By Sean Ostruszka
Special to BassFan
Lake Chickamauga in the fall usually means flipping or frogging grass. Of course, it also usually means better fishing than what the pros experienced during the recent Bassmaster Elite Series event.
With the bite as tough as anyone had ever seen on the lake – only two pros managed to catch a limit all 4 days – competitors went into survival mode. That meant relying on other tactics to try and grind out enough bites to make it to the final day. And while Lee Livesay frogged his way to victory, even he relied on fishing differently than most to come out ahead.
Here’s a look at how the rest of the top five survived thanks to some unique patterns.
2nd: Mike Huff
> Day 1: 3, 6-12
> Day 2: 5, 12-13
> Day 3: 5, 19-01
> Day 4: 5, 18-06
> Total = 18, 56-06
Had he made his key decision a day earlier, Mike Huff may have been hoisting the blue trophy. Instead, he was left with a what-if.
“I lost this tournament the first day,” he said.
Like most everyone else, he figured he had to fish grass to catch fish, but he managed only three keepers the first day and had none at 1 p.m. on day 2. That’s when he made his critical move.
“Back home, when it gets tough, we run up the river and throw jigs to bluff walls,” said Huff. “I had nothing to lose, so that’s what I did.”
The result was a quick limit and he fared event better the next day when he brought in the second-largest bag of the event. The key was finding bluffs with laydowns on them. The bigger the laydown, the larger the current break, and it seemed every laydown like that had a fish on it. Yet, his really special spot was a bluff with a rock slide on it.
“I caught all five of my fish off it on day 2,” Huff said. “I caught three from it Saturday, and then I caught three from it Sunday, including that 7-13.
“I can’t be upset [about the final day]. I tried hard and it was a magical day. It just wasn’t enough after that first day.”
> Jig gear: 7’3” heavy-action Abu Garcia Fantasista Premier rod, Abu Garcia AL-F casting reel, 15-pound Berkley Trilen 100% Fluorocarbon line, 3/8-ounce Cumberland Pro Lures Pro Caster jig (shad colors), Berkley PowerBait Power Hawg trailer (green-pumpkin).
> Frog gear: 7’3” heavy-action Abu Garcia Veracity casting rod, Abu Garcia SX Rocket casting reel, 65-pound Berkley 100% Braid line, unnamed popping frog.
> While he tried it every day, Huff only caught a few keepers on the frog the final 2 days, including a late 4-pounder with minutes to go that nearly gave him the win.
> Main factor in his success – “Making that change. I came in thinking I had to punch grass and frog, but I’m glad I scrapped it to go fish like how I grew up doing on Cumberland and Cherokee. I just wish I did it a day earlier.”
Jake Whitaker rode a dock-fishing pattern to a 3rd-place finish.
3rd: Jake Whitaker
> Day 1: 5, 11-02
> Day 2: 5, 14-03
> Day 3: 5, 11-14
> Day 4: 5, 11-13
> Total = 20, 49-00
Doing “what he likes to do” did Whitaker well.
After 2 practice days of focusing on grass with nothing to show for it, Whitaker finally opted to go look for something else late on the second day.
“I decided to go check out some docks and marinas,” said Whitaker, “and I pull into Island Cove Marina in Harrison Bay and they were schooling. I caught a couple 16-inchers and thought it might be a place to catch a fish or two during the tournament. I had no idea just how many fish were there.”
He learned pretty quick, because once the tournament started, he never left that marina.
“The fish were always coming up schooling. And not just bass – I caught white bass, slab crappies and some catfish. When you’re catching other species like that, you know there is a lot to eat.”
One odd thing, though, was the fish weren’t schooling out in the open but instead under the docks. Whitaker said it was almost like a shad spawn with how he could hear them eating small shad under the floats. Thus, the key was to get a tiny swimbait that imitated the shad up underneath those docks as far as he could.
> Swimbait gear: 6’9” ALX ZOLO SpinSkip rod, Abu Garcia Revo MGX spinning reel, 10-pound P-Line TCB braid to a 10-pound P-Line Tactical Fluorocarbon leader, 1/8-ounce jighead, Keitech Swing Impact FAT 2.8 (Tennessee shad and rainbow shad) and a Hyperlastcs Dartspin Pro.
> Main factor in his success – “Sticking it out in that one spot. I had to stay patient because there were definitely bite windows, but I knew if I just kept grinding it out in there I’d catch enough to survive.”
Todd Auten spent the majority of the tournament in one creek.
4th: Todd Auten
> Day 1: 5, 11-00
> Day 2: 5, 12-09
> Day 3: 3, 8-11
> Day 4: 5, 12-14
> Total = 18, 45-02
Anglers from the Carolinas are some of the best dock fishermen in the country, so it was no surprise that when Todd Auten failed to get anything going in the grass, he went to his strength.
“I pulled into a pocket in practice down toward the dam that had a little bit of color and a lot of bait,” said Auten. “I only caught two keepers in there, but it’s all I had.”
Thus, Auten rarely left that one creek for 4 days other than to briefly fish a frog (which never helped him) while letting the creek rest (which did, because he felt his fish wouldn’t have lasted if he’d never left).
While in the creek, he kept things simple, tossing around a vibrating jig to anything and everything in front of him – docks, seawalls, rocky areas.
“I just fished a little bit of everything. About the only thing is I tried to stay on the channel side because the water was dropping and pulled those fish off the shallower side of the creek.”
> Vibrating jig gear: 7’1” G. Loomis IMX 854 casting rod, Shimano Curado 200 casting reel, 20-pound Bass Pro Shops Excel monofilament line, 1/2-ounce Z-Man ChatterBait (white chartreuse) and an unnamed vibrating jig (black and blue), Zoom Z Craw Jr. trailers (pearl and blue sapphire)
> Main factor in his success – “Getting a few bites in that creek. The fishing was too tough to spread out much, so getting a couple bites allowed me to focus there and catch all I could. I just tried to survive and it ended up being my best finish of the year.”
Austin Felix took a finesse approach to a lake that's renowned for power-fishing.
5th: Austin Felix
> Day 1: 5, 9-07
> Day 2: 5, 14-01
> Day 3: 2, 5-14
> Day 4: 5, 15-03
> Total = 17, 44-09
Chickamauga is typically a power-fishing lake – big fish, big rods, big lures. Felix didn’t care to be typical.
“I knew the bite was going to be brutally tough,” said Felix. "So my plan was to just get five bites a day, and the best way I know how to do that is be as finesse as possible.”
With that in mind, Felix employed three different techniques.
He tossed a Ned rig to a rock spine he found at the mouth of a creek, utilized a Neko rig on some deeper sets of docks in 10 to 15 feet and then got a couple good bites the final three days on a frog.
“The Ned and the Neko were my main patterns, especially that Neko,” said Felix. “In practice, they’d eat it on the bottom, but as the tournament went along the fish started suspending under those docks, so they’d eat it on the fall.”
> Neko-rig gear: 6’8” medium-heavy 13 Fishing Omen rod, 13 Fishing Prototype X spinning reel, 10-pound Power Pro braided line to a 10-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon leader, 2/0 Roboworm ReBarb Hook through an Arsenal Fishing Stealth Silicone Tube Shield, 5-inch Yamamoto Senko (green-pumpkin) with a 5/32-ounce nail weight.
> Ned-rig gear: 7’ medium-light 13 Fishing Omen rod, 13 Fishing Prototype X spinning reel, 10-pound Power Pro braided line to a 10-pound Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon leader, 1/4-ounce Swagger Tungsten Flanders Ned Head, Z-Man Finesse TRD (green-pumpkin)
> Frog gear: 7’5” medium-heavy 13 Fishing rod, 13 Fishing Concept casting reel (8.1:1 ratio), 50-pound Power Pro braided line, Spro Bronzeye Frog (killer gill).
> Main factor in his success – “Going finesse. On the Tennessee River, people tend to throw big stuff and overlook the small stuff. I just wanted to be consistent and the finesse stuff allowed me to do that.”