Photo by Michael Skinner
Tennessee Valley Authority reservoirs are sprawling lakes with long, thin fingers and slow currents. In other words, excellent catfish territory. Deep water, rocky cover and muddy flats with a forage base of shad and panfish provide the perfect environment for cats that sometimes break the 50-pound mark.
A couple of factors come into play on Tennessee’s reservoirs that will make for more productive days on the water, said John Riddle, a Region II fisheries biologist.
“Anglers forget that the upper ends of reservoirs have more nutrients flowing into them through their tributaries and the main stream than the lower ends do. The nutrients are needed for the microscopic plant life that is the basis of the food chain. By the time the water washes into the lower end of the reservoirs, the nutrients are lost and the water is less fertile. What that means is that there will be higher concentrations of fish in the upper ends where the food chain is more abundant.
“We have years when the water is high and the nutrients are washed into the lower ends, but this changes from year to year. During dry years, the nutrients stay in the upper ends of the lakes and the difference between the beginning of the reservoirs and the lower sections is more pronounced.”
Another factor affecting anglers is the thermocline, Riddle said.
“By July, we have a thermocline on all of our reservoirs. In a fairly clear lake, you don’t want to be fishing too shallow, but you don’t want to go below the thermocline either. You should be looking for catfish in about 6 to 15 feet of water.”
And many anglers make mistakes when it comes to fishing a lake where a thermocline has set up, Riddle said.
The line in the water column that divides the upper layer of warmer, well-oxygenated water from the colder, oxygen-depleted water is called the thermocline. Many of us are familiar with the word but pretty much ignore it after that.
In waters where a thermocline forms, the catfish will be found above it. Fishing below the thermocline will mean fishless days.
The problem is that locating the thermocline isn’t easy.
It’s said that divers can feel the drop of several degrees in water temperature once they drop below the thermocline. Locating this line between productive water and the lifeless depths below isn’t nearly as easy for those of us who are still up there in the boat.
Riddle pointed out that there is no cheap way to determine how deep the thermocline is.
“All you can do is use your fish-finder to locate how deep the fish are holding. Fish will stack up just above the thermocline and you can usually judge how deep to be fishing.”
Fish too deeply and you’ll just be beating fishless water.
With all of that being said, here are waters where urban anglers can tangle with loads of catfish and have the chance at a trophy, all within driving distance of home.
“Tims Ford has plenty of channel catfish, some blues and a fair population of flatheads,” said Riddle, who manages the lake for the TWRA. “Channels in the 16- to 18-inch range are fairly common, with some bigger ones available. We sample channels in TWRA fish surveys and usually get a pretty broad range of sizes in Tims, just as we do in all of our reservoirs.
“The channel cats are up along riprap where they spawn as late as June and some of them are still up there in the summer. When the water warms up, channel catfish move out into the main lake where they suspend over 50 to 100 feet of water. They’re hard to find because they’re just cruising away from structure. I think they’re out there in the open water because the shad are. This is the time when jug-fishing really shines.”
Jug-fishing or otherwise, fishing more than 10 to 15 feet deep in the summer on Tims will put you below the thermocline.
The channel cats aren’t particularly large here, but they’re numerous. A good day on the water will mean a stringer-full of channels and a flathead or two.
The flatheads in Tims can easily reach 20 or 30 pounds. These rodbenders aren’t as common as the channels but will be taken on occasion.
“The flatheads are predatory and are actually pretty good at it,” Riddle said. “They’ll hang out in riprap areas where the riprap has bigger rocks, on large rocky points and in places where they can find crevices. We see flatheads throughout the lake and they’re fairly well distributed.”
Blue catfish are sometimes caught incidentally, Riddle said. The population of blues in Tims isn’t high enough to draw anglers looking specifically for them, but an occasional big one is taken. (Continued)
Anglers looking for big cats can launch from the Holiday Marina or the state park and be in productive waters, Riddle said. The Tims Ford Marina in the center of the lower section of the lake and the Rock Creek and Winchester Bass Club areas on the upper end access shallower, more traditional catfish waters.
Hot-weather hotspots also include the stretch of Elk River between the reservoir and the Woods Dam. There is a carry-down access for johnboats and canoes below the dam, but otherwise there is only bank-fishing in this area. Channel catfish are abundant for a couple of river miles downstream, and a float trip would be well worth it.
“We see a lot of catfish in this stretch of the river and there are plenty of decent-sized ones,” Riddle said.
Tims Ford covers 10,700 acres in Moore, Lincoln and Franklin counties. Depths reach 150 feet, and the lake is 31 miles in length and has over 240 miles of shoreline.
Additional information on fishing Tims Ford is available by calling Region II at (615) 781-6622.
J. PERCY PRIEST
“Percy Priest is a pretty average catfish fishery in terms of numbers but also a pretty decent one for sizes,” said Tim Churchill, Reservoir Statewide Coordinator for the TVA Fisheries Division.
“Our creel surveys show catch rates of about one fish for every three hours fishing time. The lake ranks number four in the state for fishing pressure and less t
han Old Hickory because of that lake’s close proximity to Nashville.”
Todd St. John, The DNR fisheries biologist who manages Percy Priest, agrees that Percy provides Nashville-area anglers with some great catfishing opportunities.
“J. Percy Priest has an excellent fishery and I’ve seen some very impressive catches coming out of the midsection of the reservoir around Hobson Pike Bridge during the summer months,” St. John said.
“Four Corners Marina is in the area as well as Hurricane Creek and Long Hunter state ramps. The upper and lower sections of the lake are also productive. Use traditional methods to catch cats such as cut bait. Shad, river herring, shrimp and stink baits all work well. Jug-fishing is also very popular. The catch will be predominately channel cats, but flatheads and blues are also taken.”
Percy is, without a doubt, a jug lake.
“We had both of our lake records for flatheads and blues broken last year,” said Mark Vaughan, Environmental Protection Specialist for Percy Priest.
The 57-pound-plus flathead was taken in the Hobbs Pike area by Darrell Wardlaw, and the 48-pound blue catfish from the Four Corners area by James Broxton and David Messer. Both were caught on jugs.
Catfishermen looking for that kind of action can find it by launching from the Long Hunter State Park at the Couchville Ramp
Channels, flatheads and blues all call the Stones River channel home. All three species are found above the Hobson Pike Bridge on state Route 171 that bisects the lake. The Four Corners Marina allows access to that area of the lake south of state route 171 off Hamilton Church Road. Simply launch, start looking for rocky cover and enjoy the fishing.
The huge reservoir covers 14,200 acres and sprawls out for 46 miles. Depths reach to 100 feet and the shoreline stretches for over 200 miles. The lake is located in Davidson, Rutherford and Wilson counties.
For additional information on fishing Percy Priest, call Region II at (615) 781-6622.
The Old Hickory impoundment on the Cumberland River near Nashville is daunting at first sight, to say the least.
This part-river, part-lake reservoir covers 22,500 acres and spreads over 97 miles. The shoreline alone is 439 miles long and offers unlimited bank-fishing opportunities.
“Old Hickory is a good catfish lake,” St. John said.
“It’s a mainstream reservoir that provides both currents in the main-river channel and still, shallower bays off the channel.”
He adds that channels, flatheads and blues are all present, but channel catfish are the most common.
“The best area for channel catfish is a mile up- or downstream from Bull Creek,” said B.T. Hinsley, a guide who works out of Flipper’s Bait and Tackle.
“There are channels in the 5- to 15-pound range and plenty of nice flatheads in the 20- to 30-pound sizes. The Bulls Creek Access Ramp is off Highway 109. Many fish are caught because of the steam plant upstream about a mile.
“Another good area is near the Cages Bend Access. There are several big, intersecting creeks with large flats and a good deal of grass in 3 to 5 feet of water. Channel cats move up into this cover to feed on minnows and are aggressive. You can even catch them on crankbaits, flukes and anything else that will catch a bass.”
Hinsley recommends setting lines on the bottom using cut bait or shrimp, both of which are effective. Anglers can either bank-fish or anchor a boat to use this approach.
Jug-fishing is another great option, Hinsley said. Set out several jugs upstream of good catfish territory and drop the bait down underneath them 15 to 18 inches deep. Drift downstream with the jugs and get ready for the action.
“You can catch 40 or 50 channels on a good day with jugs and it’s not unusual to catch 15 or 20 on three or four poles,” Hinsley said.
“If you find the fish, stay on them. They’re very active in the summer.”
Hinsley also finds his share of big flatheads.
“Some anglers catch shad with throw nets or put on commercial baits for flatheads. You can also go with chicken livers or chicken guts in the deeper holes. Let the bait drift down into the hole and then be patient.”
Old Hickory is an impoundment on the Cumberland River in Smith, Troysdale, Wilson, Davidson and Sumner counties. It’s more riverine and less than a quarter mile wide about five miles upstream from the dam and then widens out into a shallower, slower-moving current farther upstream.
Depths go to 50 feet, though most of the reservoir is much shallower.
Flippers Bait and Tackle can be reached at (615) 452-7719.
Contact Region II at (615) 781-6622 for more information.
The Cumberland River near Nashville offers both lake-like conditions in the impoundments and river-current stretches that have a wide variety of options for catfish anglers. Bank-fishing, slow-drifting or jug-fishing all excel here. As in most waters across the state, channel catfish predominate, but huge flatheads and blues are a draw.
The generation below Cordell Hull on Old Hickory’s headwaters keeps the current flowing. Deeper sections occur in the tailwaters below the dam for a mile or so and harbor big flatheads and the occasional blue catfish.
According to St. John, the Old Hickory dam downstream to the Opryland area produces some nice catfish, while the Upper Cheatham Reservoir on the Cumberland River meanders through Nashville and is a very good trophy-class fishery.
“Below Old Hickory, the stretch is riverine and may require heavier tackle than what is used in tributary reservoirs,” St. John said.
“Three-way rigs are fished on the bottom with shad or river herring that are caught below the dam for bait.”
Bigger flatheads are caught from submerged treetops along the banks. Rocky shoreline and riprap, shallow logjams and channels with cut walls provide all the habitat cats have come to expect in a perfect world. Channel catfish tend to forage in the shallows, while their larger cousins are likely to hold a little deeper.
Threadfin and gizzard shad complement the abundant skipjack herring to encourage the huge sizes in Cumberland cats.
The eight- to 10-mile stretch of river below Cheatham Dam on down to the Blow Lock Lee area is o
ne of the hottest sections of the river, according to long-time angler Ervin Hutchens.
“I do pretty well in the summertime,” Hutchens said. He remembers showing a wildlife officer his catch that included three cats weighing in at 15, 25 and 35 pounds. The young officer was more surprised the next weekend when Hutchens showed him a 40-pound flathead and three or four flatheads and blues weighing in at 15 pounds apiece, not to mention the smaller ones.
Hutchens puts a flat-bottomed boat in below the Cheatham Dam and then drift-fishes with a weighted line underneath the boat.
“Tie the hook on about 6 to 10 inches above the sinker so there’s some slack on it,” Hutchens said.
“I try to get out just far enough from the riprap to fish along the base of it. The cats like to lie at the bottom of the rocks. I use shad organs threaded onto the hook with a piece of shad meat behind them. The fish will take the organs quickly and then come back for the meat. Just drift along and bounce the bait off the bottom of the river.”
Hutchens also jug-fishes while drifting just before sunset and on through the night.
“I use two-liter plastic bottles for jugs on this stretch of the river. One night we had 19 jugs out and had 18 catfish on. On a moonlit night, I fish 2 feet below the jugs and only 6 inches when it’s dark. The cats will feed on top of the water. Just watch out for the barges.”
Hutchens’ home stretch of the Cumberland runs about 20 feet deep and is off Highway 12. The Blow Lock Lee area is a 30-mile drive from Nashville.
Call DNR Region II at (615)781-6622 for additional information on fishing the Cumberland River.
Urban catfishermen have excellent opportunities for big cats in waters close to home. As a matter of fact, some of the state’s best fisheries are just a stone’s throw away.
For more information on fishing Tennessee’s impoundments, contact the TVA Division of Fisheries at (615)781-6575.