Top Waters for East Tennessee Catfishing
May 30, 2012
All I could do was hope the cat would change its attitude before I ran out of line. I was equipped with seriously stout gear, and my drag was set pretty tight. Still, the blue cat I had just hooked was surging downstream in the strong current, and I wasn't certain it was ever going to stop. That fish did finally turn its big head, and a buddy eventually slipped his net beneath about 40 pounds of Tennessee River blue — only a "decent catfish" in quite a few East Tennessee waterways.
Tennessee truly offers world-class catfishing, including tremendous opportunities to catch channel, blue and flathead catfish, and prime waters range from relatively small rivers to vast reservoirs. Picking top spots is a tough proposition, in part because different anglers have different ideas about what make a spot catfishing great.
Challenges acknowledged, we've chosen half dozen spots in the eastern half of the state that offer outstanding prospects for summer catfish. Whether you seek fish to take home, fast action from quality cats, or a legitimate shot at catching and releasing a trophy catfish, one or more of these spots should fit the bill. Because all the options are good and because they stand out in different ways, ranking them would be pointless. Therefore, picks are listed alphabetically.
Whether due to its fairly small size of 4,520 acres or the fame of its bass and striper fisheries, Boone Lake does not get a lot of acclaim as a catfishing destination. Plenty of area anglers know about the lake's cats, and they aren't completely ignored. However, they don't get nearly as much attention as the big cats in other East Tennessee waterways.
Highly fertile and full of forage fish, Boone has the potential to grow support big numbers of game fish. With that in mind, the TWRA has stocked more than 50,000 blue catfish in the lake since 1992. In addition to the blues, which have potential to reach giant sizes, Boone supports a great population of channel catfish and some heavyweight flatheads.
Boone impounds the South Holston and Watauga rivers, and most of its acreage is contained within two narrow, twisting arms. The catfish make good use of both river arms, with the best summer concentrations normally being in deeper holes, either at creek confluences or along hard outside bends in the channel.
A good fish-finding strategy for any angler who is unfamiliar with the lake is to focus on bluffs, which are normally adjacent to deep channel bends, and to spend some time graphing a few bluff holes before dropping the first line. Along with revealing which holes contain the most fish any given day, graph study reveals whether most fish are concentrated toward the heads of the holes, in the deepest water, along the side slopes or elsewhere.
Chicken livers, minnows or night crawlers offer the best bets for fast action catfishing at Boone. Chunks of cut shad or herring draw fewer strikes, but increase the odds of a heavyweight blue or two adding to the fun.
Anglers should be aware of a precautionary advisory against the consumption of catfish from Boone Lake because of PCB contamination. Children, pregnant women and nursing mothers should not consume any Boone Lake catfish, and other persons should limit consumption to one meal per month.
The Tennessee Aquarium puts jumbo cats in full view of every visitor, but those fish are only a microcosm of the cats that are found close by in the Tennessee River. The river flows through the center of town, with Chickamauga Dam located just upstream of the city. Great fishing exists both above and below the dam.
Chattanooga guide Richard Simms fishes for everything that swims, but he's best known for connecting anglers with fine catfishing action. Simms likes the diversity offered by Chattanooga cats. Most summer days, he can take clients to the tailwater and show them fast and sometimes furious action for channel catfish and smaller blues by drifting over shallow water. The rig consists of with chicken livers, fairly light tackle for catfish and no weight added to the line. A little farther down in the tailwater, the action isn't quite as fast, but chances for larger fish increase.
If an angler specifically wants to target jumbo cats, Simms can accommodate that just as easily, often by going above the dam and working main-river structural features. On the lake, Simms uses heavier gear and he drift-fishes with heavy three-way rigs and vertical presentations. Deep water and changes in the bottom contour are both important at that time.
An added benefit of the Chattanooga area of the Tennessee River is that bank-fishermen enjoy opportunities to find good action. The Tennessee Valley Authority access area below Chickamauga Dam provides bank access to the riprap-bound tailwater. Chicken livers or dip bait can yield fast action from channel cats many summer days.
To learn more about the Chattanooga area and trips with Richard Simms, visit www.sceniccityfishing.com or call Simms at (423) 894-3684.
DALE HOLLOW LAKE
Although Dale Hollow's fame remains as a smallmouth destination, the same waters also support a solid and largely underutilized population of channel and flathead catfish. Modest pressure combined with good growth rates results in good average size for both species. Channel cats far outnumber flatheads, but the flatheads provide definite big-fish possibilities.
The best summer catfishing for channels or flatheads at Dale Hollow takes place after the sun goes down. The fish tend to move deep and lay low by day in this very clear lake. At night they stray shallower to feed. Channel catfish cruise up onto flats, often along inside bends of channels and adjacent to much deeper water. Flatheads like cover, by day or by night, so they typically hang around boulders or among the branches of trees, especially near the heads of bluff holes.
Catfish can be found in all parts of the lake, but more riverine upper half, roughly upstream of the Wolf River's confluence with the Obey, offers better habitat. Likely fish-holding areas are also easier to identify and fish effectively up the river, where all the banks aren't completely vertical.
A good searching approach for channel catfish is to move the boat slowly over a slope that drops into a big hole, presenting minnows, small pieces of cut bait or chicken livers on a tight-line rig. A bell sinker normally anchors the rig, which also includes two hooks, spaced a foot or so apart and positioned above the sinker. If each angler aboard maintains a tight line — with the weight bouncing on the bottom, but not dragging — the baits stay barely off the bottom, where cats can find them.
Flatheads call for more stationary approach, a calculated spot and greater patience. A flathead often stares at a perfectly good bait for a long time before suddenly deciding to eat it, with no obvious triggering mechanism. The best flathead strategy is to pick a high-percentage spot, present a good live fish bait of some sort and wait patiently. But ever stay ready.
Flathead fishing won't always produce results, but when it does, the rewards can be big.
FORT LOUDOUN LAKE
Fort Loudoun has all the ingredients needed to grow big numbers of catfish. Loudoun's highly fertile waters support big numbers of all three species of cats, with blues and flatheads growing to extra large sizes. The biggest cat on record from Tennessee waters, a 130-pound blue that stands as the Class B Record for methods other than rod and reel, came from Fort Loudoun, as did a former state record rod-and-reel blue.
The first pool along the main stem of the Tennessee River, Fort Loudoun offers many miles of big-river habitat, with many hard channel swings creating classic pools. It also boasts a tremendous food supply and has sufficient turnover to allow for good dissolved oxygen levels throughout the water column, even during mid-summer. However, the biggest boon to big-cat production comes as a side-benefit to a bad history of pollution. Commercial catfishing is prohibited at Fort Loudoun, and an advisory exists against eating any catfish over two pounds in the lake. That means most cats stay in this lake, and the big ones have the chance to grow into giants.
Smaller baits presented on the bottom in tributaries would produce fast action from channel cats, but the real Fort Loudoun treasure is its trophy cats, and the big fish favor the main channels of the Tennessee River and of the French Broad and Holston rivers, which join forces to form the Tennessee River beneath Loudoun's impounded waters. The fish spend summer days in the biggest holes in the rivers and move shallower to feed after the sun goes down.
Heavyweight cats call for seriously stout gear and big baits. Most Loudoun trophy hunters use large-capacity baitcasting reels spooled with 80- to 100-pound-test braid and match them with stout specialized catfish rods like Team Catfish 1 Ton Casting Rods. They usually use 3 or 4 ounces of lead to hold bottom in the current. A big chunk of fresh skipjack on a 10/O Daiichi Circle completes the rig nicely.
FRENCH BROAD RIVER
The French Broad River enters Tennessee as a large mountain river, having already twisted, turned and tumbled more than 100 miles through the North Carolina highlands. The river is steep and sometimes rugged, and access to many areas is challenging. However, its cool waters support an outstanding population of channel catfish.
French Broad cats concentrate wherever there is a combination of current and relatively deep water during the summer, with the deepest holes generally holding the most fish. The upper ends of bluff holes where the current feeds the deeper water and pools immediately beneath shoals and rapids rank among the best places to find actively feeding fish.
Good baits include hellgrammites, crawfish, night crawlers and frozen shrimp, all fished close to the bottom. Simple tackle such a spinning gear, 12-pound-test and a sliding-sinker rig that's heavy enough to hold bottom is all an angler really needs. Circle hooks make fish hooking and unhooking easier.
The upper river can be floated in canoes, although most possible floats include rapids. Farther downstream, near the headwaters of Douglas Lake, johnboats can be used. When the water is low, which becomes increasingly common as summer progresses, many sections can be waded.
Official access points are very limited along the river, with most access being at bridge crossings or road rights-of-way. Quite a bit of land along the upper river is public and within the Cherokee National Forest, but the banks are often either rock bluffs or steep, densely forested slopes.
Below Douglas Lake, the French Broad runs though one of the only warm-water tailwaters in Tennessee, and there are three boating access points along this part of the river. This section also holds an abundance of channel cats and also produces some flatheads and big blues. Eventually the lower river empties into the headwaters of Fort Loudoun.
The second impoundment along the Tennessee River's main stem, Watts Bar begins where Fort Loudoun ends. Fine catfishing opportunities begin immediately below the dam. The Loudoun tailwater, which is accessibly by boat or from the bank, offers fast action fishing for channel catfish and smaller blues and yields an occasional jumbo blue or flathead catfish.
Downstream of the immediate tailwater, the riverine upper end of Watts Bar winds through some of the most productive bends in the entire Tennessee River. Hard river bends create long, deep, bluff-lined and cover-laden holes. These holes stay loaded with channel, blue and flathead catfish throughout the summer. The big cats feed best when Loudoun Dam runs water and good current feeds the heads of the holes.
Some anglers anchor at the heads of holes and cast bottom rigs down into the deep water. Other's drift, fishing vertically with heavy three-way rigs and working the entire hole with the weight bumping bottom, but not quite dragging. For either approach, threadfin shad, skipjack guts or livers produce fast action, but big chunks of cut skipjack work best for heavyweight blue catfish. The same big river bends also yield giant flatheads, primarily to anglers who go out after the sun goes down and set up close to timber tangles with live bait.
Great catfishing opportunities can be found in all parts of Watts Bar, which impounds more than 70 miles of the Tennessee River and becomes broader with an increasingly complex shoreline toward its lower end. Countless coves and creeks in the lower lake provide good opportunities for anglers who don't want to contend with the strong currents in the upper lake or the broad open waters of the lower main lake. The inundated lower river channel, meanwhile, continues to twist and turn, and every hard bend or confluence represents another likely area for the big cats to concentrate.
BEFORE YOU GO
While there is no statewide creel limit for catfish in Tennessee, only one catfish of any species over 34 inches may be harvested daily. Through the Tennessee Angler Recognition Program any channel, blue or flathead catfish of that size qualifies for recognition. Program details and a downloadable application are available on the TWRA Web site. For details about Region IV lakes, visit www.tnfish.org.