By Todd Ceisner
Anglers who competed at BASSFest last week at Lake Chickamauga were left with some pretty big decisions coming out of practice based on the fishing conditions.
There was one faction that opted to stay out deep where the bass were starting to group up in the current on their classic summer areas along river ledges and humps. Typically, it's a big-fish pattern that doesn't always equate to a high volume of bites, plus the pattern is very much dependent on how much current is being generated at a given time.
The downside was there only seemed to be a finite number of schools to be found and they were mostly located around fairly obvious areas or known community holes.
Others opted to bypass the offshore bite altogether since there were plenty of fish still shallow – some resident fish around docks and grass and some post-spawners that were still making their way out of bays and pockets en route to their summer haunts.
There were even some late stragglers in spawning areas, as Hank Cherry proved when he caught a 10-11, the biggest fish weighed in this season, off a bed. This option allowed anglers to avoid fishing side by side with other competitors, but it also blunted their chances to win by a considerable amount.
Still others combined the two programs, fishing select shallow areas in the mornings before sliding out to deeper water in the afternoon when the current seemed to be at its strongest and the fish had had enough time to reposition.
For those who finished just behind winner Jacob Wheeler, it was a mix of all of the above at Chickamauga, which fished extremely small, but still gave anglers opportunities at catching game-changing fish.
Here's how the rest of the Top 5 finishers filled their livewells.
2nd: Kevin VanDam
> Day 1: 5, 22-09
> Day 2: 5, 22-14
> Day 3: 4, 15-13
> Day 4: 5, 23-08
> Total = 19, 84-12
Kevin VanDam never made a cast or pitch or flip in shallow water last week. Instead, he stayed out on the main-river ledges, grinding out bites when the current started moving.
"I fished a little shallow in practice, but I knew that wasn't the way I like to fish and not the way to fish to win," he said. "I've fished the Tennessee River for a lot of years and it's like the Coosa River or any other system like these. These fish, especially in the summer, basically their whole life is dictated by the generation schedule."
He said he caught some good fish on a Strike King 10XD crankbait in practice, but the fishing pressure on some areas was just too much for him and the cranking bite eventually fizzled out.
"There were so many boats on those places, it was almost too crowded to cast," he added. "Every spot I pulled on, I'd throw a 6XD or 10XD, a spoon, a swimbait, a jig or a worm."
In the tournament, one of his key areas was a spot he shared with Jeff Kriet and Russ Lane, who also made the Top-12 cut. The trio worked in concert to keep the school of fish fired up once they started biting.
"Most of the places I had were river channel ledges," he said. "They definitely had to have hard bottom. That primary place had lot of hard rock on it, but it was not natural rock. It was really rough. There was a big pipe that runs across the lake right there and they dumped a lot of rock around it. It's the only area on lake like that and it's a community hole, no doubt."
He said the area was pretty vast and offered the fish plenty of structure to get around based on how the current was moving. His key baits on that spot on the first 2 days when he weighed 22-plus pounds were a Strike King Denny Brauer Structure Jig and a 10-inch worm rigged on a 3/4-ounce swing-head jig with a 6/0 hook.
"I caught a lot of my bigger fish on the worm just reeling it slowly along the bottom," he said. "That swing-head jig works a lot better than a Texas rig and the fish seemed to like it."
Even though he weighed nearly 23 pounds on day 2, he had a couple opportunities to challenge Wheeler for the tournament's heaviest stringer.
"That was the day that cost me the tournament," he said. "I had three giants that came off. You don't usually lose them on single-hook baits like that and I did. Those Florida strains living in current, they're healthy and compared to other Tennessee River lakes, Chickamauga does not have the numbers that Guntersville or Kentucky Lake has, but they dang sure have the size. It reminds me of some of the Mexican lakes."
When the current slacked off and the bite slowed down, he sometimes picked up a bucktail jig, which is usually used by striper angers.
"I went to it when they're weren't pulling water and the fish were suspending," he said. "It pulls good through the water column. That and the (Strike King) Sexy Spoon are my two favorite baits in those situations. The water was a little clearer than usual and I was missing a lot of bites on that spoon. I was fishing the bucktail faster and missed a bunch on that, too, but I also caught some on it."
On the final day, he faced a 7-pound deficit to Wheeler, but he had his best day in terms of quantity and weight. He attributed that to the current that was pushing through the lake.
"They pulled water pretty good and I knew it would be a problem to make up that deficit without big bites," he said. "It was frustrating (Saturday) because I caught only four fish. (Sunday), I was throwing back 4-pounders left and right.
"Current is way more important on those days with high skies and no wind," he added. "We had a lot of diversity as far as the weather and water conditions. You had to adjust each day and Jacob did a good job. Looking back, not one of the leaders was able to stay consistent all 4 days. Jacob and I struggled on Saturday and those big bites he got on day 2 were the difference makers."
> Worm gear: 7'6" heavy-action Quantum Exo PT or Quantum Exo Tour PT casting rods, Quantum Exo PT or Quantum Tour KVD casting reels (7.1:1 and 7.3:1 gear ratio), 17-pound Bass Pro Shops EXP fluorocarbon line, 3/4-oz. Mustad swing-head, 6/0 Mustad KVD Grip Pin soft plastic hook, 10" Strike King Rage Thumper Worm (plum).
> Jig gear: Same rods, same reels, same line, 3/4-oz. Strike King Denny Brauer Structure Jig (hard candy), Strike King Rage Tail Craw trailer (plum crazy).
> Main factor in his success – "Persistence. It wasn't like you could really just pull up and fill the boat. I wasn't getting 50 bites a day. I had to work hard and believe in my areas and sit around. That's not my style, but I knew that's how it was going to be."
> Performance edge – "I worked really hard trying to find the right sound pattern on my HydroWave to move the shad and get them activated. There is so much bait on the Tennessee River. There's shad on every ledge and if you can get them moving and pull them off the bottom you can get the bass to follow."
Matt Herren didn't have a lot of spots to fish, but he maximized them for a 3rd-place finish.
3rd: Matt Herren
> Day 1: 5, 22-07
> Day 2: 5, 21-07
> Day 3: 5, 23-06
> Day 4: 5, 16-11
> Total = 20, 83-15
Through the first 3 days of the tournament, nobody was more consistent than Matt Herren, who averaged better than 22 pounds a day employing a shallow-water pattern in the morning and a deep-water jig and worm strategy in the afternoon.
His weight dropped off to 16-11 on day 4 as the bigger bites he'd been getting never showed up.
He didn't have a real strong practice, especially offshore, and eventually settled on a 3/4-mile stretch of river north of the power plant where VanDam and Co. were stationed.
"Most of the time you can get on those schools on the ledges, but I just never did," he said. "My practice was terrible and I didn't have a lot of bites. I'd pull up and get a bite or two and leave so you never knew what you were on. I wound up catching them somewhere different every day."
He'd spend his mornings around docks and shallow humps, with the docks producing well when the sun made prolonged appearances, especially over the final 2 days.
"I figured out during the course of the tournament that I could go catch a limit out and seeing that I didn't have a lot of offshore stuff, I ran around and tried to expand on stuff for the next day," he said. "By doing that, I stumbled on the dock bite."
He said he wasn't able to back track on certain docks, which told him he was catching resident bass since they weren't replenishing later in the day or the next day.
"I think some of those fish were post-spawn and they were coming out of those spawning bays and the docks were their last stop before they'd get to the main lake," he said. "It had to be a substantial dock with lot of shade or structure. That's where the fish would set up."
When he fished away from the bank, he was targeting humps and long, extending points in 16 to 18 feet of water. He would pick them off by dragging a football jig or a 10-inch worm rigged on a swing-head jig.
"You'd pull up and see them on the graph," he said. "They'd either be suspended or be on the bottom. Out of the two or three schools I had, I could get them to fire up once or twice a day and catch three to five fish out of them."
It was a grind throughout to catch what he did as he caught no more than seven keepers each of the first 2 days. That number jumped to 15 on day 3 and dipped to eight on the final day.
"I just didn't have any of those big schools to play with," he added.
> Football jig gear: 7'3" heavy-action Kistler Z-Bone casting rod, unnamed casting reel, 14-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line, 3/4-oz. Santone Lures M Series football jig (green-pumpkin), Reaction Innovations Twerk trailer (green-pumpkin).
> Flipping gear: 7'6" heavy-action Kistler Z-Bone casting rod, unnamed casting reel, 16-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line, 3/8-oz. Santone Lures M Series jig (brown), same trailer.
> Shaky-head gear: 7'3" medium-action Kistler spinning rod, unnamed spinning reel, 8-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line, 1/4-oz. Santone Lures Piglet, Reaction Innovations Flirt (green-pumpkin).
> He also caught some keepers on a 10" worm (red bug) rigged on a 1/2-oz. swing-head jig with a 5/0 Gamakatsu EWG worm hook. "The fish really seem to like that application," he said.
> Main factor in his success – "The biggest thing was I had to have what I had to myself. I was fishing a different deal in a different area and was on a different pattern. I wasn't fishing community holes and was by myself."
> Performance edge – "The Humminbird 360 Imaging and also the Lakemaster version 2 chip. The Tennessee has been remapped and if you don't have version 2, you're second fiddle. The 360 really becomes a big tool when fishing shell beds. It allows you to look forward and see the ends of the beds."
Gerald Swindle didn't want to get caught up fishing in crowds so he committed to a shallow-water pattern.
4th: Gerald Swindle
> Day 1: 5, 15-05
> Day 2: 5, 22-11
> Day 3: 5, 17-11
> Day 4: 5, 18-15
> Total = 20, 74-10
Gerald Swindle warmed up for Chickamauga by fishing offshore at Lake Guntersville. After spending the majority of his practice trying to find similar scenarios on ledges, he decided he didn't want to share areas with other competitors and opted to focus his energy toward the bank.
"I spent two-thirds of my practice offshore looking for big wads of them and every time I'd find them, there'd be 40 boats around you," he said. "It didn't take long to see it was going to fish tiny. I couldn't get a bite cranking or stroking a jig so I knew it wasn't going to be to my advantage.
"I went to some docks and got a couple bites. It wasn't wide open by any means, but I wanted to fish comfortable and I didn't want that experience out deep."
The more fish he found along the bank the more confidence he gained and after catching a bag of 3-pounders on day 1, some bigger fish kept finding their way to him.
"The next 2 days, I was fortunate to get a couple 5- or 6-pound bites," he said. "It felt fun to fish a tournament like I wanted to."
Still, he was a bit surprised at how crowded some areas got.
"It fished as small as any offshore lake I've been to," he said. "It was absolutely tiny. There weren't tons of big schools and they only seemed to be on six or eight spots."
The docks he targeted were mostly out toward the mouths of pockets and bays with 6 to 8 feet of water out front. When the sun got up, he targeted shade lines tight to the dock and when it was cloudy or raining, the fish seemed to disperse around the perimeter and he had to keep his distance while casting to them.
"I'm pretty sure these were post-spawners coming out of those pockets and bays and those docks were the last places they'd stop before heading back to the river," he said. "I saw some guarding bream beds and I knew there were enough fish shallow to get a check and survive there.
"I knew it would be won deep, but I also knew that if fished hard enough shallow, I could get a check and it just kept falling into place. I was comfortable fishing the way I want to fish."
> Flipping/dock gear: 7'4" medium-heavy Quantum Exo Tour PT casting rod, Quantum Tour Mg casting reel (6.3:1 gear ratio), 18-pound Sunline Shooter fluorocarbon line, 3/8-oz. Booyah finesee jig (brown/green), Zoom Z Hog Jr. trailer (green-pumpkin blue flash).
> Swindle liked the small profile of the jig and trailer combo since he felt that it enticed bites from both smaller and bigger fish, plus it mimicked a bream. "I had to get some 2 1/2-pounders to bite, too, and if you got too big, you could fish your way out of getting a limit," he said.
> He also weighed a couple fish caught on a Zoom Trick Worm rigged on a shaky-head off some rock piles.
> He also caught fish on prop baits and some topwaters, but they were smaller and he eventually culled them with out the jig. "It was a simple tournament for me," he said. "I'd come in at night and rig up two rods and go sit down."
> Main factor in his success – "Knowing I can't fish in and out and realizing after 17 years that I can't do it. I knew there would be guys doing both, but I told myself, 'I don't want to be that guy who was constantly saying I have to check this hump or ledge.' That mindset helped me. I never questioned my decision."
Brett Hite relied on past knowledge of some grassy areas and incorporated an afternoon deep-water pattern to log a 5th-place finish.
5th: Brett Hite
> Day 1: 5, 19-02
> Day 2: 5, 18-15
> Day 3: 5, 16-04
> Day 4: 5, 17-00
> Total = 20, 71-05
Brett Hite posted the best finish of anyone without a 20-pound bag to his credit at Chickamauga. He was fresh off a 12th-place effort at the Pickwick Lake FLW Tour, so he was pretty in tune with the Tennessee River.
He'd fished shallow in two previous tournaments at Chickamauga and he had a good feel for what was in skinny water, so he opted to spend his whole practice over deep water trying to locate the schools everyone else was looking for.
"I never made a cast in water shallower than 10 feet in practice," he said. "I knew the shallow areas I really liked and knew what the fish shallow do here, but I told myself in a crowded tournament like this it would be nice to have two different patterns going."
Hite had planned to fish deep the first couple of days of the event, but had noticed the current wasn't peaking until later in the day.
"After hitting a bunch of my spots, they weren't firing up and I started kicking myself because the first couple of days it was rainy and windy and I kept telling myself, 'These are the conditions you want to fish shallow in, so go fish shallow,'" he said.
He followed his hunch on day 1 and went to some grass and caught 19 pounds in 3 hours. He started day 2 shallow and slid out deep where he threw a football jig and a big worm in the afternoon. He tacked on another 18-15 to move into 9th place.
He opted to stay shallow all day Saturday so he didn't have to contend with all the pleasure-boat traffic offshore. He targeted grass again with a ChatterBait and swimjig and weighed 16-04 to jump into 8th.
"I caught about 25 keepers, but just couldn't get a lot of real big bites," he said.
On the final day, he fished shallow grass until noon and came away with a 5 1/2-pounder and two other solid keepers. He ran to a deeper area and made two culls to reach 17 pounds.
"Just having that mix of areas was key after I got it figured it out to fish shallow in the mornings," he said.
He said laying off the shallow areas in practice turned out to be a good decision.
"If you go into those pockets and catch one or two, those are probably fish you're not going to catch in the tournament," he added. "The grass at Chickamauga is not like at Guntersville where it's everywhere. Only certain spots and pockets have it and luckily it keeps growing in those same areas. With the full moon we had, I knew the bluegill beds would be active and bluegill beds plus grass usually equals a ChatterBait."
> ChatterBait gear: 7'3" heavy-action EverGreen Heracles Leopard casting rod, Shimano Chronarch Ci4+ casting reel (6.2:1 gear ratio), 20-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, 3/8- and 1/2-oz. Z-Man ChatterBait (green-pumpkin), 4 1/2" Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits Swimming Senko trailer (green-pumpkin).
> He alternated ChatterBaits depending on how deep the grass was.
> Swimjig gear: 7'1" medium-heavy EverGreen Kaleido Super Stallion casting rod, same reel, 20-pound Sunline Shooter fluorocarbon line, 7/16-oz. unnamed swimjig (green-pumpkin), same trailer (green-pumpkin).
> Topwater gear: 7'2" medium-heavy EverGreen Heracles EG Swimming casting rod, same reel, 40-pound Sunline FX2 braided line, 22-pound Sunline Defier Armilo nylon line (leader), EverGreen Shower Blows (skeleton chartreuse).
> Football jig gear: Same as swimjig rod, Shimano Metanium casting reel (7.6:1 gear ratio), 16-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, 3/4-oz. EverGreen Modo Reaction football jig (green-pumpkin), Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits double-tail trailer (green-pumpkin).
> Worm gear: Same as football jig rod, same reel, same line, 3/8-oz. Reins Tungsten worm weight, 5/0 Gamakatsu offset round-bend worm hook, 10" Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits Kut Tail Worm (plum).
> Main factor in his success – "Having the two patterns was by far the biggest factor for me. I didn't want to have all of my eggs in one basket and just knowing it's not like Kentucky Lake where there are tons of ledges, I knew it would be a dog fight. The big schools were on community holes and real obvious stuff, so I knew I'd need to have some back-up plans."
> Performance edge – "My Humminbird 360 on the bow. I really like it for fishing grass because it allows me to see what clumps are out in front and what ones are dense."
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