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Catfishin' Near Knoxville & Nashville

Catfishin' Near Knoxville & Nashville

Looking for hot catfish action this summer? The best opportunities may be closer than you realize. (August 2009)

Big blue cats in the riverine upper end of Watts Bar generally bite best when good current is running through the river.
Photo by Jeff Samsel.

The cat's already out of the bag, so there's no use holding anything back. Some of the best catfishing found in the Volunteer State (and the nation for that matter) is downright handy to folks who live in and around Knoxville and Nashville. Whether you seek fast action or a legitimate chance to catch a true trophy catfish, opportunity is never far away. Let's take a closer look.

Fort Loudoun
Knoxville residents definitely don't need to travel far to find good catfishing opportunities. Fort Loudoun, which runs right through Knoxville, offers some of the state's finest big-cat prospects. Anyone who questions that needs only to look at the Class B (methods other than rod and reel) state records list. Commercial anglers pulled a 130-pound blue catfish from Fort Loudoun in 1975. Loudoun also produced a former state-record blue for rod-and-reel catches. Although that record has since been toppled, it adds to the evidence of the quality of fish this lake is capable of producing.

A downside of catfish angling in Fort Loudoun is that no catfish over 2 pounds should be consumed because of PCB and mercury contamination, and the contamination is significant enough that commercial fishing is prohibited. However, for anglers who want the opportunity to catch big blues, flatheads and channel cats and who are not concerned about bringing fish home, Fort Loudoun offers terrific prospects.

The uppermost reservoir along the Tennessee River, Fort Loudoun impounds 55 miles of the main river from the confluence of the French Broad and Holston rivers, where the Tennessee River officially forms, to Loudoun Dam. The riverine upper end runs through downtown Knoxville. Excellent prospects for catfish also extend up both major tributaries.

Heavyweight blues are the most abundant of the "big cats" in Fort Loudoun. However, flatheads also grow to super sizes. Channel catfish, meanwhile, thrive throughout the lake and produce fast action for anglers who aren't necessarily worried about catching giants.

During the summer, most serious catfishing on Fort Loudoun takes place after the sun goes down. Flatheads and blues move out of their deep-water haunts at night, and they feed much more readily than they do during the day. Plenty of cats can be caught by day, but summer nights yield better prospects for putting trophy flatheads and blues in the boat.


Flatheads and blues are big-river species by nature and they relate to the Tennessee River channel throughout the lake. Flatheads closely associate themselves with structure and cover and will hang along sharp channel ledges and bluff walls, especially where there is timber right along the break. Big blues, in contrast, are more apt to follow the food, and the best concentrations typically will be beneath or among big schools of shad. Anglers can find both species with electronics by searching holes along river bends and inundated channel confluences. The cats often will hold in the deepest parts of the holes by day and move onto adjacent flats to feed at night.

Anglers who are specifically targeting trophy cats should bait up with big chunks of skipjack or gizzard shad for blues and live fish for flatheads. However, down-sized pieces of the same baitfish, "shad guts" and cut threadfin shad generally will produce fast action from channel cats and blues up to about 15 pounds in many areas where the big blues feed.

Anglers targeting numbers more than trophies should also fish big creeks, such as Little Turkey and Sinking, upstream of the forks in the river, and in the canal that connects Fort Loudoun with Tellico Lake. The canal can be especially productive when water is being run through Loudoun Dam (day or night) because it creates a current through the canal.

More than 25 boat ramps provide good boating access to all parts of Fort Loudoun, and bank-fishing is possible from many of the same access areas.

Watts Bar
Located immediately downstream of Fort Loudoun on the Tennessee River, Watts Bar continues where Loudoun leaves off and is an absolute trophy cat factory. Again, all three major catfish species are well represented. However, heavyweight blues are the main attraction for many serious catfishermen. Like Loudoun, this is somewhat of a forced catch-and-release fishery. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency recommends that anglers not eat any catfish from this lake because of PCB contamination.

Watts Bar is a big reservoir, impounding approximately 38,000 acres along the Tennessee River. Its upper end is highly riverine. The lower end is substantially broader, with coves, islands, broad flats and big creek arms creating more complex fish habitat on both sides of the main-river channel. The Clinch and Emory rivers also join forces with the Tennessee River within Watts Bar, adding substantial volume to an already large river.

Through the lake's upper end, where serious fishing for big cats is the most popular, current dictates everything. When the wheels are turning at Loudoun Dam and current is pushing steadily through the river, the cats feed aggressively. During slack-water times, the fish become much tougher customers. However, even when no water is being pushed through the lake from Loudoun Dam, power generation through Watts Bar Dam will pull water through the main body in the lower lake, making fish in that part of the lake more active.

Big blue catfish in the upper half of the lake relate to classic river holes, where deep water is adjacent to flats. For anglers who don't know the river well, the easiest holes to locate are along hardest bends in the river channel and are recognizable by the bluffs that rise straight from the water's edge. The blues and channels will hold along the slopes at the tops of the holes and along the edges of the same holes.

Big chunks of fresh skipjack are tough to beat for big blue catfish in these waters; however, other types of cut fish will suffice in a pinch. Most anglers anchor upcurrent of where they want to place their baits, cast downstream, let the baits settle on the bottom and put the rods in holders, with reels engaged. Oversized Carolina rigs with large egg weights and circle hooks work well. Because of the sheer size of many river holes, it's often necessary to reposition the boat three or four times before the baits end up near a concentration of big cats.

In the broader lower lake, many anglers choose to drift, dragging the same types of baits along the bottom. Before beginning drifts, these anglers usually do a fair

amount of looking with their electronics, seeking out both baitfish and catfish and looking for humps or channel edges to drag baits across. A small float pegged between the weight and the hook is really helpful for keeping hooks out of bottom snags.

Access to all parts of Watts Bar is very good, with more than 35 boat ramps scattered from one end to the other.

Cumberland River
As good as catfishing can be on the upper Tennessee River, Knoxville anglers don't own a monopoly on close-to-home catfishing action in Tennessee. The Cumberland River, which runs right through Nashville, is also an outstanding river for catching big cats, and it, too, offers anglers opportunities to catch all three major species of catfish. And yep -- they grow big there, too. In fact, the current state-record blue catfish, a 112-pound monster caught by Robert Lewis in 1998, came from the Cumberland.

The Music City section of the Cumberland, best known simply as "the river" to folks in Nashville, is actually part of Cheatham Reservoir. Upstream and downstream are Old Hickory and Barkley, respectively. The upper third of Barkley, which winds through Clarkesville, is the best-known Cumberland section for big catfish, but all three Nashville-area pools offer good catfishing opportunities.

For dog day cats on the Cumberland, Doug Markham of the TWRA suggested focusing on the tailwaters of Old Hickory and Cheatham dams. Markham, a popular Nashville-area radio host and the public information officer for the TWRA's Region II office, said that he has enjoyed terrific success catching big blue catfish from the waters immediately below the dams this time of the year. Making things even better, these waters are accessible by boat or from the banks.

Channels, flatheads and blues alike find thermal refuge in the moving waters beneath the dams during the middle of the summer. Add a super-abundance of baitfish, a mix of depths, the structure of the dams themselves and plenty of riprap, and the cats have no reason to go anywhere else. Markham has done most of his summer catfish angling in the immediate tailwaters, but he noted that similar opportunities can be found through the first few miles beneath both of the dams.

A three-way rig fished straight beneath the boat and held just off the bottom typically works for tailwater cats, and anglers have the option of holding the boat stationary in eddies that are adjacent to current lines, or drifting along the edges of the flows. For hefty blues, big chunks of cut skipjack or shad work well. Chicken livers work nicely for channel cats, especially in slack-water areas. Flatheads will be near hard structure, like concrete walls, or in eddies along riprap banks, and they prefer live fish. Gizzard shad and bluegills are good choices.

Downstream of the tailwaters, the Cumberland fishes much like the Tennessee River during the summer, with the most dependable areas for finding big cats being along hard bends in the river channel. The combination of the deep holes that get scoured out and the abundance of timber that falls into those holes give the cats everything they need to stay fat and happy.

Channel cats are super abundant in the Cumberland River, and some of the best places to zero in on channels are around timber in the mouths of creeks or toward the upper ends of big pools where the bottom first begins sloping off. Anglers also will catch plenty of channel cats by fishing cut bait on the bottom from the shoreline at one of many access areas that are scattered along the Cumberland River's course.J. Percy Priest Reservoir

"As good as the river can be for big catfish, Nashville-area anglers should not forget about Percy Priest," Markham said. "Priest is absolutely loaded with catfish, including some really big fish."

A highly fertile impoundment of the Stones River that lies along the eastern edge of the Nashville metro area, Percy Priest offers flatheads, channels and blues, and all three species grow to big sizes. Despite the quality of its whiskerfish offerings, this lake has remained somewhat of a sleeper for cats. Summer nights will draw some jug-fishermen and a few rod-and-reel catfishermen, but most folks launching boats on this lake will be doing so with bass, hybrids or crappie in mind.

Though as in other catfish waters, Percy Priest cats can be caught by day, but some of the best action will occur at night. Flatheads, especially, get more active on summer nights.

Anglers seeking flatheads should focus on the edges of Stones River channel, especially in the upper half of the lake. Flatheads will be near bends in the old channel or creek confluences, especially if there are rockpiles (which abound in Priest) or tangles of timber nearby. They will also hang along bluffs. Live fish and heavy tackle are keys to catching flatheads.

Anglers who are more interested in action than numbers can fish flats adjacent to points in creek arms and bait everything with cut shad or livers for channel catfish. An excellent "best of both worlds" strategy for night-fishing on Priest is to put out one a "big rod" for flatheads and rig other rods with chicken livers or pieces of cut shad for channel cats.

By day or night, something worth remembering on Percy Priest is that the lake gets very solidly stratified by midsummer and the fish will not spend much time below the thermocline because of low dissolved oxygen levels. Because catfish are very bottom-oriented, most fishing will take place in waters that are less than 20 or so feet deep.

Lake Marrowbone
Finally, Nashville-area anglers should not overlook Lake Marrowbone as a catfishing destination. Part of the TWRA's Family Fishing Lakes program, Lake Marrowbone is regularly stocked with catchable-sized channels, and at times it has also been stocked with blue catfish. While Marrowbone will not produce many big catfish, intensive fish management and excellent access make this lake an ideal destination for families seeking catfishing action and some fish to take home for dinner.

Lake Marrowbone, which covers 60 acres, is located about 15 miles north of Nashville. Along with the excellent bank access that is typical of the Family Fishing Lakes, the lake's offerings include a fishing pier, boat rentals and fishing tackle. Markham suggests the boating approach. The rental boats are inexpensive and boating provides access to a lot more good waters, he noted. There is also a launch ramp for private boats; however, gas-powered motors may not be operated on the lake.

"Lake Marrowbone has a lot of downed trees around it," Markham said, "and you will catch a lot of catfish from around those trees."

For summer cats, it's tough to beat fishing chicken livers on a fairly light bottom rig. Night crawlers also work nicely. The best way to find fish is simply to move from time to time, putting baits around treetops, off points and around other cover or structure. If the catfish are nearby, they typically will make themselves known in relatively short time.

The combined limit for blue and channel catfish on Marrowbone Lake is five fish, w

ith no minimum size. A daily or annual permit is required in addition to a regular fishing license. The lake is open every day, with fishing permitted from a half hour before sunrise through a half hour after sunset.

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