Tennessee's Best Catfish Angling

Summer is catfish time in the Volunteer State. This guide will put you on some of the best catfish waters in the state. (June 2007)

Photo by Tom Evans.

Anglers love their catfish in Tennessee, and with good reason. We have a vast array of opportunities for everyone. No matter if one likes to fish from bank or boat, there's great catfishing nearby.

It's time once again for a look at some of our best catfish waters across the state. Here's a rundown from west to east of some of the great opportunities for blue, channel and flathead catfish.

WEST -- REGION I

Catfish anglers in the western end of the state have some of the greatest diversity of opportunity of anywhere in the state. From big rivers to big reservoirs, the west offers plenty of big water choices. Also, 10 of the state's 18 TWRA Family Fishing Lakes are located in Region I.

Obviously, many people immediately think of Kentucky and Barkley lakes when thinking of the west. These sister lakes have some of the best catfish fisheries anywhere in the southeastern states. Whether one is looking for flathead, blue or channel cats, both of these lakes boast great populations of all three species and the chance to catch some enormous trophy-class fish.

One thing that's not common knowledge is the tremendous catfish population at Reelfoot Lake. The catfish opportunities there are largely underutilized. Most anglers frequenting Reelfoot go there for crappie and bluegills. However, fisheries biologist Tim Broadbent said the catfishery is outstanding.

There are a few flatheads in the lake, but the fishery is primarily made up of channel cats. Broadbent said there is a very good and well-balanced population of channel catfish with some really big fish present. Catches of fish over 5 pounds are fairly common.

Another western location that is underutilized, according to Broadbent, is the Mississippi River. He said the river is home to a great catfishery and it would be practically impossible to affect the fishery there through fishing pressure. The river has great populations of all three species of catfish and is home to the former 116-pound, 12-ounce world-record blue catfish taken close to Memphis in 2001.

A well-known location for great catfish action is Pickwick Lake. Around seven miles of the lake are located within the borders of Tennessee and there is also a reciprocal licensing agreement that adds to the opportunity for Volunteer State anglers. The lake is home to fantastic populations of channels, flatheads and blues. Some really big specimens of all three catfish species exist in Pickwick and the potential to catch a record-class fish is ever-present.

For those who like fishing smaller waters, a TWRA Family Fishing Lake may be just the ticket. Brown's Creek Lake in Henderson County is 167 acres and has a nice population of channel and blue catfish. Fisheries biologist Dave Rizzuto said TWRA shocking sampling routinely produces catfish in the 15- to 25-pound range.

Channel cats are stocked yearly at a rate of 50 fish per acre. Additional stockings of blue catfish enhance the fishery greatly. Anglers have good opportunity for both boat fishing and shoreline fishing.

The lake is located inside the Natchez Trace State Park. Facilities include a boat launch, rental boats, and a handicapped-accessible fishing pier. Lake information may be obtained by calling (731) 423-5725.

Another Family Fishing Lake in the region is Gibson County Lake, located approximately five miles east of Trenton. This lake is a little larger and covers around 560 acres. It is divided into a recreational zone and a fishing-only zone.

Gibson County Lake is the newest of the Family Fishing Lakes. It was impounded in 1999 and opened to the public in 2003. It is the largest lake in the group.

This lake's catfish fishery is primarily made up of channel catfish. Rizzuto estimates around two-thirds of the catfish are channel cats with the remainder being blue catfish. In the latest creel survey, the average size for both species averaged less than 2 pounds.

There is only around a one-quarter mile of shoreline access, but there is a handicapped-accessible fishing pier. The remainder of the property around the lake is private property. The lake has other amenities, including a boat launch, boat rentals, a concession and on-site bait and tackle. More lake information is available by calling (731) 855-2990.

MIDDLE -- REGION II

Middle Tennessee is much like the west. It has plenty of catfish choices, both large and small. Region II has some great large reservoirs, plus it is home to the other eight Family Fishing Lakes.

One of premier large waters is Percy Priest Lake near Nashville. Channel catfish are most prominent in the lake, but there are also populations of blues and flatheads. Catfish are the third most popular species with anglers at Percy Priest.

Channel cats averaged around 1.75 pounds in the latest creel survey, while flatheads and blues averaged 13.5 pounds and 6.2 pounds, respectively. Anglers do very well near rocky areas in June when the cats are spawning, and nearshore with live bait the remainder of the year. The lake does stratify in summer, so anglers should be aware of the thermocline to achieve success.

Old Hickory Lake is another great location to target all of the "big three" catfish species. TWRA biologist Todd St. John said Old Hickory has a good catfishery and catfish are probably the second most-targeted species by anglers. Anglers spend an average of $250,000 per year in pursuit of catfish at the lake.

Channel catfish are the most abundant, and creel surveys indicate the average size caught is around 2.45 pounds. Average weights of flatheads and blues are basically equal, at around 7.5 pounds and 7.6 pounds, respectively. Catfish angling is good all year long and the lake does not suffer from stratification.

According to biologist John Riddle, Woods Lake is by far the best catfish lake in his area. Unfortunately, it has a fish consumption advisory, which leads to limited fishing pressure. However, if one wants to catch some huge catfish and is not concerned with filling the frying pan with them, Woods Lake is definitely the place to go.

There are not many blues or flatheads, but the ones that are there grow quite large. It's not unreasonable to expect catches of 30- to 50-pound fish. Channel cats get big, too, and are commonly caught in the 10- to 15-pound range.

Riddle said another great catfish destination is Normandy Reservoir. This mid-sized lake has a fairly abundant catfish population. Although channel cats dominant the fishery, blues and flatheads are present in good numbers and can reach very respectable sizes. Fish in the 50- to 60-pound range are possible. Most channels caught are "good eating size," but larger fish are present, too.

About 90 percent of the catfish at Tims Ford Reservoir are channel cats. Blue catfish have the potential to be really huge, according to Riddle, but they are not very abundant. Flatheads are not abundant either, but they are present in the fishery and caught often in the 10- to 20-pound range.

One of the better Family Fishing Lakes in the region is Laurel Hill Lake in Lawrence County. This 325-acre lake has both blue and channel catfish and yields good catches of both. The lake has great fishing access and a "youth-only" fishing area.

Amenities at the lake include a boat launch, a handicapped-accessible fishing pier, boat and trolling motor rental, and bait and tackle on site. Lake information is available at (931) 762-7200.

Marrowbone Lake in Davidson County is another Family Fishing Lake with a good offering of catfish. The lake is located northwest of Nashville near Joelton and is 60 acres in size. Both blue and channel cats are present.

The amenities at Marrowbone are virtually the same as Laurel Hill. Lake info is available by calling (615) 876-6012.

CUMBERLAND PLATEAU -- REGION III

There may not be quite the variety of catfish waters in Region III as in the western half of the state, but there are some opportunities to catch some really massive fish. Anglers in this area have the chance to hook into huge specimens of blue, flathead and channel catfish. The bulk of the best opportunities are along the Tennessee River system.

The river runs through much of Tennessee as well as the bordering states of Kentucky and Alabama. Huge catfish are caught in all three states all along the river system. A world-class 111-pound blue cat was caught in Alabama in the portion of the river beyond the Nickajack Dam.

The Tennessee River offers anglers a wide range of options. Bank-anglers have plenty of access to the river, tailwaters below major dams and big reservoirs. Boat-anglers have a huge advantage in being able to find channels, dropoffs and other structure to which the catfish relate. The best areas to target are the huge bluff holes located all along the system.

Channel cats will bite on most anything, including cut bait, shrimp, night crawlers, stink baits, liver or live bait. Most seasoned river anglers prefer chunks of cut shad or skipjack for blue cats, while flatheads are primarily targeted with live bait.

Watts Bar Lake is the first reservoir formed along the Tennessee River. Biologist Mike Jolley said this is one of the top spots in the region for catfish. Anglers spent some 50,743 angling hours chasing catfish with an average catch of 1.64 cats per hour. That's a really good average as far as creel data is concerned.

Flatheads were reported with the highest average weight at 5.39 pounds. Blues followed at 3.67 pounds, and channels averaged 2.82 pounds. Big fish of all three species are frequently caught. Rod-and-reel fishing is by far the most popular method, but at certain times of the year, this lake sees a very high contingent of those who like to use "grabbling."

Next along the river system is Chickamauga Reservoir. This huge TVA water covers over 36,000 surface acres. This lake is very accessible and the Chickamauga Dam is actually in the city limits of Chattanooga.

Professional guide Richard Simms (www.ScenicCityFishing.com) has been fishing the river system for a number of years and actually fishes within sight of the Tennessee Aquarium in downtown Chattanooga. Simms likes to target the really big fish and said, "I have little doubt there is the potential to catch a new state-record blue cat within casting distance of Chattanooga."

Jolley said Chickamauga ranks just behind Watts Bar in the creel survey with an average of 1.36 catfish caught per hour. The average weight for all three species ranges from 3 to 4.5 pounds, but don't let that figure be misleading. There are some huge fish in the reservoir. Simms said he has photos of a 120-pound blue cat caught on the lake by a commercial fisherman running trotlines.

On the other side of the dam begins the headwaters of Nickajack Reservoir. Jolley said there are no recent creel numbers to look at, but the lake should be comparable to the other two reservoirs. He said it has a good catfish population and there have been a number of big cats caught there and those numbers should grow over time with the new 34-inch trophy cat regulation.

Nickajack is much more riverine than Chickamauga. Simms said through the Tennessee River Gorge there are massive holes in the gorge where the water reaches 120 feet deep. Anglers can find good success with all three species of catfish throughout the river system.

EAST -- REGION IV

Our last region to look at in this roundup is in the eastern portion of the state. It may be last in our review, but it's definitely not lacking in prime catfish waters. Anglers have a plethora of opportunities to tangle with some quality whiskerfish in this area.

One of the best catfish populations in the region is in Boone Reservoir. The lake is stocked with blue cats and has very good reproducing populations of both channel and flathead catfish. Unfortunately, one of the reasons the fishery is so good is because the lake is subject to a fish consumption advisory. Therefore, there's not quite as much pressure as would be otherwise.

The lake is very fertile and catfish grow well there. This reservoir on the South Fork Holston River is around 4,500 acres and provides plenty of opportunity. Recent creel data suggest channel catfish are in good shape and there is the potential to catch some really large flatheads and blues.

Cherokee Reservoir is another fantastic catfish location and it is not tarnished with a fish advisory. This 30,300-acre TVA reservoir is very fertile and has a great forage base that includes threadfin shad, gizzard shad and alewives. The lake is home to some tremendous catfish, and blues, flatheads and channels are all well represented in the lake. Channels and flatheads are self-sustaining. The TWRA has been stocking blue cats since the early 1990s.

The best catfish spots for channels and flatheads may be in the upper end of the lake, according to biologist Doug Peterson. He said the area up near the John Sevier tailwaters is especially good. Most of the best blue cat fishing is in the reservoir proper. Anglers should remember that the lake stratifies during summer and fishing effort should not be deeper than around 30 feet.

Peterson said Fort Loudon and the Fort Loudon tailwaters are particularly good for catfish. Regrettably, the reason the location

is so good is for the same reason as Boone. There is limited harvest because of a fish consumption advisory. However, this leaves the cats in the lake and allows them to reach massive size.

Channels, flatheads and blues are all present in good numbers. The lake has good reproduction on all three species and does not require supplemental stocking. A 130-pound blue catfish was taken there in 1976 with commercial gear.

Douglas Reservoir also has a great catfishery and does not have a health advisory. It is primarily composed of channel cats, but there are also fair populations of blues and flatheads. Peterson refers to it as having "a good fishery."

This TVA reservoir is approximately 30,600 acres in size and offers primarily boat fishing through the summer months. Most of the shoreline is privately owned. It is subject to summer stratification, so most fishing should be confined to the lower end of the lake. The thermocline is usually firmly in place by early June and will typically be around 10 feet.

If these larger reservoirs are not what one likes, Peterson said there are several smaller lakes in the region that offer good catfish opportunities. Indian Mountain Lake in Jellico offers some excellent channel catfish fishing. Channel cats are stocked there regularly.

Both the Cove Lake State Park and the Big Ridge State Park have excellent catfishing as well. Both lakes have flathead and channel catfish. Natural reproduction occurs at both of these waters.

No matter where in Tennessee one lives or travels to, there's terrific catfishing nearby. Great fishing for flatheads, channels and blues is waiting, so let's get out there and get bit!

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