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Tennessee's Best Bream Fishing

Tennessee's Best Bream Fishing

With the May panfish spawn revving up, here's a guide to some of the best bream fishing waters across the state.(May 2008)

Growing up literally running around the shoreline of Chickamauga Lake has sort of spoiled me in one regard. Before I even had a boat to fish from, I walked many miles of the shoreline on this Tennessee River impoundment seeking bream, crappie and largemouth bass.

While the bass fishing was excellent on some days, and the crappie action was seasonal, there were plenty of times we couldn't catch these species in good numbers from the shoreline. Nevertheless, there was one sure thing during the spring that kept me "spoiled" and that was the outstanding bream fishing on Chickamauga Lake. When referring to bream, I am collectively referring to both bluegills and shellcrackers. The lake was teeming with these fish those many years ago, and still is today.

Many of the places I used to walk (and run) along the shoreline going from one bream "bed" to the next are now populated with houses instead of trees. However, the underwater hotspots are still there, so to avoid trespassing I now fish them from a boat.

In addition, one good thing has occurred during the years: The size of the fish has improved. The average size of bluegills seems to have improved somewhat, but the shellcrackers are definitely much larger, and even more numerous, than I remember from the past. Recent sampling of these species at this lake certainly validates that point for me.

The combination of outstanding shellcracker and bream fishing is one of the keys to why this lake is one of the better bream fisheries in the state. Chickamauga Lake has both of these species in big numbers and relatively huge sizes.

Moreover, the entire lake is productive for these fish. While most of the fishing I have done in the past centered on the lower half of the lake, in recent years, I've also began fishing the upper portion of the lake. Also, I've met other anglers who fish there exclusively for bream.


All of the major creeks are productive, especially during the spring months, particularly May. These bream hotpots include Wolftever Creek and Dallas Bay (one favorite area of mine), as well as Soddy, Possum and Sale creeks.

In addition, the Hiwassee River farther upstream has some prime bream territory in the lower end, close to where it forms a junction with the Tennessee River. From that point upstream, many of the best places are small creeks and coves that wind back into open pockets and sloughs on the lake. Look for the ones that have a water source, even if it's a very small creek. Where you have even tiny flowing streams in the creeks, you will usually find plenty of action on bedding bream and shellcrackers.

When the fish are on the beds, look for the bream on gravel or sand near the shoreline. When not spawning, they're more likely caught near woody or rocky cover.

By May, the fishing is usually outstanding throughout the lake. In some of the above-named larger creeks, you can catch shellcrackers on the beds earlier, but usually this is the prime month. However, if you can't get out on the lake as much as you'd like in May, do not despair or give up. The full moon in June is typically excellent as well at Chickamauga and at all the lakes we'll discuss across the state.

Throughout the state, there are a number of lakes that provide exceptionally good bream fishing. In addition to Chickamauga, other great bream fishing destinations include Douglas Lake, Center Hill Lake, Percy Priest Lake, Barkley Lake and Reelfoot Lake.

Let's take a look at some of these hotspots as well.

Douglas Lake on the French Broad River is another bream factory in the eastern sector of the state. While perhaps traditionally better known for great crappie fishing, the bream panfish species also does quite well here.

The bream are abundant and big at Douglas. As local anglers will note, there are times you'll have to cull through some smaller fish. But by staying on the move, you can usually find plenty of action on quality bream. With the Smoky Mountains as a backdrop, the scenic quality is outstanding as well. And because the lake is located near Knoxville, there are many anglers nearby that can enjoy the fishing.

According to information from the Tennessee Valley Authority (Douglas Lake is a TVA lake), the lake does have an annual fluctuation of 41 feet per year. Thus, the specifics of exactly where you'll find bream will change much more than on lakes with smaller annual fluctuations. However, with the numbers of bream in this lake, it's not that that difficult to find them.

During May and even into June, much of the action will be around the coves and creeks throughout the lake. Some anglers will use light line and a small bobber and cast back into the pockets and gravel beds looking for bedding bream. When the fish are not bedded, they'll still be in the same general areas, but typically a bit more scattered.

The entire lake is productive, but the mid-lake sector to the upper end of the lake seems to be where many anglers focus bream fishing efforts. However, these panfish are well distributed throughout the lake.

Moving westward across the state, the next stop is Center Hill Lake.

Center Hill Lake has long been a favored bream hotspot for knowledgeable anglers. One issue that occasionally turns some anglers off at this lake is the very clear water color. While that can certainly have an effect on the bream, basically you just simply have to fish a bit deeper to consistently be successful.

One key to success at Center Hill is to employ the use of light line, such as 4-pound-test, and make long casts. One fishing tactic that generally works very well is to work a redworm or cricket on a tightline using a small BB-sized split shot. Cast to the shoreline and let the bait fall down the slope of the shoreline. Typically, once you get a few bites, you can pattern the fish at a specific depth on a given day.

The farther up the lake you go, the more potential for finding fish in shallower water. The Falling Water River area has long been a favored hotspot for many bream fishermen. The area above the Cookeville Boat Dock is loaded with big bream and sometimes during the spring, the water color will be very favorable for finding fish shallow, especially when they're on the beds. However, stick with the light tackle.

I've always liked the Pate Ford area of the lake as well. The steep banks and shallow coves and pockets are ideal places to find spring and summer bream


On the lower end of the lake, the two major creeks, Indian Creek and Holmes Creek, are big bream hotspots. There is a tremendous amount of territory in these two huge creeks. There are many points and pockets to explore where bream will often mass in large numbers. Again, because of the clear water, you may have to fish deeper than on some lakes, but the bream are usually of excellent size.

Percy Priest Lake is an outstanding fishery for a number of species. While loaded with excellent bream fishing, this is one fishery that perhaps is overlooked by the huge corps of Nashville-based anglers that fish this lake.

Located on the Stones River, the lake is chock-full of great bream habitat. My personal preference has always been the upper portion of the lake for panfish of any species. The Stewart, Spring and Fall creeks have traditionally produced outstanding bream fishing, especially during spawning times.

However, the lower end of the lake is equally productive for many anglers, with Suggs and Hamilton creeks providing great action.

Some anglers will wade-fish the flats near one of the many Corps of Engineers recreation areas. Wading and casting beetle spin-type spinners is highly productive. Plus, it does occasionally enable an angler to hook up with a feisty smallmouth bass as well.

Of course, the traditional bait of worms or crickets will perform very well here.

The pockets and coves located throughout the lake are ideal for the full-moon bedding periods. The moderately sloping rock-and-mud combination banks, along with the steep bluffs, will produce quality fishing when the fish are not on the beds.

Another way to catch a pile of bream from this lake is to drift-fish the upper end of the Stones River in johnboats or canoes. You'll need to identify put-in and take-out points, easily figured by using a Corps of Engineers map of the lake (which also depicts the road network).

Using small spinners on ultralight tackle, as well as live bait if you prefer it, drift with the current and cast to rock or wood targets as you drift along. Typically, by the end of the trip, you'll have a cooler of hefty bream and some bonus black bass.

Barkley Lake is often overshadowed in the bream fishing department by nearby big sister Kentucky Lake, which flows almost parallel only a few miles to the west. However, the portion of Barkley Lake in Tennessee is a bream-laden body of water that is often overlooked in this portion of the state.

While there is excellent fishing in some of the larger creeks, there are scads of small creeks and coves fed by small trickling streams that hold countless bream, especially during the prime spawning month of May.

Much of Barkley Lake, in the Tennessee portion of the impoundment, is not the wide expanse of water found on the Tennessee portion of Kentucky Lake. When looking at it on a map, it may give the impression there are not many places for bream fishing. On the contrary, the huge number of shallow-water coves and pockets make it an outstanding bream fishery.

Also, there's normally not much bream fishing pressure, even during the prime bedding season. Bass and crappie anglers are often out in force, but bream fishermen usually have plenty of elbowroom.

One large tributary on Lake Barkely is Saline Creek, not far from the Tennessee and Kentucky state line. This is a prime location for bedding bream during the spring. Actually, excellent fishing will be found in this area throughout the summer.

Other areas that are excellent producers are Dyer, Lick and Long creeks, located upstream near Dover. The multitude of coves and pockets holding bream are found all the way to the Cheatham Dam tailwaters. There are several excellent places near Clarksville where the Cumberland River winds through the edge of town.

Some anglers will employ the use of light spinner or spin-cast tackle to fish this lake. However, another way that works very well because of the large amount of shallow water with woody cover is to fish with a long, light fiberglass pole. Usually, the length of line is just shorter than the pole, with a length of 10 to 12 feet considered ideal.

By raising the pole and swinging the line in, you can effectively and quietly work thick brush and wood cover over 20 feet from the boat. When you hit a hotspot, quietly drop an anchor and you can sit in one spot and snatch big bream off the bed until the action slows.

Even when the bream are not on the bed, you can effectively cover plenty of territory using this method. It works well anytime during May or June. Sometime in the summer, the fish will retreat to deeper water and you may have to employ other techniques to catch them.

No Tennessee bream fishing roundup would be complete with noting Reelfoot Lake as a prime place to fish. It is usually noted in any bream fishing guide to Tennessee and it deserves to be there.

This fertile lake is teeming with big bream. Some of the best fishing of the entire year will occur during the spring, with a prime time being in May and June. However, unlike some lakes where hot weather fishing can get tough, the action stays excellent at Reelfoot. The water color, combined with the abundance of woody and weedy cover, provides ideal conditions for the fish even in hot weather. Thus, if you fish tight to cover, you can catch limits of huge bream all summer long at Reelfoot.

At Reelfoot Lake, it can be easy to become confused about where to fish -- it all looks so inviting for bream. There are cypress trees, lily pads in small and huge clusters, grassy shorelines, and logs and stumps scattered everywhere. If it all looks perfect for bream, that's because it basically is. The bream grow large and fat here and are found in big numbers.

However, you do need to focus on some specifics to enjoy consistent success. It would be too easy to be caught up in all the good-looking cover and fish randomly. I have personally made this mistake, and while you can certainly catch fish this way, you won't be tapping into the lake's full potential. If you fish smart, you'll catch more fish, larger fish and catch them much quicker.

The key is to focus on specific fish-holding areas. For example, in a group of cypress trees, you may have water that's a fairly consistent depth, but there will be areas that are a bit shallower or slightly deeper. These are the places Reelfoot bream will target.

When working the shoreline looking for bream beds, many fishermen will fish the entire stretch of weeds or pads. The key is again to look for something different along that stretch of shoreline. There may be a small pocket in the weeds or a hole in a thick mat of pads. One favored place is to find a log lying in the water in conjunction with a weedline in 3 or 4 feet of water. That combination will usually be enough to attract plenty of b


Local guides suggest using either spincast or spinning rigs to cast to targeted areas, or the 10- to 12-foot bream busters described in the Lake Barkley section above.

Typically, bream fishermen on Reelfoot will use crickets as bait. Often you'll need to put the bait under cypress limbs or into small targets to be successful on the lake, so use the equipment that gives you the accuracy needed in terms of presentation of the bait. Even a few inches can make a huge difference between success and failure.

Prime bream-bedding months at Reelfoot are May and June, but good fishing action will occur through the summer months.

These are but a few of the great bream fishing opportunities across the state. But on each of these waters, you can expect to find sensational bream fishing. Get your gear ready now and fish the lake or lakes near you. Better yet, plan a trip to one of the other lakes in the state you don't often have the opportunity to fish.

The month of May and bream fishing is a perfect combination in Tennessee.

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