Tennessee River Largemouth Bass

By Vernon Summerlin

TVA and the Corps of Engineers began building dams forming reservoirs on the Tennessee River and its tributaries in the 1930s. These dams have saved our state untold dollars and property loss to floods, but these reservoirs did harm to some of the fisheries – but they were a boon to the largemouth bass, which prefer slow moving water.

Going upriver from Kentucky, Kentucky Dam began construction in 1944 and Pickwick Dam was begun six years before. Skipping three Alabama dams, the next one in Tennessee is Nickajack near the Tennessee-Alabama-Georgia border begun in 1967, Chickamauga in 1940, Watts Bar in 1942, and Fort Loudoun in 1953 – completing the dams along the Tennessee River.

Fort Loudoun Reservoir
Fort Loudoun Lake filled from the waters from the Holston and French Broad Rivers that form the Tennessee River. Later, in1980, the Little Tennessee River’s water mingled with Fort Loudoun’s via a canal above Tellico Dam. Only two other lakes are connected by an open canal like this, Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley.

Fifty-five-mile long Fort Loudoun Lake is a riverine reservoir with largemouth and smallies. The aforementioned half-mile long canal has rock piles that hold smallies. But it’s the heavier largemouth bass that tournament anglers seek. Doug Plemons of Kingston is such an angler and one of the winningest on Fort Loudoun and Watts Bar lakes. Plemons says, “Anglers should fish points, humps, main channel drops, and creek channel ledges at night in summer. I recommend pumpkinseed, watermelon, and green/pumpkin colors for plastic lizards or worms on a Carolina rig. Of course, spinnerbaits work too. Silver Colorado blades seem to be best for nighttime fishing.”

Humps, or river bars, are probably the best largemouth holding areas. They become more numerous above river-mile 617 where Sinking Creek enters the river. Your sonar will help you locate these structures.

Anglers would do well to follow Plemons’ daytime techniques. “I cast DD-22s for bass down to 15 feet and switch to Mann’s 30+ for deeper bass. Largemouth usually hold between 10 and 15 feet in summer.” Look for riprap, sloping banks with deep water at their bases, outside river bends, islands from river-mile 617 upstream, creek mouths, and bluff points for daytime action. Points in and the mouths of Fork Creek near the dam, Gallagher Creek at river-mile 612, and Little River near Knoxville at river-mile 635 are areas to fish during the day.

Watts Bar Reservoir
This lake is next downstream from Fort Loudoun. Largemouth bass angling is better on Watts Bar than most of the other lakes in this region. Its waters are nutrient-rich, providing an excellent forage base for bass. Wood cover is plentiful along the banks, many submerged structures (such as humps, sandbars, islands), and backwater provide superb habitat for bucketmouth throughout the year.

“In summer the fishing can be exceptional in the upper end from the Kingston area to Fort Loudoun Dam,” says Doug Plemons. “The warmer the water, the farther up the river, the better the fishing.” Watts Bar is Plemons favorite lake.

He says a friend of his makes a crankbait called the Little Petey. It’s a flat-sided, balsa crankbait with a lip made out of computer circuit board. “Pete Reynolds and his son Tony make them and I’ve used them for years and won a lot of money with them. It’s a shallow runner. And I think what distinguishes it so much is the sound that circuit board makes. They make them one at a time and they can’t make enough to meet the demand. I’m lucky, I’ve probably got more Little Peteys than anyone.”

Lime Coach Dog is Plemons favorite color. It has chartreuse sides with a lime back and a lime coach dog (spotted) pattern on the sides. Next he prefers the White Shad that has white sides, a black back, an orange throat with a chartreuse belly. “This color is one that the smallmouth love,” he adds.

Plemons cast the bait on creek channel banks, making it bump into rocks and stumps. “Occasionally, if there are shad over clay-nothing banks, where there is no cover, I’ve caught some big stringers of fish there. You have to get out on the water to see what structure and cover the largemouth bass are using. Some of the better strings I’ve caught have been from these nothing-banks. A lot of fishermen believe bass have to have rocks and stumps to hold on, but it’s the food the bass are after.”

He says in summer anglers should fish the humps, creek channel ledges, and sandbars. “The long tapering points and humps are best in the middle and lower part of the lake. In the river, most people are fishing sandbars and creek junctions. The Tennessee River has better largemouth fishing than the Clinch or Emory Rivers.

“I also catch bass on deep diving crankbaits that work between 8 and 15 feet and Carolina rigged lizards and centipedes. I place my boat in 30 feet of water but cast shallow – the fish will be on the edge of a bar, hump, or ledge.

“To fish a sand bar in the river, cast upstream and work the bait with the current, keeping your boat in 20 to 30 feet of water. Bass position themselves on the ends of bars or on points facing the current. You’ve got to figure out which parts of the bar the fish are using. Are they using something as a current break, like a stump field, or does the current create a cut? You’ve got figure where the bass are to catch them.” When the dam is generating is when you usually get your best bite, he adds. “The shad become more active in current and move to the tops of the bars and humps, and the bass follow them,” concludes Plemons.

Guide James Blair from Mt. Juliet says, “The secret to catching big largemouth bass on Watts Bar in August is to fish the drops and humps in the middle portion of the lake. I fish up the creek channels that are 15 feet deep and cast to the drop banks or at least steep banks. Out in the lakes, the bass will be on the humps, that’s what I like to fish most.” James says the best largemouth fishing is mid-lake to the dam. At Fooshee and Gillespie Bends, where the river makes a backward “S” are many humps. An angler can do as well in this 10-mile stretch as anywhere on the lake. “Anglers need to get a map of the lake. That way they can see where the creeks and humps are as well as the main channel.

“The best way to fish the drop-offs to catch a big bass is with a 7- or 9-inch worm, a jig and pig, or extra deep running crankbait. I’ve found that a black or grape worm works best for me. If the water’s clear I’ll go to a blue worm, but that red shad worm is good. I’m partial to black and blue jigs, black and chartreuse, and solid black with a number 1 or 11 pork chunk rind. You wouldn’t believe the big fish I catch on that black and chartreuse jig!”

“If you cast parallel to the creek channel, the drops and humps you’re better off,” he says. “I find the creek channel hump or drop-off with my sonar, keep my boat in line with it and cast straight ahead, making sure my lure gets down and stays on the drop-off. Early and late, I fish about 10 feet deep and 15 to 25 feet during the brightest part of the day.” James says, “I’ll tell you one more secret then I’ll be quiet. You can catch good-sized fish flipping the shoreline at night. I use a 14-foot Hawger pole that the line runs up the middle. I cut 6 inches off the tip to make it stiffer. I use 25- or 30-pound test line on the little reel that comes with the pole. This is deathly on bass. I’ve caught plenty of 5- to 8-pound bass with this method. You just flip a 1/4-ounce bug at the edge of the bank and hold on.”

Chickamauga Reservoir
Joe Bakes of Chattanooga says his two favorite baits are the six-inch, black Jelly Worm and the green pumpkin Zoom finesse worm. “I haven’t found a reason to fish anything else. It’s catches more fish than a jig and pig in any season. It’s more reliable than a crankbait and easier to cast – bass just don’t ask for a better bait!”

Joe has become a structure fisherman since TVA killed the grass in Chickamauga. He regularly fishes just a few miles of the lake from Chester Frost Park up to Skull Island.

“There are plenty of bass from one end of this lake to the other. I’ve found a section that has structure that fits the way I like to fish, the fish cooperate, and we all have a good time; they bite, I set the hook, they jump, and I let’em go so we play again another day,” he says smiling. “From Lakesite Marina I go to the main channel and start fishing sunken islands. My favorite humps are about eight feet deep in summer.” Joe’s technique is a Texas rigged worm on a 2/0 or 3/0 off-set hook, 12-pound test line with an 1/8-ounce slip sinker cast deep, and worked shallow very slowly. He says its perfection and you don’t mess with that. “Bass hold on the steep drops. I anchor on top of a sunken island and cast against the wind if there is any. I let it hit bottom and work the worm back to the boat. This way I drag the worm up the drop, giving me a better feel of the drop-off.”

Sunken island ledges and creek drop-offs are the best places to locate bass in Chickamauga in summer. “Over the last decade I’ve sunk a small forest of brush piles on these drops. I know where the bass are, given two or three guesses,” says Joe.

There is always some current in Chickamauga but there is more when TVA is generating. Bass seem to be more active when there is some current, that may be because it makes baitfish move.

Nickajack Reservoir
Tennessee River’s Grand Canyon runs from Chickamauga Dam 47 miles to Nickajack Dam while only one place reaches a width of a mile. Unlike Chickamauga Lake, Nickajack is embellished with milfoil, largemouth bass’s favorite cover.

South Chickamauga, Citico, Chattanooga (too polluted to fish), and Lookout Creeks are the major tributaries (all near the city of Chattanooga) with numerous mountain streams pouring in from Williams Island at river-mile (r-m) 455 to Bennett Lake at r-m 433.

Mullins Cove (r-m 435.5), Bennett Lake (r-m 433), both sides of the river at Rankin Cove (r-m 429), and the area at the dam (r-m425) are the four wide spots on Nickajack.

Benny Hull, host of Stump Bumper TV and radio says, “Look for specific features that attract fish. Largemouth are usually under milfoil in Nickajack. Locate milfoil over breaks and stumps on these breaks and you’ll catch fish.”

For largemouth bass Benny fishes three- or four-inch curlytail grubs on ledges that stair-step to the bottom. Smoke/glitter, chartreuse/ glitter, and pearl are his suggestions for grub colors. He uses a spinning tackle with six- to eight-pound-test line and a medium-action rod for casting 1/4-ounce leadheads.

Benny is the past master at trolling for smallmouth bass. We trolled between three and five miles downstream of Chickamauga Dam. We put out Hot Lips Express crankbaits and slowly trolled with 30 to 40 feet behind the boat. Most of the smallies hit between 8 and 12 feet deep when the bait crosses a shoal. The bass are waiting for food to drift their way.

Pickwick Reservoir
Only the lower eight miles of the 53-mile long Pickwick Lake are in Tennessee. Your Tennessee license is valid upstream, a little over 10 miles, to the mouth of Bear Creek at river-mile 225. Although largemouth swim in Pickwick and are caught with regularity, its golden child, the bronze back, that is most often sought.

“The smallmouth summer pattern will be humps and ledges,” says guide Lou Williams. “They’ll feed in the shallowest water in the area they’re using. If it’s a hump, they’ll feed on top of the hump. Smallmouth don’t feed in 20 or 30 feet of water but they can be caught there. “The time of day they feed depends on the current. If there is current, then the odds go up for feeding in middle part of the day, from 11o’clock to 2 o’clock. That’s what brings the big boys out. If there is no current then the best time will be early and late in the day. My best days are when the skies are high, with an eight- to 10-mile per hour south wind, and current. If I can find those conditions, I’m going to catch some fish! You may have to hit the sweet spots several times during the day. In the summer they’ll feed more often but for not as long. They may feed 30 or 40 minutes and then they’re gone.” He uses a jig and curlytail, Bootlegger jig, and Hugh Harville’s Sassy Shad-type bait in summer.

For catching largemouth bass, fish the submerged irregular topography area near the dam, the island along the main channel, creeks, especially the Dry Creek embayment, Yellow Creek up to Mississippi 25 Bridge, and the mouth of Bear Creek.

Williams says, “To catch bass, it takes time on the water. I could tell you there is a hump right over there where I catch a lot of fish but you may not ever get a bite. Time on the water means a lot and you need to be by your self. The most important thing I can tell you is that you need a mental picture of where you’re fishing. A topo map and sonar help.”

Kentucky Reservoir
TWRA fisheries biologist Tim Broadbent says the best largemouth bass fishing is from New Johnsonville north to where the Big Sandy enters the Tennessee River. Guide Steve McCadams concurs.

Steve says, “For hot weather bass, fish early, fish late, and fish deep. But you can catch some bass in the bushes early in the morning when they are feeding on minnows around bushes and other wood cover. “Bass follow shad along creek channels and into deep water. What you’re looking for are secondary ledges, drop-offs, and creek channels that lead to the main channel. These places give bass the structure they need, along with cooler, better-oxygenated water in hot weather.

“Any summertime angler can use the current to their advantage,” Steve says. The bass move on the river points when there is current.

Many years ago Steve taught me how to fan cast deep points. He would locate the point’s drop-off and place a marker buoy on top of the drop. He’d back off and fan cast around the buoy. Then he’d move his boat, stopping at points along the circle he made around the buoy, covering shallow and deep water with fan casts. This systematic approach put bass in the boat. “I like a big, deep-diving crankbait on a long rod with 10- or 12-pound test line. That’ll get down pretty fast. I’d say most of the bass tournaments during the summer are won with a crankbait, worm, or pig-n-jig working deeper ledges, drop-offs, and creek channels.”

Bottom Line
So many lakes, so little time, but here you have tips from some of the best bass anglers on their home lakes. Take their techniques and put them to use on your home water, after all bass are bass.