Watauga Lake is as good as it gets for local fishermen
Quality fishing has been a trademark of Watauga Lake since the floodgates first closed in the late 1940s. Each year longtime fishermen and novices alike bring in large numbers of lake trout, catfish, walleye, and especially bass. In fact, some of the best sport fishing on the lake comes from smallmouth and largemouth bass, and for dedicated fishermen like Dry Hills Craig Tester, theres nothing better than spending an evening reeling in a big catch.
Tester has fished in Johnson County most of his life, a skill which he learned from his father Doyle. Ive been fishing about 35 years. Dad got me into it and hes been fishing more than 50 years. We mainly bass fish all the time but we occasionally catch a walleye, he said.
A year round sport, bass fishing is at its best during the winter and early spring months when the bass begin to school together and are more apt to grab at an easy meal. The smallmouth last winter actually bit better than they have in years. There were a lot of 4, 5, and 5 ½ pounders. We had several 20 fish days, and a lot of those days in just three or four hours, Tester said.
Yet as Tester pointed out, the summer months have their appeal as well, recently bringing out some especially big fish. Weve had good luck this year. Weve caught a lot of fish. Smallmouth has been rather slow. Were catching some but theres not a lot of size to them. But on the largemouth weve been getting some big ones, especially in the last two weeks where weve been catching several four to six pounders. Largemouth have really bitten good all summer but the larger ones hadnt really started biting until now, he said.
The average bass out of Watauga will weigh in around three pounds, but may go as high as six to seven pounds. Largemouths tend to be bigger than smallmouth with a rare few being caught at nine to ten pounds. Smallmouths arent usually larger than five pounds, but there have been several six pound fish caught out of Watauga. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency regulates fishing in the state and has specific guidelines for catching bass. The size limit on small mouth is 15 inches on Watauga and each fisherman is allowed five per day. With largemouth 12 inches is required, and the daily fish limit covers any combination of both, so long as the total number kept doesnt exceed five.
Working within these guidelines many local fishermen, including Tester, take part in fishing tournaments. Typically each fisherman will pay an entry fee and at the end of the evening the one who brings in the biggest average weight for their five fish wins the prize money. Depending on the tournament and the number of entries, the top three places take home winnings. In Johnson County there are regular tournaments held by the Mountain City Bass Club as well as weekly Rodeos at the Milligan Boat Ramp
The Rodeos are held on Thursday nights from 7:00 pm until 11:00 pm and limited to three fish. Fishermen are allowed to catch more but only keep the three largest. The fish are then weighed and the biggest average overall takes home 1st place. A separate category is also usually held for the biggest single fish.
The Mountain City Bass Club, the largest fishing organization in the county, holds its own regularly scheduled tournaments with a standard five fish average. Hosted by Dan Taylor at TNT Outdoors, the club now has more than 50 members and generally averages more than 20 boats in each of their tournaments. Most winning averages weigh in between 15 and 20 lbs and depending on the size of the tournament prize winnings can be $1000 or more.
In addition to the regular tournaments, Watauga Lake has also hosted several special fishing events, most recently a charity tournament for the Relay for Life at Ratt Branch. The club also uses other local lakes, with a large tournament earlier in the year at South Holston going to support the Niswongers Childrens Hospital. The next scheduled event for the Mountain City Club is a tournament on Boone Lake August 3rd, but many fishermen are looking ahead to September 1st when Watsons Marine of Bluff City sponsors their annual tournament at Fish Springs.
One of the biggest tournaments to be held on Watauga, top prize is a guaranteed $1000 with second receiving $700, and third $500. Second and third place prizes are based on a 50 boat prorating, but with the potential of more than 50 boats, the top seven positions could receive cash prizes. Watsons typically holds three tournaments each year, and has already hosted one at Winged Deer Park on Boone Lake and Observation Knob on South Holston.
Speaking about the sport itself, Tester was keen to point out that fishing is more than just having a lucky day on the lake. Its a lot skill. You learn what they bite, what baits to throw, the structure, and where theyre at, which brush. We have tied brush that we stake down and planted fish attractors. A lot of baitfish feed on the algae that grow on the trees. It draws the blue gill in there for shade and protection and then the bass get in there to feed on them, Tester said.
Speaking about what has been working so far this year, Tester went on to say that We use rubber jigs and spinner baits. Weve been catching several on spinner baits in the last month or so, and plastics. With either worms or lizards the plastics have been working well. The largemouths have really been in the lay downs. They started out in the willow flats and cypress flats near the Roan and Doe before they went to dropping the water. There are still some in there, but they are small ones. The bigger fish are in the lay down trees and the smallmouths are on humps and main channel points, he said.
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