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Tennessee Winter Striper Madness

Tennessee Winter Striper Madness

Want to have some fishing fun this winter? If so, give eastern Tennessee stripers and Cherokee bass a try. Our experts will tell you where and how.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Ed Harp

Striper and hybrid striper fishing in eastern Tennessee continues to get better and better. And there's no better season to give it a try than late winter. The weather may be a little cold, but the fish are schooled up, active and looking for an easy meal.

Eastern Tennessee has some fine striper and hybrid striper waters. The first one that comes to mind is Norris Reservoir. Long considered one of the best trophy striper fisheries in the region, this massive reservoir has fallen on hard times. A severe fish kill in 2003 destroyed most of the truly big stripers, those over 30 pounds.

According to Doug Peterson, TWRA Fisheries Management biologist for Region IV, the kill was caused by Mother Nature. Unusually heavy rains pushed massive quantities of water into the reservoir. That, in turn, triggered oxygen depletion in the cooler waters. As the trophy stripers were forced up, toward more oxygen, the warmer temperatures killed them.

Despite what many anglers have heard on the docks, copepods or gill maggots as they are sometimes called, had nothing to do with the kill. Peterson admits that some fish are infested with them. He further admits they are unsightly, but remains firm in his opinion that they do not kill the stripers.

As strange as it may sound, that's good news. The oxygen problem was temporary and corrected itself quickly. It may have been hard on trophy stripers, but it's over. The little ones will soon grow into big ones. Copepod fatalities would have been a very different problem. One not so easily corrected by Mother Nature.

Despite the kill, Norris is doing just fine. There are plenty of smaller stripers and they are growing fast. Norris's 30,000-plus acres of water and more than 800 miles of shoreline still offer Tennessee anglers an excellent opportunity for some striper fishing.


Peterson reports that the number of fish weighing around 15 pounds is excellent. They will continue to grow and, due to regular stocking, there should be plenty of stripers coming along. More than 100,000 striped bass have been released in Norris each year since 1999. Release locations include Flat Hollow Ramp, Beech Island Ramp, Cove Creek Ramp, Anderson County Park and Black Fox Ramp.

One reason for their excellent growth rate is the substantial forage base in the reservoir. Norris supports a heavy shad population that provides food for the stripers year 'round. They do not want for something to eat. (Despite what some anglers may think, stripers do not feed on other game fish, most notably black bass. They eat shad just like the other predators in the water.)

Winter gill netting in 2004 supports Peterson's optimism for the future of striped bass fishing in Norris. The TWRA reports good numbers of stripers up to 27 inches. With another year to grow and put on weight, 2005 should see a marked increase in size.

Longtime Volunteer angler and professional striper guide Aaron Jenkins (865/828-5495) agrees. He reports that despite the 2003 loss of big fish in Norris the fishery remains one of the better venues for numbers.

"Sometimes, especially if the water is real cold, they can be a little tough to find, but they are there, no doubt about it," he said.

He recommends that rather than look for the stripers themselves, anglers should focus on locating baitfish. According to Jenkins, once the angler finds baitfish, he can safely assume the stripers are in the neighborhood.

He reports that, under most conditions, the stripers will be hanging below the schools of shad that inhabit the lake. The stripers are looking for an easy meal as the dying shad sink down into their watery grave.

"Once you find the shad, it's just a matter of getting the deeper stripers to bite . . . you know they are there," Jenkins said.

Jenkins suggests anglers begin searching for the baitfish around creek mouths and in the shallower coves that are common on this reservoir. He points out that the water in the creeks and the coves, especially along the north shore, will be a few degrees warmer than the main lake. "That's all it takes to attract them (baitfish)," he said.

Experience has taught Jenkins that the weather has a lot to do with where you will find the shad. On days with high, bluebird skies, the shad tend to hold deep. When the air is heavy and the sky overcast, however, look for them shallow.

Favored locations for winter stripers will be around inflowing creeks, areas with run-off and in shallow coves with deep, steep-sided, well-defined channels that lead out into the main lake. Combine these areas with shad and you will quickly be in business. Cove Creek and the area around Anderson County Park are especially popular with local anglers.

Jenkins encourages anglers to troll live bait, most times a locally caught 2-inch shad, below the forage schools with either planer boards or free lines. "I try to run a couple of lines a few inches below the school and a couple of lines 2 or 3 feet below that," he said.

Norris is located just south of La Follette and north of Knoxville. It is easily accessible from the north or south from 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 offer quick and easy boating access to the lake.

It is a flood control reservoir. Water level fluctuations of 45 feet or more are common throughout the year. Norris is extremely treacherous when the water is low, usually in January, so boat with care.

While Jenkins finds Norris to be a fine fishery, his favorite waters are farther east.

"Cherokee Reservoir is a spectacular fishery . . . full of stripers and hybrids . . . there aren't any hybrids in Norris," the Tennessee guide said.

Jenkins points out that hybrid - Cherokee bass - fishing in East Tennessee is "exploding." He reports average hybrids running between 5 and 8 pounds with an occasional trophy in the 11- to 13-pound class.

He goes on to point out that Cherokees are beginning to swim in big schools in the reservoir. Catches of 150 fish a day are possible.

"You can catch them until your arms feel like they are going to fall off," h

e said.

Jenkins' enthusiasm is well placed; his description is not an exaggeration. Cherokee Reservoir's fertile waters hold some awesome fish. Its 30,000 surface acres and nearly 400 miles of shoreline offer some of the best striper and Cherokee bass fishing in the nation.

That's due in large measure to the efforts of the TWRA. In 2003 alone, over 50,000 hybrid stripers and over 100,000 true stripers were stocked. Over the last four years, 300,000 hybrids have been stocked and nearly half a million stripers. That is a lot of fish.

Like Norris, Cherokee's stocking program has been largely successful. And, like Norris, the forage base is a large part of that success. It's full of threadfin shad, gizzard shad and alewives. While all are important, the alewife population is especially noteworthy to striper anglers.

Alewives like cold water. Unlike threadfins and gizzard shad they thrive in it. This allows the stripers and hybrid stripers to stay down in the cold, highly oxygenated waters and still feed. That's important for survival and growth.

Jenkins begins his search for quality fish on Cherokee near the middle of the lake. His favorite stomping grounds are between Point Nine and Point 27. He is searching for warm water.

In most years, the main-lake water temperature in late winter will be anywhere between 45 and 50 degrees. He looks for water a little bit warmer than that. It doesn't have to be much warmer, mind you, just a little bit.

According to Jenkins, the warmest water will be in the creeks. "Sometimes it will go as high as 58 or even 60 degrees," he said. He goes on to remind anglers that this warmer water flows out of the creek toward the main lake or into a cove. When it arrives, it holds big schools of shad.

The very best spots combine warm water with an area where the channel swings in near a point or a creek mouth.

And, just like on Norris, the stripers and hybrid stripers will not be far away. As a practical matter, Jenkins sees very little difference between stripers and hybrid stripers in Cherokee. They are both found near baitfish.

He uses his electronics constantly, but rarely worries about spotting game fish on them. He looks for bait.

"If the shad are there, the stripers will be there," he said. He does admit, however, that if stripers can be graphed, it makes for an advantage. "It lets you target the most shallow ones . . . they are the most active and the easiest to get to bite, at least on Cherokee."

Once he has a good 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 may appear random to a novice, but that would be far from the truth. He works the school in a very methodical manner. His baits will run through the school, above the school and beneath the school. He presents them from at least three or four different directions.

He also varies his speed. "A lot of anglers don't consider speed when they are fishing . . . they should . . . it can be the thing that triggers a bite," Jenkins said.

While doing all this he tries to follow a "loose" S pattern with his boat. By that, he means trolling around the tip of a point, down along the creek mouth or channel and then back out and around the next point.

Jenkins is not an advocate for heavy tackle. He uses the lightest equipment he can get away with for the prevailing conditions. His personal equipment is an Ambassadeur 6500 casting reel mounted on a 7-foot medium-heavy-action rod. He spools his reel with 15-pound-test monofilament line.

This setup is not heavy enough to adversely affect the bite. At the same time, it will handle anything Cherokee has to offer.

He uses live shad for bait. Not surprisingly, his preference is for the little ones. Two inches is as big as he'll go. His reasoning is simple: Most of the bait at this time of year is small, so why give them something that looks different than what they are used to seeing?

Jenkins is a strong believer in circle hooks. He points out that they rarely gut-hook a fish. That means more survive to be caught another day. Another important advantage is that they don't require a hookset. Slow, steady pressure gets the job done. "The hook basically sets itself when trolling with live bait. They're perfect, especially for novice clients," he said.

Every now and then when he is on fish, Jenkins will cast rather than troll. When he does this, it's almost always for Cherokees and when the bite is hot. During those times, he may abandon live bait in favor of soft plastics, usually a minnow imitation jerkbait. His preference is for natural colors.

He uses just enough weight to force his lure down through the baitfish. If that doesn't provoke a strike, he twitches his lure back to the boat. He will vary the length of the twitches, the pauses between the twitches and the speed of his twitches until he finds a combination that works. Jenkins rigs his jerkbaits through the nose with circle hooks. They offer the same advantages with plastics that they offer with live bait.

When asked to give us another tip he laughed and said, "Watch the gulls! They will almost always mark feeding fish and are an interesting example of Mother Nature in action," he continued.

It works this way: The flock will send out a scout bird to cruise the water and look for feeding stripers or Cherokee bass forcing baitfish to the surface. This scout bird will fly in ever larger circles until it spots something.

At that point the bird will start calling and squawking like crazy in a language only fellow gulls understand. After a very short time, the area will be loaded with them. They will swoop down on the water, diving and eating crippled baitfish as if there's no tomorrow.

If you see this going on, head for that spot as quickly as possible. Don't run up on it, just up to it. After that, cast a white bucktail, a plastic jerkbait or a bladebait into the school and hang on.

Stripers in Cherokee will weigh 30 pounds on a regular basis; 40-pound fish are possible. (Some much bigger ones have been reported, but can't be verified.)

Cherokee Reservoir 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.

Drawdowns of 50 feet or more are common at Cherokee during the winter months. This tends to concentrate the fish and opens up some shore-fishing opportunities. It also makes for dangerous boating.

Melton Hill Reservoir is located downstream from Norris on the Clinch River. It doesn't support the numbers of either Norris or Cherokee. It offers excellent winter striper fishing nonetheless.

This is a true trophy reservoir. It has produced several record stripers over the years. At least two weighing over 60 pounds have been verified in the last several years.

Melton Hill fishes much like Norris and Cherokee. Find the warmest water you can. Then work the points, creek mouths and run-off areas for baitfish. After that, troll or cast small shad or plastic jerkbaits through the baitfish or just a little bit under them.

Cherokee bass are present with good size, but their numbers are somewhat limited. Their habits and habitat are similar to that of true stripers. Generally speaking, where you find one you will find the other. Anglers should fish for them in the same places, with the same bait, using the same techniques - if you're going for lots of numbers. If you are hunting the biggest stripers, use bigger baits.

This 5,600-acre reservoir is located near Oak Ridge. Several major highways provide excellent access to its waters. Launch ramps are few and far between, however, due to much of the shoreline being owned by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Instead of staying home and watching a ball game this winter, give eastern Tennessee stripers and Cherokee bass a try this winter. You'll be glad you did.

* * *

Maps of all these reservoirs can be ordered from the TWRA at (800) 627-7882

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