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3 World-Class Trophy Catfish Rivers

3 World-Class Trophy Catfish Rivers

The Cumberland, Tennessee and Mississippi rivers make the Volunteer State one of the premier blue cat and flathead destinations in the world.

By Jeff Samsel

The three biggest blue catfish ever caught on rod and reel came from the three big rivers that drain the Volunteer State:

  1. Mississippi River, 116 pounds, 12 ounces, Charles Ashley Jr., 2001
  2. Cumberland River, 112 pounds, Robert E. Lewis, 1998
  3. Tennessee River, 111 pounds, William P. McKinley, 1996.

While only Lewis' cat actually came from within Tennessee's borders, all help paint a picture of Tennessee's phenomenal big-cat offerings. Charles Ashley's giant, the reigning all-tackle world record, came from within sight of Memphis on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi. McKinley's fish came from the portion of the Tennessee River that dips through Alabama between Nickajack Dam and Pickwick Dam.

All three fish were caught within the last decade, as have been numerous other record catfish throughout the country. As anglers have become increasingly serious about sport catfishing, many have begun using better gear and more refined tactics. Catfish enthusiasts expect to see more and more records shattered, and Tennessee's three big rivers clearly would rank among the most likely destinations in the nation for producing the next world-record blue or flathead catfish.

Making Tennessee's big-cat prospects even better, special "trophy catfish" regulations went into effect statewide this year. While anglers may still keep as many catfish as they want to, with no minimum size, only one catfish of 34 inches or longer may be kept in a day. The limit applies to alternative methods, like limb-line fishing and noodling, as well as rod-and-reel fishing. In addition, statewide commercial regulations now prohibit the harvest of any catfish over 34 inches.

Interest in the new regulations grew partly from the results of two surveys that showed very high interest in catfish as a sport fish, according to Bill Reeves, director of fisheries for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA). The surveys, one of which encompassed the entire Mississippi River basin and the other of which covered Tennessee only, produced virtually identical results.

In both surveys, anglers indicated that they had a strong interest in sport catfishing and that they thought state wildlife agencies should do more to actively manage catfish to provide the best possible opportunities. In addition, a high percentage of respondents said that they were likely to make trips in the next year just to fish for catfish - especially big catfish.


"What we saw from those surveys was that there was a lot of public interest in becoming catfishermen, especially for trophy catfish," Reeves said.

Seeing that interest, TWRA begin speaking with commercial fishermen to see how important larger fish were to their business. With the exception of commercial fishermen who would sell live trophy fish to out-of-state catfish pond operators, TWRA learned that big fish really weren't especially important to commercial fishermen.

With that understanding and an ever-growing public interest, the TWRA began looking more seriously at regulations options that would not limit the general catfish harvest but would provide protection for trophy-caliber fish so that more of those would be released to be caught again. They also began actively seeking public input, and got extensive positive feedback throughout the state.

While the new regulation does not specify species, it essentially applies only to flathead and blue catfish, simply because very few channels reach 34 inches in Tennessee waters. A 34-inch flathead or blue is typically in the 18- to 22-pound range, Reeves said, and is between 8 and 12 years old.

Most fishermen have far less interest in eating 20-pound-plus catfish than they do in eating smaller fish, so Reeves does not believe that the regulations will put significant limitations on anglers who want to take home some fish to eat. Only time will tell exactly what kind of impact the regulations will have on blue and flathead catfisheries, but some of the evidence suggests the fisheries will improve.

Maybe the best indicator of the regulations' potential is what has happened on the Missouri River during the past decade. Commercial catfishing has been banned on this big river since 1992 in Missouri and some other states that the river runs through, and the catfish population has improved dramatically based both on angler reports and on biologists' sampling efforts. In a survey conducted by the Missouri Conservation Department in the late 1990s, 79 percent of all fishermen interviewed reported significantly better fishing since the ban.

In Tennessee, the evidence is less tangible because no formal surveys of catfish populations have been conducted. However, anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that less harvest of big fish will mean more big trophy cats statewide. The first two lakes along the Tennessee River, Fort Loudoun and Watts Bar, produce extraordinary catches of huge catfish for anglers who know how to target big fish. The entire Tennessee River system produces plenty of heavyweight cats, but no other part of the river produces higher numbers of big fish.

The big-cat habitat throughout the river is similar. In fact, if anything, it probably gets better as the river grows larger. Therefore, it's hard to look at anything other than harvest - both commercial and recreational - as the difference between this portion and the rest of the river. Fish-consumption warnings and a commercial-harvest ban on Fort Loudoun and Watts Bar, both related to contamination, have kept the harvest minimal for many years in these waters, and huge blues and flatheads have flourished.

Large cats are clearly big-river fish, and Tennessee's top waters for trophy cats are the Mississippi River and the big impoundments along the lower Cumberland and the Tennessee rivers. On the Cumberland, the best prospects for the biggest fish begin around Nashville and extend through Cheatham and Barkley lakes.

Flatheads can do better in smaller waters than can blues. Occasional whopper flatheads come from most tributary reservoirs and from deep holes in medium-sized rivers, and flathead specialists who know their home waters well enjoy good success in numerous rivers and lakes. For the best chances at the biggest fish, however, the big rivers would be tough to top.

Picking the best of Tennessee's big rivers would be difficult. All three produce tremendous catfishing for anglers who know how to fish them. The Mississippi probably supports the largest sheer number of big cats per mile simply because of its great size, but it is also the most difficult of the three rivers to navigate and fish effectively,

also because of its tremendous size.

The Cumberland River, although it is the smallest of Tennessee's three major rivers, has a big reputation throughout the nation. The most acclaimed stretch, by far, is the upper end of Barkley Lake, which is where the Tennessee state-record blue catfish came from.

Through midsummer some of the best fishing in this area is in the Cheatham Dam tailwater, especially when power is being generated. Anglers fish the "slots" below turbines that are off but close to ones that are running, fishing big chunks of cut bait on three-way rigs. The tailwater of Old Hickory Dam, 68 miles upstream of Cheatham Dam, offers similar conditions and plenty of big cats.

Big river bends from just below the dam to the west side of Nashville form huge bluff holes that also attract loads of cats in late summer and on into the fall. Flatheads often hold on the bluff side of these big holes, hiding in downed timber. Blues cruise the bottoms of the holes and slopes on the open-river side. In Barkley, some of the most defined holes are between the Cheatham Dam and Cumberland City.

The Tennessee River officially forms just east on Knoxville, where the French Broad and Holston rivers join forces at the head of Fort Loudoun Lake. From Fort Loudoun, the river flows into Watts Bar Lake, where it takes a southerly turn toward Chattanooga and then goes through Chickamauga and Nickajack.

Just downstream of Nickajack Dam, the river enters Alabama and turns west, running through four more impoundments before re-entering Tennessee at the far lower end of Pickwick Lake. Below Pickwick Dam, the river cuts a northerly swath across the state, all the way to the Kentucky border.

Similar to the Cumberland, the Tennessee River serves up great catfishing in all of its tailwaters, and Tennessee Valley Authority recreation areas provide shoreline access to all of the five main-river tailwaters that are located in Tennessee. Bank-fishermen cast big chunks of cut skipjack out into the river with long surf-casting outfits. Boating anglers again use three-way rigs and focus on the slots below turbines that are off.

Flathead fishermen typically focus on slack water, often below closed spill gates, beside lock walls or along riprap banks that are out of the current. Depending on the spot and conditions, they might drift with a big live shad under a float or put tight-lines directly beneath them.

Outside the tailwaters, big bluff holes are key throughout the summer. Good areas to look for bluff holes include Fort Loudoun upstream of Knoxville, Watts Bar in the vicinity of Interstate 75, Nickajack through the gorge between Lookout Mountain and Signal Mountain and the long, remote section of Kentucky Lake from Savannah to the U.S. Highway 412 bridge.

Picking specific prime sections along the Mississippi River is somewhat difficult. The big river maintains a similar character along Tennessee's entire western border. That character varies enormously from week to week, however, according to rainfall throughout the Mississippi River drainage. The river level varies close to 50 feet in a normal year, so prime holes obviously change with conditions.

Through late summer, the river is typically low, and conditions are very good for catfish. That allows the cats to spread out to feed over broad areas. James Patterson, a veteran Mississippi River catfish guide, does a lot of drifting during the summer, keying on wide sections of the river and areas downstream of big bends, where currents tend to be weakest. Patterson drifts with big chunks of skipjack and catches mostly blues.

For flatheads, Patterson recommended setting up along riprap banks and fishing the deepest water that is close to the rocks. He noted that currents can be pretty strong in these areas, so fishermen might need 6 or 7 ounces of weight. He uses three-way rigs and baits 7/O Kahle hooks with live shad or other fish.

Any catfisherman is apt to hook into a heavyweight fish from time to time in Tennessee's best waters, but anglers who specifically target jumbo fish significantly increase their odds of hooking - and landing - a giant. For blues, that generally means baiting up with big pieces of cut fish. For flatheads, it means fishing live bait along the main-river channel and close to cover. Either way, it involves using heavy gear.

Most veteran catfishermen on Tennessee's rivers agree that there is no substitute for a big chunk of fresh skipjack for large blue catfish. Anglers all have their own notions on the best ways to cut and hook skipjack and on which pieces work best, but few would dispute that skipjack is the best bait and that fresh bait is far better than frozen bait. Popular second picks include cut gizzard and threadfin shad.

Tennessee River guide Tom Evans, who fishes mostly on Watts Bar, uses Carolina rigs and casts all his lines downstream of an anchored boat. The baits settle along the bottom in big bluff holes, but usually they don't settle long.

Phil King, who guides on the upper Kentucky Lake portion of the Tennessee River, does a lot of his summer fishing by drifting. King uses tight-line rigs, often with two or more dropper lines above his weight, and baits them all with pieces of skipjack.

Flathead specialists often rig up with live bream, which are easy to catch and favored by flatheads in many waters. Patterson typically uses shad instead, having found that the flatheads don't respond well to bream in the Mississippi River. Other popular baitfish picks for flatheads include carp, small catfish and suckers.

Flatheads stay close to main river channels almost all the time, even in the open waters of impoundments. They relate to major structural features, like distinct ledges, river bends and creek-channel confluences, and they like tangles of cover to hide in. The most nocturnal of Tennessee's catfish species, they definitely feed best at night.

For all big cats, anglers need stout rods with plenty of pulling power and reels that hold a lot of line. Serious big-cat specialists use large fiberglass or e-glass rods and geared-down conventional reels. They spool up with at least 40-pound-test line, with many preferring braided lines with break strength ratings of 60 pounds or more. Heavy weights are often needed to keep baits in place in the strong current, and large hooks are needed because of the types of baits normally used.

Bill Reeves strongly recommended the use of circle hooks, which typically hook fish in the mouth. Catfish that grab live or cut bait often swallow the bait, and commonly get hooked deeply by other types of hooks. The result is a high mortality rate among released fish, which obviously works against the cause.

Large, heavy-grade circle hooks also work extremely well for hooking big catfish and keeping them hooked. Anglers just need to learn to avoid set ting circle hooks in a normal fashion when fish take the bait - instead, just engage the reel and start reeling or let fish hook themselves when they run.

Anglers who do catch trophy catfish from Tennessee waters can now earn a certificate for their achievement through the Tennessee Angler Recognition Program. The program, established this year, recognizes catches of fish that meet or exceed pre-established minimum sizes for 21 different sport fish species. The minimum size for flathead and blue catfish is 34 inches. The channel cat minimum is 30 inches.

Beyond earning nice a certificate for the den wall, anglers help the TWRA with management by participating in the program. If participation is high, it will provide biologists with a good snapshot of where trophy fish of various species come from, allowing for comparisons among bodies of water any given year and from year to year for any given body of water.

To qualify for an Angler Recognition certificate, fish must have been caught in Tennessee since Jan. 1 2003, and the length must be verified by a witness or photograph. A $5 application fee is also required. Details are available on TWRA's website at

  • James Patterson, (901) 383-8674
  • Tom Evans, (865) 604-9233
  • Phil King, (662) 286-8644

Jeff Samsel's new book, Catfishing in the South, will be released in October. The book includes sections on all three of Tennessee's big rivers. For more ordering information or more on Samsel's book, e-mail him at

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