If I have learned one thing in 50 years of fishing, it is, “Always expect the unexpected.” The “unexpected” part came for me Tuesday (Feb. 15) while trolling for crappie on Chickamauga Lake.
It is well known that Chickamauga Lake has become “The Land of the Giants” for largemouth bass thanks to a Florida-bass stocking program started by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency in 2000. The program has been so successful that the rest of Tennessee got jealous, convincing TWRA to expand the program to numerous other lakes across the state.
“This will be the third year we have stocked Florida bass fry or fingerlings in other lakes,” said Mike Jolley, TWRA Region III Fisheries Biologist. “The other lakes in our area include Ft. Loudon, Watts Bar and Nickajack.”
Avid bass anglers know that the best time to catch one of those giants is February or March. Two years ago, Feb. 13, 2015, Gabe Keen proved it by catching a new Tennessee State Record largemouth (15 lbs. 3 ozs.) from Chickamauga Lake (Watch an interview with Gabe Keen.
My Facebook feed has been full of photos of eight-pound bass recently, even some 10 and 11-pounders. But when one of my crappie rods bowed down Tuesday, a monster bass hadn’t really occurred to me. In my experience a big fish hooked while trolling for crappie is most likely going to be a drum or a catfish.
I was unhooking another smaller fish at the time so it took a few seconds to reach for the other rod. When I finally did, I realized that line was screaming off the reel and I immediately thought, “Catfish.” But as soon as I picked up the rod and put more pressure on the fish, the line started up and 150 feet away, a large bass thrashed on the surface. But I could not tell how large.
From that point on, however, the fish acted like a catfish, continually boring for the bottom. On a small crappie rod spooled with 6-pound test line, there could be no “horsing the fish to the boat.” As I routinely tell others, “It’s patience over power.” You must simply have the patience to outlast the fish.
In the heat of battle time stands still. I don’t know if it took 10 minutes or 30 minutes, but the huge bass finally came to the side of the boat. I was alone, so holding the rod in one hand and net in the other, I pulled the huge bass toward me and horror of horrors, the hook popped free.
My heart sank for a brief second but the exhausted fish didn’t bolt and I was able to slide the net underneath.
When the scale read 12.6 pounds, I knew my bass career had peaked. The odds of topping that catch in what’s left of my life are slim (although I won’t quit trying).
That catch, and the many other monster bass catches in recent years have attracted attention from across the nation. Area boat ramps are clogged with trucks & trailers and a quick survey shows that many of those anglers are from out-of-state.
“We do hear from a lot of anglers complaining about a lack of ramps or crowded ramps,” said Jolley.
That’s great for the economy, but how does it affect the fishing?
On the anniversary of Keen’s historic state record catch, there has been lots of talk about whether his record will ever be broken. Some even feel Chickamauga Lake bass fishing might be “on a decline.”
On the Chattanooga Fishing Forum Casey Scates wrote, “I would think if not caught within the next few years, this [record] will hold up for many years to come. I feel this lake is too small for all the pressure it has had and will have on it.”
Charles Myers, however, writes, “I strongly disagree with our lake being in a decline. I’ve been involved with night tournaments for the last five years or so and it’s unbelievable how much weight it’s taken the last couple of years to win.”
Jolley says he is seeing no evidence of a decline, but he admits that the amount of bass fishing pressure on the lake might have an effect.
“The pressure on the reservoir is one of those items we’re going to have to keep a close watch on,” he said. “In my 23 years on the job, it is definitely the most sustained [fishing] pressure I’ve ever seen. Not to mention the advances in electronics and techniques.”
WILL IT HURT?
But will it harm the fishing success?
“Harm is strong word,” said Jolley. “I think it’s reached the point that it can affect the number of [bass] out there. Now whether that’s harmful…. that’s hard to say. But we sure can’t sugarcoat it and say it won’t have any impact.”
Some of the pressure might be relieved now that TWRA is stocking other lakes with Florida bass. However Jolley wants anglers to understand any results are still a long way off.
“People need to remember that on Chickamauga the pure Florida bass have contributed very little to the catch. We really didn’t see many of those in our research,” he said. “The big bass we saw mostly were F1 hybrids. That’s the cross between a Florida bass and our native largemouth. Those are the ones that have really shown up.”
Jolley says that largemouth don’t mature and spawn until they are at least three years old. That means that this year is the very first year the newly-stocked Florida bass might spawn. Then it would be a minimum of five years before their offspring – F1 hybrids – start showing up as trophies. In other words, Jolley believes it will likely be at least 2023 before fishermen really see whether the Florida bass stockings in other lakes yield similar results as they did on Chickamauga.
“That doesn’t mean some of those pure Florida fish won’t show up,” said Jolley. “But we haven’t seen many of those show up in the catches on Chickamauga.”
So far TWRA is totally dependent on other states to provide the Florida bass for stocking. They must either buy them or barter for them. Jolley says, however, that there is hope of a new hatchery facility in West Tennessee that will allow Tennessee to produce its own Florida bass fingerlings.
Meanwhile Chickamauga Lake will continue as the “Florida bass hotbed” in Tennessee. And as I learned Tuesday, you apparently don’t actually have to be fishing for them to catch them.