This story was originally published in the 2013 October/November issue of Chattanooga Magazine.
It was an idea born with the Tennessee Aquarium, the attraction that jump-started Chattanooga’s renaissance. With the Tennessee Riverpark and other riverfront development, area politicians and business leaders have done an outstanding job getting visitors to the edge of the Tennessee River. I, however, wanted to try and take them one step farther—getting visitors ON the river to experience the natural resource up close and personal. As I am prone to tell clients, “It is one thing to see a giant catfish in the Tennessee Aquarium. It is another thing altogether to see one on the end of your line.”
After mulling over the idea for too many years, Scenic City Fishing Charters, Inc. became a reality in 2006. When the website went hot I had no idea what to expect. Little did I know that in just a very few months I would be turning away potential clients during the peak fishing season because the demand was too much for a part-time “weekend warrior” fishing guide. I am not alone. Chris Coleman, owner of Chattanooga Fishing Guides is in the same boat.
“Like you, I still work a fulltime job,” says Coleman. “I get more phone calls than we can handle. We have to turn people away, especially since Chickamauga Lake’s gotten so good. Coleman has fished the lake since before he could drive to it.
“I got my first bass boat when I was sixteen years old. I didn’t even have a vehicle to pull it with,” says Coleman. “My parents would take me to the lake, drop me and my boat off in the lake and then come back later in the day to pick me up.”
For Coleman fishing Chickamauga Lake is a disease for which there is no cure. For 30 years he’s been casting lures along nearly every shoreline, slough, pocket or hidey hole in the 60 miles from Chickamauga Dam to Watts Bar.
Swing the pendulum all the way in the other direction and meet Josh Douglas (joshdouglasfishing.com). Douglas is a transplant who moved to Chattanooga from Minnesota in the Fall of 2012. He was drawn here, however, by the same thing that keeps Coleman here—Chickamauga Lake and big largemouth bass.
“Chickamauga is on fire, it’s absolutely on fire,” says Douglas who moved South to broaden his horizon as a professional bass angler.
“Minnesota has awesome fishing. The only problem is that the lakes are frozen six months out of the year, and I don’t ice fish. I was always driving South anyway and with tournaments all over the country I was more centrally located by moving here.”
Douglas is sort of a jack-of-all-trades, although all of his trades involve fishing. Besides being a professional bass fisherman, he is an outdoor writer and once he has the proper licensing, a fishing guide on Chickamauga Lake.
“I expect to get my [U.S. Coast Guard] license soon. Until then what I do is a lot of electronics training,” says Douglas. “If a guy has spent $5,000 on new [fish finding] electronics it’s nothing to pay another $300 to someone to go out in his boat and teach him how to use it.”
Douglas will join Coleman and a handful of others who are earning money taking people fishing on Chickamauga and Nickajack Lakes. They have figured out the Chattanooga business climate is ripe with opportunity for businesses with an “outdoor” frame of mind. Coleman however is not convinced there is enough opportunity to make guiding a fulltime, year-round venture.
“I don’t think on this lake it’s possible. Especially at the rates we charge,” says Coleman. “Guides on Florida lakes charge double what we charge here. You could go fulltime but you wouldn’t make much.”
Don’t tell that to Jake Davis, owner of Mid-South Bass Guide, in business since 2007. Davis, retired from the Air Force, says, “After I retired I needed something to keep me busy and the wife said ‘You like fishing. Why don’t you put that boat you bought to good use.” With good water, good marketing and consistent results the retiree has a new fulltime job.
“For the last three years I’ve averaged 240 paid guide trips a year,” says Davis. He lives in Winchester, Tennessee and guides on Tims Ford Lake and on Nickajack Lake, just downstream from Chattanooga. But he guides primarily on Guntersville Lake in North Alabama, one of the best-known bass fishing lakes in the United States. Fishing Guntersville is on every bass angler’s bucket list, and yet, the famous lake now has some serious competition from Chickamauga Lake.
In 2000, fisheries biologists with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency decided to conduct an experiment on Chickamauga Lake. They began stocking Florida-strain largemouth bass fingerlings in the lake. Florida-strain bass are known to grow faster and larger than their northern counterparts that are native to the Tennessee River.
The presence of aquatic vegetation in Chickamauga, combined with several years of good water conditions and excellent natural baitfish production has created what TWRA biologist Mike Jolley calls “the perfect storm” of bass fishing.
Earlier this year fishing guide Rogne Brown and his partners won multiple Chickamauga Lake bass tournaments. In one tournament Brown and his partner caught five bass that weighed 44.3 pounds, an historic catch almost unmatched anywhere in the country in bass tournament history.
As a result, Chickamauga has been “the buzz” in national fishing magazines and on the Internet. Coleman added to the buzz when he caught a behemoth 13.9 pound largemouth bass that was just a few ounces shy of a new Tennessee state record – a record that has gone unbroken since 1954. He and Jolley agree that a new state record bass could be in Chickamauga Lake’s future — an event that would obviously attract even more attention, and business, to the area.
“Of course Chattanooga has a lot of attractions,” says Coleman. “But now we’ve got a lot of people coming to Chattanooga just for the fishing.” People like Douglas.
“Chattanooga is a big city but it’s a smaller city in the grand scheme of things, compared to Atlanta,” says Douglas. “There is a lot to do here when I am home with my wife. Plus 40-pound stringers of bass are going to make a bass junky’s head turn.” It’s just one more reason fishermen consider Chattanooga much more than just “scenic.”
Story and photography by Richard Simms