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Your Guide To Tennessee's Top Catfishing

Your Guide To Tennessee's Top Catfishing

Here's a statewide guide to some of the best catfish angling for 2006. (June 2006)

It's really of no consequence where you live in the Volunteer State when it comes to catfishing. There are plenty of opportunities from the east to the west and the north to the south. It's a matter of learning about what's available in your area.

Bobby Wilson, Assistant Chief of Fisheries for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, points out the TWRA has made great efforts to improve catfish angling opportunities. One example of those efforts is the size limit that's in place to help sustain a viable catfish population, especially a viable trophy-sized catfish population. Only one catfish, 34 inches or greater, can be harvested per day per angler.

If you're looking for something to eat, you can keep all those under 34 inches you can catch. (However, there are a number of consumption advisories in effect around the state. They can be serious, so heed them. You can check these at twra/fish/contaminants.)

For high numbers of eatable-sized catfish, consider the agency lakes. (They're called TWRA Family Fishing Lakes on the TWRA Web site.) There are 18 of them scattered around regions I and II. That covers a large portion of the state. They are heavily stocked every year and offer great fishing.

Tennessee rivers set standards to which other rivers around the country should aspire when it comes to big fish. Flatheads and blues over 50 pounds are caught with regularity from them every year. And, there's always the possibility -- a realistic possibility -- of catching a seriously big one, say something over 75 pounds.

And then there are the massive reservoirs: There's at least one good one -- usually two or three -- in every region. They offer trophy potential as well as an opportunity to catch a mess of fish for supper. On top of that, they're great places for a combination fishing trip and family vacation. They offer nearly every recreational activity known to man.

Unfortunately, security is now a fact of life. All of the destinations highlighted in this article are open and available to anglers as of this writing. But there are some restrictions. And those restrictions change from time to time depending upon national security circumstances. Call the appropriate region office for up-to-the-minute information before making a long drive.

Overall, Tennessee anglers are in pretty good shape when it comes to chasing catfish. So, with that in mind, let's take a closer look at some of the best spots.


Region I, on the western side of the state, borders the mighty Mississippi River, home of some of the biggest flatheads and blues on the planet. Professional catfish guide James Patterson ( recommends that anglers looking to catch a big one from the Mississippi concentrate on the wingdams.

However, he quickly points out that not all wingdams were created equal. "The best ones have strong current over the top, slack water along the bottom and deep scour holes," he said with conviction. And by deep, he means deep -- his preferred depths range between 40 and 80 feet. The big fish lie in wait in the slack-water areas of the holes. "They (deep scour holes) are the best places on the river to fish for the big ones."

To fish these holes efficiently, he anchors shallow and fishes deep by throwing out toward the main river. He fishes with serious tackle. Heavy rods, reels, line and hooks are a must. These are big, strong fish living and fighting in swift current.

Like most trophy catfish anglers in West Tennessee, Patterson selects fresh, cut skipjack as bait for blues whenever it's available. After that, try frozen ones or maybe a shad. Use the head or fillets with the entrails attached. The more blood and body fluids the bait has, the better.

For flatheads, he prefers live skipjack, shad or other fish native to the Mississippi. Flatheads are predators, not scavengers. If you want a big one, fish with big bait. Something between 12 and 18 inches long is a good start.

For a mess of smaller catfish to eat, fish the shallow-water areas closer to shore, along the rock and sand. Lighter tackle will get the job done here. (There are strong consumption advisories for the Mississippi River, though -- especially around Memphis.)

A great place for both high numbers and good-sized catfish is the tailrace waters below the dam at Pickwick. Local catfish tournament promoter and angler Ken Freeman reports that weather conditions during 2005 were hard on this area, but it's still producing (

White and channel catfish weighing up to 5 pounds were plentiful during 2005 and the conditions of 2006 should be no different. These eating-sized cats can usually be found hanging around the mussel beds along the tailrace or sometimes in the narrows of the swift current itself.

The best baits are whole skipjack, shad guts, minnows and chicken or rooster livers. (Rooster livers -- when they are available -- are tougher and redder and seem to attract more fish.) Start fishing in about 30 feet of water and move shallower or deeper as conditions require.

For bigger fish, try stretches of water farther downstream from the dam. Popular spots include Diamond Island Point, above and below, the mouths of the Duck and Snake rivers and the chalk bluff area below Savannah.

Region I is also home to several agency lakes. These lakes are just about as good as it gets if you're looking for high numbers of smaller fish. They are all heavily stocked with channel and blue catfish. Forage and water conditions are excellent, so the fish grow quickly to eating size.

Fishing is restricted to one-half hour before sunrise and one-half hour after sunset. (One -- Garrett -- is open 24 hours a day.) Nearly all offer plenty of shore-fishing access and inexpensive boat rentals. Most other recreational activities are prohibited. A permit is required to fish them. Detailed information on all of these lakes is available from the TWRA Web site.

For additional information on catfishing opportunities in Region I, check the TWRA Web site at or give the agency a call at (731) 423-5725.


Region II, in the central part of the state, is home to Woods Reservoir. It's near Arnold Air Force Base and is a great catfish destination, according to John Riddle, fisheries biolo

gist for Middle Tennessee. It's in Coffee County just northeast of Tim's Ford. An impoundment of the Elks River, it was built in 1952 by the Air Force to supply cooling water to Arnold Engineering Development Center.

At a little less than 4,000 acres, it's sizeable enough to grow big fish and yet small enough to fish efficiently. Riddle reports that there are only a few flatheads and blues in the lake, but the channel catfish population is extraordinary. The number of channels between 24 and 28 inches is especially noteworthy. Most will "easily" weigh 10 to 12 pounds and can be caught in great numbers during both daylight and nighttime hours.

They can be caught around the lake, but most of the better fish are taken from the deeper waters near the dam. The deepest water is approximately 50 feet deep and can easily be fished with conventional tackle. Other top areas include drops and steep banks along the bluff walls that are found at the lower end of the lake.

During the spring, fall and periods of low light, the big channels will occasionally wander into the shallow-water areas at the upper end. Places near or adjacent to steep banks and drops will often produce the best action.

Chicken livers along with homemade and commercial stink baits are king in these waters. Fish them with a slip-sinker and a big circle hook for best results.

Despite 65 miles of shoreline, shore-fishing is limited on Woods. Much of the area is restricted by the nearby military installation. Do not trespass into restricted areas.

Woods Reservoir is a catch-and-release-only lake. There are strong consumption advisories in effect at this time.

Region II is also home to the one agency lake -- the only one in the state -- that regularly produces big catfish. That's Laurel Hill. It's in Lawrence County, approximately 15 miles west of Lawrenceburg, covers 325 acres and is full of fairly good-sized blues. Several fish weighing up to 40 pounds are caught each year from its waters.

Laurel Hill is a full-service family destination. There are numerous fish attractors throughout the lake along with a handicapped accessible fishing pier. There are plenty of shore-fishing opportunities as well as boat and trolling motor rental. Overall, it's one of the finest destinations in the state.

For more information about Laurel Hill, contact Lake Information at (931) 762-7200.

For more information on catfishing opportunities in Region II, check the TWRA Web site at or give the agency a call at (615) 781-6622.


District III, in the Cumberland Plateau, offers Volunteer catfish anglers two excellent places to chase their prey. Watts Bar Reservoir, located between Knoxville and Chattanooga, covers some 39,000 acres at normal pool and is home to some great trophy flathead and blue catfishing opportunities. (TWRA Assistant Chief of Fisheries Bobby Wilson likes this lake, in part because he caught a 51-pound flathead out of its waters in the spring of 2005.)

Several areas in the lake produce big fish, but one of the best is in the tailrace below the dam. Tailrace waters are known to offer great fishing, but the Tennessee Valley Authority has taken steps to make the fishing even better, primarily by adding features to the dams that boost oxygen levels in the tailrace waters. That makes for big differences and those differences are beginning to show.

Savvy anglers fish along the tailrace for several hundred yards below the dam with cut bait for blues and live bait for flatheads. Locals use a wide variety of rigs. One of the most popular is an old-fashioned bait walker, sometimes called a Lindy Rig.

Watts Bar is also a great place to do a little night-fishing. The areas along the creeks and inflows are especially popular. The catfish move up into these areas to feed under the cover of darkness. The darker the night, the better the fishing, most times anyway. Many spots offer excellent shore-fishing opportunities. Get a map and check the rules before taking advantage of them.

There's a consumption advisory for the lake. It's best to confine your efforts to trophy-class fish on this one.

Another great Region III body of water is Chickamauga Reservoir. It's below Watts Bar in the Tennessee River just north of Chattanooga. It covers about 36,000 acres, and a fairly decent population of channel cats call it home.

Like its neighbor to the north, there are numerous places in here to catch catfish, but one of the best is near the dam. There are expansive grassbeds all along the shoreline and they do hold channel cats, plenty of them, in fact. This area is especially good after dark and during periods of low light. Fish the holes and weedlines for best results.

All you'll need is a medium-action rod, strong line, a sharp circle hook, a bobber and some good old-fashioned stink bait. Chickamauga channels can be very depth sensitive. A depth change of 1 foot can make all the difference in the world in your catch rate. Always vary the depth of your bait before moving to a new location.

There's no consumption advisory for Chickamauga, so it's a great place to catch a stringer for supper.

Both reservoirs have excellent facilities, including modern and spacious launch ramps, plenty of overnight accommodations and many bank-fishing opportunities.

For more information on catfishing opportunities in Region III, check the TWRA Web site at twra/index.html or call (931) 484-9571.


Region IV, in the eastern part of the state, is blessed with several solid catfish venues. If you're talking big fish, then the first that comes to mind, according to Doug Peterson, Region IV fisheries biologist, is Fort Loudoun.

Fort Loudoun is located on the Tennessee River, just a short drive from Knoxville. At normal pool, the water covers 14,600 acres and offers over 370 miles of shoreline.

The catfish caught in this reservoir are massive. Peterson reports anglers regularly catch channel cats up to 30 pounds, flatheads in the 40- to 50-pound range and blues up to 60 pounds (and, rarely, blues even bigger than that). Those are big ones -- anytime, anywhere and under any conditions.

That's the good news. Unfortunately, there's bad news as well. The reason for this extraordinary size is the consumption advisory. Fort Loudon is strictly catch-and-release.

However, to do the releasing, you first must do the catching. Most of the biggest fish are taken from deep waters near the dam or from the steep-sided, very deep tributaries that flow into this reservoir. Daytime angling centers on areas with h

eavy, deep shade and large schools of baitfish. After dark, the fish follow the baitfish into more shallow water.

These brutes require heavy tackle. Heavy-action rods and reels are the norm. Line test weights above 50 pounds are common and hooks in the 6/0 to 10/0 size range are considered ordinary.

If you want a few to eat, Peterson suggests fishing either Cherokee or Douglas reservoirs. Both offer good, solid populations of catfish and as of this writing, there are no consumption advisories in effect for either venue.

Both support excellent populations of channel cats between 3/4 pound and 5 pounds. That's darn near perfect for the frying pan. Cherokee will occasionally produce a blue up to around 20 pounds.

The best place to fish for eating-sized channels on Cherokee is around the steam plant at the extreme upper end of the lake. Most of the keepers are caught on either homemade or commercial stink baits bounced along the bottom with a Lindy rig or a Carolina rig.

On Douglas, most of the cats are taken from weedlines or from weed-lined channel drops and breaks. If you can find a spot with a sharp twist or turn, so much the better.

Unless you're looking for one of the big blues in Cherokee, ordinary tackle is the norm on both lakes. Medium-weight open-face spinning rods and reels with 6- to 10-pound-test line should be adequate.

In some years, the channel cat spawn on these lakes can occur late in the season. (It'll happen when the water reaches approximately 75 degrees.) When that occurs, the channel cats will move toward rocky areas. The very best spots are ledges and rock outcroppings with deep cuts and crevices in them. Fish these areas with stink baits or live minnows at this time of year.

For more information on catfishing opportunities in Region III, check the Web site at www.tnfish.orgor call (423) 587-7037.

Well, there you have it, a survey of catfishing opportunities around Tennessee. They're good, whether you're after fun, trophies or supper. Fish one of them this year.

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