portion of Kentucky Lake that is south of the Eggners Ferry Bridge (U.S. Highway 68/state Highway 80), including all embayments, except for the Blood River arm. A 15-inch minimum size applies to largemouth and smallmouth bass on Kentucky Lake. The combined black bass limit is five fish.
More than 125 boat ramps in Tennessee alone provide plenty of access to Kentucky Lake. Buchanan Resort offers a full-service marina, food, lodging and guide service in what many anglers consider the best part of the lake. For more information, call (731) 593-5429, or on the Web go to www.buchananresort.com.
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