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Tennessee's Top Catfish Angling

Tennessee's Top Catfish Angling

Looking for a trophy cat or a mess of fish for a weekend fish fry? These are some great catfish spots in Tennessee. (June 2009)

Spring is starting to give way to summer and that is a sure recipe for excitement among catfish anglers in the Volunteer State. Although catfish can be caught all year long, they have always held the distinction of being a summertime pursuit. Summer is a good time to catch a mess of catfish, but far from the only time of year catfish bite well. Perhaps their summertime reputation is partly because many other species of fish become much harder to catch when the weather turns muggy or maybe it's simply because more people are out fishing in the summer. Regardless of the reason, every whiskerfish angler in the state knows that great catfishing is at hand right now.

Whether you prefer fishing from boat or bank, there are some tremendous opportunities for catfishing in Tennessee. Not only do the large rivers and reservoirs have great natural populations of catfish, but the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) has done a great job of stocking supplemental fish into numerous smaller locations across the state, as well as adroitly managing our natural catfish fisheries.

There are three main species of catfish of interest to Tennessee anglers. The most popular is obviously the channel catfish. It is the most widespread with distribution from small farm ponds to the largest of reservoirs and river systems. It is also the most readily caught, as it will bite a wide variety of bait ranging from a multitude of live offerings to all forms of purchased or homemade stink baits. Channel cats are most frequently caught in what is known as fiddler size, but they can weigh upwards of 30 pounds, as evidenced by our 41-pound state record.

The largest of our whiskerfish is the blue catfish. It is the true giant of the catfish with fish commonly weighing between 40 and 60 pounds. Of course, they can get much larger. Our state-record blue cat weighed 112 pounds and the world record weighed 124 pounds. Blue cats can be caught on similar baits as channel cats, but most of the biggest specimens are duped with live bait or large pieces of cut bait.

The last of our big three is the hardest to catch. Flathead catfish aren't frequently caught on the usual smelly catfish baits as are channel cats. Instead, they are a very adept ambush predator and prefer live bait, such as bluegills or minnows. Their distribution, habitat preferences and feeding habits make them more of challenge than the former two species. However, flatheads can grow quite large and are tremendous fighters when hooked. Our largest ever caught in Tennessee weighed an impressive 85 pounds, 15 ounces.

Regardless of your preference of species or angling method, there are ample locations for great fishing nearby. Following is a look, from east to west, at some of our best catfishing opportunities across the state this year.


The western end of the state gets a lot of publicity for its great catfishing, but there are some mighty good catfish holes over in the eastern end as well. One of the better locations is at Douglas Lake, between Knoxville and Greeneville. An impoundment of the French Broad River, Douglas is 30,400 acres and pretty fertile for a mountain lake.

The lake holds a really decent population of channel catfish, but anglers can also stumble onto good flatheads and blues as well. Some of the best summer fishing occurs in the lower end of the lake, but good cats can also be caught in the upper end during spring and fall. Even up into the French Broad River can be good at times.

Douglas Lake reaches depths up to 140 feet, but anglers should remember that the lake is subject to stratification in the summer months. Although catfish enthusiasts usually like to target the bottom, fishing effort in the upper end of the lake needs to stay above the thermocline to find actively feeding cats. Some of the best catfishing times are after rain events when the lake is on the rise and getting muddy.

Anglers in the east may also want to try Cherokee Reservoir. This reservoir totals some 30,300 acres and offers cat-anglers a good chance at a mixed bag. All three major catfish species are present.

The TWRA began stocking blue catfish at Cherokee nearly 20 years ago, and there are good numbers of quality-sized fish available. The channel and flathead populations reproduce naturally and anglers will find strong populations of both catfish. An ample shad and alewife forage base allows the catfish to grow quickly.

Fort Loudon Reservoir is a TVA impoundment along the Tennessee River and therefore is home to a great catfishery. There are good numbers of all of the big three catfish species and some jumbo specimens are caught frequently. Since the TWRA began the Tennessee Angler Recognition Program (TARP) in 2004, there have been numerous certificates awarded for catfish hauled from Fort Loudon, both in the lake proper and at the tailwaters.

Fort Loudon totals around 14,600 acres. Unfortunately, the great catfishery there is a bit underutilized due to a fish consumption advisory. Because of PCB contamination, the TWRA advises anglers not to eat any catfish from Fort Loudon weighing more than 2 pounds. However, for anglers targeting catfish just for sport, there are some real trophies waiting to stretch their lines at Loudon.

Over in Sullivan and Washington counties, anglers have another Eastern Tennessee lake with a great catfish population. Boone Reservoir is home to a naturally reproducing population of channel and flathead catfish, and the TWRA stocks blue catfish. Anglers will find good numbers and size of each.

Boone suffers from catfishing underutilization as well. There is a fish precautionary advisory in place at Boone which limits the amount of catfish that can be eaten and by whom. Certain at-risk people, such as children, pregnant women and nursing mothers, should not eat the catfish at all.

When thinking of catfish in this area of the state, most anglers picture the big reservoirs along the Tennessee River as well as the river proper. And it's with good reason, because some of the best catfishing in the state is found along the Tennessee River system. However, up in the northern part of this region on the Kentucky line is a lake that hardly gets noticed for catfish.

Dale Hollow Lake is without question our most popular destination for smallmouth bass and has achieved worldwide acclaim for its bronzeback fishery, partly because of producing the world record. However, it does have fairly decent populations of both flathead and channel catfish. With so much emphasis and fishing effort directed toward bass, catfish anglers can find an underutilized fishery at Dale Hollow.

Of course, as mentioned, some of the best catfishing in this region occurs along the Tennessee River. The three successive reservoirs, Watts Bar, Chickamauga and Nickajack, all have great catfish fisheries and produce some huge cats for anglers each year. All three lakes receive a great deal of fishing effort for catfish.

Nickajack Reservoir extends some 46 miles from the dam all the way up to Chickamauga Dam. The lake consists of 179 miles of shoreline and 10,370 surface acres of water. Much of Nickajack is riverine. A portion of the impoundment runs through the Tennessee River Gorge, known as the Grand Canyon of Tennessee.

All three main species of catfish are present at Nickajack. A number of large catfish have been cited recently and there is very good trophy potential for the fishery. Anglers should be aware, though, that there is a precautionary advisory in place for eating the catfish from the entire stretch of the Nickajack Reservoir.

Above Nickajack, another dam forms Chickamauga Reservoir. Chickamauga begins right in heart of downtown Chattanooga and extends upstream some 59 miles. Like Nickajack, Chickamauga ends at the dam that forms the next reservoir on the river -- Watts Bar.

Chickamauga is much larger than its downstream sister. There are approximately 36,240 surface acres of water and some 784 miles of shoreline. There is very good access for catfishing at Chickamauga, both for boaters and shore-bound anglers.

Anglers will find plenty of catfish in this huge reservoir. Channel, flathead and blue catfish are all present in great numbers. Tremendous trophy potential exists here and a number of massive cats of all three species have been caught recently. Blue cats grow especially big and there is always the possibility of hooking a true monster.

The farthest reservoir upstream in this region is Watts Bar. Beginning at the Watts Bar Dam about halfway between Chattanooga and Knoxville, the lake continues over 70 miles upstream and totals nearly 40,000 acres. There are 722 miles of shoreline.

Watts Bar is an extremely popular destination for catfish anglers. All three species are in good number and TWRA creel surveys show anglers not only spend lots of time pursuing them, but also have very good success. While all three catfish are present in good numbers and size distribution, flathead catfish are particularly good. Unfortunately, Watts Bar catfish have been shown to exceed guidelines for PCB contamination and are not recommended for consumption.

Moving west across the state, we begin to find more diversity of catfish waters. Not only do we have large reservoirs and river systems, but we also have an opportunity to start sampling some of the great catfishing at the TWRA Family Fishing Lakes. Eight of the stocked lakes are located here within Region II.

Two of the Family Fishing Lakes with good catfish populations are Marrowbone Lake in Davidson County and Laurel Hill Lake in Lawrence. Both have strong fisheries for blue and channel catfish. While the former is relatively small at 60 acres, the latter totals about 325 acres and obviously can accommodate more anglers.

Both lakes have boat ramps, boat rentals, fishing piers and on-site bait and tackle sales. Laurel Hill Lake also has one section designated for youth fishing only. Both lakes have a five-fish daily creel on catfish. There is no size limit at Marrowbone, but catfish must be at least 14 inches to be harvested from Laurel Hill.

The Williamsport Lakes in Maury County are also part of the Family Fishing Lakes program. There are four lakes in total, with Whippoorwill Lake being for youth fishing only. There are both blue and channel catfish available. There is a 14-inch size limit and a five-fish daily creel for catfish.

There are also a number of large reservoirs in Middle Tennessee that offer great catfishing. Included in this region are J. Percy Priest, Old Hickory, Cordell Hull, Center Hill, Cheatham, Normandy and Tims Ford lakes. All have good populations of catfish.

Woods Lake is one of the best catfish locations in the entire area, but receives a limited amount of fishing pressure due to a fish consumption advisory. However, for those not wanting cats for the fryer, this lake can produce some incredible catches of big catfish. Channel catfish are the most numerous and are often caught up to 15 pounds. Large specimens of blues and flatheads are also very common.

Close to Woods Reservoir is another great catfish destination. Anglers won't find tremendous numbers of blue and flathead catfish at Tims Ford Lake, but they will find great numbers of channel cats. In fact, channel catfish make up some 90 percent of the entire catfishery. However, if an angler hooks either a blue or flathead, the possibility of it being a big fish is great.

Channel catfish also dominate the fishery at Old Hickory Lake, but anglers can also target good numbers of the other species as well. Most of the channel catfish that turn up in creel surveys tend to be in the fiddler size, but big fish are present. Old Hickory does get a lot of pressure from catfish anglers, though, and there is even a lot of access for bank-fishing.

Catfish anglers can expect to catch plenty of channel catfish, and some will be big. Channel cats are frequently caught up to 15 pounds. Although blue and flatheads are not caught as frequently, it's not uncommon to catch fish up to 30 pounds.

This area offers up some of the very best catfishing in the state. Everything from Family Fishing Lakes to huge reservoirs and massive river systems awaits area cat-anglers. No matter whether looking for fiddlers for supper or a huge trophy, this region has it all.

Although there are numerous great destinations in the west, one of the best is down on the state line at Pickwick Lake. After all, the lake is proclaimed as "The Catfish Capital of the World." While that moniker may be a bit of a stretch, there is definitely a world-class catfishery there with all three species present.

Phil King ( has been fishing the lake for 30 years and guiding for catfish for 11 years. He has won the Pickwick World Championship four times and believes the lake is one of the best catfish holes around. He said the best times for cats are in April and May and then again in October and November, although some of the biggest fish of the year can be caught in late July and early August.

North of Pickwick but still on the Tennessee River, anglers will find another great catfish destination at Kentucky Lake. Next door, Barkley Lake takes up residence along the Cumberland River. Both of these massive lakes have tremendous catfisheries that never seem to have a down year.

Two locations in the west are noticeably underutilized. Reelfoot Lake up in the northwestern corner of the state has a great population of channel cats with a few flatheads in the mix as well. Anglers can find a catfishery there that is pressured very li

ttle and catch some very decent fish. Another overlooked fishery is the Mississippi River. While that may seem a bit surprising, the river offers much more angling opportunity than what is being utilized. There are some huge fish swimming this massive river, which is the home of the world record blue catfish.

Ten of the Family Fishing Lakes are located in the west region as well. All are stocked with catfish. Two of the best include Brown's Creek Lake and Gibson County Lake. Both lakes have blue and channel catfish present, but the Gibson County fishery is predominantly channel cats. Brown's Creek Lake is located in Henderson County. It offers both shoreline and boat access. Most of the fishing at Gibson County Lake is done by boat because much of the surrounding shoreline is privately owned. For catfish, both lakes have a five-fish daily creel limit, but no length requirement.

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