It’s been 68 days since the last cast was made in competition at an FLW event. Since the advent of COVID-19 and the subsequent nationwide lockdowns and shutdowns in March, the familiar sounds of whizzing reels, chugging topwaters and roaring outboards have been silent.
With the start of the Toyota Series Central Division event on Pickwick Lake this morning, today marks the first day back to competition in the world of professional bass fishing.
With the return comes a pent up sigh of relief – not just from the competitors fishing Pickwick this week, but from the bass fishing industry as a whole. To see some semblance of a world we remember is a welcome sight for all.
“Absolutely, I’m glad to be back at it,” gushes former FLW Cup winner Justin Atkins of Florence, Ala., “I think we’re all relieved to see tournament action return. As professional anglers, we only have so many days to work. And to be grounded on the bank the last two months during the peak of our season has been a challenge.”
Atkins was coming off his best Bass Pro Tour finish at Lake Fork in March with a ninth-place showing when COVID-19 stopped the entire world in its tracks.
“Momentum means a lot in this sport and I felt like I had the ball rolling coming out of Fork,” says Atkins. “And then it all came to a screeching halt with the virus. So I’m looking to use this event to get that flame rekindled this week. And what better place to do it other than right here at home on Pickwick.”
About the fishery
Set between Kentucky Lake and Wilson Lake along the Tennessee River chain of lakes, Pickwick Lake encompasses about 43,000 acres and runs some 53 miles from Wilson dam to Pickwick Dam. As part of the fertile Tennessee River, Pickwick is renowned for its smallmouth bass, but it houses a respectable population of largemouths as well. Like its Tennessee River cousin lakes, Pickwick features various forms of vegetation including hydrilla, milfoil and more recently eelgrass. But it’s the old submerged Tennessee River banks themselves that form offshore ledges, bars, back ditches and points that get most of the attention during the post spawn.
Pickwick’s famous offshore structures and ledges never disappoint in summer tournaments. In recent years, Pickwick has showed out in several FLW events. In the first week of June in 2017, Marshall Deakins won the BFL All-American on Pickwick with a three-day total of 60 pounds, 6 ounces. In May of 2016, Buddy Gross targeted offshore eelgrass along the river channel to win an FLW Tour event with a four-day total of 74 pounds, 5 ounces. In the first week of June in 2014, Greg Hackney won an FLW Tour event on Pickwick by racking up an astonishing 97 pounds and 7 ounces fishing a subtle river bar in 5 to 7 feet.
With ample rainfall over the Tennessee Valley over the last couple of months, the Tennessee River has been bustling with current. Over the last week, flow levels have been in the 80,000 to 90,000 CFS range, which is double or triple the normal flow. With that, the water color has been a little more stained than usual as well. The water level is also a little high for the time of year and water temperatures are running in the mid 70’s.
With more rain expected during the event, it’s unlikely the heavy flows will slow down any time over the next three days. Forecasts call for clouds and a 50 percent chance of rain for today and tomorrow, with sunny skies on Saturday.
Fishing pressure on the ledges and recreational boat traffic will be an issue this week as hundreds of anglers and resource users hit the water. Michael Neal spent his Memorial Day idling Pickwick’s ledges during the thick of the holiday weekend traffic. Neal has two runner-up finishes at Pickwick in FLW Tour events in 2014 and 2016. He is looking for a little redemption this time around.
“I wanted to see how bad the fishing pressure and boat traffic could be on this,” Neal says. “And now I know – it’s pretty intense. Everyone knows where the fish set up on these ledges now; those places are covered up with boats. The waves from the big cruisers and pontoons made idling and looking a little challenging over the weekend.”
Neal believes to do well offshore, anglers will either need to camp on a spot three days to guard it or find a spot where the fish just showed up in the last 24 hours.
“The final day of practice today was the most critical one for me,” he adds. “The whole idea is to idle places where you haven’t seen a school all week in hopes that a fresh school has just showed up. If you can find a spot that most guys have already written off and a big school suddenly shows up that can be gold.”
With the increased current, Atkins believes the offshore spots will get smaller, tighter and more confined.
“Normally the fish might use a large stretch of a ledge and you have more real estate to work with,” he explains. “But with these kinds of flows, it really forces the fishes into smaller current breaks. I’m talking single cast type spots that are a little harder to find.”
Tactics in play
There is little doubt the post-spawn, offshore bite will be at a premium during the event. Bass that live in lakes formed by the Tennessee River are inherently programmed to live out their lives along the main river channel where a conveyor belt of current brings them food every minute. With the shallow migration to spawn mostly behind them, Pickwick bass are dialed in on eating right now and offshore structure is where that feedbag will go down. Deep diving crankbaits, big swimbaits, preacher jigs and big football jigs are Pickwick staples this time of year.
As for a shallow bite, there are the remnants of a shad spawn still going on. It’s sporadic but still happening. Also, the lake’s faster, higher and more stained water might position more fish up on shallower bars than normal.
1. Getting something to yourself – Offshore events on the Tennessee River have a reputation for crowding. Getting a good boat draw and being on a spot first or finding something that nobody else has could be key.
2. Having a hot bait – In recent years, baits have broken out into the public eye at a surprisingly regular pace in offshore events on the Tennessee River. We’ve seen magnum spoons do it, big hair jigs have a rebirth and Jason Lambert light things up with a Castaic Jerky J on a Scrounger. With so many anglers fishing out, having something just a little better than the competition can really make a difference.
Tennessee River ace Mark Rose has racked up a total of three FLW wins on Pickwick Lake. He is not fishing the Toyota Series event this week but did have an opportunity to fish Pickwick last week and says the offshore bite was certainly hot and getting better.
“After what I saw last week, I would have to think a Strike King 10XD is going to do some damage in the tournament,” he offers. “When the current is rolling like that, that big plug is hard to beat.”
Format: All boaters and co-anglers will compete for two days. The top 10 boaters and co-anglers based on cumulative weight after two days of competition will advance to the third and final round, with the winner in each division determined by the heaviest cumulative three-day weight.
Takeoff Time: 6:00 a.m. CT
Takeoff Location: McFarland Park, 200 Jim Spain Drive, Florence, AL
Weigh-In Time: 2:00 p.m. CT
Weigh-In Location: McFarland Park