BASSfest at Chickamauga Lake

The Bassmaster Elite Series will celebrate bass fishing in a big way when BASSfest comes to Dayton, Tenn., June 11-15. This event combines a tournament with a festival that is sure to attract throngs of bass fans from across the country.

“Other than the Bassmaster Classic, this could be the biggest tournament there has ever been,” said B.A.S.S. co-owner Jerry McKinnis. “It is truly a festival around our sport.”

The heart of BASSfest is a unique tournament at Chickamauga Lake. Besides the Elite Series pros, the top 20 anglers from each of the three Bassmaster Open tours will be invited to compete against the likes of Kevin VanDam, Edwin Evers and Aaron Martens.

The competition will be keen and the catches should be heavy. The bass fishing at Chickamauga has exploded over the past few seasons. Giant largemouths have become commonplace, points out Tennessee Elite Series pro Ott DeFoe.

“It’s been taking five-bass limits weighing over 40 pounds to win spring, prespawn tournaments at Chickamauga the past few years,” DeFoe said.

One reason for Chickamauga’s bass bonanza is that lush, aquatic grass has returned, including milfoil, hydrilla and several other species, DeFoe explains. Bass thrive in the greenery.

Another key big-bass factor is the 2 million Florida strain largemouth bass that the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has turned loose in Chickamauga since the year 2000. The Florida bass have crossed with the native largemouths, resulting in a greater abundance of bigger bass than this reservoir has ever supported.

“Our goal was to have 15 percent of Chickamauga’s bass population with Florida genes,” said Mike Jolley, a Region 3 Reservoir Fisheries biologist. “Our 2012 study shows that 45 percent of the bass now have Florida genes.”

Jolley is currently working on a study of fins clipped from 50 Chickamauga bass that weighed over 8 pounds. The clippings were collected at bass tournaments in 2012.

Jolley calls Chickamauga’s giant bass surge a “perfect storm.” It’s a combination of Florida bass, abundant grass, a good shad forage base, a 15-inch minimum length limit and strong year classes of bass showing up.

“Chickamauga has always had a good fishery,” Jolley said. “The big story now is how many bass are being caught that weigh over 8 pounds.”

The bass will be in their summer patterns during the week of the BASSfest. DeFoe believes competitors that claim the top places during the Elite Series tournament will be fishing main lake ledges.

Productive ledges will range from 8 to 30 feet deep, and the bass should snap up crankbaits, spoons, jigs, Carolina rigs and large Texas rigged worms.

“There aren’t as many ledges at Chickamauga as at places like Pickwick and Kentucky lakes,” DeFoe said. “The fishermen are going to be bunched up on the best spots.”

Given the crowded fishing conditions and the postspawn bass, DeFoe expects the catches to be lighter than earlier in the year. However, he still predicts that the winner will average over 20 pounds a day.

There will also be plenty of shallow bass caught from the grass, DeFoe adds. Most of the vegetation will have yet to top out and mat on the surface. Topwater lures and swimbaits will score well here. Flippin’ docks and downed trees will also produce, as will fishing current seams on the upper end of the lake.

“I don’t think you can win fishing shallow, but a lot of guys will finish in the money that way,” DeFoe said.

The tournament begins on Wednesday, a day earlier than normal. After the second day of competition on Thursday, the field will be cut to the top 50 anglers. Those top 50 anglers will have Friday off to be available at BASSfest to meet fans at the expo and give seminars.

The anglers that did not make the top 50 will compete in a second chance tournament on Friday on Nickajack Lake. The top 10 will be allowed to fish Chickamauga Saturday with the top 50 anglers. That field will be cut to the Top 12 for the finale on Sunday.

Other happenings at BASSfest will be a Carhartt Bassmaster College Series tournament, plus vendors, crafters, concessions and more. It is sure to be an unprecedented celebration of fishing.