Roger Stegall, a top stick from Iuka, said that June through September finds great potential for numbers and size on Pickwick ledges. Like a summer vacation, the attraction is simple - somewhere cool and comfortable with plenty of chow.
"Ledges have creeks that run into the (Tennessee River), and that creates more oxygen and food," he said. "Also, the fish move out to the ledges because the power generation from the dams creates current, and that makes the water cooler. The current helps the deeper water more than the shallow water. It stirs up the bottom and gets the whole food chain working."
Hardcore power fishing this is not; and if you're the type who gets bored easily, you may want to stick with bream fishing. However, if you appreciate the concept of "eliminating" water, Pickwick's ledges can deliver dynamite days with concentrated periods of serious rod-bending revelry.
So what's the key to unlocking this treasure chest? Two words: patience and persistence.
Tennessee pro Curt McGuire holds a solid tournament record on the lake. He knows that mastering the mental game lays a firm foundation for all other elements of ledge fishing.
"Expect nothing," he bluntly stated. "It's long days with high heat, throwing a (bait) - it's hard work. You just have to know that some days you may not catch a single fish all day. But the thing about offshore fishing is that you can find that magic spot where you make one cast and you can find a big school of fish. You have to realize what the reward can be for not catching them for several days."
Indeed, not every inch of every ledge will hold fish. You have to locate the sweet spots - the twists and turns, the anomalies and oddities that make particular sections of a ledge more attractive to fish. It's all about contour - bass will gravitate to spots that give them the best advantages of current breaks and ambush feeding. Lake charts and Navionics mapping chips will point you to the promising areas, but if you want to throw at something with confidence, you have to put in your screen time.
Hunting high and low
Stegall said he's notorious for fishing what he calls "nothing" spots - areas seemingly devoid of the forms and features that most anglers know to look for. Of course, that's the point. Crafty lake veterans like him know that targeting areas that anyone can find means fishing fish that have already seen just about everyone's baits.
"Most people look for the obvious stuff, but I look for spots that are less obvious," Stegall said. "You have to try the secondary ledges too and not only the main-lake ledges."
When he spots something interesting on his graph, Stegall will toss out a marker and determine his next move based on depth.
"If it's a deep spot, I'll idle it a couple more times and look at it," he said. "But if it's 12 feet or less, I'll just pull up and take my chances that the fish are there.
"I'll fish it before I idle it to keep from spooking the fish with the outboard engine. That's something that side-imaging sonar helps with - you can look at a spot before running over it."
Modern electronics, McGuire said, have availed the ledge action to anyone with a bottom machine, so those who excel are the ones who have learned to spot a small rubble pile or a nearly imperceptible nook. Dozens of boats may buzz right past the lake's true gems, but keen-eyed graph-watchers can dial in something special.
"For the most part, everyone has learned how to read the ledges, they know how to read the (mapping) chips and they know how the current flows around the spots," McGuire said. "When the fish first come out (of the creeks), they get on the obvious stuff pretty much every year. You can pretty much count it down to the week - they're going to be on certain areas.
"Once they've been fished daily for a month or so, they get tired of getting caught. They'll start moving around and setting up on some more subtle stuff. Sometimes, they'll get a lot deeper than everyone likes to fish."
Traditionally popular spots, McGuire said, are too heavily pressured these days. That's why he's content to grind out the long, hot hours of looking for the stuff that most folks don't notice.
"Sometimes, it only takes a difference of a foot or two in depth to make them bite," McGuire noted. "I'll find a depth range that I know they like and then I'll go look at every little twist and turn.
"A lot of my day is spent riding around and looking. It's about as exciting as watching paint dry, but it's a necessary evil."
Besides obvious fish marks, there are some things you want to see on a ledge, some things you really don't and others that are just kind of neutral.
• Baitfish - Bass must have something to eat, so a lack of food decreases a spot's potential.
"If you don't see bait, there's really very little point in stopping, unless you actually see the (bass)" he said. "The bait doesn't have to be right on the ledge, but you want to be able to see bait in the general area."
• Current - When TVA dams pull water, the ensuing current livens up the lake by moving baitfish around, moderating temperature and predictably positioning bass. (See sidebar.)
• Other boats - Company is rarely a good thing on ledges, so if someone beats you to a spot, respect their space. Nothing wrong with sliding in behind someone after they leave, but you have to be pretty confident that a) the spot holds enough fish to handle the pressure, or b) the other guy wasn't fishing it effectively.
• Brushpiles - Additional cover may seem like a positive, but it's actually counterproductive for the ledge game.
"Where you find brushpiles, you'll find four or five fish," said McGuire. "Big schools of fish that have (upwards of) a couple hundred or even 40 to 50 are normally on clean-bottom spots. They use them more for feeding areas. They may not stay there all the time, but that's where the big schools will congregate. If you go in and put brushpiles on a place that was already holding fish, you'll ruin it. It's a lot easier to catch a minnow if he doesn't have a tree top to get in the middle of."
• Drum - They're seldom a ledge angler's target, but these homely bycatch fish are OK in McGuire's book.
"Drum live where bass live, so I don't mind catching one at all," he said. "They go to the same habitat and the same current breaks.
"At times, I've caught three or four (drum) and then caught a bass on the next cast."
Crankbaits may be generally synonymous with ledge fishing, and Stegall loves to sling his Strike King Series 6 XD, 5 XD and Series 5 models. However, he knows that these are not always the right choice.
"A crankbait is the last bait I'd throw when the current's not running, but when the current is running, a crankbait is the first bait I'd throw," Stegall said.
"Usually, (ledge bass) will not bite a crankbait unless there's a lot of them," he said. "They have to be thick and they have to be feeding."
When conditions are right for a crankbait, the bites are fast and furious. Of course, that only happens if the fish see your bait. The fact is that a lot of times folks throw the right baits at the right targets, but they don't connect because the fish never see their lures. Running too shallow is the common vexation, and like it or not, ledge fish just aren't going to walk upstairs to grab a bait passing 5 to 6 feet above their heads.
Favoring a Bomber Fat Free Shad (foxy shad color) and a 6XD (chartreuse sexy shad), McGuire ensures his bait gets maximum exposure in the strike zone by making long casts and keeping his rod tip pointed at the water while he cranks. He has also learned to leverage his boat's movement to pull his bait deeper.
"I'll throw as far as I can and either put the trolling motor in reverse and back off the ledge, or I'll drift up close to the ledge, throw as far as I can and put my trolling motor on about 10 and crank as hard as I can and go with the trolling motor," McGuire said. "I can usually get a couple extra feet (of depth) that way."
Other productive ledge bait tactics include bumping football head jigs with craw trailers along the steeper edges, slow rolling a ¾- to 1-ounce white or chartreuse spinnerbait, working swimbaits in a stop-and-go cadence or slowly dragging a Carolina rig baited with a big worm, lizard or Brush Hog.
Lloyd Pickett Jr. of Bartlett, Tenn., won an EverStart event on Pickwick by dragging the old ball-and-chain along deeper ledges. This technique, he said, proved highly effective for fish that had seen way too many reaction baits.
"When there's a lot of fishing pressure on the lake, the fish get spooked and they're really finicky," he said. "They're used to seeing all of these crankbaits coming through on the humps and the drops.
"I'll throw a Carolina rig behind everybody and I'll slow it down. I'll let them get a good look at it, and when they do, I think they're less wary about taking the bait."
As with all bass scenarios, ledge fish occasionally get an attitude and refuse to cooperate. You see them down there, but they're ripe with stubbornness. Usually, all it takes is a different look to trigger one bass into biting, and that in turn flips the switch on the entire school. You can go big and flashy with a jigging spoon, or tone it down with a more modest approach.
Stegall's stealth choice is a Strike King 7½-inch Super Finesse Elastech worm on a ¼- to 3/8-ounce shaky head.
"I'll show them a shaky head worm or a drop shot, and a lot of times that will shake them up when nothing else will," Stegall said. "It puzzles me; there's nothing in the lake that looks like that. But for some reason, they'll bite it when they won't bite anything else. It's something different and it's something not many people throw. Not many people have the patience to throw a 7-inch worm on a ¼-ounce head in 20 feet of water."
Notwithstanding the validity of McGuire and Stegall's strategies, sometimes ledge bass are simply over the hook thing. They've seen too many baits, and those that have avoided lip piercing have heard the complaints of those less fortunate. In such times, McGuire said your wisest move is departure.
"Once you fish a spot for a couple of hours, they're going to quit biting," McGuire said. "They're not going to (resume) biting if you sit there and keep throwing at them.
"For some reason, a lot of people pick one spot and sit there all day long. But they're 10 times better off to leave it and come back every hour or so; the fish will be biting again."
Of course, you can always ditch the spot entirely and just find a new one. Watch the graph closely, pick out a piece of ledge with some attractive subtlety and fire away. Your next pile of fish may be waiting to unload on your bait.
For Pickwick guidance, contact Roger Stegall at 662.423 3869 or Curt McGuire at 931.242.6232.