September 23, 2022
Navigating the TVA System Bass Fishing, Part 1: Winter (Jan-March)
Taylor Watkins is a two-time NPFL Champion and lives in Clinton, Tennessee. As a bass angler and tournament competitor, living within proximity of several excellent TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) fisheries along the Tennessee River system offers a variety of opportunity for catching big bass. Between Norris, Cherokee, Douglas, Fort Loudin, and Watts Bar lakes, Watkins has several places to fish within a 1-hour drive.
Living on the TVA system comes with some learning curves as well. Between changing water levels in the winter, spring, summer and fall, the TVA system also has changing current speeds that drastically affects the fishing quality on any of the TVA impoundments.
For Part Two, click here!
About the TVA System
At the headwater of the TVA system, Douglas, Cherokee and Norris lakes all feed into three separate river systems that feed the remaining lakes. Cherokee flows into the Holston River which leads to Ft. Loudon Lake. Douglas flows into the French Broad River and into Ft. Loudin as well. Norris Lake, fed by the Clench River, which flows into Melton Hill Lake. Melton Hill flows into Watts Barr, which is also fed by the Emory River. At the fork of the Holston River, fed by Cherokee, and the French Broad, fed by Douglas is where the Tennessee River begins.
The Tennessee River then flows into Ft. Loudon Lake, which then feeds Watts Bar.
Watts Barr, beginning at the fork of the Emory and Clinch Rivers, feeds Chickamauga Lake. Chickamauga flows into Nickajack Lake, which eventually feeds Lake Guntersville. Guntersville to Wheeler Lake; Wheeler then empties into Wilson Lake; Wilson dumps Pickwick Lake which drains into Kentucky Lake—and all lead to the Mississippi River then into the Gulf.
As flood-control lakes to keep Florence and Knoxville safe, Douglas, Wilson and Cherokee lakes all are dropped 30 to 40 feet below normal pool for the winter period to be able to hold spring runoff. As spring melts and rains hit the drainage areas, the lakes begin to fill back up towards normal summer pool levels.
Below the upper three lakes, Loudin, Watts Bar and Chickamauga typically drop 5 to 8 feet for the winter while Nickajack, being smaller than the rest, fluctuates in water level. Further down the line, Guntersville typically remains normal and only drops 2 to 3 feet in water level, and usually before a rainstorm to accommodate more runoff. Pickwick typically drops 6 to 8 feet during the winter.
Reservoir vs River – Late Summer/Fall
While the water level falls for the winter, the late summer and fall still means a full pool with little water movement. Due to minimal rainfall, the water gets stagnant, and the bite gets tough. Fish begin to relate to thicker grass mats to take cover from the sun while shaded banks and tree cover also provide a stable place for fish to live.
“This time of year, the early morning and late afternoon is certainly the best time to fish,” Watkins said. “There are some key differences between the river systems and the reservoirs. In general, the fishing gets tough.”
He doesn’t rule out the ledge bite in the rivers but the presentation changes to a finesse approach as the fishing pressure catches up with the fish. For what bass are left offshore, the approach is different, and the majority of the bass will be chasing brim and start to look for cover.
“The bass might still technically be on the river ledges, but I am looking mostly at grass lines and getting away from the actual ledge itself. The bait fish move, and the bass will follow close behind. Areas with a thick grass line or holes within the grass are perfect places to focus your time.”
While the reservoirs are slightly different, the premise is similar. The reservoirs lack the same amount of vegetation as the river systems and the fish move to nearby points from the ledges where they settle in before fall.
“If I am not running up river looking for colder water, I begin fishing the deeper areas and work my way shallower towards the points until I find fish,” he noted. “Typically, the TVA is holding water in the reservoirs which means there is not much for current—it can get super tough.”
Baits and Techniques
Watkins will rotate through a variety of baits and opts for finesse presentations for fish that remain offshore while targeting shallower bass with a more power fishing approach. The other bait that heats up as the water cools down is a topwater—especially on cloudy days.
“I try to keep it simple after the ledge fishing dies and the fishing gets tough,” he said. “When I do fish offshore its mostly finesse fishing. If I run up the river, there is the opportunity to fish smaller crankbaits and spinnerbaits or flip shallow cover.
Let's check out Taylor Watkins top three techniques for both the reservoirs and the river system.
TVA River System Baits
For the rivers, a mix of power fishing and finesse baits will catch fish from summer through fall.
For fishing the thick grass and punching through mats to awaiting bass, a Texas Rig is a key option. Watkins prefers a beaver style bait or a similar fast-falling plastic without flapping craws.
“You want something that falls fast to get those fish to react,” he said. “I like this technique for grass lines and even flipping up into the thicker mat. In areas where the grass lines break up, preferably along the channel edge or where mats have some sort of hole under them. It's hard to get anything else down through.”
He pairs a 7.1:1 ratio reel spooled with 65-pound braided line with either a 7-foot, 6-inch heavy rod for 1-ounce weights, or a 7-foot, 8-inch heavy rod for 1.5-ounce weights.
Another technique for grass, a topwater frog is a good option. He likes to throw a frog when the fish are actively feeding and willing to come up to bite.
“I feel the day out and fish what the fish tell me,” he said. “When they hunker down, the punch bait gets down to them. If they are feeding on the surface, the frog is my choice.”
His frogging set up consists of a 7-foot, 3-inch heavy rod with the same 7.1:1 ratio reel and 65-pound braided line. He targets the holes and open areas within the matted grass and as an alternative, when the water level is higher, a buzzing frog or buzzbait over top will get bit this time of year.
To maintain bottom contact offshore, Watkins likes a neko rig and ned rig for tough conditions. Depending on the day, when the water is stagnant and the fish are still on the ledges, a finesse presentation is needed.
“I really like the Omega Custom Tackle Slayer Ned Head and whatever ned bait you prefer. The fish have seen it all and get tough to catch. I decrease my line size down to 8 or 10-pounds with a 15-pound leader as my main line.”
He uses a 7-foot medium action spinning rod for both the ned and neko rig and prefers a Zoom Magnum Trick Worm for the neko rig.
For the toughest of tough conditions, Watkins will use a dropshot. While maintaining bottom contact with a 3/8-ounce weight, the bait hovers off the bottom to give the fish a different look. He uses the same set up as the ned rig.
With a lack of grass, and fish moving to main lake and secondary points, a topwater bait is a good option to catch feeding bass.
“When they start the transition, they are following baitfish,” he said. “I look for bait and brush on my electronics and will start with a large walking bait thrown on a 7-foot, 3-inch medium-heavy fast rod for super long casts and I like 30-pound braid on a 7.1:1 ratio reel.”
As bass move further into the creeks, a buzzbait is a good alternative to the walking bait. The fish are baitfish oriented and the Omega Custom Tackle Alpha Shad Buzzbait is his choice fished around laydowns and transition banks.
“For open water situations, I like a 7-foot, 3-inch heavy rod with 20-pound monofilament line. The stretch of the line allows the fish to get the bait and the heavy rod drives the hook home.”
Around grass, Watkins will switch to a medium or medium-heavy action as braided line has no stretch and the lighter rod allows the fish to get the bait.
“In the grass you need a heavy enough rod to cut the grass but not pull the buzzbait away from the fish on the hookset.”
When the fish are not feeding and get tighter to cover, an Omega Finesse Pitching Jig rigged with a Zoom Speed Craw will catch fish. He prefers a 7-foot, 3-inch medium-heavy action rod and looks for laydowns on transition banks with the jig when fish won't commit to the topwater, or the midday and afternoon sun is high.
Similar to the river systems, going finesse in the reservoirs is needed when the fishing pressure gets high, and you need to catch a few fish. With little current moving if any, the fish get line shy, and Watkins will fish with a 7-foot medium action spinning rod and either 8- or 10-pound fluorocarbon leaded and a 15-pound main line to try and get a few bites.