According to Major League Fishing pro Michael Neal, who lives on the shores of Lake Chickamauga, the quality of the bass fishing at his home fishery remains at an all-time high. There are loads of 3-pounders in the lake and likely more double-digit fish than in any other fishery in the region. In 2019 alone, more than 100 10-pound bass were caught and recorded at Chickamauga, and many more probably went unreported.
If it’s big bass you want, late winter and early spring are ideal times to catch them, which is why the 2020 Toyota Series Central Division opener is perfectly timed to be a big-bass slugfest. The tournament, which runs Feb. 27-29, could produce some of the biggest five-bass limits FLW will see all year. Just how good the fishing will be depends on the weather, and whether the region ever sees an end to the rain that’s been falling recently.
Toyota Series Central Division
Feb. 27-29, 2020
The folks in Dayton, Tenn., have done a fantastic job of marketing Lake Chickamauga as a premier bass fishing destination. But, in fairness, it’s a pretty easy sell. Chickamauga, at 36,000 acres, is by no means the biggest reservoir on the Tennessee River, but it’s one of the country’s top destinations for anglers wanting to target double-digit bass. Thanks to the fertile waters of the Tennessee, healthy grass growth in the spring and summer, and an injection of Florida-strain genetics, Chickamauga is the kind of place where 30-pound limits are common.
The upper end of the reservoir snakes back and forth in riverine fashion before joining up with a series of backwaters and shallow sloughs in its midsection and eventually widening out into a classic Southern reservoir at the lower end. Because of the distinct zones, Chickamauga offers a wide variety of structure and cover to fish. There’s plenty of grass in the spring and summer, though it won’t be a major factor in February, so anglers will be fishing stumps and laydowns on shallow flats, points, ledges, creek channels, gravel bars in the current, and various types of bottom content transitions.
Chickamauga is drawn down every fall to make room for spring rains, but early February storms caused the water level to jump from about 676 feet above sea level to just shy of summer pool, which is 683. A rise like that is typical of late March or early April, but unusual so early in the season.
As a result, many areas are dirtier than normal for February – brown, instead of classic Tennessee River green. And there are even stretches of shoreline brush in the water. At press time on Feb. 13, reservoir managers were planning to continue dumping water to drop the lake at least a couple feet over the upcoming days.
According to Neal, who manages a tackle shop on Lake Chickamauga, the typical winter and spring crowds have been lighter this year due to cold, rainy weather. While that’s been bad for business, it’s been good for the fishing, as it’s reduced the amount of pressure the lake’s bass normally get during a popular time of year for out-of-towners to come and hunt for giants.
The amount of rain that falls within the reservoir’s watershed between now and the tournament will be the biggest factor in patterns and the overall catch, as it’ll affect the amount of current, the water clarity and what kind of shoreline cover, if any, is in play. The long-term forecast is calling for a few rainy days and a possible thunderstorm, but isn’t showing the kind of precipitation that could really steer things off course.
“There’s been so much fluctuation that there’s not been anything stable all year,” Neal says. “It’s been summer pool in some places and even higher in others. Up the river it’s actually out of the banks a foot and a half or so [as of Feb. 13].
“Regardless of conditions, the weights are going to be good,” he adds. “Everybody I’ve talked to that’s been out in the last few days says it’s not a problem to catch 18 pounds just fishing current and stuff like that. If at least one person doesn’t have 30 pounds throughout the tournament, I’ll be shocked. If it stabilizes, you’ll see more 30-pound bags. I think the lake is as healthy or healthier than it’s ever been, numbers-wise especially.”
The one benefit of all the rain that’s fallen around Chickamauga is that new patterns are in play. Whether or not they’ll continue to factor in will depend on upcoming weather.
“It depends on the rain,” Neal says. “Your normal early spring patterns, as far as umbrella rigs and jerkbaits, could play if it quits raining and the water cleans up. If it doesn’t, Rat-L-Traps, spinnerbaits and flipping are going to play.
“There will definitely be a lot of fish caught, and they’ll be all spread out. This high water will push a lot of fish off the river to get out of the current. They’ll be in creeks. That’s where they’re used to living when the water’s up anyway. If it stabilizes and gets back to normal color, there will be guys fishing from 1 to 15 feet. It could be anything from a shallow, 1/4-ounce lipless bite to a 3/4-ounce swimbait bite in 15 feet of water. The weather is going to dictate everything.”
Additional cold, muddy water is the only thing that could slow down Lake Chickamauga, and fishing would likely still be great even if that’s the scenario pros wind up dealing with. If the conditions stabilize, anticipate mega-bags from one of the South’s best bass fisheries.