UPCOMING EVENT: ABU GARCIA COLLEGE FISHING - 2020 - Harris Chain of Lakes

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 

Prespawn Showdown Coming to Ross Barnett

Prespawn Showdown Coming to Ross Barnett

The Phoenix Bass Fishing League presented by T-H Marine kicks off its 2020 Mississippi Division schedule at Ross Barnett Reservoir on March 7. Ross Barnett is an annual early season stop for FLW and the first crack at gaining essential points in the race to qualify for this fall’s Regional. This time around, anglers might have to navigate tricky conditions due to a wet and rainy winter. READ MORE »

Wiley X Teams with FLW

Wiley X Teams with FLW

FLW, the world’s largest tournament-fishing organization, announced today a multi-year sponsorship agreement with Wiley X, one of the most trusted brands in the world for safety eyewear, high-performance sunglasses, and optical/protective sports eyewear for youth. Effective immediately, Wiley X becomes the official sunglass provider of FLW and assumes title sponsorship of the FLW High School Fishing Camp, the ultimate summer camp for serious high school anglers, their parents, boat captains and coaches. In addition to the High School Fishing Camp, Wiley X has also been named the presenting sponsor of the new Major League Fishing (MLF) College Faceoff events. READ MORE »

Perfect Practice Conditions at Harris

Perfect Practice Conditions at Harris

Ask Matt Becker how his practice is going for this week’s Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit event presented by Bad Boy Mowers on the Harris Chain, and the Pennsylvania pro has nothing to complain about. For starters, he’s in the Sunshine State, and it’s about 80 degrees. The 50-degree swing compared to what folks back home in Finleyville, Pa., are experiencing is certainly pleasant. The fishing has also been pretty good through a day and a half of practice. READ MORE »

Timing Right for Giant Weights at Chickamauga

Timing Right for Giant Weights at Chickamauga

If it’s big bass you want, late winter and early spring are ideal times to catch them at Lake Chickamauga, which is why the 2020 Toyota Series Central Division opener is perfectly timed to be a big-bass slugfest. The tournament, which runs Feb. 27-29, could produce some of the biggest five-bass limits FLW will see all year. Just how good the fishing will be depends on the weather, and whether the region ever sees an end to the rain that’s been falling recently.  READ MORE »

Dortch’s Flipping Setup

Dortch’s Flipping Setup

After growing up on the Tensaw River in Alabama and spending much of his early fishing career in Florida, Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit pro Bradley Dortch naturally has a very good handle on flipping. Especially around matted cover, Dortch is quick to put a big stick into action, and his preferences fit him perfectly. If you’re looking for a new flipping plan, or maybe just thinking about tweaking around the edges, his advice could be applicable to you. READ MORE »

Co-angler Opportunities Expand in Toyota Series

Co-angler Opportunities Expand in Toyota Series

For 2020, FLW has partnered with Toyota to roll out a host of enhancements to its Triple-A league known as the Toyota Series – including great new opportunities for co-anglers. READ MORE »

Abu Garcia Partners with FLW, MLF

Abu Garcia Partners with FLW, MLF

FLW and Major League Fishing (MLF) announced today a sponsorship agreement with Abu Garcia, a legendary fishing brand and industry-leading manufacturer known for its high-quality, innovative rods and reels. Abu Garcia will immediately assume title sponsorship of FLW College Fishing circuit. READ MORE »

Toyota Series: Best Value in Fishing

Toyota Series: Best Value in Fishing

For 2020, FLW has partnered with Toyota to roll out a completely revamped Triple-A league known as the Toyota Series, with many enhancements over the previous FLW Series that were requested by competitors. READ MORE »

Register Now for High School Camp

Register Now for High School Camp

Registration is now open for the 2020 Wiley X High School Fishing Camp presented by Tackle Warehouse, which runs from July 22-24. The registration period will continue through June 30 or until all camp spots have been filled.  READ MORE »

Toledo Bend Midday Update – Day 3

Toledo Bend Midday Update – Day 3

The final day of the Toyota Series Southwestern Division event on Toledo Bend is an absolutely glorious one, in terms of weather. A light breeze and sunny skies greeted anglers for the first time all week, and while it may be pleasant to be outside in, it hasn’t done much to help the fishing. READ MORE »

Toledo Bend Midday Update – Day 2

Toledo Bend Midday Update – Day 2

It was another cloudy, cool morning to start day two of the Toyota Series Southwestern Division event on Toledo Bend. With water temperatures hovering around 52 degrees, the fish weren’t in much of a biting mood throughout much of the morning. READ MORE »

Fish BFL, Series for Chance to Win Polaris

Fish BFL, Series for Chance to Win Polaris

Just as it did last season, Polaris is teaming up with FLW in 2020 to give away a pair of ATVs and a UTV. READ MORE »

Toledo Bend Midday Update – Day 1

Toledo Bend Midday Update – Day 1

Day one of the Toyota Series Southwestern Division season opener on Toledo Bend has been about what the competitors figured it would be – a slow and steady grind. A misty rain and light fog greeted anglers at takeoff, followed by a decent wind out of the north bringing a chill to the air, which wasn’t exactly forecasted. READ MORE »

Previewing the St. Johns River

Previewing the St. Johns River

With the addition of new divisions on the 2020 Toyota Series schedule, Florida anglers (and anyone else hoping for a full schedule of Florida fisheries) get a trio of Sunshine State staples on the docket this year, starting with the St. Johns River on February 13. READ MORE »

Toyota Sponsors MLF and FLW

Toyota Sponsors MLF and FLW

Toyota Motor North America (TMNA) announced today a formal sponsorship of Major League Fishing (MLF), professional bass fishing’s newest premier tournament organization, and home to Team Toyota professional anglers Mike Iaconelli, Terry Scroggins, Kevin VanDam, and Jacob Wheeler. The partnership includes Fishing League Worldwide (FLW), the world’s largest tournament-fishing organization, as title sponsor of the Toyota Series. READ MORE »

Big Bags Expected at Bama Division Kickoff on Lake Martin

Big Bags Expected at Bama Division Kickoff on Lake Martin

Big largemouths and lots of spots are the main attractions at Alabama’s Lake Martin, where the Phoenix Bass Fishing League presented by T-H Marine Bama Division kicks off its 2020 season Feb. 8. Local hammer David Gaston, who’s won the last two Bama events at Martin, expects a typical wintertime tournament this season with solid weights across the board. READ MORE »

Sharing Forrest Wood Stories

Sharing Forrest Wood Stories

In the few days since Forrest Wood passed away, thousands of people have taken to social media to share their favorite “Forrest Wood story” in public tribute to one of bass fishing’s most iconic men. In keeping with the trend, we reached out to people within the FLW family and the broader fishing industry and invited them to share a Forrest Wood story or two, or to reflect on what Forrest meant to them. READ MORE »

Warm, Wet Winter Setting up Big Weights at Murray

Warm, Wet Winter Setting up Big Weights at Murray

The Phoenix Bass Fishing League presented by T-H Marine kicks off its 2020 South Carolina Division schedule at the Jewel of South Carolina, Lake Murray, which is the former host site for multiple FLW Cup events. Murray is full of big bass and can churn out weights in the upper 20s if conditions line up right. Thus far in 2020, warm, wet conditions have been great for bass fishing. Though patterns might vary slightly from a “normal” winter, competitors can expect to have a good time fishing shallow with power-fishing baits.  READ MORE »

Forrest Wood’s Legacy

Forrest Wood’s Legacy

Surrounded by his family, Forrest Wood passed away in a Mountain Home, Ark., hospital just after 9 a.m. Saturday, four days after suffering a heart attack in his home. Wood, who was 87 at the time of his death, was the founder of Ranger Boats of Flippin, Ark. A pioneer of bass tournament fishing, he helped launch the careers of hundreds of aspiring tournament anglers through sponsorships. During his 20-year span at the helm of the company he founded with his wife, Nina, Forrest is credited with laying the groundwork for the modern bass boat through his innovative designs and engineering advancements. READ MORE »

Forrest L. Wood, 1932-2020

Forrest L. Wood, 1932-2020

FLW is saddened to report that Forrest L. Wood, the namesake of our organization and a longtime member of the FLW family, passed away today at age 87. He spent his final days surrounded by his family, including his wife of 68 years, Nina. READ MORE »