Summer and Tennessee catfish are pretty much uttered in the same breath, especially since there are so many great locations in our state to pursue these tasty fish.
Summer means that it is time to think about catfish. Sure, whiskerfish can be caught all year in Tennessee, but there is just something special about dropping baits on a late summer afternoon in anticipation of some great dark-thirty catfish action.
Whether in search of trophies or a fish fry, Volunteer State anglers have no shortage of catfish options, particularly in regard to the big three — channels, flatheads and blues.
KENTUCKY & BARKLEY LAKES
The big twin lakes in western Tennessee are prime spots to tangle with blue and channel catfish and the makeup of the fisheries are very similar between the two lakes. Both species are present in abundance and in good size distribution. Channel cats are most numerous, and anglers have a legitimate chance of catching a real trophy. However, most channel cats caught are less than 5 pounds.
Blue catfish, on the other hand, reach massive size in the big lakes. Catches of blue catfish between 10 and 20 pounds is not uncommon, with a few up to 50 pounds and even bigger.
The best fishing for channel cats this time of year is around chunk rock or riprap along the shoreline. Bridge piling areas are also good. During summer, channel cats are also caught along the main river channel and along some of the secondary creek channels and adjacent flats. The flats alongside these channels are especially good late in the evenings and at night.
Blue catfish also congregate along ledges on the main river channel during the summer months. They tend to stack in these areas when current being pulled at the dam, similar to how bass stack on ledges when there is current. During times when there is little or no current, catfish tend to scatter out over the flats adjacent to the river channel.
There are also flathead catfish present in less abundance than the other two species. Although they are more difficult to locate, flatheads grow very large.
This lake is almost a hidden gem when it comes to catfish, because the lake just does not seem to attract catfish anglers to the degree of some other lakes.
“Reelfoot Lake has an under-utilized catfish fishery,” said Tim Broadbent, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency fisheries biologist. “Not many anglers seek catfish at Reelfoot, but the population is abundant with high densities collected during sampling surveys.”
Angler input from those who do fish for channel cats at Reelfoot echo these sentiments. There are plenty of catfish available throughout a wide size range, and catch rates are quite good. Reelfoot has a lot of great habitat for channel cats and is very angler friendly. For anglers coming from some distance to fish, Reelfoot Lake has numerous commercial resorts with lodging and even boat rentals.
Anglers in the eastern part of the state have several great options for catfish. According to Bart Carter, TWRA fisheries biologist, Fort Loudoun is best known for blue catfish, but the lake also contains both channel cats and flatheads.
While this 14,000-acre lake has not had a creel survey conducted recently, previous surveys indicate anglers having very good luck with blues and channels, with the average channel catfish size being 5 pounds, with blues being caught in the 6-pound range.
However, there are much larger fish present.
In fact, the state record blue catfish — 130 pounds — caught with commercial gear came from Fort Loudoun back in 1976. Large flatheads are also present.
“Douglas Reservoir produces good numbers of channel catfish and there is a good number of channel catfish caught below Douglas in the tailwater,” said Carter. “Most angling occurs here in the section of river immediately below the dam, and the fish seem to be more active when there is some generation from the dam. In general, most anglers bottom fish with rod and reel with a variety of baits, but setting trot lines is also a popular method for catching catfish.”
Cherokee Reservoir is another location where anglers are getting some new opportunities for catfish. The TWRA has been stocking blue catfish in the reservoir over the past couple of years, so Carter is expecting the fishery to improve in the near future.
In this region of the state, the three main species of catfish are most abundant at the Tennessee River impoundments. Watts Bar, Chickamauga and Nickajack lakes all have catfish populations that have remained stable over the years with very little management involved, according to Mike Jolley, TWRA fisheries biologist for Region 3 reservoirs.
The reason for this is attributed to ample forage, such as threadfin shad, gizzard shad and skipjack herring, as well as preferred habitat, good growth rates and favorable spawning conditions. Catfish populations in these areas have also supported commercial fishing over the years with the exception of Watts Barr Lake, which has been closed to commercial fishing for several years.
“According to our latest creel report from 2015, on Chickamauga Reservoir, more blue catfish were best represented in the catfish catch followed by channels and flatheads respectively,” said Jolley.
The average weight of catfish was 3 pounds, but large blue catfish are reported annually from Chickamauga.
“These same 2015 creel surveys were conducted on Watts Bar as well,” said Jolley. “Blue catfish were also the most caught catfish with channels and flatheads behind in that order. The average size harvested blue catfish was 3.15 pounds, similar to that of Chickamauga.”
Nickajack Lake was not included in the 2015 creel survey, but there is no question the catfish population is in great shape as well. There are good numbers and size distribution of both species. Flatheads are also present and reach trophy size, but they are not specifically targeted as much as the other two species, so catches of large fish turn up less frequently than blues and channels.
“Typically the warm months are the best for greatest activity for those fishing for catfish,” Jolley said. “River current is almost a necessity for good success. Several baits are used including chicken, hot dogs, worms, stinkbaits and cutbait being the most favorite. Tailwaters are typically a good bet and deep holes in the summer for larger catfish.”
Currently, Tennessee Tech University is conducting a catfish study on Chickamauga River with comparative data from Watts Bar, which should provide information toward future management of catfish populations in Tennessee River impoundments in Region 3.
Anglers looking for a big river excursion have all they bargain for and more with the Mississippi River. The Mighty Mississippi is home to a phenomenal population of catfish and there are abundant numbers of all three main species of catfish. Plus, if an angler is looking to hook into a trophy-size blue, flathead or channel catfish, the river offers a good potential.
Day in and day out, the Mississippi River is a very tough place to fish, as it is a big river with lots of dangers and changing conditions. Spring is especially tough, due to rains, flooding and muddy water. It is also more dangerous at this time with lots of floating logs and debris.
However, when summer arrives, conditions typically stabilize, which is when catfishing gets really good. Anglers drift with cutbait to catch jumbo-size blues and hefty channel catfish. Live bait is used for flatheads. Drift fishing along the channel edges and through scour holes, especially on outside bends and other deep holes is very productive. Summer is also a great time to anchor, downsize to lighter tackle and target specific areas for numbers of fish in the range of one to 10 pounds.
Drift fishing is especially productive for big blue catfish, which move around a lot, rather than sitting in holes. Drift along the edges of sandbars and revetment banks.
A lot of depressions and cavities have developed along revetment banks through the years, which are prime spots to find feeding catfish.
Anglers need to exercise a lot of caution though when fishing on the Mississippi River. A sturdy boat, adequate safety equipment and a lot of good judgement should be employed when fishing the Mississippi.
This big lake near Nashville is also a major player for whiskerfish in the Volunteer State. There are very good numbers of catfish, with a chance at a trophy-size cat. In fact, many anglers go there specifically to chase big fish.
Primarily, the bigger fish to target are blue catfish. There are plenty of fish in the 10- to 20-pound range and larger fish are very common.
Channel catfish are also very numerous and available in a wide size distribution.
Percy Priest has lots of great habitat for catfish, so fish grow well. Shorelines with chunk rock and riprap attract catfish during the spring and during the spawn. Catfish remain in these areas later in summer too, but also look for them along channel edges and other drops or holes. At night, catfish are often found on flats adjacent to the channels or even shallow in some of the embayments.
TWRA FAMILY FISHING LAKES
Catfish anglers need to keep the TWRA Family Fishing Lakes in mind. There are now a total of 18 lakes within this program, ranging in size from 12 acres to 560 acres. Most all have bank fishing access and fishing piers. Some also rent boats and have tackle available, as well as other amenities.
These lakes are stocked and well managed to provide fishing opportunities, especially for families. Channel and blue catfish are in good supply at many of the lakes and some even have flathead catfish as well. These lakes may be designed for family fishing, but at some locations, there are also some really large catfish to please any whiskerfish angler.
Keep in mind that many of the reservoirs in the state have consumption advisories due to contamination. In most cases, it still safe to consume catfish from these waters as long as the guidelines are followed regarding the frequency and amount of consumption as well as taking into account people who are at higher risk. For complete information on consuming catfish from Tennessee waters, go to http://tennessee.gov/twra/article/contaminants-in-fish.