July 18, 2022
Read Part 1: Navigating the TVA System Bass Fishing: 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 1, click here.
About the TVA System
At the headwater of the TVA system, Douglas, Cherokee and Norris lakes all flow 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—Spring/Summer
This time of year, the TVA system is more stabilized as a whole, and fishing and water movement is mostly dependent on weather. Water levels are generally at normal pool in the reservoirs while the river systems will be more drastically changing as the TVA releases water from rain events.
“We do have very stable conditions for the most part this time of year but some periods of rain cause things to be a little different,” Watkins said. “Right now, Douglas Lake is flooded. It’s about 8-foot high, but it is slowly dropping. It seems like they held the water up and didn’t want it to flow, but they will release it over time and it will again stabilize.”
When the flood gates open to release water, the river systems then begin to flow. The movement of water in both the reservoirs and the rivers drastically affect the quality of fishing in each. Once the reservoirs reach normal pool, everything begins to slack off with the exception of some light water flow to keep power generation on schedule.
“Compared to the winter/early spring when some of the reservoirs are 20- to 30-foot low, everything is very stable and the fishing is good,” he added. “They let the reservoirs fill up when it rains but the river level doesn’t vary much other than the water flow. In some cases, they can't let water out fast enough. With heavy rains, they use the larger flood gates and can dump it through there fast.”
Baits and Techniques
The late spring into early summer period is a time of change. During this time, bass can be caught both shallow and deeper and the spawn keeps the shallow bite consistent throughout with the exception of after the shad spawn.
“I am focused on the shallow bite throughout this entire timeframe up until the shad spawn is over. After that, I will start to look deep,” he noted. “Thats not saying there will not be some bass offshore on the ledges prior, but the majority will move out after the shad finish spawning—its more consistent.”
Typical shallow water baits such as a wacky rig, creature baits, swim jigs and vibrating jigs will bring success. When the water gets higher after a rain event, Watkins loves to use a buzzbait around shallow, flooded cover. For the offshore and ledge bite, he prefers big crankbaits, hair jigs, big worms, a Carolina rig, and even some finesse baits to get bites.
Let's check out Watkins top three techniques for both the reservoirs and the river system.
TVA River System Baits
When bass get shallow, a swim jig is one of the best lures for covering water. He prefers a 1/2-ounce jig and varies his color depending on the baitfish that the fish are focusing on. That size bait allows him to both swim it on top of vegetation while pulsing the rod but also falls fast enough to get down along grass edges or deeper water situations.
“Some days, it’s a surface deal and they want it above the grass and fished fast. Other times, it seems like you need the bait just out of sight but when you pulse the rod you can maybe see a glimpse of it in the water, “he said. “You need a rod with an excellent tip to get that pulsing action of the bait and to help cast the bait tight to cover. The medium heavy rod loads up acts as a slingshot to put the bait in precise locations.
His rod of choice is a 7-foot, 2-inch medium-heavy action spooled with 65-pound braided line and his go to bait is a 6th Sense Devine Braided Line Swim Jig.
A slower presentation fished around the same shallow cover; he’ll swap to a Texas-rigged creature bait. He prefers a slower presentation when the bass are spawning and other situations would be any type of heavier cover such as wood, docks or flipping the edge of a reed line. When a fish swirls and misses the swim jig, a good follow up lure is a Texas rig - it usually will get the fish to bite.
“I flip with a 7-foot, 3-inch heavy action rod and 22-pound fluorocarbon. Usually when I pick up this bait, I am putting it in or around heavy cover. Flooded brush or in the middle of a tree, regardless, I peg a 3/8-ounce weight and use a creature bait to offer bass a different, slower look.”
For even tougher situations, the wacky rig gets the nod. Whether the bass are on beds, in the postspawn funk or getting pressured, Watkins will turn to the ultra-finesse bait to get bites. He makes his wacky set up with a 7-foot medium action spinning rod with a 15-pound braided mainline and a 10- or 12-pound fluorocarbon leader.
“I change my fluorocarbon based on where I am. If I am on Chickamauga where any bite could be a 10-pounder, I like a heavier line. On Watts Bar you can get away with 10-pound fluorocarbon,” he said. “I use a neko rig hook with the wire weed guard and it's an easy hook set; just lean into them and keep pressure until they get near the boat - let your drag work.”
Because of constantly changing water levels, on many of the TVA reservoirs, the docks are floating which makes it hard to skip a bait under. However, adjacent to the docks, there are usually flooded bushes close by. When the water floods and reaches the green trees, he knows the popping frog bite is hard to beat.
“As soon as the water touches the green bushes, my go-to is a Spro Bronzeye Popping Frog and I can cast it around the bushes better than under the docks. That bait can be fished fast or slow and stays in the strike zone longer and comes through cover extremely well.”
He uses the same rod as he does for a swim jig, and notes the 7-foot, 2-inch medium-heavy action spooled with 65-pound braided line allows him to put the bait quietly around the heaviest of cover. The medium-heavy action rod still gives him enough power to fight big fish out of the brush.
For more of a search bait presentation, Watkins will rig a Strike King Rage Menace and go to work. Similar to a spinnerbait, the wobble can be fished fast to find active fish but also acts like a crankbait when crawled along the bottom.
“A lot of times on the TVA system, when the water level rises, the fish will stay put on the old water line. If they move with the water to the brush, the popping frog works well, but if they remain on the old water line, you can really catch them well with the wobble head.”
For the wobble head, he like a 7-foot, 3-inch rod with medium-heavy power and 15-pound fluorocarbon. It provides plenty of rod to set the hook, even on long casts. Similar to a crankbait, when he gets a bite, the rod goes “mushy” and the rod loads up. Wack Rig
Similar to the river system, it's hard to beat a wacky rig regardless of the conditions. It's something he always has tied on and ready when conditions get tough, or he locates a fish on a bed.
“It doesn’t matter where I go in the country, the TVA system or not, I always have some sort of wacky rig tied on, spawn or post spawn,” Watkins concluded.
Same as always, he prefers a 7-foot medium action spinning rod with a 15-pound braided mainline and a 10- or 12-pound fluorocarbon leader.