December 16, 2022
By John Felsher
Since the state of Tennessee began stocking Florida largemouth in Lake Chickamauga, the impoundment has become a mecca for anglers seeking big bass—some of which exceed 14 pounds. However, some Tennessee River natives can swallow a 14-pound largemouth in one gulp and still be hungry for more.
Legendary for its monster catfish, the Tennessee River flows out of the East Tennessee mountains and runs 652 miles until it hits the Ohio River. Historically, the river has produced blue cats up to 130 pounds, and some of the best catfish action in the Volunteer State occurs in Lake Chickamauga and Watts Bar Lake.
“The whole Tennessee River is well known for producing big catfish,” says Mike Jolley, a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency fisheries biologist. “Blue catfish and flathead numbers are pretty equitable on both Chickamauga and Watts Bar. Blue cats are the biggest in the river, but there’s also some huge flatheads. The Tennessee River has an abundant forage base with plentiful shad for big catfish to eat.”
THE LAKE PROPER
Named for the Chickamauga Cherokees, Lake Chickamauga meanders for about 59 miles along the Tennessee River from the Watts Bar Dam north of Decatur, Tenn., to the Chickamauga Dam in Chattanooga. The serpentine impoundment covers about 36,240 acres and offers anglers 810 shoreline miles. Chickamauga Creek, the Hiwassee River and several other tributaries feed into the system.
On the other side of Watts Bar Dam, Watts Bar Lake continues for 72 miles to the Fort Loudoun Dam at Lenoir City and covers 39,000 acres. It derives its name from Watts Island, once a river landmark and now just a submerged sandbar near the Watts Bar Dam. The lake offers anglers 722 shoreline miles and drops to more than 100 feet deep in places. The Clinch and Emory rivers feed into it.
“We’ve seen some big catfish on Watts Bar when doing winter sampling with nets,” Jolley says. “Some blues were in the 70- to 75-pound range. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if the lake holds cats weighing more than 100 pounds.”
Anglers can keep no more than one catfish over 34 inches per day, but there is no harvest limit on catfish less than 34 inches. Anglers can catch big cats practically anywhere in either lake, but the best action usually comes in the tailraces below the dams.
GO WITH THE FLOW
The water volume passing through the dams fluctuates greatly. For the best fishing near the dams, go when a moderate flow pours through the structure power generators (for dam generation schedules, visit tva.com/environment/lake-levels). “Below the Watts Bar Dam is a great place to catch big catfish, especially blues,” says Scott Manning of Clinton, Tenn., who guides for catfish, striped bass and muskellunge (tennesseestriperfishinguide.com).
Manning caught a 90-pounder right near the dam a couple years ago and knows of some 100-plus-pound fish coming from there. According to Manning, current is key to catching big cats. “If they’re not running much water, we get close to the dam and fish the deep holes. If they’re running too much water, we fish a little farther downstream,” says Manning.
Manning looks for current seams, where flowing water meets placid water and creates an eddy. Big catfish don’t like to expend too much energy looking for prey. Instead, they wait for bait to come to them and pounce on anything tempting.
“Those water seams are ambush points for big catfish,” Manning says. “Big cats get in that little eddy looking for baitfish, particularly the biggest catfish. Big cats will sit right there where they can ambush fish without getting out in the heavy current and burning too much energy. About 80 percent of our catch by the dams are blues and 20 percent are flatheads.”
Depending upon the current strength, Manning either anchors or holds his boat in place by spot-locking his trolling motor. He positions the boat right on the seam and drops bait straight down to hang just above the bottom.
BAIT 'EM UP
Manning’s go-to bait for big blues is fresh skipjack. “Usually we can catch those below the dam. If you can’t catch them, some area bait stores sell frozen skipjack, which is still a good bait,” he says.
Manning favors the head and guts sections. He often butterflies his bait by cutting “wings” on both sides. When the current flows, those wings start flapping, which attracts catfish. In a moderate current, strip baits work well. Fillet off a side of a large skipjack, gizzard shad or other baitfish. Leave the ribcage, skin and scales on the fillet intact. Run a circle hook through the ribcage and out through the skin. Some anglers insert a hook through one end of the fillet, roll it over and run the hook through the other side as well.
Fish a strip bait above a sinker, but use only enough weight to hold it on the bottom. Ideally, the strip should undulate in the current about a foot or two off the bottom to mimic a living creature while oozing tempting juices. Scales sometimes flake off, but that just adds to the enticement.
“When there’s not too much current and we want to cover ground, we drift downriver with baits hanging over the side right off the bottom,” Manning says. “Sometimes, I’ll put out a drift sock to slow the boat or use the trolling motor to fight the current a little bit. The key to those catfish is to go super slow. They’re not going to chase down a bait.”
Manning prefers to hang the bait vertically and go about 0.1 or 0.2 miles per hour with the bait just off the bottom. The idea is to present the bait right in front of a catfish’s face, triggering strikes. When the current runs too strong, head downstream to look for flatheads. In both Watts Bar and Chickamauga, several creeks flow into the system. The mouths of creeks often make great places to find catfish. Fish the points where creeks hit the main channel and any secondary structure. “Anglers who put in at Watts Dam can go downriver to a creek called Sewee Creek,” Manning says. “It’s a good-sized creek with a lot of baitfish. Where the creek hits the main channel, a lot of cover washed in and hung up on the bank. I catch a lot of flatheads in that cover.”
The outside of a river bend makes an outstanding place for flatheads to ambush bait. Currents usually scour deep holes along the outside bank. Treetops, logs and other debris commonly fall into these holes, making additional structure for catfish. Flatheads prefer live bait. Rig a 5- to 9-inch shad, small skipjack or a bluegill on a Carolina rig with enough leader to allow the fish to swim freely for a short distance.
“If I’m specifically targeting flatheads, my favorite bait is a live bluegill,” Manning says. “I hook it right behind the dorsal fin with a circle hook on a Carolina rig with about two feet of leader. I’ll put that live bait close to heavy cover like treetops, rocky points or big rock piles. I want to get upstream from that cover, put my bait down and see if I can entice them to come out. When fishing for flatheads, I don’t want to drift. I spot-lock or anchor.”
No matter the catfish species you’re chasing, you owe it to yourself to visit Lake Chickamauga and Watts Bar. The lakes and area have a wide variety of sights to savor, and the fishing is most often off-the-charts good.
WHILE IN THE AREA
The region abounds with natural and historical attractions.
For a boat ride like no other, take the Lost Sea Adventure (thelostsea.com) near Sweetwater, Tenn., to explore the largest underground lake in the country. People can’t launch their own boats into the cavern, but they can take a tour on a boat already there.
Above ground and farther north, visit the Museum of Appalachia (museumofappalachia.org), a Smithsonian-affiliated stop in Clinton, Tenn., that features pioneer buildings and exhibits showcasing regional history and culture.
Just minutes from downtown Chattanooga (visitchattanooga.com), take a ride up Lookout Mountain (lookoutmountain.com). There, you can see seven states from its peak. For another cave adventure, visit Ruby Falls (rubyfalls.com) inside Lookout Mountain. History buffs can also explore nearby Civil War battlefields.