Tennessee's Small-Lake Catfishing

You don't need big water to find big-time fun with summer cats, and you don't even need to own a boat. Want to know more? Read on.

By Jeff Samsel

Armed with a couple of rods and reels apiece, a lunch cooler and a small tackle box that contains only basic terminal gear and a stringer, a father and son have everything they need for a fine day of fishing. They'll get their bait at a lakeside concession area, where they will also pick up the $3 permit that the father needs for the day of fishing. At the same time, they'll pay an extra $5, which will cover a fishing boat for the entire day.

Based on past outings, they anticipate having fried catfish for dinner. They expect most fish to be channel cats in the 1- to 5-pound range, but they know this lake also yields an occasional whopper blue. Having talked about those big cats last night, both anglers have fresh line spooled on their reels and properly set drags.

The lake they're fishing, one of 18 small lakes owned and operated for fishing by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), has been heavily stocked with catfish and fertilized. No water skiing, swimming or sailing is permitted on this lake. It's purely a fishing lake, as are most others in TWRA's Family Fishing Lakes program, and catfishing is one of its marquee offerings.

Tennessee's 18 Family Fishing Lakes, which are located on 14 different sites and widespread through the western and middle portions of the state, range in size from 15 to 568 acres. More than half the lakes are between 50 and 200 acres. All the lakes in the program get heavily stocked with channel catfish every year, with an average stocking rate of 50 fish per acre. Blue cats, which provide a potential big-fish bonus, are also stocked in all the lakes. (The blue cat stocking rate is lower than the channel cat rate, depending on the availability of blue cats from hatcheries.) The lakes are intensively managed, with work done to increase their fishing potential, whether that means fertilizing, stocking forage or adding structure or cover.

In addition to stocking fish and managing the habitat, the TWRA does a lot of work on these lakes to make them fisherman friendly in other ways. Almost all the lakes in the program have good bank-fishing access and handicapped-accessible fishing piers. Most also have concession areas, where fishermen can get bait, tackle and snacks, and many offer inexpensive boat rentals. Gas motors are only permitted on about half the lakes, and where they are allowed, boaters are restricted to traveling at idle speed.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

With abundant cats and easy access, every lake in the system is a good catfishing destination, according to Mike Bramlett, a fisheries manager for the TWRA, and channel cats are the most sought-after species in most of the lakes. Probably the biggest difference among the lakes is that the larger lakes in the system produce a few more large cats. In the larger lakes, the cats are more likely to escape harvest for several years, simply because they have more room to roam.

No fancy gear is needed for catfish angling on these lakes. Most anglers use basic medium-sized spinning or baitcasting gear and spool their reels with 12- to 20-pound-test. The light end of that range is adequate for most cats caught, but big-fish potential always does exist, and cats aren't known for being line-shy.

The best hook size and style depends on the kind of bait an angler is using and the size cat he is after. For fishing night crawlers, which are among the most popular bait types, fishermen don't need anything larger than a No. 2 hook. For chicken livers, also popular and very productive, treble hooks in the No. 4 to No. 6 range work well.

Anglers targeting bigger channel catfish and blue catfish often rig up using cut fish of some sort, with bream and shad being the most popular types of cut bait. For cut bait, fishermen really need to match the hook with the bait-chunk size, and anything from No. 4 to a No. 4/0 might fit the bill.

Many fishermen rig with basic Carolina rigs, adding just enough weight to keep their offerings on the bottom and then tying on a swivel, a couple of feet of leader and a hook. This kind of rigging allows the fish to take a little line when the bite is tentative and sometimes results in fewer missed fish.

Anglers should be aware that because of their high fertility, most of the state fishing lakes stratify during the summer, and the deep water below the thermocline will have very little oxygen and therefore few fish in it. (Catfish are tolerant of low oxygen levels, but they won't stay in low oxygen areas if they have a choice - and neither will the creatures the catfish eat.) On the lower ends of lakes - especially the larger lakes - anglers who want to fish on the bottom need to fish atop humps, on the edges of points or close enough to the bank that their baits aren't too deep. Thermocline levels vary, but generally speaking, cats will be less than 15 feet deep.

An alternative approach is to fish with floats or drift with no weight, suspending baits at various depths over the deep water at the lower ends of lakes. Often the lower lake waters produce some of the best catfishing. The cats just aren't on the bottom, where anglers tend to expect them to be.

Jug-fishing is also extremely popular and effective on TWRA lakes, but through the summer, jugs may not be used on weekends or holidays. On weekdays, fishermen may use up to 10 jugs on most Family Fishing Lakes, and many rod-and-reel catfishermen who are focused on getting a cooler full of tasty catfish will put out their jugs and then go fishing with rods and reels, keeping an eye on the jugs. Obviously, before you do this, you'll want to check the regulations that apply to the lake you are fishing.

Because of similarities in how the Family Fishing Lakes are managed, the best destination for many Tennessee anglers is the one that is closest to home. That said, a handful of lakes in the program do stand out a bit from the pack for one reason or another.

The triple-threat hotspot of TWRA's Family Fishing Lakes program, Lake Graham supports a long-established population of flathead catfish in addition to the channel and blue catfish that the TWRA stocks. The flathead population is the result of a single limited stocking done when the lake was first opened in 1986. Channels, followed by blue cats, of course, dominate the catfish catch at Lake Graham, but anglers who go out with live bait sometimes connect with heavyweight flatheads at this Madison County lake. Lake Graham has produced several 50-pound-plus flatheads in recent years, according to Dave Rizzuto, Region I fisheries biologist over the Family Fishing Lakes for the TWRA.

All three species can potentially reach tr

ophy sizes at Lake Graham. In fact, creel surveys have shown that catfish caught from this lake average 5 pounds. That average size would be considered a pretty large individual catfish in several of the other TWRA lakes.

Lake Graham, which is located just east of Jackson, impounds 500 acres on Brown Creek, a tributary of the North Fork of the Forked Deer River. The lake's forage base includes threadfin shad, which were stocked several years ago, and larger cats of all three species probably consume the shad. Lake Graham also is full of standing timber, which is good for producing big flatheads, but bad for getting them out. Flathead fishermen rig up with very heavy gear and fish amid the trees along the edge of the old creek channel.

The lake has two boat ramps, three separate bank-fishing areas and a handicapped-accessible fishing pier. Bait and tackle, concessions and boat rentals are available.

Browns Creek Lake is a fun place to go with the shocking boat, according to Rizzuto. "In certain areas, we'll really load the boat with channel and blue catfish," he said.

The oldest of the Family Fishing Lakes, having been built in the 1930s, Browns Creek Lake was drained, renovated and restocked during the 1990s, and its fishery is in very good condition. The catfish seem to thrive there, Rizzuto said, which may be in part due to populations of gizzard shad and yellow bass, which provide additional forage for the catfish.

Browns Creek Lake, at 167 acres, is average sized for the Family Fishing Lakes program. It is located within Natchez Trace State Park, about 20 miles east of Jackson. The upper half of the lake, which is loaded with stumps, often produces very good catfish action. Farther down the lake, boating anglers should try putting baits around the ends of abundant blowdowns.

Good bank access is available near the boat-launching area, from the top of the riprap dam and from an L-shaped fishing pier. Boat rentals are also available. Bait and tackle, however, are not available on site, so anglers should be sure to arrive well supplied.

Rizzuto notes that Herb Parsons Lake, which is located just east of Memphis, is another very popular lake among catfishermen. Along with blue and channel catfish, which TWRA stocks, this lake also supports a good population of bullheads.

Herb Parsons Lake is better known for the size of the cats that it produces than for the numbers. Double-digit weight blues and channels show up quite frequently in this lake, which covers 177 acres and impounds Marys Creek, a tributary of the Wolf River.

Herb Parsons Lake has several coves off its main body, and the points between those coves offer good areas to set up for cats. Points provide catfish easy access to a variety of depths and to both the coves and the main lake, allowing the fish to find a variety of habitat types without having to move long distances. The same variety of depths serves catfishermen well because they can fan lines at different angles around a point and find out how deep the catfish are.

A boat ramp, boat rentals, a handicapped-accessible fishing pier and bait and tackle are all available at Herb Parsons Lake.

One of the newer lakes in the system, Glenn Springs Lake opened to fishing in 1995. The catfish population, which includes both channels and blues, is in good condition. Glenn Springs produces good catches overall, according to Rizzuto, with some larger fish in the mix.

A fairly big lake (as Family Fishing Lakes Program waters go), Glenn Springs covers 310 acres, including numerous coves. A lot of timber was left standing when this lake was built, which Rizzuto believes might benefit the catfish population by providing more cavities for spawning. The timber stands are also good areas for fishermen to focus on, especially trees that are along creek channels.

Along with the timber stands and the tops of points, catfishermen shouldn't overlook the edges of fish attractors. Most anglers don't think of cats when they think about fish attractors, but channel catfish like to bury their heads in brush.

Glenn Springs Lake has a boat ramp, boat rentals, bank access and a handicapped-accessible fishing pier. Bait and tackle and other concessions are also available.

No creel data is available for Gibson County Lake because it was just opened to fishing this year. Shocking surveys show, however, that the catfish population is in very good shape and that this new lake should serve up very good catfish action this summer. "There aren't any really big fish yet," Rizzuto said, "but we have already seen catfish up to about 18 or 20 inches in our samples."

At 568 acres, Gibson County Lake is now the largest of the Family Fishing Lakes. Unlike other lakes in the program, it is a cooperative project between TWRA and Gibson County, and it is being managed both for fishing and for general recreation. Water skiing and sailing are permitted on most of this lake. One-third of the lake is open for fishing only. Jugs are not permitted.

Access is very good for bank, boat or pier fishing. Gibson County Lake is located just east of Trenton.

Located only 15 miles from Nashville, Marrowbone Lake is handy to a lot of fishermen, which makes it one of the more interesting Family Fishing Lakes for catfishermen in middle Tennessee. It also tends to produce very good catfishing, according to Doug Markham, Region II information officer for the TWRA.

Catfishing is extremely popular at Marrowbone Lake, which covers 60 acres and has good access around it. Channel cats are the main attraction, but some blues do get caught from time to time and provide fishermen with a possible big-fish bonus.

Bank-fishing access is good from cleared banks and from a very nice handicapped-accessible pier, and fishing boats with trolling motors may be rented from the concession area. Lake permits can be bought on-site, along with bait and tackle. Private boats are permitted on the lake, and there is a boat ramp, but outboard (gasoline) motors are not permitted.

A fairly big lake for the Family Fishing Lakes program at 325 acres, Laurel Hill Lake also produces some big catfish. The only middle Tennessee lake in the program where blue catfish have done really well, Laurel Hill yields a good mix of channels and blues and every summer anglers here catch some whoppers, according to TWRA fisheries biologist John Riddle.

Laurel Hill Lake, which is located on the Laurel Hill Wildlife Management Area about 15 miles west of Lawrenceburg, is bounded mostly by woods. The best access is at the lake's upper end, where the boat ramp, restrooms and concessions buildin

g are located. Additional access is possible by a dirt road that goes about a quarter of the way down one side of the lake and by a separate WMA road that leads to the dam.

Riddle said that a lot of catfishing takes place during the summer, and that most catfishermen concentrate their efforts on the lower end of the lake. Most fishermen use float rigs of some sort to suspend their catfish offerings or fish them atop points in the lake's lower end. Jug-fishing is also extremely popular on Laurel Hill on weekdays, and jugs account for a lot of really big blue catfish.

Gas motors may be operated on this lake. However, there is an idle-speed-only restriction. Fishing boats can be rented from the concession area. The combined limit for blue and channel catfish on Laurel Hill Lake is five fish, with a 14-inch minimum size.

Fishing permits, which are $3 daily or $30 annually, are required of all resident anglers between 16 and 64 years of age and all non-resident anglers, regardless of age, for most Family Fishing Lakes. Various restrictions on boating and other lake uses apply, but restrictions vary by lake. Except for Garrett Lake, the lakes are open from one-half hour before sunrise to one-half hour after sunset only. For Family Fishing Lakes' regulations, descriptions, lists of facilities and directions, check out TWRA's Web site at www.tnwildlife.org.

Jeff Samsel's new book, Catfishing in the South, will be released this summer. For more on the book, including ordering information, e-mail him at jsamsel@hemc.net.

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