by Richard Simms
Chickamauga Lake crappie fishing may be one of Tennessee’s best kept secrets
“Pardon me boy, is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo….”
Chances are you know those lyrics from the age-old song made popular by the Glenn Miller Orchestra in 1942. It was the first-ever song to achieve “Gold Record” status. These days, however, Chattanooga is known for much more than its choo choos.
The city in Southeast Tennessee sits at the front door of Chickamauga Lake, a 36,000-acre TVA impoundment on the Tennessee River. Chickamauga Lake has become famous for its extraordinary bass fishing in recent years. In the year 2000 the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency began stocking Florida-strain largemouth fingerlings in Chickamauga.
TWRA Regional Biologist Mike Jolley said, “We’ve put them in the lake every year since, except one. We’ve put more than 2 million [Florida bass] fingerlings in Chickamauga.”
Jolley has frequently been quoted saying the combination of Florida bass, habitat (aquatic vegetation) and good numbers of bait fish combined to create “the perfect storm.” In recent years, bass over ten pounds have been caught routinely and there have been record-breaking weights brought to the scales in area tournaments. In February 2015 Gabe Keen capped it all off by catching a new state record largemouth (15.2 lbs.) breaking the previous record that stood for more than 60 years.
What anglers don’t hear about however is that same “perfect storm” has benefitted the crappie fishing as well. Crappie anglers ply the lake 365 days a year with excellent success. Recent TWRA creel surveys show an annual average of 2.36 crappie caught per hour of fishing. Ask any fisheries biologist – statistically that is incredible.
TWRA creel clerks once surveyed the anglers they encountered on Chickamauga Lake. During the 12-month period, they asked 935 fishermen, “How would you rate the quality of fishing in this reservoir overall?
Of the 935 anglers asked, 870 of them said they were either “Satisfied” (48.1%) or “Extremely Satisfied” (44.9%). That means 93 percent chose the two most positive answers. ZERO percent said they were “Dissatisfied.” That is a pretty remarkable survey result and one that Jolley is very proud of.
“Between a new state record largemouth, and the great bass fishing we’ve experienced along with our Florida Bass stocking program, and some great crappie fishing, Chickamauga Lake anglers are obviously very pleased,” he said.
You won’t find many people spider-rigging for crappie on Chickamauga Lake. During the late-winter and early spring you’ll find lots of people long-line trolling creeks and embayments during the prespawn.
Pick your area to troll — Wolftever Creek, Soddy Creek, Possum Creek, or Grasshopper Creek — Dallas Bay, Ware Branch, and Harrison Bay — in February, March and April the creeks that feed these areas serve as crappie highways. They lead fish from the main lake back into sloughs and shallows where they are headed to spawn. But the fish are only on those specific shallow spawning spots a limited amount of time. The rest of the time they’re hanging out on the highway.
And they are not necessarily holed up against specific structure. They roam around at random, often following schools of baitfish suspended well off the bottom. You put enough lures in the water for long enough and you’ll find them.
In March and early April my boat routinely averages nearly five keeper crappie per hour. Factor in the small fish under the 10-inch size limit and it is probably closer to 15 fish per hour.
When you move past the peak trolling season in late April, you will find mostly single pole anglers fishing bluffs, boat docks and offshore structure. Pick your favorite plastic… Bobby Garland, Charlie Brewer’ Sliders or a wealth of others on 1/32 ounce jigs up to an 1/8 ounce, depending on the depth and your personal preference.
There is a 15 crappie per person per day creel limit and a minimum 10-inch size limit. Black crappie make up the majority of the population but at times, good numbers of white crappie are caught. Three-pound crappie are rare but two-pounders are not too unusual.
Lake access is easy, and in most cases, free. There are numerous public TVA, TWRA or Hamilton County boat ramps.
But don’t just come for the fishing.
In the last 20 years Chattanooga has turned into a tourist mecca. Spurred initially by the creation of the popular Tennessee Aquarium, now Chattanooga’s Downtown Riverfront is a focal point for vacationers.
Who hasn’t heard of Rock City and Ruby Falls? Those old-time favorites are still there. But add to it the Aquarium, IMAX Theatre, the Southern Belle Riverboat, a wealth of Civil War history and national parks along with restaurants, adventure sports, music and nightlife.
It is very easy to turn a fishing trip to Chickamauga Lake into a multi-day vacation the entire family will enjoy.
Editor’s Note: CrappieNOW will begin featuring a monthly “Destination” story featuring great crappie fishing locales, but also areas that might be good for the whole family to enjoy whether they are crappie fishing or not. If you have suggestions for places you would like to see featured, we would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.