Tennessee River Classic outlook



Paul Mueller shows off Guntersville bass during the 2014 Bassmaster Classic.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — A multi-year flooding trend continued in 2020 for the Tennessee River Valley, as 11 inches of year fell in the seven-state area by early February, nearly double the normal amount.

During mid-February, when a Bassmaster Elite Series event originally was scheduled for Chickamauga Lake, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) spokesman Jim Hopson added that February rains were "400 percent of normal, and we have more coming this week. It's kind of a never-ending battle."

But there's good news for the March 6-8 Bassmaster Classic on Guntersville and the rescheduled Elite set for March 19-22 at Chickamauga. In late February, the drenching rains slowed, enabling TVA to pull tributary lakes in its 49-dam network back to normal winter levels to recover flood storage.

"The main stem Tennessee River has crested at many locations, including Chattanooga, Whitesburg, and Florence and Savannah, Clifton, and Perryville, and river elevations will begin to fall," the agency announced.

That translates into safer boating conditions for anglers, but how will the fisheries be impacted by the earlier winter rains?

At the Classic on Guntersville, “expect the bass to begin moving up shallow to staging areas out of the main river and current," said Phil Ekema, District Fisheries Supervisor for the Alabama Department of Natural Resources.

"Bass should position themselves behind current breaks and in eddies where shad concentrate," he continued. "Current breaks behind points, docks, humps and around riprap and causeway bridges will be prime locations for bass."

He added, "Guntersville bass are accustomed to high-fast water in late winter. Last year we experienced similar conditions from February through March."

Another likely positive is that the heavy rains have kept water temperatures above normal.

"Plenty of eel grass remained alive this winter and will be the primary vegetation available during the Classic," Ekema said. "Water color will remain stained until the Classic."

Meanwhile, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency biologist Mike Jolley said that bass should be starting to move into shallow embayments on Chickamauga by mid-March, despite lingering high water.

"The bass still will want to come up there," he said. "The mouths of creeks are always good to look at too, where bass are eating on shad and preparing to spawn."

As well as growing heavy. February and March typically are big-bass months on Chickamauga. The lake record of 15-3 was caught Feb. 13, 2015.

Vegetation likely will be diminished by earlier high flows, as they scour out what survived during the winter. But that's a greater concern for summer fishing, than spring, Jolley added.

One possible wild card could be a shad die-off, which would make feeding easier for bass and catching tougher for anglers. "You never know when that's going to happen. There's no way to predict it," the Tennessee biologist explained.

"But we often see die-offs when we get some warm days."

No matter the quality of the fishing, however, both tournament and recreational anglers still need to be cautious during this third straight year of late winter and early spring flooding.

"TVA does a very good job of controlling the water levels," said veteran Alabama angler Rick Hart, who fishes mostly dam tailwaters on the lower portion of the Tennessee River. "We have had several boating accidents and drownings in the past, due to anglers not obeying cautions put out by TVA."

In addition to rocks that might be camouflaged by fast flows, "tons of debris" can making boating hazardous, he added.

According to TVA, 2018 was the wettest year on record for the Tennessee River Valley and 2019 ranked second. Heavy winter rains seem to have 2020 on a record pace as well.

But as of late February, conditions look promising for productive B.A.S.S. events on both Guntersville and Chickamauga.