Late-winter options await Elites at Chickamauga

DAYTON, Tenn. — A week after kicking off the 2020 Bassmaster Elite Series on Florida’s famed St. Johns River, the anglers from the Bassmaster Elite Series will once again enjoy a dose of Sunshine State charm.

This time, it’ll just happen in Tennessee.

The Bassmaster Elite at Chickamauga Lake will take place Feb. 14-17, with daily takeoffs at 7:30 a.m. ET from Dayton Boat Dock and weigh-ins each day at 3:30 p.m. from Point Park at Dayton Boat Dock.

The anglers’ chief target will be the lake’s massive population of giant Florida-strain largemouth.

“It’s going to be too early for prespawn; it’s going to be a cold winter bite,” said first-year Elite Series pro Buddy Gross, who makes his home in Chickamauga, Ga. “It would take a lot of sunshine to get us to a prespawn deal — and from what I’ve seen in the extended forecast, it’s going to remain more or less a wintertime pattern.”

While these big-growing fish thrive in Chickamauga’s latitude, East Tennessee’s still a significantly cooler environment than Florida. That means the fish will be in a much earlier stage of their seasonal patterns.

Covering 36,240 surface acres with a maximum depth of 72 feet, Chickamauga receives several chilly inflows, including the Hiawassee River — a point Gross expects to factor into the lake’s water temperature range.

The Dayton area saw heavy rains in recent days and the long-range forecast shows more precipitation likely for tournament week. Rain in the mountains means cold run-off, and that’ll keep the fish holding to their winter patterns.

Gross, who placed third at last year’s Bassmaster Eastern Open at Chickamauga, points to another variable — grass.

“We have an annual drawdown of about 4 1/2 feet, and when they drop the water (for the annual drawdown to make room for the winter-spring influx), we lose a lot of our grass habitat because it grows shallow on that lake more than deep,” Gross said. “Whatever grass is there will be dormant — the old grass that’s leftover and some dead stuff.”

Gross said he expects to see a mix of shallow and deep patterns. Much depends on how the weather picture shapes up and how much shallow vegetation the fish have to utilize.

“I think that some of the 5-foot stuff will play, but I think it’s going to be more of a 10- to 12-foot deal,” he said.

Up shallow, anglers will find reaction baits like bladed jigs and lipless crankbaits productive. While gravel and other hard bottom supports the shallow game, this scenario is largely grass-related.

Offshore, jerkbaits, jigs and finesse options like dropshots and Neko rigs could come into play. There’s also a good chance someone will strike gold in the Watts Bar tailrace.

Below the dam or on the main lake, Gross believes current could become the most significant factor in this tournament’s outcome.

“With all this rain, it’s going to be a current-oriented deal that anglers can catch a lot of numbers on,” he said. “We have a lot of mountain streams feeding this lake. The Hiawassee River comes straight out of the Smoky Mountains, and then all the small mountains there close are also a lot colder.

“More of the run-off will be cold, so out closer to the main river will be the warmer water, unless the sun shines, and I don’t see that happening.”

A full field of 88 anglers will fish Days 1 and 2, and the field will be trimmed to the Top 40 for Day 3’s semifinal round. After Day 3, only the Top 10 will advance to the championship round.

Gross said he believes it will take 15 to 15 1/2 pounds to make the semifinal cut. The winning weight is more of a moving target, but Gross said 82 pounds would not surprise him.

“We will probably see a few 20-pound bags each day,” Gross said. “We might even see a 30-pound bag.”

The winning angler will earn $100,000 and one of the coveted blue trophies awarded to all Elite Series winners.

The Bassmaster Elite at Chickamauga Lake is being hosted by the Rhea Economic Development and Tourism Council.