Tennessee Channel Cat Hotspots for Everyone

Whether you like free-flowing rivers, big reservoirs or small lakes, one of these eight destinations should suit your fancy. That is, if you like catching channel catfish!

By Jeff Samsel

In one respect, all fishing is the same: Anglers throw their lines out and then wait.

But anglers who look for channel cats in the right places with the right baits don't have to wait very long. Channel catfish are highly cooperative once anglers figure out the fish's favorite haunts in any given river or lake, and they serve up consistently fast action through the warm months.

Blue and flathead catfish attract most of the headlines in Tennessee, simply due to the enormous sizes both species commonly achieve. Channel cats, however, almost certainly would rank as Tennessee's most popular catfish species, based on total angler effort and the total number of cats caught.

Unlike blues, which are big-river fish by nature, channel cats can be found just about everywhere there is water in Tennessee. They abound in waters that range from farm ponds to huge reservoirs, providing good fishing opportunities that are close to home for most fishermen. Channel cats also are less selective about what they eat than are their larger cousins, and they are generally easier to find and fool. Adding even more appeal, channel catfish feed well throughout the summer, when other kinds of fishing can get pretty tough.

Because channel cats thrive in so many different types of waterways, anglers have a lot of options regarding where they fish. With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the places that promise to serve up sizzling channel catfish action this summer, including waterways of several different sorts.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

WATTS BAR TAILWATER

Current, cover and food make a great combination for catfish, and tailwaters offer all three in abundance. The tailwater of Watts Bar Lake along the Tennessee River is well known as a great summer destination for cats, with good action available to boating and bank-fishing anglers alike.

Shoreline anglers enjoy very good access from riprap banks along the east side of the river. The access begins close to the dam and continues a good distance downstream, providing a lot of room for anglers to spread out. Anglers seeking big cats come equipped with surfcasting gear and specialized rigs for bouncing baits downstream in the current. However, the best channel catfishing often is within easy casting distance of the rocks.

In truth, the biggest error that many anglers make is to cast past the cats, which hold in little pockets along the rocky bank and often are right at the anglers' feet. Any cut in the banks or unusual swell that suggests underwater rocks is a likely hotspot for catching channel cats in the tailwater. Specific hotspots vary a lot according to the amount of water that is flowing from the dam, but anglers who pay attention to current lines and eddies can quickly learn to read the water and pick prime spots.

Boating anglers often fish fairly close to the dam, holding the boat in a pocket where no strong currents are running but close to water that is running. Cats will stack up just outside of the strong currents. Other potentially good areas are waters just downstream of midriver rockpiles or other current breaks like divider walls and barge ties. Three-way rigs work well for working right over the fish in the tailwater.

Arguably, the best bait for tailwater channel catfish anywhere in the Tennessee River is entrails from skipjack or gizzard shad. Chicken livers also work well, though, as do cut pieces of skipjack or shad. Commercial stink baits will yield fast action, but often with smaller cats. Larger channels eat a lot of fish, especially in a big-river tailwater setting.

The Tennessee Valley Authority access area below Watts Bar Dam is accessible by Watts Bar off U.S. 68, just east of the dam. Other dams on the Tennessee River that offer similar opportunities for channel catfish in other areas are Chickamauga and Nickajack, near Chattanooga, and Pickwick, farther west.

REELFOOT LAKE

Anyone who has spent much time around Reelfoot Lake knows that Tennessee's "Earthquake Lake" supports a fabulous population of channel catfish, with a very good average size. Cats abound throughout this shallow and fertile lake, and they don't get a lot of targeted fishing pressure by rod-and-reel anglers. Trot-liners and limb-liners catch loads of cats, but they never seem to put a dent in the prolific cat population.

July is prime time for catching channel cats on Reelfoot. Bluebank Resort's fishing calendar, which was put together by long-time guide Billy Blakely and is published on the resort's Web site, lists June and July (and only June and July) as "great" for cats, with a note that says "prime" added to July.

Anglers who go after Reelfoot cats fish mostly around the edges of flooded cypress stands or fish near deadfalls that are mostly submerged on "deep" flats of 10 feet or so. Night crawlers are easily the most popular kind of bait for Reelfoot cats. Most anglers use slip-cork rigs and fish their wiggling offerings just off the bottom.

Because Reelfoot with its shallow, stump-laden bottom is no place for most anglers' boats, some resorts offer aluminum boats as part of their lodging packages, and the guys on the docks can direct anglers to specific areas where catfish have been biting well. Anglers also catch a lot of cats in the evenings and at night from the docks, casting night crawlers or chicken livers out on simple bottom rigs.

In addition to its abundant channel cats, Reelfoot produces some heavyweight flatheads, which hang out mostly in the deepest water in the Lower Blue Basin. Very few anglers fish for them, but those who do sometimes do very well.

A Reelfoot Conservation Permit is required in addition to a fishing license on Reelfoot Lake. For more information, contact Blueback Resort at www.bluebankresort.com or call (877) BLUEBANK.

HATCHIE RIVER

Twisting and turning as it courses through Hatchie Bottoms in southwestern Tennessee, the Hatchie River is one of Tennessee's last free-flowing rivers. By the time it adds its flow to the Mighty Mississippi, directly west of Covington, the Hatchie has grown into a large river.

Throughout its course, the Hatchie provides great catfishing opportunities in wild, unspoiled settings. Big flatheads hold in tangles of timber in big holes throughout the river, and blues sometimes move up out of the Mississippi into the Hatchie's lower reaches. However, channel catfis

h are the most abundant cats by far and the main attraction to most anglers who fish for cats on the Hatchie.

Because it winds so severely and often splits into channels, the Hatchie offers a huge variety of water types and a good range of depths for fishermen to explore. Heads of deep holes offer good prospects, as do runs at the mouths of chutes off the main river and eddies downstream of islands or sandbars.

Commercial dip baits tend to work well, serving both as chum and as bait when put down in the current. Cut fish is also a good choice. Most anglers anchor upstream of where they want to fish and lay basic Carolina rigs downstream of them in the current. If no cats pull the rods down within a half hour or so, it's time to change locations.

Boating access points are scattered along the Hatchie River. Good spots to put a boat in include the U.S. Highway 51 bridge just north of Covington and the U.S. Highway 70/79 bridge, just south of Brownsville.

DOUGLAS LAKE

Defying stereotypes associated with most steep-sided mountain lakes, Douglas is highly fertile and lightly stained, and a great catfish population stays well fed on abundant threadfin and gizzard shad in this lake. Alan Ricks, Region 4 information officer for TWRA, named Douglas as a hotspot for channel catfish in the eastern part of the state.

The upper half of Douglas lends itself very well to summer catfishing. Big flats border the French Broad River channel throughout the upper portion of the lake, and cats pile up on these flats at night. Waters just above bluff holes, which form on outside bends of the main river, also offer good prospects, as do the tops of points, both along the main river and in major creeks.

Some fish will bite during the day, but anglers definitely enhance their opportunity to get in on fast action by fishing after hours. A good strategy is to arrive at the lake late in the afternoon, spend some time searching for cats in deep holes, set up along the edge of a deep hole around nightfall and then work gradually shallower as the night progresses.

Small pieces of cut shad or skipjack probably offer the best prospects overall, especially for anglers who hope to catch big channel cats. Chicken livers sometimes will yield faster action. If there is current running through the upper part of the lake, commercial dip baits also work well through the summer. Current also creates a better bite, so if water is running through the lake, the main channel offers better prospects than do the creeks.

For anglers who favor river fishing, the French Broad River, both above and below Douglas Lake, offers an extension of the same fine fishery. Prime areas in either section are in big river bends and associated holes. By day, most cats will be down in the holes. By night, they will move onto adjacent flats.

The river itself is best suited for fishing out of a johnboat or other aluminum boat. In places, a jet might be needed to get across shallow rocky shoals, especially upstream of Douglas Lake. A dozen public boat ramps and several private marinas provide access to the lake.

MARROWBONE LAKE

While Marrowbone Lake covers only 60 acres, several factors make it an outstanding catfishing destination for a lot of fishermen. For starters, this lake, which is part of TWRA's "Family Fishing Lakes" program, is only 15 miles from Nashville. Adding convenience, it offers outstanding access to anglers who don't own boats. Finally, Marrowbone Lake is loaded with blue and channel catfish and consistently produces good catch rates, according to Dough Markham, Region 2 information officer for TWRA.

Like all of the 18 lakes in the Family Fishing Lakes program, Marrowbone is managed specifically for fishermen through heavy stocking, regular monitoring of fish populations, ongoing habitat work, efforts to maximize productivity and regulations that exclude other activities like swimming and water skiing. The lake's banks and facilities also have been developed with anglers in mind. Bank access is very good, and the lake offers inexpensive boat rentals, an on-site bait and tackle shop and a handicapped-accessible fishing pier.

Cats can be just about anywhere on this small lake, and most anglers pick spots because a bank looks nice for setting out lawn chairs or is not crowded. They'll try a spot for a while, usually putting out chicken livers, pieces of hot dogs or possibly cut fish, and move if the cats don't cooperate. The biggest thing for fishermen to be aware of through mid-summer is not to fish too deep. The deepest water near the dams of highly fertile lakes like Marrowbone get very low in dissolved oxygen through the summer and don't hold many fish.

Marrowbone Lake is open daily from one-half hour before sunrise till one-half hour after sunset. A $3 daily permit or $30 annual permit is required in addition to a fishing license. The combined limit for blue or channel catfish is five fish, with no minimum size. U.S. Highway 41A (Clarksville Highway) out of Nashville goes toward Marrowbone Lake.

LAUREL HILL LAKE

As another lake in the Family Fishing Lakes program, Laurel Hill Lake also offers high numbers of fish in an intensively managed lake with very good access for fishermen. However, this lake is much larger than Marrowbone (and most other lakes in the program) at 525 acres, and it offers a very different fishing experience.

Among the most noteworthy difference between Laurel Hill Lake and smaller waters in the program is that Laurel produces more large cats. Having more open-water habitat to use, some blue catfish will escape angler harvest for several years before being caught as 20- or 30-pounders.

Laurel Hill Lake, which is located 15 miles west of Lawrenceburg, offers good access for boating and bank-fishing anglers alike, including a handicapped-accessible pier and a special youth-only fishing area. Fishing boats and trolling motors are available for rent and bait and tackle are available from the lake's concession area.

Because of its larger size, Laurel Hill Lake lends itself better to a boating approach than to shoreline fishing. The mouths of tributaries that form coves off the main channel are good starting points for anglers who are unfamiliar with the lake, as are the edges of flats that lie adjacent to the old channel. A graph is helpful for locating breaks and looking for fish, but is not essential. An alternative approach to setting up with baits spread out on the bottom is to drift-fish and search for the most active cats.

Open hours, permit requirements and catfish limits are the same as on Marrowbone Lake. Laurel Hill Lake is located off U.S. Highway 64, 15 miles west of Lawrenceburg.

BROWNS CREEK LAKE

Before leaving the Family Fishing Lakes program, it's necessary to highlight one more destination. Browns Creek Lake, located in Natchez Trace State Park, consistently produces big cats, including both channels and blues. When biologists shock the lake, they always bring

up cats in the 15- to 20-pound range, some of which are channels.

Browns Creek Lake, which covers 167 acres, gets stocked annually with more than 8,000 catfish, the bulk of which typically are channel cats. Again, bank-fishing access and facilities for fishermen are outstanding. Through the summer, most cats are less than 10 feet deep, so shoreline anglers typically are within casting range of the best fishing action. Chicken livers are probably the most popular bait with local anglers.

Browns Creek Lake is located 10 miles south of Interstate 40 within Natchez Trace State Park. For directions or for more information on any of Tennessee's Family Fishing Lakes, check out TWRA's Web site at www.tnwildlife.org. The lakes are spread throughout the western and central parts of the state and any one of them legitimately could be highlighted as a hotspot for channel catfish.

BEFORE YOU GO

Only one catfish over 34 inches may be taken daily from any Tennessee waterway. While this regulation is unlikely to affect channel catfish harvests, anglers fishing for channels on some Tennessee lakes and river commonly catch a mix of blue catfish and occasional flatheads, both of which commonly exceed 34 inches in length.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jeff Samsel is the author of Catfishing in the South, which includes chapters about all three of Tennessee's major 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.



Discover even more in our monthly magazine,

and have it delivered to your door!

Subscribe to Tennessee Sportsman


Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.