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2018 Tennessee Catfish Forecast

2018 Tennessee Catfish Forecast
Photo By Ron SInfelt

As summer begins, many anglers start looking at catfish, so it is good that the Volunteer State has so many great places to catch these tasty fish. Photo By Ron SInfelt

The temperature is not the only thing heating up as summer approaches. Catfish fever is hitting Tennessee anglers much like a flu epidemic. Unlike influenza, though, catfish fever is a malady that is not dreaded. 

Fortunately there is no shortage of areas to find some relief from the symptoms. The Volunteer State is home to some awesome fisheries ranging from farm ponds to big rivers and reservoirs. It is but a short trip to great catfishing from practically anywhere in the state.

Many catfish fisheries are self-sustaining and remain very stable simply from natural reproduction. Most all of the larger reservoirs and rivers fall into this category. Some of the smaller lakes, especially agency lakes, are stocked to maintain catfish population levels and to provide quality-fishing opportunities.

The 18 Family Fishing Lakes maintained by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency are great examples of catfish stocking efforts by the state. These lakes are regularly stocked with channel catfish, and in some cases blue catfish, providing excellent catfishing opportunities. Most all of these lakes have bank fishing available, with some wheelchair-accessible fishing piers. Other amenities, varying by location, include boat rentals, ramps, restrooms, concessions and picnic areas.

There is much diversity when it comes to catfishing in Tennessee. Whether an angler prefers to leisurely sit on the bank or try to haul in a monster-size trophy, there are lots of options. 


This jumbo-size reservoir in the western end of the state is popular for a lot of different species,including catfish. In fact, catfish is the third most sought after species at Kentucky Lake behind only bass and crappie. Based on the number of trips taken by anglers over the past three years, Kentucky Lake ranked No. 1 for the most trips and actually totaled almost as many trips as the next four locations combined, according to data provided by Pat Black, TWRA reservoir program coordinator.

[bcplayer list_id=5781356163001]

 Click the video link above to get great catfishing tips for your future trip.

Folks travel from long distance to sample the great catfishing at Kentucky Lake, and creel surveys indicate they are well rewarded for their efforts, ranking No. 1 for catfish based on a composite score of angler trips times catch-per-hour. The catch rate was down some last year due to less flow through the reservoir, but the fishery is stable and success should bounce back this season.

The forecast for the catfish fishery remains good and catch rates are increasing over historic data according to Reservoir Manager Michael Clark. 


All three species of catfish are caught along the main channel, but the creek and secondary channels are also very good. Many of the embayments are excellent for channel catfish late in the evenings and at night, especially around submerged wood. Near bridge pilings and rip rap areas are other great spots to target.

Data provided by Clark shows that over 56 percent of the catfish caught by anglers are blue cats followed by channel catfish at 44 percent. Both populations are rated excellent with abundant numbers, ranging from young of the year to trophy size. Flathead catfish are also present in good numbers and size distribution, but they make up less than one percent of the total catfish caught.


Anglers looking for a true trophy may want to consider the Mississippi River. There are catfish of all sizes in the river, but it is hard to beat the big river for big cats. It has all the ingredients to produce enormous catfish and there are plenty of quality fish in the river.

TN Catfish Forecast GraphicMississippi River Monsters hosted catfish tournaments on the river the past two years. The tournaments were based out of Bass Pro Shop in Memphis and attracted over 100 boats from all over the United States according to Clark. 

"In 2017, the tournament produced over 5,200 pounds of catfish with the big fish of the tournament exceeding 75 pounds," said Clark. "All three species were seen during the weigh-in, but blue catfish and flathead catfish made up the majority of the fish weighed in."

The river produces good catches all year long, but after spring, when the water level stabilizes, is one of the better periods for consistent results. One of the most popular and effective methods during this time is to put out baits and drift, using a trolling motor to control speed. Cutbait from skipjack herring is a fantastic choice for targeting big blue cats, but it also works well on channel cats. Use this method along the channel and near sandbars and the many revetment banks. There are plenty of cavities along these banks, which make great locations for the cats to wait to ambush passing prey.

Anglers looking to put numbers of fish in the boat may want to switch to lighter tackle and anchor in one of these spots or shallow water in an area with some cover, rip rap or a log jam. Cast cutbait, nightcrawlers, chicken liver or other bait to pick up plenty of catfish up to 10 pounds.


Lyle Mason, north reservoir manager for Region 2, says Old Hickory supports good numbers of channel and blue catfish. Some of the most popular fishing spots are below Cordell Hull Dam and creek mouths, such as Cedar and Station Camp creeks. Shutes Branch and Drakes Creek offer good habitat for blues and channels. Rocky bluffs and boulder habitats are good from April through July.

There are very good numbers of catfish in Old Hickory with plenty of quality-size fish. The Cabela's King Kat Tournament super event was held last year at Bull Creek and it took over 142 pounds to win. The top six places were all over 100 pounds and the big fish weighed 54 pounds. Two more cats over 40 pounds were brought to the scales during the tournament.

There is lots of opportunity for rod and reel fishing on the lake, but one of the more popular and productive methods is by jugging or with noodles. Guide Jim Duckworth likes hitting the lake at night after the water temperature hits 65 degrees, putting out swimming pool noodles with reflective tape on the top. He puts the noodles out in a cove so that the wind will blow them across the cove. This works best when the wind is blowing on the jugs or noodles at less than five miles per hour.

Simply attach 3 to 5 feet of 65-pound spider wire to the noodle and add a Daiichi Bleeding Bait circle hook with a 1/4-ounce crimp weight about 12 inches above the hook. Lace a big fat nightcrawler on the hook with lots of loops so that if they bite and only get part of the bait, they will come back and hit it again. This method catches good eating-size cats up to 10 pounds and larger.


For smaller cats, use this method with a 2/0 hook. To target bigger fish, switch to a 6/0 to 8/0 hook and use 3- to 4-inch bluegills as bait. Duckworth's favorite locations for catfish are Big Cedar, Drakes, Bledsoe,Spring and Barton creeks.


As a general rule, the Tennessee River and its impoundments are excellent for targeting catfish, especially blue and channel catfish. The populations are self-sustaining and the fisheries have remained stable for a number of years. Although most any location along the river is good, Chickamauga provides a tremendous amount of opportunity and with its proximity to metro Chattanooga it receives lots of pressure.

Chickamauga was the second ranked reservoir for number of catfish angler trips over the past three years. It also ranked second on the composite scores for number of angler trips times catch-per-hour. Region 3 Reservoir Manager Mike Jolley says according to the most recent creel survey results, blue catfish were the best represented, followed by channels and flatheads, respectively. Blue catfish caught by anglers at Chickamauga typically average between 3 and 4 pounds, but much larger, even trophy-class blue cats are present.

The best fishing on Chickamauga is during the warm months of the year, but the lake provides year-round opportunity. Catfish are fairly well distributed throughout the lake, but the area near the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant is particularly good. Other good spots for channel catfish are along channel edges, flats along the edges and up in the embayments, especially at night. Deep holes along the main river channel are great for all three species.

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Although the lake proper is excellent for catfish, getting out on the river opens up even more opportunity. Look for holes and depression along the channel, scour holes on outside bends and up near the dam. Drifting with cutbait is an excellent way to cover water and disperse a scent trail. Simply hook up a slip sinker rig and use a lift and drop method to keep baits on the bottom but out of snags. Obviously good electronics help.


Duck River flies somewhat under the radar, but it has certain sections that provide excellent catfishing. According to Region 2 Streams Biologist Justin Spalding, the Duck should be viewed as four different sections to account for changes in river characteristics.

The first section from Normandy Dam to the Halls Mill area is swift and rocky and it is ideal for catfish. However, after the Duck River passes Henry Horton it increases in size and the catfishing picks up. Catfish abundance in this section is average, but the size is excellent with lots of fish over 20 inches.

Columbia to Centerville is also a very good area. Columbia is the most downstream impoundment on the Duck River and fish have a straight shot to Kentucky Lake. Public access is limited but worth the effort if folks can get near Littlelot or Williamsport. The Duck River slows down and spreads out in this section with large gravel bars and sluggish pools. The abundance of catfish is close to the highest in middle Tennessee. While the number of large fish is lower than the previous stretch, there is still a good chance of landing a few catfish over 20 inches.

The most downstream stretch of the Duck is from Centerville to the mouth. Swan Creek and the Piney River dump into the Duck a few miles apart and afterwards the habitat is dominated by large pools, snags, trees, sand bars and wide shoals. Public access is again sparse, but those with a jet drive motor find spots that are rarely fished. Be sure to bring heavy tackle and drift live bait near treetops and chunk rock to hook into large flathead catfish that are common when fishing down this far. 

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