Photo by Jeff Samsel.
In one sense, a calendar shows a multitude of days to go fishing — 365 each year. Looking more closely, however, most folks’ calendars stay pretty crowded, between work days, family plans and other obligations. What that means is that when anglers do get the opportunity to get out on the water, they want to make the very best decisions about how to use that time.
In Tennessee, great angling opportunities abound and are widely varied, which is both good and bad for fishermen making plans. It’s great to be able to go so many different directions and enjoy good fishing prospects, but all those choices make the decisions extra difficult. We’ve put together a whole year’s worth of selections to help make the decision-making process a little easier. Destinations are spread from the mountains to West Tennessee and include everything from crappie to super-sized blue catfish.
Stripers: Chickamauga Lake
Winter conditions congregate baitfish and therefore stack up stripers in a few key areas of Chickamauga Lake, creating good potential for fast fishing action. Cold water spread through most of the lake causes fish to pile up in the deep water near Chickamauga Dam, in the tailwater of Watts Bar Dam and in waters warmed by outflows from the Sequoyah Nuclear Station The baitfish seek thermal refuge in all three areas, and the stripers feast on huge buffets created by the forage concentrations.
The tailwater section is best when plenty of water is running. Anglers begin as far upstream as current security levels allow boaters to go and then drift downstream, bumping live bait or bucktails on three-way rigs off the bottom. A vast area downriver of the nuclear plant can be affected by discharges. The most drastic and obvious effect is close to the plant, but even a few degrees difference in waters farther down the lake makes a big difference. Anglers need to make good use of their electronics, looking at temperature readings and seeking baitfish concentrations. In the lower end of the lake, the bait will be fairly close to the dam, and the stripers will hold immediately beneath them.
Anglers rely primarily on live threadfin shad for January striper fishing. Rigging varies quite a bit from one area to the other and according to how deep the baitfish are holding. Some anglers also like to put out a couple of live gizzard shad or skipjack to target Chickamauga’s biggest stripers.
Crappie: Lake Barkley
February always brings a few strings of sunny days that get crappie and crappie fishermen fired up, and Lake Barkley certainly is a destination that anglers can get fired up about. Although less famous for its slabs that neighboring Kentucky Lake has, Barkley consistently serves up heavyweight crappie.
Most crappie fishermen like the section between Dover and the Kentucky line, where the lake opens up a bit and contains more backwaters that are adjacent to the main channel. During strings of sunny days, fish will move up onto flats that are near deep water and will feed amazingly shallow. During colder days, most anglers concentrate efforts in the mouths of big creeks and bays and out on the main-river channel.
Most anglers use one of two general methods (although there are endless variations of both). Either they troll slowly with several jigs or minnows or both spread around the boat or they set up over sunken cover and fish vertically, keeping the bait as close to the cover as possible. Either way, they pay careful attention to their electronics as they fish and adjust strategies based on what they see.
Smallmouths: South Holston Lake
While March suggests spring to a lot of Tennessee anglers, mountain lakes remain cold through most of the month, and float-and-fly enthusiasts spend as many days out as they possibly can, trying to get in their last licks. March produces some beautiful bronzebacks on this lake, which is deep and very clear. Anglers also catch a lot of rainbows while “bobber fishing” for smallies.
Flies, as the little hair jigs featured in this approach are most commonly called, are fished several feet beneath floats on light spinning tackle and cast with very long rods. Smallmouths suspend in schools of baitfish during the winter, and the flies suspend among them, doing enticing little dances when anglers shake their rod tips.
Late March sometimes will usher in some spring patterns. Anglers will turn to cranking bluffs in the vicinity of gravel bars and yanking jerkbaits over the edges of the sandbars for pre-spawn smallmouths. Many veteran smallmouth fishermen agree that the pre-spawn period provides an angler his best opportunity of the year to catch a truly massive smallmouth bass.
Largemouths: Kentucky Lake
April brings spring into full swing and puts largemouths on the prowl. Kentucky Lake, which went through some down years beginning in the late ’90s, has been on the comeback for the past few seasons and now supports a great population of quality largemouths. During April, the fish can be caught from the backs of the bays all the way to the Tennessee River channel, depending on conditions and an angler’s fishing-style preferences.
High water levels, stained water and warming trends all tend to push the bass shallow this time of year, and when the lake is at full, a lot of bass will be deep in bushes, creating great conditions for flippin’ and pitchin’. Steady current in the main river and fairly clear water bring on the best open-river bite, with fish holding tight to humps and points and hammering crankbaits and Carolina rigs.
In between those extremes, anglers often enjoy great fishing during April by simply working obvious shoreline cover in major creeks and cuts off the main lake with spinnerbaits and plastic worms. Through the lower main body and over secondary points in the same section of the lake, bass anglers often pick up smallmouths as they fish.
Trout: Hiwassee River
The Hiwassee River tailwater, which begins at Apalachia Powerhouse, 10 miles or so downstream of Apalachia Dam, offers two different personalities and types of opportunities to trout fishermen. During periods of non-generation, the river’s broad shoals are largely exposed, dividing gentle pools and trickles of moving water. With either generator (or both) turning, the Hiwassee becomes pushy and deep and a little bit wild. Access is far more challenging on high water
, but the fish feed more aggressively.
Whether high or low, the Hiwassee is loaded with trout, with both rainbows and browns in the mix, and during May, the fish feed aggressively. Abundant and diverse hatches create very good dry-fly fishing for long-rod anglers; however, spin-fishermen can do very well with in-line spinners or minnow plugs. The best fishing typically is in a 2 1/2-mile-long section upstream of the Reliance Bridge where the road leaves the river, allowing only hike-in or float-through access.
Special regulations, including a 14-inch minimum size, a two-fish limit and an artificial lures-only restriction, currently apply to the section from the Apalachia Powerhouse to Patty Bridge; however, a proposed regulations change might shorten the special regs section this year. Be sure to check the 2005 regulations booklet before going out.
Catfish: TWRA Fishing Lakes
Often called “Family Fishing Lakes” by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, these small lakes that are scattered throughout the middle and western parts of the state and managed specifically for fishing offer terrific opportunities for summer catfishing. The TWRA stocks a lot of cats, including channels and blues, in all of these lakes. In addition, they fertilize the lakes to maximize productivity.
Arguably the best thing about all of these lakes, however, is that fishing access is outstanding. Banks are cleared in places, and most lakes have added access facilities, such as trails that circle them, fishing piers and inexpensive rental boats. In other words, an angler doesn’t need to own a boat for his family to get in on the fine fishing opportunities.
For summer fishing, anglers should stick with the upper two-thirds of the lakes in order to not end up fishing too deep. These waters are extremely fertile, and the deepest water in them tends to be devoid of oxygen through the dog days, which makes them devoid of fish.
Black Bass: Center Hill
July is a night-fishing month in Middle Tennessee, and there are few better places to spend a summer night than between the hillsides that bound the deep waters of Center Hill Lake. On Center Hill, anglers enjoy a legitimate opportunity to score a black bass triple-header, and largemouths, smallmouths and spots are all apt to be quality fish.
Texas- and Carolina-rigged soft-plastics and jigs are the most popular night-fishing offerings, with most anglers concentrating their efforts on rocky points and humps that rise near the Caney Fork River channel or a major creek channel. An alternative technique is to slow-roll a dark spinnerbait that has a single painted, oversized Colorado blade.
Within the main lake, most after-hours fishing occurs in the lower two-thirds of Center Hill. Anglers are split on the best moon to fish. However, most agree that fish move shallower and will hit faster-moving offerings on dark nights when the moon is shining brightly.
Catfish: Fort Loudoun Lake
Whether an angler likes catching channels, flatheads or blues, Fort Loudoun Lake near Knoxville is a great place to go in search of big cats. The first main-river impoundment on the Tennessee River, Fort Loudoun is highly fertile, and its bluff-bound outside bends scour huge holes that offer ideal big-cat habitat.
Through the summer, much of the best fishing occurs in the riverine upper half of the lake through Knoxville and up the Holston and French Broad river arms. The fish hold deep in big holes along outside bends by day and move up onto adjacent flats by night. Day or night, a big chunk of cut skipjack is tough to beat for a heavyweight blue. For channels, small pieces of cut shad, skipjack entrails or chicken livers work better. For flatheads, a live bluegill is tough to beat.
Anglers who use big baits on Fort Loudoun also need stout rods, geared-down reels and strong line. In addition, they need plenty of stamina. A former state-record blue catfish has come from Fort Loudoun, and this lake’s fertile waters almost certainly hold some world-record-caliber catfish.
Black Bass: Woods Lake
September offers the first hints of autumn in Tennessee, and the bass become less lethargic as the month progresses. Enough summer-like conditions remain, however, so that night-fishing often remains very good throughout the month. By day or by night, Woods Lake is a terrific destination for bass anglers who enjoy mixing largemouth and smallmouth fishing.
The best largemouth fishing, overall, is in the upper half of the lake, where the Elk River winds through stump-laden flats. The best smallie fishing is over rocky cover in the more open lower main body. In between, anglers typically catch a blend of the two species, with largemouths being the dominant black bass.
Relatively small and somewhat remote, Woods Reservoir gets only modest fishing pressure. Obvious visible cover, which ranges from long riprap banks to a bridge that spans the lake’s main body shorelines littered with downed trees, holds an abundance of bass during September. That makes Woods a good early-fall destination even for anglers who are not familiar with the lake.
Crappie: Pickwick Lake
October’s falling temperatures cause crappie to begin preparing for winter by feeding heavily, often in shallow water. While they won’t stray quite as shallow as they do in order to spawn in the spring, the crappie will move up creeks creating great fishing opportunities.
Pickwick is best known for its jumbo smallmouths, but this big Tennessee River impoundment also produces more than its share of slab-sided crappie, and October is an outstanding month for bringing in a mess of them. Big creeks consistently produce big strings of crappie on Pickwick. Many anglers troll, using tandem sets of 1/8- or 1/16-ounce jigs.
Because Pickwick’s waters are shared by three states and the reciprocal licensing agreement is only partial, anglers must look at where they are permitted to fish and make plans accordingly. That said, the bulk of the best crappie-fishing waters in the lake are legal fishing waters for anglers who are only licensed by the state of Tennessee.
Trout: Lake Calderwood
Tucked away on the south side of the Great Smoky Mountains, and overshadowed by big lakes all over the state, little Lake Calderwood and its big trout get very little serious fishing pressure at any time. In November, when the leaves have fallen from trees and when days can be pretty chilly in the mountains, virtually no one visits this area with fishing in mind.
On Calderwood, the trout fishing heats up as the temperatures drop. Big, beautiful rainbows, stocked by both the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, move shallow and feed along the banks. If water is running through Cheoah Dam, the next lake up on the Little Tennessee River, trout will pile up in swift water at the head of Lake Calderwood. Otherwise, they’ll either hold around shoreline boulders and trees or simply roam the lake’s edges, sometimes in packs.
Fairly large in-line spinners or baitfish-imitating plugs work well for Calderwood trout. Flyfishermen do well with weighted nymphs dead drifted in the current or Woolly Buggers stripped beside shoreline cover. Terrestrial insect imitations are also good bets, even during November, as the trout get a lot of food washed in to them from Calderwood’s steep banks.
Saugers: Cordell Hull Lake
Wintertime is sauger time, and few Tennessee lakes — if any — offer better sauger prospect than Cordell Hull, which impounds the upper Cumberland River. Saugers abound in this lake, which is long and narrow, and during winter, they concentrate in river holes beside gravel bars. The saugers spawn over the gravel bars, which are spread all along the main-river channel. The lower ends of major creeks that feed the Cumberland also offer good sauger-fishing prospects.
Most anglers jig during the winter, drifting over holes along outside bends and bouncing small but heavy jigs off the bottom. To keep their lines vertical in the strong currents and water that is often 40 or more feet deep, most anglers use round-head jigs that average about an ounce. Usually they tip their jigs with minnows.
Sauger anglers like the same kind of weather as duck hunters do. The colder, grayer and nastier it is, the more sauger fishermen you are likely to see out on the lake. Ideally, they want a bit of a bitter wind and snow spitting from black skies.