Analyze…Adapt…Overcome; Steps to Success

When hunting fish on hydro-generation lakes along the Tennessee River, current is the first consideration. As turbines go offline, the bass bite along the river channel can turn off as quickly as one can flip a light switch. Anglers who were able to remain in synch with TVA’s generation schedule fluctuations and follow the fish ended up atop the NRS Leader Board at this past weekend’s KBF TRAIL Series Tournament.

A successful angler is one who can best analyze changing conditions and make adjustments. That’s the three top finishers on the Tennessee River lakes near Florence, Alabama did at the Southeast Regional Finals.

Stung by a podcast that claimed female anglers’ success is inversely proportional to the amount of clothing they wear in their social media photos, Kristine Fischer made the trek south from Nebraska to prove that inches of bass boated rather than square inches of skin bared is what distinguishes champion-caliber anglers in a male-dominated sport. A tough day prefishing that produced only five fish and near heat-exhaustion under a blazing sun—despite solar protection and cooling of her AFTCO clothing—almost deterred her from competition. Friday morning, though, she awakened with a clear head and a determination test her mettle against the best in KBF’s Southeast Region and across the eastern US.

In prefishing, Kristine had identified an area of the Tennessee River about nine miles below Wilson Dam that held baitfish and feeding bass among hydrilla beds. When she pulled up in her Hobie Pro Angler, sure enough the bass were there, and throwing reaction baits she was able to limit out pretty quickly. By 9:30 she was culling fish and ended up the day with a substantial 5.50” lead. She spent the last hour or two on the water scouting for other productive spots to create a Plan B for Day 2.

As it turned out, that preparation paved the way for her Southeast Region victory. On Saturday Kristine returned to her Day 1 hotspot, fishing the area thoroughly with her half-ounce spinnerbaits with Shadteez Trailer on a St. Croix Sweeper Spinnerbait rod. Read Kristine’s excellent Day 1 and Day 2 accounts on her Facebook page for details. Here are the high points:

Normally Kristine doesn’t track the NRS Leader Board closely during competition, preferring to focus on the fish and compete against the elements rather than other anglers, but as she uploaded bass #3, she noticed a flood of texts from friends and fans, encouraging her to hang tough in the face of Mike Elsea’s remarkable early-morning surge. She checked the standings and confirmed that Mike had loaded the Board with close to 100 inches of bass, overtaking her in the event standings.

Pickwick had proven its early morning bite the previous day, so putting three more bass in the 20” range over the gunwale as the sun climbed was a formidable challenge. Rather than let panic take root, Kristine buckled down to figure out a solution. Losing a seven- or eight-pound heartbreaker bass right at the boat rocked her but didn’t flatten her. Determined to make something happen, she moved over to a 2-3-foot flat with sparse hydrilla she’d scouted out the previous afternoon and began combing the grass with her blade baits. That’s when she encountered the bass mob going ballistic on gizzard shad. Two dozen huge bass, clearly visible in the shallow, clear water, played volleyball with her spinnerbait and Jackhammer Chatterbait, blasting them out of the water, wrenching at the blades, doing everything except hooking up. And then…the bite died as quickly as it began. Ten minutes of fruitless casting proved the blade bait’s appeal had worn thin and Kristine needed to adapt or perish.

Figuring the bass were still nearby but had probably dropped off the shelf into deeper water as the current slowed, she switched to a big Texas-rigged worm on a light bullet weight, drifted out into deeper water, cast parallel to the weed line, and began an excruciatingly slow retrieve.

A slight tug on her line and a quick wrist snap of her spinning rod set the hook on an eighteen-inch bass. Two minutes later, a twenty-inch bass repeated the performance.

Her last big bass of the day didn’t even strike her bait but just vacuumed it up and sat still while Kristine puzzled out the meaning of sudden weightlessness. Deciphering the limp line took a split second, and Kristine slammed home the hook and then held on as a behemoth bass tried to pull her out of the boat, launched itself into an aerial somersault, and finally thrashed its way into her landing net. (Watch Kristine’s GoPro video on her Facebook page for a blow-by-blow of that epic fight!)

After that, even knowing that she’d regained her lead (with a comfortable 6.50” margin), Kristine kept fishing the area in hopes of a triple-digit day. Although the picked up several more bass, she wasn’t able to cull her way over the 100.00” wall.

According to Kristine, “The most vital aspect to winning this event was mental toughness. My goal for this year was to keep a more positive attitude, to avoid a self-destructing, to never give up!”

While her performance in 2018 was more consistent, with numerous top-5 finishes, Kristine’s triumphs at the Hobie Bass Open Series on Kentucky Lake in May, on Chickamauga in the KBF TRAIL Series in June and now the KBF TRAIL Southeast Region season finale on Pickwick have elevated her profile, proven her a serious contender in any kayak fishing event and earned her the respect of the entire kayak bass fishing community and the backing of top name sponsors like Dakota Lithium, Westin Fishing, St Croix, Hobie, and RAM Mounts.

Mike Elsea prefished Tuesday morning within sight and downstream from Wilson Dam, on a 200-yard stretch of the river that held baitfish and feeding bass. He had three solid bites in short order and then left at 10:00 that morning, hoping the spot would remain his secret.

Wednesday and Thursday Mike explored a number of other areas, fishing ledges, grass mats, and docks, but he wasn’t able to put together an effective backup pattern. For the tournament, his best bet would be to return to his Tuesday hot spot and count on it to produce.

When he motored up Friday morning, Mike found the bass, and happily for him, they were still willing to attack his offerings. He was in the middle of a killing field, with largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass all taking part in the mayhem, corralling shad up against the edge of a gravel bar. He would catch a few, drift five hundred yards down the river while taking photos, motor back up with his Torqeedo, set back up, catch and miss a few more, and then, inexplicably, the bite would suddenly die off.

Analyze, Mike noticed that current flow varied significantly during the day. He also observed that bass responded better to bass on his first few casts.

Adapt. Mike admits he’s not much of a river rat, but he learned quickly that as the current shifted speed and angle, he needed to move his boat and alter his presentation angle so that the lure’s approach path was optimal for how the bass were positioned.
Mike also began rotating baits through the morning. Six of the ten rods he had with him were rigged up with different topwater lures. After fifteen minutes on one lure, when the bite dropped off, Mike found switching baits would reignite it.

By day’s end, he was kicking himself in the butt, feeling that if he’d boated even half of the fish that hit his bait the first day, he could have sewn up the tournament then and there.

Analyze. What was going wrong? One big bass broke off right at the net. Another giant bass surged and broke off within feet of his Native kayak. Many more slammed his bait, stretched his string, and then just vanished. Bass even grabbed his bait as he was lifting it from the water, though with just a foot of line out those bass were too hot to handle and came unstuck or broke off. Could the problem be weak or dull hooks? Or possibly the fluorocarbon line? It doesn’t float and inhibits hook-sets on topwater baits, and it failed to absorb the shocks of still-green fish close to the boat.

Adapt. Vowing that Day 2 wouldn’t be a repeat, Mike first re-spooled his reels with fresh line, switching from fluorocarbon to more resilient monofilament. He also swapped out every hook, testing their points and strength, before carefully retying them.

Overcome. Mike’s fish were still on-site and actively feeding when he returned on Saturday. His hookup-to-net ratio improved greatly; he posted 96” of bass in the first couple hours. Almost every fish that chomped down on his topwater baits was securely stuck and made it back to the boat. Still, up until about 10:00 a.m. he was in the middle of wolfpacks of four- to six-pound bass that blasted his baits three feet into the air without getting them in their mouths. Mike said it sounded like someone was dropping bowling balls into the lake all around him!

Pedaling up and down his 200-yard stretch of water, he figures he hooked and lost another 105.00” of bass on Day 2. That included a 22.00” largemouth already in the net, which managed to leap clear and flop back into the lake before Mike could restrain it. That, plus the time he spent untangling and unhooking treble-hook lures snagged in the string netting, rankled with him.

Mike said, “You’d think being sponsored by YakAttack, I’d have a Leverage Landing net. Being without one cost me this time. It’ll be my next purchase.”

Losing around 200 inches of bass in two days could have put Mike out of contention in any tournament, but it’s a testimony to the quality of the Tennessee River lakes that he ended up with 182.25” on the NRS Leader Board, putting him in Second Place for the event. He said, “This tournament forced me to adapt more than any I’ve ever fished, but I had a blast! I want to come back here, just to have fun!”

Maybe eighteen miles downriver from Wilson Dam, Josh Stewart spent his Wednesday working a pattern similar to Kristine’s with similar results. Fishing current edges along grass lines near Koger Island produced a few small bass plus one 6-pounder that pounded his punch rig on the first drop into a lily pad bed. However, his prospects of earning the points he needs for his KBF ANGLR of the Year race looked pretty dim unless he made a switch. But unlike Kristine, the adjustment Josh made was a radical change of venue, from Pickwick to Wheeler Lake, and from main river channel to feeder creeks.

He first spent a couple hours on Wheeler Lake looking for bait and bass among milfoil beds but with scant success. On Thursday, the wind picked up making it difficult to position his boat to best effect in open water. Wondering if some bass had moved up into the relatively cool water of feeder creeks, Josh packed up and began creek-hopping.

At his first stop, he found nothing happening, so he moved on to another creek. There, wolf packs of bass were busting on small groups of 30-40 hand-sized gizzard shad that Josh could spot in the cool, shallow, clear water. A few quick bites convinced him that he’d found his competition spot.

Both days, Josh worked the same creek, putting in near the mouth (where he found schools of small threadfin shad) and working his way up to the first riffle. Immediately he began boating bass on his “lucky Chug Bug,” one he’d found the year before floating on Guntersville. It proved its worth on bass there and later on redfish down at St. Andrews in Florida. The force in the little dog-walker still ran strong, evidently, because bass chomped it wherever holes in the rafts of floating leaves permitted its use. Where the leaves were too thick, a frog worked, too, but the bass were not blowing up on them; instead, they were slurping them down with hardly a sound. Like Mike, Josh favored monofilament (20#) for topwater baits with treble hooks, recognizing that he lost fewer fish with the shock-absorbing mono. Braid he relegates to single-hook baits and frogs.

Josh’s biggest regret was not hitting this pattern sooner. With so many feeder creeks, so many places to explore, he thought he could have caught more bass if he’d identified two or three creeks in which he had confidence.

His best decision (aside from focusing on cool-water feeder creeks) was carrying a YakAttack Leverage Landing Net. “Without it, I probably would have missed a big bass that jumped and spit the frog right by the boat. It works almost like an extension of my arm!”

Josh’s second day total of 89.75”, added to his first day’s 87.75”, lifted him from Fifth Place to Third for the event.