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Your Guide to Tennessee's Best Catfishing

Your Guide to Tennessee's Best Catfishing

The onset of summer brings hot catfishing prospects to Volunteer waters. Let's look at some of the top spots in the state for big catfish.

By Jeff Samsel

All I could do was hang on. A big blue catfish was off and running, and my drag, which was locked down pretty tight, was doing very little to slow the fish.

"They'll slow down eventually . . . I think," said Tom Evans, grinning. "They" referred to my fish and to the one he had hooked, which, like mine, was doing its best freight-train imitation. Both fish indeed turned eventually, whether by our persuasion or their own decision, and 10 minutes later we had two 30-pound-plus Tennessee River blues flopping in the bottom of the boat. Soon after, those fish were back in the river and we were back to fishing.

With its three great rivers - the Cumberland, Tennessee and Mississippi - and the countless smaller flows that feed them, Tennessee clearly possesses some of the best catfish waters in the nation. Excepting a few tributary-reservoir tailwaters and mountain streams, which run a bit cold for cats, catfishing is good pretty much everywhere there is water in Tennessee. Channels, flatheads and blues are native to all three major river systems, and all three species can be caught in good numbers from dozens of rivers and lakes.

Partly because of the quality of Tennessee's whiskerfish offerings, catfishing is extremely popular. Statewide creel data shows that catfishing makes up 11 percent of all angler effort, according to Tim Churchill, reservoir coordinator for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA). As a comparison, Churchill pointed out that striper fishing makes up only 3 percent of angler effort.

The first two pools of the Tennessee River -- Fort Loudoun and Watts Bar -- produce high numbers of heavyweight catfish. Photo by Jeff Samsel

Despite the large number of anglers who fish for cats, TWRA biologists hear very little from catfishermen. Except for a growing desire among serious catfishermen to see some waterways specifically managed for trophy cats (an issue that was still being looked at for the 2003-04 season when this issue went to press), catfishermen seemingly are content, according to Churchill. Catch rates are quite good in most lakes, the fish grow to huge sizes and angler satisfaction is high.

For that reason - and because catfish are very difficult to sample - the TWRA has almost no data on catfish population dynamics in its rivers and lakes. "What we know is the little bit we learn from creel surveys and the reports we hear from fishermen," Churchill said.


From the creel reports, biologists can get an idea of which lakes produce the best catch rates and which lakes get the most catfishing pressure, which tends to be an indicator of the quality of the fishing. Those numbers suggest that a lot of Tennessee lakes offer very good catfishing; however, according to Churchill they don't reveal much about the size structure of the fish populations.

Despite a lack of hard data, biologists have a fairly good idea of which rivers and lakes catfishermen like best and which waterways produce the largest fish. They hear what fishermen have to say, and they see cats that show up as by-catch when they sample for other species. With that in mind, we spoke with Churchill and with Bill Reeves, TWRA director of fisheries, about the waters they would point toward as offering the best catfishing prospects for this year.

Working west to east, it would be tough to begin anywhere other than the Mississippi River for Tennessee's top catfishing destinations. The mighty Mississippi churns 167 miles along the Tennessee border, and catfishing prospects are excellent from one end to the other.

Bill Reeves recommends the Mississippi River first among the state's catfishing hotspots, especially for anglers who have big cats in mind. The all-tackle world-record blue catfish, which weighed 116 pounds, 12 ounces, came from the Mississippi River and was caught right across the river from Memphis.

Beyond its big blues, the Mississippi also serves up some real heavyweight flatheads and fast action from channel catfish. Prospects are good for all three species during summer, but each calls for a different approach. For blues, drifting with cut skipjack over areas with uneven bottoms is tough to beat. Channel catfishing tends to be best in oxbows and along revetment banks with cut shad, fished on the bottom. Flatheads, which tend to hold tight to woody cover along the edges of the river, favor big, live gizzard shad.

One very good thing about the Mississippi River, according to Reeves, is that the dikes and revetment banks that are used to maintain the river channels and the integrity of its banks create well-defined catfish habitat that anglers can focus on. "Once a fisherman learns how catfish relate to these areas during different seasons and at various water levels, the fishing can be quite predictable and extremely good," he said.

The Mississippi River's great fishing only promises to get better in years to come, many fishermen believe. Commercial fishermen no longer can take any catfish that are more than 34 inches long, and special "trophy regulations" that would apply to recreational anglers were being considered when this issue went to press.

For guided catfishing on the Mississippi River, check out James "Big Cat" Patterson's Web site at

Once summer sets in, a lot of Reelfoot Lake anglers turn their attention to catfish. The catch is dominated by channels, which absolutely abound in open areas of the lake, but folks who go out at night and fish big, live bream in the deepest parts of the lake also catch some big flatheads from Reelfoot.

Jackie Vancleave, a veteran Reelfoot Lake guide who does a lot of catfishing, uses night crawlers most of the time when he goes after channel cats. Fishing mostly around isolated fallen trees in the middle of stump flats, Vancleave casts as close to the cover as possible. He suspends his offering under a float, which he noted is necessary to keep from getting hung up all the time.

Most Reelfoot cats are in the 1- to 5-pound range, but fish up to about 10 pounds are fairly common. High catch rates are the norm, once anglers figure out how to get their baits down to the fish without snagging in the trees. Fishing is good all over the lake. In addition to the stump flats that Vancleave likes to fish, the edges of open-water cypress stands can be very productive, with a cat or two sitting close to every tree.

Because of the tremendous number

of stumps and snags that litter the bottom of Reelfoot Lake, most anglers don't bring their own boats when they fish this lake. Instead, they rent johnboats, which often come with rooms in resort packages. Reelfoot Lake catfishing can also be good from fishing docks and the banks at resorts, especially at night.

For more information on Reelfoot Lake, including how to set up a catfishing trip with Jackie Vancleave, log onto

Kentucky Lake catfishing begins at Pickwick Dam, just north of the Alabama/Mississippi border, and runs all the way to the Kentucky line. Tennessee's biggest lake is a catfish factory, producing great opportunities for catching channels, flatheads and blues.

Great fishing begins right at the dam, and boating anglers go as close to the dam as they are permitted. Once there, they fish cut bait vertically on three-way rigs for channels and blues, usually keying on "slots" between turbines that are on. Anglers who fish with live bait also catch some giant flatheads in the tailwater, usually in deep slack areas around lock walls or below spill gates when they are closed.

Bank-fishermen also enjoy plenty of good opportunity to catch cats immediately downstream of the dam. Again, cut shad or skipjack are the mainstay baits. Anglers use surf-casting gear to make long casts and bounce their baits along the bottom. They lose a lot of terminal tackle, but they also catch a lot of catfish. Channels and smaller blues dominate the catch, but any catfish that grabs a line anywhere on Kentucky Lake could turn out to be a giant.

Downstream of the dam (north), Kentucky Lake winds many miles essentially as a river before it begins opening much. Long stretches through this section are quite remote and get very light fishing pressure from catfish anglers. Yet the big holes on outside bends are loaded with catfish. Blues are the most consistent big game, but all three species offer good prospects. Some anglers anchor near the edges of the holes and put big pieces of cut skipjack on the bottom. Others drift, either suspending their offerings midway down or bouncing them off the bottom with three-way rigs.

Kentucky Lake becomes more "lakelike" north of Interstate 40, but currents can run through the entire lake when water is being "pushed" through Pickwick Dam and "pulled" through Kentucky Dam. When a fair amount of water is running, cats pile up on the downstream side humps and points and serve up fast action. Glenn Stubblefield, a Kentucky Lake guide, has found nothing better than basic tuffy minnows on tight-line rigs for summertime Kentucky Lake cats.

Glenn Stubblefield guides for catfish on the lower end of the lake out of Buchanan Resort. For information, log onto

The Cumberland River has gained national fame for the jumbo catfish that it yields, but this river also produces big numbers of fish. Depending on how anglers approach this river, they can load up on channel cats or specifically target big flatheads or blues.

Reeves and Churchill both pointed toward the Cumberland River, especially lakes Cheatham and Barkley, as a prime destination for big cats. Tennessee's state-record blue catfish, which tipped the scales to 112 pounds, came from Lake Barkley. Robert E. Lewis caught the giant fish in 1998.

During June, much of the best fishing on the Cumberland River is found within 10 miles or so downstream of Old Hickory and Cheatham dams in the narrow portions that head up Cheatham and Barkley lakes, respectively. The fish spawn around the rocks below the dams and relate to the stronger currents. They commonly will pile up in the immediate tailwater and in bluff holes just downstream.

Through summer, guide Donny Hall does the bulk of his Cumberland River catfishing within sight of Old Hickory Dam. He likes it best when just a couple of generators are on. Under those conditions, the fish will stack up in the slots between the strong currents. Big pieces of cut skipjack is the bait of choice for big blues in the Cumberland River. Live bream or big, live shad work best for flatheads.

Throughout the Cumberland River system, anglers who bait up with chicken livers, minnows or small pieces of cut bait can get into very fast action with channel cats. The tops of ledges that separate flats from the main channel and the mouths of creeks are good areas to set up with channel catfish in mind.

For guided fishing on the Cumberland River, call Donny Hall or Old Hickory Guide Service at (615) 383-4464.

Of the tributary reservoirs, Woods is among those that stand out, according to Churchill. "When we sample out there, we always see a tremendous number of catfish," he said, noting that there is an abundance of catfish in the 4- to 6-pound range and plenty that are much bigger than that.

Channel catfish are the main attraction on Woods, which impounds 3,980 acres on the Elk River. Creel surveys consistently show high catch rates compared to other tributary reservoirs, but targeted catfishing pressure is modest because of a contaminant warning that advises not eating any catfish from Woods.

Churchill pointed toward the upper end of Woods, which is shallower and more fertile than the lake's lower end, as the best areas. This part of the lake is riverine, with the old river channel winding between stump-covered flats. Throughout summer, the cats are apt to be down in the channel during the day and up on the flats at night.

Whole or half threadfin shad (depending on their size) or cut gizzard shad would be tough to beat as bait for Woods catfish. Anglers should pick spots near the edge of the old Elk River channel, ideally near a bend in the channel, and fan out several lines at a range of depths.

Flathead catfish don't show up consistently in the harvest at Woods, but that may be a result of anglers not targeting them. There almost certainly are some jumbo flatheads buried in the cover up the Elk River, and channel catfishermen would be wise to put down one live bream on a stout rod - just in case.

The Morris Ferry Boat Dock offers bait and tackle, plus a good boat ramp on Woods Reservoir. For information, call (615) 967-5370.

Forced catch-and-release, a highly productive system and abundant big-river catfish habitat combine to create outstanding fishing for big catfish in the first two impoundments of the Tennessee River. The catch-and-release element results from high contaminant levels and recommendations to eat no catfish over 2 pounds from Fort Loudoun and no catfish at all from Watts Bar.

Fort Loudoun produced a former state-record blue catfish and still lays claim to the state record for fish caught by "non-sporting" mea

ns. The fish, a 130-pound giant, was caught in 1976 with commercial gear. Because of contaminant concerns, commercial fishing is no longer permitted on Fort Loudoun.

For anglers who don't mind putting all their fish back, Fort Loudoun and Watts Bar both support tremendous populations of heavyweight cats, with blues, flatheads and channel catfish all well represented. Loudoun offers great summer fishing up its two river arms, near the mouths of creeks and along bluff banks. On Watts Bar, great catfishing begins at the base of Loudoun Dam.

Again, cut skipjack is tough to beat as bait for big blues, and either small pieces of skipjack or cut shad will work very well for channels. Most anglers who specifically target flatheads rig up with live bream and fish at night, fishing tight to shoreline cover on outside bends or in creek mouths.

Tailwater fishing is actually great below every dam on the Tennessee River, and Tennessee Valley Authority recreation areas provide shoreline access to all the tailwaters. Few types of fishing - if any - provide boatless anglers better opportunities to catch more big fish than catfishing in the tailwaters of the Tennessee River. Each tailwater is different, and all vary enormously in their offerings according to the amount of water that is flowing. Generally speaking, anglers try to put big pieces of cut bait on or near the bottom in areas of broken current.

For information on guided catfishing on Fort Loudoun or Watts Bar, log onto

Jeff Samsel is the author of Catfishing in the South, which will be released this summer. For more on this book, which includes chapters on the Mississippi, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, e-mail Samsel at

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