Whether you chase striper numbers or trophies, these Tennessee fisheries are worth a winter fishing trip. (January 2006)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
If you're going to talk about winter hybrids and stripers in Tennessee, you're going to talk about Cherokee Reservoir. Every year, the fish get bigger and bigger, and the numbers get better and better.
Aaron Jenkins, (423/312-1128 or 423/235-5385), longtime professional guide on the lake, reports that hybrids are averaging between 7 and 10 pounds as of the late spring and early summer of 2005. Now, that sounds big enough, doesn't it, but consider this; at the same time in 2004, Jenkins reported they were averaging between 5 and 8 pounds. That's a serious improvement.
A year ago, a 10-pound fish would give you bragging rights. Now, those belong only to anglers breaking the 12- or 13-pound mark.
True stripers in Cherokee will weigh between 20 and 30 pounds with an occasional 40- or 50-pounder possible.
With most anglers and with most species of freshwater fish, those numbers would be a clear exaggeration or anomaly. Not so with Jenkins and not so in Cherokee. Jenkins is a man of integrity and Cherokee offers a rare combination of water quality, forage and environmental conditions that allows for such growth. To truly understand this situation it helps to understand a little about the fish.
Hybrids have a typical life span of seven to eight years, are very aggressive feeders and fight like the devil. On top of that, their growth rate is extraordinary. Two-year-old fish sometimes measure 14 to 15 inches and 3-year-olds will occasionally reach 20 inches.
Stripers, on the other hand, sometimes reproduce naturally in fresh water. (There's some dispute about that, but the weight of the evidence supports that conclusion.) They can't tolerate low oxygen levels and they can't tolerate warm water. Their environmental requirements are narrow. In some lakes, that's a serious problem but not in Cherokee. The waters are deep and cool. Oxygen levels are solid even in the heat of summer, thanks largely to a massive TVA aeration system.
Along with all that, the forage base in Cherokee is darn near perfect. The reservoir is full of threadfin shad, gizzard shad and alewives. That gives the bass plenty to eat no matter at what depth they live. Threadfins and gizzards live relatively shallow, while alewives haunt the depths.
With so much good news, you might think that all you need to do to catch a few is launch your boat, lower a line and hold on tight.
Well, it's not quite that simple. Despite the wonderful conditions, it's still necessary to fish for them with a plan based on knowledge, skill and experience. Even in Cherokee, the fish aren't distributed equally, aren't always at the same depth and don't always bite the same things.
For an analysis of those factors, we need to turn to Jenkins. He typically begins his search near the middle of the lake most days between Point 9 and Point 27. He's looking for warm water, at least warmer than the usual 45 to 50 degrees in the main lake. He'll find that water in the creeks. "Sometimes it'll go as high as 58 or 60 degrees," he said.
If he can find a spot where that warm creek water flows into the main lake, he's in business. Experience has taught him that those spots will attract baitfish in January and February and consequently attract both hybrids and stripers. The very best spots are those near a channel swing arching toward a point or small inlet.
Once he has a fix on the baitfish, he settles down to fish. Typically, he trolls with both planer boards and free lines. He runs the planer boards out as far as possible to help minimize the negative effects of the clear winter water.
His trolling is precise and methodical. He makes certain his baits run through, above and below the baitfish. He takes the time to present his bait from several directions. He also varies his speed.
To accomplish all this, he follows a loose "S" pattern with his boat. That means trolling around the tip of a point, down along the creek mouth or channel and then back out and around the next point.
When fishing such areas, he uses live shad for bait. His preference is for the little ones. Two inches is about right. His reasoning is simple: The shad at this time of year are small. Why show the stripers something that doesn't look natural?
He also keeps a rod handy on the deck of the boat rigged with a white bucktail jig. That's in case he sees birds feeding. He points out that if the birds are feeding and diving on the surface, there will be hybrids or stripers under them. The only reason the birds act that way is because there are injured, crippled or shredded baitfish floating toward the surface.
If Jenkins sees this type of activity, he immediately heads toward the action. Not too fast, however. He eases his boat to within a few yards of the school and immediately begins casting.
Jenkins is a serious advocate of light tackle, especially considering the size fish he's after. He believes it generates more bites and offers his clients more excitement. His equipment preferences include Ambassadeur 6500 casting reels, spooled with 15-pound-test monofilament line and mounted on 7-foot medium-heavy-action rods.
Cherokee Reservoir -- 30,000 surface acres and 400 shoreline miles -- is located east of Knoxville, near Jefferson City. Accommodations are easily available and reasonably priced. There are at least 20 improved ramps around the lake. One will be near where you want to fish.
West of Cherokee, you'll find Norris Reservoir. Since 2003, this one has fallen on hard times, but it's coming back, coming back strong.
According to Doug Peterson, TWRA Fisheries Management biologist for Region IV, the 2003 striper kill -- there are no hybrids in Norris -- was not as bad as originally thought. Recent evidence suggests that many fish over 15 pounds survived and are doing well.
Just as important, the little ones are growing fast. And there are plenty of little ones to grow. More than 100,000 stripers have been stocked in Norris each year for the last six years. That averages over three per acre, fairly high.
The recovery has also been helped by the implementation of special harvest and creel regulations imposed on the lake. At this time, between Nov. 1 and March 15, anglers are permitted to harvest one 36-inch striper per day. At all
other times of the year, anglers may harvest two fish, 15 inches or better. The purpose of this regulation is to avoid high numbers of released fish during warm-water periods when survival rates are low.
To take advantage of this great striper venue, pay close attention to the forage base. Most days, the stripers will hang below the huge schools of shad that roam about the lake. They're looking for an easy meal as the dying shad, injured and helpless, sink down into the depths.
Look for the shad and stripers around creek mouths, inflows and in shallow coves. This is where you'll find warmer water, especially along the north shoreline.
According to Peterson, the most productive area of the reservoir is the Clinch River Arm. It offers 73 miles of fishing opportunities. "That's where most of the big ones are caught," he said.
However, at the same time, he also recommends the Powell River Arm. "It's better than most anglers think," he said. "Its remote location holds down fishing pressure, but the habitat is just as good as in the Clinch."
It's 56 miles long and offers not only great fishing but also spectacular scenery.
Regardless of where they fish, however, most successful anglers on Norris troll live bait -- shad to be specific.
Norris is located just south of La Follette and north of Knoxville. It's easily accessible from the north or south from I-75. (There's a La Follette exit off I-75.) Several major highways provide good access from the west or the east. Accommodations are available throughout the area at reasonable prices. Thirty-eight improved ramps circle the lake.
A word of warning about Norris in January and February: Yearly water level fluctuations of 45 feet or more are common. That exposes thousands of shallow rock points, underwater humps, bars and ridges. They're sitting there, quiet and patient, waiting to claim your lower unit. Boat with care; if you don't, you'll be sorry.
If you want a true trophy striper -- one that leaves no doubt about your fishing prowess -- take a look at the Cumberland River. The stretch through northern Tennessee is rapidly developing a well-deserved national reputation for big fish. And winter on the river is one of the better times to search for them.
Now, you won't catch many at this time of year in the Cumberland, but those you do catch -- if you can get them in the boat -- will be something to write home about.
Striper guide Brian Bihl (visit his Web site at
www.wegonefishing.com) earns his living on the Cumberland. He's spent years fishing for big, trophy-sized stripers. He rates it as the best venue in the country.
"Sure, several lakes around here will get you more numbers, but not size . . . not like those in the river," he said with enthusiasm.
According to Bihl, the key to catching big fish during the winter is to fish clear water with big bait. When he says big, he means it. His recommendation is to use live skipjacks between 12 and 21 inches long. He'll use gizzard shad if he can't get skipjacks, but only as a last resort.
That size bait is not easy to come by under the best of circumstances. Sometimes you can capture them with a cast net, but at other times, it's best to catch them on hook and line. To do that, throw a tiny jig on ultralight tackle around the mouth of a clearwater inflow. If you lose your jig, don't worry. A bare hook with a sliver of tinfoil and a small sinker will work just as well. In fact, they'll bite on just about anything in your tackle box if it's little.
In short order, you'll find that catching skipjacks is about as much fun as catching stripers. Skipjacks are a hard-fighting, high-jumping fish.
Bihl typically fishes his bait off three lines running from only one side of the boat. Experience has taught him that extending lines from both sides of his boat is more trouble than it's worth. The river is not wide enough to properly control lines on both sides of the boat, and if there's other boat traffic, it's nearly impossible for one boat to pass the other.
He usually rigs the outside two lines weightless. He uses planer boards to keep them well away from the boat, the farther the better. That's important, especially if the water is clear. He adds a little weight to the inside line to keep his bait down deeper than the others. (The inside line closest to the boat is where most -- not all, but most -- of the big ones hit.)
Use a controlled drift over any deep pool you encounter. Most days working against the current is best -- precise control with your electric motor is easier that way -- but there are exceptions. As you drift, make certain that all areas at the head and tail of the pool are covered from all directions and at all depths. This requires effort, but it's well worth it.
If bites are hard to come by, hold your boat stationary and allow the bait to play around near the surface for several minutes.
If a big one is interested in your offering, you'll know soon enough. Big river stripers attack by first slapping the skipjack, stunning it into submission. After a few moments, they'll return to eat it. That's when things get serious. Let them get the bait in their mouth and turn to head back toward deeper water before setting your 7/0 Octopus hook. Set it hard with both hands. If you don't, you'll regret it. These are big, powerful fish.
After that, it's a matter of holding on and doing the best you can to control the situation. That's not easy. You'll need a big, heavy reel spooled with 50-pound-test line mounted on a heavy-duty rod. Nothing less will do the job.
(If you're fishing with Bihl and he tells you to slow the spool, he doesn't mean to stick your finger into the reel and have it (your finger) chewed to shreds by the revolving line. He means to tighten the drag. Several clients have learned this lesson the hard way.)
Good fish are found just about anywhere on this river. If there's a long, deep pool, there's probably a trophy striper nearby. With that said, however, Bihl does have a favorite spot or two.
One of them is the area near Butler's Landing. Several creeks flow into this area and it typically holds high numbers of baitfish. Your best bet is to troll around the creek mouths and near any snags or brush you can find. Butler's Landing is just south of Celina. There's a fine, improved ramp at the landing.
If you're in the area, Celina is a good place to stay. It offers several motels and resorts, as well as restaurants, convenience stores and an excellent concrete launch ramp at Donaldson's Park. The ramp is on the Obey River about two miles from where it empties into the Cumberland. For complete information about Celina, call the 1 Stop at (931) 243-2636.
other great spot recommended by Bihl is at the mouth of the Roaring River. It's a sizeable inflow and holds huge concentrations of baitfish. It's a noted big-fish spot on the river. Troll the bay area around the mouth with the biggest bait you can get. After that, hold on tight and don't ever let your guard down. The Roaring River enters the Cumberland south of Butler's Landing.
To get a perspective on just how big the stripers are on this river, consider Bihl's catch record for the first half of 2005. His average is between 20 and 30 pounds with the smallest fish caught weighing 17 pounds. His biggest -- six of them -- weighed 40 pounds. That's a lot of big fish. There are very few places in the country where that's possible.
Why spend your weekends sitting around the house this winter when there's plenty of fast hybrid and striper action around?