Mind games at Chickamauga

DAYTON, Tenn. — As B.A.S.S. tournament director Trip Weldon closed the anglers' meeting Tuesday evening, he said, "Everybody be friendly. You know what's going to happen out there."

What's going to happen is that this 36,000-acre reservoir on the Tennessee River is going to fish extremely small, especially with 140 anglers on it for BASSfest. The tournament field includes the 107 Elite Series anglers, plus some of the best bass fishermen competing in the Bassmaster Open circuits – a total field of 140 anglers.

Lake Chickamauga is noted for having a half-dozen to a dozen river ledge areas where huge schools of bass gather for the summer. Everyone knows where these "community holes" are located. If you plan on fishing there this week, you'll be fishing in a crowd.

Here are five things to watch as the BASSfest four-day tournament progresses:

1. To fish in a crowd, or not — Brandon Palaniuk abhors fishing amongst a bunch of other anglers. But he's found no alternatives during three days of practice prior to Day 1 Wednesday.

"It's really not my style," Palaniuk said. "I've always been one to try and get away from everyone. I spent pretty much three days trying to figure out something different than everybody else, and I couldn't do it."

Palaniuk said there are "probably eight really good schools of fish" located along the ledges along the Tennessee River channel. If you fish there, you won't be alone.

And it's not like just fishing those community holes will mean you'll catch a five-bass limit of bass. 

"You could be three boats down and you're missing them, but the last two boats are smashing them," he said. "You can't do a thing about it but sit there and watch."

Well, you could move to one of the other community holes.

"That's going to be the hardest thing this week," Palaniuk said. "Deciding whether to leave a spot or stay there. It's definitely going to be mind games this week."

2. Must you fish in a crowd to win? — There are differing schools of thought on this, but most anglers believe you've got to be on one of the community holes to win this tournament.

"I think there's a good chance it will be won off a community hole," said Luke Clausen. "It will be something totally off the wall or it will be a community hole. From my experience, the vast majority of the tournaments here are won off the community holes. That's why they are community holes – there are tons of fish there."

Ott DeFoe, who is coming off an Open Series victory at nearby Douglas Lake, disagrees, saying, "I think you can't fish there and win. I don't like fishing in those kind of groups anyway. But I don't think the winner will be fishing those places more than one-third of his day, if at all."

DeFoe believes there are enough places on this lake that hold good-size bass that you shouldn't have to fish among a bunch of other anglers to be in contention here.

"There may not be as many fish there, but they are the right ones," DeFoe said. "And they aren't getting as much pressure. It will still be typical Tennessee River type stuff – ledges, points, humps, that kind of thing."

3. Will the shallow bite be a factor? — Luke Clausen believes you can catch fish from depths of 2 feet to 32 feet on Chickamauga this week, and he plans to explore that shallow bite a bit.

"Everybody thinks this is going to be strictly a ledge tournament," Clausen said. "But a lot of fish live shallow here too. I fished a tournament a month later than this last year and I caught 20 pounds off the bank the first day. Now it's going to be really hard to win shallow, but I'm definitely going to fish shallow some."

While some people think it will take an average of 24 to 26 pounds a day to win this tournament, DeFoe thinks the winning weight will be closer to 80 pounds, maybe less. And 20 pounds a day in shallow water will get you there.

"It's very hard to be consistent in these types of places," DeFoe said. 

It might be easier to attain some consistency if you go to the deeper bite on the ledges after the field is cut from 140 to the top 60 before Saturday. At least you won't have to fish in a crowd the first two days, if you concentrate in the shallows.

4. Will lure choice make a difference on the ledges? — If you had the community holes to yourself, you could catch bass on a variety of baits – everything from crankbaits to football head jigs to big worms and swimbaits. But in a crowd of anglers, a particular lure can make all the difference.

"That's going to be a big key, finding something a little bit different from what everybody else is doing," Palaniuk said. "But you are limited as to what you can do by how many guys are around you. You might just have to pick and choose your battles wisely as to what you can actually do.

"Lure choice is somewhat luck of the draw, as to where the fish are positioned and what angle you have to fish them."

5. When will the bite turn on? Current is the biggest key in the Tennessee River chain of lakes. With the recent rains in the area, the Tennessee Valley Authority is more likely to be pulling some water this week through both the Watts Bar Dam above the lake and Chickamauga Dam. During those periods of heavy current, bass fishing gets much easier. The key is being in the right spot at the right time.

"Usually the fish bite in very small windows (of time)," Clausen said. "It's really hard to predict. It could be 10 o'clock; it could be noon. But there's always going to be a window during the day when the majority of the fish are going to be caught off one little place."

That's one more big factor in the mind games that will be played among the 140 anglers here this week. Do you stay in one place and wait for the magic window, or do you leave and look for magic somewhere else?

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