There are some lakes where your decision-making seems to be consistently sluggish, or just downright wrong most of the time, which produces poor results. That is, until you crack the code on that particular body of water.
Chickamauga and other Tennessee River fisheries have always been those lakes for me. I’ve always made poor decisions and felt like my “gut” never really knew what was going on.
With my recent 6th-place finish at the FLW Pro Circuit Super Tournament at Chickamauga, I may have reached a turning point in my string of poor decision-making and sub-par performances on TVA fisheries.
I very rarely visit a lake prior to official practice. Unless I need to learn how to navigate a new lake, I prefer to not have too many preconceived notions before I get there.
Obviously, since I live only minutes from multiple ramps on Chickamauga, I was going to get out and pre-practice in some capacity. The strategy I decided upon was to spend most of my time idling around and finding as many offshore areas as possible, so when official practice came along I could focus almost exclusively finding something sneaky up shallow.
Ultimately, after the first day of official practice, I was already starting to get jaded on the shallow bite and started looking off the bank. It wasn’t long before the realization hit that everyone else was also looking offshore and they seemed to be finding all the same schools, and so my faith in the opportunities there also started to wane.
During the entire three days of practice I never once caught a bag over 15 pounds and my confidence was at an all-time low.
It wasn’t until the evening of the final day of practice when I received the text from FLW that I was to be boat No. 3 on day 1. At that moment the uncertainty of whether I would ever get on a decent school offshore started to fade.
I spent that afternoon seeking out the school that I wanted to begin my tournament on with a renewed level of optimism.
Days 1 & 2
With such an early boat number, I left the launch optimistic. I felt confident the school I had selected to start my tournament on had bigger than average fish and I felt good about being able to get my slice of the pie.
It was no surprise that I got on my main-lake ledge first, but it was also no surprise that in short order I was joined by several other pros, including Terry Scroggins, who has long been a hero of mine. The experience was surreal. I had my MotorGuide Tour Pro on “anchor mode” and was fishing right next to one of the anglers I've looked up to for a long time. The best part was that we both were working together instead of trying to cut each other out. It was a very amicable experience.
It became apparent to me early on that first day that I would likely camp out on this ledge the entire day. The morning flurry wasn’t on fire, but it showed that the quality was there and if only I could wait things out until the current started, I could get a decent bag.
Using primarily a 1 1/4-ounce ackhammer ChatterBait, I got a limit fairly early, but my resolve was tested with a long lull and a lost fish around 4 1/2 pounds in the middle of that lull. Fortunately, my gamble of camping out paid off when the current picked up and with minutes to go I hooked into an 8-08 mule. I ended day one with a little over 18 pounds.
The morning of day 2 I was pretty sure that the ledge from the previous day was dried up from how big of a grind it was the previous day. I did end up trying it first thing, but quickly my gut was telling me I needed to leave, so I headed downlake.
For several hours I bounced around different schools and for some reason was only able to catch fish barely under the 15-inch minimum. With the feeling of “Chickamauga is going to get me again” creeping into my mind, I kept focusing on what my next move needed to be, trying to keep my head in the game.
Finally, I made the fateful decision to head to two bluff walls where I'd found a mayfly hatch happening on the last day of practice. With a Z-Man CrosseyeZ Football jig in hand I worked the first bluff as slowly and methodically as I could muster. Nothing ... not a bite.
I was just about to abandon the bluff pattern all together, but decided to try the next bluff because I felt I could catch a few keeper spotted bass. Turns out, this would be a pivotal moment in the event, and not only did I catch a few spots, I found a small stretch that was loaded with largemouth between 3 and 4 1/2 pounds.
I caught 16 pounds in minutes and left so as not to burn up quality keepers. I culled up once more on a ledge up the lake and ended the day with 17 pounds, easily making the third day.
Days 3 & 4
After seeing the quality that the mayfly hatch spot had, I decided to start there and within six casts on the primary stretch I had caught 18 pounds. Within another half-hour, I had culled up to my eventual weight of 20-02.
I tried testing the shallow bite with a Z-Man Leap FrogZ hollow-bodied frog, but the conditions (sunny, hot and calm) were less than ideal, and though I caught fish, I was never able to bump out any of the quality ones I had caught earlier. My bag was enough to bump me into 5th place going into the final day.
The next morning, I was anxious to get out to my bluff wall because the morning bite had been the best so far, and I also was curious as to how many more fish could be there.
A fog delay ended up holding us back for about an hour or so, which I knew might affect my morning bite, but that was okay because I got to hang out and speak with one of my other heroes, Alton Jones, for a bit as we waited. Again, it was very surreal getting the opportunity to not only fish against someone like Alton, but to sit and have a casual conversation while we waited for the fog to burn off was a highlight of my week.
Once the haze thinned, it was all business again. I raced down to the bluff wall and immediately caught a solid 4-pounder that seemed to be the norm there, but then I ended up struggling. I only caught two other small keepers there and after a couple hours of thoroughly working my best bluff I had little to show for my time.
I knew at that time that despite the fact that I had told myself I would milk that spot all day, I needed to adjust in order to not fall down the leaderboard any further.
At this point in the day there was a light, steady, rain covering the south end of the lake and with the low light conditions I knew that my best shot at a few quality fish would be found shallow, so I pulled my frog rod out of the box and got to work throwing the Leap FrogZ in the dense pond-weed that lined much of the shoreline in the Harrison Bay area.
It didn’t take long before my gut instincts were shown to be correct, and I quickly caught a limit and started culling – as well as losing a couple key fish.
My shallow-water gamble paid off and I was able to salvage an otherwise difficult day and bring 15-13 to the scales that allowed me to capture a 6th-place finish – easily the best of my career on Chickamauga.
More than a Good Finish
Anytime you make a top 10 it’s a great accomplishment, but this one was special because it represents a victory over one of my biggest weaknesses – TVA fisheries. Also, not only am I proud of simply getting a top-10, but the way I went about it was a substantial confidence booster in that I never stayed with one particular pattern or location throughout the event.
I’ve always struggled with timely decision-making on Chickamauga, but this time around every time my gut told me to do something I made the change and was met with results.
Sure, I still have a ton to learn about the Tennessee River system, but for now I'm going to take this finish as strong evidence that my hard work and focus is starting to pay off. And that validation feels pretty darn good.
(Miles "Sonar" Burghoff is an FLW Pro Circuit competitor and the co-host of the TV series "Sweetwater." To visit his website, click here. You can also visit him on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube (SonarFishing) and Instagram (@sonarfishing).