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In Search of Trophy Tennessee Bass

trophy Tennessee bass
Volunteer State anglers can be spoiled by all of the great fishing the state has to offer. (Photo by Scott Bernarde)

Spring is one of the best times to target trophy bass. And luckily, the Volunteer State has a lot of areas where anglers can pursue those fish.

By Scott Carver

While cabin fever is reaching extreme zones in many areas, in Tennessee anglers are beginning to tinker with boats and tackle in preparation for another year pursuing bass. 

Whether fishing a TVA impoundment, a free-flowing river or even a creek almost small enough to jump across, there is something special about watching a bass blow up on a topwater plug, or feeling one inhaling a plastic worm. And Tennessee has many choices in which to pursue largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass. 

Of course, to understand what might happen in 2018, anglers have to look at what happened in previous years. Overall, 2016 and 2017, were a bit strange, particularly in east Tennessee. A record drought in 2016 certainly affected fish, followed by a record flood in the spring of 2017, just as largemouth were beginning the spawn.

In many cases, the long-range effects on the population is still to be determined, but the short-term effects were instantaneous, as bass anglers had to change tactics in order to be successful.

During the flood, many waters became unfishable just from a safety standpoint, which was frustrating for many anglers, as it occurred at what many consider the prime time to catch a trophy largemouth. Hopefully, 2018 will be void of such weather extremes. 

Go-To Spots in West Tennessee

In Region 1, Tennessee anglers automatically think of Kentucky and Barkley Lakes. Nationally known for its summertime ledge fishing, this lake system produces annually and has become a go-to spot for west Tennessee anglers.

"Recruitment in 2016 was low, and after excellent recruitment in the 21st century, recruitment has started to decline," said Michael Clark Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency biologist. "This should be expected since fish populations are cyclic, however, and recruitment has been fairly consistent for the past 10 years, so there will not be a noticeable decline in angler catch rates. With the less than acceptable recruitment the last two years, however, angler catch rate may decline in the future." 

Pickwick Lake has been in a similar situation, so anglers should expect short-term success, with a possible long-term dip in success. 

In regard to the drought in 2016, largemouth generally respond positively to drought conditions, as there is usually an increase in aquatic vegetation, which provides increased cover for young fish. While catch rates have declined in the last few years, the average weight of largemouth bass has remained above 2.5 pounds. However, crappie and sauger do not respond well to drought conditions because flows are reduced. 

Clark recommends Pickwick as a quality fishery, with good populations of both largemouth and smallmouth bass. He also says that Barkley is often overlooked because of its close proximity to Kentucky Lake, but it is gaining in popularity because it has shown increases in average weigh of harvested fish. 

Kentucky Lake is one of the most popular bass lakes in the state, hosting numerous tournaments on both the national and local levels. Bass populations have shown consistent recruitment rates despite declines the past two years. Historically good recruitment from one year to the next provides quality fishing opportunities year in and year out.

Other areas Clark recommends are Harmon, Eagle and Blue creeks, which have been stocked with Florida largemouths to determine the success and impact on northern bass populations. 

Looking Good in Region 2

In Region 2, anglers can expect continued consistency, according to TWRA Fisheries Biologist Todd St. John, because predictions of fishing success are made by looking at year-class strengths from previous years. Based on previous year-classes, 2018 should be good. 

As far as where to go, St. John points to J. Percy Priest Reservoir in the northern part of Region 2 and Tims Ford Reservoir in the southern part of the region. He also says that Woods Reservoir should be good because a resurgence of aquatic vegetation has occurred, providing good structure for both fish and anglers. 

Wait-and-See in Region 3

In Region 3, Mike Jolley, TWRA fisheries manager, is taking a "wait and see" approach in regard to the effects of the extreme weather conditions have had on bass. 

"As for the drought, we have seen no impact, but this takes sometimes two to three years of data to determine," Jolley explained. "Aquatic vegetation did do well during the drought in many reservoirs, thus providing more habitat for bass." 

With a resurgence of aquatic vegetation in many Region 3 lakes, especially Watts Bar and Chickamauga, anglers have much to be excited about, but should be prepared to use tactics they might not have used just five to 10 years ago. Frogs, rats and similar lures are becoming common on Region 3 lakes, and with the drought, and a possible boom in vegetation, anglers should have tackle boxes prepared for the conditions. 

Those in search of big largemouth in Region 3 should consider heading to Chickamauga Reservoir, as the lake recently produced the state record largemouth. Of course, this has given the lake an explosion of angler attention. 

"Chickamauga continues to produce lots of big bass as is evident by tournament weigh-ins," said Jolley. "Ample forage, habitat, a Florida bass stocking program by TWRA and natural yearly spawning successes are some of the ingredients enabling such a great bass fishery there," 

However, anglers should not forget Watts Bar Lake. While it doesn't have the reputation of Chickamauga, Watts Bar consistently produces big fish, without the pressure of its down-stream neighbor. Aquatic growth has recently exploded on Watts Bar, and local anglers are enjoying the results.

Of course, those looking for smallmouth bass should look no further than Dale Hollow, as this old stand-by should produce in 2018 like it has in years past.

Impact of Drought, Flood, Fires

As far as bass predictions, Region 4 anglers might have a bit of a negative attitude. Most years, east Tennessee bass anglers can be found hurling buzzbaits and lipless crankbaits in the backs of creeks in the fall of the year. However, 2016 found them with no water flow, and many days, choking on smoke from area forest fires. When the spring of 2017 rolled around, and huge female bass moved to the beds to spawn, Mother Nature delivered a flood of epic proportions, leaving some anglers to believe they had been cursed forever. All that is in the past, however, and according to Region 4 TWRA Fisheries Coordinator Bart Carter, there is a silver lining.

"The drought in 2016 should actually help the bass in Region 4, in the long run, as it has helped promote aquatic growth," Carter explained. "It also helped concentrate the baitfish, making it much easier for small bass to feed." 

Since many east Tennessee reservoirs are painfully void of bass cover, vegetation growth is a welcome sight for all anglers, not just bass fishermen. Carter did lament that lake levels were so high on many lakes in 2017, that it was very difficult for TWRA crews to achieve an accurate fish count through typical shocking techniques, so data may be skewed for a year or so. This was due to the fish being so spread out and inaccessible by shocking crews. 

As far as where to go, Carter recommends that anglers point boats toward Douglass Lake in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains. Anglers trying this bowl-shaped lake should fish points, flats and schools of baitfish with all the typical baits, while keeping an eye on electronics, in search of suspended bass. Carter also says that anglers shouldn't forget about smallmouths. 

"Norris, South Holston and Cherokee are great smallmouth fisheries," said Carter. 

Norris, in particular, is a very clear, deep lake, and anglers should be prepared to use light line when chasing smallmouth. Those looking for truly big smallmouth should go to one of these three lakes and use the float-n-fly method, which has become so popular during the winter months. 

Now Volunteer State anglers can be spoiled by all of the great fishing the state has to offer. Regardless of the area, anglers don't have to drive far to see a body of water. More often than not, that body of water will offer above average bass fishing. 

Even though Mother Nature sometimes throws a curve ball, because of the cyclic nature of fisheries, it seems anglers can always find fish biting somewhere. Add in the hard work by biologists, technicians and managers at the TWRA, it is easy to see that these are the "good ole days" of Tennessee bass fishing.

A Different Grass Lure

It seems the underlying theme to Tennessee bass fishing these days is the reintroduction of aquatic vegetation to many waters.  As such, typical grass baits, such as frogs, rats and jigs, are all very effective. These areas are, of course, a nursery for gamefish, so anglers shouldn't be afraid to try a fluke when fishing around grass. 

With so many small fish swimming around in these areas, big fish can't resist a well-placed fluke dipping in and out of the pockets in the grass. Rigged weightless, and allowed to sink into the pockets and dark holes, fluke can allow anglers to get heart-stopping strikes from big fish waiting on an easy meal. These fish are there to take advantage of the nursery provided by the grass. Try different colors, but white seems to be the easiest for bass to see, and it truly gives off that wounded fish aura for which lunker largemouth are looking.

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