Fishing Below the Dam with Jimmy Mason

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By Alan Clemons

They’re massive and imposing, truly some significant wonders of engineering, with giant sculpted walls of concrete and metal hiding machinery or other equipment that growls, whines and churns to send millions of gallons of water from one lake to another on river systems throughout the country.

Fishing Below the Dam - photo by Dan O'Sullivan

Anglers Fishing Below Wilson Dam on Pickwick Lake – photo by Dan O’Sullivan

Dams have been part of America ever since the country’s earliest days, and possibly before that. No doubt, at some point Native Americans realized blocking a stream or creek could create a larger pool to capture and hold fish. When our English forefathers began settling the country they created dams for powering grist and timber mills. Later, when the Industrial Revolution arrived, dams were built to help with more development, navigation and recreation.

At some point in that evolution, an angler surely realized in the calm waters above a dam lurked trout, bass and sunfish that might take a fly, cricket or wriggling worm. Below the dam where the turbid water rushed past rocks or bars, perhaps the same fly, cricket or worm was cast in the swift surge or into an eddy. Dams, it was discovered, created angling opportunities that have equally evolved over time into today’s advanced tactics that have roots in those early days.

There may be limpid pools above old stone dams on smaller creeks and rivers or flowing waters below, yet today when anglers think of fishing “below the dam” the mindset turns to roiling boils of turbidity and specific techniques. Dams on major rivers, such as the Tennessee, Mississippi, Columbia and others, are monolithic generators used to create electricity or prevent flooding. Below them in the tailrace discharges often lie some of the best fishing opportunities for bass anglers willing to exercise caution and learn to fish them effectively.

“All dams are different,” says Jimmy Mason of Alabama, a tournament angler and longtime guide on the Tennessee River impoundments of Pickwick, Wilson, Wheeler and Guntersville lakes. “Every dam has a little learning curve, even though the principles are the same with each one concerning the creation of current and slack water. Even on the Tennessee River and its dams, I’ve never seen two constructed differently when it comes to those basic principles.”

Moving the water
For this story, we’ll consider the dam system on the roughly 600-mile long Tennessee River that stretches through Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky. It is managed by the Tennessee Valley Authority, which in 1918 began construction of Wilson Dam near Muscle Shoals, Ala. It was the first in the chain that backed up the waters and, with the 29 dams throughout its entire river and tributary system, helped create the reservoirs that are among some of the nation’s best fisheries.

Jimmy Mason Fishing - photo by Dan O'Sullivan

Jimmy Mason Fishing – photo by Dan O’Sullivan

Dams work on a basic principle of gravity and power. Water above the dam is allowed into the turbine wheelhouse, where it spins giant propellers that create electricity. The water is released below the dam into the reservoir and that creates current with oxygenated water. Predatory fish such as bass, catfish, stripers, sauger and walleye along with forage species such as shad thrive in the cool flow.

“The biggest thing is you have a huge current of oxygenated water that is churning and moving on, with all the ingredients to create a huge feeding situation,” Mason said. “You have eddies where fish can set up to ambush the prey. Eddies are created at the edge of where the current and the slack water come together or any obstruction in the path of the moving water. Anything that can block the current or obstruct it, or a quick change in depth, is where the fish will use to their advantage to feed.

“Seams are where the slack water and the current meet, and you can see that sort of as a line. It’s a very defined line. The vast majority of fish will be in the slack water closest to the current because that’s where they have to do the least amount of work to have the bait come by them.”

Because electricity is necessary year-round, dams typically are on a generation schedule for peak or low demand. Summer and winter are peak times because consumers are using the air conditioner or heating units more frequently. Cooler times in spring and autumn may see less demand but with rainfall necessitating flood control the dams are still moving water as needed.

“Current is the dinner bell,” Mason explained. “It also creates temperature changes in the water. If you have oxygenated water in summer fish will move up because it’s cooler, and in winter it will be warmer. It may only be 2-3 degrees but that can be significant to them.

Forage is a Key
Bass may enjoy the cooler waters and current but without forage things might not be as copacetic for anglers. Shad thrive in oxygenated waters, creating a giant buffet that triggers feeding frenzies.

“You will find them around dam walls, rocks, cover and also out in the current, seams and eddies,” Mason explained. “At different parts of the tailrace you’ll find them in all areas of the water column – high, medium and low. Most will be in the area in which they have to fight the least.

“Below Wheeler Dam is a great example. If you look at the current coming from the dam, you’ll see boils and bulges caused by scour holes or irregularities on the bottom. In the heaviest current you’ll find shad in those (slack) areas getting out of the current. Shad can’t expend too much energy all the time or they’ll die. They take the path of least resistance.”

Bass and other predatory species are the same way. They will seek the path of least resistance while waiting on food sources. Below Wheeler Dam, you may drift a weighted threadfin just off the bottom and catch largemouth, smallmouth, blue or flathead catfish, stripers or even a sauger (the cousin of a walleye). If the bite is on up high, freelining a shad through the current can work.

Jimmy Mason with a  Yumbrella Rig - photo by Dan O'Sullivan

Jimmy Mason with a Yumbrella Rig – photo by Dan O’Sullivan

The key, Mason says, is finding the seams between the discharged water and slack water. That takes a keen eye and experience. Two turbine discharge areas operating side-by-side may create a huge swath of current with seams on the outside edges and, possibly, one in the middle. Three discharges that are staggered may offer multiple seams along with opportunities to key on breaks and seams created by underwater structures.

“It is a fairly complicated way to fish in that regard,” he said. “One thing is how they vary the current with of the amount of water from each turbine. It’s not just looking at the dam and seeing the current because of the different combinations that may be available. It’s not the same every day. You have to keep up with how much water is being discharged and the time, but the general rule is where the heaviest and least come together.”

Lures and Tactics
Below the Tennessee River dams, due to the abundance of shad, one popular method is to use a dip net by the dam wall or throw a cast net downriver – possibly in a slack pocket – and fill a bait tank.

Then you can drift live bait through the discharges by “bouncing the bottom” and, in doing so, reducing snags. Anglers often use spinning tackle with 10-pound test line, a half-ounce sinker on a three-way drop swivel rig and light wire hook. The sinker weight will vary depending on whether you’re fishing in heavy or light current. When targeting smallmouth, this is one of the more sporting and fun methods.

Mason primarily targets smallies and largemouth with artificial lures, however, and has refined his methods over the years through trial and error with thousands of days on the water. His arsenal is comprised of four main offerings:

— A 5-inch Yum Money Minnow in Foxy Shad on a half or three-quarter ounce jighead.

— A three-quarter or 1-ounce Booyah spinnerbait with a single No. 5 willowleaf blade, chartreuse-white skirt and a Yum Forktail Dinger in pearl-silver flake. Mason will cut off an inch of the 4-inch Dinger before threading it on the hook as a trailer; the lure looks like a large shad.

Jimmy Mason Largemouth on a Tube - photo by Dan O'Sullivan

Jimmy Mason Catches a Largemouth on a Tube – photo by Dan O’Sullivan

— A 4-inch Yum Mega Tube on a 5/16 or 3/8 ounce jighead in green pumpkin or Ozark smoke color.

— A Yumbrella Rig  armed with five or more YUM Money Minnow Swimbaits.

That’s it, along with maybe some topwaters, crankbaits or jerkbaits if he’s feeling like mixing it up. But during our trips on Wilson Lake, below Wheeler Dam, we’ve stuck with his three go-to baits with great success.

“I have photos of smallmouth with the swimbait all the way down their throat and the only thing you could see if you closed their mouth was the line coming out of it,” Mason said. “I really try to keep it pretty simple. Those three baits work if I’m fishing below the dam, or if I’m working some other areas down from the dam such as rock jetties or gravel bars.”

For the swimbait Mason will use a heavy action Dobyns DX745 Champion Extreme rod with a 6.4:1 Lew’s Tournament Pro reel and 15-pound Vicious Pro Elite fluorocarbon, or 17-pound Vicious Ultimate co-polymer and a 5.1:1 Lew’s BB1 reel for the spinnerbait. With the tube, he goes to 8-pound test Vicious Pro Elite fluorocarbon on a DX742SF Dobyns Champion Extreme spinning rod with Team Lew’s Gold reel.   For the Yumbrella Rig, he opts for a Dobyns swimbait rod and a 6.4:1 Lew’s Super Duty filled with 65-pound-test Vicious Braid, unless the water is clear then he goes with Pro Elite Fluorocarbon in 20-pound-test.

“It’s not magic. The whole deal is fishing correctly in the current and maintaining bottom contact,” he says. “Your cadence and retrieve is the most important thing. You want to touch bottom about every three seconds because if you don’t you’ll hang, and if you never touch bottom you won’t catch anything.

“With the spinnerbait and swimbait, if I’m sitting outside the current I’m casting upstream at about a 45 degree angle and letting it sweep out with the current. If I’m drifting with the current, I’m casting to about a 90-degree angle and letting bait drift back with the boat at the same speed.

“With the tube, I’m casting straight upstream with the current and letting it drift behind the boat. A lot of the time I’ll make short pitches, almost identical to live bait. It’s just mimicking a shad.”

From the earliest days when a curious angler wondered what might happen if he flicked a worm near a stone dam to today’s monstrous hydroelectric wonders, keeping it basic and learning the intricacies is the key to landing that bass that creates memories.

For information about fishing with Tennessee River guide Jimmy Mason, visit www.jimmymasonbasspro.com