Tennessee River is cold, cold, cold

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Craig Lamb

It took just over 16 pounds a day to win the three-day Bassmaster Classic held here on March 15-17, 2019. That might be a barometer of what it’s going to take to win the four-day Guaranteed Rate Bassmaster Elite at the Tennessee River when it begins Thursday with a 7 a.m. takeoff at Volunteer Landing. And it might not.

“It’s completely different than 2019,” said Chris Zaldain, who finished 12th in that Classic. “Those two weeks later in the calendar mean everything. The water temperatures now are cold – 44 to 47 degrees. In the Classic, it was in the 50s and fish were moving to the banks. It’s really tough right now to coax a bite.”

The good news is that a full moon is on the way Saturday and rain is in the forecast after Thursday.

“It’s tougher than boot leather right now, but it’s going to get a little better,” said Brandon Lester, the Tennessee native who finished sixth in the 2019 Classic with a three-day total of 40 pounds, 5 ounces. “It’s cold now, it’s been cold, it got a little warmer (Wednesday). I think (Thursday) will be a day of survival, but I feel like with the rain coming it ought to get better. Those rainy, cloudy days are when these southern fish really start biting. A full moon will help too. Not that it’s going to start them spawning or anything, but fish always move shallow on a full moon.”

Zaldain didn’t even want to guess on what a winning weight will be this week. Lester opted for optimism, saying, “Coming into it, I thought 63 or 64 pounds would win it. After what I’ve seen in practice and everybody I’ve talked to, everyone thinks that’s going to be really hard to do. But I think they’re going to start biting in the rain.”

There will be mixed bags of largemouth and smallmouth bass. There would be something closer to a 50-50 mix if not for the minimum length limits here, which are 14 inches for largemouths and 18 inches for smallmouths. 

Brandon Card didn’t qualify for the 2019 Classic, but he was living in Knoxville last year. And he spent a lot of time on these waters in March and April, after the Covid-19 pandemic shut down tournament fishing. 

“I wish this tournament was in March,” Card said. “I know where they live in March and April. I’m at least going to have a lot of confidence in my areas if the fish move. But they’re not there now. Unfortunately, it’s still winter, and I don’t know where they are now.”

Card expects to have a mixed bag of largemouth and smallmouth, but it’s not because he’s targeting either species.

“(Tuesday) I caught a pretty big smallmouth,” he said. “I was fishing in the same area (Wednesday) and I caught largemouth, so go figure. Somebody in this tournament is going to catch a 20-pound bag one day. I think it will take 60 pounds to win.”