April 27, 2022
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 – Winter/Early Spring
Aside from the differences in water levels due to flood-prevention measures on the reservoirs at the top of the system, there are also two other factors that contribute to the differences in fishing during the winter months. With reservoirs 20 to 30 feet below normal pool, lots of the fishable cover is out of the water in the winter and that’s a good time to take note of exposed shorelines.
“The biggest difference between the reservoirs at the upper part of the TVA system and the rivers and lakes below is the current,” he said. “In the reservoirs, the current is created when the wind blows or if you get way back up into a creek with an influx of water coming in. During the winter months into spring, the system is very volatile and changes drastically annually due to weather, temperatures, and of course actual rainfall.”
Because of changes in depth and varying current flow, the other obvious difference is available cover and structure for fish. In the reservoirs, the key areas are rocks—rock veins, transition rock and deeper rocks such as isolated boulders. In the river system, the cover and structure fish will utilize is current related—current breaks, laydowns, shell bars on the cover and ditches running off the inlet streams coming to the main rover.
Baits and Techniques
When it comes to baits and techniques for the TVA system during winter and spring, there are some similarities between fishing the reservoirs and the river system. Moving baits that cause fish to react are going to be successful this time of year as well as fishing slower for more lethargic bass.
Let's check out Taylor Watkins Top-3 techniques for both the upper reservoirs and the current-driven system throughout.
TVA River System Baits
One bait that is a staple in Watkins’ arsenal throughout most of the year but excels in the winter is a flipping jig. He prefers a 3/8 or 1/2-ounce 6th Sense Devine Hybrid Jig with a Zoom Salty Chunk Trailer. The key for river system fishing when the water is cold is to fish slow and target places that may have some warmer water.
“This time of year, you want a very subtle presentation with a super slow fall, and you are fishing it super slow overall,” he said. “I like to target wood, rock and anything that may be holding a little bit of warmth or acts as an ambush point for bass that is close to deeper water.”
Watkins throws his flipping baits on a 7-foot, 3-inch medium-heavy action rod spooled with 20-pound fluorocarbon and a high-speed reel.
Because it’s hard to choose just one, Watkins included rattletraps, crankbaits and jerkbaits for the second technique. Each one works under a variety of conditions, but on wintertime river systems, they all play. With fish this time of year relating to current and water temperature, it's good to keep your options open when approaching this situation.
“You want to toss all of these as far as possible to get the max depth. I am fishing all types of baits in multiple places—near the bank, ditches leading into the spawning bays or bars near deeper water. The bars may be in only 3- to 5-foot, but the fish may be adjacent to it in 12-foot or more, that’s where these baits all come in.”
For the treble baits, Watkins like a moderate action, parabolic rod. He likes a little longer rod for crankbaits and rattle trap, something around 7-foot, 3-inch and will go for a shorter rod for jerkbaits for more control. For all three rods, 12-pound fluorocarbon does the trick, and Watkins will size up or down depending on the size of the bait and if he is fishing around cover.
The third bait Watkins relies on for wintertime reservoir is an Alabama rig. It’s a do all style bait that can be fished anywhere, and when Watkins gets around cleaner water, its usually the first thing he will each for.
“I set up my rig with three weighted baits on the bottom and two weightless baits on top,” he said. “That keeps the rig balanced and 90% of the time they will eat the bottom baits where the hooks are.”
Watkins like a Yum Flashmob Junior and pairs it up with 3.8” to 4.2” swimbaits, varying the location of the baits. With clear water situations, color is often more important than the size, and Watkins will usually start with two or three different color baits on his rig and see which one the fish prefer.
“I fish my rig on a 7-foot, 6-inch medium-heavy rod with 20-pound fluorocarbon line. I am still targeting the same depth as the other baits this time of year, 5 to 15 feet deep, and the key is to fish very slow and keep it close to the bottom.”
Baits and techniques for the TVA reservoirs for Winter and Spring are slightly different than the river system where the water levels are more stable, and current is a factor. Although there is some crossover and you can fish your strengths, Watkins’ approach is a little different.
In the winter when the water is hovering around the 45 to 50 degrees, the target areas on the reservoirs are main lake humps, points, and any bars. Later in March and into early April, the fish will start to be on the move but for now they can be caught in their winter patterns. Here is how Watkins approaches it.
Deep Diving Jerkbait
One bait for this timeframe is a deep diving jerkbait. When the bass get suspended in that 10- to 15-foot range, there is nothing better than seeing them on forward facing sonar and getting a presentation in front of them that they cannot resist. Often times, the jerkbait will remain on the deck as Watkins is working other baits, but when a fish is spotted around the boat, he can quickly make a rod change and target individual fish.
“Some guys will use slower reels, but I like a 7.1:1 ratio reel as I can really snap that jerkbait several times and stop it,” he said. “They will sometimes eat it after three jerks, and I want to be able to catch up faster and get a hook in them. I use a 7-foot rod and 12-pound fluorocarbon line, and I like a 6th Sense Provoke DD jerkbait.”
Another technique for suspended fish or when fish are close to the bottom is a small swimbait. Watkins like a Keitech in the 2.8 to 3.5-inch size and fishes it on a ball head. When the bass get too deep for the jerkbait, the ball head swimbait will get down and can be slow reeled through the strike zone.
I use a 7-foot, 3-inch spinning rod with 15-pound braided line to a 10-pound fluorocarbon leader as the braid will keep that bait up some. When I need to get the bait down deeper, I will swap to straight 10-pound fluorocarbon. The one thing to keep in mind is the fluorocarbon set up will get hung up a bit more but in 30 to 40 feet, you need to get the bait down farther.”
When the fish get tight on the bottom and do not want to chase moving baits, Watkins will slow down and drag baits on the bottom. There are lots of baits to choose from, but a ned rig is his go to. He prefers a heavier head to get the bait down and maintain bottom contact in deeper water.
“I use the ned rig on the same rod I use for a dropshot, a 7-foot, 1-inch medium-action rod, and I spool 15-pound braid to a 10-pound fluorocarbon leader. I target deeper points, offshore humps and anywhere in between,” he said. “Anytime they won't chase, or you feel like you need to slow down, this is the bait.”