East Tennessee’s Best Fall Striper Fishing

By Vernon Summerlin

Over the years I have learned that there is one law stripers obey – they stay close to baitfish, primarily threadfin and gizzard shad and skipjack. Shad are fished on flat-lines and down-lines. A flat-line rig consists of a barrel swivel, usually a number four, tied to your main line, then a leader ranging between three and four feet long with an Eagle Claw style 42 hook that varies in size to fit your bait tied on last. Small shad would take a 1/0 to 3/0 and larger skipjack up to 9/0. The addition of an egg sinker above your swivel is all it takes to convert a flat-line to a down-line. The weight of the sinker you use will vary depending on the current. It has to be heavy enough to keep your line straight down. Both of these lines are trolled via an electric motor or drift-fished with wind or current. Some anglers use a small balloon on a down-line to get the bait away from the boat. Planer boards can perform this function as well. All the guides I’ve fished with or interviewed use the same techniques; flat-lines, down-lines, planer boards, downriggers and artificial topwater baits (Red Fin, etc). Except when stripers are surfacing, live shad is the preferred bait. Some anglers use turkey liver fished on the bottom “catfish style,” but these are a minority. It’s Like This – It’s Like That If you’ve been striper fishing all summer, there is no reason to change your techniques or the places you fish in September through the first half of October. When the water is uncomfortably warm for stripers, over 70 degrees, they hold in the coolest water they can find. This may be in the deep waters near the dams and in the headwaters below dams. As the water becomes cooler they begin to move, following baitfish. This usually occurs by late October. By December the baitfish and stripers have arrived at their wintering place. Steam plants act like giant magnets to these fish. Since stripers behave the same year after year, it is easy to learn where they will be during any season by asking at a local baitshop. East Tennessee’s Best Striper Lakes Boone Lake’s two river arms are your best bets for hot weather fishing. Both South Holston and Watauga Rivers feed Boone with cool water from the mountains. You can also locate schools of stripers deep in the small main body of the lake but your best prospects are up the rivers from September into October. Put in at Bluff City’s public ramp to fish the South Holston arm, and at Johnson City Yacht Club at Austin Springs or at Sonny’s Marine in Flourville (east of the junction of Routes 36 and 354) to fish the Watauga arm. Try flat-lines and topwater lures at night, as well as early and late in the day. Go to down lines and planer boards with down-lines to cover a swath of deep water near the bluffs and along the channels during the day. Stripers often hold at or below “trash lines.” Trash lines form where the current of the river meets the lake. This water is cooler downstream for about a mile. This is an attractive place for shad and stripers. As the lake’s water cools, you’ll find more stripers nearer the dam. Trolling live shad is still your best method. Below Boone Dam on upper Ft. Patrick Henry Lake is the spot to pick up wall-hanging stripers. You should fish from the bank and not try to run the gauntlet of boulders in a boat, especially if you want to hook a striper over 30 pounds. Once a boat enters these shallow waters, the big fish are gone. Casting Red Fins and white bucktails jigs so they are swept in the current near the large boulders puts your bait in the path of stripers holding behind the rocks. Use strong fishing tackle. Farther downstream, below the Sevier Steam Plant are the headwaters of a strong striper fishery in Cherokee Lake. This lake makes the striper’s nickname “rockfish” apropos. Cherokee is rock strewn, including bluffs, islands and motor-eating humps. The drawdown on this lake is 30 to 50 feet and boating can be more dangerous in the fall because many more rocks are nearer the surface. Some good September and October angling takes place in the deep water along the main channel. You can use down-lines during the day and cast a Red Fin, ThunderStick, or Long A for surface activity in low light conditions. Night fishing is still fruitful. As the water cools, stripers begin migrating to the headwaters. By late fall, fishing should be good at the John Sevier Steam Plant for those casting live shad or plugs. Cherokee Dock is a convenient launching ramp to the riverine section and the mid-section of the lake. It is south off Highway 11W east of Mooresburg. For launching farther upstream, try Caney Creek ramp east of Cherokee Dock on 11W on the north side of the lake or John Sevier Access Area on the south side of the lake below John Sevier Dam off State Route 70 near the McCloud community. For lower lamp launching on the south side of Cherokee, try Black Oak Park near Jefferson City, and Cedar Hill Dock (Poplar Springs Branch) and Panther Creek ramp north of Highway 11E on Route 342 (west of Morristown). On the north side of the lake along Lake Shore Drive (Route 375) are Grainger County Park, Wa-Ni Village, Greenlee Campground and Gilmore Brothers Dock. Running somewhat parallel to the Holston River forming Cherokee Lake, the Clinch and Powell Rivers join to form Norris Lake. Although Norris still has some large stripers, its heyday is over for anglers seeking 40-pound fish. Average fish weigh between 15 and 25 pounds. At the time of writing this, TWRA is proposing to halt its striper stocking program for three years while scientists try to determine if stripers are harming other fish populations. My research into this leads me to believe Norris is suffering from nutrient deficiency due to the Clean Water Act. A water treatment plant at the headwaters would probably remedy the situation. Norris is still a strong striper fishery. Even if stocking is halted, the fish stocked through 1996 will provide good angling for several more years. September stripers are holding in the lower end of the reservoir in the deep cool water. Trolling down-lines and using down riggers will help you collect fish near the thermocline. Surface action picks up in October and lasts until the water drives shad upstream into warmer water tributaries. Fish the Clinch and Powell River and Lost Creek and the around Island F. Downstream from Norris on the Clinch River is the small Melton Hill Lake of 5690 acres. It may be small but it is the home of the big – home of the state record striper. Melton Hill offers best early fall fishing near the dam. By late fall, you only need to fish the Bull Run Steam Plant with 20-inch skipjacks on 9/0 hooks to try to beat Gary Helm’s 60-pound, eight-ounce striper from those waters. Watts Bar is next downstream and it ranks among the top striper waters in the state with one caveat – don’t eat the fish. Pollution has tainted many species in Watts Bar but for catch-and-release fun, it is lake superior. You can target early fall stripers in the main channel after the Clinch River joins the Tennessee River near Kingston using the same lake techniques as described earlier. Stripers will be also be hanging out near the dam during September. Watts Bar is a tremendous fishery year-round, but come late fall, anglers go nuts! The warm water discharged from the Kingston Steam Plant attracts baitfish, stripers and anglers, in that order. Most of the large stripers, up to 40-pounders, are caught on large creek minnows, skipjacks and large white jigs. Fishing is fantastic from the I-40 bridge to the steam plant. Large skipjacks, 17 to 20 inches long, are cast out on seven- to eight-foot heavy-action rods and fished on the bottom or drifted in the deeper water near the I-40 bridge. Other favorite baits are the 1/2-ounce white bucktail jigs, and Crippled Herring spoons in silver or silver with blue or green back. There are six launching ramps at Kingston; four are near Highway 70 on the south side of I-40 and the other two are on opposite sides of the Clinch River. One is at the steam plant on the western side just off Swan Pond Road. The other is north from the I-40 exit. There is no dearth of ramps along Watts Bar. As you have read, fall offers you both sides of the coin in striper angling. Early and late fall they tend to stay near the bottom. During the middle, in late October and early November, they flip-flop to the top as they move along the main channel making the transition from warm water to cold water homes. Happy Hooking!

Note: Vernon Summerlin offers four one-hour audio cassettes for $11 each. Specify Largemouth Bass Through the Seasons, Smallmouth Bass Through the Seasons, Crappie Through the Seasons or Stripers and Hybrids Through the Seasons. Order from Vernon Summerlin, 5550 Boy Scout Rd., Franklin, TN 37064