Two Big Lakes for Big Tennessee Cats

The two big reservoirs that bound the Land Between The Lakes are clearly among the best in the state -- even the nation -- for catching big catfish. Here's how an expert fishes these waters.

By Jeff Samsel

No one knows Tennessee River catfishing like Phil King. The reigning Cabela's King Kat Classic champion, King has taken top honors in numerous major catfishing tournaments, both at home and on other waters, and he has brought in the biggest fish for the National Catfishing Derby five of the past seven years. Among those was a 64-pound blue caught in 1998, which was the biggest in the history of the event.

Beyond competing in catfish tournaments, King operates The Little Catman Guide Service, guiding for catfish on the upper end of Kentucky Lake. While he confines his guiding to the first 45 miles of river downstream of Pickwick Dam, King has fished much farther north on Kentucky Lake at times and has traveled to other top catfishing destinations.

Among the other destinations King has traveled to in search of big cats is Lake Barkley, Kentucky Lake's neighbor to the east. Kentucky and Barkley lakes, which are the final impoundments along the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, respectively, are without question two of Tennessee's premier catfish lakes. In fact, they are among the nation's elite catfish waters. Both are highly fertile and offer an abundance of quality habitat and loads of forage. Likewise, both support thriving populations of channel, flathead and blue catfish.

Tennessee's state-record blue catfish came from Lake Barkley, and heavyweight fish of all three species clearly come from both lakes. The state-record blue, which was caught by Robert E. Lewis in 1998, tipped the scales to 112 pounds, which is only 4 pounds shy of the current all-tackle world record. Most serious catfish anglers who regularly fish Kentucky or Barkley lakes are confident that there are world-record blues and flatheads swimming in both big reservoirs.

King has observed that really big catfish seem a little harder to come by in his section of the Tennessee River than they were a decade ago. While the overall fishing seems even better than it used to be and while there are plenty of 20- and 30-pound cats to be caught, he believes that the 40- and 50-pounders and even larger fish are less abundant.

Photo by Matt Sutton

"The length limit should help. I am looking forward to seeing its effects," he said.

He's referring to the fact that last year the state of Tennessee put into place special regulations to help protect large catfish and to allow more anglers to get more enjoyment from the resource. Under the new regulations, which apply statewide, catfishermen can still keep all the catfish they want to, but only one cat of more than 34 inches may be taken daily. The regulations apply to noodling, fishing with limb lines or jugs and other alternative catfishing techniques, in addition to sportfishing with a rod and reel.

A 34-inch blue or flathead catfish typically falls somewhere in the 20-pound range and is between 8 and 12 years old. Angler surveys had revealed that Tennessee fishermen had a very high - and ever-increasing - interest in catching trophy-caliber catfish, and that most anglers were more interested in keeping smaller cats to eat anyway.

More significantly, in the minds of many catfishermen, statewide commercial regulations now prohibit the harvest of any catfish over 34 inches. Through extensive interviews and surveys with recreational and commercial fishermen alike, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency determined that big fish had greater recreational value than commercial value. The commercial regulations are of particular interest to anglers on these two big lakes because Kentucky Lake easily supports the most commercial industry in Tennessee, and Barkley is either second or third in the state most years. On a per acre basis, Barkley probably receives even more commercial pressure than does Kentucky Lake.

King strongly believes in protecting large fish and allowing them to be caught again, and he does his part to back his beliefs. Neither he nor his clients ever keep any catfish that weigh more than 10 pounds.

"Most of them don't keep the 7- or 8-pounders either. Knowing that smaller fish are best to eat, they'd prefer to put those bigger catfish back," he said.

The upper end (south end) of Kentucky Lake, which King normally fishes, is fairly similar in character to the Tennessee portion of Barkley Lake, and King fishes the two waterways in exactly the same way during May. Both lakes begin as the tailwaters of upstream lakes and are highly riverine in character for many miles. The water color is also quite similar, as is the overall look, King said.

The biggest difference, he said, is that the Tennessee River is a much larger river than the Cumberland River. The Tennessee River channel also is much broader through the upper ends of the lakes, and currents are often stronger. Another difference that creates fabulous catfish habitat on Barkley Lake is that banks often drop sharply and it is not uncommon to have 30 or 40 feet of water right against the bank in a river bend.

"When trees fall in those deep holes right against the banks, you end up with a great place for catfish to lie," King said.

A higher percentage of trees that fall also stay in place and create new habitat on Barkley than on Kentucky Lake, King observed. "When trees fall in on the Tennessee River, they usually get washed downstream right away. Most of trees that are in the water have been where they are for a long time," he said.

King does all his guiding between Pickwick Dam and the town of Clifton, 40 miles downstream, and he spends about 75 percent of his time within 20 miles of the dam. Within the first 20 miles, the river goes through a couple of major transformations, he noted.

Immediately downstream of Pickwick Dam, where Kentucky Lake officially forms, the Tennessee River has a craggy, rocky bottom and is often shallow, and the amount of current flowing from the dam dictates prime areas to work and specific strategies.

The tailwater section is a good area to catch catfish year 'round, King said, because of concentrations of baitfish and especially the baitfish that get ground up in the turbines. The Cheatham tailwater, where Barkley begins, has similar virtues, as do most tailwaters on quality catfish waters.

Farther downstream, more mud and clay bottoms take over, with a lot of mussel beds providing good fish-holding habitat. Eventually, the river begins winding more, and deep holes along the outside bends become King's key areas to concentrate on. Countless islands and tribut

ary mouths are also good areas to work.

Kentucky Lake, which runs south to north across virtually the entire state, stays very riverlike all the way to the Interstate 40 crossing. North of the interstate, the lake begins to broaden, especially after the Duck River adds its flow. Current becomes notably less pronounced unless a lot of water is being pulled through the dams at both ends, King noted, but at least some current often pushes from one end of the lake to the other.

The same types of islands and channel bends that hold catfish up the river hold cats all the way to the Kentucky border. The major difference in the two ends of the lake is that most of those features are buried well beneath the surface in the lower end, and anglers need to search them out with their electronics.

Lower Kentucky Lake also has dozens of big bays off the main river, and those bays are loaded with channel catfish and small blue catfish through the spring and summer. Anglers can set up on points at night and spread lines out or drift with the wind along creek channels and anticipate fast action from feisty cats.

Barkley Lake begins below Cheatham Dam, and the upper reaches are rocky and swift. Through the first several miles below the Cheatham, the Cumberland River runs a relatively straight course. The first really big bend in the river is right around Clarksville, and many anglers consider the section between Clarksville and Cumberland City as Barkley's best area for really big cats.

Between Cumberland City and Dover, the river has more channel cat-filled backwaters fronting it, and islands, deep cuts in the channel and creek mouths create good areas to fish. From Dover to the Kentucky border, the Barkley broadens a bit more, but the main body remains fairly riverine in character throughout Tennessee, and current pushes steadily through the lake most of the time.

May is one of King's favorite months for catching blue catfish, which are the cats that he targets primarily. The fish tend to be grouped up and they bite aggressively. Plus, most blues are not yet in spawning mode, which he has found makes the bite less predictable when it occurs. It's a good time of the year for catching a lot of fish and for prospects of hooking into quality fish, King said.

King does most of his serious catfishing by drifting during late spring. Using two-hook rigs, with his weight on the bottom, he fishes his baits right along the bottom, whether that means fishing 7 feet deep or 70 feet deep. Often, during May, he'll start the day fishing areas that have very uneven bottoms and mussel beds scattered along them, usually in 25 to 40 feet of water.

"Watch your graph, and you'll see catfish behind all those humps," he said. "Virtually every strike will happen as the bait comes over a mound in those types of areas, so I look for the most uneven bottoms I can find."

As the day progresses, King typically moves downriver and begins working holes, which might be 60 or 70 feet deep. He fishes the deepest holes he can find when fronts push through. King will make drifts right along an outside bend, along the channel edge to the inside and right through the middle of the hole.

"It's like a pitcher working a baseball plate," he said. "You have to work all parts of the hole to find where the most fish are. Sometimes there will be a couple of fish that will bite along each line, and you won't get some of them if you don't do different drifts."

Even if he is fishing farther north in Kentucky Lake, where currents are weaker and channels are buried, King will fish essentially the same way. He will use his trolling motor more to control his drifts and move slowly, but he will still be moving with the current and pulling baits down river channels and fishing down in the holes.

King varies his baits according to the type of action his clients are seeking. If they simply want action, he will fish exclusively with entrails from shad or skipjack or with chicken livers. If they want to up their odds for hooking up with big cats, he will combine the entrails with skipjack fillets, making specialty sandwiches for the cats. He likes to put the scale side out on his skipjack sandwiches so the baits flap more in the current.

King uses 5/0 hooks for his double rigs and enough weight to keep the bait bumping bottom and to keep control. He uses big casting reels capable of holding the 65-pound-test line he spools on them, drifting rods in 7- and 7 1/2-foot lengths. The shorter rods are best for heavy currents.

"That's a good combination that will handle catfish of any size," he said.

While King typically targets blue catfish when he drift-fishes, he noted that spring brings some other exciting catfishing to Tennessee's rivers and lakes. The channel cat spawn begins firing up in April when the water temperature gets between 65 and 69 degrees, and fishing gets very good along craggy, rocky banks both in the tailwaters and in the main-lake bodies during May.

"This is the way a lot of us first learned to fish for catfish in Tennessee," he said.

For spawning channel catfish, King rigs spinning outfits with slip cork rigs, setting the corks to suspend baits about 6 feet deep. Then he simply hooks up night crawlers, casts close to the rocks and waits for the corks to dart under.

"They'll just pound you," he said. "It's a really fun technique for May." On Kentucky Lake, King catches a lot of channel cats in the 2- to 4-pound range when they are spawning.

Kentucky and Barkley lakes both produce big flatheads as well, but King does not really target them. He does catch some flatheads while drifting, but he doesn't set up for them with live bait. Anglers who specifically want to catch flatheads, which are predators and are very cover oriented, typically set up as close as possible to timber-lined steep banks and dangle big, live bream or shad just off the bottom. At night, they'll set up near the tops or bottoms of deep holes, sometimes on flats, where flatheads will roam to feed under the cover of darkness.

One bonus for Kentucky Lake anglers is that last summer, Tennessee and Kentucky came to a partial reciprocal licensing agreement, which significantly expands the range that anglers from both states can fish. Anglers licensed to fish in Tennessee may now fish as far north as the Eggner's Ferry Bridge (U.S. Highway 68, state Highway 80) in Kentucky, including embayments, except that the Blood River embayment in Kentucky is not covered. That's significant to lower-lake catfishermen, as the border runs through the channel for several miles and many anglers would avoid that section altogether in the past to spare any potential problems.

There is no reciprocal agreement on Barkley, so Tennessee anglers need to carry both licenses or stay south of the border.

There is no limit on catfish in Tennessee, except that only one catfish of more than 34 inches may be kept daily. Ken

tucky Lake and Barkley Lake anglers should be aware that flathead or blue catfish of at least 34 inches or channel catfish of at least 30 inches qualify for recognition through the Tennessee Angler Recognition Program. The fish must be measured in front of a witness or a photo must be taken of the fish against a measuring tape or board. For details, check out the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Web site at www.tnwildlife. org.

To learn more about fishing the Tennessee River or to book a trip with Phil King, call (662) 286-8644, e-mail him at or log onto

Jeff Samsel is the author of Catfishing in the South, which includes chapters on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. To order, send a check for $21.95 to Jeff Samsel, 173 Elsie Street, Clarkesville, GA 30523. For information, log on to his Web site at

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