UPCOMING EVENT: PHOENIX BASS FISHING LEAGUE - 2020 - James River

How to Drift for Tailrace Smallies

How to Drift for Tailrace Smallies
Luke Dunkin

Forget Guntersville grass beds and Kentucky Lake ledges. In winter, some of the best opportunities to catch 20-pound-plus limits of Tennessee River bass exist within the system’s tailrace areas. Best of all, those limits can consist entirely of smallmouths.

Luke Dunkin, a fishing industry veteran and Walmart FLW Tour pro, resides in the Tennessee River Valley in Lawrenceburg, Tenn., and all his life he’s been whacking and stacking winter smallies in the tailraces by using carefully controlled drifting techniques.

Dunkin’s favorite holes include the tailraces below Wilson Dam, Guntersville Dam, Wheeler Dam and Pickwick Dam. His following advice applies to each of these fisheries, plus any tailrace area where bass stack up in winter.

 

Tailrace

Timing

Dunkin says the tailrace bite can be good in late summer and early fall, and some years it’s strong in April and May. Typically, however, it’s best from October through mid-March, when smallmouths congregate en masse.

“Some come in and feed in October and disappear. Some come up and live all the time in the tailwaters. Then we have a big push of fish that comes up in the prespawn,” Dunkin explains. “I think smallmouths, on the Tennessee River in particular, make a spawning run. They’ll make a long run to do it. It’s different than anywhere I’ve ever been. They’ll make a spawning run, and then they disappear in May and June.”

Resident or migrant, the fish are there because there’s plenty of food – mostly shad – corralled by the dam. Throw in current, which oxygenates the water and disorients baitfish, and you have a perfect recipe for a smallmouth hot zone.

“In the summer, in August and September, you’re not going to catch the 5-pounders – the big ones that people long for,” Dunkin adds. “Your best chance for that is October to March.”

 

Luke Dunkin

Visual Inspection

Tailwaters on the Tennessee vary from vast and wide to narrow and bluff-lined, and from deep to shallow. Regardless, in the winter months Dunkin starts his search as close to the dam as he can safely fish. Step 1 for catching smallmouths is a visual assessment to determine how much current is flowing, which turbines are working, and where there are seams between faster and slower water.

Bass will set up differently on a daily or even hourly basis depending on where the water is flowing through the dam.

“For smallmouths in particular, I like to start where there’s the most current,” Dunkin says. “It’s going to force them to be behind something and force them to react to the bait most of the time. They’re in there to eat. If you come by bouncing something down through there, come over the rock he’s hiding behind and the bait falls in front of him, nine times out of 10 he’s going to smoke it.

“On the reverse of that, if there are largemouths in the area, and there can be a lot of them, you’ll catch them on a seam 90 percent of the time. They’ll always be on a seam in my experience. Smallmouths will be close to a seam, but they always seem to be a cast over on the ‘fast side.’”

Within those fast areas, there are usually current breaks that hold fish. They might be holes or bars that show up on GPS maps, or they’re revealed when the flowing water boils up over an obstruction and creates a surface disturbance. In those cases, Dunkin drifts his boat right across the current break.

Most of the time, though, the best spots aren’t so obvious. To uncover them, Dunkin forsakes his modern fish-finding electronics. He prefers an old-school approach.

“It can be like finding a needle in a haystack, but when you find them it can be real good,” Dunkin says. “It’s more old-school, feel-your-way-around fishing because even as good as electronics are today, when you’re in that super-fast current a lot of times it creates a disturbance and you can’t see as well with the graph. I rely on just finding them more so than just looking for them.”

 

Luke Dunkin

Make a Drift

The drift process is a combination of visual scanning, feeling the bottom content with the bait and controlling the boat as it slides downstream.

“I’ll pick a drift to start in and will have everything rigged up that I’ll possibly want to use because you do snag a lot,” Dunkin says. “Instead of taking the time to retie, if I’m planning to throw a swimbait, I’ll have three or four rigged up.”

Dunkin’s preferred drifting technique is to point the bow toward the dam, cast upstream and drift backward downstream motor first. Safety is critical, especially where other anglers are fishing or where there are underwater obstructions. You must pay attention to what’s behind you as you drift.

“There’s not much steering,” Dunkin adds. “Sometimes you’ll get a pocket of current that’s a little different that’ll kick you around, or you’ll have other boats around, and then you’ll have to steer. But I’ll just go with the current 99 percent of the time.”

Dunkin advises that any time you catch a fish, mark a waypoint if possible before you drift away, but definitely remember which GPS trail was the productive one. Fish will stack up behind current breaks, and subsequent passes can produce additional fish. If one drift doesn’t produce, move over 50 yards or so and try again.

 

The Presentation

Dunkin uses a variety of lures to chase tailrace smallies, but the presentation is very similar for each. It’s dictated by the current and its speed.

“I like to have my bait as close to me as I can. If you cast long, you get hung,” Dunkin says. “I keep it dead in front of me as I’m hopping over rocks.”

The process goes something like this: Make a short cast. Engage the reel, and let the boat pull the lure. Keep tension on the line, while you focus on bouncing the bait along bottom with the current.

The key to the proper action is to stay in contact with the bottom, ticking rocks and dropping the bait into the slack water behind any obstruction. With most baits, Dunkin slowly reels the lure along as he works it. He might make up to 10 casts per drift.

“You’re constantly moving, and the strike zone is moving with you,” Dunkin explains. “I’ll keep a bait in a lane and may drift one cast for several hundred yards even. As long as you’re not getting hung, you’re good.

“If you look at the bottom on the graph while you’re drifting, it looks like steps,” he adds “There might be a rock pile that pops up, then a hole. Behind every big rock there’s a place for one [a bass] to be. I want my bait to fall off of it almost like a shelf as I come down through there. I’m feeling for those washed-out places. That’s where they sit.”

 

Luke Dunkin

Drifting Tackle

Spinnerbaits – Dunkin grew up drifting 3/4- and 1-ounce Stan Sloan’s Zorro Bait Co. spinnerbaits in the tailraces. He says the newer Strike King spinnerbaits are good too, though any spinnerbait with a heavy head can work, as long as it’ll stay down in the current. He likes a double-willow model with a white and chartreuse skirt. In stained water, he’ll dig out some old-school painted-blade spinnerbaits. The presentation is somewhat of a yo-yo retrieve. When the lure ticks a rock, pick it up and let it fall behind whatever it ran into. That’s when a smallmouth is likely to smoke it.

Swimbaits – Swimbaits can be fished just as spinnerbaits are. Dunkin likes a minimum head size of 1/2 ounce and a 4- to 5-inch Zoom Swimmer on about 16-pound-test fluorocarbon. He uses any shad color pattern but adds a little chartreuse dye to the tail when the water is dirty.

Umbrella rig – Dunkin likes 1/4-ounce jigheads most of the time, but because the umbrella rig really drags in the current, he sometimes increases to 3/8 ounce. He mainly uses 4-inch swimbaits. The key with the umbrella rig is to keep it moving. “That sucker will get hung way too much if you yo-yo it,” Dunkin says.

Other options – Football jigs can work, but they’re hard to fish in the heavy current just below a dam. Dunkin uses them when he finds fish in the upper end of a reservoir, but not in the immediate vicinity of the tailrace. Shaky heads work in the same areas as football jigs. Also, local anglers will use 1/4- and 1/2-ounce pearl white hair jigs on spinning rods. It’s not Dunkin’s preferred method, but some anglers have perfected this finesse, fast-water technique.

 

Choosing Tailraces and Dam Safety

Anglers who live along the Tennessee River are blessed with fantastic opportunities for lake, river and tailrace fishing. However, due to heavy current and fluctuating water levels throughout the seasons, plus the shallow nature of some of the reservoirs, anglers must exercise extreme caution, especially when fishing close to the dams in cold water.

If you’re uncertain about navigating near a dam, consider hooking up with a local or a guide. It’s safest to give the turbines and spill gates a wide berth, as flows constantly change. And always wear a PFD when fishing tailrace areas – in some instances, it’s required by law. A life jacket might make the difference between a tragic accident and being able to return to sample some of the best smallmouth fishing of the winter months.

“The best day I ever had, my dad and I weighed five that totaled 28 pounds,” Dunkin says. “The biggest was 6-10. That was on Wheeler. The biggest fish I’ve ever been a part of that we got in was a 7-6 smallmouth. I know of one over 8 that was caught below Wheeler. I won’t promise you you’ll catch one every time you go, but there are not many places in the world other than the Tennessee River and Lake Erie that every time you put the boat in you have a legitimate shot at smallmouths over 5 or 6 pounds. That’s a fish of a lifetime for most people. And here, there are times of the year that you see dozens of them caught.”

Tags: smallmouth  tailrace  luke-dunkin  curtis-niedermier  article 

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