October 04, 2010
It's trophy striper season on these two Tennessee lakes. If you go, you might end up celebrating the new year with a visit to the taxidermist. Here's how to get in on the action.
When it comes to seasonal patterns, striped bass are unusual fish. This is primarily due to the striper's fondness of cold water. Unlike sunfish species such as bass, crappie and bream, a striped bass' metabolism ramps up as the weather and water cools off. Often relegated to only the deepest waters of a reservoir during the warm months, stripers get full run of a lake when water temperatures fall in the winter and become uniform within a lake. Dissolved oxygen levels are at their highest during cold weather due to a lack of micro-biological activity and because cooler water holds more oxygen. This renewed level of activity makes cold weather a great time to get on the water and find trophy striped bass willing to bite.
Micah Brown from Tullahoma understands what cool weather means to striped bass fishing. Brown was a full-time striped bass guide in Kentucky five years ago, where he operated the largest striper guide service in the country, overseeing and operating six boats per day, resulting in over 1,400 charters per year. Brown was also a leading contender on the National Striped Bass Association tournament trail, finishing in the top 10 every year he fished the trail. After moving to Tennessee, the guide was featured in the Outdoor Channel's television show "Striper Bound" in 2005 while working as a full-time youth pastor in Tullahoma. Currently, Brown continues his pastoral duties and operates Tennessee Trophy Guide Service, as well as partnering in a striped bass oriented tackle shop. Brown takes Tennessee Sportsman readers on a tour of his two top picks for wintertime striper fishing in the Volunteer State.
Cherokee Lake is one of the oldest of the TVA lakes. The lake spans a total of 30,300 acres within its 59-mile length. Its 463 miles of shoreline touch Hawkins, Hamblen, Jefferson and Grainger counties. Cherokee contains what biologists refer to as a "large biomass," meaning the lake has a great carrying capacity for forage fish -- primarily threadfin shad, gizzard shad and alewives -- which support rapid growth and large overall sizes for striped bass.
When targeting Cherokee stripers during the winter, Brown said he will travel as far up the Holsten River as he can get.
"I want to be as far away from the dam as I can get," he said. "You can go way up the river and find water that's as shallow as 8 to 12 feet deep. That's where I'm going to go pull planer boards."
Brown will get into the headwaters at the upper part of the lake and put out three planer boards on either side of his boat. His bait of choice for this tactic is to use a 12- to 15-inch gizzard shad. Brown hooks the shad in the nose with a No. 5 treble hook. Since the only stripers that can handle that size bait are fish in the 20- to 25-pound range, he spools his 7-foot medium-heavy rods with 65-pound braided line.
"Trying to find these fish on the graph is probably not likely," said Brown. "The water is very shallow and the fish won't stand much boat traffic. It's best to seek out likely looking spots and just put your time in fishing these areas until you come across a good fish."
Brown targets the inside bends of the Holsten River to find big stripers waiting to ambush forage fish -- most often, big gizzard shad like the ones Brown uses for bait. Starting at Anderson Bend and working his way up toward the H.B. Day Bridge south of Henardtown, Brown wants to move his baits across the tops of the shoals and set them up to be eaten by big stripers that are lying 15 to 20 feet off the bank. Brown's best access to this area is the ramp at the Cherokee Dock area on Hwy. 11W just above Galbraith.
"Bait is the key," he said. "You can usually find big gizzard shad along muddy banks back in the lake at Cherokee. The best thing to do is go out a couple of hours before daylight and get way back in the backs of a creek or cove and cast net for gizzards. They like water that is less than 8 feet deep, so look for the shallowest, muddy bank you can find so you can load your bait tank with big gizzards."
If anglers are more interested in catching numbers of fish than hunting for that trophy, Brown suggests that they concentrate their efforts on the area where the Holston River comes back into the main lake around mile markers 15 to 18. He said that those fish are typically smaller, schooling fish that congregate around the mouths of creeks and coves. These fish are a mixture of striped bass and their hatchery-made cousin, the hybrid striped bass.
"There are a lot of 6- to 10-pound stripers and a load of hybrids around the mouths of creeks near the Hwy. 25 East bridge crossing," Brown said. "The way to catch those fish is a little different than what we do up the river."
The Tennessee guide also uses planer boards to catch schooling fish, but rather than employing free lines, he adds a 1-ounce weight to get the bait down to the fish. He also downsizes his baits, preferring small gizzard shad or store-bought shiners in the 3- to 4-inch variety.
"The best way to locate stripers back in the lake is to mark bait in the mouths of the creeks," said Brown. "Then set your bait from 5 to 10 feet below the bait. If you don't get bit, move mouth to mouth until willing stripers are located."
Hamblen County Park near the south end of the Hwy. 25 bridge provides the best boat access to this area.
Brown's first choice for wintertime trophy striper fishing is second on his list. Tims Ford is an impoundment of the Elk River and encompasses 10,700 acres between Lynchburg and Winchester. From mid-December until mid-March, Brown concentrates all of his striped bass efforts on a relatively small section of the lake.
Cherokee Lake is one of the oldest of the TVA lakes. The lake spans a total of 30,300 acres within its 59-mile length.
"From the dam at Woods Reservoir down to mile marker 25 is one of the most phenomenal striper areas in the state," Brown said. "All you need to do is find the right spot and be there at the right time."
Accessing this area is easiest from the Rock Creek public boat ramp near Hwy. 41A. Turn on Rock Creek Road in Decherd and make the first left to get to the ramp. This ramp will put anglers right in the middle of the prime fishing area.
The headwaters of Tims Ford are more river than lake and Brown said trophy stripers split their time between raiding shallow waters and holding in the main channel. Like his favorite tactic at Cherokee, Brown will be towing fillet-able-sized gizzard shad behind a large Offshore planer boa
rd with a No. 5 treble hook stuck in its nose. He accesses two factors that determine how and where he'll fish the nearly four miles of trophy striper water at the head of Tims Ford.
"Good bait is my number one focus," the guide stated. "If you put good bait at the right depth, you will catch big fish."
Brown thinks so highly of having good bait that he and a partner have begun offering large gizzard shad for sale at their newly opened shop, The Shad Shack. Otherwise, anglers can catch bait in either Woods Reservoir or make a foray north to Old Hickory Lake.
Brown has a compelling philosophy concerning "where" fish will be located and choose to feed based on a combination of barometer, water temperatures, and moon phase. He views barometric pressure as "the flu," indicating that low or falling barometer makes fish feel miserable and pushes them into deeper water in the channel. Conversely, high or rising pressure puts fish in a feeding pattern where they are more likely to be found shallow on the inside bends of the river and shoals.
Water temperatures above 55 degrees are more conducive to shallow feeding as well, while temperatures below this level send fish deep to more suitable temperatures to maintain their metabolism.
The final piece of the puzzle is moon phase. The guide states that the moon phase provides nighttime light under which stripers feed. During the full moon, stripers feed most of the night and become less interested in feeding right at daylight, preferring feeding patterns on up in the day. A dark moon means the bite will be at first light and last for several hours through the morning. The timing and duration of early morning feeding during waxing or waning moon phases follow the amount of light available at night, which may or may not sustain stripers through the day.
Brown sums up the moon phase by indicating "the fuller the moon, the more stripers feed at night and the later in the day the bite returns."
For more information about trophy striper fishing with Tennessee trophy striped bass guide Micah Brown, contact him by email at micah @graceintullahoma.com or phone him at the Shad Shack at (931) 247-5014.