Like other highland reservoir areas of the country, eastern Tennessee is producing some great fishermen. A major reason is that highland lakes require mastery of diverse fishing styles.
But then again, if the fishing in these lakes were bad, chances are that names like Dwayne Horton, Jack Wade, Craig Powers, Rufus Johnson and others would never have crossed the radar screens of bass fishing fans.
These fishermen are all from the greater Knoxville area, and courtesy of the good, yet challenging fishing in eastern Tennessee, all are making their mark on the CITGO BASSMASTER tournament circuits. Here, Powers and Johnson give their tips for fishing three Tennessee River impoundments: Tellico, Fort Loudoun and Watts Bar.
Tellico, located about 30 miles southwest of Knoxville, is the first lake in this three lake chain. Its 15,860 acres are fed by cool streams snaking out of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Though Tellico has an abundance of largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass, because of the cooler, clearer water it has a higher population of spots than the other lakes. According to Tennessee fisheries biologist Doug Peterson, 30 percent of the fish the biologists collected during 2000 were spotted bass.
Fort Loudoun is named after a British fort, which, in turn, was named after John Campbell, the fourth Earl of Loudoun, who was the commander-in-chief of British forces during the French and Indian War.
This 14,600-acre reservoir is connected via canal to Tellico, but it is a much different lake. Peterson says it's more a warmwater reservoir: "It's more fertile, it has more forage and its bass tend to grow better."
In that way, it's similar to 38,000-acre Watts Bar, which acts and fishes much the same as Loudoun.
Fishing in all three lakes has become tougher because of a loss of aquatic vegetation, a result of murky water and TVA's use of herbicides in the 1990s. But the bass fisheries remain good, and Peterson says the milfoil is coming back.
Tellico's big bass
In spring (late February and early March), Tellico can be phenomenal, Johnson says. "With the exception of Kentucky and Barkley lakes, it's probably one of the best lakes in Tennessee to catch a giant at that time of year."
Stuck in Johnson's mind is the 11-pounder weighed in at an early spring Tellico tournament.
Though Powers doesn't fish Tellico much — "I've beaten my brains out there a bunch of times," he says — he remembers seeing a 12-pound largemouth and a whopping 9-pound smallmouth caught from its waters.
"Some horses are in there," he notes, adding that of the three lakes, Tellico "has the biggest fish, by far."
One reason for that might be the lake's clearer water, which allows aquatic vegetation more of a foothold than in the other lakes.
For early spring, Johnson recommends throwing a ½-ounce Cordell Spot or Rat-L-Trap (red or chrome/blue back) or a ½-ounce Riverside Counter-Attack spinnerbait (chartreuse/white) around patches of grass. "You won't find a lot of it," he says. "It's scattered."
If the grass pattern fails, fish laydown trees at the upper end of the lake. The Notchey Creek area is a good place to start, he says.
Anglers who like to flip should keep in mind Powers' observation that Tellico's clear water makes it "a great lake for sight fishing."
If you hit the right conditions, expect a good day. "If it's a cloudy day in the springtime, you're looking at catching 20 bass, with your five best going 18 to 20 pounds," Johnson says. "In one tournament, I had 26 pounds and finished second."
Spring flippin' at Fort Loudoun
Johnson likes fishing Loudoun in mid to late May. "If the water's full at the end of May, it's a really good flipping lake," he says. "It has a bunch of overhanging bushes, undercut points, banks and islands. If the water's down 18 inches, you can flip all day and not get a bite. But if the water's up and in those bushes, it can be great."
Johnson flips a 3-inch Riverside Wooly Hawg Tail in green pumpkin or a ½-ounce Riverside jig in the same color.
Powers says he likes Loudoun better in June than in May. "During the first two weeks in June, that lake has some of the best topwater fishing you'll find in the world," he says. "You can catch a 20-pound bag on top."
In order, his baits of preference are the Excalibur Super Spook Jr. and the Super Pop-R. He says the Spook Jr. casts as well as the Pop-R and is a little easier to work. Productive color patterns include "anything with white on the bottom and a little bit of red on the throat," but most of the time he throws chrome/black back.
He recommends fishing shallow, but not along what you would think is normal spawning habitat.
"I like seawalls," he says. "Watts Bar doesn't have many, but every inch of Loudoun is developed, right into the town of Knoxville." As a result, the lake has "a ton of seawalls, and the bass spawn right on them."
As you might imagine, Loudoun also has lots of boat docks. Fish under them, Powers recommends, especially targeting the back corners, near where the bass spawn. He notes that many of the docks are floating docks over deep water, and after the spawn, bass suspend under these docks.
"You know how fish in a flat lake go to the first point or structure to rest after they spawn?" Powers says. "This lake is so deep, the fish rest under the docks instead."
For dock fishing, he uses the Spook Jr. and Pop-R, and adds that a green pumpkin floating worm also works well. He prefers a Riverside Jitter Worm.
Watts Bar is changing
Watts Bar has gone through some changes lately, says Johnson.
"When Watts Bar had grass in it, and during the next couple of years after they killed it (the early 1990s), it was really good," he says. "Then it gradually went downhill.
"It was still a great fishery until about 1997-98, and then I don't know what happened. It just went through some changes."
He thinks the forage base is fine, but tournament weights "went down dramatically." Before the grass was eradicated, 20 pounds per day were needed to win. After the grass was gone, it took only 10 pounds.
Johnson believes bass are still there, and he surmises that an overpopulation of giant shad might be part of the problem.
"The lake has these hickory shad we call Tennessee Tarpons," he says. "They weigh 3 or 4 pounds, and you can see them breaking in schools of small gizzard shad. It's weird. A year or two ago, you could see an acre or two of them breaking, but now it's not as bad."
Possibly because the lake has been changing, Johnson and Powers differ in their opinions of the best time to fish it.
Watts Bar during the spawn
Powers likes Watts Bar in May, when "most of the fish are spawning. At that time they'll be pre-spawn, spawning or post-spawn, meaning they'll be shallow," he says.
That's no secret: The lake gets a lot of pressure, he notes. That's why Powers stays away from the backs of major creeks, where most anglers head that time of year.
"I fish secondary coves — the little pockets off the major feeder creeks — because it seems like the bass move into those first," he says. He has a word of warning for those who fish these areas and expect an immediate bonanza: "You can fish them one day and not get any bites, but the next day a bunch of bass will move in.
"Instead of wasting time fishing a big cove, you can fish a bunch of little ones, and sooner or later, you'll hit them," he notes.
Most of the time, Powers fishes a floating Riverside Jitter Worm in Merthiolate or white with a 3/0 hook. "People say that hook is too small for a floating worm," he acknowledges. "But with that smaller hook, the worm sinks slower, and that gives it a more natural action." He ties the rig to 14-pound test.
In a tournament, he throws big Pop-Rs, big spinnerbaits and big shallow running crankbaits, and he makes short, accurate presentations. But he cautions that anyone who chooses to fish this way has to be a very good caster, something for which Powers is known on the pro circuit.
"If you can't cast, (those lures) are useless," he says. "If you throw in there and make a loud splash, the bass are not going to bite."
Casting accurately is critical, even with the floating worm, because of where the bass are lying. Powers advises casting anywhere a bass would be trying to make a bed: brushpiles, under overhanging trees, boat docks.
The better you can cast, the more and bigger bass you're likely to catch. But if you can fish at all, and if conditions aren't atrocious, Powers says 10 to 30 bass per day (per person) from 2 to 6 pounds can be achieved.
He adds that during that time of year,
"8-pounders are pretty common, with a lot of 6 1/2s and 7s."
When Watts Bar heats up
"Watts Bar has always been a really good deep water lake in summer," says Johnson.
He likes to fish structure like underwater points and old river ledge drops as deep as 23 feet, and he says bass from 3 to 7 pounds aren't uncommon.
Catching numbers of bass depends on a variety of factors, he says. If you're at the right place at the right time, "like in June, when the fish first move out after the spawn, you can catch 30 to 40 fish a day," he believes.
Crankbaits and soft plastics are the weapons of choice. For cranking, Johnson and other locals use various colors of Mann's 30-plus, Luhr Jensen Hot Lips Express and Excalibur Fat Free Shad crankbaits.
Soft plastics fished on Carolina rigs also are effective, both for largemouth and smallmouth. Johnson's favorites are Riverside Big Claws and Wooly Hawg Tails in green pumpkin and root beer. He uses a 3/4-ounce weight.
Winter smallies on the fly
Winter in eastern Tennessee means "float-n-fly" time. If you're not familiar with this rig, it's literally a float (bobber) with a "fly" or small jig hanging beneath it, and it wreaks havoc on suspended smallmouth.
Johnson recommends using a small float with a leader that's typically 8 to 15 feet long, though some fishermen go as deep as 22 feet. Flies are 1/16-ounce in white or smoke colors.
Johnson uses a 7- to 8-foot Custom Tackle rod (made in Knoxville) with 4- to 6-pound-test line.
"Cast to steep bluffs or points, and let it sit," he says. "Work it slowly or let it drift with the wind. Look for the bobber to go down or turn sideways."
Water temperatures below 50 degrees are best for this technique, Johnson adds. Under the right conditions, which can be found from mid-December until March 1, a five fish limit can be in the 20-pound range, and all will be smallmouth.
When the temperature climbs over 50 degrees, he recommends crankbaits (Rebel Deep Wee-Rs in the spring crawfish color) and jerkbaits (clown-colored Rogues).