by Ron Presley
Approach with caution, but seize the opportunity
Ty Konkle is no stranger to flathead fishing. Every year he waits with great anticipation for the spring flathead bite. This year, 2018, was a little different than most. Heavy rains pounded the Tennessee River watershed for weeks and the lakes were mostly at flood stage in mid to late April. Facebook post after Facebook post showed photos of dams along the Tennessee River with water flowing dramatically through the flood gates filling the tailrace below with fast moving and turbulent water.
For Konkle it was an opportunity to try something a little different at one of his favorite spots. He has started many guided catfish trips below Nickajack Dam. He would stroll into the tailwaters, cast a few Foley Spoons for skippies, and move downriver in search of whiskered critters. Occasionally he would linger in the tailrace and suspend some bait to see if his favored flatheads were there.
That leisurely approach he normally took to the waters below the dam was interrupted by the flood stage conditions of the river. The rushing water and the accompanying debris swept down the river changing fishing conditions considerably.
With the water moving like it was, a different approach was going to be needed. Konkle put on his thinking cap as he looked at the ravaging water coming out of both sides of the dam. Between the floodgate side and the generating side was an abutment that separated the two torrent flows of water. When the currents from each side bumped heads at the end of the abutment a small eddy was formed. Could that create an ambush point for hungry flatheads? Konkle thought it might.
The first thing he wanted was some live bait. The skipjack that were abundant a few days ago seemed to be gone now that the water was supercharged and flowing hard. A few casts with no luck turned Konkle to another source of bait. He was still thinking about flatheads. There is an old lock on the other side of the floodgates with some concrete structure where Konkle often catches bluegill for bait.
He moved over to the old lock and baited his B’n’M Duck Commander Ultralight Combos with red worms. After sorting through some small channel cats that also liked the worms, we caught enough bluegill to head back to the swift water and the abutment that separated the gates. Konkle catches plenty of big flatheads on cut bait too, but live bluegills are known flathead candy and we expected them to do the trick.
Konkle’s strategy was to fish the short eddy and the current seam that formed at the end of the wing wall as the two sides of the dam spit out their independent flows of water. His plan was to suspend fish, but he worried about boat control. The trolling motor was sure to struggle trying to hold the boat in the fast-moving current and anchoring was not really an option.
As luck would have it there was a short piece of rope fastened to the cement wall, obviously left by another angler when conditions were much calmer. It had been fastened to the floodgate side of the abutment wall. The rope was barely long enough, but Konkle managed to fasten it to a cleat on the front starboard side of the boat. This procedure left about a third of the boat alongside the wall and the other two-thirds right at the eddy at the end of the structure which was only about three feet wide.
“I wish I had brought my bumpers,” said Konkle as the boat was constantly being pushed up against the wall by the rushing water. “Boat protection against the structure is our biggest concern. We are pushing the limit of what we can do. Any more current and turbulence than this and I would not even try it.”
“As long as there is a calmer spot to ambush from, flatheads don’t mind how fast the water is next to it,” instructed Konkle. “I will steady the boat as you drop the bait straight down in front of the end of the structure.”
Konkle had rigged his 7-foot 6-inch Silver Cat rods with a Carolina rig. The B’n’M rods were perfect for the close-quarter combat we were about to engage in. The shorter length and stiffer backbone helped control the fish in the faster-than-normal water coming down along the wing wall. The Carolina rig featured a larger than normal weight, obviously needed in the swift moving water.
“If your rig keeps getting blown out of the spot your trying to fish, It’s too much current,” continued Konkle. “The way the water looks on the top isn’t always what its doing on the bottom. We won’t know until we drop a bait in there.”
It did not take long to verify that the area below the wing wall created enough of an ambush spot to hold some flatties. Teenagers were all we caught that day, but in that fast water it was great sport and an experience I will never forget. We caught fish as long as we had live bait.
This was my first opportunity to experience fighting fish in heavy current and each time I thought the fish were much bigger than they were. Flatheads have always struck me as the best fighters among the catfish, but in the flood stage currents they were simply tiring. It did not take long for the muscle burn to begin.
We caught a variety of flatties and blues. It was definitely an “outside the box” kind of fishing. The boat was constantly in motion as it swung away from and then back towards the wall. Konkle was kept busy steadying the boat as best he could. It was definitely a two-man operation and only one person could fish at a time.
The target area was small and when the bait blew out of the eddy you had to reel in and drop down again. If we had not been tied to the wall I don’t believe we could have done it on the trolling motor only.
“Safety is the main thing under these conditions,” concluded Konkle. “Only season boaters should venture anywhere near fast water. Always have a partner along, and when in doubt just don’t do it!”
Konkle offers guided catfish trips on the Tennessee River near Chattanooga, TN. He can be reached at 423-307-2983. You can check out his website at www.fv-catfish.com and view his videos on his YouTube channel.