KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The GEICO Bassmaster Classic presented by DICK'S Sporting Goods brings bass fishing’s grandest event to the spot where one of the nation’s grandest rivers begins.
Literally forming at the host city of Knoxville, the Tennessee River traces its beginning to the confluence of the Holston and French Broad rivers on the town’s east side. From there, it extends 652 miles before emptying into the Ohio River.
The entire length of the Tennessee is known for its bass fishing, but the upper section will become the focal point of the bass fishing universe March 15-17, when the Classic gets under way. The three-day event is worth $300,000 to the winner, out of a total purse of $1 million.
The Classic waters have been off-limits to the 52 Classic qualifiers since December 31. They’ll have a few more days to scout the fishery just prior to the start of competition as they try to pinpoint locations where they can catch the heaviest five-bass limits each day.
Classic waters include Fort Loudoun and Tellico lakes, twin reservoirs connected by a canal and comprising about 30,000 combined acres. Competitors can fish either lake and anywhere along the Tennessee River upstream from Fort Loudoun Dam to the Interstate-40 bridge on the Holston River and the Highway 168 bridge on the French Broad River.
“The river just has so much to offer from top to bottom,” said Bassmaster Elite Series pro Brandon Card, who lives in Knoxville and loves the river. “A lot of the anglers who’ll be fishing this Classic have probably never seen this particular part of the river before.
“I’ve been fishing Fort Loudon and Tellico off and on my whole life, and I know how good they can be.”
Named after an 18th-Century British fort built during the French and Indian War,
Fort Loudoun Lake was constructed in 1943 for hydroelectric power production, and it boasts 379 miles of shoreline and 14,600 surface acres.
Card said anglers in the 52-angler Classic field who prefer to fish for largemouth will likely spend most of their time on Fort Loudon due to its stained water color and wealth of shallow structure.
“Fort Loudon looks more like a river,” Card said. “It has that Tennessee River water clarity that is just great for fishing shallow. The ‘power’ fishermen — the guys who like to throw crankbaits and swimbaits and things like that — will probably gravitate toward Fort Loudon.
“That’s what I would do — and I’d look for places that have big largemouth and smallmouth because both species are in Fort Loudon.”
Noting that March is one of the best months to fish all of the Tennessee River reservoirs, former Bassmaster Classic champion David Fritts agreed that Fort Loudon is more suited for shallow fishing.
“The key to success is being able to find the staging fish as they move in,” Fritts said. “Rock is always important this time of year on the Tennessee River. Wood on a rocky spot enhances it, but a hard bottom is the key. You’re not going to catch a whole lot of fish off of laydowns, unless they have hard bottom underneath.”
Completed in 1979, this 15,560-acre reservoir was created as a Loudoun extension. The Tellico Dam impounds the Little Tennessee River, which flows northwestward from its source in the Appalachian Mountains and enters the Tennessee River near Lenoir City.
Unlike its neighboring Fort Loudoun structure, Tellico Dam has no power-generation capabilities. Instead, it serves to divert water through a short canal into Fort Loudoun for greater flood control and navigational purposes.
Perhaps as a result, Tellico typically features clearer water than Fort Loudon and can be more attractive to deep-water anglers.
“You’re talking 10 feet of visibility on Tellico versus maybe 3 feet of visibility on Fort Loudon,” Card said. “So, the light-line, smallmouth guys are definitely going to favor Tellico.”
As with most clear-water fisheries, Card said success on Tellico is tied heavily to the weather of the day.
“Tellico is more of a conditional lake,” he said. “On overcast days or real windy days, that’s when Tellico is going to shine. But if we get a bluebird, sunny day, Tellico will be tough.”
Tale of two Classics
Card said limits of 20-pound smallmouth are possible on either fishery. It’ll just be a matter of how an angler wants to fish and what the weather will allow. Though the area is being pounded by heavy rains now, Card said if the weather stabilizes, the venue should make for a great Classic.
“You can pretty much pick your poison,” he said. “You can fish a drop-shot rig in 40 feet of water on Tellico, or you can fish a squarebill on Fort Loudon in 2 feet of water.
“Strategically, you’re going to have to make some tough decisions all three days.”
The biggest decision, according to Elite Series pro Mark Menendez of Kentucky, may be whether you want to catch lots of smallmouth at Tellico or bank on an occasional monster smallmouth at Fort Loudon.
“Loudoun has a good population of 4- and 5-pound smallmouth, and those are going to play big in the Classic,” Menendez said. “It’s easier to catch a 5-pound smallmouth on Loudoun than a 5-pound largemouth — but there are more largemouth. It’s going to make for a really fun guessing game.”
Knoxville leaders are excited about showing off their fishery to fishing fans visiting from throughout the nation.
“The Visit Knoxville Sports Commission has enjoyed partnering with B.A.S.S. and looks forward to welcoming the Bassmaster Classic in just a few short weeks,” said Kim Bumpas, president of Visit Knoxville. “Hosting this event in Knoxville is the perfect opportunity to showcase the beautiful Tennessee River to the Classic competitors and outdoor enthusiasts.”
Classic anglers will take off each competition morning from Volunteer Landing in downtown Knoxville, and weigh-ins will be each afternoon at Thompson-Boling Arena on the University of Tennessee campus. The Bassmaster Classic Outdoors Expo presented by DICK’S Sporting Goods and other activities will take place at the Knoxville Convention Center and the adjacent World’s Fair Exhibition Hall. For more information about attending the 49th Bassmaster Classic, visit VisitKnoxville.com/Bassmaster, or go to Bassmaster.com.