Tennessee's 12-Month Angling Planner
October 04, 2010
Here's a look at 36 fine fishing destinations -- three for each month -- that promise topflight fishing in the Volunteer State. (February 2006)
Stooping behind a boulder in a clear mountain stream, an angler lays out a fly line, allowing a No. 18 dry fly to land gingerly at the head of a riffle. At the opposite end of the state, another angler drops anchor behind a wing dam on the Mississippi River, positioning the boat so he can lay out bottom rigs weighted with 6 ounces of lead and baited with thick slabs of cut skipjack for heavyweight catfish. In between, still another angler casts a plastic worm to brushpiles along the banks of a big reservoir for largemouth bass.
Tennessee's abundant rivers and lakes and diverse topography offer a tremendous amount of fishing opportunity and an amazing variety of species to target and places to fish. Picking the best fishing hole for a day off can be quite a challenge because there are so many options. With that dilemma in mind, we've selected destinations of all sorts for every month of the year that promise to offer first-rate fishing.
When winter cracks down hardest, float-and-fly fishing is at its best, and one of the best places in the state to "bobber fish" is Norris Lake, which impounds 34,200 acres along the Clinch and Powell rivers.
Best known for its stripers and for the trout that inhabit its tailwater, Norris gets only modest pressure from smallmouth fishermen. However, the lake supports a first-rate bronzeback population, with plenty of high-quality fish in the mix. In 2003, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency creel work revealed that an estimated 26,675 smallmouths that anglers caught during that winter weighed an average of 3.2 pounds.
Float-and-fly fishing has gotten ever more popular over the past decade and a half, and many East Tennessee anglers wait all year for the cold weather to come. A "fly," which is a small hair jig tied with craft hair or duck feathers, is suspended several feet beneath a bobber, cast toward the bank and worked with an alternation of jiggles and pauses. The smallies suspend among schools of baitfish during the winter, often along bluffs in the far lower end of the lake, and the float suspends the fly among them.
Float-and-fly season comes and goes too quickly to abandon winter smallmouths after only one month. No serious Tennessee smallmouth fisherman can feel good about spending an entire winter away from Dale Hollow, the nation's most legendary smallmouth destination and an ideal locale for float-and-fly fishing.
Prime areas for winter fishing are along bluff banks and over the tops of points. Some anglers fish exclusively on the main lake. Others favor the creeks. The most important clues to look for are schools of shad suspended 10 feet or so beneath the surface. If the shad are abundant, smallmouths are not far away, and if they are suspended fairly high in the water column, a float-and-fly is an ideal tool.
If the baitfish are notably deeper, an alternative is to fish a Silver Buddy, which used to be the mainstay winter bait of most Dale Hollow smallmouth fishermen. Anglers cast Buddies over rocky points and other sloping banks, let the flashy offerings fall to the bottom and work them by alternating lifts and pauses of the rods. Smallmouths usually wallop them on the fall.
March and crappie fishing go together, as do Kentucky Lake and crappie fishing. Therefore, it's only natural to link the three. Black and white crappie alike grow big in this massive impoundment, which cuts south to north across most of the state before entering Kentucky.
Water levels and weather patterns dictate a lot of the specifics, but big numbers of crappie are typically in most major creeks and big bays during March, and an angler can home in on schools of fish by trolling back and forth with jigs and minnows set at a variety of depths.
In recent years, black crappie have become gradually more common in the lower (northern) half of Kentucky Lake as the water has become clearer. Because black crappie move shallow a little earlier than their bar-sided counterparts, anglers have had to learn to adjust their strategies.
Old Hickory bass fishing has been on fire the past few years, with a lot of big fish in the mix. Anglers actually can catch largemouths, smallmouths and spots from this Nashville-area lake, but green fish are the main attraction.
Old Hickory offers bass and bass fishermen the best of both worlds. It's essentially a run-of-the-river lake that's dominated by riverine habitat. However, broad flats bound some areas, both along the main river and in the backwaters of creeks, providing shallow-water habitat.
Anglers who fish the Cumberland River channel must pay attention to current and water levels. The amount of water flowing will significantly impact the behavior of the fish, and anglers always must consider current direction and look for current breaks as they make casts and present lures.
May days are plenty warm enough to make time spent stomping in a mountain river downright pleasant, and days in the Tellico River are apt to be spent reeling in trout. Several miles of the Tellico are very heavily stocked on a weekly basis, funded by a special permit that's required to fish these waters. In addition to serving up big numbers of trout, the Tellico also produces some very large fish.
Tellico anglers enjoy good success with a variety of techniques. Many come with the expectation of taking home a limit of trout with worms, corn or other natural offerings. Others throw in-line spinners or fly-fish. For the long-rod set, it's tough to beat a Tellico Nymph dead-drifted near the bottom.
Adding significantly to the area's offerings, several Tellico River tributaries provide fine fishing for wild trout in their headwaters, including native brook trout. With most land in the area part of the Cherokee National Forest, anglers can camp two or three nights and fish very different waters each day.
Clearly one of Tennessee's finest smallmouth fisheries, the Holston produces good numbers of smallies and more than a few fish that would be trophies on any river smallmouth fishery in the world. The Holston is "big water" for a smallmouth stream, and it carries a bit more stain than do most cool-water streams. Those factors, along with the size of the fish, prompt anglers to use a lot of buzzbaits, spinnerbaits and topwater lures in sizes that
normally would be associated with lakes instead of streams.
The best smallie waters for wade-fishing are from the first open waters downstream of the Holston Army Ammunition Plant down to the headwaters of John Sevier Lake. Stretches within the same section can be floated in a canoe or johnboat. Some anglers use jet boats to run the Holston, but as summer progresses and vegetation gets thicker, jet boat navigation becomes more challenging.
While waters downstream of Cherokee Dam have become better known for trout than smallmouths in recent years, this section of the Holston also is loaded with smallies and produces many big fish. Major variables are water levels, which are made complex by varying discharges from Cherokee Lake, and limited formal access. Depending on the amount of water, anglers typically either run carefully upstream from Fort Loudoun or drift the river in small boats.
Sizzling temperatures mean increased power demands throughout the Tennessee River Valley. That translates to the Tennessee River Authority running a lot of water to keep the generators spinning, which triggers heavy feeding by the jumbo-sized catfish that abound in the Tennessee River's big holes.
Prime waters are bluff-bound outside bends, especially in the riverine upper end of Watts Bar. The cats pile up in the huge holes, feasting on shad and skipjack. Big chunks of freshly caught skipjack are tough to top as bait. Thirty-pound-plus blues are common in this section of the river, and any angler who invests many days fishing these waters efficiently will lock horns with at least one 50-pound-plus catfish.
Because of the sheer size of the holes and the complexity of the river bottom, an angler should reposition the boat periodically if the fish don't bite and put out several rods from each position. Often, the bulk of the cats will be along the inside or outside edges of a drop, holding in a specific depth or holding in a particular part of a hole for no obvious reason.
August's daytime heat beckons wise fishermen to head out under the stars, when Fort Loudon's chunky largemouths and smallmouths feed most actively. Bass of both species grow to large sizes in Loudoun, which is highly fertile, loaded with baitfish and receives the benefit of a nearly complete catch-and-release ethic because of various fish-consumption advisories that apply on the lake.
Most night-fishing occurs in the lower third of the lake, which offers the most open-water structure. Anglers concentrate on humps, points and ridges that are adjacent to the Tennessee River channel. Channel edge swings and creek confluences also hold fish at night, when the fish typically move to the tops of the ledges or stray up adjacent flats.
Arguably, the best bait for the after-hours approach is a big spinnerbait, equipped with an oversized, single Colorado blade and slow-rolled over the structure. The thump of the blade attracts bass, which hit the bait with vengeance. Other productive nighttime lures include black jigs and oversized plastic worms or tubes bumped across structural features.
Striped bass grow big in the Tennessee River, and September offers a variety of fine striper fishing opportunities on Chickamauga. The fish are between summer and fall patterns, so fishing patterns that prevail during both seasons come into play.
Because the water still tends to be quite warm, many fish will hold in the slightly cooler waters of the Watts Bar tailwater, where they also find abundant shad and skipjack to dine on, strong current and plenty of rocky structure. Fish also will move well up creek arms to find pockets of cooler water. Most cooler tributaries flow in from the west and come off Cumberland Plateau. However, some of the most interesting fishing occurs well up the Hiwassee River, actually into the moving waters of the Apalachia Dam tailwater. Stripers move to bluff holes up the river not only for thermal refuge but also to feast on regularly stocked trout.
Hints of fall are seen as stripers begin to school up and push threadfin shad to the surface. Most schooling action will be early and late in the day, especially during the first half of the month; however, schooling increases as fall progresses, and on cloudy days, fish are apt to come up all day long. Topwater plugs and bucktails are great tools for getting schooling stripers to bite.
Autumn's color display is an obvious reason to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park during October, but it's not the most important reason to fish a Smokies stream. The brown trout spawn during the fall, so anglers enjoy the best opportunity of the year to draw a really large brown out of hiding.
The best way to flee the crowds and enjoy the finest trout fishing this time of year is to plan a backpacking trip along one of the major rivers (which can be on either side of the park because of a reciprocal agreement with North Carolina). Most Smokies streams have trails paralleling much of their runs and numerous backcountry campsites scattered along them. For anglers who don't want to pack it in, Little River and some of its tributaries and the West Fork of the Pigeon River offer many miles of outstanding trout fishing with the road not far away.
Because streams tend to run low and very clear during the fall, stealthy approaches and quality presentations are critical. It's also important to realize that a big brown can be almost anywhere this time of year. They spawn on shallow gravel bars, favor deep, dark pools, and spend a fair amount of time cruising in between. Anglers who get in a hurry to move onto the next big pools tend to nearly step on their best opportunities to catch big trout and in doing so, send the fish scurrying for cover.
Late fall is when the big cats come out to play on the mighty Mississippi. While heavyweight blues and flatheads are a possibility any time of the year on the Mississippi River, November produces the largest numbers of high-quality cats.
The river tends to be stable during the fall, which favors good fishing, and the big fish become active in the cooling water. They also begin congregating near deep holes behind wing dams and along bluffs, where they will pile up during the winter. Flathead fishing drops off as the season progresses. Blue catfish angling only gets better.
Big pieces of fresh-cut skipjack or shad are the bait of choice for super-sized blues. Live gizzard shad are tough to beat for big flatheads. Stout gear and strong line are critical for either species because of the large sizes the fish commonly reach and because of the river's strong currents and the need to handle the heavy weights that are used to present baits effectively in the strong current.
December's cold weather attracts saugers and sauger fishermen to the faces of big dams alon
g the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. Picking a dam or even a river as a hotspot for the month would be almost random, as sauger fishing can be great beneath all of the main-river dams, and the hottest spots can vary weekly, often because of changes in water-flow patterns throughout both systems.
Fishing is best when some turbines are on and others are off. Sauger fishermen, most of who fish from aluminum boats, hold their boats in the "slots" where the water is off but stay close to lines of moving water. They drop large minnow-tipped round-head jigs right along seams between currents and eddies and bounce them just off the bottom. These anglers lose a lot of tackle, but they also catch many saugers.
For anglers who prefer not to fish face to face with a hydroelectric dam and its many hazards or for water flows that don't lend themselves to this approach, saugers also will congregate in deep holes at creek confluences and along river bends for several miles downstream of most dams.
The best congregations occur in downstream holes when high volumes of water are being poured through a dam. Using the same jig/minnow combinations, anglers often start at the head of a hole and work gradually down it, again jigging their offerings just off the bottom.