Four tributaries that flow into Tennessee's three biggest rivers are often overlooked by catfish anglers. Find out what you've been missing.
Photo by Stephen E. Davis
World class in their big-cat offerings, Tennessee's three biggest rivers understandably attract most of the catfish headlines. Beyond their obvious bounties, however, is the added bonus of having hundred of miles of creeks and rivers that feed the three biggest flows. These waters seldom get talked about among catfishermen, but several offer outstanding whiskerfish prospects. Local anglers know about the excellent offerings of many of these streams and enjoy the fine action. However, these anglers don't tend to talk much, and outstanding catfish rivers in all parts of the state tend to be overlooked by the masses. Let's take a closer look at some of those streams and their offerings to catfishermen. We'll begin at the far western end of the state and work our way east.
From the Mississippi state line, where the Hatchie River enters Tennessee, all the way to the river's junction with the Mighty Mississippi, the Hatchie River looks much like it would have a century or two ago. Unlike most other major rivers in the western part of the state, which have been channelized and robbed of their original character, the Hatchie twists and turns endlessly throughout its course, winding through the broad backwaters of Hatchie Bottom and breaking into various side channels and oxbows.
The Hatchie River supports an outstanding catfish population, according to Tim Broadbent, Region I fisheries biologist for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Channel cats clearly dominate the population and make up the bulk of most anglers' catches; however, big flatheads lurk in timber-tangled holes -- awaiting those anglers who want to target them. In addition, some blues move up into the lower river from the Mississippi.
Broadbent said that catfish anglers should focus on the lower half of the Hatchie, noting that the river is narrow and somewhat swift upstream of Brownsville. Anglers who do want to fish the upper river can float it in a canoe. Broadbent also said that fishing is generally best when the river is fairly clear, which tends to be the case during midsummer.
There are boat ramps beside several bridges, including the crossings of U.S. Highway 70/79, state Highway 54 and U.S. Highway 51. In between the ramps and downstream of Highway 51 are long stretches of twisting river that get extremely light fishing pressure.
Finding catfish along the Hatchie should not be a difficult task for fishermen. Virtually every bend, of which there are hundreds, offers the combination of current, current breaks, cover and depth that channel catfish favor. Armed with chicken livers, shrimp or stink bait, anglers can anchor at the head of a hole, cast a few bottom rigs downstream and find out pretty quickly whether fish are home and willing to bite in any given hole. If the rods don't jiggle in 15 or 20 minutes, there's no reason to hang around. The next hole downstream may be loaded with active cats.
Flathead fishermen must be more discerning about locations and more careful about approaches. Flatheads favor the deepest holes and the thickest cover available, and they lie in the hardest places to get baits into (and to get the big cats out of when they do bite!). Flatheads eat mostly live fish, so a live bluegill or other palm-sized fish is tough to beat as bait. Flatheads also are the most nocturnal of the catfish clan, so anglers who are serious about these big cats often venture out under the stars.
Arguably, the best way to fish the lower Hatchie, where flatheads are most apt to show up, is to carefully place a couple of live baits on heavy outfits into likely flathead lairs but also put a couple stinky offerings on the bottom for channel cats. The channels virtually guarantee action, while the flatheads provide a big-fish opportunity.
Moving east to the central part of the state, the Duck River is absolutely loaded with catfish, according to Frank Fiss, a TWRA stream biologist. Last year, TWRA actually did some targeted catfish sampling in a few Middle Tennessee streams, including the Duck, and they found very high cat densities. Channel cats brought up in samples averaged about 2 pounds, but Fiss saw plenty of fish up to about 10 pounds and is confident there are bigger channel catfish in the river.
The Duck River almost certainly supports some flatheads as well, Fiss noted. However, no flatheads showed up in the samples, and he does not believe there is a major population of really large flathead catfish.
Cats can be found throughout the Duck River, which rises near Manchester and flows west across a big swath of Middle Tennessee before eventually backing up to form a major arm of Kentucky Lake. However, Fiss suspects that the middle part of the river offers the best overall prospects for fishermen. The upper reaches are swift and shallow and contain less quality cat habitat. Through the lower river, fishing is good, but access is somewhat limited.
A city dam in Columbia creates a wider, deeper river than otherwise is the case for several miles upstream of the dam. Downstream of Columbia, numerous stretches in the next 30 or so miles of river can be floated in johnboats to reach prime catfish holes.
A cartop johnboat is the ideal craft for the Duck. The river contains some shallow sandbars and gentle shoals throughout its course, and it is accessible mostly at bridge crossings and pull-offs along road rights of way where there are no formal ramps. Lightly fished and winding through a largely undeveloped part of Tennessee, the Duck is a really nice river to float, Fiss said.
The Duck is generally turbid and somewhat lazy. It doesn't twist nearly as much as the Hatchie, so anglers must consider areas other than river bends to fish. Tangles of timber along the banks probably hold the most cats. Deep ruts form as current washes around the treetops and cats hold among the branches waiting for food to get swept past. Other good areas are holes at the lower ends of chutes that wrap around islands and pools downstream of shoals. Of course, river-bend holes also hold plenty of catfish. They just aren't as prevalent or as defined as those along the Hatchie River and some other rivers.
Again, anglers who hope to tangle with flatheads need to concentrate on the deepest water and thickest cover they can find, fish with live bait and generally look toward the lower reaches of the river.
Along with sampling the Duck, TWRA biologists also surveyed catfish populations of the Buffalo River, which flows into the Duck just upstream of the Duck's confluence with the Tennessee River. The Buffalo, like the Duck,
supports a terrific channel catfish population and gets very little pressure from serious catfish anglers.
The Buffalo likely contains a few flatheads, but it is essentially a channel catfish stream and most anglers would consider it a bonus if they were to catch a flathead. Anglers can find plenty of action in the Buffalo with night crawlers or chicken livers fished on the bottoms of deep runs. Crawfish also will work very well and are apt to produce a fair number of other fish, including various sunfish and black bass species.
Despite being part of the Duck River watershed, the Buffalo River is quite different in character than the stream it feeds. Along with being significantly smaller, it is clearer and rockier, with more ledge habitat. While it contains no real rapids, it's full of gentle, rocky shoals, many of which have deep holes immediately below them. Those holes offer fine catfish habitat, as do deep runs along bluffs that bound outside bends.
The Buffalo is a popular canoeing destination, and a canoe is the ideal craft for fishing it effectively. Some sections also can be floated in cartop johnboats, but during the summer, when water levels tend to be low, anglers are apt to spend a lot of time dragging boats across shallow rocky areas.
The Buffalo winds through private lands and has no developed boat ramps -- probably because of its relatively small size. However, bridge crossings and paralleling roads provide good access to most sections of the river.
The Holston River forms at the confluence of the North and South Forks of the Holston in northeastern Tennessee. A good-sized stream from the point where it officially forms, the Holston offers good opportunities for catfishing both upstream and downstream of Cherokee Lake, which impounds the Holston near the mid-point of its run.
Upstream of Cherokee Lake, the Holston is best known for its heavyweight smallmouth bass. Downstream, a fairly new tailwater trout fishery has attracted the most attention in recent years. However, both sections are loaded with channel catfish, especially in deep runs between shoals and along steep outside banks everywhere the river twists to the left or the right.
A few miles of the extreme upper river are closed to all access because the river cuts through the property of the Holston Army Ammunition Plant. While there is limited shoreline access upstream of the plant where an angler could fish, most practical fishing access begins below the HAAP property. From downstream of the plant, the river can be floated in canoes or cartop johnboats, and much of it can be navigated with jet boats, traveling upstream from the upper end of Cherokee Lake. During midsummer, however, vegetation gets thick through much of the river, making jet boat navigation challenging.
An alternative approach is to wade shoals and fish deep holes immediately below them or to fish holes from the bank. Some anglers combine floating and wading, using canoes or johnboats to get to good-looking shoals and then wading to fish areas thoroughly.
Commercial dip baits work well for stationary anglers because particles break up and move downstream, causing the bait to also serve the function of a block of chum. Other traditional channel cat baits also work well when fished on the bottoms of the deepest holes in the river.
Downstream of Cherokee Lake, the Holston flows more than 20 miles before adding its flow to the French Broad River near the upper reaches of Fort Loudoun Lake. This section varies dramatically in character based on the amount of water flowing through Cherokee Dam. When the river is completely down, a johnboat will barely scrape over some shoals. With at least a couple of turbines turning, much of this section of river can be navigated even with a prop boat.
Again channel catfish are the main attraction and dominate cat populations. Cut shad or skipjack herring make great bait choices in the lower Holston as baitfish move up from Fort Loudoun and sometimes get poured through Cherokee Dam. Anglers either can anchor along the edges of holes, laying baits on the bottom, or drift through deep runs, bouncing three-way rigs beneath or behind them.
FRENCH BROAD RIVER
The French Broad River, like the Holston, offers two major sections for catfishermen to explore. The first section begins at the North Carolina/Tennessee border, where the river enters the Volunteer State, and runs between the mountains to the headwaters of Douglas Lake. The second section extends from Douglas dam to the headwaters of Fort Loudoun, where the river joins forces with the Holston to form the Tennessee River.
Channel catfish are extremely abundant in the French Broad River, according to Bart Carter, a Region IV fisheries biologist for TWRA. Catfishing is fairly popular in the river, especially in the free-flowing upper section. However, virtually all directed catfishing pressure in all parts of the river is from local fishermen. Most know the good summer holes and enjoy very good dog-day success.
The French Broad River has already run many miles by the time it enters Tennessee and is fairly large. It's a tumbling stream, with abundant shoals and a smattering of legitimate rapids. All boating is by canoe, and a fair amount of paddling skill is necessary to safely navigate some sections.
A better solution for many anglers this time of the year is fish from the bank or wade shoals and cast into deeper holes. The river tends to run low during midsummer, making wading practical in a lot of areas that would not be wadeable other times of the year. Providing an advantage to wading fishermen, cats are likely to pile up in pools immediately downstream of rapids because the deep holes are well aerated and tend to be somewhat cool.
The lower end of this section also can be accessed by boat from the headwaters of Douglas Lake. The type of boat and the distance it can travel upstream varies according to the levels of the river and the lake and the skill of the boat operator.
Except in the backwaters of the lake and a few localized areas that anglers must be very familiar with, the upper French Broad really doesn't lend itself to after-hours fishing by boat because of its rugged nature. However, anglers who fish in the flat waters at the extreme upper end of the lake or set up along the banks along the edges of deep holes to fish at night commonly enjoy very good fishing action.
The section of river downstream of Douglas Dam is much like the lower section of the Holston in that its character varies dramatically according to the amount of water that is flowing through the dam. The major difference is that access is quite good from the dam all the way to Fort Loudoun. Anglers can pick from numerous floats or johnboat access points or can fish the river from the bank or by wading at several points.
The upper half of this section generally offers the longer sections of deep water and flatter water overall. However, the shoals that dot the lower end offer more defined pools, which again tend to concentrate the catfish during midsummer.
BEFORE YOU GO
Anglers may keep one catfish of more than 34 inches daily in Tennessee. There is no limit for smaller catfish. Channel catfish of more than 30 inches and flatheads or blues of more than 34 inches qualify anglers for recognition through the Tennessee Angler Recognition Program. For details about the program, including a downloadable application, plus much more on fishing in Tennessee, check out the TWRA's Web site at
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeff Samsel is the author of Catfishing in the South. To order a signed copy, send a check for $21.95 to Jeff Samsel, 173 Elsie Street, Clarkesville, GA 30523. For more information, visit