Photo by Kevin Yokum.
A relatively few anglers know how good Tennessee waters are when it comes to walleye and sauger fishing. Most anglers think it’s necessary to head north for the really good action. However, nothing could be farther from the truth. There’s a good place to walleye fish within an easy day’s drive of nearly everyone, and you don’t have to leave Tennessee to get there.
Let’s take a close look at five of the best.
But keep in mind that the fishing in all of these venues, and the opinions of the state officials, guides and local anglers, are dependent upon Mother Nature. The drought and sweltering heat of 2007 has hit Tennessee especially hard. Water levels are down nearly everywhere. Water temperatures are up nearly everywhere. Many reservoirs are faced with ramp closings.
All this affects fishing. If water levels rise over the 2007-2008 winter and reach near normal levels, the fishing should be close to normal in 2008. If water levels continue to drop, all bets are off.
DALE HOLLOW LAKE
According to most experts, Dale Hollow Lake, located in northern Clay County near the Kentucky border, is one heck of a walleye fishery.
“Dale Hollow is a super walleye fishery — period,” said David Duvall, retired director of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Foundation (TWRF). “It’s a clear-water, upland reservoir with tremendous grass, a good forage base and lots of deep water. It’s probably the best place in the state.”
He continued on to explain that Dale Hollow walleyes follow predictable travel and feeding patterns, even given the low water conditions the lake faced in 2007.
“Like most game fish, Dale Hollow walleyes hold in deep-water sanctuaries over the winter months and then move shallow in the spring,” he said.
Most years, that movement will start in March and end with the spawn during the full moon in April. After that, they’ll head back out toward deep water for the summer before traveling shallow again in the fall for a brief feeding binge. Their travel patterns and holding areas are controlled almost exclusively by weed growth and alewives.
“A lot of anglers don’t realize how much weed growth is in this lake,” he said. “It’s not just around the shore. There are hundreds of acres of vegetation from shallow water out into depths of 30 feet or more. The walleyes follow the weed breaks and will usually hold anywhere there’s a little green growth in the early spring.”
He added that during the summer the weeds become even more important. The massive and heavy weedbeds on this lake hold oxygen and baitfish. That makes for a wonderful warm summer walleye sanctuary. In many lakes, they’re essentially trapped between warm water and low oxygen. Not so at the Hollow. In this lake, they can drop deep, find cool water and food, and still have plenty of available oxygen.
The other important factor in Dale Hollow’s success is forage and management. Some years ago, alewives were introduced in the lake as a forage base for smallmouth bass. Of course, the walleyes liked them, too. But fisheries biologists soon discovered that there was an enzyme in alewives that caused walleyes to become sterile.
After some research, the managers of Tennessee’s fisheries decided that the alewives were so important to the food chain that they had to remain. The solution was heavy annual walleye stocking.
The walleye population and growth took off like a rocket. No one’s really sure at this point if the existing walleye population is in fact sterile, but one thing is known for sure — there are tons of good walleyes in the lake. Even better, they’re underfished by all save a few savvy locals.
Professional guide Bobby Gentry (www.bobbygentry.com) suggests using spinners and jerkbaits from February through the walleyes’ migration out into deep water in May and June.
“Small in-line spinners tipped with a tiny piece of night crawler are very effective. Color doesn’t seem to matter much as long as it’s there. I use bright-colored beads on my rigs and they seem to work real well. I get a lot of mine at the local craft store,” he said.
During the heat of summer, deep-diving crankbaits and in-line spinners, trolled along weedlines in 20 to 35 feet of water are popular for both day and night fishing. Another favorite technique is to vertically jig spoons over humps surrounded by heavy weeds.
“You can catch them a lot of ways as long as you don’t fish too far from weeds. Spring, summer, fall and winter, that’s where they’ll be,” he said with a certainty that only comes from years of experience.
CENTER HILL LAKE
Center Hill Lake, located in the middle-eastern part of the state on the Caney Fork River, is another little-known walleye and sauger hotspot. With limited weed growth, and shallower water, it fishes much different than Dale Hollow, however.
Center Hill is best described as a long, winding river channel. This reservoir has had its difficulties over the years when it comes to walleye fishing. In 2000 and 2001, it was a true hotspot, but beginning in 2006, the fishing slowed down.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the spawn recruitment over the past three or four years has been pretty good. There was a good hatch and the survival rate appears to be excellent. Those baby fish should be reaching harvest size by late 2007 and early 2008.
With little or no weed growth to hold fish, local walleye anglers almost always target the channel breaks and inflows. The spring migration into the creek shallows for the spawn begins sometime around the middle of March, assuming a normal weather pattern. As the fish move, they typically follow the main river channel and when it swings near a creek or other type of inflow, they’ll follow that up into the shallows until they find a suitable place to spawn.
During this movement, they are vulnerable to jigs tipped with minnows or night crawlers, and occasionally to slow-moving in-line spinners. During the actual spawn, they can be tough, but immediately thereafter, they feed ravenously. At this time, small, tight wobbling crankbaits often produce.
The trip back to the main channel is usually a fast one but often lasting only a couple of days. Still, if you hit it right, the fishing can be the experience of a lifeti
me. Catches of 15 keepers or more in a single day are common with numbers as high as 30 or more a possibility.
As the summer heats up, Center Hill walleyes tend to group tighter and tighter to the channel breaks and swings. At this time, jigging spoons, presented vertically, are often the most effective offering. Local anglers use a ripping technique. They jerk the spoon up, as far and as fast as possible, and then let it fall on a semi-slack line while watching for the telltale tick of the line.
Old Hickory Lake
Old Hickory Lake is best known for its sauger fishing, and for good reason. When conditions are right, you can catch saugers up to several pounds all day long.
“It’s basically a long, thin, shallow ribbon of water with lots of creeks,” said longtime Tennessee angler and professional guide Donny Felton (www.donnysguideservice.com). “A lot of how you fish it and your success on it depends upon the current flow. Really, that’s everything on this lake.”
By that, he means that sauger fishing on Old Hickory is usually good to great, especially early in the year, when there’s a good, steady current along the main channel and flowing out of the creeks. When either one of them stop, so does the sauger bite.
The year 2007 was problematic. Because of low water conditions, the current was slow to nonexistent. As such, the fishing was poor. “The bite just wasn’t there this year,” said Felton, referring to 2007. “I was real disappointed. You couldn’t hardly buy one. But if we get some rain or they move water down the Cumberland (River), it’ll pick up in 2008. And I guess on the positive side, we can figure that the ones we didn’t catch this year will be bigger next year.”
His plans for catching them in 2008 are simple but detailed and precise.
His weapon of choice is a big, heavy sauger jig — at least a full ounce, sometimes an ounce and a half — tipped with a minnow or piece of night crawler.
“I mostly fish the creek mouths with the jig, but you can’t always fish them the same way. If you do, you’ll have a lot of zero days,” he said.
“I always start fishing the deepest part of the creek mouth with a gentle lift-and-drop action. If that doesn’t work, I’ll raise the jig higher and let it fall faster. When that doesn’t work, I move around, sometimes fishing from deep water toward shallow, but at other times, the best bite is from shallow to deep. It just depends. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. That’s just the way it is.”
Felton believes color is very important to a sauger. Most of the time, he’s tossing something bright and flashy. Fluorescent yellow, gold and pink hues are his preference. In addition, to add even more color, he’ll frequently put a bead right at the head of the jig in a contrasting but equally bright color.
Once the water warms, Felton stops fishing for saugers on Old Hickory. “Most years, the bite is gone by the first of May,” he said. “That’s when the water gets too warm for them to bite. I don’t know why that is or where they go, but it’s not on my stringer, that’s for sure.”
TIMS FORD RESERVOIR
Southern Tennessee’s Tims Ford is one of the least known walleye fisheries in the state.
“It’s not as good as Dale Hollow, but there’s a respectable population in it, and they can offer anglers fast action in the spring and fall,” said Duvall, who along with his TWRF position owned the Holiday Marina on the lake for a number of years.
He reminds anglers that as recently as four years ago, anglers were moving from Center Hill to Tims Ford because of the fantastic walleye fishing. “The run wasn’t as good in 2007 as it sometimes is, but 2008 should be really good if the water levels hold. They’re still there. It’s just that 2007 was so unusual (with respect to water levels) that they were hard to catch.”
As a practical matter, there are no weeds in Tims Ford. As a consequence, fishing it successfully is a matter of working channels, drops, holes and any other substrate irregularity you can find. The walleyes hold against them, and position themselves around them, much like largemouth bass.
And don’t ever underestimate the importance of wood in this type reservoir. Walleyes will school around stumps and laydowns just like any other game fish. In fact, fishing wood near channel swings, drops and breaks is often the most effective way of taking them in early spring.
The usual baits — jigs or night crawler-tipped jigs, in-line spinners, jerkbaits and crankbaits will all produce on this body of water. Some of the best locations, especially after the water warms in late spring, are near the dam. Walleyes take advantage of the depth and oxygen content of the water in this area.
Summer brings a tough walleye bite on this southern Tennessee reservoir. But fall is a different matter. As the waters are pulled down in late summer and early winter, the walleyes will school around underwater structure off, and well off, the bank. You can often catch a boatload of them with a jigging spoon when they do that.
The Cumberland River
The Cumberland River, running from Celina on the Kentucky border west and north all the way to Lake Barkley, offers great walleye, sauger and saugeye fishing along nearly every mile of its path.
Starting just below Celina, weed growth in the tributaries becomes progressively heavier as you approach Cordell Hull. That’s a good thing because as the weeds go in this stretch of the river, so goes the walleye fishing.
Around the end of February or early March, the big females begin moving. They follow the river channel to the tributary channel and then move on upstream. By the third week in March, most of them are in the back of the tributaries taking advantage of the newly emerging vegetation and getting ready for their spawn. Savvy anglers follow them.
“The best places to find them are along the deeper sides of channels and drops where there’s a little green on the weeds,” Gentry said.
This is not sophisticated fishing. All you need is a minnow, small sinker, line and a rod and reel. Put enough weight on your rig to hold the minnow down and to restrict its movements but not enough to push it into the mud or keep it from swimming at all.
Drop the minnow in a likely looking spot and let it swim around for five minutes or so. If nothing happens, reel it in and try another spot. Allow your minnow to swim around for five minutes or so in one spot. If you don’t get a bite, move along. This is springtime fishing — if they’re biting, they’ll eat the minnow right away.
Below the dam on Cordell Hull, there’s a solid sauger and saugeye bite early in the year and again late in the fall. Jigs tipped with minnows or a piec
e of night crawler will do the trick here. This area is snag infested. Use heavy line and take along plenty of extra lures.
On the west side of Nashville, there is any number of good places to walleye fish. The cuts and inflows in the area of Montgomery, Cheatham and Dickson counties are especially productive. Small jerkbaits and in-line spinners work well here. Make sure you fish any laydown you encounter in a tributary, especially if there’s grass around it. Most of them hold walleyes as well as bass and crappie.
As you approach Dover, near the upper end of Lake Barkley, weeds are more sporadic. At one time, the area was choked with them, but several years ago, the government sprayed and killed them. Since then, they have been returning with varying success.
Nevertheless, if you find weeds here, you’ll find walleyes, saugers and saugeyes. The usual suspects will all catch fish in this area — jigs, in-line spinners, jerkbaits and crankbaits.
With that said, however, drop-shot rigs are becoming increasingly popular. The idea is to suspend your minnow, or other bait, just above the tops of the weeds. Bounce the sinker along, through the grass. The ruckus will stir up the walleyes and cause them to move. When they do, they’ll see the minnow and bite it.
Don’t fish the Cumberland River near Dover and below unless you try this. It’s really effective. And there’s no good reason why it won’t work on any of the lakes mentioned here, or on your favorite home lake for that matter. Give it a try.
Why keep Tennessee walleye fishing a secret?