Below The Surface: Chickamauga Chase

by Ron Presley

Fishing “The Chick” in May

Cut skipjack is a favorite bait on Chickamauga, but not always. Be sure to have some backup baits available.

Cut skipjack is a favorite bait on Chickamauga, but not always. Be sure to have some backup baits available.

Most anglers agree, big fish can be harder to catch once the spawning period sets in. B’n’M prostaff angler, Ty Konkle (423-307-2983), is one catfish angler happy to accept the challenge. In fact, the Morristown, TN angler challenges Chickamauga Monsters all year long in his home waters on the Tennessee River.

Konkle moved to Tennessee from Benson AZ in a job-related move to start a new life in Tennessee. That relocation landed him smack dab in the middle of some great fishing waters on the Tennessee River. “My home waters are now Chickamauga and Nickajack Lakes,” offered Konkle. “I caught my first blue catfish on Nickajack and my first trophy blue on Chickamauga. I fell in love with the waters here.”

Lake Chickamauga, also known to anglers as the “Chick,” is one of those fishing holes that has a varied geography that gives anglers an opportunity to fish under any condition that Mother Nature may throw at them. It has a narrow, snaky riverine upper section and a lower section of muddy flats. There are plenty of rocky areas in the lake that provide good structure.

Konkle is a believer in selective harvest. Take what you need for dinner and return the rest. All fish, 15 pounds and larger, are released on his boat.

Konkle is a believer in selective harvest. Take what you need for dinner and return the rest. All fish, 15 pounds and larger, are released on his boat.

The lower section, near Chattanooga, has a shoreline dotted with docks and lake homes, while the riverine upper section is much more remote and wild. The Hiawassee River joins the lake about in the middle. The deepest sections of the lake are 70 to 80 feet deep.

“May typically produces some of the fastest catfishing action of the year…”

A favorite location for anglers is the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant, located about 20 miles north of Chattanooga. Its operations offer a warm water discharge as another angling opportunity. The water used for cooling the plant is always recirculating, providing moving water to fish.

“My favorite time of year is March through early May,” advised Konkle. “March finds the giant blues most active and April finds the flatheads waking up and feeding heavy. The big blues start to go into the spawn mode in May, but feed heavily just prior to that period.”

Once that “favorite time” passes, Konkle sets his sights on smaller fish and plenty of bent poles. “May typically produces some of the fastest catfishing action of the year,” states Konkle. “Lots of ‘eaters’ can be caught in May. The catfish are in prespawn mode, with a few already starting the spawn. These conditions usually find catfish following their instincts to swim upstream and go shallow. I concentrate on tailwaters below the dams or on channel edges adjoining creek mouths and flats that have good spawning habitat.”

“Eaters” like these are abundant on the “Chick” in May, along with some trophy cats too.

“Eaters” like these are abundant on the “Chick” in May, along with some trophy cats too.

Chickamauga also serves as a flood control lake and the TVA usually has moderate generation flows depending on rainfall. A typical day might begin with zero generation or light flow, but rise as the day progresses. “With zero generation fishing is really tough,” advised Konkle.

“Energy demands pick up as the day goes on and TVA usually begins to generate more,” instructed Konkle. “Current always helps and it pays to wait for some generation to pick up, especially if you mark fish on the sonar. Once this flow starts it sounds the dinner bell for the catfish.”

Konkle says that catfish tend to stack up heavy below the dam in the tailwaters. Lots of 5- to 15-pounders can be caught drifting, with an occasional big fish coming to the boat. Flatheads also tend to congregate at prime feeding areas in the tailwaters, which are shallow and rocky. The average depth will be from 6 to 12 feet.

“The blowout holes immediately below the turbines run about 40 feet deep, and often hold the bigger fish,” said Konkle. “Small blues congregate below structures, pilings, and rocks waiting for a meal to float by. Downstream of the dam are some large, deep holes that hold bigger fish, also waiting to ambush a meal.”

Bigger blues come to the boat in May, but in the interest of conservation, Konkle releases them to fight another day.

Bigger blues come to the boat in May, but in the interest of conservation, Konkle releases them to fight another day.

Konkle uses B’n’M 7.5- and 8-foot Silver Cat Magnum Rods for anchoring and suspend drifting. He pairs them with Acuma clx 300L reels, spooled with Team Catfish 30-pound hi-vis mono. “I like the hi-visibility for a couple of different reasons,” explained Konkle. “Mostly, just for client’s ability to see what’s going on. It just helps keep track of things a little better.”

“I like the shorter rods the way I fish,” continued Konkle. “The eight footers are two piece, they are perfect for what I do. They are easy to break down and transport from home to the water. The 8-footers have a little more flex, the 7 1/2 footers are a little bit stiffer. If I am suspend drifting I will have the 8-foot rods setting out the side and the 7 1/2 footers out the back. You get a better spread that way.”

“I also use B’n’M Bumping Rods for bottom bouncing and the regular Silver Cat Magnums for free line, light tackle drifting.”

When light tackle free line drifting, he spools with 10-pound mono. He adds a 20-pound shock leader and a 5/0 circle hook to complete the rig. “No weight is used in this application,” instructed Konkle. “The bait will drift down stream and float along the bottom.”

The discharge water is always recirculating at the nuke plant, providing moving water to fish.

The discharge water is always recirculating at the nuke plant, providing moving water to fish.

Anchoring in the fast-moving water requires heavy weights to keep the bait down. “If I’m anchored below tailwaters I generally use a 5-ounce or heavier sinkers. If I am bottom bouncing in heavy current I will use 3- to 5-ounce weights.”

“In May I typically target big fish early in the morning or late evening and at night,” offered Konkle. “The big blues tend to feed better in lower light conditions. Otherwise I fish pretty tight to structure during the day.”

When it comes to bait, Konkle likes whatever is abundant at the time. “Anything you catch legally, and is in the slot limit, you can turn around and use as bait,” advised Konkle. “That might be crappie, shell crackers or skipjack. There are times when they want one more than the other. The key is to experiment when you start your day. Use a variety of baits and let the fish tell you what they want.”

“There is no real way to explain it, other than it is what is running at the time,” continued Konkle. “When the crappie start coming into the shallows and they start stacking up pretty good they make excellent bait. A lot of people like skipjack, but if they’re not running really well they might not be as good as something else. It seems like during any particular time, whatever is easiest to catch typically tends to be the best bait.”

Once a fish is hooked Konkle wants anglers to understand one simple concept. “I just like to tell people to keep constant pressure on the line,” instructed Konkle. “A lot of people, when they reel down on the fish, will drop the rod without replacing line on the spool. That motion produces slack. If that hook has not completely set, that is typically when fish are lost. You have to keep that constant tension all the time you are fighting the fish.”

Konkle identifies the best baits in May as chicken breast for free line drifting, cut skipjack for blues and some flatheads, and live panfish for flatheads. As May transitions into June, temperatures begin to get really hot and the big fish get very hard to come by as the spawn goes into full swing.

“Still, an average day on the “Chick” in May can produce anywhere from 20 to 50, or more, blue catfish,” concluded Konkle. “Most will be between 5 and 15 pounds. A bigger fish does come along from time to time in May, but just like all year long, all fish over 15 pounds are released to be caught again in the future.”

 

Epilogue:

 

On a return trip to fish with Tennessee River Guide Ty Konkle, the author shattered his personal best flathead record by catching a 46 pounder the first day, and then he upped it to 61 pounds the following day. Watch for the story in a future issue of CatfishNow. Konkle can be reached at 423-307-2983. You can view his website at www.fv-catfish.com and videos on his YouTube channel.

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