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

SA Bass - - Tactics - By Steve Cal­houn

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.

The Ex­pan­sion

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.”

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