How to Find Some Dam Saltwater Fishing in Tennessee

The boat rocked and rolled as we floated between the bellowing boils. “Keep away,” the signs warned. “Violent surges occur suddenly. KEEP OUT.” I casted a line.

That’s probably a good thing, because here in the turbulent waters below the Tennessee River’s Pickwick Dam rests a curious catch. On the eastern seaboard, this saltwater species is called a rockfish. But here on the border of Tennessee and Alabama—hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean—it’s a striped bass.

And though striped bass naturally spend most of their lives in saltwater, they spawn in freshwater. Because of this, populations have been successfully introduced to freshwater reservoirs throughout North America. According to our guide Clagett Talley, this local population is accidental. The fish darting between the pillars of swirling water around us are widely speculated to be the result of a failed Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) experiment in the 1960s. TWRA officially claims that the stripers below Pickwick Dam migrated north from the Gulf of Mexico; but that’s a convenient stance given the more than 300 mile journey the fish would have made to reach a spot that TWRA itself stocked with fish some 50 years ago. At any rate, their origin doesn’t matter today.

What matters now is that the stripers are here. They are here, and they can get big—up to 80 pounds. Here though, stripers range between six and ten pounds. But for a region more accustomed to hauling in two to three pound largemouth bass, that’s an enticing lure; and rumors persist of the occasional 25-pounder being hauled up.

Seems legit.

It’s no wonder then that we aren’t the only fishermen practicing a Mid-Southern brand of surf fishing today.

Along for the journey is FTR contributing writer and mentor, Joe Sills, Sr. Dad has joined me on more than a few fishing expeditions throughout the years, and as we balance the rocking of the boat with the heaving motion of mega-sized spoons and crankbaits we’re tossing out, it’s clear that the 72-year old savant of the sea still has a few more adventures left in him. Fishing with Talley has been one of his favorite past-times—so much so that the two have been here 11 times before.

Today marks my second trip below the dam.

Our entire crew is rigged up with heavy flipping sticks and 25-pound P-Line. It’s big gear that we need to fight strong fish pulling through the boils, especially with a trio of Ben Parker Magnum Spoons twirling from the other end. What’s a Ben Parker Spoon? That, too, is a local oddity. Parker’s take on a timeless lure design is a serious one. At 8-inches long, it’s designed to simulate big shad to catch really big bass. After taking home top honors in several tournaments around the region, the Tennessee River native found himself selling the hottest spoon on the bass circuits.

As I pitch the twirling mass of chrome into the boils, I’ve got no idea if it will work.

It looks the part—like a giant gizzard shad careening through the water. It also feels like you’re likely to haul up a colossal fish on every cast, but it’s unproven on stripers.

I cast and wait. The spoon glides around the ebbing water. Surprisingly, it doesn’t sink quickly. In fact, once it’s in the water the 3-ounce piece of metal displays a lot of action, and a whole lot of reflectivity.

But nobody is having any luck today. Not us. Not the boats around us, save for a lonely catfish. After an hour of sifting through the boils and trolling around the dam, the sun begins to flirt with a tree line to the west. “Only a few more minutes of daylight left,” I thought. It was time to switch it up.

That’s when our luck changed, if only for about 15 minutes.

Whether that luck changed because of the sun or because of the lure, it’s hard to say. That’s life in fishing. But as soon as I switch to large purple and white crank bait, the bite turns on. Suddenly, fish begin to hit on every cast.

And As Talley maneuvers the boat around the largest of the two hydroelectric boils, dad and I begin to haul them in.

A cast and a strike. A cast and a strike. Each one produces a struggle between rod and reel, drag and line, fish and man. Sometimes the stripers crash to the surface trying to shake the hook. Other times, they dive deep—deep into the swirling waters below.

Several rise to the surface only to shake free right at the net. Once, the net is unavailable for rescue-duty as we both connect at the same time. And then, the bite disappears.

Our biggest striper came in at just over seven pounds. The old man takes the prize on that one. As Talley whips the boat around for a quick ride to the ramp, I wonder if a double-digit beast would have taken that giant spoon. A largemouth would, I was sure. A saltwater native? Who knows.

The drive home through a moonlit southern night left a lingering question in my mind: did I switch the game up to soon? There’s only one way to know.