Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Spring Fling

Spring is slowly showing its influence around here. As things start to green up, waters warm and area lakes are brought up to summer pool, a parade of boats can be seen headed to lakes everywhere. Cabin fever is being broken after a miserable winter, fish are being caught, turkey and spring squirrel seasons are getting close. The time leaves are getting to the size of quarters on most of the trees is what we want. Early bloomers are past their peak, the dulcet sounds of the lawn mower drones across neighborhoods as they come out of hibernation to begin grazing on young shoots to ready themselves for their next winter sleep. Blue haired flower planters, another warm weather creature emerges, it can be observed head down rump up, toiling away in their spring rituals of cleaning plant beds and renewal of gardens. This is my signal to hitch up the boat, grab a couple of 6 ½ foot spinning rods and head to the river.

Yet again, I head off in a direction most people never go and to be honest many fishermen in our area have never heard of. The sexy species are active, crappie are going nuts, bass are hitting, even lowly catfish are being loaded into boats but I head down to Cheatham Dam just outside of Ashland City to catch white bass, stripe in this neck of the woods. A fish available all year but spring, summer and into fall brings on a bite hard to pass up. Downstream from Cheatham Dam or upstream from Clarksville, this stretch of river is a stripe hunter’s playground.

Spring is spawning season for stripe and first to arrive are smaller males followed by large egg laden females. On local rivers huge numbers congregate below dams, at the mouth of feeder creeks and along banks special only to them. The last two are where I head. I know if I sit upstream near the dam I can catch fish all day, so does everyone else fishing here which works to my advantage since they won’t go hunting fish. Years ago I was shown spots downstream where fish stack up in huge schools along unremarkable banks or in eddies formed by creeks feeding the Cumberland. Another good part is the simple tackle used to catch fish till your arms hurt. A ¼ oz plain lead jig head and a 3-4” soft plastic twister tail in white is cast into the current attached to a spinning rod loaded with 10# test. If you want to get fancy a #7 Countdown Rapala in shad is added to your baits or maybe a small Little George.

Running downstream from Cheatham river banks rise on both sides in plain dirt walls with a few tree lined creeks coming in from farm fields creating eddies fish hold in. The tricks are simple, slow your boat out in the current then bring it in quietly toward the eddy at a creek mouth trying to hold in the current to get casts into the slower water. Water from Cheatham’s turbines will push your boat out of position but a few casts along the downstream edge of the current break will bring results. After casting let your jig fall a few feet then simply start reeling without any added action. The strikes are savage no need to wonder if it was a fish. The other way is to find which banks hold fish, drift with the current while casting close to the bank to locate a school. Once you find them you can drift past a spot then circle back upstream to repeat the process. If a fish comes off keep reeling in a steady manner, chances are good you will have another strike almost instantly from fish following your’s.

I put in at the ramp by the dam. I hate this ramp, it looks like a cow’s face. Steep is being nice about it. Everything was loaded, rods rigged, lunch in the cooler, it was time to fish. Heading downstream, warm spring air keeping me company, sun finally out, no boat traffic to disturb the river and fish waiting to be caught, I‘ve been waiting months on this. Years of fishing makes it easier to disregard banks that look like fish would use them but don’t and I pass several to get to a good one a few minutes away. I drop my trolling motor in, grab a rod and start casting while spinning the bow back upstream.

The spot isn’t anything special, just a high dirt bank slowly sliding into the current with a few stumps here and there but stripe always hold here. My first drift ends with no hits, I head back to the top of the run and start again, it takes a few drifts to find how deep the fish are holding. This spot gives up 4 or 5 nice fish close to 2 pounds each. I drift down to get far enough away so the motor won’t spook the school, I’ll hit it again on the way back, start up and angle across the river to get to a small creek.

It isn’t much as creeks go, maybe 15 feet across with a small eddy, I catch fish here almost every trip, I am hoping for big females. Around cast number 3 I get my wish as one loads up bending my rod double, taking some line even. Stripe like to turn sideways or go nose down which makes big ones a hand full in current. I get her into the live well, my first 3 pounder, then catch 4 more good fish in 4 casts, this is what I hoped for. Fish are here in numbers when even a small spot gives up this many this fast without a bunch of them being little males. I let the boat drift down in the heavy current to get to my next bank just a few hundred yards downstream. Now it get easier because I know how far to let my jig fall and how fast to retrieve.

The rest of the day goes pretty much the same. Hit a spot for a few drifts, taking fish all along the way with an occasional bonus of a sauger near creek mouths where some stragglers are holding. On days like this when the good fish are here there isn’t much like it. Every few casts gets you a rod popping strike from a big stripe. I have a bunch come off during the fight only to hook another within a foot or two. My live well is filling up, exposed skin is turning red under spring sun, shoulders, arms and wrists finally give up after hours of nonstop casting and hauling in big stripe. Time to point the boat upstream and head home.

We have made this trip for many years, since I was a kid in fact. I learned to fish this stretch of river from Don McIntyre, yep Don taught me a lot about fishing (see last post). I took my Dad there years ago and taught him about the stripe. It was the only place he ever fished and quit because his arms hurt too bad to keep going. Strings of 80-100 big fish were nothing back when we kept those numbers, these days we keep less but catch just as many with sizes as big as ever.

The Cumberland is a big river, you need a boat to fish it, smaller rivers where you can stand on the bank produce big numbers of stripe, too. The Stones River near Murfreesboro or some larger creeks feeding into Percy Priest lake have great stripe runs in the spring as does Mansker Creek below Old Hickory Dam and the banks below the dam itself. There are spots like this all over, most are under fished when it comes to stripe even though they are abundant and easy to catch.

It is getting close, time to check rivers and creeks, tie on a few jigs and catch some of the hardest fighting fish around. Big numbers, good fish, simple tackle, all things that make spring fishing so great.

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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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