Going for panfish in spring, such as bluegills, is a cherished pastime in the Volunteer State, especially since there are so many great places to try.
There are countless good things that could be said about this time of year, not the least of which is the awesome fishing. Spring is probably the favorite time of year for most Tennessee anglers, as fishing success for almost all sport fish peaks in the spring. With water temperature on the rise and fish in shallow water, it is certainly a period of fantastic opportunity.
With so many different fishing opportunities available, it is often difficult to narrow down to a location and species to target. However, even with all the diversity in the spring, it would be a shame to overlook some of the most fun fishing of the year — panfishing.
Panfish, primarily bluegills and redear sunfish or shellcrackers, are overlooked by some anglers in favor of larger fish, but pound for pound these little scrappers are some of the most fun and hardest fighters in the water. Armed with light or ultralight fishing gear, the challenge and battle rivals any species in the state.
Bluegills, redears and other sunfish are found all over the state, with most lakes and ponds having populations of at least one or more species. However, to get the most from targeting these fish, the goal is to concentrate on locations where there are above average numbers and sizes present.
The big twin lakes in northwestern Tennessee are without question two of the finest panfish lakes anywhere. There are lots of locations with great bluegill fishing, but it is very hard to find another Tennessee water where there is the possibility of catching a redear sunfish pushing 2 pounds. The true 2-pounders may not happen every day, but if an angler is looking to hook into an above average number of hard-fighting shellcrackers, these two lakes certainly provide the opportunity.
Both lakes are excellent for redears with good numbers of fish in the range of 8 to 10 inches, with plenty of trophies up to 12 inches. Late April through early May is typically the best time to target redears as they are shallow and spawning. Look for spawning locations in gravel substrate and present live baits, such as redworms, crickets or pieces of nightcrawlers, right on or near the bottom. Other good spring locations include sloping banks with gravel substrate or in the backs of bays with submerged yellow mustard flowers or pondweed. After the spawn, redears become more difficult to catch, but fish are still found on deeper structure and cover throughout the summer.
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Redears are not the only game in town as the bluegill fishing on these two lakes is nothing short of fantastic. There are high numbers from 6 to 8 inches and decent numbers up to 9 inches or more. The best fishing for big bluegills is in May when the fish come into the coves to spawn in shallow water on sand or gravel bottoms. Most any live bait, and even some artificial baits, thrown into a spawning bed triggers an instant strike. Of course, the tried and true favorites of crickets or redworms suspended beneath floats are always no-lose bets.
Although bluegills are found around the shoreline all summer, the bigger more desirable fish move out to deeper water after the spawn. They are found on stake beds, deeper brush and sunken trees. Look for fish in water about 6- to 8-feet deep and use slip floats with live bait to entice strikes.
Another great time to load the cooler with eating-size bluegills is later in the summer when the mayflies begin hatching along the shorelines. The newly hatched insects scatter across the surface of the water and create a feeding frenzy. Anglers cash in by throwing baits, even flies, into the mix.
The Earthquake Lake has one of the best bluegill fisheries in the state. The habitat at Reelfoot is perfect to grow abundant numbers of bluegills, along with plenty of hand-size ‘gills waiting to stretch a line. Even better, finding good fish and lots of action is relatively easy.
Most anglers fish Reelfoot from a boat, but there are locations where fishing from the shoreline is possible. There are also some fishing piers on the south shoreline. Boating anglers have ramps in all four basins of the lake and for those without a boat, rentals are available at numerous resorts.
Anglers have no trouble hooking up with bluegills on Reelfoot, but targeting bigger fish takes a little more effort. Lots of bluegills up to a half-pound are available and there are some fish up to 3/4 of a pound present. The bigger ’gills typically are not found hovering near the shoreline, but rather set up shop at the bases of the many cypress trees in the lake.
Kentucky, Barkley and Reelfoot lakes offer some of the best panfishing in the state, but they are certainly not the only places. Most reservoirs in the state have decent populations of bluegills and several have good redear fisheries as well, including quality-size fish.
Over in the eastern end of the state, Douglas has the biggest bluegills in Region 4. It and Cherokee Lake also have the highest densities of fish.
Targeting spawning locations is a great tactic when the fish are on the beds, but action is also good at other times by casting around piers and cover along shorelines. There is a fishing pier on Cherokee off of Highway 25E with brush piled around that is a terrific spot to pick up some hefty ‘gills.
Anglers continue fishing for bluegills on Douglas in the summertime by tight-lining live baits, such as worms or crickets, along the bluffs. Simply cast out and let the bait sink down to the thermocline, around 20 to 25 feet, and be ready for a strike. Bigger bluegills move deeper in the summer, but they stay at or above the thermocline.
Anglers looking for good catches of redears might want to consider John Sevier Reservoir, which is a very small impoundment on the Holston River. A creel survey conducted on the lake a few years ago indicates that anglers were catching lots of smaller redears. The latest word from the local creel clerk is they are catching lots of big ones.
Norris Lake also has a good population of redears. Although not in the class of Kentucky Lake, there are some very good size fish available. A similar situation exists at Pickwick Lake, where redear fishing seems to be becoming more popular, especially at Dry Creek, according to regional fishery personnel.
Chickamauga Reservoir should also be on the list for this spring. According to recent creel data, Chickamauga had the third highest catch rate for panfish of all the reservoirs across the state. Anglers caught on average 6.64 panfish per hour, with an average weight about a quarter-pound.
While there are larger fish available, jumbo bluegills are not caught at a high rate on the lake. It takes more effort and skill to find and catch the larger fish. Redears are also part of the equation at Chickamauga, but like bluegills, quality fish are not as abundant as smaller fish.
For larger redears, Dale Hollow has abundant numbers of bigger fish, although they are far from easy to locate and catch. Shellcrackers caught by anglers average a little over a half-pound, but there are fish available up to a pound. Although not caught often, data and reports indicate there are redears available that exceed a pound.
The best success for redears is found when fish are spawning in the backs of small inlets off the main lake, in the backs of sloughs and creeks. The middle to lower end of the reservoir tends to produce more consistent success. Anglers often locate the best areas to fish where they find clusters of beds visually, which is realistic due to the clear water.
Other great panfishing opportunities are available at the TWRA Family Fishing Lakes. There are 18 lakes managed by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency that offer year-round fishing and plenty of opportunity. Most of the lakes have wheelchair accessible fishing piers, easy access to bank fishing, boat rentals, launching ramps and picnic areas. Some lakes offer conveniences such as bait, tackle, snacks and drinks. These lakes are well-managed to provide maximum for anglers.
OFF THE RADAR
It is very easy to get caught up in the lure of large reservoirs and other well-known fishing spots. Obviously, these places offer tremendous opportunities and receive their fishing prestige for solid reasons. However, there are plenty of places off the beaten path that offer excellent panfishing opportunities.
Many city and county parks have lakes where fishing is allowed with very little pressure because most folks just don’t think about hitting them. Some are even managed well, and have many other amenities available, such as picnic areas, playgrounds, hiking/biking trails and more. Just because a lake is small and in the middle of an urban or suburban area, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t some good fishing, especially for panfish.
It is often said, “Go big or go home.” That phrase may be applicable to lots of things in life, but sometimes the best things come in smaller packages. Don’t let spring slip by without sampling some of the awesome panfishing across the Volunteer State. The fishing reward is great alone, but bringing home the catch and converting it to pan-fish is almost as good.