EYES ON EELGRASS
As eelgrass expands its range throughout the Tennessee River system, new patterns are emerging for savvy anglers who understand how bass relate to it
H aving fished on the Tennessee River his entire life, Buddy Gross knew all about the eelgrass in Lake Guntersville. Yet, in May 2016 when he was looking for productive areas for an FLW Tour stop on Pickwick Lake – another impoundment of the Tennessee River chain – Gross was shocked to find the wavy, green grass growing there as well. Pickwick never has been considered much of a grass lake
“I didn’t know it was in Pickwick until practice when I found it,” says the second-year Tour pro. “Then I started going back upriver from where I found it, because when you find some usually you can move upriver and find more.”
He did, and Gross began exploiting the wavy clumps of long, green leaves. Whether the bass preferred the eelgrass as a current break, forage ambush site or some other reason, Gross didn’t care. In the tournament, he mined the spot over four days for 20 bass weighing more than 74 pounds to claim his first Tour championship.
Gross figures eelgrass has been in Guntersville, or the upriver Crow Creek tributary of it, for at least 20 years. That coincides with weekend tournament anglers locating it in the early 2000s near the B. B. Comer Bridge area not far from Scottsboro, Ala., and Goosepond Colony.
Now, eelgrass is expanding its range, and anglers are learning ways to tap into its bass-fishing potential.
Eelgrass is a native grass that’s common throughout the country. Its growth in the Tennessee is probably a sign of overall improvement in water quality in the system. But will eelgrass take to other Tennessee River lakes as it has in Guntersville? Fluctuating seasonal water levels might prevent it from taking hold to a great degree. Wheeler, the next lake below Guntersville, has potential as evidenced by its spotty, decades-old history with milfoil or hydrilla downstream of the Decatur stump flats. Pickwick has it, and Gross already has seen it in Chickamauga, too.
He says that originally the eelgrass he found in Guntersville was growing in areas where hydrilla and milfoil were absent.
“Now it seems to be growing all over,” he says. “It’s growing in deeper areas, and I think the lack of rain and current the last few years changed a lot of things, too. It seems to grow in a harder bottom because it likes current. It’ll grow in the bottoms of the ditches a lot of times.”
FLW Tour pro Braxton Setzer, who has a degree in fisheries management from Auburn University, has tracked the new growth, too.
“It really came on strong the last few years, for sure, and it’s growing out a little deeper than you’d expect at Guntersville,” he says. “It definitely changes the dynamic. Bass will relate to the eelgrass more than hydrilla or milfoil at certain times, I suspect, so this just gives them another option.”
Tour rookie Justin Atkins also is sure it’ll stick around in Pickwick, although perhaps not in such profusion as in Guntersville.
“I didn’t know it was there until Buddy found it last year,” he says. “Those areas are very precise, and behind that island [Kroger Island, where Gross won] there’s a lot of Indian mounds and gravel, so that is one reason it grows there. But TVA draws Pickwick down in winter, so the grass doesn’t consistently grow well there with the bottom makeup and drawdown. It will be interesting to see how it does there.”
How to Fish It
Atkins, Setzer and Gross say the eelgrass they’ve found on Guntersville and elsewhere grows at depths from shallow to 12 feet deep – occasionally deeper. They’ve focused more on the deeper grass, usually from 6 to 12 feet, on channel ledges and points. While the shallower grass might offer some specific spots, such as open holes where they could try soft plastics or jigs, the deeper water seems to have more allure to the bass they’re seeking.
“Bass always are going to live around current-related situations,” Atkins says. “In summer they will get on the front side [of the grass] and in eddy breaks, and in winter when their metabolism is slow they’ll get on the backside. They use it as a current break and feeding chute in winter.
“In winter, with hydrilla or milfoil that dies off and comes back green, you were usually going to catch fish. Now I think with the eelgrass they’ve taken to it better. I don’t know what kind of oxygen it puts out, like hydrilla and milfoil,
but it doesn’t completely die like they do and wash away.
“I don’t know of anyone who has gotten on a big flipping bite around eelgrass in summer – maybe a swimbait or something if they are using it as a current break,” he adds. “Milfoil grows far apart and creates tunnels, and hydrilla grows tight and tough. Eelgrass is always green and alive. You can throw a 1/2-ounce Trap [lipless crankbait] in eelgrass, let it get a slack line and start working it back. If it hangs up you can snap it and it’ll come free.”
Gross favors a Jenko Big Wig Magnum hair jig and Tennessee River Tackle Tremor Head with a paddle tail or straight-tail swimbait, the latter for cooler water. On ledges in deeper water around eelgrass he’ll opt for a 1- or 1 3/4-ounce head to keep the rig down; for shallow water Gross uses a 1/2- or 3/4-ounce head. Gross also will throw a Zoom ZCraw on a swim jig or ChatterBait around the grass and sticks with shad colors for all the soft plastics.
Atkins favors a Berkley Warpig lipless crankbait in 1/2 or 3/4 ounce. He also prefers a Berkley Hollow Belly Swimbait with a 1/2- or 3/4-ounce head, depending on how aggressive the bass are.
Gross and Atkins fish the eelgrass the same way: ticking the top of the grass with the baits, keeping them just above it and snapping the lure to pop it free when snagged.
“Take a [Rapala] DT-6 crankbait and as soon as it buries up, you snap it and keep going if a fish doesn’t have it,” Gross says. “Big Traps come through it. ChatterBaits come through it. It’s not like burying up in milfoil. Eelgrass is real crispy.”
Gross throws his baits on 17-poundtest Seaguar fluorocarbon line on a 7foot, 3-inch, extra-heavy Hammer rod with a Daiwa Tatula CT Type-R reel. Atkins throws crankbaits on 15-pound test and swimbaits on 20-pound test. Because of how eelgrass breaks free, neither believes it’s imperative to use heavy braided line as might be the case when fishing hydrilla or milfoil.
Electronics and Eelgrass
When Gross won at Pickwick, he used his Lowrance electronics to find bass relating to clumps of eelgrass and holes within the grass.
“I can tell if it’s eelgrass and see how many fish are around it and everything,” says Gross. “Eelgrass in its early
stages is real clumpy, and it’s a hard grass, so it has a [sonar] shadow behind it. It grows really round; most of the clumps will be roundish.
“Then they start growing together. The clumps get bigger and start getting together and making different kinds of lines. A grass like hydrilla will start at a depth and create a line for a mile along that contour. Eelgrass kind of just grows in the bottom of places, and it just spreads out.”
Gross says that as eelgrass clumps grow together, holes form within the beds. Though he’s not sure why they form – perhaps patches of harder or softer bottom – keying on those voids can lead an angler to the fish.
Aside from how it grows, the grass itself is also distinguishable.
“It takes time to tell the difference [in eelgrass and other grasses], but if you see hydrilla on StructureScan, you can actually see the stalk going up and the leaves,” Gross says. “The leaves will be the harder places, and a hard line [sonar return] will form on those places. Eelgrass will be a hard line from top to bottom. It’s such a hard, crispy grass. It’s like a shell bed. It’ll be bright white.”