By Todd Ceisner
It's expected to be a festive atmosphere in Dayton, Tenn., along the shores of Lake Chickamauga this week for the first edition of BASSFest, a 5-day fishing jubilee in eastern Tennessee designed to recapture the vibe of summers gone by when the Bassmaster Classic was a hot-weather event.
However, it was tough to detect much of a jovial vibe in talking with anglers during the 3-day practice session that wrapped up today in advance of tomorrow's opening day of competition. The fishing's been fair, but the general consensus is that Chickamauga is going to fish small with boat draw and timing playing pivotal roles in which anglers are able to get on top of the schools of fish that are stationed on or near the main river channel.
Chickamauga is a powerhouse of a lake when conditions are good and right, but it can also leave anglers scratching their heads. It's not known as a numbers lake much like Kentucky Lake or Pickwick, so don't expect to hear reports of 75-fish days during the tournament. At the same time, it's brimming with mature bass and it's possible a 30-pound stringer could show up at some point this week.
It's hosted a couple FLW Tour events in the last 5 years, but B.A.S.S. has not been back to the TVA lake since holding a Megabucks tournament there in October 1991. It also hosted the 1986 Classic.
In recent years, Chickamauga has pumped out some prodigious stringers and all of the resulting notoriety has drawn anglers from dozens of states hoping to seize upon an opportunity to catch the fish (or sack) of a lifetime. Earlier this spring, BassFan sales executive Tim Carini was in the boat of noted Tennessee River guide Rogne Brown when the two caught an unofficial 49-plus pound limit. After news and photos of the massive stringer began circulating, Carini said he noticed license plates from seven different states at one ramp the following weekend.
In March, a nearly 14-pound bass was caught by guide Chris Coleman and most believe the Tennessee state record largemouth will come from Chick in the near future.
Last summer, Casey Martin won the FLW Tour season finale at Chickamauga with more than 100 pounds over 4 days throwing a super-sized umbrella rig. While the umbrella rig won't be in use this week, it's certainly possible that someone will crack the century mark, especially if they can tap into a school of 5- to 7-pounders and get them fired up for a few days.
Like other TVA lakes where fish are known to bunch up on certain places, those with favorable boat numbers on day 1 should do well. The X factor, as is usually the case on the Tennessee River, will be how much current will be moving through the lake at any given time. A good bit of current will position the fish and make them easier to target. There wasn't much current to speak of during practice and some competitors were preparing for it to remain that way.
B.A.S.S. initially hoped to attract 60 anglers from its Opens divisions to pay a $5,000 entry fee to compete against the full Elite Series field. In the end, 33 stepped up to make it a 140-boat field this week. This event will have no bearing on the race for Angler of the Year as each Elite Series pro will receive 100 points, essentially making it a cast-for-cash, win-or-else exhibition.
The tournament will follow this format:
> Full field fishes Chickamauga on Wednesday and Thursday.
> Top 50 after Thursday will be off the water Friday
> Anglers who didn't make Top 50 will compete at Lake Nickajack on Friday with the Top 10 qualifying to fish Saturday at Chickamauga
> Top 50 plus the Nickajack Top 10 fish Saturday at Chickamauga (Nickajack weights do not carry over)
> Top 12 after Saturday advances to Sunday
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the lake itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake Name: Lake Chickamauga
> Type of Water: TVA impoundment
> Surface Acres (full pool): 36,240 acres
> Primary structure/cover: Ledges, humps, sunken islands, docks, brush piles, points, grass flats
> Primary forage: Gizzard shad, threadfin shad, various shiners, juvenile panfish
> Average depth: 18 feet
> Species: Largemouths, spotted bass, smallmouths
> Minimum length: 12" spots, 15" largemouths, 18" smallmouths (1 per angler)
> Reputation: Decline in vegetation knocked it down a few rungs years ago, but it has come back with a vengeance. The pre-spawn and post-spawn bite last year and this year were legendary and there's plenty of big-fish potential. It's not as big as other TVA lakes and schools aren't as numerous, but the chance for a giant bite is there.
> Weather: Expected to be hot with chance of thunderstorms all the way through Sunday.
> Water temp: High 70s to low 80s
> Water visibility/color: About as clear as it gets with 4 to 5 feet of visibility in some spots
> Water level: Full pool
> Fish in: 8 to 30 feet
> Fish phase: Post-spawn/summer
> Primary patterns: Crankbaits, jigs, spinnerbaits, Carolina rigs, big worms, swimbaits, some topwater
> Winning weight: 90 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 50 after 2 days): 27 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3.5 for Chickamauga
> Biggest factors: Patience. Who can wait them out the longest and fish with blinders on?
> Biggest decision: When to leave a spot and lose your place in a rotation for another school that may have just been fished out.
> Wildcard: A fertile stretch of grass that went undiscovered
School's In Session
According to Brown, who operates Tennessee River Guide Service, Chickamauga doesn't measure up to other TVA lakes when it comes to catching wads to 2 1/2- to 3-pounders. Where it separates itself, though, is the quality of fish swimming there.
"You won't catch as many numbers here as you can at a place like Kentucky Lake, but the big ones are here," he said. "You may only catch seven or 10 keepers a day, but they're going to be good fish.
"When Casey Martin won here last year, there were a few big schools out and he was on one of them. They weren't the size of schools you'd find at Kentucky, not even close, but the schools here usually are all good fish."
For that reason, Brown thinks it's going to be hard for someone to win this week camping on one spot or school simply because the schools that get found will get hammered on and eventually break up or be fished out.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time, I fish from Soddy Creek down to the dam," he added. "It's about 20 miles of lake and I'd be surprised if it wasn't won from that stretch. It has more grass and bigger spawning flats and it's just real healthy. There are plenty of baitfish in this lake, too. It's the healthiest part of the lake."
Compared to typical conditions, Chickamauga has been slightly higher this spring, too, Brown says.
"It's been higher than normal, maybe a foot or so and there's a lot of stuff in the water," he noted. "When it's high like this, some fish will scatter out more, but there are still fish on the ledges and typical offshore places. Any time we get high water, some fish will move up a little shallower."
Don't be surprised if a 10-pounder makes it way across the stage this week. David Mullins caught a double-digit beast in practice this week and a similar catch during competition would certainly ratchet up the excitement.
It's Brown's belief that Chickamauga's brutes don't hang out in schools with their brethren, rather seeking solitude away from the crowds.
"I tend to believe the real big ones like shallower water here than what you would think," he said. "I'm talking mid depths of 5 to 10 feet. Any time you're ledge-fishing, you're fishing for 4- to 6-pounders because in my opinion the real big ones aren't social. They don't like being in schools. They're more loners. It's been proven."
He said he's gone diving to get an up close look at the fish and how they behave. He's convinced the winner this week will catch his fish offshore, but it might not necessarily be won deep.
"It could be shallower than most people think or it could be deeper," he said. "These fish live offshore. I've said the only reason for banks on TVA lakes is to hold the water in. The fish are living offshore here somewhere, whether it's in 2 feet of water or in 30 feet.
Asked whether a similar scenario exists at Chickamauga like what played out at Pickwick Lake last week, where winner Greg Hackney found a shallow school and had it to himself all week, Brown didn't scoff at the notion.
Russ Lane has some schools found at Chickamauga, but he's fairly certain he's not the only one who's found them.
"The same thing might happen here," he said. "There are several places in that 5- to 10-feet range that can hold some big fish."
The 90 anglers who fail to make the first cut at Chickamauga will head over to Lake Nickajack on Friday for a 1-day shootout that will see the Top 10 make their way back to Chick for Saturday's round.
Nickajack is 46 miles long and features a little more than 10,000 surface acres. Back in the day, anglers used to lock out of Chickamauga to fish Nickajack, which harbored more and bigger bass.
Brown said Nickajack doesn't offer the wealth of ledge-fishing scenarios and fishes a lot more like a river than a lake because it is so narrow.
"They do move offshore there, but there are not a whole lot of places for them to move out to," he said. "The bottom 8-mile section fishes like a TVA lake. It's real current-oriented otherwise. It fishes really small."
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
"I've stared at my electronics screens most of the time. I've casted some and had a pretty decent day Sunday for what little I fished. Monday was pretty slow. I don't get to fish too often as close as I am to here, but I expected it be better than it was.
"A few weeks ago, there were probably some good schools but with all the pressure this places gets, they're all busted up. Instead of looking for schooling fish, I feel like I have to fish where they should be. I've tried looking for them and found some, but not what I expected. People are getting good at doing this and the electronics are so good that stuff doesn't get missed as often as it used to.
"This is a great lake with a ton of ledges and the size of bass is here. It's my time to shine. Growing up on Douglas, I've always been a summertime fisherman and a deep fisherman, but it's just been a grind so far. I haven't leaned on anything to know what I can catch. I honestly don't know what I can catch. With the size of fish here you can make up ground in a hurry, but it's hard to get on places. Everyone's fishing the same way. I don't know if it'll be won extremely deep. I won't be surprised if it's won out of 10 feet or less."
"It's about the same as last year's FLW Tour. This lake is not like Kentucky Lake where you have a ton of schools to go around. It seems like they're more condensed and a lot smaller. There might be a few more schools than last year but still this lake doesn't have the miles of ledges that Kentucky Lake has. It's just not that big.
"I've done a lot of graphing and found some schools. I know what I'm looking for after doing what I did at Pickwick. That gave me some confidence. There are a lot more docks here and some guys might try to fish shallow even though we all know it won't be won shallow. This lake has the potential for catching some fish up shallow.
"When you do find a school, though, there's not a bunch of little ones. There are a lot of mature bass in this lake. I think it's going to be similar to Pickwick last week where 25 pounds will be a big bag. I don't think you'll hear guys talking about catching 75 or 100 fish a day. There's just not a massive amount of 2- to 2 1/2-pounders here."
"I'm tired of idling and looking and ready to start doing some fishing. I've found some fish on several places, but it's all obvious stuff. I'm sure the places I've found them are what everybody calls community holes. I know I haven't found anything I'll have to myself.
"On TVA lakes in May and June I pride myself on trying to find stuff that's off the beaten path, but I haven't been able to so far. There are a couple places with a ton of fish on them they're really small places and I know for a fact other guys have found them, too.
"I guarantee that there's a decent school of fish not on the river channel yet that someone will have to themselves like Hackney (at the Pickwick FLW). I know that scenario exists somewhere. I just haven't found them yet. From the fishing I've done, the fishing seems pretty tough unless you're in one of those community holes."
"It's definitely an awesome lake. I came down 6 weeks ago and the fish were a little easier to catch then. They're definitely still around, but the main thing for me is they're not in as many places as I thought they'd be. I expected to come and catch 2-pounders just fishing and the good spots would have big ones. They've been hard to find and when you find them, they're grouped up real tight. When I do find a group I'm able to catch them quick.
Luke Clausen had a Top-10 finish at last year's FLW Tour event at Chickamauga.
"It's been hard to feel the current. It's been somewhat minimal from what I can tell. I'm far from an expert on Tennessee River current, but I'm planning and preparing to fish with no current. There's also some grass in here and if you find the right grass or right shell bed, you could find a giant school and catch them 4 days straight. The grass is nice and green and crispy. I haven't found what I'm looking for yet, but I know there has to be fish in there and I haven't written it off yet."
"It's not a whole lot different from the FLW Tour last year. Some of the spots that had fish on them don't and there are some different deep spots that didn't have fish last year that do now. It's going to be really crowded in some areas, maybe even worse than last year because everybody watched the FLW show and saw what everybody was doing and got clued in.
"I've been struggling. You spend so much time idling around that you almost think the fish can hear your boat coming and then get out of the way. It's been tough for me, but when you catch one it's going to be 2 1/2 to 4 pounds. I only caught three keepers Sunday and had two on Monday. You hate to sit on them here because you'll catch one and there are boats everywhere.
"I think whomever wins will be somebody sitting on one or two holes like Casey. Boat draw will be huge. You'd hope you're in the Top 20 in boat draw a couple of the days, but those are the kind of factors you just don't know. There are spots I may never even get on and that kind of sucks."
Top 10 To Watch
With the above in mind and more, here, in no particular order, is BassFan's recommendation on the Top 10 to watch at this event:
1. Kevin VanDam He's proven he's tough to beat in these non-points, winner-take-all formats (see: 4 Classic wins), plus he knows a thing or two about fishing offshore schools.
2. Ott DeFoe Two weeks ago, he won in his backyard at Douglas Lake. Now he's going for the Tennessee Two-fer. His record on TVA lakes is pretty strong dating back to his FLW Tour days.
3. Keith Combs He's a big-fish hammer and thrives in offshore derbies, especially when cranking is on the menu.
4. JT Kenney Has morphed into an electronics wiz in recent seasons and he lives for tournaments on the Tennessee River. He has the patience to wait out five big bites per day.
5. Mike McClelland A big fan of offshore structure fishing, he should be in his comfort zone this week.
6. David Walker His last win was a mid-June Elite Series event at Wheeler Lake in 2011. He's had a good season so far and would love a big payday in his home state.
7. Luke Clausen The former Classic champion was 9th at the FLW Tour stop at Chickamauga last June and will have his sights set solely on the win this week.
8. Clifford Pirch Has a win at Chickamauga to his credit (April 2011) and has a good track record on fisheries where current is a major factor.
9. Greg Hackney Fresh off a win at Pickwick Lake, he's been in a pretty good groove this season with three 3rds across both tours.
10. Rick Clunn Showed at Lake Dardanelle why he's still one of the finest crankers in the game. Was 2nd at the 1991 Bassmaster Megabucks held at Chickamauga.
> Anglers will launch at 6:15 a.m. ET Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday from Dayton Boat Dock (175 Lakeshore Drive, Dayton, TN 37321). Weigh-ins each day will get under way at 3:15 p.m. at Dayton Boat Dock (same address).
> Wed., June 11 Thunderstorms - 79°/65°
- Wind: From the S at 9 mph
> Thurs., June 12 Isolated Thunderstorms - 80°/64°
- Wind: From the SW at 6 mph
> Fri., June 13 Isolated Thunderstorms - 85°/65°
- Wind: From the W at 5 mph
> Sat., June 14 Partly Cloudy - 85°/66°
- Wind: From the NW at 5 mph
> Sun., June 15 Partly Cloudy - 85°/67°
- Wind: From the S at 5 mph