When dams pull water at Watts Bar, Melton Hill and Old Hickory, the dinner bell rings for huge rockfish. (May 2010)
Harry Newton used a live alewife to land this Fort Loudin Dam tailrace striper.
Photo by Craig Holt.
Harry Newton of Mint Hill, N.C., had a death grip on a console support of Bo Rice's 20-foot-long aluminum Polarcraft striper boat.
The retired railroad worker apprehensively watched the roiling waters pouring from the bottom of Fort Loudon Dam and tried to keep his footing as Rice expertly guided his fishing platform through standing waves created by the fast-moving flow.
"This looks a little rough," said Newton, a retired, 62-year-old former railroad worker.
Rice, owner of Team Direct Current Fishing Guide Service, smiled at his client.
"This is how you fish for stripers at a tail race," he said. "You'll get used to it, and you'll forget about the bouncing when you hook into a big striper."
And during the next few hours, Newton and Charlotte, N.C., retiree and friend, Ken Allred, caught and landed multiple big fish while riding a tail-water roller coaster.
Rice made his first trip to east Tennessee's lakes 20 years ago. He immediately became hooked on striped-bass fishing and now lives eight months a year at a campground near Lenoir City where he's near the southeast's best trophy striper waters at Watts Bar, Melton Hill and Old Hickory lakes.
East Tennessee's dams and locks at major rivers, such as the Tennessee and Cumberland, create tremendous tailrace fisheries for stripers. When the dams generate power, water flow pulls baitfish (alewives, herring, gizzard and threadfin shad) through gates and turbines. The influx of baitfish and cold waterrings the dinner bell for huge rockfish.
"It's not just baitfish the stripers like, it's water temperature that attracts them in summer," Rice said. "Stripers don't like warm water."
"The good thing about tailrace fishing is you can catch fish just about every month. But the time for the biggest fish is during the spawn -- March, April and May -- and postpawn (June). Stripers go toward moving water during the spawn, which means the tail races. After the spawn, they'll hang around to feed, then go down river a few miles. When summer gets here (July, August, September), they'll be back at the (dams) for cool water and baitfish."
During a half-day of fishing with Rice, Allred and Newton caught and released more than two dozen stripers, ranging in sizes from 15 inches (minimum keeper size) to 40 pounds, along with some channel catfish that went into a fish box.
Creel regulations for rockfish vary seasonally at Watts Bar. Anglers may keep two fish per day of at least 15 inches in length from April through October. But caught stripers (also two daily) must measure at least 36 inches to be retained from November through March.
"The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency had a good idea when it allowed people to keep smaller fish (at Watts Bar) during the hotter months," Rice said. "But in winter, trophy fish are protected when the water's cooler; when you release 'em, they'll survive."
Many Tennessee lakes (including Old Hickory) have a 15-inch, two-fish regulation. Melton Hill anglers can keep two stripers, but none between 32 and 42 inches long. They may keep one longer than 42 inches (plus one less than 32 inches).
Rice's biggest striper (49 pounds) was caught last spring at the Fort Loudon Dam tail race.
"We caught at least one striper over 40 pounds here every day from March to May," he said.
But some of his biggest fish aren't always tail-race stripers.
"The upper one-third of Watts Bar has stripers almost the entire year," said Rice, who has been guiding at east Tennessee lakes since 2003. "It's because of the baitfish mostly. It's like that at every Tennessee tailrace striper fishery."
The stripers gathering at the tailrace fishery attract anglers.
Not only did a variety of boats, including a 28-footer that'd be comfortable on the ocean, gather at Fort Loudon Dam's tail race, but anglers in small craft, even 17-foot john boats, were ready for a chance to land a magnum fish. It's a situation ripe for confusion, crossed lines and banged hulls, but cooperation usually rules.
"Most guys know what to do," Rice said.
Essentially, boaters create a merry-go-round, lining up to take a turn at dropping lures or baitfish in front of stripers lurking in the bubbling, bouncing waters, fishing the edges of the strongest current where stripers lie in wait. As soon as a boat gets to the front of the line and anglers drop lures or baits to the bottom, the captain kicks his engine into neutral and starts a drift downstream. Then the next boatload of anglers jumps into the just-vacated spot a dozen yards from the open gate at the dam's bottom and begins its drift.
Once the current slows about 400 yards downstream (and fish have been landed), captains kick throttles in gear, and their boats head north to re-take their place in the striper-catching conga line.
However, the technique for catching stripers in fast-moving tail-race water isn't as simple as it appears. Anglers need a discerning hand with tackle.
Rice prefers 6 1/2-foot-long medium- to medium-heavy Shakespeare Ugly Sticks. These are rigged with 20-pound-test Ande line spooled onto Ambassadeur 6600 C4 bait-casters.
"I use from 1- to 3-ounce (lead) barrel weights on Carolina rigs, depending on the current (strength), with 18 inches of leader and a (Wright-McGill Eagle Claw 4/0) circle hook," Rice said. "The idea is to let your line out at a 45-degree angle, then keep contact with the bottom while trying to avoid hangups."
For live bait, Rice said alewives and blueback herring outfish gizzard shad 10-to-1.
"During the spawn, though, you can use cut bait," he said.
The rock-covered bottom causes some hang-ups, but barrel weights usually can be shaken free.
Early each morning, before the TVA opens the turbines, some water moves through the gates, and Rice's clients may choose to cast artificial plugs, such as Redfins o
r shallow-diving Rapalas. Stripers often boil at baitfish on the surface, indicating prime casting targets.
"Some people use 1 1/2- to 2-ounce bucktails," Rice said. "A 1-ounce (bucktail) is okay when the turbines aren't running. A 10-inch Fluke (gray back, white belly) with a split tail also is a good lure."
Fishing tailraces at the Fort Loudon Dam, Melton Hill Dam or Old Hickory (behind Cordell Hull Dam) doesn't require a boat (many tailraces have fishing areas for bank fishermen). Walkways down the sides of rip-rap banks provide access for anglers who can cast to stripers.
During water-release periods, they use surf rods to cast Carolina rigs or three-way rigs with 2- to 3-ounce lead weights to keep baitfish or cut bait on the bottom, intercepting stripers swimming against the current and toward the dam.
"I think Melton Hill has the best place to bank fish," Rice said. "It's got a big parking lot and a good path to the tailrace."
At Watts Bar, Melton Hill and Old Hickory lakes, Rice, 38, (Team Direct Current(www.teamdirectcurrent.com, 828-238-5269) also knows areas downstream from tail races that hold stripers, spots where he trolls live baits with planer boards.