“On any given day in Cane Creek, you pretty much can count on catching two or three bass species, three or four stripe species, maybe a few crappie, different types of bream, catfish and hopefully a few sauger,” local angler Bob McVicker says.
**Update** This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of Great Days Outdoors Magazine. While tactics and lure selection still apply, changes in the schedule of the coal-fired power plants can affect water temperature.
Among the myriad of fishing opportunities along the Tennessee River, the Pickwick Lake tributary Cane Creek is a hidden jewel with a distinctive characteristic that attracts wintertime fishermen. Cane Creek differs from most winter fisheries in that it’s home to one of the most-significant warm-water discharges along the entire length of the Tennessee River system. The warm waters pour into the creek from TVA’s Colbert Fossil Plant, located in Colbert County about 5-miles west of the city of Tuscumbia and situated about 3-miles upstream from where Cane Creek empties into Pickwick Lake. Just about every species that inhabits Pickwick Lake makes feeding excursions into that stretch of water.
The contrast between Cane Creek’s warmer waters and the surrounding waters of Pickwick Lake is normally about 10 to 15 degrees. In the winter, when only a 2- or a 3-degree swing can trigger feeding activity, the huge contrast in water temps means a fairly-consistent bite, even on the coolest of days.
“Especially in the winter, it’s the mindset – the fact that you can look down at the temperature (gauge) and know there’s such a big difference compared to the surrounding water,” says BASS Elite Series pro Timmy Horton, who once frequented Cane Creek during the winter months, while working as a guide on Pickwick. “That’s a major part of the appeal of fishing there.”
While Horton doesn’t get to fish the region as much as he did during his guiding days, he suggests that little has changed in Cane Creek’s ability to produce fish in the cold winter months.
“You can go in there and expect to get a fairly-consistent bite,” Horton reports. “The warmer water attracts bait, and the fish move in to feed on the baitfish. It’s an ideal situation at a time when the fishing can be tough otherwise.”
Being a tour-level pro isn’t a prerequisite for fishing Cane Creek, however. Local angler Bob McVicker of Belgreen, Ala., likes Cane Creek whether he’s tournament fishing or just looking for a day of fun fishing. Because such a diverse population of fish frequents the creek, McVicker advises anglers to expect to catch as many as a dozen species during the course of a fishing day. Unlike many other anglers, McVicker is happy to catch whatever fish that bites.
“On any given day, you pretty much can count on catching two or three bass species, three or four stripe species, maybe a few crappie, different types of bream, catfish and hopefully a few sauger,” McVicker advises. “That’s not counting the other species like drum or skipjack that most people don’t like to catch.”
The fish range in size from diminutive bream to tackle-busting catfish and saltwater stripes. In-between are quality catches of black bass, which attract plenty of tournament anglers during the colder months. Most anglers target either bass, stripes or catfish on Cane but end-up with a mixed bag of several species.
“I don’t know of one spot on the river where you have the chance to catch so many different types of fish,” McVicker emphasizes.
For fishermen in pursuit of bass, the stream offers several different opportunities. All of the three main species of black bass that frequent Pickwick Lake – largemouths, smallmouths, and spots – can be caught when fishing Cane Creek.
“I prefer to fish the middle portion of Cane Creek best,” Horton reveals, “in the area just before it makes the hard bend back to the left. The points probably are the best area to locate bass, but fishing the short, straight bluff walls also will produce bass. Too, I like to fish around the mouth of the creek, and you generally will find other boats in there as well.”
“As long as the stream’s water temperature remains above 60 degrees, Cane’s bass will hit top-water lures.”
The serpentine nature of the stream creates numerous points and rounded abutments that extend into the stream. They serve as current breaks around which bass and other game species hide, awaiting easy meals of shad to swim by.
Horton first fishes a jig – a 3/8-ounce model is a good all-around choice, although upsizing or downsizing may be necessary, depending on current. However, with bass feeding heavily on shad in the creek, a variety of lures can be productive. Horton says crankbaits and spinner baits are other highly-effective lures when fishing Cane Creek.
McVicker, who lives in Franklin County, also likes to fish various types of jigs in Cane. He frequently swims a jig in search of black bass but also diversifies his approach when the jig bite is slow. An alternative for McVicker is the jigging spoon, which will catch bass and most of the other fish in the creek as well.
One of the things that make Cane truly unique is winter top-water action. As long as the stream’s water temperature remains above 60 degrees, Cane’s bass will hit top-water lures. Favorites include the Heddon Tiny Torpedo and the Rebel Jumpin’ Minnow.
The Mixed Bag
Black bass probably isn’t the primary target of most fishermen in Cane during January. Many come to sample the catfishing with channels and blues dominating the catch and an occasional flathead also in the mix. Other anglers target stripes with frequent catches of double-digit saltwater stripes, hybrids, and white bass.
McVicker and I set out one-day last winter to see just how many species we could catch. We started off the day by catching stripe after stripe, both salts, and whites, near the mouth of the stream. Changing locations and tackle, we found the bream readily biting the small tube baits we tossed at them. Later in the day, the bass bite picked-up, and we caught smallmouths weighing up to 4 pounds and spots up to 2-1/2-pounds. By the end of the day, we’d managed to catch the dozen or so species McVicker had predicted. Ironically enough, we never caught a catfish, having spent the entire day fishing artificials, rather than the live bait preferred by catfish.
“That’s one of the most appealing things about fishing Cane Creek,” McVicker says. “You never know exactly what you’ll catch.”
One approach to catching a mixed bag is using live bait. Many fishermen on Cane use some variety of shad, either the smaller threadfin shad they catch in throw nets or skipjack, which are caught with spoons and used either whole or in chunks. Every predatory fish in the river loves threadfin shad, which are locally called yellowtails. The skipjack is reserved for catfishing or for the bigger stripes. Traditional baits like tuffy minnows and worms also produce in the winter months.
“I prefer nightcrawlers,” McVicker mentions. “You’ll catch anything from bream and shellcrackers to big bass and catfish on nightcrawlers.”
No Boat Necessary
While a boat is certainly an advantage for fishing Cane Creek, the opportunity to catch quality fish from the bank is a major part of the stream’s appeal. Most of the bank fishing takes places in two spots – in the pool where the discharges take place at the steam plant or near the boat ramp at the mouth of the creek.
The steam plant discharges its warm waters into a rectangular-shaped pool of perhaps 5 acres, with the open end of the pool pouring into Cane Creek. The area offers one of the best places on the Tennessee River to catch bigger fish from the bank, like the big catfish and saltwater stripes that make their way into the discharge region.
Fishermen there bait with whole or cut skipjack or threadfin shad. Heavy tackle, while not absolutely necessary, is probably best because of the size of the fish caught at times and also due to the strong current.
“Most people fish there for catfish and stripes, but I don’t think people realize just how many bass are caught there, too,” McVicker comments.
Bank fishermen also stake-out spots near the mouth of Cane Creek, catching a mixed bag there, depending on their lure or bait offerings. Again, catfish dominate the catches from the bank in this portion of the creek.
Visitors to Cane need to think safety first. At least two main safety concerns should be foremost in the mind of first-timers to the area. First, a strong current runs through the stream the majority of the time, and fishermen should wear life jackets at all times.
The other involves navigation safety. With the low-water levels of the winter months, running Cane can be dangerous. Large stumps can be seen in the shallows alongside the channel. While the main channel is easily identifiable on the lower reaches of the stream, it does shift from side to side and narrows considerably farther upstream.
In fact, reaching the discharge pool ranges from difficult to impossible, depending on water levels and the size of the boat being used. First-time visitors to Cane are advised not to attempt to go beyond the bridge that crosses the creek. That still leaves plenty of creek to fish, however.
“I know how to run all the way upstream (to the discharge pool), but I don’t advise that just anyone try it,” McVicker emphasizes. “And I wouldn’t try it at all during the winter months in a bigger boat.”
Finding warmer water in the winter is often the difference between having a full stringer and going home empty-handed. Cane is one of the two very-obvious warm-water areas along the Tennessee River in north Alabama, the other being Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant on Wheeler Lake. The TVA discharges the warm water from the nuclear plant into the lake and creates another excellent cold-weather spot for fishermen. The catches are similar to those just mentioned on Cane Creek with catfish and stripes tending to dominate the catch. But bass also can be caught on the rip-rap at Browns Ferry, making it a frequent destination for winter tournament anglers.
Most of the factories that dot the river in the Decatur area also have some discharge, although resulting contrast in water temperature is slight.
Important Manufacturers’ Information
Lurenet (Heddon and Rebel Lures)
Other Important Information
Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant