October 04, 2010
Right now is the best striper fishing of the year on Percy Priest, Tim's Ford and Old Hickory. (January 2008)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
In years past, anglers used to speak of the winter doldrums, using the cold months to work on their fishing tackle, catch up on the "honey-do" list, and get ready for the upcoming spring season. Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on the length of your honey-do list), waiting for warmer weather to get out on the lake and catch some good fish is a thing of the past.
Wintertime water temperatures put many freshwater fish into a "won't bite" mode, but not so for landlocked striped bass and their feisty cousins, the hybrid striped bass. Striped bass prefer colder water and while they do slow down once surface temperatures reach the mid 40s, stripers readily feed throughout the day, even in January.
Across Middle Tennessee are three reservoirs that vary significantly in their structure, size and characteristics, but the one thing all three of these lakes -- J. Percy Priest, Tim's Ford and Old Hickory -- have in common are a fantastic winter fishery for striped bass. Even though the weather is cold, Tennessee is blessed with waters that don't freeze through the winter and provide great overlooked fishing opportunities.
Many anglers also claim wintertime fishing for striped bass is easier because large schools of baitfish group up during this time looking for warmer water. All an angler needs to locate striped bass that feed on these roving schools of bait is to watch the sky for birds diving into the bait; hungry stripers and hybrids are never far away.
Anglers can take their choice between artificial and live bait tactics. Whether slow trolling in search of feeding stripers or anchoring in a likely spot and waiting for the fish to find you, these three lakes are ready to provide the adequately dressed winter striper angler with plenty of action.
Percy Priest is a 14,200-acre impoundment of the Stones River. Priest was constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and is a relatively shallow, fertile lake. The size of striped bass in Priest may not compare with the size found in some other Tennessee reservoirs, but the numbers of stripers in the lake make for much higher catch rates. While Priest may not be considered a trophy striper impoundment, it contains some of the biggest hybrid striped bass found anywhere in the country.
"Wintertime on Priest often means being on a lake within a few miles of a city of over 1,000,000 people and having the lake all to yourself," claimed striped bass guide Don Schleicher. Schleicher began fishing Priest in the late 1980s when his wife's grandfather, the late Joe Thompson (co-host of "The Tennessee Outdoorsmen" TV show) introduced him to striper fishing on Percy Priest Lake. Overall, weather systems and regional climate make Priest an ideal location for growing the baitfish that stripers and hybrids feed on. The lake is very fertile due in part to the surrounding landscape and the lake's water flow.
"One of the things I like best during winter is that you can fish all day long with just a 5-gallon bucket of shiners," Schleicher said. "The cooler weather doesn't require anglers to use intricate bait tanks to keep delicate baits alive."
In fact, store-bought minnows, typically Arkansas shiners in the 3- to 4-inch range, are a great substitute for the young-of-the-year threadfin and gizzard shad that stripers eat this time of year.
"Even big fish seem to prefer the smaller baits in the winter," Schleicher noted.
With cooler surface water prevailing, Schleicher's preferred tactic is to slow troll or free-line shiners behind the boat. He employs a variable-speed trolling motor to troll multiple lines behind the boat with the aid of a planer board or float to keep the lines separated.
Schleicher often targets the main channel or dropoffs along the main channel to find fish. While bottom depths may range anywhere from 20 to 60 feet in the main channel area, bait, and subsequently stripers, will be in the upper one-third of the water column.
"Having birds, loons, gulls or terns working the same area I'm fishing is almost a guarantee that stripers, hybrids or white bass will be in the area feeding," Schleicher said. The veteran guide typically starts out with no weight on his free lines, instead tying a 4- to 6-foot length of fluorocarbon leader to his 20-pound-test main line with a barrel swivel. Bluebird or windy days may require the guide to add a split shot or two to get the bait a little farther down in the water column at the fish's level.
Catch rates between striped bass and hybrid stripers usually run 90 percent stripers and 10 percent hybrids throughout the rest of the year, but many anglers report that catch rates during the winter season even up, with the catch mix running about 50-50 when the water temperatures drop.
The mid-lake section of Priest is usually the most productive for winter striper and hybrid fishing. Popular areas include Four Corners, Bryant's Grove and Poole's Knob. These areas are best accessed through public ramps located at Four Corners Recreation area (1.5 miles east of Hwy. 171 off Hamilton Church Road) and Poole's Knob Recreation Area (nine miles north of Hwy. 41 off Jones Mill Road).
Once launched, it's best to look for concentrations of aquatic birds working the main river channel, which weaves around between Pear, Ponderosa and Rock islands. Standard tackle for Priest's stripers and hefty hybrids include baitcast reels spooled with 15- to 20-pound mono tipped with a fluorocarbon leader. Medium-heavy casting rods in 7- to 7 1/2-foot lengths are also popular.
Completed in 1970, this impoundment of the Elk River has had its difficulties from a striper angler's point of view. After initial stocking with stripers by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency shortly after construction, Tim's Ford anglers enjoyed a boom cycle of striper fishing that created what veteran anglers refer to as "the glory days." This time was followed by a period of decline that has reduced much of the angler interest in striper fishing on the reservoir. One possible explanation could be a typical cyclical nature of the fishery, which unfortunately occurred during a downward cycle in the forage base of gizzard shad. This led to a series of meetings conducted by the TWRA. Following this, the TWRA began stocking hybrid striped bass into Tim's Ford along with its allotment of pure-strain striped bass.
According to TWRA Assistant Director Tim Churchill, "These hybrids have survived quite well and make up a large population of 7- to 8-pound fish."
In addition to the supplemental hybrid stockings, the gizzard shad population in Tim's Ford has recovered from its prior downturn and the result has been a return to what guide Don Schleicher refers to Tim's new glory days.
Tim's Ford is a deeper and clearer reservoir than Percy Priest. Schleicher said that free-lining shiners is still his go-to tactic in this clearer water, but insists that a lengthy fluorocarbon leader is necessary to convince the fish to take the live bait. It's important to match the hook with the size of bait used. For the 3- to 4-inch Arkansas shiners preferred by Schleicher, a size 1 or 1/0 Kahle, Octopus, or circle hook is hard to beat. As is the case in most striper lakes with clear water, planers and floats give the angler not only the usual benefit of keeping multiple lines separated, but also serve to get the baits well away from the boat, which can be a big help around wary stripers in clear water.
For the artificial bait enthusiast, Schleicher suggests trying a tactic shown to him by one of his mentors, Herbert Odom. The prevailing cooler waters of January on Tim's Ford slow down the metabolism of both stripers and the baitfish they prey on. Threadfin shad, in particular, have difficulty orienting themselves once water temperatures drop into the mid-40s. Odom's trick was to imitate a thermally stressed shad by tying a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce bucktail jig on a casting rod and casting the bait out and just letting it swim along with the slow troll speed of the boat. His preference was to use a jig tied with buoyant material and fray the ends of the jig so that it would sink slower. Schleicher contends that many times the first sign of a bite on the jig would be the rod bent double as the striper nailed the helpless "do-nothing" bait.
Favorite locations for finding Tim's Ford stripers this time of year include the mouth of Boiling Fork, Devil's Step, Lost Creek and Mud Island. While these are not exactly secret hotspots, they still appear to be the best spots on the lake: Don Schleicher points out that 80 percent of the striper tournaments won on Tim's Ford are from fish caught out of these areas. So even though a good many local anglers know and fish these spots, they simply continue to produce year after year. Schleicher confides if there are no birds working the area and you can't locate fish near Mud Island or Devil's Step, it's probably going to be a slow day. Access is available at the Fairview Devil's Step Campground located off Fairview Road, 1.1 miles north of Hwy. 50.
When asked his opinion on where the next possible world-record freshwater striped bass would come from, TWRA's Tim Churchill claimed it might well come from Old Hickory.
"Old Hickory is without a doubt one of the best, if not the best, striped bass lakes in the country," Churchill said. "The lake is home to a large population of 30-plus-pound fish and there are some real monsters as well."
The thermal discharge from the Gallatin Steam Plant heavily influences winter fishing on Old Hickory. Using water from the lake to supply the coal-fired furnaces, the supercharged water is released back into the reservoir, where it artificially warms the entire area. The resulting released water acts as a magnet to the large population of baitfish in Old Hickory and keeps both the baitfish's and the stripers' metabolisms high throughout the winter.
For a fishing spot with the tremendous reputation for producing trophy striped bass up to 50 pounds, the release area is surprisingly small. Before 9-11, anglers were allowed access to the area from the rocky bank that encloses the release area, but this area has since been closed to foot traffic. The result has been an increase in boating traffic, with some anglers choosing to anchor into the release water current and allow the stripers to find them.
By far the best baits for Old Hickory stripers are found right in the area of the thermal discharge. Skipjack herring are drawn to the area and attain sizes greater than 16 inches because of the abundance of smaller bait. Skipjack herring don't survive very long in even the best of bait tanks. So, rather than use cast nets to gather these baitfish, anglers cast tiny crappie jigs into the moving water from the release area in an effort to catch bait one at a time. Once a skipjack is caught on hook and line, it is quickly transferred to a heavy striper rod equipped with 30- to 40-pound-test monofilament line with just a hook tied to the end. Popular hook choices are the Gamakatsu Circle hook in size 10/0 or an Owner Octopus hook in size 8/0.
The skipjack is free-lined back into the current and allowed to make its own course behind the boat. Anglers are then kept busy, tending to lines, sorting the free lines and catching fresh bait by hook. When a hookup is made, there is no question about the bite -- it takes a big striper to eat baits this big, and when a 30-pound striper decides to kill and eat a 12- to 16-inch herring, he hammers it. Because of the popularity and small size of the Gallatin Discharge, boater and angler courtesy are at a premium. Early morning and late in the day are the best times with the least crowds. Weekends, not surprisingly, see the highest angler traffic.
Access to the Gallatin Steam Plant is directly across the lake from the discharge at the Cherokee Boat Dock and Resort, or under the Hwy. 109 bridge at the Martha Gallatin Recreation Area.
Fishing pressure on Old Hickory is probably highest of the three lakes featured in this article. One factor having a bearing on the fishing on Old Hickory is the dam restructuring taking place on Lake Cumberland's Wolf Creek Dam. Cumberland levels have been dropped to 80 feet in order to rework the dam to meet new earthquake tolerance standards. Because of the decreased level in Cumberland, water discharges to downstream reservoirs Cordell Hull and Old Hickory have been reduced.
Typically, low water conditions are a bonus to anglers in the short run, especially in the winter months when fish and bait have less lake to move around in. Confined bass and bait tend to lead to an increase in fishing success. Long-range effects of low water conditions, however, are generally not as beneficial and can even be detrimental through the hot summer months when cool water refuge is reduced.
It's not the summer yet, though, so cast off the winter doldrums and grab a bucket of shiners on the way to the lake and get set for some midwinter hot striper action on lakes Percy Priest, Tim's Ford and Old Hickory.