Late Summer Tennessee Fishing Hotspots

Don't do it!

If you're one of those anglers who usually hang up the rods this time of year to wait for fall, you're missing out. The weather isn't the only thing that's hot right now.

If you know where to go and what tactics to use, you can enjoy some of the hottest fishing action of the year during late summer. With that in mind let's look at a half a dozen Tennessee fishing hotspots that promise to serve up sizzling angling this month.

PICKWICK NIGHT BASS

Always a good bass lake, Pickwick has been outstanding for the past few years. Big numbers of quality largemouth and smallmouth bass, and some genuine trophy fish of both species have combined to make the reservoir one of the hottest lakes in the country.

An impoundment of the Tennessee River, Pickwick spreads across more than 43,000 acres. That acreage is split among three states and only the far lower end of roughly 6,000 acres is in Tennessee. That said, a partial reciprocal agreement with Alabama and Mississippi opens quite a bit of the lower lake to properly licensed Tennessee anglers. Waters open to Tennessee anglers include some of the best creek arms and backwaters, plus more than 17 miles of the main river.

You can find good fishing during the day at Pickwick, but the most consistent late summer action definitely occurs after the sun goes down. Unless a lot of current is pouring through the lake — which isn't terribly common during September  — the fish tend to lay low by day and do most of their feeding under the cover of darkness.

The best chances for a big smallmouth occur along the main river channel and in the extreme lower ends of major tributaries like Yellow Creek. Bluff banks along the channel edge, creek confluences on the channel side and humps that rise close to the channel all offer good prospects for largemouths and smallmouths alike. Largemouths can also be found in the pockets and farther up the creek arms, especially around deadfalls and other cover.

Arguably the best nighttime lure for Pickwick bass is a dark-colored spinnerbait that's armed with a single oversized Colorado blade. The big blade creates a lot of "thump" to help the fish hone in on it. The dark color creates contrast and improves visibility. Other good choices include hair jigs dressed with dark trailers and big Texas-rigged plastic worms.

Water levels, water color and generation schedule have a huge impact on the positioning and feeding habits of fish at Pickwick — much more so than on most lakes. What works wonderfully one September might not work at all the next September. Therefore, it's a good idea to check some fishing report boards on the Web before visiting. You don't need hotspots, necessarily: just an idea of the character of the river and the overall mood of the fish.

For fishing information, including a list of Pickwick guides, lodging and other area information, visit www.tourhardincounty.org.

LAKE GRAHAM BREAM

One of the largest of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Family Fishing Lakes at 500 acres, Lake Graham is best known for its fine bass fishing. Local anglers know, however, that Graham's fertile waters are also loaded with hefty bluegills and redbreast sunfish. Bream provide great opportunities for fast-action fishing throughout the summer and well into fall.

Like all the Family Fishing Lakes, Graham is managed specifically for fishermen. Not only does the TWRA work to maintain top-quality fisheries, but they maintain excellent access for anglers. On-site offerings include bait and tackle, a fishing pier, good bank access and inexpensive rental fishing boats.

Lake Graham has two main creek arms and numerous small feeders and pockets along the sides of both arms. Collectively those create great structure. Abundant downed trees provide shade and cover for the bream. The trick on any given day is to pattern the fish and figure out which trees are holding the most bream.

One of the most enjoyable ways to catch Lake Graham bluegills late in summer is to fish early or late in the day with a tiny floating plug, such as a Rebel Crickhopper. Work it across the surface. By twitching or "waking" it with a slow steady retrieve and a high rod position. Either way, big bream will try to annihilate the lure.

The topwater bite tends to be best early and late, but it's good to keep at least one rod rigged with a little plug throughout the day, as bream that hang around shoreline cover are always on the lookout for a misguided grasshopper or beetle that ends up afloat.

If the bream won't come up to eat, two great ways to go down after them are throwing small jig-and-spinner combos like Road Runners or Beetle Spins, or to fish live crickets or worms under floats. For float fishing, using a slip float makes casting easier, especially if the fish are close to the bottom around deep brush.

Lake Graham is located 5 miles east of Jackson. A daily permit that is available on site is required in addition to a Tennessee fishing license. There is no creel or length limit for bluegills. The redear sunfish limit is 20 fish per day.

PERCY PRIEST CATFISH

The fertile waters of J. Percy Priest Reservoir support a terrific population of catfish, with channels, blues and flatheads all part of the mix. The cats, which don't get a tremendous amount of pressure on this Nashville-area lake, offer sizzling late summer fishing action by day and by night.

Priest impounds the Stones River and spreads over a little more than 14,000 acres. The Stones and several tributaries wind between bluff banks and big flats, some rocky and some clay. Dozens of humps, islands, points and rock piles provide great habitat throughout the reservoir, which is also loaded with diverse and abundant "cat food."

During the day, Priest's blue and channel catfish commonly congregate in deep bluff holes along outside river bends. A great way to target these fish is to drift along the outside bend with a three-way rig on a tight line, fished straight down and bumped along the bottom. Small pieces of cut skipjack make great bait. Chicken livers also work well.

At night the same fish move up onto nearby flats, where they tend to feed more aggressively. A good strategy for targeting nighttime cats is to set up toward the shallow end along the slope, with bottom rigs cast all around the boat. If the current is too strong for this type of set-up, anchor toward the upstream end of the flat and cast all lines downstream. The current will carry the bait's scent across the entire flat and prompt cats to come investigate.

Flatheads, which are most common in the riverine upper end of the lake, call for a different approach. These big cats are almost exclusively predators, so they favor a live meal. Flatheads also will use bluff holes, but they'll be tight to the edge and usually be buried in the crown of a big lain-down tree or hiding in a super craggy rock pile.

If possible, anchor directly over where you expect the fish to be and lower big live bream or gizzard shad on down lines. Suspend the baits just off the bottom, with the rods firmly set in holders. And then sit back and wait. A flathead might stare at a tasty-looking meal for an hour without eating it and then suddenly decide to attack. Flatheads can be caught during the day, but the best fishing occurs at night.

CANEY FORK TROUT

A combination of factors, including changes in water flow regimes, improvements in dissolved oxygen levels, thriving insect populations and special regulations enacted by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission, has caused the Center Hill tailwater to emerge as one of the South's premier trout fisheries. Rainbows, browns and brook trout are all flourishing in the Caney Fork, which offers 28 miles of trout waters from the Center Hill Dam to the river's confluence with the Cumberland.

Anglers commonly catch rainbows and browns better measured in pounds than inches from the Caney Fork. Meanwhile, brook trout — first stocked only a couple of years ago — are gaining size in a hurry in the food-rich tailwater. The brookies and rainbows are now managed with a 14- to 20-inch protected slot range, and many local anglers believe it's only a matter of time before a new state record brook trout comes from this river. The current record, which came from the Hiwassee River in 1973, is 3 pounds, 14 ounces.

Caney Fork brown trout have gained almost complete protection through regulations put into place last year. The 24-inch minimum size and one-fish limit creates a virtual catch-and-release-only situation, and many Caney Fork anglers would not consider keeping a brown trout that would be large enough to be legal for harvest

As a tailwater, the Caney Fork varies dramatically in character according to power generation schedules. Low water allows for comfortable wading and easy floating and lends itself well to drifting nymphs or dry flies with a fly rod, and to various spin-fishing approaches. For fly- or spin-fishing, small and natural-colored offerings tend to perform best when the water is low.

When the water is running, access becomes more challenging, and a boat is needed, unless an angler wants to fish from the bank. The good thing about higher water is that the larger fish become more aggressive. Fly-fishermen turn to big streamers with jumbo brown trout in mind; spin-fishermen often turn to jerkbaits.

Although most land bordering the Caney Fork is privately owned, several U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and TWRA access points, as well as Department of Transportation rights-of-way provide floating, wading and bank-fishing access along the river. To learn more about fishing the Caney Fork River or to book a trip, visit www.rodandgunguide.com or e-mail Chris Nischan at cnflyfish@comcast.net.

HIWASSEE RIVER STRIPERS

The cold waters of the Hiwassee River below Apalachia Powerhouse are best known for the big numbers of trout the TWRA stocks in the river every year. However, the fishermen aren't alone in appreciating the stocked trout. Lake Chickamauga striped bass run up the river each summer both for thermal refuge in the cool waters of the tailwater and to feast on the trout.

Stripers can be found in deep holes throughout the tailwater, and some of the largest fish are actually caught in the most popular trout waters toward the upper end of the tailwater section. The stripers bite much better when the water is on, though, so unless you have a drift boat and are good with oars, practical fishing access is pretty limited in the upper river. Abundant public land allows for some bank-fishing access, but thick forest and steep slopes limits casting areas.

The area around the U.S. Highway 411 bridge is just below most of the major shoals, making it more accessible for many anglers, and it still runs icy cold and swift when the water is on and holds both trout and stripers. There is a concrete boat ramp at U.S. 411, but even this section is only suited for fairly small, shallow-draft boats with small motors or jets due to shallow shoals, gravel bars and fluctuating water levels.

The stripers like to feed in plunge pools beneath shoals, where they can lie in wait and ambush prey in the swift current. They also congregate in deep bluff holes along outside bends in the river. Stripers can be caught with the water "on" or "off," but they definitely feed more aggressively when the water is running.

Some anglers would shudder at the notion, but the very best bait for a big Hiwassee River striper is a live rainbow trout, freshly caught from the river. Trout are legal bait in Tennessee as long as they are legally caught and fall within limits for the waters you are fishing. A trout can be free lined, fished beneath a big float or presented on a three-way rig to get it down in a big hole.

Using live bait isn't the only way catch big stripers from the Hiwassee, though. These fish will also devour big topwater lures, swimbaits and soft-plastic jerkbaits. For obvious reasons, a rainbow trout color pattern is pretty tough to top.

For guided fishing, visit www.reelanglingadventures.com.

PIGEON RIVER SMALLIES

When the late summer sun sizzles, few kinds of fishing offer as much fun and comfort as standing waist deep in a cool river and casting for chunky smallmouth bass. River smallies feed all day long this time of year and will take topwater lures with gusto. In the Pigeon, which supports an outstanding population of high-quality smallmouths, any fish that attacks a lure might just turn out to be a trophy.

The Pigeon River rises in the mountains of North Carolina and flows north, entering Tennessee near the eastern border of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It completes its run near Newport, where it empties into the French Broad River.

The entire Tennessee portion of the Pigeon is impacted by water releases from Waterville Powerhouse, which is barely upstream of the North Carolina line. For most anglers, the best fishing — and by far the most practical access — occurs when no generation is taking place. The river turns swift and dangerous when the water is running. That said, September is not typically a big water-release month, and the river is typically low, especially during the morning.

Access to the Pigeon begins right at the state line and can be gained from the Waterville exit off Interstate 40. The upper end has a lot of paralleling roads that provide good wading access in a variety of places. Closer to Newport, access is pretty much limited to bridge crossings.

A small topwater lure such as a Tiny Torpedo or a Zara Puppy is pretty tough to beat for smallmouth fun during September. If the fish won't come up, good subsurface lures include 4-inch salted stickbaits, a grub or soft-plastic craw on a 1/8-ounce leadhead, or a small shallow-diving crankbait. However, the most efficient way to catch big Pigeon River smallmouths is to flip rocks in shallow shoals or along the edges to find hellgrammites and fish them on a split shot rig. Use a circle hook to help keep the bass from swallowing the hooks.

Although hefty smallmouth bass clearly are the main attraction at the Pigeon River, the other fish don't necessarily know what you are targeting. Typical catches will include quite a few rock bass and at least a couple of fish of other species, which might include spotted bass, trout or channel catfish.

Pigeon River smallmouth bass are protected by special regulations. The smallmouth limit is one fish, with a 20-inch minimum size.

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