ELK RIVER-AN UNKNOWN WONDER
The Elk River is little recognized as other than as the 'parent', by virtue of dam projects, of Tim's Ford Lake and Woods Reservoir in South-central Tennessee. While these two impoundments enjoy a wealth of angling notoriety, Elk River, itself, is all but overlooked. Winding its way from the base of the Tim's Ford dam to eventual convergence with the Tennessee River in North-central Alabama, this small tributary provides some of the most diverse and exciting fishing available. In the cold headwaters, Rainbow trout abound in great numbers, easily succumbing to the knowledgeable angler. Outstanding Smallmouth bass fishing exists along its entire length and Largemouths thrive in the lower stretches. The pure scenery along the Elk has no rival, with towering bluffs of stone, untouched forests and rolling meadows filled with grazing cattle.
My first experience with Elk River came quite by accident and as a result of a very windy Spring day. Charlie Guice, my partner and a local tourament Pro, wisely noted the four foot swells on the Tennessee River and suggested we make haste and venture forth to calmer waters. He stated that it was only a short drive back to the Lehigh Bridge launch ramp and the wind would be a minor factor up the narrow, winding Elk River basin.
Our first stop, proceeding North from the ramp, was Anderson Creek. It was a rather broad expanse of water, which quickly tapered to the narrow, natural creek as we made our way in. It is probably the least inviting area, visually, on the entire river. However, what you don't see can certainly fool you. The old, submerged creek channel has pretty well silted over with time, but there are certain sections which roll up against rock bluffs and are still well defined. Towards the rear of the creek, massive stump beds and log jams lie just under the surface, hidden from view but harboring bass.
As a sheltering, rock wall protected us from the fury of the wind, Charlie cast a plastic worm up towards the bank. "The creek channel runs right up to this bluff," he explained, "and then turns away at a hard right angle. You'll feel some stumps down around six feet, then a short drop-off, and then some rocks that have broken away from the bluff face. This time of year, the Largemouth Bass are migrating along the creek channel on their way to the shallow spawning flats. Smallmouths should also be here because the gravel shelf above the drop is the type location they like to spawn."
Two casts later my partner connected with a good Largemouth, just as predicted. The fish was loaded with roe and had the brilliant markings of a healthy bass. As Charlie released her, I had a pickup on my small jig and rind. My fish was an undersized Smallmouth, but more than made up for his age with a dazzling aerial display. Working the steep outside bend of the channel, we took five more fish, including a hefty four pound Smallmouth.
The stumps and logs in the rear of Anderson Creek were also productive and proved to be excellent spinner bait cover. Later in the year, when the water was lower, this area was found to be excellent for the disciples of the flipping technique.
During subsequent fishing trips on the Elk, it was discovered that the upper reaches of this small river held an abundance of varied fishing structures and a high population of bass. Bob Ballard, another local angler and the 1984 National Military Bass Champion, prefers to apply his efforts in the mid-stretches of the river and is noted for his success, so we asked him to let us in on his secrets.
Bob stated, "My favorite section of Elk River extends from Blue Springs Camp, about seven miles North of the Lehigh Bridge, up to the Buck Island Bridge on Alabama Highway 99. That covers a 20 mile stretch. It has little fishing pressure because of the poorly marked main channel and the preponderance of underwater obstructions. Anyone who fishes in this area must proceed slowly and carefully and use a good topographical map. It has worlds of bass, but it also has a lot of shallow stumps and lodged drift."
Ballard continued, "There are three excellent places to fish in this center section of the river: the main river channel; the small feeder creeks; and, the accumulated drift in the flats between the old channel and the bank. Personally, I prefer to concentrate on the edge of the main river channel because it always holds fish. There will be about four to six feet of water on that edge, with a drop into 20 to 25 feet. Big stumps line most of the channel, particularly the East side and the outside of any bend. The constant current flow brings a lot of drift which lodges along the sides of the channel drop and in among the stumps. In the Winter, a jig and pig is pure murder for big bass along the sides of the drop. The rest of the year, the stumps and drift along the lip of the channel produces consistently."
We asked Bob to explain the constant productivity of the channel edge further and he explained, "The current keeps the water at a fairly constant temperature, rather than having it stratify in temperature layers as will a dormant lake. Consequently, the bass seem to like to hang out right on the edge of the cooler, moving water in the Summer and Fall. In the Spring, I find that they spawn on the flats just behind the channel edge where the water eddies. Spinner baits and shallow crank plugs are good in the Spring and Fall, with a six inch worm being my top Summer lure."
"How about the other two areas, the creeks and flats?" we asked.
"Well," our advisor replied, "the creeks are best in the Spring, but don't seem to hold many big fish. With the exception of Sugar Creek, they are not really very large. The best way to fish these creeks is to concentrate where they join the Elk River channel. Now, those can be real hot spots for schools of fish. I like a worm and a deep crank plug where the channels converge, with a two inch, smoke grub being pretty good in the Winter. If the river is up and has a good current flowing, the bass will really use these locations. The flats are good in the Spring, but they are so shallow that you can bend a trolling motor shaft in a hurry if you're not very careful. A worm is probably the best lure in and around the cover, with a spinner bait being the next choice. If you catch conditions right, a big chartreuse buzz bait will do a job on them, particularly the nest-guarding males."
For the upper reaches of the Elk, we turned to long-time Pro, Bill Huntley, the originator of the Bumble Bee spinner bait. Bill is an avid Smallmouth angler and was raised not to far from the river. Bill told us, "The upper portions of Elk River are shallow, fairly clear most of the time, and provide some of the best float fishing trips anywhere. Coming from beneath the Tim's Ford Lake dam, the water is very cool and that means Smallmouth Bass. Large bass boats are not recommended. I would suggest shallow draft Jon boats. The bottom is predominately gravel and rock, with a good bit of lodged drift and lots of overhanging trees. With Smallmouth bass making up the majority of the population, the angler should use small spinners, Rapala-type crank plugs, and jigs. Anywhere there is a deep hole, or at the base of a stretch of rapids, Smallmouth Bass are fairly certain to be found. Another good place for those brown bass is under the overhanging trees in the bends of the river."
Huntley went on, "I was raised on the headwaters of Sugar Creek up in Tennessee. That creek is one of the best areas to fish, especially floating along in a small boat. It is full of bass and has virtually no fishing pressure. You can go up it a short way in a bass boat coming in from Elk River and it's pretty good bassin' even there."
(Author's note: If Huntley and Ballard tell you about fishing, you can take it to the bank.)
There are many small, lesser-known bodies of water about that hold excellent bass fishing. The Elk River is one of those. The low fishing pressure, the sheer beauty of the countryside and the excellent population of both Smallmouths and Largemouths makes it one of those rare quality fishing experiences.
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