Saturday, January 8, 2011

On the Rocks

Stripers, rockfish in this area, for years caused some massive traffic jams on local lakes and below area dams. I can remember acres of boats side by side on Percy Priest centered over a huge school of rockfish. They would drop live bluegill down and wait for a strike. Below dams, people would line up shoulder to shoulder by the hundreds throwing 1 ounce jigs into the tailwaters, drifting them with the fast flowing current. This was the heyday of rockfishing, when a 2 fish limit was common enough and fishing could be fast and furious. It was a blast to head to the lake at dusk to wait for schools chasing shad to the surface. A big top water bait made out of an old broom handle produced great strikes. The fish were predictable, fairly easy to catch and I miss those days even though the crowds could be trying. The addition of hybrids just added to the fun.

Photo credit: My friend Gary Hanson with one of his recent catches in Alabama.

There aren‘t as many as there were but during cold weather, I still head to Old Hickory or Priest to chuck jigs into the fast water. While you can catch them year round I like the cold weather fishing when there isn’t much to do.

7 a.m. I parked just above the steps leading down to the catwalk. Nice of TVA to pour this for the fishermen. I scan the area looking for the old men that are here almost every day during scheduled generation. If you don’t fish dams this is what they call the water release through the turbines. The rockfish and hybrids love it, they show up about 30 minutes after it starts. This day it was 6 a.m. till noon. I see the old guys, they have already moved down to the lower end of the catwalk leaving the boils where the water exits the turbines empty. Today there are only 5 of us here.

The water is literally roaring, spray filling the air as I get to the edge of the river then turn right to get to the spot I love to fish. It is even with the end of the wing wall where you are standing on big chunks of slippery rock. I can cast to the face of the dam and let my jig drift along the wing wall, brushing against it, then dropping into the eddy spinning at the end of the wall. I rig a favorite, a 1 ½ ounce white on white jig with a bit of silver tinsel for flash, take aim and deliver my first cast exactly into the corner. It drifts fast, makes it to the eddy in a few seconds and drops at the current break…..then stops. Nothing to hang up on here so I slam back on the rod and feel the head shake. Three cranks of the reel handle, get the rod tip down, hit him again and again. The head shakes get harder.

 I only had a 7 ½ foot spinning rod loaded with 14 lb test while most folks fish heavy surf rods up to 15 feet. I knew what was next, he turned and made the first run. Line was screaming from the reel . Between a big fish and fast water all you do is hold on and hope. If they head downstream you get the added fun of running across big chunks of rock till you get back to the catwalk then sprinting along trying to not get spooled. This fish ran straight across the river to stop within 5 or 6 feet of the far bank. Fine by me since I was down to maybe 8 loops of line on the reel.

I yell, “Fish on!“, so the guys downstream know to look out. This is a good fish, I can see his back out of the water, a wide tail breaking the surface. My green fluorescent line looks like ski rope in the sun as it stretches across the current. I start to slowly get line back, this part reminds me of ocean fishing, reel down then raise the rod to make a few cranks. I head back to the catwalk, I want a flat surface under my feet and to get closer to my net man. All the guys stop fishing, one grabs a net and all head my way. As they get even with me I have managed to get 50 yards of line back, they are asking how big, has he made a second run? They got the answer when the fish hits the heavy current at midstream, turns downstream and takes every inch of line back. The rod is popping, the drag protests against fish and current.

This repeats for what seems like 20 minutes but might have been 5. I work slowly down the walkway to the very end, finally making my stand. The fish decides to fight rod and current, fine by me, since I get the advantage. My net man is ready as the fish drifts to the bank, he does a good job, getting him on the first pass. A nice fish pushing the 30 lb mark.

I walk down to the edge of the river and get the hook out. The fish is in good shape, the old guys want to get a good look before I take him to the truck. I get him out of the net smiling to myself cause I have a surprise. Everyone says how good a fish it is, how they wouldn’t mind getting one that size, man he will cook up good…….then it dawns on them where I’m standing. I have eased back to the edge of the river while we talked, turned and to the shouts of “NO”, thanked the fish and put him back. I don’t like rockfish for the table. There were some long faces among my fishing buddies.

I have caught many rocks and hybrids from that spot. Some on my first cast, some on my last. Fishing for rocks this way isn’t easy or fast but I love to go when I get the chance, not often enough these days. During the winter the dams are where the rockfish run, when you find them it is a blast. I look for the shad running the banks. If the bait is there the rocks are, too. That is the reason for my favorite jig, it mimics the shad plus I use a heavier jig to fish part of the water column others miss. The down side to that is losing a lot of jigs to the rocky bottom.

My current rockfish arsenal. 9 1/2 ft Shimano casting rods. Top one of my favorite reels BPS Catmaxx. Bottom a reel I hate Shimano Catala.

If you have rockfish or hybrids in your area and haven’t taken advantage of them I hope you do. They are so much fun to catch and you can use a wide range of tactics to find them. From top water or downriggers, to chucking lead below a dam, even cut or live bait, they provide fishing during times of the year when other fish can be slow.

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Born and raised in middle Tennessee.I'm a working wildlife and landscape artist specializing in watercolors. Now making cedar lures and custom turkey calls.

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