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Tennessee's Two Best Striper Fisheries

Tennessee's Two Best Striper Fisheries

The Clinch and Cumberland river systems have perhaps the best freshwater trophy-striper fisheries in the world. A world record could come from these waters any time.

by Etta Petijohn

When striper angler Ralph Dallas netted a new 65-pound, 6-ounce state-record striper from Cordell Hull Lake in April 2000, not many of the state's striper anglers were surprised. While Dallas fishes exclusively for trophy fish, those who like a lot of striped bass action know that the Cumberland and Clinch rivers are among the best in the country and are known for consistently producing big fish.

Dallas' state record is just 2 pounds, 2 ounces shy of the current world record for striped bass, which came from a California reservoir. It topped another state-record striper Dallas caught in 1997 from the Cumberland River system. That striper weighed 62 pounds.

In 1998, Knoxville resident Willis Marsh pulled a then-state-record 63.12-pound rockfish from Melton Hill Lake in East Tennessee, and in 1988, Gary Helms set a former world record for landlocked stripers, 60 pounds, while fishing at the Bull Run Steam Plant in Melton Hill reservoir, an impoundment of the Clinch River. Over the years, the Clinch River has yielded five state records.

Dallas is determined to catch the next world record and has a better chance than anyone. In early April 2001, while fishing Cordell Hull Lake 20 miles from the dam, one of his clients hooked onto a fish that, if boated, would have been a new world record. The fish broke the line, and one week later Dallas found it a few hundred yards from where it was hooked, hook and line still intact. A taxidermist, Dallas mounted the fish, which he said exceeds 70 pounds. The fish is 50 inches long and has a 38-inch girth.

A full-time fishing guide, Dallas has spent a lot of time on Cordell Hull and Old Hickory lakes, and this isn't the only time he has fought with, and lost, a new world record. They are in these areas, and in the spring, anglers from across the nation come in search of a world-record striped bass.

Photo by Jeff Samsel

Striped bass weighing more than 20 pounds are routinely caught from the Cumberland and the Clinch River systems, and 40-pounders are not strikingly rare anymore from Old Hickory and Cordell Hull lakes, which are both Cumberland River impoundments.


Both the Clinch and the Cumberland river systems not only yield big fish but also produce a lot of action for those anglers who enjoy tangling with these muscled fighters. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) stocks, on average, about five stripers per acre in these fisheries. That stocking, combined with perfect water conditions, has created one of the top striper fishing destinations in the country.

"We see more people every year coming to fish Old Hickory and Cordell Hull," said Tim Churchill, TWRA reservoir biologist. "Striper anglers are among the most mobile, and they will drive from other states to get to trophy fish. In addition, the Internet has spread the word about the quality of fishing we enjoy on these fisheries, and with it comes the out-of-state revenue.

"There is absolutely no doubt that Cordell Hull and Old Hickory lakes are the best striper fisheries in the United States," said Churchill.

Churchill said TWRA's creel surveys for the year 2000 indicate that striper anglers account for $467,000 in expenditures on Old Hickory Lake alone.

The stripers are produced at the TWRA hatcheries, and according to Churchill, the state had a bumper crop of stripers last year, and they were able to stock more fish than normal. Churchill said stripers can reach sizes of 10 pounds and above in three to four years because they can allocate a lot of energy from food to growth.

For evidence of Churchill's claim that these Cumberland River impoundments are the nation's best, one only needs to look at two of the top fishing guides on Cordell Hull and Old Hickory: Ralph Dallas (615/824-5792) and Jim Duckworth, owner of Jim Duckworth Fishing Adventures (phone: 615/444-228; Web site: Dallas, who fishes only for trophy stripers, has caught 214 stripers that weighed 40 pounds or more since 1995, and last year he netted 14 fish that exceeded 60 pounds.

Duckworth guides for several different species, so he doesn't fish as much for stripers as Dallas does. Nonetheless, last year alone his clients boated two fish that weighed more than 50 pounds and 22 fish that exceeded 40 pounds.

Depending on the time of year, water temperatures, etc., Duckworth will fish near the Gallatin Steam Plant located on Old Hickory, or he will fish beneath the dam in the tailwaters. He says that when he is fishing below the dam the average size of his catches are 20 pounds, but there is always the possibility of hooking one that weighs more than 50 pounds.

Duckworth uses 20- to 21-inch skipjack, or yellowtails (a gizzard shad), whichever he can catch, on balloon rigs, and he floats three miles downstream from the dam. He places two of his lines on a 2-ounce downline at 10 feet, and this keeps the bait tight to the bottom and places the balloon on the main line just above the swivel, and (with a 5-foot leader) he fishes this just below the surface. He uses 30-pound-test line on the leaders and 40-pound line on the main reel. He also uses baitcasting reels and 7 1/2-foot heavy-action rods.

Fish mortality is a serious problem when Duckworth is fishing for rockfish with live bait, so he uses only 5/0 circle hooks. When the fish strike, these hooks turn and automatically hook the fish in the corner of the mouth, preventing injuries caused by swallowing the hook.

"Nine times out of 10, these hooks don't hurt the fish, and they can be released so others can catch it later," he said.

Striper fishing is good beneath Old Hickory year 'round when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers steam plant is generating.

Likewise, the Gallatin Steam Plant offers good fishing in May because the warmwater discharges into the river draw baitfish, and in turn all the other fish that eat them. Since he is after the biggest fish, Dallas catches his bait around the steam plant. The shad he uses are 1 1/2- to 2-pound skipjacks, when he can get them (they are also difficult to keep alive) and gizzard shad. His preferred bait sizes are 15 to 20 inches long. Dallas catches skipjacks this size at the Gallatin Steam Plant on Old Hickory, and then he drives to the Granville area and launches at the Granville Boat Dock on Cordell Hull. He fishes a wide range of areas on this reservoir.

He also uses a saltwater b

oat, which he says has the best bait tank, and heavy-action rods designed for saltwater fishing. His hook of choice is the 8/0 steel, which he said is strong. This heavy rig is matched by big-game line: 130-pound-test is what he trusts to get the big fish to the boat.

"Guys come fish here from the first of April until the end of May because that is the best time to catch these big fish," said Dallas. "We're counting on catching a world record on this reservoir."

Old Hickory Lake is located in Smith, Trousdale, Wilson, Sumner and Davidson counties and is easily accessible from Nashville and I-40. A run-of-the-river lake, it is narrow for miles below Cordell Hull Dam, and then it widens as it nears Old Hickory Dam. The Cumberland River and a number of smaller tributaries feed the 22,500-acre reservoir.

Cordell Hull is located in Smith, Jackson, Putman and Clay counties. For Old Hickory and Cordell Hull launch ramp information, contact the Corps of Engineers at (615) 735-1034. Access their Web site at The Corps of Engineers has maps available that list all launch ramps, and the maps are free.

Like Ralph Dallas on Old Hickory and Cordell Hull, Ezell Cox is the name you hear most often when you mention trophy stripers on Clinch River impoundments. In 1998, fishing guide Cox (423/626-9547) boated 28 fish that weighed more than 40 pounds.

He fishes several areas of the Clinch River, but he advises those who are after big fish to concentrate on the Bull Run and Kingston steam plants. Bull Run is located at Oak Ridge, and the Kingston plant is in Kingston, with access right off of I-40 at the Kingston exit.

To access the Bull Run steam plant area from Oak Ridge take SH 62 to 170, which crosses the river at the steam plant and offers access to good bank-fishing there. Boat launches are located at several areas upstream from the plant.

Cox will catch skipjacks with a jig or a rig that holds several flies. Others use cast nets to catch these shad. These are easily found on shallow flats upstream from the steam plant. Another good place to catch these shad is in Bull Run Creek downstream from the discharge. He hooks them in the back with an 8/0 hook and places them on a baseball-sized balloon and tries to get them to swim along the bank at the edge of the warm water.

"A lot of shad can be found at these steam plants in May since the flow has not started on the river yet from discharges from upstream Norris Lake because the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) is still holding back water for the summer pool," said Cox.

"The water temperature will be in the 60s because of the plume created by the warmwater discharge," said Cox. "Shad spawn when temperatures reach 60 to 65 degrees."

According to Cox, the stripers will be pre-spawn and looking for current, which leads them into the big creek or the main-river system. They linger on shallow flats. He'll use planer boards to pull the bait over these flats without putting the boat there. Big stripers spook easily, and one must never run a boat over a feeding area, he said.

He fishes only for trophies near these steam plants and uses 2-pound or 20- to 24-inch skipjack. These shad are long and tube-shaped, and they have a lively, frantic movement. Cox also uses baitcasting reels spooled with 30-pound-test line. His rods are "fairly limber downrigger rods, 8 1/2- to 9-feet, heavy action." His hook size is related to the line.

"I think having flex in the rods prevents having to fish with heavy line," he said. "I usually fish with line from 17- to 20-pound-test, and 30-pound-test is the absolute largest I use."

He stresses that the water temperature is usually below 65 degrees elsewhere on the river during May, so the steam plant areas are some of the best this time of year. However, when the water temperatures in the main body of the river reach 70 degrees, the big fish will migrate upstream to cooler water near the tailrace. Any water above 70 degrees exceeds their comfort zone. They move often and can migrate up to 50 miles a day.

Allen Franklin (1-865-545-9913), another guide who fishes the Clinch River, shares tips for fishing the tailwaters below Melton Hill Dam, another hotspot for striped bass. He has caught nine fish that weighed more than 30 pounds here since Jan. 1, 2001.

Franklin said he fishes the steam plants from the beginning of winter through February, and then he switches to the tailwaters beginning in March. He prefers gizzard shad (also known as yellowtails) about 4 to 6 inches long.

Fishing beneath Melton Hill Dam during generation is very productive for a mixed bag of species. Franklin fishes both with a boat and from the bank, which is popular among anglers here. One never knows what size or species of fish they will hook, and it makes for some exciting fishing.

He prefers 7 1/2-inch heavy-action rods complemented with reels spooled with 20-pound-test line. He said he keeps the drag tight so he can get the fish in quickly and release it quickly, and he uses no nets to boat one.

Franklin uses the same techniques as other anglers who fish the tailwaters of the reservoirs in the state. If fishing from a boat, he casts the bait at the boils beneath the dam, and then he drifts backward a few miles. He has also stood on the bank fishing live bait or artificials and enjoyed some nonstop action.

The Clinch River and its dams and reservoirs are a part of the Tennessee Valley Authority system. For additional information on these areas and a listing of launch sites and/or nearby facilities, contact TVA at 1-800-238-2264. Their Web site address is Maps of TVA lakes are available at the TVA Map Store, 1101 Market St., Chattanooga, TN 37402-2801; or call 1-800-627-7882.

Anglers must keep in mind that it is always best to wear a personal flotation device when a boat is moving, but this is particularly important when they are fishing below a dam. Also, it is imperative they have a knife near their anchor and handy in case they are fishing such an area and the Corps of Engineers or TVA turns on another turbine. The sudden surges in water volume and force are powerful enough to flip a boat, and it often leads to drownings in the swift, churning water.

What is a trophy to one angler is sometimes not considered worth pursuing by another. When I battled a 16-pound striped bass in the swift water below Melton Hill Dam, I had the most memorable experience fishing that I've had to this day. That is my trophy striped bass. And a full day of catching 10- to 20-pound fighting rockfish on nearly every cast is the thing dreams are made of.

Many anglers dream of catching a state or world record, and that could become a reality on the Cumberland or Clinch river systems. So, whether you're looking for a record fish or a memorable day fishing in some of the best waters in the world, you must fish these bodie

s of water at some point.

Some reservoirs in California and Arizona produce 60-pound stripers once every few years, and some have produced one or two in a year. While these garner a lot of headlines, every cast in a Clinch or Cumberland river tailwater or reservoir has the potential to produce such a fish.

And that is why biologists say without reservation the Cumberland system is the best in the world for producing stripers, and the Clinch has, at times, proven it can do the same.

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