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Tennessee's Best Catfish Angling

Tennessee's Best Catfish Angling

Here's a look at the places in Tennessee that promise the best action for blues, flatheads and channels this year.

For big flatheads, an after-dark approach is tough to beat. Here, author Jeff Samsel holds up one of the rewards of night-fishing for catfish.
Photo courtesy of Jeff Samsel

Anchored strategically at the head of a big hole, just upstream of where the bottom begins sloping into deeper water, an angler lays out several lines. By varying the lengths of his casts, he can scatter baits down the drop and put a couple down in the hole. If the cats don't cooperate, he'll move 100 yards or so downriver and set up along the ledge on the side of the hole. He has already graphed the big river bend, which is close to one-quarter of a mile long, so he knows the big blues are home. He just has to get them to cooperate.

Catfishing has been extremely popular for many years. In fact, cats come in only behind bass and crappie as the fish most sought after by Tennessee anglers and are the targets of 11 percent of all angling effort. Over the past decade, "trophy catfishing" has ever increasingly become serious sport for Tennessee anglers, and in recent years anglers have devoted more targeted efforts toward finding and catching heavyweight cats, many of which they put back in the river after snapping a few pictures.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency recognized the value of quality catfish more than a year ago through the establishment of special regulations, which provide protection for large fish. Under these regulations, anglers may keep only one catfish of more than 34 inches daily. The regulation applies to all forms of recreational fishing, including trot-lining, noodling and other "traditional" methods. No commercial harvest of cats larger than 34 inches is permitted anywhere in Tennessee.

Tennessee anglers now can collect a different form of trophy for the big cats they catch, thanks to the Tennessee Angler Recognition Program (TARP), which TWRA also established in 2004. Through TARP, anglers who catch channel cats that are at least 30 inches long or flatheads or blues that are at least 34 inches can earn a certificate from TWRA that recognizes their catch.

Through November of last year (the program's first year), anglers were recognized for 35 qualifying blue catfish, 10 flathead catfish and nine channel catfish. Two fish actually tied as the largest catfish entered. Steve E. Ramsey and Matthew Bingham both were recognized for catches of 56-inch blue catfish. Ramsey was fishing on Watts Barr. Bingham was fishing on the Mississippi River. The biggest flathead and channel turned in came from Cheatham and Barkley lakes, respectively, giving all parts of the state and all of the state's three big rivers representation in the big-cat destinations.

Returns from the TARP program, while not a scientific survey, will prove beneficial to biologists and anglers for determining where large fish come from as participation builds. Any information about catfish catches is valuable, as biologists have virtually no data from any type of targeted surveys. They see big cats while shocking for bass or netting for other species and hear about big catches. However, no surveys specifically look at catfish populations. Fisheries managers must rely on casual observations and reports from fishermen.

Three major catfish species call Tennessee waters home and provide significant sport for fishermen. We'll look at the flathead, blue and channel catfish one by one, and where to find the best fishing for each this summer.


The least abundant and toughest to catch of Tennessee's major cats, big flatheads are considered the greatest trophies of the whiskerfish clan by many anglers. As top-end predators, they demand live bait, and they feed only when they want to. Adding challenge, large flatheads are more nocturnal than their cousins, and they spend the bulk of their time close to very thick cover, where it's hard to present baits effectively and even harder to get the big cats out.

Flatheads grow to jumbo proportions. The state-record fish, which came from the Hiwassee River, weighed 85 pounds, 15 ounces. The world-record flathead, which came from Kansas, weighed 123 pounds, and Tennessee's big rivers clearly have the potential to produce that size of flathead.

Flatheads are native to all of Tennessee's major watersheds, and good populations can be found in rivers of at least medium size throughout the state. They generally grow the largest in large rivers and in reservoirs, where food tends to be plentiful.

While the first-year sample from the TARP was small, with only 10 flatheads turned in, the Tennessee River watershed stood out as the top flathead producer. Seven of the fish came from pools of the Tennessee River, with three from Watts Bar and four spread from Fort Loudoun to Kentucky Lake. Of the other three, two came from the Elk River, a major Tennessee River tributary.

Picking the best pools within the Tennessee River system would be a difficult proposition, according to Mike Jolly, a TWRA fisheries biologist from Region III.

"They're all good for flatheads," he said. "We roll up really big fish in all the Tennessee River impoundments when we do electrofishing surveys."

Jolly noted that during June, anglers should concentrate on the tailwater sections. Flatheads move up the pools during the spring and spawn around the riprapped banks of the tailwaters. Because the dam discharges create cool-water influences and hold an abundance of baitfish for flatheads to feed on, many fish will stay close to the riprap, barge ties, bridge pilings and other structure within the first few miles downstream of the dams throughout the summer.

Adult flatheads feed almost exclusively on live fish, and in the tailwaters their diet consists mostly of shad. Live shad, therefore, stand out as the bait of choice. The best spots, generally speaking, are deeper than surrounding waters, close to hard structure and close to the current but in some kind of current break.

Anglers who venture into the tailwaters need to be aware that rules vary according to the national security level regarding how close they may venture to dams. Anglers can check with TVA at for warnings about specific area closures when establishing plans. Some dams have marked areas anglers cannot go past under any condition, and all have mandatory life jacket zones. Special closures are marked with buoys or denoted at boat ramps.

Farther down from the dams, flatheads hang tight to downed trees along outside river bands. These fish are tough to catch during the day because they stay very tight in the cover; however, they'll move onto flats across the ri

ver and at the heads of the same holes by night to feed. Anglers should set up on the flats but close to dropoffs and rig several lines with big, live bluegills and shad.

Moving to the far western end of the state, the Mississippi River rivals the Tennessee River as the state's best flathead destination, and many anglers would argue it deserves the No. 1 position. However, the Mississippi is vast and complex, making fish difficult to locate for many anglers and creating major hazards. The river level sometimes fluctuates 50 feet in a year, and sandbars and holes are ever shifting.

Prime areas for flatheads during the summer are deep runs next to revetment banks and waters on the upstream side of the wing dams. Live gizzard shad and big threadfin shad are the baits of choice. Getting baits to the bottom in the strong current requires several ounces of lead.

Wherever anglers target flatheads, stout gear is absolutely critical. Flatheads are incredibly powerful and they head straight for cover when they feel a hook. Anglers need rods that they can use to gain a lot of leverage and geared-down reels spooled with strong line. Flathead fishermen commonly use braided line that is at least 50-pound-test.


Blue catfish are big-river fish, and Tennessee has an abundance of big-river habitat. The Tennessee, Cumberland and Mississippi rivers all have produced triple-digit-weight rod-and-reel fish in recent years, plus various giant fish caught on trotlines or handlines. Tennessee's current state-record blue came from the Cumberland River and weighed 112 pounds, and a former world-record cat, which weighed 116 pounds, 12 ounces, came from the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River, just across the river from Memphis.

Of the 35 blue cats that qualified for TARP recognition last year, 31 came from somewhere along the Tennessee, Cumberland or Mississippi rivers. Three of the other four came from Marrowbone Lake, one of TWRA's Family Fishing Lakes. One came from a private pond.

The upper Tennessee River stood out as the top spot for large blue catfish in the TARP awards. Nineteen recognized fish came from one of the pools of the Tennessee River and 14 of those fish came from either Fort Loudoun or Watts Bar, the first two impoundments along the big river.

The upper Tennessee River has long been known as a premier area for trophy catfish. A big blue caught on a summer night by Chris Vitetoe of Knoxville in the early 1990s stood for a few years as the state-record blue, and the Class B record, which recognizes fish landed on commercial gear, is a 130-pound blue catfish caught in 1976.

Loudoun and Watts Bar, along with offering a tremendous amount of high-quality habitat, grow blue cats to super sizes because virtually all cats are released. Extensive fish-consumption advisories on both reservoirs include most cats, so anglers put nearly all fish back in the river.

However, big Tennessee River blues are by no means limited to the first two pools. Anglers enjoy outstanding success on Chickamauga and Nickajack as well, according to Jolly. Last year, a commercial angler pulled a 100-pound-plus blue from the Chattanooga section of the river.

Jolly sees the most targeted effort for big blues during the summer, when anglers drift along bluff banks, bouncing cut herring and night crawlers along the bottom for blues and channel catfish. The fishing is best, by far, when the generators are running, he noted. "It's like flipping a switch with that catfish bite when they turn on the water."

Drifting is also one of the best ways to catch midsummer big blues from the Mississippi River, which offers outstanding fishing for big blues along Tennessee's entire western border. While sections of the Tennessee River may support higher densities of big fish, the Mississippi almost certainly supports the highest total biomass of catfish per mile in Tennessee, and quality blues make up a big portion of that.

During summer, the river tends to stabilize, and life gets good for catfish. That allows them to spread out more, making it less practical for an angler to set up in a spot. James Patterson, a veteran guide from Memphis, spends a lot of time drifting during the summer. He looks for areas where the river widens, which spreads out the current. He also looks for uneven bottoms, having found that the blues will cruise along ridges and feed on shad as the baitfish move over the ridges in the current.

Along the Cumberland River, most big blues come from Nashville west in Cheatham Lake and the upper half of Barkley. The general area around Clarksville is especially popular among big-cat specialists. Like on the Tennessee River, anglers generally concentrate on bluff holes. However, many fish the big holes by anchoring and laying out spreads of cut bait along the bottom, instead of drifting.


While channel catfish aren't as glamorous as their overgrown cousins, they are Tennessee's most sought (and caught) catfish. Unlike their larger cousins, channels abound in rivers and lakes of every size. In fact, with the exception of trout streams, channel cats can be found virtually anywhere there is water in Tennessee.

Among the best areas in Tennessee for channel cats are TWRA's Family Fishing Lakes. These lakes, which are widespread in the central and western parts of the state, are stocked heavily with catfish on an annual basis. They also are fertilized to maximize productivity, so the cats tend to grow quickly.

Adding even greater value, shoreline access is invariably good around these lakes, and many offer inexpensive fishing boat rentals. Therefore, anglers who do not own boats enjoy the same access to the fine fishing as do boating anglers. As the name suggests, these lakes are ideally suited for family fishing outings.

While the 18 lakes in the program are all different in their offerings, all provide similar benefit to catfishermen. The best Family Fishing Lake for any given angler truly is the one closest to home, unless he has a specific preference toward a certain size or character of lake or simply wants to visit a new lake. A brochure that compares and contrasts the offerings of all the lakes and provides directions can be read online at Permit requirements and special regulations for these lakes are also available through TWRA's Web site.

In the eastern part of the state, the lower ends of major mountain rivers and impoundments along them offer abundant opportunities for catching channel cats. The French Broad River, from the North Carolina border all the way to the backwaters of Douglas Lake, is among the best catfish rivers in East Tennessee, according to TWRA stream biologist Bart Carter. Anglers can wade, fish from the banks or drift the river, although the French Broad does contain rapids in places. The lower end also can be boated by anglers who launch at the upper end of Douglas.

Douglas Lake, too, offers outstanding channel cat prospects. Highly fertile for a mountain lake, it supports large numbers of quality chan

nel catfish. Anglers generally will do best by venturing out after hours and fishing flats in the upper half of the lake, up the French Broad River channel. Cats hold in big holes by day and move onto the flats above them and across from them by night. Cut shad and herring would be tough to top as bait on Douglas Lake, where anglers actually might encounter flatheads, channels or blues.

Several tributary lakes in the Tennessee and Cumberland river systems actually offer very good fishing for channel cats. Top picks along Tennessee River tributaries include Cherokee Reservoir, which impounds the Holston River, and Woods Reservoir, which impounds the Elk River. Along Cumberland tributaries, anglers should try Dale Hollow on the Obey River and Percy Priest on the Stones River.

Because channel catfish are so widespread, anglers should not overlook the waters that are closest to home and that they are most familiar with for targeted catfish efforts. Chances are excellent that good catfishing is not far away.


Jeff Samsel is the author of Catfishing in the South, a complete guidebook to catfishing on lakes and rivers throughout the South. To order, send a check for $21.95 to Jeff Samsel, 173 Elsie Street, Clarkesville, GA 30523. For more information, log onto

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