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By Steve McCadams

What’s the state record bass? That’s a question almost every angler who ever wet a line has asked himself or his fishing partners at one time or another. Often times it’s asked during the course of a fishing trip as the angler plants his feet and sets the hook.

A few weeks ago during the cool month of February on Chickamauga Lake, which by the way is just upstream on the Tennessee River near Chattanooga, a 28-year old bass fisherman by the name of Gabe Keen was in the right place at the right time.

It was Friday the 13th so forget superstition. Keen certainly doesn’t believe in it as that’s when he caught the new Tennessee state record bass that tipped the scales to the tune of 15 pounds, 3 ounces!

His catch shattered the old benchmark of 14 pounds, 8 ounces taken back in 1954 by James Barnett in Lawrence County.

I’ll save you the time of doing the math; that’s 61 years ago and it’s the same year I was born!

Now let’s pause for a minute and try to imagine just how many bass have been taken across the Volunteer State since that time. Dwight D. Eisenhower was President at the time if that helps put it into perspective!

Enough with the nostalgia but when you stop and think about bass being the most sought after fish in the state then try to imagine how many casts have been made by the millions of anglers who have tossed a lure or live bait out since then.

It makes Keen’s catch even more special.

And what was the lure of choice that fooled the lunker? Keen made his record haul on an umbrella rig made by Custom Rods of LaFallotte. Umbrella rigs usually consist of five attached spinner or twister-tail grub style baits fished as a single lure. In Tennessee only three of the baits can have hooks. Keen had decorated his spinners with Zoom’s Swimmin’ Super Fluke plastic in baitfish colors. He was using a 20-pound test Vicious line.

A resident of Caryville and teacher at Campbell County High School he also serves as the school’s bass fishing team’s coach. Keen had been fishing on Chickamauga Lake on Thursday and Friday in preparation for a bass fishing tournament on Saturday. He made the catch just before noon and knew right away he had something special in his boat.

“When it hit the bottom of the boat I knew it was a really big fish and when I weighed it and saw it was 15 pounds, 3 ounces I was in disbelief,” Keen said. “I didn’t know the record, but knew it had to be close.”

After calling the TWRA, Keen was advised that the fish had to be weighed on a certified scale. He took the fish to a grocery store and had it weighed on a certified scale, where it officially weighed 15 pounds, 3.2 ounces.

On Saturday, he met with TWRA Region III Fisheries Biologist Mike Jolley and several members of the Region III reservoir crew at TWRA’s Hiwassee Refuge near Birchwood. A thorough evaluation of the fish was made by TWRA staff who also conducted an interview regarding the catch.

“I never dreamed I would catch a fish that would become a state record,” Keen said. “Chickamauga is an amazing lake to begin with, but I give a lot of the credit to the TWRA and its stocking program.”

And yes, he planned to take his prize possession to a taxidermist.

What is most exciting for TWRA fisheries chief Bobby Wilson is the significance of the catch for the TWRA's Florida-strain bass program. Even though the genetics of Keen’s record fish will not be known for a week or so, in all likelihood it probably has some Florida largemouth bass genes in it. The agency began an annual stocking of Florida largemouth bass in Chickamauga in 2000, and to date it has introduced more than two million fingerlings into the lake and a few other select waters.

TWRA is expanding its Florida largemouth bass stockings to include Nickajack, Watts Bar, Fort Loudoun and here at Kentucky Lake. There are several main criteria in selecting lakes for stocking including aquatic habitat, water productivity (fertility), abundant forge fish, and its location within the state (heating degree day zone, Florida/Northern largemouth bass intergrade zone).

To date, Tennessee has obtained most of its Florida largemouth bass fry from state run fish hatcheries in Texas. The tiny fry are about the size of an eyelash when they arrive. They are grown to fingerlings in TWRA hatchery ponds before being released. “We try to get them about two to three weeks before the native spawn in Tennessee to give them a size advantage when stocked,” Wilson told my friend and fellow outdoor writer Larry Woody.

Woody’s in-depth story and interview with Keen can be viewed online at TWRA’s website at

Meanwhile, the buzz among bass fishermen now is where is the next state record swimming? That question might have several answers but back in 2009 biologists conducting electro-shocking at West Tennessee’s Brown’s Creek Lake near Natchez Trace State Park boated a fish that weighed almost 17 pounds!

It was photographed and released as it did not meet state record criteria since it wasn’t caught on fishing tackle.

Is the next state record lurking in the waters of Kentucky Lake? Can another one come from Chickamauga? Will some angler tie into the monster thought to be swimming in Brown’s Creek Lake?

No one knows the answer but with the Florida strain now thriving in several Tennessee lakes I’ll bet it won’t take another 61 years before someone answers the question!



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