Big rains, wind, and cold temps will give anglers plenty to consider before the Elite Series event on Chickamauga.
Spring's temperamental tendencies will be on full display during the AFTCO Bassmaster Elite Series on Chickamauga Lake (April 7-10) and, while productive patterns may vary, success will come to those who best adapt to the dynamic playing field.
Stretching 58.9 miles from Watts Bar Dam to its namesake dam, this Tennessee River impoundment bears the name of the Chickamauga Cherokee, who once resided in the southern Tennessee region. Completed in 1940, the lake covers 36,240 surface acres with a maximum depth of 72 feet. Chickamauga's major tributary, the Hiwassee River, inflows south of the tournament's Dayton, Tenn. headquarters.
When practice began on Sunday, Chickamauga's water level was about four feet below normal pool of 683. Big rains on Tuesday and Wednesday brought more water into the river and will likely impact lake levels as the TVA moves the volume through the system.
Following the typical winter die-off, new growth grass has expanded well. Elite pro John Cox, who has notched two Bassmaster Open wins and an FLW Tour win on Chickamauga, has found good grass in about 3-8 feet of water and expects this classic spring habitat to play.
"The lake is a little dirtier than normal; I'm not able to see anything like (in past events)," Cox said. "With all this rain we're getting, it's probably going to be zero visibility. Good water clarity is about 3-4 inches in the areas I like to fish. I think that's due to the water being so low."
Lee Livesay, who won the 2020 Elite event on Chickamauga said he's believes the pre-tournament rains could benefit the fishing.
"It's going to change things for the better," Livesay said. "It's either going to put current in the lake and make the main river fish bite or they may shut (the Chickamauga Dam), raise the water level, and the fish will go to the bank."
While the week began pleasantly warm, the forecast says a cold front arriving on Day 2 will drop the daytime highs from the mid 60s to the low 50s. Overnight lows will plunge into the low 30s before the final day sees a significant warmup.
Early April often brings the potential for fireworks with waves of stocked Florida-strain largemouth bass flooding the banks. However, these fish do not handle weather changes well, so the cool down could forestall some of the shoreward movement and leave most of the fish in a prespawn staging mode.
On the downside, the front will bring big winds that'll whip up the offshore waters, while relentless waves pummel exposed mud banks and further increase turbidity. Once the weather system grips the lake, the bite could take a dramatic downturn.
How They'll Fish
When Livesay won in 2020, he topped that fall event mostly with a Scum Frog Launch Frog. That's unlikely to play much of a role for a spring event, but the usual mix of bladed jigs, swim jigs, spinnerbaits, crankbaits, and flipping rigs should get a good work out.
Characteristic of spring, Cox notes that the pre-tournament rain was warm. He's hopeful that this will help counteract the cold front's impact and keep the water temperature at a level favorable for some degree of spawning activity.
"I'm sure there will be some fish caught off of beds," Cox said. "I think people will catch them off beds, they just won't visually see them. I'm sure there will be some (sight fishing) in the clearer water, but I think it's going to be mostly fishing for them."
Ultimately, Cox said he's betting on the offshore game, as staging prespawners offer a more dependable game plan than hunting bed fish in low water clarity.
"I feel like it's going to be something like casting a lipless bait or a crankbait on those shallower bars," he said. "Or if someone sat in one spot on the edge of the grass and ended up winning, that wouldn't surprise me."
Also big on the offshore staging spots, Livesay said Chickamauga's reputation for "reloading" makes the notion of parking on a honey hole entirely possible.
"I definitely think a guy can win doing one thing and on one area," he said. "Somebody might have one shell bar or one backwater area where they get five to six fish a day and it keeps reloading.
"I really think a little local knowledge will help with the current this week. If (the TVA) pulls current, a few spots will open up and produce. Knowing where to go when the current's running could be key."
What's at Stake
The tournament winner will take home a $100,000 top prize. Bassmaster Elite events also award a daily $1,000 Phoenix Boats Big Bass prize, an overall $1,000 Phoenix Boats Big Bass prize, a $2,000 VMC Monster Bag prize (largest catch of the tournament), and a $1,000 BassTrakk bonus for the angler who most accurately reports his catches throughout the event.
Anglers will also earn points for the $100,000 Angler of the Year prize, while newcomers pursue the $10,000 Falcon Rods Rookie of the Year award.
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