Fishing Tennessee's Clinch River

Story And Photos By W. H. "Chip" Gross

You know you're angling for big fish when you're using a live 20-inch brown trout for bait.

It had all begun the day before. Fishing guides Scott Manning and Brycen Roberts had helped me catch eight to 10 (I actually lost count in all the excitement) large-striped bass from east Tennessee's Clinch River. Those fish weighed from 20 to more than 30 pounds each, and fought so hard it was all I could do to land them.

"Now tomorrow, we'll see if we can catch a really big one," Manning said when our morning's fishing was over. At first, I thought he was kidding.

"What?" I said incredulously. "You don't consider those fish we just caught to be big?"

"Well, they're nice sized," Roberts said, "but we might be able to do better. You'll only have a 50-50 chance of catching a fish in the particular stretch of river we'll be fishing tomorrow, but if we do hook one up, it'll be a true trophy striper."

Photo of a fishing camp along eastern Tennessee's Clinch RiverA fishing camp along eastern Tennessee's Clinch River.

Trophy stripers, usually the preserve of the Northeast, do occasionally waltz in Tennessee for the patient fisherman. Roberts should know, his personal-best striped bass weighed 53 pounds; Manning's largest to date weighed 58 pounds. The current Tennessee state-record striped bass stands at a whopping 65 pounds, 6 ounces.

We caught our fish that morning using three methods: trolling, casting, and fishing cut bait. About an hour before dawn, we left a boat ramp on the Clinch River and motored upstream about a mile to the base of Melton Hill Dam. There we began slow-trolling (0.5 mph) live gizzard shad behind homemade, in-line planer boards. We caught one striper that way, about a 20-pounder, and then, at first light, fish began hitting the surface.

Photo of Chip Gross proudly hoisting his first Tennessee striperOhio outdoors writer Chip Gross proudly hoists his first Tennessee striper.

"Let's switch to lures," Roberts suggested. We put on giant soft-plastic baits — the size usually used for muskie fishing — and began casting to the rising fish, catching another striper using that method. It wasn't until we began fishing large chunks of cut bait (skipjack herring) directly on the bottom of the river, however, that we really began catching stripers consistently, one about every 10 minutes or so. At one point we even had a double, two fish hooked on separate rods at the same time. Stripers fight so hard that they have very little energy left once you get them to the boat. So if you don't keep your catch, plan on spending a few minutes reviving each fish before releasing it. To do so, simply hold it in the water by the tail alongside the boat and gently move it back and forth until it revives. When the striper eventually struggles to get free, release it for another lucky angler to catch.

Photo of professional fishing guides working the waters of TVA lakes and riversProfessional fishing guides work the waters of TVA lakes and rivers.

"Personally, I practice fish CPR — catch, photo, and release — whenever possible," Manning said. "Stripers are a great game fish, too big and too valuable to be caught just once."

DIY Striper

Scott Manning has a few suggestions to get you started fishing in Tennessee on your own.

"There are two places I'd recommend for a self-guided DIY striper trip, and those are the rivers below Melton Hill Dam and Fort Loudon Dam," he says. "Both areas have free public boat ramps and free parking, and I've never had a problem with anyone bothering my truck or trailer while there." In a typical year, Manning says the striper fishing usually starts to get good about May 1. "But [below-average] rainfall could delay the best fishing a month or so. If there is average or above-average rainfall during the spring, the TVA lakes fill up with water and the dams will release water to generate electricity. That means high oxygen content in the rivers at the base of the dams, so the baitfish move upstream to the dams, in turn attracting stripers."

If there is below-average rainfall, the TVA dams will not generate as much electricity, and the baitfish and stripers will stay downstream and be more dispersed. During those years, the better fishing begins about June 1.

"Once you've determined where and when to go, a striper fisherman's next consideration should be bait, which in east Tennessee usually means live gizzard shad," Manning says. "You can catch your own with a cast net in the river coves, but shad are difficult to keep alive so make sure you have a recirculating livewell or bait tank on your boat. The shad that die can always be used as cut bait."

If you don't have a cast net or don't know how to throw one, an alternative to collecting gizzard shad is to buy six- to 12-inch live rainbow trout from local bait stores. "Trout make excellent striper bait — just hook them through the nostrils — and are much easier to keep alive than gizzard shad. I recently caught nine straight stripers below Melton Hill Dam on nine trout."

As for casting artificial lures for stripers, Manning recommends Pencil Poppers, Zara Spooks, X-Raps, and Redfins: "If you don't know what those particular lures are, just ask at any of our local bait shops. They can hook you up." And speaking of hooking up, Manning is more than willing to talk with anglers, at no charge, about the details of making a DIY striper trip to eastern Tennessee. He'll discuss not only the fishing, but also where to stay/camp, the locations of bait and tackle stores, etc. Now that's what I call Southern hospitality. Find him at www.TennesseeStriperFishinGuide.com

Photo of fishing the rivers and lakes of TennesseeA 16- to 18-foot boat is ideal for fishing the rivers and lakes of eastern Tennessee's TVA.

TVA Two-Step

Striped bass, also known as rockfish, have been stocked into Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) lakes, and the rivers connecting them, for decades. What's unusual about stripers is not only their huge size, but also that they're actually a saltwater fish that can easily adapt to living full time in fresh water. The TVA was a public works project signed into law in 1933, the heart of the Great Depression, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of his New Deal. The concept was to build a series of hydroelectric dams on the Tennessee River system, bringing not only electricity to the rural South but also flood control and much-needed jobs. Today, the TVA boasts 29 such hydropower facilities, creating deep lakes behind them that provide habitat for striped bass and many other species of fish and wildlife, as well as recreation.

Photo of a large, sturdy fishing netIf trying stripers on your own, make sure you take a large, sturdy net!

It's difficult to overstate the positive economic impact the TVA has had on the region during its 82 years of existence. Even by Depression standards, the Tennessee Valley was economically dismal in 1933. Thirty percent of the population were affected by malaria, and the average income was only $639 per year, with some families surviving on as little as $100 per year. The popular country-music group Alabama summed up the dire situation well — and the subsequent relief provided by the TVA — in their 1988 number-one tune, "Song of the South." Some of the song's lyrics read:

"Somebody told us that Wall Street fell, but we were so poor we couldn't tell.

"Momma got sick and Daddy got down, the County got the farm and we moved to town.

"But Daddy got a job with the TVA, he bought a washing machine and then a Chevrolet."

During its years of development, as today, not everyone was enamored with the TVA. An actor at the time and host of the '50s television program "General Electric Theater," future-president Ronald Reagan criticized the TVA, saying it was "one of the problems of big government." Reagan was fired for his remarks, as General Electric was one of the main suppliers of power turbines to the TVA. It's with that bit of historical background that I came to be floating down a beautiful Tennessee stream in a small boat on a sunny summer day, anticipating catching my fish of a lifetime. Even though it was late July, a sweatshirt felt good. The water discharging from the base of Melton Hill Dam into the Clinch River is only in the 50-degree range, creating an almost constant mist over the river as the warm air above the water condenses. But such cold water has made the Clinch one of the top 100 trout streams in America, home to sizable brook, brown, and rainbow trout. To make a long fishing story short, after floating downstream several miles that second morning, I didn't catch a trophy striper. Didn't even get a bite, in fact. But remembering our outstanding catch of the previous day, I was more than pleased with my trip to the Volunteer State. 

Ohio outdoors writer W. H. "Chip" Gross (www.chipgross.com) has been fishing and writing about it nearly all his life. He is the author of hundreds of outdoor magazine articles, as well as the author of six books. His two fishing titles include Pro Tactics: Steelhead & Salmon; and Trolling Big-Water Walleyes: Secrets of the Great Lakes Fishing Guides, Charter Captains, and Walleye Pros.

— Published: February/March 2015


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