Most knowledgeable bass fishermen agree no one understands the many moods and mysteries of the Tennessee River better than Bill Huntley, who, after all, has been catching bass there for more than 65 years.
Widely regarded as one of the foremost smallmouth fishermen in America, this soft-spoken, silver haired angler started making Tennessee River memories in the early 1940s, when, as a 10-year old, he accompanied his father on trips to Pickwick Lake. There they fished below the Wheeler Lake dam for both smallmouth and largemouth in a 14-foot boat his father had made from poplar planks, and powered by a two-cylinder, 7 1/2-horsepower Johnson outboard. Frequently, because of the gasoline rationing in effect during WWII, they didn't have enough fuel to make the run from their Waterloo launch area to the dam, so they fished wherever they could.Huntley, now 76, has never left the river, and he is still an active competitor in local bass tournaments. When he's not on the water, he's behind his desk as CEO of T-H Marine Supplies, Inc., in nearby Huntsville, the largest manufacturer and supplier of boating items in the world. The company produces more than 1,000 products, most designed by Huntley himself, and ranging from drain covers and cup holders to jackplates, the Hot Foot throttle pedal and entire livewell systems. Virtually every boat for fresh or saltwater has some T-H products on it."In the early days, there were no trolling motors, so we used paddles," Huntley remembers, "but my father knew these river bass liked current, so that's why we always fished the moving water below the dam. When we got in place, we didn't need a trolling motor, because we let the current push us along."The river has changed dramatically over the years, and although the fishing was fabulous when I was a youngster, I'm not sure it was that much better than it is today. Probably, we're just more skilled at catching fish, and certainly, we have more mobility."There aren't as many river islands nor as much standing timber now as there used to be," he continues, "but both Wheeler and Pickwick have always had good smallmouth populations, and they still do today."
For more than 30 years, Huntley probably spent a minimum of three days or nights a week in a bass boat on the river, not only fishing but also evaluating a piece of equipment or dreaming up a new one. His best-ever smallmouth weighed 9-7 from Pickwick, and he has an 8-14 from Wheeler.There is no way to count the number of 6 and 7-pounders he's caught from Pickwick and Wheeler during his lifetime; often he has caught several over five in a single night. In 2008 he caught a smallmouth out of the hydrilla on Wheeler, and he's even caught them in Guntersville."I remember when milfoil first began appearing in Guntersville in the late 1960s," he laughs. "We had no concept of what it meant, but it didn't take long to recognize that every time we fished around it we caught fish."Today, Guntersville is just an unbelievable fish factory, primarily because of the vegetation. Not long ago I fished a tournament there and had 27 pounds for one day, and still finished 13th.While Guntersville has its vegetation, Wheeler and Pickwick differ because of their bottom composition, and Huntley has certainly explored a lot of that bottom with his jigs and spinnerbaits over the years. Today, many tournament pros ask him for fishing advice whenever an event is scheduled on any of the lakes."Pickwick has more gravel bottom, better current, and the water is clearer, which I believe is why smallmouth have done better there," he notes. "It's just better overall habitat. Wheeler not only has more hydrilla but also much more shoreline industry that may affect the fishing to some degree."Huntley also thinks there is better fishing on the upper end of Wheeler than most realize. Spotted bass have become established there, but few spend much time fishing north of Decatur, simply because the fishing is so good in other areas."Bass fishing as a sport began gaining popularity here in the early 1950s," he points out, "but then you ate whatever you caught, and I certainly have eaten my share of bass.
Today, though, I honestly believe tournament fishing is the best thing that has happened to the Tennessee River. Tournament anglers release their fish, and, given the amount of fishing pressure these lakes receive today, I'm sure it's had a huge effect on preserving the population."Given the size and scope of this river system, nothing truly compares to the Tennessee River for overall fishing quality, but I think the fishermen themselves have been as responsible for this as anyone."