Wintertime Hunting & Fishing Options in Tennessee

Winter may bring the doldrums or even the winter blues for a lot of folks. But for Tennessee hunters and anglers, it brings a wealth of opportunity to get out and enjoy all the great outdoor blessings the Volunteer State has to offer. And there is no lacking when it comes to choices.

The tough part about getting out right now is trying to decide what to do. Many people think there is nothing to do in winter except sit in front of the television. But for outdoors folks, there are so many options; it is hard to pick which one to do first.

Right now, we are in the midst of hunting season and there are countless opportunities across the state for both big and small game hunting. From upland game to waterfowl to big game, we certainly have a wide variety of seasons open. And of course, there is plenty of time left to run that trap line.

Hunting isn't the only thing going though. Far too many anglers park the boat as soon as the first sign of Jack Frost appears. For those who don't mind braving a little weather, there are some tremendous fishing opportunities through the winter months, and best of all, there are no crowds and traffic to fight on the lakes.

With so many choices, we decided to offer some suggestions on narrowing the search. Here's a look at a half-dozen great options you can do right now.

TIMS FORD LAKE

When discussing winter fishing in Tennessee, one of the first things that usually pops up in conversation is the great float-and-fly smallmouth action on Dale Hollow Lake. It's entirely true that there is some great action on Dale Hollow at this time of year. But, it's definitely not the only game in town on that reservoir.

Tims Ford Lake in the south-central part of the state not only has some awesome smallmouth fishing, but also potential for a great mixed creel as well.

Professional guide Rick McFerrin knows the fishing on Tims Ford well. And, in the wintertime it can be remarkable.

McFerrin and most local anglers switch to live bait during the winter months. A live Tuffy minnow with 6-pound Suffix Pro Mix Monofilament and a VMC live bait hooks is all it takes to get hooked up on some great smallies. Not only is the action good for those brown fish, but a winter live bait trip often yields plenty of largemouths, crappie, and catfish. Surprisingly, the catfish bite is great at this time of year too.

If fishing with live bait is not appealing, there are days when throwing lures like the Storm Mad Flash Wiggle Wart or Luhr-Jensen Speed Trap will work great. The float-and-fly technique hasn't really got the dedicated following at Tims Ford as it does at Dale Hollow, but it will work here just as well when the bass are suspended and looking for a slower presentation.

For more information on winter fishing at Tims Ford Lake, give Rick McFerrin a call at (615) 765-7303 or check out his Web site at www.tennesseebassguides.com.

Great on-the-water accommodations are available at the Tims Ford Marina & Resort, which may be reached at (931) 967-4509.  Online you find them at www.timsfordmarina.com.

CATOOSA WMA

Big game hunters have a couple of real good options at the Catoosa Wildlife Management Are on the Cumberland Plateau. Whitetail deer hunting can be great in the late season as some of the hunting pressure tends to subside as it gets later into the season. Also, a strong population of wild hogs makes a great sidebar to the deer hunting.

As most hunters already know, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency has made dramatic changes to the regulations for hunting wild hogs. In an effort to curtail unlawful transportation and stocking of wild pigs in Tennessee, the TWRA has delisted hogs as a huntable species in the state. Now, they are targeted for complete eradication.

Only landowners and other designated persons will be allowed to take hogs on private ground. However, hogs will still be legal game on several public lands this season. Catoosa WMA is one of those properties, so hog hunting enthusiasts might want to take advantage while the opportunity still exists.

Catoosa WMA offers plenty of opportunity for hunters to camp while hunting, but at this time of year, that may not be the most comfortable. Also, the campsites are not secure while the hunters are in the woods.

Another option is the comfortable lodging available at the Catoosa Ridge Stables & Campground. This 2400-acre property abuts the WMA and not only offers security-paroled camping for RVs, but also cabins for hunters.

Another overlooked fact is that wild hogs often frequent the campground, rooting and foraging in the numerous fields bordering the WMA. Although no hunting is allowed on the Catoosa Ridge property, hunters can simply travel a short distance into the woods at the edge of the public land and waylay a hog enroute to the fields.

For more information on camping and lodging at Catoosa Ridge, call Bob Epstein at (931) 200-7740 or (931) 707-5349.

For hunting dates and regulations, call the Catoosa WMA at (931) 456-2479.

MELTON HILL RESERVOIR

If tangling with a really large fish full of teeth and a bad attitude sounds like a great way to spend a winter day, then the excellent muskellunge fishery at Melton Hill Reservoir should definitely be on the agenda. Right now is a perfect time to be on the water for muskies.

Melton Hill has a very good population of muskies and the fish grow really well in the lake, despite the fact that it is not one of the state's most fertile waters. A plentiful forage base at Melton Hill helps the fish achieve rapid growth. And the Tennessee state record muskie, which weighed 42 1/2 pounds, came from the same river system, just upstream a at Norris Lake.

Muskies are often taken at Melton Hill by targeting rocky drop-offs, downed trees or overhanging trees along the shoreline. In winter, the big toothy beasts often congregate in good numbers close to or a short ways downstream of the warm water discharge at the outflow Bull Run Steam Plant.

A large bait with a lot of action and vibration is the ticket for success. Specialized muskie baits are generally best, but some folks have success on large rattle-type baits, bucktail jigs, or spinnerbaits. Live bait will also catch muskies, but its use is generally discouraged to protect the muskie fishery at the lake.

Although there were a few muskies stocked at Melton Hill as far back as 1965, there really wasn't enough effort to provide much of a fishery. But, since 1998 they have been stocked consistently at a rate of a little more than one fish per every two acres. No natural reproduction has been observed at the lake.

Anglers are encouraged to practice catch, photograph, and release.

REELFOOT LAKE

The "earthquake lake" is known across the country as "The Crappie Factory" and there certainly are plenty of slabs at this west Tennessee location. Even so, during the winter months, thousands upon thousands of migrating waterfowl are what draw outdoor enthusiasts to Reelfoot.

Reelfoot Lake offers optimum habitat for passing ducks. Shallow water and lots of food sources give ducks just what they need for a layover while on their journey southward. The proximity to the Mississippi River makes it easily accessible for any waterfowl traveling down the river corridor.

Duck numbers at Reelfoot are not at historically high levels, but still remain strong. When Mother Nature cooperates and winter weather in the northern states is cold enough to push good numbers of ducks southward, Reelfoot can literally get loaded up with birds.

Puddle ducks make up the bulk of the birds at Reelfoot. Mallards, black ducks, and pintails are always plentiful. Wood ducks and teal are also abundant at Reelfoot earlier in the year, and a few will even trickle through at this time of year. Other species such as ringnecks, bluebills, and the rare canvasback also are found at Reelfoot.

Duck hunters can often pop in at Reelfoot and kill a few birds, but the better choice here is to go with a commercial guide. Permanent blinds are assigned at the lake and all of the best spots are pretty much locked up. Area guides build very accommodating blinds, which are comfortable, warm, and offer great shooting opportunities.

For more information on duck hunting at Reelfoot Lake, visit www.reelfoottourism.com or call (731) 253-2007.

PICKWICK DAM

Winter is known as sauger time, but that's not the only option at Pickwick during the cold months. Other species offer some excellent winter angling as well.

Saugers are beginning to stack up in the tailwaters below Pickwick Dam and their numbers should continue to increase over the next several weeks. Smaller males are the first to start arriving and then the larger females move in as winter progresses. Don't neglect going when the weather is nasty, because the nastier the conditions, the better the sauger bite.

Saugers tend to hang out in the eddies created around riprap or other obstructions that create current breaks. Jigs, minnows, or a combination of the two are top choices for these toothy cousins of the walleye. Put the baits near the bottom for the most success. Bring plenty of extra terminal tackle, because if you are fishing in the right locations, hang-ups will be frequent.

Lots of other fish species tend to congregate below the dams all year long and winter is no exception. There might not be the water discharge like in other times of the year, but the fish will still be there. Anglers looking for a mixed creel can target striped bass, catfish, and even panfish.

When there is some water being released, the saugers and other fish are found right along the break line between the fast moving water and the slack water. Additional spots to target are deep holes, the mouths of any tributaries, or irregular bottom features that give a current break. The rocky side channel can also hold a few fish, including some black bass.

EAST TENNESSEE

Hunters looking to target late-season rabbits could do so just about anywhere in the state and find good populations of bunnies. However, a lot of Volunteer State hunters have no idea there are actually three distinct species of rabbits in the state.

The eastern cottontail is found from one end of the state to the other in very good numbers. Over in the central and western parts of the state, hunters are likely to stumble into the occasional swamp rabbit. Confined to the eastern part of the state in the higher elevations, hunters will find Appalachian cottontails.

Rabbit hunting at this time of year takes a different approach. Much of the vertical cover that was present earlier in the year has died out or succumbed to winds and winter weather. Also, there have been several weeks of hunting pressure. Rabbits will be holed up in the thickest, nastiest cover available and will hold tight.

Trying to kick up rabbits, unless you have access to great habitat with little hunting pressure, will have little success. For most hunters a good pack of well-trained beagles will be needed to fill the game bag. At least one good jump dog that isn't timid about getting in the briars and thick stuff is almost a necessity.

There are plenty of public land options, but hunters need to remember they've hosted plenty of hunters by now. By getting away from the areas with easy access and being willing to put out the extra effort to reach less accessible spots, hunters will be rewarded with more jumps.

There are lots to do this winter in Tennessee. Now, it's time to get out of the house and decide where to go.

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