October 04, 2010
When winter days are cold, the swift tailwater section below several Tennessee dams provide hot action for heavyweight striped bass.
By Jeff Samsel
"Heads or tails?" goes the question at the beginning of every Volunteer football game. Theoretically, either answer is as good as the other: you've got the same odds whether you pick heads or tails. But ask the same question prior to a Volunteer State striper fishing trip and the best answer is, "tails."
Much of the most finest striped bass fishing in Tennessee occurs in tailwater portions of rivers, immediately downstream of hydroelectric dams or powerhouses. Beyond being full of fish, tailwaters are generally easier to dissect, in terms of figuring out where the fish should be, than are the open waters of major reservoirs. Plus, they tend to be quite accessible, both by boat and from their banks.
Many anglers associate tailwater striper fishing only with the spring, when fish attempt spawning runs from reservoirs and end up piled up downstream of dams. In truth, though, tailwaters hold stripers year 'round because of current, rocks and ever-present baitfish. Also, compared to main-lake bodies, waters below dams tend to offer more stable temperatures, providing stripers thermal refuge both from the heat during mid-summer and the cold in midwinter.
In some senses, most tailwaters are very similar to one another. Fish feed in - or just out of - the current on usually abundant baitfish. Live bait, caught fresh from the outflow usually produces the best prospect, with lures that imitate the same types of baitfish being next best.
In other ways, however, every tailwater is unique. Dams on tributary streams create very different tailwaters than dams on massive flows like the Tennessee River. Beyond being distinctive from one another, any given tailwater changes dramatically in character based on power-generation schedules. Beneath small dams, it may be a simple matter of "on or off." Dozens of possible scenarios exist on larger tailwaters, which have numerous turbines and spillgates.
Tennessee has numerous great tailwater striper fisheries, and the best destination for any given angler may be the one closest to home. We've chosen some of the best of the best, however, to look at a little more closely.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
FORT LOUDOUN DAM The first dam on the main stem of the Tennessee River, Fort Loudoun Dam creates a first-rate tailwater for striper fishing. The tailwater is the head of Watts Bar Lake, long known for the striper fishing it serves up. Along with fish that move up out of the main lake at times, the tailwater carries a good striper population year 'round, according to Doug Peterson, an East Tennessee fisheries biologist of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
Bank-fishermen enjoy good access to the best striper waters in the Fort Loudoun tailwater. The turbines are at the north end of the dam, and bank access just below the dam is on the same side of the river. Assuming at least one of turbines is running, strong currents push along a steep riprap bank, and stripers hold close to the rocks and feed.
Getting to the water calls for a bit of walking and climbing from the parking area, but once anglers reach the water, they are in prime fishing country. Live threadfin shad and skipjack are the primary baits. Shad are almost always available. Skipjack are less available in the winter and can be tough to catch if the water is not running.
During low water, fishermen typically fish live shad on free lines or under floats, casting toward the dam structure or around visible rocks. During high water, the same shad or skipjack are usually put out on Carolina rigs or three-way rigs and bounced along the bottom. Fishermen lose a lot of terminal tackle this way, but they also catch a lot of stripers. Most fish are small to medium-sized, but these waters yield occasional giants.
Boating anglers often drift on the same side of the tailwater, but usually out of casting range from most bank-anglers. Some also anchor over rockpiles, where stripers stack up underneath. If all the turbines are turning, the best fishing is found on the open-river side edge of main current, around rockpiles and other obstructions, and along riprap banks all the way to the boat ramp, which sets just out of the current.
When the turbines aren't turning, even fishing from boats is more challenging. However, fish will sometimes take live bait fished under corks near the dam structure or shad-imitating artificial baits cast and worked slowly around rock and concrete. Beyond bucktails, big rubber-bodied jigs with paddle-shaped tails or curly tails account for a lot of stripers.
Access is on the north side of the river a few hundred yards downstream of the dam. The ramp is accessible just outside of Lenoir City.
MELTON HILL DAM Melton Hill Dam impounds the Clinch River, a major tributary of the Tennessee River. The Clinch joins the main river in the upper Watts Bar pool a dozen miles downstream of Melton Hill Dam. Like the Loudoun tailwater, Melton Hill gets big doses of Watts Bar fish at times, but the tailwater itself has plenty of its own stripers, which are always there.
Beyond yielding a good number of stripers, the Melton Hill tailwater produces some giant fish. Anglers commonly lay out 1 1/2- to 2-foot-long skipjack, waiting on that one big bite. Unlike most tailwater striper fishing, fishing in the Melton Hill tailwater is best when the water is off. Anglers put their big baits on free lines or hang them under corks, cast them out there and just let them swim.
On high water, live or cut shad can be fished on the bottom or bumped along just off the bottom. Because the tailwater is narrow, currents remain swift and steady for a couple of miles, spreading fish all along the rocky edges when the water is on. Boaters and bank-fishermen enjoy excellent access to both sides of the tailwater.
Several miles downstream of Melton Hill Dam, the Kingston Steam Plant creates another "hotspot" on the Clinch River. Although not quite part of the immediate tailwater, these waters are still significantly affected by water releases from Melton Hill Dam, and the winter opportunity is too good to not mention. Baitfish and stripers alike pile up in the warm waters in the basin the steam plant discharges into and in the big river bend that's immediately downstream.
WATTS BAR DAM Having picked up the flows of the Clinch, Powell and Little Tennessee rivers, along with numerous smaller tributaries, the Tennessee River is much bigger at Watts Bar Dam than it is at Fort Loudoun Dam. The dam st
ructure is imposing, with numerous turbines and floodgates. More often than not, one or more turbines are running, so anglers set their strategies based on which are on and which are off.
Because the turbines are on the west side of the dam and the best bank access is on the east side, shoreline anglers typically fish just far enough downstream from the dam that the current has spread to within casting distance of the bank. Using long surfcasting rods, they cast either live bait or big bucktails or spoons into the current line and work them downstream.
Boating anglers generally drift, running their boats almost to the dam and drifting downstream in the swift current. Again, big white bucktails or live gizzard or threadfin shad are the most popular offerings. Using three-way rigs pegged with 2- or 3-ounce bell sinkers, fishermen drift downstream with their lines pretty much straight below them. Prime areas to drift are "slots" between turbines that are on and turbines that are off.
Winter and spring bring an additional opportunity to tailwaters beneath large dams like Watts Bar. Major fronts that bring heavy rain and snow to the upper Tennessee River Valley sometimes cause the TVA to open some of the dam's floodgates, and veteran anglers contend that fishing is never better than when the gates are open. When the river is really rocking, current lines and rips become very well defined and extend several miles down the river. Under such conditions, however, the river is extra hazardous.
A large TVA access area includes a boat ramp, a long section of riprap banks for shoreline access and a big parking lot.
JOHN SEVIER DAM A detention dam, not a hydroelectric dam, John Sevier Dam backs up the waters of the Holston River to supply water for cooling operations at the John Sevier Steam Plant. That means that when the water is discharged back into the river, below the dam, it is warmed, creating a literal hotspot for baitfish and every manner of game fish.
Some water gets directed straight through the dam and therefore comes out the same temperature as the rest of the river. When the warm water is flowing, however, the fish pile in and act like it's a late-spring afternoon. Even between warmwater discharges, this section of river stays warmer than all surrounding waters. The fish just aren't quite as concentrated or active as they are during discharges.
The John Sevier tailwater forms the head of Cherokee Lake, which supports a big population of threadfin and gizzard shad and is heavily stocked with stripers. Cherokee doesn't produce many really large stripers, according to Doug Peterson, but the biologist says there are always plenty of decent-sized fish available for catching.
Because of the normal abundance of baitfish in the warm waters of the John Sevier outflow, fishermen have to virtually fish with live shad. Bucktails or spoons will produce a few stripers, and occasionally very active fish will smash topwater plugs. However, it's tough to beat a live shad drifted in the current or fished near the bottom on a three-way rig.
Tennessee Valley Authority operates a campground and access area at the steam plant, providing access for bank-fishing. There is also boating access just downstream of the dam.
APALACHIA POWERHOUSE Flyfishermen aren't alone in appreciating the thousands of trout that get stocked 12 months a year in the Hiwassee River downstream of the Apalachia Powerhouse. Striped bass from Chickamauga have learned that the buffet line never runs out of trout in these waters.
Apalachia Dam is actually in North Carolina, close to the Tennessee border. The bulk of the water run through the dam is diverted from the old river channel for several miles through the Apalachia Tunnel to the powerhouse, where it pours out and forms the tailwater. Prime striper waters, however, are six or seven miles farther downstream, near the U.S. Highway 441 crossing.
From a half mile or so upstream of the bridge all the way to the Hiwassee's confluence with the Ocoee, the river can be navigated in a johnboat or even a small aluminum bass boat. On low water, the boat may have to be dragged over some shoals. On high or low water, caution is critical.
The No. 1 bait, most anglers agree, is a fresh trout, and trout are usually easy to catch in the Hiwassee. Trout can be used as bait as long as they are legally caught and trout limits are followed. Depending on whether the water is running, trout can be free-lined, fished under corks, cast in bluff holes on Carolina rigs or drifted with on three-way rigs.
Big plugs V-waked across the surface will also draw big strikes from along rocky banks. Bucktails account for some stripers in shoals, but this primarily occurs a bit later in the year.
The best striper fishing, by far, takes place when at least one of the powerhouse's two turbines is turning, and the best bite often occurs right after the water comes up. The TVA often generates power in the afternoon on the Hiwassee. When this is the case, a good strategy is to arrive well before the water comes on, get some trout in the livewell, set up on a good-looking bluff hole and wait on the water and the best bite.
OLD HICKORY DAM The Cumberland River also yields some of Tennessee's best striped bass fishing (including the state-record striper), and one of the best spots on the whole river is just outside Nashville. The Old Hickory tailwater in Hendersonville yields more than its share of heavyweight stripers to anglers fishing in boats and from the banks.
Doug Markham, a TWRA public information officer in Middle Tennessee, has a special fondness for this particular spot, having pulled a 40-pound striper from its swift waters last summer; however, he notes that the Cordell Hill and Cheatham tailwaters, upstream and downstream, respectively, have similar offerings.
Markham says that access is good for boats or bank-fishing anglers and that water flows are pretty dependable below Old Hickory. There are actually bank-access areas on both sides of the river, but access on the north side has been closed since the Sept. 11 attacks. On the south side, there is a boat ramp and plenty of riprap for bank-fishing anglers to cast from.
Live bait is tough to beat, Markham said, with gizzard shad and skipjack being good bets. He likes skipjack best, but he noted that they could be difficult to get during the winter. Anglers can catch shad by throwing a cast net, especially in the vicinity of the boils or around various structures associated with the dam.
TAILWATER SAFETY Powerful currents, unpredictable waves, hidden obstacles, rough water, and fast-changing conditions (among other things) make tailwaters potentially dangerous any time of the year. Add water and air temperatures that are cold enough to bring on hypothermia quickly if someone ends up out of the boat, and it's easy to see that caution is absolutely essential.
Most tailwaters have marked zones that life jackets must be worn in, but it's really a good idea to keep a life jacket on at all times in the swift water this time of year. In fact, it's not a bad idea for shoreline anglers casting from riprap banks beside swift water to wear life jackets also.
In addition, many tailwaters have "no-boat" zones, which must be observed at all times. Beyond legal ramifications, these areas are off-limits for a reason. Waters within them often become dangerously turbulent in a hurry when dam operations change.
Where boats are permitted very close to the faces of dams, anglers must be aware that turbines can come on at any time, often without warning. No one should ever tie a boat to the face of a dam, and it's a good idea to keep an outboard running at all times.
Through all parts of a tailwater, anglers must be aware that rocks often lie just under the surface. It's also essential to stay alert for other boats, bridge pilings and other obstructions behind a drifting boat, which often is moving much faster than it seems to anglers in the boat.
BEFORE YOU GO The statewide combined limit for stripers and hybrids is two fish with a 15-inch minimum size. Anglers wanting to keep fish should also check fish-consumption advisories, however, as several apply to striped bass on various reservoirs. Tentative water-release schedules for all TVA dams are available by calling 1-800-238-2264.
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