Skip to main content

Super Summertime Catfishing In Tennessee

Super Summertime Catfishing In Tennessee

Here are two places that provide some great catfish angling during Tennessee's summers. (July 2008)

Photo by Mike Searles.

The popularity of catfishing seems to be on the rise among anglers in Tennessee and that's partly due to the sensational summertime fishing that's available. Anglers can catch catfish in just about any lake or river in Tennessee. However, there are some places that are simply special during the summertime.

Two of the top places in the Volunteer State to hook into Mr. Whiskers are Chickamauga Lake near Chattanooga and Old Hickory Lake near Nashville. Both of these places have huge numbers of catfish and have them in big sizes.

Chickamauga Lake and tailwaters has long been known as an outstanding catfish factory, but word is finally getting out to other than the local anglers. Richard Simms has fished this lake all his life and now guides on the lake and in the tailwaters. With his 40 years of fishing experience on these waters, he proudly proclaims himself to be a Tennessee river rat and he specializes in catfish during the summer months.

"The catfishing action is great all along the Tennessee River," Simms said. "However, the action in the Chickamauga tailwaters combined with the outstanding fishing in the lake is hard to beat any place in East Tennessee in my opinion."

Simms has developed specialized techniques for his catfishing success. The fishing patterns during July are actually good in both the lake and tailwaters. In a normal year, in terms of rainfall and water flow, he is in transition from the tailwaters to the lake during this month. But both places typically provide outstanding fishing in July.

"July is usually when I make the switch from primarily tailwaters fishing to primarily lake fishing," he said. "But the good news is the fishing is usually good in both places. Later on in the summer, I'll tend to key my catfishing efforts on the lake. But during April, May and June, I prefer the tailwaters."


He said that water flow does influence the action. In 2007, for example, the drought and ensuing lower flow of water slowed the tailwater fishing earlier than normal. However, during the previous year, the water flow was more normal and the fishing action was still hot in the tailwaters right through the month of July.

Simms has developed specialized patterns for both the tailwaters and the lake. He's sums it up by noting he practices the three "P's" of catfishing.

I'm referring to places, presentation and perseverance," Simms said. "The place you fish is a key component because that's the actual structure in terms of bottom contour changes. Catfish are highly oriented to underwater contour changes. The second "P" is presentation of the bait. Proper presentation is absolutely crucial to consistent success. Plus, perseverance, which is simply another word for patience, is the final ingredient. If you persevere with the right structure and presentation, you will usually be successful."

Simms breaks the tailwaters fishing into three distinct areas, each requiring an approach tailored to the specific conditions of that area. The first is the area very close to the dam, right below the discharge point, known as the "boils."

"Between the turbine discharge and the railroad bridge is one area that I drift-fish," he said. "The water here is always pretty shallow. Depending on the amount of discharge from the dam, we'll have between 5 and 9 feet of water. It may be shallow, but there's a strong current and the bottom is very rough. There are a lot of rocks, rock humps and other debris here. It's an ideal situation to find a lot of catfish in a very small area.

"This is a very short drift," he said. "When the fish are here, it's a pretty constant pattern of making a quick drift, motor back up and drift again process. While we'll catch some big fish here, the average size of the fish is 5 to 15 pounds. Most of the catfish will be blue catfish. I will occasionally catch channel catfish in the 2- to 5-pound class here as well."

Simms said that July is when the action on the larger blues begins to slow in the tailwaters and the action on the channel catfish actually improves. It is along this time that he makes the transition to the lake to fish for the larger blue catfish.

His gear is simple: He prefers medium spinning tackle for this type of fishing.

"Spinning tackle is just easy for most people to use and it gets the job done," he said. "I'll use 8- to 14-pound-test line with a 20-pound shock leader. I like a 3/0 Kahle hook. But there's a real secret that I think is the key to success and it is the crucial aspect of presentation. In this part of the river, I use no weight at all when drifting. I typically use chicken breast as my bait. Because the water is so shallow, I just let the bait tumble along naturally as I drift. I get hung up a lot less and catch a lot more fish. Essentially the bait is the weight. If there's not much water flow, I use a smaller chunk of bait. If there's a lot of flow, I use a larger chunk to get it down a little better."

Simms said that threadfin and gizzard shad are also very good baits, but by using the chicken breast he doesn't have to worry about catching fresh bait before each fishing session -- and the chicken seems to produce just as many bites.

The second section that he will focus on is the area immediately below this first drift. From below the railroad bridge downstream for several hundred yards can be a great place as well.

"Sometimes, the fish are not all the way up near the dam and I'll find them holed up here," Simms said. "In this stretch, there are some holes where the current will be broken and the fish will pile up there. Again, this is a good drift-fishing area because you can cover a lot of ground effectively."

The final tailwaters stretch for Simms is farther down the river, where he fishes much deeper holes of water.

"I seldom go more than a few miles down the river," he said. "But there are some places where the bottom depth will be fairly consistent, then drop into a deeper hole and come back up. These are prime places for catfish, especially really big catfish."

When Simms figures the fishing action will be more consistent on the lake, he makes his switch. The fishing style here is quite different, since he is now working the mainstream body of the lake.

"My preferred area on the lake is from the dam uplake about 16 miles to Soddy Creek," he said. "There ar

e plenty of bottom contour changes in that stretch of lake for me to fish. I'll usually work the main river channel in depths from 25 feet deep all the way down to 70 feet of water. Plus, there are times when I'll fish the large area around the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant."

Simms said he will focus on any type of bottom contour in the river that breaks the current flow. He said examples include deep holes, creek or ditch junctions with the river channel, as well as any kind of hump or high spot.

"Sometimes, big boulders on the bottom are prime places to find big blues," he said. "What I key on is anything that breaks the current flow so the fish have a defined place to ambush prey."

When fishing the main river portion of the lake, Simms will still usually drift-fish. However, because of the depths and the "feel" required for this type fishing, he will use a three-way swivel rig with about 3 ounces of weight on the bottom of the rig.

"When fishing in the deeper water in the lake, feeling the bottom is important to my presentation," he said. "Using a heavy weight helps my clients maintain that necessary feel as the current drifts us along. The leader line with the hook is usually from 18 to 36 inches above the weight. When considering the average size catfish we hook, that range seems to work best. I have not really determined any need to get more specific than that. The bait needs to be near the bottom but does not have to be right on it."

The basic technique is to keep the bottom sinker thumping the bottom as the boat drifts over the targeted structure.

"As we work around an area, the bottom will be a constant depth for a while, then from one bump to the next it will drop a couple feet or more. That's when you are likely to get a bite from a big catfish."

There are good areas all along the lake, even uplake from Soddy Creek, Simms said. He just doesn't have a need to go any farther than that. One section that many fishermen focus on is the Harrison Bluff area.

"I really like this place for summertime fishing," he said. "First, there's deep water. Plus, there are a lot of obstructions on the bottom that will hold catfish in good numbers and big sizes. Again, the primary problem I see some anglers have here is they don't pay attention to the three P's."

A final spot that Simms fishes is the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant area.

"Don't expect to get lonely fishing here," he said. "I believe this is the single most popular catfish spot in East Tennessee. Catfishing as a whole is getting very popular as fishermen discover how much fun it is. And here at Sequoyah, the action can be sensational.

"Even when there are dozens of boats in the area, there are times when everyone is catching catfish," Simms said. "This is as good a catfish factory as I've seen. It's not always that productive, but during the summer, it is certainly one spot that catfishermen need to consider."

The average size of catfish Simms expects to catch on either the tailwaters or lake is in the 5- to 15-pound class. However, he hooks into a number of much larger fish, with one of his customers landing a 54-pound blue last year. Fish over 20 pounds are not unusual. A typical day's catch may vary with the year, he said, but generally, he'll expect to catch 100 pounds of fish or more on most days.

"This seems to be linked to water flow again," he said. "If we have consistently good current, like we did in 2006, we were catching about 300 pounds of fish per day on rod and reel. But during the drought summer of 2007, it was more like 100 pounds a day. But that's still a lot of fishing action on quality-sized catfish.

"Most of my clients were absolutely thrilled with the action we had last year," Simms said. "While I had been spoiled from the previous year, this is still excellent fishing for a few hours of effort. It is amazing to many people how many catfish we have in Chickamauga Lake and the tailwaters."

You can contact Simms for an exciting catfish adventure at or call (423) 894-3684. His Web site is loaded with information and can be found at

Moving to the mid-state area, we'll look at another lake that consistently produces excellent summertime catfishing action. Old Hickory has a good population of the major species of catfish and much of the fishing in the lake is similar to that found on Chickamauga. However, there is one difference between the two fisheries that is of practical importance to an angler's strategy at Old Hickory: The depths being fished here are generally less extreme than at Chickamauga.

While the entire lake is certainly productive during July and throughout the summer, the area from the dam up to the Gallatin Steam Plant discharge is the stretch that most catfishermen fish on a regular basis.

Most of the action will be on the main river portion of the lake. While you'll make catfish catches in the major creeks, such as Cedar, Drakes, Spencer and Station Camp, the bigger catfish will be on the river channel during the summer.

At each of the above creek and river channel junctions, you'll have a potentially good catfish hole.

In addition, Old Hickory has dozens of small feeder creek junctions with the main river that are potentially very productive.

When there is good current flow in the main river, sometimes that action, even during July and August, will be sensational in water less than 10 feet deep. Some intersections of the underwater cuts and ditches with the river will be found in conjunction with humps and ridges along the channel.

A 10- to 15-foot-deep ditch that intersects with a 40-foot-deep river channel that also has a hump rising to 6 to 8 feet of the lake's surface can be a dynamite spot even during the heat of the day if the current flow is adequate.

When there is less current flow, anglers can work the slightly deeper waters of the ditch and down into the river channel. The bottom structure is such that it will usually be a magnet for catfish. You may have to explore around the area a bit to find that productive spot, but somewhere in that complex of structure there will be catfish. There are plenty of places similar to this scenario in Old Hickory Lake.

I have experienced situations at Old Hickory when I was catching catfish in 20 feet of water with little or no current flow present. Then the current flow began when generation at the dam was increased. Many times, within 15 minutes, we'd start catching catfish in rapid-fire succession on top of the hump in 6 feet of water.

Thus, a key to catfishing success on Old Hickory is being able to quickly adapt to changing water conditions at this time of the year. A good topographic map is a great ally to

help pre-determine potential catfish hotspots on Old Hickory Lake.

One favored way to fish on Old Hickory is to anchor and cast to the above-noted target areas. Typically, you can anchor on these structures in such a way you'll be able to fish multiple depths from one position, and doing so enables you to determine quickly which one is producing the best. If you don't get catfish bites within 15 to 20 minutes, move to another area. With the warmwater temperatures, if active catfish are in the area, they'll typically bite quickly.

Most anglers will use a 1/2- to 1-ounce slip-sinker above a swivel, with a 2-foot leader to the hook as the primary rig. Line test in the 10- to 20-pound range is typical.

Another method is to drift-fish, in a pattern similar to what Simms does on Chickamauga. That drift rig is universally productive when drifting for catfish. If the water depths you drift are somewhat less than Simms fishes on Chickamauga, you can reduce the weight on the end of the rigs.

The Old Hickory tailwaters area is also productive during the summer. However, most anglers would not rank it as productive as the Chickamauga tailwaters. For one thing, it is much smaller; however, there are plenty of good fishing hotspots for catfish from the dam down to the junction of the Stones River.

With these two lakes and the bonus tailwaters catfishing at each, anglers have great opportunities to hook up with Mr. Whiskers this summer. If you're looking for catfishing success, look no farther than these two areas.

But for consistent action, remember the three P's.

Find more about Tennessee fishing and hunting at:

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

Recent Videos

Host Shane Beilue covers three things to look for when considering square bills in shallow water.

New Shimano Baitcasters

Host Shane Beilue covers three things to look for when considering square bills in shallow water.

Incredible Turkey Audio: Tommy Allen Punches his Minnesota Tag IN THE SNOW

Host Shane Beilue covers three things to look for when considering square bills in shallow water.

First Turkey Ever: Perfect Conditions Make for a Short Hunt

Host Shane Beilue covers three things to look for when considering square bills in shallow water.

Bass Crash Course: Bass Froggin' Game Plan

Host Shane Beilue covers three things to look for when considering square bills in shallow water.

What to Know Before Going Off-Road

Host Shane Beilue covers three things to look for when considering square bills in shallow water.

Off-Road Safety Tips and Techniques

Host Shane Beilue covers three things to look for when considering square bills in shallow water.

The Right Tires for Off-Roading

Host Shane Beilue covers three things to look for when considering square bills in shallow water.

Bass Crash Course: Shallow-Water Power Lures

Host Shane Beilue covers three things to look for when considering square bills in shallow water.

Minnesota Double Down: First Visit to New Farm Goes Perfectly

Host Shane Beilue covers three things to look for when considering square bills in shallow water.

Bass Crash Course: Bass Fishing in the Wind

Host Shane Beilue covers three things to look for when considering square bills in shallow water.

She Kills The Biggest Bird of the Year

Host Shane Beilue covers three things to look for when considering square bills in shallow water.

Bass Crash Course: Unlock the Patterns Squarebill Crankbaits

Game & Fish Magazine Covers Print and Tablet Versions

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!


Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services


Buy Digital Single Issues

Magazine App Logo

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Game & Fish App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Game & Fish subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Enjoying What You're Reading?

Get a Full Year
of Guns & Ammo
& Digital Access.

Offer only for new subscribers.

Subscribe Now