The Best Tennessee Catfish Waters
October 04, 2010
Whichever species of catfish you like to set out your baits for, Tennessee has some topnotch options for you. Here are some of the best.
By Jeff Samsel
A slight breeze feels good on an early-summer afternoon. All is quiet, except the steady sound of current ripping through the branches of downed trees you are anchored beside and the occasional call of a kingfisher.
Then it happens.
With no warning, one of your reels' clickers begins screaming desperately for help as the rod it is mounted on surges down. You lunge for the rod, flip the reel into gear, and then set the hook hard as you rip the rod out of its holder. The fish is hooked and a 10-minute battle begins. Eventually your buddy will dip the net around a 25-pound blue - a nice fish, no doubt, but nothing spectacular by big-cat standards.
Big-fish potential clearly is one of the major appeals of sport catfishing to many anglers. Blue and flathead catfish can reach triple-digit weights, and cats in the 20- to 40-pound range are actually fairly abundant in some places. Giant cats pull with incredible power, putting stout tackle to the test and providing huge thrills for fishermen.
However, the appeal of catfishing goes far beyond the excitement of outlandish-sized fish. Cats abound virtually everywhere there is water in Tennessee, and they serve up consistently good action for anglers who know how and where to target them. Effective tactics often are fairly basic, and tackle needs not be extravagant. In fact, an angler doesn't even need a boat. Some of Tennessee's best catfishing is accessible from the bank. Catfish also rank among the best eating fish found in Tennessee waters. Adding even more appeal this time of year, catfishing stays good throughout the summer, especially for anglers who enjoy going out after the sun goes down.
Tennessee waters support three major catfish species that together attract 10 percent of all angling effort in Volunteer waters. Blue, flathead and channel catfish all have some things in common, but each species is distinctive in the way that it acts, the waters it inhabits and the food it likes to eat. With that in mind, we'll look at each species separately, examining where anglers are apt to find the most success and with what types of tactics.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Giant blues are the fish most apt to yank rods from anglers' hands or anglers out of boats. Beyond growing huge and being packed with power, big blues take off like their tails are on fire when they pick up baits. Under-equipped anglers occasionally get spooled on initial runs, never even slowing the fish.
Blue catfish are big-river cats, and Tennessee definitely has big rivers. The Tennessee, Cumberland and Mississippi rivers together offer a tremendous amount of large-river habitat, and blue cats abound in all three rivers. Beyond supporting large numbers of blues, all three rivers produce plenty of heavyweight fish.
Tennessee's state-record blue catfish, which weighed 112 pounds, came from the Cumberland River. The all-tackle world-record, which weighed 116 pounds, came from the Mississippi River. The world-record fish was caught from Arkansas waters, but directly across the river from Memphis. All three rivers have yielded cats to commercial anglers that would rewrite the record books.
Tennessee's trophy blue cat fishery only promises get better in years to come because of special regulations put into place last year by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Only one catfish over 34 inches of any species may be kept daily statewide. Additionally, no commercial harvest of cats over 34 inches is permitted.
Excepting fish stocked in Tennessee's Family Fishing Lakes, which provide good action but few large fish, blue cats are pretty much confined to the three big rivers. Among those rivers, it would be virtually impossible to pick one over the others for its blue catfish offerings. However, certain areas within each river's course tend to produce better fishing.
For sheer numbers of blues, tailwaters are tough to top during June. The Old Hickory and Cheatham tailwaters are always productive this time of year, as are the Fort Loudoun, Watts Bar, Chickamauga, Nickajack and Pickwick tailwaters on the Tennessee River. The blues move up the rivers during late spring to spawn and stick around throughout the summer because they find plentiful food, current and cover.
Tailwaters generally offer good fishing access from the banks and for boating anglers. Shoreline anglers fish from riprap banks, often going as close to the dams as regulations permit, and use surf-casting outfits to make long casts when needed. They look for eddies formed by concrete barriers, breaks in the bank or turbines that are off and cast toward seams between swift water and slack water. Most use three-way rigs or Carolina rigs. All lose a fair amount of hardware. However, they also catch some very large catfish.
Boating anglers typically either drift or hold their boats in key areas. They run as close to dams as regulations and reason allow, drop three-way rigs and bounce their rigs off the bottom as they drift out or hold their boats in place. They want the bait to be ticking bottom but not dragging. Boating anglers, like bank-fishermen, focus on seams between currents, and they have more areas to choose from. Often they will concentrate in gaps, where turbines are off between others that are running.
It's important to stress that tailwaters can be very dangerous, with uneven, rocky bottoms, strong currents, fast-changing water levels and sometimes-turbulent waters. Anglers need to use every measure of caution, including wearing life jackets, learning to read the water, staying on the lookout for hazards and other boaters.
Outside of immediate tailwaters, the most predictable places for finding and catching big blues on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers are in big, deep holes formed along outside bends in riverine sections of the pools. The cats hold near the bottoms of the big holes by day and move to adjacent flats by nights. Some of the best sections for heavyweight blues include the upper ends of Watts Bar and Nickajack on the Tennessee River and the lower end of Cheatham and the upper end of Barkley on the Cumberland.
On the Mississippi River, the blues tend to spread out in the summer, especially if the river gets fairly low and stabilizes. They spread over broad areas that have moderated current and uneven bottoms and become very susceptible to drift-fishing.
Young blue catfish eat a little bit of everything, and can be caught on an assortment of traditional catfish baits. However, big blue catfish feed mostly on fish - especiall
y shad and herring - making big chunks of cut fish tough to top as bait. Most serious blue catfishermen like skipjack best overall, followed by gizzard and threadfin shad.
Unlike their big blue cousins, flatheads rarely make big screaming runs. They often strike viciously, rattling rod holders and burying rod tips in the water, but they don't take off like Indy cars. Instead, they lunge toward thick cover, which usually is nearby, and if they make it into the brush, they typically win the battle. Like heavyweight boxers, flatheads fight with powerful punches but little speed or wasted flair.
Flatheads are predators, feeding almost exclusively on live fish. Anglers catch occasional flatheads on big pieces of cut bait while fishing for blues, but fishermen almost always use live bait when they target flatheads. Bluegills and other sunfish are the most popular flathead baits overall. On the Mississippi, where bluegills aren't very common, live gizzard shad work much better. Other good flathead baits include carp, bullheads and various suckers.
Flatheads are far more widespread than blues in Tennessee because they thrive in much smaller rivers. Flathead catfish actually are native throughout Tennessee, and they show up in creeks and rivers of all sizes. Flathead populations in creeks and small rivers tend to be fairly limited, however, with few big fish. Medium-sized to large streams and the lakes that impound them clearly serve up Tennessee's best flathead fishing.
For really large flatheads, Tennessee's biggest river probably is its best. The Mississippi supports a fabulous population of high-quality flatheads, and June is a good time to catch them. James Patterson, a veteran Mississippi River guide, uses live gizzard shad for flatheads, often fishing either along deep revetment banks, near the shoreline ends of wing dikes or near tangles of timber that stretch out from the banks. Patterson focuses on the section near Memphis, where he lives, but good flathead waters are spread throughout the Tennessee section of the Mississippi.
Beyond the Mississippi, the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers' tailwaters should not be overlooked. Flathead fishermen look for deep slack areas of tailwaters and good rocky or concrete cover, sometimes around spill gates that aren't running or barriers between areas, and fish them with big, live bluegills or shad.
Farther down the impoundments along the rivers, bluff banks that have a lot of timber along them hold some heavyweight flatheads, as do inundated confluences of creeks and rivers and humps that rise beside main channels. Flatheads are river fish by nature, even in impoundments, and they rarely stray far from major channels.
Bluff banks up the rivers that feed Fort Loudoun and channel edges in the lower ends of Watts Bar and Chickamauga produce some very big flatheads. Tennessee's state-record flathead, which weighed 85 pounds, 15 ounces, came from the Hiwassee River, which feeds Chickamauga Lake. Along the Cumberland, timber-tangled bluff banks along outside bends throughout Cheatham are good areas to set up for flatheads. A few tributary lakes that serve up really good flathead fishing are lakes Cherokee, Douglas and Dale Hollow.
Among Tennessee's most overlooked flathead waters, which support a lot of fish and are in some ways easier to fish than huge rivers or reservoirs, are major tributaries of the Mississippi, Tennessee and Cumberland. Rivers like the Obion, Hatchie, Buffalo, Duck and Harpeth, which together offer hundreds of miles of fishable waters, all support good flathead populations.
Anglers should look for the twistiest section of river close to home and then look for the bend in the river that offers the best combination of broadly varying depths, dense cover and current breaks. The best bait, generally speaking, will be the type of fish that the flatheads are most accustomed to seeing and eating in that section of water. However, for anglers who are not in the position to catch that kind of bait, bluegills are always a good choice.
In most flathead waters, the best fishing occurs at night. Flatheads are the most nocturnal of the major catfish species, and they get much more active on summer nights. They also stray a bit farther from cover and move shallower after hours, putting odds a little more in the angler's favor.
Looking ahead, Tennessee's fine flathead fishery only promises to get better. Like the blues, flatheads should benefit greatly from Tennessee's new trophy cat regulations and commercial restrictions.
Although channel catfish attract fewer headlines than their heavyweight counterparts, they probably rank as Tennessee's most popular cats, in terms of total angler effort expended. Channels are more prolific than blues and flatheads, and they abound in streams and lakes of all size. Virtually every lake in the state supports channel catfish. The same holds true for Tennessee's rivers and creeks, excepting some mountain streams and cold-water tailwaters.
While channels don't reach super sizes, they aren't small either. Fish in the 5- to 10-pound range are common in many places, and anglers occasionally catch 15- to 20-pound giants. Tennessee's state-record channel cat, which came from Fall Creek Falls Lake in the state park of the same name, weighed a whopping 41 pounds.
Among the state's best channel cat waters, year after year, are TWRA's Family Fishing Lakes. The 18 lakes in this program, all managed specifically for fishing by TWRA, are heavily stocked with channel catfish and managed as put-grow-and-take fisheries. The lakes, which are spread throughout the western and central parts of the state, are actively managed to maximize productivity, and cats often grow quickly.
In addition, the Family Fishing Lakes offer outstanding access, especially for fishermen who don't own boats. Most have long sections of flat, cleared banks and fishing piers. Many also offer very inexpensive rental boats, and some even have bait and tackle shops along their banks. A daily permit is required in addition to a fishing license to fish any of the Family Fishing Lakes. Descriptions of lakes, the offerings of each and special regulations that apply are detailed on the TWRA's Web site at www.tnwildlifeorg.
Looking at other top channel cat areas, it's once again necessary to visit tailwaters along the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. Like their cousins, channels pile up in all the tailwaters during the summer and serve up very good fishing to bank-fishing and boating anglers alike. Anglers who bait up with chicken livers, night crawlers, shad or skipjack entrails or small pieces of cut bait can load up on channels up to about 10 pounds, along with a mix of small blues.
Channels often will be right against riprap banks, especially in areas where the bank drops off quickly or a cut in the bank's contour creates a small eddy. Probably the biggest mistake that shoreline anglers make is to cast right over the catfishes' heads, trying to get their offerings farther out in the tailwater. Boating anglers typically fish in slack waters where generators are off, preferably n
ear where water is running, but not necessarily in a defined slot, like blue cat anglers look for.
Good catfishing can be found in parts of virtually all major reservoirs in Tennessee, but some of the lakes best known for their abundant channels are Reelfoot, Old Hickory, J. Percy Priest, Woods and Douglas lakes. On most reservoirs, channel cat anglers key on the edges of flats or the tops of points that are close to creek or river channels, sampling spots on the main channel and on tributary channels until they home in on the fish. Chicken livers and cut threadfin shad are again tough to top.
On Reelfoot - which averages only 6 feet deep, has no river channel and is loaded with timber - anglers approach the catfishing differently. Fishing around stands of flooded timber or scattered deadfalls on flats, they fish night crawlers under corks, setting the corks to hang the offerings just off the bottom. They cast right next to the cover and wait for their corks to dart under. Usually, a cork doesn't sit still very long.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeff Samsel is the author of Catfishing in the South, which includes chapters on the Cumberland, Tennessee and Mississippi rivers. To order, send a check for $21.95 to Jeff Samsel, 173 Elsie Street, Clarkesville, GA 30523. For more information, log onto www.jeffsamsel.com.
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