Chickamauga Bass On Fire!

When a lake is this hot for huge bass, we can't ignore it just even if it's a little bit across the state line.

Ronnie Garrison | May 1, 2013

Chickamauga has been the best bass lake in the Southeast, if not in the whole country, the past few months. Many, many bass weighing more than 8 pounds have been landed, and in most tournaments you didn’t even need to weigh-in if you had five bass weighing less than 25 pounds.

Why is Chickamauga so hot with big bass right now? Stockings by the state of Tennessee of Florida and Northern strain largemouth bass has produced a cross, an F1 hybrid, that grows very fast and is very aggressive. Tennessee DNR reports show they stocked both Florida- and Northern-strain largemouth as well as hatchery-produced F1 hybrids in 2002. Those fish have reached trophy size, and their offspring are reaching bragging size every year.

Biologists stop short of attributing the incredible catches of huge bass at Chickamauga just to Florida-strain and F1 hybrid genetics, citing aquatic vegetation and a good forage base as additional factors. Huge smallmouth bass are being caught, too.

Chickamauga is a 36,240-acre TVA lake just outside Chattanooga on the Tennessee River. It’s just above Nickajack Lake. Chickamauga runs 59 miles from its dam up to the dam at Watts Barr, with many big feeder creeks. Although it is not in Georgia, many fishermen are less than three hours away and are making the trip to this emerging, awesome fishery. If you are not one of them, you are missing out on some incredible bass fishing.

Jeremy York is the owner of Angler’s Warehouse, an online tackle business also with a store in Monroe. Two years ago one of his pro-staff anglers invited him to sample the great bass fishing that was just being discovered on Chickamauga. Jeremy went up and caught some big bass and fell in love with the lake. He now makes a three-hour drive several times a week in the winter and does some guiding on the lake, about 25 trips so far this year.

Jeremy is a tournament fisherman and fishes the pro trails as well as local and regional tournaments. In the BFL on Chickamauga in March, Jeremy’s five-bass limit weighed 30.25 pounds—and he placed third! In another tournament he had five weighing 27 pounds and came in 14th place.

In five guide trips in March, Jeremy and his clients kept track of their best five bass—26, 39, 36, 30 and 32 pounds. That’s better than a 6-lb. per bass average for four of the five trips.

On five trips this year, he or a client landed at least one 8-lb. or better bass. One of his best trips was with a father and son. Within a few minutes of starting, the father landed an 8.75-lb. largemouth, then he boated a 6 1/2-pounder, and then the son caught an 8.68-lb. fish, all within the first hour.

While those catches came on an awesome prespawn pattern at Chickamauga using Alabama rigs and swimbaits, those big bass are still in the lake, and you can catch them right now. The fishing will be good from now through May, and you can use a variety of baits to catch big Chickamauga bass.

Right now about half the bass, especially the bigger fish, are on the beds, or at least they have been in the last week or so. You can sight fish for bedding bass or drag a Carolina-rigged lizard through the bedding areas. If you are sight fishing, look for stumps, the favorite place for a bass to bed on Chickamauga.

For bedding bass, Jeremy likes a Big Bite Baits Fighting Frog on a light Texas rig, a white swimbait with a weighted keel hook, or a weightless Senko rigged wacky-style for sight fishing. He will cast well past the bed and pull the bait to it, letting it drop into the sweet spot. Let it sit, and shake it. The bass will usually eat it if they are hard on the bed.

Good areas for sight fishing are in Soddy Creek, which usually has the clearest water on the lake, and other creeks on the lower half of the lake. The pockets up the river are full of spawning bass, too, but they are harder to see since the water is usually more stained there.

Another good area is Dallas Bay around Chester Frost Park. Jeremy says there have probably been 100 8-lb. and better bass released right here after tournaments this year, and many of these bass will not leave the bay since the spawn is approaching. They will stay in the bay, feed until spawning, and then gradually work back out to the river, feeding at postspawn areas.

The stump flats on both sides of the ramp are good spawning areas to check since they are littered with stumps. Be careful—the flats run way out. Try to follow the ditches and cuts going back into them, since the bass will follow these migration highways. Often the biggest bass will be bedding on stumps closest to the deeper water in the cuts.

Bass move into the spawning areas in waves, and about half of them are there now (the last week of April). More will move in during the next few weeks, depending on water temperature and moon phase. They will stay on the bed for about a week, and then they will move off the banks and spend about a week recovering. They won’t feed much during that recovery week, but then they will start feeding heavily after that. There will be a lot of hungry fish all during the month of May.

To catch postspawn fish, Jeremy will try a variety of baits. A Spook or similar walking bait worked over the stump flats will draw explosive strikes. Keep your boat in the cuts, and cast ahead of you down the cut. Fan-cast the flats on both sides. Cover a lot of water, fishing fast until you find feeding fish.

A swim jig worked over the same areas will also catch fish, especially if the fish are not aggressive and aren’t slamming topwater plugs. Swim the jig in the same places you worked your topwater. You can also work a spinnerbait over those areas or try to bump the stumps with a square-bill crankbait.

Toward the end of May, there will still be a few bedding bass, but the bream spawn really comes into play. Fish a swim jig around the bedding bream to catch big, hungry bass that will be hanging near the bream beds picking off a mouthful of bluegill.

Another big key in May is the shad spawn. Chickamauga has two kinds of shad, both threadfin and gizzard shad, plus golden shiners. All are favorite foods of bass. The shad will spawn on gravel and shell-bed flats and rocky banks this month, and the bass often go wild feeding on them. Jeremy says the shell beds on flats near the river channel are a huge key to the shad spawn, so seek them out.

Look for the schools of shad running the banks early in the morning or working the flats. Jeremy likes to see smaller areas of shad spawning. If there are shad spawning on 100 yards of bank, there might be 20 bass feeding on them, and they will be real scattered out. If there are shad on only about 20 feet of bank, those same 20 bass will be concentrated and easier to catch.

A spinnerbait, rattle bait or swim jig all work well during the shad spawn. Work them over the flats, running your baits right on the bottom. On the banks, cast right to the bank, even up on the rocks so you can gently pull your bait into the water. The bass will be facing the bank, so you want to cast as shallow as possible.

The shad usually spawn early—the first couple of hours of light on sunny days—but will stay shallow much longer on cloudy days. If it is sunny and the shallow activity stops, back off and fish a little deeper to catch the bass following the shad out a little ways off the bank where they hold until the next morning.

Now, here’s a tip to file away for next spring. Jeremy found a pattern that works great from the beginning of January through March. When the water temperature hits 48 degrees, the bass really turn on. He said 48 to 52 is the ideal water temperature range for a fantastic prespawn pattern. The bite begins slowly as the water reaches 45 degrees, and it holds until the water gets to about 58 degrees, usually around the first of April when the bass head toward the bedding areas.

Although this pattern is over this year, it is well worth remembering for next year. Jeremy came up with the idea for the Extreme Bait Ball Rig that is sold by Picasso. It is a multi-bait rig like an Alabama rig, but it has teasers on the arms, so it looks even more like a school of baitfish. This is what he caught all the big bass on from January through March.

Jeremy rigs it with 1/8-oz. Buckeye Jewell heads on the hook arms and threads them and the teaser attachments with either 3 1/2- or 4 1/2-inch Strike King Shadalicious swimbaits. He likes the blue-gizzard and Texas-shad colors. For bigger bass, he runs the 4 1/2-inch bait on the hooks with smaller ones on the teasers, or he runs the bigger size swimbaits on all.

The ideal rig for throwing this heavy bait is an I Rod Bama Rig Special Genesis II rod with a Revo SX reel spooled with 80-lb. Power Pro braid. He tried several reels and all wore out in a few trips except the Revo.

There are three things to remember when throwing this rig. Lob it, don’t make a usual cast. Keep reeling when you feel something until the bass almost jerks the rod out of your hand. You will hit stumps with it, and if you set the hook, you are unlikely to get the rig back. And finally, when you do hang up, keep your line tight as you go to it, go past the hangup, and pop it loose with small pops of the rod tip.

Jeremy took me to Chickamauga the second week of April. He warned me the great prespawn bite on swimbaits was probably over. Although he got a nice 4 1/2-pounder first thing that morning on the rig, fishing was slow. We went into the spawning pockets, and they were full of bass just starting to fan beds. The fish were very spooky, and we could not get them to hit, but we saw many in the 6-lb. and better size range starting to bed.

Adding to our problems that day was that the water rose almost 2 feet while we were there. The lake is scheduled to be at full pool by April 15 each year, and it was 4 feet low when we got there. But it was sure filling fast!

For the prespawn bite, when the water temperature is right in that 48- to 58-degree range, Jeremy fishes transition areas like stump flats near the mouths of spawning areas. There needs to be deep water nearby with a shelf or flat with stumps on it. A ditch or cut running across the flat is key. The bass feed on those types of places during the winter and prespawn.

Other good types of cover are banks where big rocks transition to chunk rock to sand, often found at the mouths of feeder creeks and coves. Big largemouth and smallmouth both like this kind of area and will hit the multi-bait rig fished there. On one trip this year he got a 6-lb. smallmouth and a 6-lb. largemouth.

On the stump flats, keep your boat out in deeper water near the cut or ditch, and cast up to 4 or 5 feet of water. Work your rig back steadily, keeping it above the stumps but near the bottom. On the transition banks, stay out a long cast from the bank, and cast near it, fishing the rig back to cover water that is 2 to 6 feet deep.

File that prespawn pattern away for next year. Jeremy thinks the next two years are going to be fantastic, with some huge bass caught in Chickamauga each year. All those 8- to 10-lb. bass will mostly still be around for a couple of years and could be 2 to 3 pounds heavier. And all those 5- and 6-pounders will also be 2 to 3 pounds heavier. There are a lot of 4- and 5-lb. bass coming along, too.

There is a 15-inch size limit on largemouth and an 18-inch size limit on smallmouth on Chickamauga, and those limits have contributed to the larger fish in the lake. That size restriction also ensures a good supply of quality fish for the future.

The fishing should stay really good for the foreseeable future. You definitely want to head to Chickamauga and get in on catching some of these heavyweight bass.

A three-day, non-resident Tennessee fishing license is $16 and can be bought online before your trip. A 10-day license is $25, and an annual license, good until Feb. 28, 2014, is $80.

I recommend you consider the annual fishing license. You are sure to fall in love with fishing Chickamauga.

Become a GON subscriber and enjoy full access to ALL of our content.

New monthly payment option available!