By Todd Ceisner
Your move, Lake Chickamauga.
On the heels of the recent Bass Pro Tour event in the Raleigh, N.C., area, where 78 bass weighing 6 pounds or more were caught at Jordan Lake, Falls Lake and Shearon Harris Reservoir, one would think the next venue on the schedule has no chance of measuring up.
In fact, Lake Chickamauga, the 36,000-acre impoundment on the Tennessee River, just might trump the exceptional numbers put up in late March. The conditions seem prime for an all-out pre-spawn/spawning derby with the water level being steadily brought up by the TVA over the last week and current flow being kept to a minimum. With the April full moon coming and water temperatures hovering in the mid 60s, the ingredients are there for a springtime shootout.
“They’re going to the beds now and some are already there,” said Billy Wheat, who operates RipRap Fishing Adventures and guides on Chickamauga frequently. “It’s going to be amazing how many fish pull up this week alone.
“When (the current) stops and the water starts rising, the fish think it’s time to go to the beds. You can still catch them on shell bars, but if you pull in and see a 10-pounder on bed it makes it hard to go back out to the shell bars.”
One of the X-factors this week, though, will be how the rain that fell Monday affects the ability of anglers in Group A to sight-fish. The rain might favor those who prefer to blind-cast areas where bedding bass are presumed to be.
While some might prefer to fish during the post-spawn when the fish have moved out to the river ledges, there may be no better time to collide with a double-digit bass at Chickamauga than in the spring. There have been four 9-pounders caught so far during Bass Pro Tour events, but no 10-pounders. That threshold is likely to be broken this week. According to the Fish Dayton Facebook Page, there have been 55 double-digit bass caught at Chickamauga already this year.
During the Southeastern FLW Series at Chickamauga March 21-23, four 25-bags were recorded, including a 37-05 stringer by tournament winner Brent Butler, who averaged nearly 23 pounds per day and caught an 11-10 kicker during the event.
As a contrast to the trio of lakes around Raleigh, where few of the 80 competitors had any meaningful experience, Chickamauga will be a new animal to only a small number of BPT anglers. It’s been a regular stop on the major circuits for several years and many presently consider the lake to be the bass fishing jewel of the Tennessee River.
This will be the first Bass Pro Tour event where true locals in the field will get to test out whether they have a legitimate upper hand based on their experience on the lake. Dayton residents Michael Neal and Andy Morgan, Spring City residents Wesley Strader and John Murray as well as Jacob Wheeler, who now resides in Harrison, all will carry the “local favorite” label this week.
Wheeler won the first BASSFest event, held in 2014 at Chickamauga, while Neal took 2nd in the 2017 Bassmaster Southern Open. Strader also finished 2nd in the 2013 FLW Tour event dominated by umbrella rigs.
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the lake itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake Name: Lake Chickamauga
> Type of Water: TVA impoundment
> Surface Acres (full pool): 36,240 acres
> Primary structure/cover: Ledges, humps, sunken islands, docks, brush piles, points, grass flats
> Primary forage: Gizzard shad, threadfin shad, various shiners, juvenile panfish
> Average depth: 18 feet
> Species: Largemouth, spotted bass, smallmouth
> Minimum length: 12 inches for spots, 15 inches for largemouth, 18 inches for smallmouth (1 per angler)
> Reputation: It's not as big as other TVA lakes and schools aren't as numerous nor as heavily populated, but the chance for a giant bite is there. Double-digit bass in the spring have become common.
> Weather: Mostly stable with possibility of rain toward weekend; temperatures will top out in the 70s most days
> Water temp: Mid 60s
> Water visibility/color: Light stain to clear in most areas
> Water level: 4 feet below normal pool; has fluctuated greatly this spring
> Fish in: 1 to 12 feet
> Fish phase: Pre-spawn/spawn
> Primary patterns: Sight-fishing, jigs, spinnerbaits, swimbaits, cranking, plastics, flipping, vibrating jigs, some topwater
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3 for Chickamauga
> Biggest factors: Crowding. With the water down, it’s taken a good bit of cover out of the equation
> Biggest decision: How long to spend on a bedding fish while others might be lighting up the leaderboard
> Wildcard: Giant kicker bass. A double-digit fish can erase a big deficit in one hookset
For a closer look at Lake Chickamauga, check out the embedded map below, courtesy of Navionics.
What to Do, Where to Go
In late February, the lake level shot up more than nine feet, then came back down by early March. The amount of water being moved through the whole TVA system resulted in a massive amount of current. Wheat said the high water prompted some fish to spawn early, but the majority held back. Their wait may be over.
“The April moon is usually the good moon,” he said. “The way everything transpired, we’ve been cracking them on river bars, but when the current stops they start working more toward transitional areas. There are so many fish in this lake and you’ll still have guys who can catch them in ditches and on points. It just depends on which point they hit because they’re moving a lot right now. You wouldn’t expect Tennessee River fish to move like they do, but those Florida strains move a good bit.”
It’s mid-April on Lake Chickamauga so the 40 Bass Pro Tour anglers on the water each day will be far from alone, as is the case most days on the Tennessee River. Not helping matters is the water is fairly low for the springtime and that’s taken a fair bit of cover out of the equation. The end result will be areas that will see multiple boats at a time several days in a row.
Aside from potential crowding, the MLF format will present an array of challenges for anglers this week considering the conditions and the availability of bedding fish. With three 2 1/2-hour periods to work with, can an angler afford to devote 20 minutes or more to a fish on bed? How will anglers in Group B (Wednesday) go about their business not knowing which stretches got fished during day 1 and which fish may have been caught?
Mark Rose says Chickamauga has surpassed Kentucky Lake as the premier bass fishing lake in the Tennessee River chain.
“One of the weird things is in the past if someone caught it, it’d be gone,” said Alton Jones Jr., “but now, it might still be there and just be harder to catch, so you’re going to burn 20 minutes on that fish and not be able to catch it. Guys’ ability to read fish will be incredibly important this week. How quickly can I decide if I can catch that fish could be the most important factor.”
While Chickamauga has earned a reputation for a being a prolific big-fish lake, thanks in part to the stocking efforts of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, it’s also just as good as a numbers lake.
“You do have a lot of fish that are year-group classes that are 3 to 3 1/2 pounds and those can help out in this format,” Wheat said.
“As a numbers lake, it’s got the numbers and quality. It’s got everything,” added Mark Rose, who is 23rd in BPT points this season.
While numbers may be the focus for some, others will be more inclined to target the bigger fish that have moved shallow.
“You can catch a double-digit at any stop here,” Wheat said. “It’s a matter of them being in transition right now. There’s no current, so it’s hard to fish the shell bars and current breaks and stuff they live on because they’re moving into those transitional areas. If you can find a transition ditch going into a spawning bay, you can catch a bunch really fast. It’s just a matter of pulling around the right corner at the right time.
“The fish have been under heavy current for a long time and they’ve shut it off over the last few days, so they’re kind of in a scattered state. Still, you could see a 12- to 14-pound fish (caught). They live here.”
While Edwin Evers and Jeff Sprague have separated themselves in the Race to Redcrest points standings by reaching the championship round in all three BPT events, other anglers are off to strong starts as well. The results of this tournament will determine the 30-man field for the second MLF Cup event to be held later this year. Here’s a look at the leaders in a few stat-fish-ical categories:
Most Fish Caught
1. Edwin Evers: 166
2. Jared Lintner: 136
3. Jeff Sprague: 121
4. Jacob Wheeler: 119
5. Takahiro Omori: 109
Most Weight Caught
1. Edwin Evers: 366-02
2. Jacob Wheeler: 310-07
3. Jared Lintner: 281-10
4. Jeff Sprague: 249-11
5. Takahiro Omori: 247-15
Avg. Fish Weight
1. Ish Monroe: 2.82
2. Andy Montgomery: 2.79
3. Mark Daniels Jr.: 2.75
4. Dustin Connell: 2.63
5. Jacob Powroznik: 2.62
Also, keep an eye on these records this week as it’s possible one (or all) could fall:
> Most weight in a single period. There have been four 40-pound periods recorded so far with Marty Robinson’s 53-13 at the Kissimmee Chain leading the way.
> Most weight in a single round. There have been eight 50-pound rounds through three events. Kelly Jordon’s 82-04, caught at Jordan Lake during the most recent event, is the mark to beat.
> Most weight in a single tournament. Four anglers have eclipsed the 125-pound mark in a single event with the top three weights on the list all being tallied at the Raleigh tour stop. Jacob Wheeler’s 161-02 is the top total so far.
The angler groupings will be reversed from what they were at Stage Three. Here are the group breakdowns for this week:
> Group A: Jordan Lee, Jeff Sprague, Randy Howell, Bobby Lane, Gerald Spohrer, Greg Hackney, Dave Lefebre, Jonathon VanDam, Stephen Browning, Takahiro Omori, David Walker, Dustin Connell, Brett Hite, Matt Lee, Mark Rose, Chris Lane, Ott DeFoe, Bradley Roy, Marty Robinson, Aaron Martens, Skeet Reese, Keith Poche, Terry Scroggins, Dean Rojas, Ish Monroe, Casey Ashley, Tim Horton, Cliff Pace, Jeff Kriet, Mike McClelland, Shaw Grigsby, Brandon Palaniuk, Russ Lane, Justin Lucas, James Elam, Roy Hawk, Scott Suggs, Jesse Wiggins, Britt Myers, Brent Chapman.
> Group B: Edwin Evers, Brent Ehrler, Andy Montgomery, Alton Jones, Jr., Randall Tharp, Adrian Avena, Jared Lintner, Jason Christie, Mike Iaconelli, Mark Davis, Wesley Strader, Anthony Gagliardi, Alton Jones, Michael Neal, Fletcher Shryock, Todd Faircloth, Mark Daniels, Jr., Gary Klein, Zack Birge, Boyd Duckett, Gerald Swindle, Jacob Wheeler, Shin Fukae, Greg Vinson, John Murray, Jacob Powroznik, Andy Morgan, Kevin VanDam, Cliff Crochet, Justin Atkins, Cody Meyer, Kelly Jordon, Brandon Coulter, Josh Bertrand, Luke Clausen, Fred Roumbanis, James Watson, Paul Elias, Jason Lambert, Tommy Biffle.
Edwin Evers will be shooting for a fourth straight appearance in the Championship Round this week, along with Jeff Sprague.
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
“It’s lower than I’ve ever seen it. It’s very crowded, simply because people around here bass fish, which is great for the sport, but bad for MLF. The fish seem to be doing a bit of everything and I’m going to be doing the same.
“The water is at the right temperature and it looks like we’re going to have some good low-pressure fishing conditions. I expect there to be a lot of fish caught. When you put 80 of the best on it with those conditions, we’re going to catch ‘em.
“It used to be Kentucky was the shining star on the Tennessee River, but I’d venture to say Chickamauga is that now due to the fact that the (Asian) carp haven’t gotten in there yet. Yet.”
“We’re getting all of this rain right now and the creeks are muddying up. I know there are fish on beds and that will play, but I can’t imagine that going the distance.
“By the time I fish on Wednesday and Friday, who’s to say I’ll have any fish, I’ll be looking for fish. The last thing I want to do is be staring at a fish for 30 minutes while listening to the ScoreTracker light up.
“I think it’s going to be pretty good. I was thinking if a guy gets on a small school of fish, could he outweigh a guy who’s up shallow casting? I’m thinking he can’t because if guys are scoring touchdowns you can’t be kicking field goals.”
Alton Jones Jr.
“This is my first time here and I am amazed at how many fish this place has in it. Sight-fishing and spawning-bass fishing is my favorite thing to do and with the exception of some Florida reservoirs, this is the most spawning bass I’ve seen in my entire life.
“It’s going to make an interesting event because typically, we look for the biggest fish and fish for them, but in this format you have to pick your fish carefully and be fast about it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a 70- or 75-pound cut weight in the one of the groups this week.
“If we get a good amount of rain, you can kiss sight-fishing goodbye. I hope it doesn’t happen, but I have to be prepared for that. The saving grace is that it’s supposed to be sunny and slick on Wednesday so there hopefully will be fish we can see and fish for and catch that guys tomorrow won’t have the ability to see.”
A Few to Keep an Eye On
Based on the current conditions, here are a few anglers who BassFan believes stand a chance to fare well this week:
> Edwin Evers – On quite a roll so far this year. He’ll be looking to make his fourth straight Championship Round this week and pad his lead in the overall points standings.
> Jacob Powroznik – Fresh off his win in North Carolina, he gets to target fish moving to or already on beds, which he excels at. Two wins in a row is not out of the question.
> Jacob Wheeler – Next to Evers, he might be the hottest angler in the game right now with runner-up finishes in the Bassmaster Classic and in the Raleigh BPT event. Competing close to home, he’ll want to put on a good showing.
> Michael Neal – He might be considered low-hanging fruit due to his local status, but he’d love nothing more than to topple the Bass Pro Tour field on his home waters for the first big triumph of his career.
The field will launch at 7 a.m. daily from Dayton Boat Dock in Dayton, Tenn. (Lakeshore Street). The post-game show will begin at 5 p.m. each day at Point Park in Dayton, Tenn. (Chickamauga Drive).
> Tues., April 9 – Scattered thunderstorms - 78°/52°
- Wind: From the NNE at 5 to 10 mph
> Weds., April 10 – Sunny - 77°/57°
- Wind: From the NE at 5 to 10 mph
> Thurs., April 11 – Cloudy - 78°/61°
- Wind: From the S at 10 to 20 mph
> Fri., April 12 – Morning rain, partly cloudy - 73°/52°
- Wind: From the SW at 10 to 15 mph
> Sat., April 13 – Overcast - 73°/55°
- Wind: Light and variable
> Sun., April 14 – Rain - 70°/56°
- Wind: From the S at 5 to 10 mph