October 12, 2022
By Justin Brouillard
Part 1:Navigating the TVA System Bass Fishing: Winter (Jan-March)
Part 2:Navigating the TVA System Bass Fishing: Winter (April-June)
Part 3:Navigating the TVA System Bass Fishing: Fall + Early Winter (July-September)
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.
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-foot 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 – Fall/Early Winter
As we head into October, it marks the beginning of winter on the TVA system. No, it doesn’t mean the weather turns freezing right away, but the water begins to drop making way for the winter pool. Starting in October, the reservoirs begin to draw down. Soon after, the river levels fall, and by the middle of November, the system is set up for winter.
“There is a huge difference in water levels during the winter compared to the rest of the year. The reservoirs are usually 20 to 30 feet lower and the river drop between 5 to 7 feet,” said Watkins. Starting with the reservoirs in October, the whole system will be fully drawn down by the middle of November.”
As for the fishing during this transitional period, Watkins looks forward to it throughout the year. As baitfish congregates in the backs of creeks, schools of bass make their way back and the fishing can be phenomenal.
“It’s a fun time to fish,” he said. “It's very challenging, but I welcome it as you can be rewarded big time. I like to cover water and the fall into winter is a great time to do just that. With bait and bass getting into pockets, along certain grass lines or on transition banks, it often doesn’t take long to figure out a productive pattern.”
Other key areas that Watkins is sure to sample are the last points in the backs of creeks. With a little water movement typical during the fall, the bait will often hang around those transition areas and the bass will be close by. One other key for this period, there is no thing as ‘too shallow.’
“The fish are definitely feeding and sometimes they will get in the shallowest water you can find. I like to keep an open mind and sample different types of water, and cover, until I can put the puzzle together,” he said.
Baits and Techniques
Although Watkins typically rotates through a mix of power-fishing and finesse techniques, throughout the fall transition and into early winter, the finesse gear stays at home and the power techniques take a front-row seat. With fish being mostly related to baitfish and the need to cover water, he can be much more efficient with casting tackle and casting and retrieving baits.
From October to mid-November as the water stabiles, he begins working back into creeks and pockets. Once the water falls to winter pool, he then begins working his way back towards the main lake covering water with the same techniques.
Let's check out Taylor Watkins top three techniques for both the reservoirs and the river system.
With little vegetation in the reservoirs, Watkins spends more time looking for the baitfish and finding the groups of shad. Without either, the bass will be nowhere to be found and the bites will be minimal. He looks for isolated cover and transition banks and typically starts in the back of creeks and works his way out.
One of the first baits Watkins will reach for is a buzzbait. He prefers an Omega Alpha Shad and likes to rotate between gold and black blades depending on how the fish react. The key areas are transition banks in the backs of pockets where chunk rock turns into mud or clay. Areas with laydown trees and fallen timber or on grass flats with isolated wood, less than 5-foot of water.
“I typically use a Zoom Horny Toad as a trailer regardless to help keep the bait up and my set up varies based on the structure. Typically, for the reservoirs that have little to no grass, I will use monofilament line. That allows the fish to get the bait and the heavy action rod gets a good hook in the fish and out of heavy cover.”
In similar areas as above, Watkins will also reach for a topwater walking bait. He likes a Super Spook Jr. in bone color and like locating fish with a buzzbait, the topwater is helpful for cleaning up any other fish that are in the area.
“In a team tournament, we will have both a walking bait and buzzbait going. They are both great, but I usually start with the buzz and then slow down with a spook. For the topwater, a 7-foot, 3-inch medium-heavy fast rod allows for super long casts, and I pair 30-pound braid with a 7.1:1 ratio reel for that set up.”
Note: One thing he looks for is bass that are either bumping bait and not committing or rolling on floating dead baitfish.
“In this scenario, rather than the faster moving topwater and buzzbait, I will pick up a Pop-R or a fluke-style bait and fish through the area. Sometimes when they won't commit, a slower moving bait will stay in the strike zone longer and can catch some of those bass that won't commit to a topwater.”
Another bait to cover water is a lipless crankbait. When the fish don’t want to come up and hit on the surface, the trap gets down and offers a different presentation. When it’s a high sun and zero wind, the lipless crankbait usually shines. Watkins throws is on a 7-foot, 3-inch medium action rod (or small crankbait rod) paired with a 7.1:1 ratio reel. Like others, he adjusts his line size based on the cover he is fishing.
“I will typically use 15-pound fluorocarbon for most situations but if the fish get super shallow, less than 1-foot, I will bump up to 20-pound. The locations are the same, the way backs of pockets and creeks, along the big flats with isolated rock and wood, and transition banks.”
TVA River System Baits
Contrary to the TVA reservoirs, the river portion includes vegetation which requires some changes in baits and presentations. Watkins still likes a power fishing approach but adjusts his equipment and offerings to fish, bluegill and baitfish in and around grass.
Simply put, a frog and matted vegetation go together, especially when the fish get as deep as possible in the backs of pockets. Watkins prefers a 7-foot, 3-inch heavy rod with the same 7.1:1 ratio reel and 65-pound braided line. He targets areas where vegetation is matted with holes and open areas underneath that hold baitfish.
“Due to the water fluctuating and dropping, the grass mats form in super shallow water and with holes and areas below that hold baitfish, the bass are always close by. I look for fish busting the surface and listen for bluegills popping in shallow water. The frog is one of the best baits when the fish push way back under as the sun gets high.”
In the morning, or when bass are out along the edges of the grass versus way up shallow, Watkins will fish around with an underspin and Keitech swimbait to cover water and locate a school of bass.
“Similar to the lipless crankbait in the reservoirs, in the river, the baitfish are sometimes super small and the underspin allows a semi-weedless presentation with the weighted screw lock hook and little blade that mimics those shad. I use a medium or medium-heavy action rod, depending on how thick the grass is, paired with 17-pound fluorocarbon and a 7.1:1 ratio reel.
Similar to the reservoirs, a topwater walking bait or a buzzbait are always on deck. Due to grass being present, Watkins swaps his rod to a medium action and line to braid. The braid is stronger for cutting through grass and the medium rod still allows the fish to get the bait enough for a good hookset.