Catfish find cooler waters, good current and plenty to eat in tailwaters, so it's not surprising the spots below dams are a favorite of Tennessee catfish anglers.
Low light, a nice river channel and cut bait: They all add up to big catfish in Tennessee.
Photo by Jeff Samsel
What's not to like if you're a catfish living in the tailwater below a big-river dam? Skipjack and shad of all sizes are ever present and usually abundant, and the water's a little cooler than what you would find just down the river. Good current flows over a rough, rocky bottom, often with swift water next to slacker areas. Beyond the boulders that litter the bottom, riprap lines both banks, and various concrete walls and barge ties provide additional cover. Plus, the bottom goes up and down like a roller coaster, creating even more great places to hide.
And what's not to like if you're a catfisherman? Tailwaters of large hydroelectric dams hold all the cats one might expect, considering their incredible offerings of food, current and cover. In addition, likely holding areas are generally fairly easy to recognize once anglers learn to read the water. Making things even better, angler access generally is very good, even for fishermen who are confined to the banks.
In Tennessee, the best tailwaters for catfishing, overall, are those along the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers. Cats grow to big sizes in the major rivers, and all three species are apt to show up. From there, making picks becomes a tougher proposition. Truly, all eight dams along these rivers and within Tennessee's borders offer high-quality catfishing. That fact acknowledged, we've selected four of the best. They are widespread across the state and each offers something a little different to fishermen.
FORT LOUDOUN DAM
Fast action is the name of the game in the waters downstream of Fort Loudoun Dam, southwest of Knoxville. Few really massive cats come from within sight of the dam, but the action can be very good when conditions are right, with plenty of decent-sized fish in the mix.
The right conditions, generally speaking, means water flowing through some of the dam's turbines. While the cats won't hold right in the heavy flow, they clearly feed more aggressively when some current is flowing. Anglers commonly fish around turbines that are off but close to turbines that are on, where swirling eddies and seams between current lines develop. Most either drift downstream in the current or hold over "blowout holes" near the face of the dam with motors kept running to hold position.
Philip Price of Asheville, N.C., an avid Tennessee River catfisherman who travels across the mountains almost weekly during the summer to target big cats, has enjoyed his best success below Loudoun Dam by fishing from the bank. He uses a large slip cork (large enough to float 3 ounces of weight) and suspends his bait 3 to 4 feet beneath the surface. His technique is simple. He casts upstream and lets the current carry the offering back downstream. With this method, which he has used to great success in several tailwaters, he can easily work up and down a riprap bank as he fishes in order to cover a lot of water.
Price uses live and cut threadfin and gizzard shad, but he generally prefers cut bait for targeting cats. Most fish he catches from the tailwater, which are a mix of blues and channels, weigh 3 to 15 pounds. Occasionally, he'll catch a 20-pounder.
Price also has drifted below Fort Loudoun and has caught cats using a couple of different techniques. One method is to fish several lines up off the bottom, essentially free-lining them as he drifts downstream. The other is to use a three-way rig with a 3- to 5-ounce bell sinker, ticking the weight along the bottom. Hang-ups are super-abundant, Price warned.
Not far downstream of the dam, in water still very much affected by tailwater flows, the Tennessee River does produce plenty of very large cats. In fact, the big bends in the river near the I-75 crossing are considered by some anglers to be among the best in the whole river for big-fish production. Price caught and released one massive blue from that section last summer that bottomed out 75-pound scales.
This is not pure tailwater fishing, and the biggest fish mostly come from the bottoms of deep outside bends; however, the quality of the fishing is largely controlled by the amount of water being poured through the Loudoun Dam, so it clearly is tailwater-oriented.
Tennessee Valley Authority, which owns and operates all the dams along the Tennessee River, maintains an access area below the dam on the north side of the river. Bank-fishing access is also possible from the same area. Anglers fishing near the dam need to exercise extra caution any time lights flash and sirens go off. This warning system recently put into place means that one of the turbines is about to come on.
Catfishermen should be aware of a fish consumption advisory for Watts Bar Reservoir, including the Fort Loudoun tailwater, which advises eating no catfish from this stretch of the Tennessee River because of PCB contamination.
Between Fort Loudoun and Chickamauga dams, the Tennessee River picks up the flows of the Emory, Clinch and Hiwassee rivers, to name a few, so it's not surprising that Chickamauga Dam and the tailwater below it are far bigger than Fort Loudoun's. The dam is close to a mile wide and has numerous turbines and flood gates.
Chickamauga Dam is only about five river miles upstream of downtown Chattanooga, so the swift water discharged from the dam flows right past the Tennessee Aquarium and the rest of downtown before turning south toward the canyon-like stretch beside Lookout Mountain and between Signal and Raccoon mountains. The tailwater offers tremendous catfishing opportunities in the heart of the Chattanooga metro area.
Everything is larger in scale beneath Chickamauga, including the fish. While anglers still catch more small to medium-sized channels and blues than anything else, any fish that yanks on a line could weigh 5 pounds or 50 pounds, and this tailwater definitely offers some of the best prospects in Tennessee for a true trophy cat caught from the shore.
Chickamauga also is much more of a serious flathead destination for anglers who choose to go after these big cats. Flathead fishermen commonly fish around the flood gates when the gates are closed, and along other slack areas near concrete walls, especially where the water is deep.
Access to the Chickamauga tailwater is on the south side of the river and includes a boat ramp and plenty of bank-fishing access along riprap banks and from a fishing platform near the dam. Again, anglers commonly use surf-casting gear to mak
e long casts upstream and out into the river. Long casts are helpful for reaching current edges and specific rockpiles that are recognizable by rough water. However, anglers also should not overlook the waters "under their feet." Many cats use the riprap that the water races beside, with the fish holding in little cuts along the banks or behind large rocks.
A broad tailwater, Chickamauga also offers plenty of room for boating anglers to work. Boaters commonly fish the deep washout holes where the turbines spill out, using their motors to hold in place in relatively calm areas and putting baits right on the bottom. Chicken livers or shad guts produce very fast action from channel catfish and small blues. Big pieces of cut skipjack or shad produce bigger blues.
Drifting is also very popular below Chickamauga, where multiple turbines, scattered rockpiles, divider walls, barge ties and other structures create a very complex equation of water-flow and eddy patterns. If some turbines are on and others are off, most anglers fish the gaps or drift along the seams. If most are running, fishing is often better farther down from the dam, along drops in the main river, on the back sides of rockpiles or in river bend holes. When no water is flowing, catfishing can become pretty tough.
Home of the annual Catfish Derby, the Pickwick tailwater is often called the Catfishing Capital of the World. The name fits, as few destinations anywhere in the world attract more attention from serious catfishermen than this vast tailwater, which is the second from the last along the Tennessee River. If the Tennessee River is big below Chickamauga, it's huge below Pickwick. The dam is roughly a mile and a half across and includes two locks, plus numerous floodgates and generators.
Similar to other tailwaters along the Tennessee River, access for fishermen is outstanding below Pickwick. Pickwick Dam Tailwater Recreation Area, operated by TVA, includes a boat ramp, plenty of shoreline access along the river and even a campground with 95 sites for folks who can't get in enough catfishing in a single day.
Catfishermen line the riprap below Pickwick Landing Dam from mid-spring through mid-fall and bring in cats of all sizes. Again, blues and channel catfish are the main attraction, but a few dedicated anglers who fish big live threadfin shad in deep areas near the dam sometimes wrangle up some seriously large flathead catfish.
Float rigs, like Philip Price uses in the upper Tennessee River, bottom-bumping rigs and basic Carolina rigs weighted with large egg sinkers all have their advocates. Most anglers use either chicken livers or cut bait. Threadfin or gizzard shad, caught fresh with a cast net and cut into chunks, is the most popular catfish bait. Bank-fishing anglers expect to lose a lot of terminal tackle along the rocky bottom, but they also expect to catch plenty of cats.
Of course, boaters get in on the action as well, using many of the same strategies that anglers use below Fort Loudoun and Chickamauga. The most popular technique, without question, is drifting with a three-way rig. However, anglers also anchor below rockpiles that current is flowing over or pull up close to the dam and fish deep holes around turbines that are off.
While waters within sight of the dam get the most catfishing pressure, the currents stay strong and steady for many miles as the Tennessee River begins winding north. Downriver from the dam, anglers either anchor at the heads of holes, laying several lines downstream with chunks of cut bait on the bottom, or they drift through big holes bouncing weights along the bottom with one or two big chunks of bait on droppers off the main line.
OLD HICKORY DAM
On the Cumberland River, the tailwater of Old Hickory Dam offers first-rate catfishing opportunities for Nashville-area anglers. In fact, a dozen or so miles downstream of Old Hickory, the Cumberland River runs right through Music City.
"It's a great place to fish for catfish," said Doug Markham, Region II information officer for TWRA, speaking about the Old Hickory tailwater. "There are high numbers of catfish, including channels, blues and flatheads, and everything from fiddlers on up to really big catfish."
Markham noted that he is not aware of many flatheads being caught from the immediate area of the dam, but that anglers who target them in the stretch of river immediately downstream catch plenty of flatheads, including some really large fish. Channels and blues of all sizes are highly abundant in the immediate tailwaters.
Access to the tailwater is outstanding. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates the dam, maintains recreation areas that offer boat ramps and parking on both sides of the river, and bank-fishermen enjoy good access from riprap banks along both sides. Boaters commonly run all the way to the dam at certain water levels, but Markham warned that there are plenty of shallow shoals that would tear up a motor or even the bottom of a boat.
The Old Hickory tailwater is similar to the Tennessee River tailwaters in character, except that it is a smaller river. The dam has four turbines, which run in various combinations.
"There is always some current," Markham noted.
Not surprisingly, anglers fish the Old Hickory tailwater with many of the same techniques as they use on the Tennessee River. Shoreline anglers use surf rods to make long casts toward current lines and bounce big pieces of cut bait off the bottom. Boating anglers commonly run close to the dam and drift back downstream, using three-way rigs to bounce baits along the rocky bottom. Others use their motors to hold over the washout holes and fish the same baits straight below them.
Bait choices range from chicken livers and shrimp to whole skipjack herring, Markham said. The most popular baits are cut skipjack and shad, especially the entrails from both. Tremendous numbers of skipjack fill the Old Hickory tailwater at times, and when they do, it would be tough to beat a fresh piece of cut skipjack as bait.
Anglers who specifically hope to catch flatheads should use live shad or bluegills and fish the deep washouts below major deadfalls in holes along outside bends farther down the river. The flatheads will be tight to the bluffs and within the thickest cover they can find. They feed more readily at night but will bite during the day as well.
Anglers fishing in tailwaters must understand that waters below dams can be extremely hazardous and that conditions can change very quickly. Waters near turbines and locks can become turbulent in a hurry, and currents throughout most tailwaters are deceptively powerful. In addition, boulders, rock walls and other hazards often are hidden barely beneath the surface.
Anglers should be very familiar with tailwater dynamics and be able to read currents before venturing near dams. Extreme caution is necessary, and all warning signs must be heeded. Boaters must remain on the lookout for other boaters and for fixed objects or shoals they may be drifting toward, and no one shou
ld ever tie off a boat to the face of a dam or anchor close to a dam. Major dams all have mandatory life jacket zones below them, in which life jackets must be worn at all times; however, it is a good idea to keep a life jacket on in any part of a tailwater.
Anglers also should understand that TVA and the COE take security very seriously and should never venture into an area that is posted as off-limits, whether by foot or in a boat. Prohibitions against fishing within 100 yards of dams that were put into place temporarily after 9-11 have been lifted; however, both agencies are vigilant about watching for suspicious activities and enforcing all regulations.
BEFORE YOU GO
Anglers are limited to one cat of more than 34 inches daily (includes all catfish species) in all Tennessee waters. There is no limit on catfish of less than 34 inches. Flathead or blue catfish of more than 34 inches and channel catfish of more than 30 inches qualify for recognition through the Tennessee Angler Recognition Program. Qualifying catches earn certificates whether the fish are kept or released, given proper validation. For complete details, check out the TARP information on the TWRA Web site at