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Catfish Quartet In Middle & West Tennessee

Catfish Quartet In Middle & West Tennessee

Pickwick, Reelfoot, J. Percy Priest and Woods lakes have marked differences, but they share outstanding catfishing. Let's look at how and where to find the best action on each.

Photo by Tom Evans

A jiggling rod tip gets an angler's attention. It's not enough of a pull to warrant grabbing the rod, he knows, but it shows that a catfish is in the area and is interested. Watching that rod with an eagle eye, he doesn't even notice the one behind him being yanked sharply down. It's not until the fish hooks itself and starts pulling drag that the angler takes note. The big cat is solidly hooked, however, so no harm is done.

Catfish keep anglers busy on spring days and summer nights. Once fishermen figure out the kinds of habitat the cats like best on their favorite lakes, catfish offer very dependable action, along with hard fights and wonderful eating qualities. Furthermore, especially in the case of flatheads and blues, catfish will grow to massive proportions, creating awesome opportunities to target trophy fish.

Cats are widely distributed in Tennessee. In fact, an angler can find good action at times virtually anywhere there is water. That said, some spots clearly are better than others. We've selected four lakes, all in the middle or western part of the state, where catfishing promises to be outstanding this year. The lakes vary substantially in character and in the nature of their offerings to catfishermen. The common thread is that all are loaded with quality cats.


A major impoundment on the lower Tennessee River, Pickwick Lake offers channels, flatheads and blues, with serious big-cat potential. At least a few blues (and maybe some flatheads, too) of world-record proportions likely inhabit Pickwick's waters, which are relatively fertile and full of threadfin and gizzard shad and skipjack herring. However, channel catfish and small to medium-sized blues dominate the fishery and provide the greatest opportunity for the most anglers.

The fish are here because of a combination of advantageous habitat characteristics. Pickwick offers big catfish everything they could ever want: current, bluff holes, broad flats, and big creek arms. Within that habitat, threadfin and gizzard shad, skipjack, crawfish, various sunfish and many kinds of minnows keep the cats quite well fed.

Only Pickwick's lower end lies within the Volunteer State's borders, but that area covers more than 6,000 acres, and a partial reciprocal agreement among the three states that share the lake adds even more acreage to the area that Tennessee anglers can explore with only a single fishing license.

During May, some catfish will be spawning, which makes the bite a little less dependable than normal. However, the spawn is staggered enough that many fish always will be found in traditional summer areas, and anglers can pretty much ignore the spawn.

Prime areas to explore, depending on the style of fishing an angler likes to do and the kinds of cats he hopes to tangle with, include big holes along bends in the Tennessee River channel, and the edges of flats and tops of points up tributaries.

Fishing along the main river channel is best when the turbines are turning in Pickwick Dam and, ideally, in Wilson Dam, which feeds Pickwick Lake as well. River fish by nature, the cats feed much more aggressively when water is flowing.

Using three-way rigs and tight-line techniques, anglers do well fishing cut shad or skipjack close to the bottom. Good approaches include drifting at the head of a hole and working all the way to its lower end, and holding the boat against the current with a trolling motor, working an area thoroughly and watching the depthfinder constantly for structure, baitfish and catfish.

Along the main river, blue catfish generally will dominate the catfish catch. Fish can be any size, but bait type and size will largely determine whether an angler will catch numbers of cats or big fish. Small pieces of shad will produce fast action from blues and channels up to about 15 pounds (plus occasional big fish). Big chunks of skipjack will produce less action, but far more 20-pound-plus blues and a better chance at a really big catfish.

Up creeks and inside pockets, anglers can find fast action from channel catfish without having to battle the current. Fishing in the creeks is especially good during the night this time of year. Good places to anchor include the tops of points and the edges of creek channels, where fish can move easily through a variety of depths and anglers can vary the depths they explore just by the angles of their casts. On windy nights, a good approach is to drift over flats and across creek channels, bouncing baits across the bottom. Either way, cut threadfin shad is tough to beat as bait.

Under the provisions of the Pickwick Lake reciprocal agreement, anglers who possess a Tennessee license may fish anywhere downstream of Mile 224.8 along the Tennessee River channel at the mouth of Bear Creek. The agreement does not include the impounded portions of Bear Creek or Yellow Creek above the Highway 225 bridge.


Like Pickwick, Reelfoot is an outstanding catfishing destination. Tennessee's only major natural lake, Reelfoot is really just a big area of flooded bottomland. It has an average depth of only about 5 feet, despite spreading over approximately 15,000 acres.

Reelfoot is mostly a channel catfish lake. Channels up to about 10 pounds absolutely abound in the lake and provide very good fishing from mid-spring through the end of fall. Flatheads also call the lake home, however, and the few anglers who seriously target them sometimes hook into some very large fish.

Flathead specialists should venture out at night, armed with live bluegills or other panfish, and look for the deepest water they can find in the lake's Lower Blue Basin. The flatheads may not be in the deepest water after hours, but they'll hold in it by day and move shallower to feed at night. Therefore, they'll at least be near the deeper water. Flathead fishing in timber-filled Reelfoot requires stout rods, strong reels and at least 30-pound-test line.

Because flatheads are far less abundant than their channel cat cousins, and because flatheads can be finicky eaters, anglers who target them are wise to also bring at least one smaller rod that's set up for channel catfish, with threadfin shad (used as cut bait) or night crawlers. Channels will serve up steady action and help fill the cooler whether or not the flatheads cooperate.

Channel cat anglers do well around the edges of cypress stands and on broad flats that have scattered logs spread around them. The cats use a lot of different areas, and hotspot

s seem to change from week to week. Bait shop and fish camp operators can steer anglers to good areas to begin looking for cats.

Because so much timber litters the bottom of Reelfoot, guide Jackie VanCleave typically targets catfish with a float rig. VanCleave baits up with either night crawlers or Strike King Catfish Dynamite, and sets the cork to dangle the bait just barely off the bottom. He generally casts close to cover or casts just upwind of a cypress knee or a log, so that that the wind and waves will carry the offering to the cover. VanCleave expects fast action from cats most summer days. Most fish weigh between 2 and 5 pounds, but fat channel cats in the 5- to 10-pound range show up fairly frequently.

To book a catfishing trip on Reelfoot Lake or book a trip with Jackie VanCleave or learn more about fishing opportunities, check out


Because of its Nashville location and modest size, J. Percy Priest Lake probably gets about as much fishing pressure per acre as any lake in Tennessee. Highly productive, though, this lake continues to yield fine fishing for several species, including channel catfish. And the truth is that most anglers visit Priest with other species in mind. The cats get relatively light pressure for the number of anglers that use the lake.

"Priest is known more for bass, stripers, hybrids and crappie than for cats," said Doug Markham, Region III public information officer for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. "That's too bad because the cats are in very good shape in this urban lake."

Markham noted that Priest supports flatheads, channels and blues, giving Nashville-area anglers a gamut of catfishing options. As a tributary impoundment, Priest isn't quite as daunting as major impoundments along the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers, which also contain all three big-cat species.

The open main body of Percy Priest contains an abundance of humps, points and ridges, many of which rise close to the Stones River channel. Cats relate heavily to these structures, holding deep during the day and moving shallow at night. At night, they'll also feed on flats that border the river channel. Current (or lack thereof) also has a big impact on how the cats position themselves and how they will feed.

Anglers should spend time searching for baitfish and for catfish with their electronics. Time spent looking at several structures to see where the fish are concentrated and how they are relating to the cover is a good investment. If an angler finds a concentration of what appears to be cats, the most efficient way to target those fish is to set up within casting range and lay several baits on the bottom with simple Carolina rigs.

Good baits include cut shad or bluegills and chicken livers. However, anglers who lay out chicken livers at Percy Priest during the summer should be prepared to catch more than cats. Hybrids, which abound in this lake, seem to be somewhat partial to chicken livers.

Anglers who specifically want flatheads should head for Priest's upper reaches and fish bends in the Stone River channel. Flatheads will be both along the channel drop and on the outside edge of the channel, almost always in some type of woody cover. Flathead fishermen put live bluegills or gizzard shad as close as possible to treetops, stumps or other cover and wait for the big cats to latch on. When the fish bite, anglers need to be prepared to set the hook and start cranking hard, with heavy gear and tight drags, to keep the flatheads from getting buried in the cover.

For channel catfish up the river, manufactured stink bait also works well. Anglers use "catfish worms," which are designed to dip in the gooey mess, and lay them out on the bottom upstream of likely holding areas. Current carries particles of the bait downstream, causing the bait to serve the double function of chum and bait

Beyond rod-and-reel techniques, jug-fishing is exceptionally popular on Percy Priest. Anglers go into coves, usually at night, and put out a spread of jugs, which they often bait with cut shad. They spend the night chasing dancing jugs and often enjoy very good catches.

More than 20 boat ramps provide good access to all parts of Percy Priest.


Because catfish are so highly favored as food fish, the cats typically don't get much attention from anglers on lakes where catfish cannot be taken home to fry in beer batter and peanut oil. Such is the case on Woods Lake, which impounds the Elk River in south-central Tennessee. Fish-consumption advisories warn against eating any catfish from Woods due to PCB contamination, so few anglers fish for the cats, which abound in lake.

"Woods is an exceptional catfish lake," Markham said. "For just having fun, it is one of the best lakes in Middle Tennessee, with blues, channels and flatheads all inhabiting this small military impoundment."

Woods Lake encompasses slightly less than 4,000 acres. The upper end is shallow and generally somewhat murky, with broad, stump-laden flats bounding the Elk River channel. Moving down the lake's main body, it gets gradually deeper and clearer. The banks of the lake, which is part of the Arnold Engineering Development Center, are mostly undeveloped and littered with downed trees. Stumps in the lake's upper end, riprap along the causeway of the state Highway 127 bridge, timber along the banks and the edge of inundated Elk River channel all are important catfish-holding areas.

For anglers who are new to Woods Lake, the riverine upper end offers a good starting point simply because key areas are easy to locate. Holes formed by outside channel bends, and flats that border inside bends are worth exploring. Flatheads are apt to hold tight to trees that are very close to river channel edges or brushpiles that are down in the channel.

The Highway 127 bridge serves as a dividing point between the narrow upper lake and the rest of the main body. Cats often can be found both in the main channel underneath the bridge and along the riprap banks of its causeway. Anglers can catch both channel cats and flatheads in the bridge area.

Channel cats also are common in and around treetops all along the lake. Anglers should look for spots where either the Elk River channel or a creek channel cuts close to the bank and anchor close to the edge of the channel. That way they can put baits near the ends of the tree branches, down in the channel and on the slope in between.

If stationary approaches don't produce steady catfish action, anglers should try drifting in Woods' open main body, usually around the river channel. A good approach is to begin out of the channel on the upwind side and drift so that baits bounce down the slope into the channel, along the bottom and back up the opposite side of the channel. Drifters should watch their graphs constantly, looking for catfish or baitfish and taking note of conditions any time fish hit. Finding baitfish is especially important for blue catfish, which follow bait around in much the same way as stripers d


Access to Woods Lake begins at the Woods Ferry Boat Dock, which is located near the Highway 127 bridge on the south side of the lake. For more information, call (615) 967-5370.


Tennessee has a statewide limit of one catfish daily over 34 inches. There is no limit for smaller fish. For complete regulations and extensive information on Tennessee fishing, check out TWRA's Web site at

(Editor's note: Jeff Samsel is the author of Catfishing in the South. To order, send a check for $21.95 to Jeff Samsel, 173 Elsie Street, Clarkesville, GA 30523. For more information, go to

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