The Tenn-Tom provides a low-cost, energy-efficient trade link between the Sunbelt states and 14 other river systems, and totals some 4,500 miles of navigable waterways.
Aside from its economic impact to the region, construction of the Tenn-Tom has also helped improve the quality of life in the corridor. The waterway traverses a region that is rich in history and has diverse cultural and natural resources. The project offers a variety of recreation attractions ranging from boating, camping and nature watching.
While all that makes for good press in the tourist brochures, what you may not see is that the Tenn-Tom is also a great place to catch crappie, especially during the late summer.
"August is one of my favorite months to fish the waterway," said West Point tournament angler Ray Looney. "You can split the waterway into two user areas. The main runs, which will have public access ramps nearby, and the old river runs where most of the fish are. The recreational traffic - pleasure boaters, jet skis and ski boats - stay in the main runs, and the fishermen are off in the old runs. You can pick an old river section and pretty much have it to yourself all day."
To understand how the Tenn-Tom fishes, you have to understand the general design and layout of the waterway. Locks dot the landscape up and down the riverway. In front of each lock is a pool, some of which are named lakes, but according to Looney, fish more like rivers than actual reservoirs. Much of the old existing river had to be straightened out to allow the passage of commercial traffic.
"What was left was a series of old runs that were sections of the old river channel and new runs that were cut to connect the waterway," said Looney. "These old runs are similar to oxbows that you find along other major rivers, but nobody calls them that. They're just old river runs.
"Some of them are close-ended runs that exit off the waterway and dead-end into a sandbar or the bank and others are open-ended. They exit off the waterway and then curve back into it."
According to Looney, the single most important factor to catching crappie in the Tenn-Tom is current.
"Current dictates where the crappie will be at any given time," he said. "During the summer, crappie can be pretty predictable hanging on the drops along the river channel when there's no current, but the simple act of locking a barge in Columbus will move enough water above and below the lock to affect the fishing.
"I've seen guys who were heroes on the first day of a two-day tournament go to zeros because of current."
Looney religiously watches for current when he's fishing; there's no advance schedule or warning. There's also no doubt when it's moving because the buoy cans will lean over and your fishing line will angle away with the flow.
"Crappie will hide from the current, and where they go depends on how much water is coming through," he said. "In the summer, the fish will move off the main drops and move to the first current break they come to - inside the mouths of the old river runs - when a lock is opened to let a barge pass.
"When the gates at Columbus open more than 3 feet, the main lake and the old river runs that are open at both ends are out. That's when the closed-end river runs become good."
Not only do the fish move, but they tend to shallow up when current is running because they have to retreat to shallower grounds to escape the torrent.
"I'm only fishing in about 12 feet of water when the current is moving," said Looney, "but it's a trade off. The surface temps are typically about 91 in August during the still periods, but the current will bring that down to about 85-87, pulling cooler water out of the waterway."
Fishing tactics on the Tenn-Tom remain firmly embedded in single-pole jigging. Many anglers have tried trolling tactics, but have had a definitive lack of success for one reason or another.
Calhoun City crappie guide John Harrison looks forward to fishing the Tenn-Tom because it holds plenty of structure that's best fished with a single pole in hand.
"Because it's a river system, there's going to be all sorts of wood cover along the bottom," said Harrison. "Out along the main river channel, you'll find old tree stumps that line the drop-off in 15 to 20 feet of water.
"Once you move inside the old river sloughs, there's laydowns all along the bank that stick out into deeper water. These not only provide cover but help break the current so naturally, they're productive when the current is moving."
Another secret that's not really all that secret is the number of stakebeds that cover the bottoms of both the old and new river runs.
"I know a lot of locals who put out stakebeds in the Tenn-Tom," said Harrison. "Stakebeds are easier to fish because you don't get hung up so bad compared to fishing brushpiles.
"River fish also seem to favor stakebeds over brush because they won't move if they're driven in deep enough."
Both Harrison and Looney favor graphite jig poles. The standard bait is a 1/16-ounce jighead outfitted with either a tube jig or a solid-body jig.
"I like a single-tail, solid-body jig," said Looney. "Right now my favorites would have to be a Bobby Garland Baby Shad or the new Lake Fork Lures LFT Baby Shad. Both of these have a compact body and get down to depth quickly. Sometimes you want a jig that has a lot of legs and hair so it will fall slower, but not here - I want the jig to get down there where the fish are quickly."
Harrison likes to sweeten the jigs just a bit.
"Tipping the jig with a minnow or Crappie Niblet is good insurance if you can't get fish to bite right away," he said. "There are days when that little bit of scent will make a big difference."
Looney is also a fan of the Niblet, though he doesn't care for using minnows on his single jigs. He's more of a believer in certain colors based on the water clarity. This is particularly true for the Columbus, Aberdeen and Aliceville lakes where he does most of his fishing on the Tenn-Tom.
"Columbus can get muddy," he said. "Under those conditions, my go-to color is a candy corn or a Cajun cricket.
"If the water is clearer, then I prefer a brighter color like the electric chicken or blue back/green tail. Either way, I like to have some glitter in the body of the bait so it will shine."
Both Looney and Harrison have tried trolling in the runs of the Tenn-Tom, neither with much success. Looney points to two areas in Columbus Lake where slow vertical trolling is productive, but rarely during the summer.
"People will say to go fish the gravel pits in Columbus, two large areas where they excavated gravel as part of the project," he said. "It's a great place to fish during the spring up until about June; after that they're gone because the water gets too hot."