Top Panfish Angling In Tennessee

Top Panfish Angling In Tennessee

If you like the fast action and fine eating that bluegills and other panfish offer, these are the spots for you to fish this spring. (May 2009)

Kentucky Lake is legendary for the nice shellcrackers it produces. Guides like Garry Mason, shown here, spend many of their spring days guiding exclusively for shellcrackers and bluegills.
Photo by Jeff Samsel.

Don't tell the bass specialists or trout purists. They probably wouldn't listen anyway. The fact is, though, that bluegills and other panfish serve up some of the most fun angling action of all the fish that swim in Tennessee, both because of the fast action they typically provide and because the back-to-the-basics tactics that tend to produce the best action are just plain fun ways to fish.

With an eye on angling enjoyment, we've selected a handful of fisheries across Tennessee that serve up excellent panfishing. Offerings vary dramatically in the species mix and the nature of waterways themselves. The common denominator is consistently fine panfish action. We'll begin in the eastern part of the state and work our way west.

Several East Tennessee streams offer their own unique brand of panfishing, where rock bass steal the show. Assorted other sunfish species, smallies and possibly a walleye or a catfish will also find their way into mixed-bag catches, but rock bass serve up the fastest action and really fun river fishing. The approach is simple: Throw grubs or small spinners close to rocky shores. The results are predictably good. Rock bass are not fabulous fighters, but they hit lures with gusto and they tend to gang up, creating spells of foolishly fast action.

While several East Tennessee streams offer some amount of rock bass opportunity, fisheries biologist Bart Carter recommended two rivers in extreme upper East Tennessee that stand from the rest. Carter, a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency stream biologist in Region IV, said the Clinch and Powell rivers, neighboring flows that rise in the mountains of Virginia and flow southwesterly through their Tennessee portions, are the best of the best for rock bass.

The Powell River is Carter's top pick for sheer numbers of rock bass. Although there are some large fish in the mix, fast action is the main attraction in this fishery. The Upper Clinch, on the other hand, is Carter's trophy rock bass selection. The Clinch, best known for the tailwater trout fishery below Norris Lake, provides many miles of fine cool-water river fishing from the Virginia/Tennessee line to the headwaters of the lake, and this is the area that the rock bass call home.

Both the Powell and the Clinch are fairly large rivers that can be waded, fished from the bank or fished from johnboats or other small crafts. The upper end of the Clinch's Tennessee run is fairly flat and lends itself well to fishing from a small boat. Closer to the lake, the river's grade steepens, creating more shoals or rapids, depending on water levels. Boating is more challenging in this section, but wade-fishing is generally better. The Powell runs a fairly gentle course throughout the Tennessee portion and is well suited for wading or floating.

The rivers' banks are mostly private, but the TWRA does operate a couple of access areas along each. In addition, numerous roadside areas along each provide popular fishing access. Information about public access points is available from

Carter noted that were it not for the current drought, he would have selected Little River, which flows out of the Great Smoky Mountains and through Townsend. It's still a very good river with some big fish in it and worthy of note, Carter said, but before the drought, it had the best population of big rock bass in East Tennessee. After the water returns, he's confident that the fish will too. Rock bass grow slowly, though, so it will take time for the trophy rock bass fishery to regain its former strength.

The statewide rock bass limit is 20 fish, with no minimum size. (Cont.)

Best known for its giant bronzebacks and for coldwater game fish, such as trout and walleyes, Dale Hollow could easily be overlooked as a panfishing destination. To do so, however, would be a major mistake because shellcrackers and bluegills alike grow to jumbo proportions in Dale Hollow, providing outstanding panfishing in a spectacular setting.

May is the beginning of prime-time bluegilling on Dale Hollow because the fish will start spawning this month and will continue doing so through much of the summer. That means they'll be in predictable types of locations and stacked up in good numbers

"I'm talking about 1-pound bluegills," said Darren Shell, a Dale Hollow expert who spends a lot of his time bream fishing this time of year. Shell, who has written four books about Dale Hollow, has caught two shellcrackers from the lake that he has weighed in at more than 2 pounds.

Keys to finding the bluegills and shellcrackers during the spring are finding the right types of areas and the depth where the fish are spawning, Shell said. He focuses on flats that contain a mix of sand and small shale. The depth can be between 8 and 12 feet and will vary from year to year. Once an angler locates bedding fish, though, he can count on them all being in exactly the same depth.

Once Shell has zeroed in on the depth, he will not look at all in any other depth. Instead, he'll work flats, dropping his bait only in areas of the correct depth, and he'll move along pretty quickly if he doesn't get bit.

"Either you'll catch none from a spot or you'll catch several, and sometimes you have to move quite a bit to find them," Shell said. "Once you do find fish, you'll catch 10 or 12 fish. When the bite slows, it's time to move again."

Shell uses a simple tight-line rig, with nothing but a split shot and a No. 4 hook at the end of his line, and he fishes mostly with crickets or small worms.

"Crickets are more effective, but you have to spend more time re-baiting your hook than you do with worms," Shell said.

There is no limit on Dale Hollow for bluegills. The daily shellcracker limit is 20 fish.

For lodging, boat rentals or lake information, check out Willow Grove Resort and Marina, which is located along the lake's middle section. For more information, go online to

Part of the Tennessee's Family Fishing Lakes program, Laurel Hill Lake is managed specifically for fishing, and that's evident both by the quality of the panfish populations and the abundance of access for boa

t- and bank-fishing alike. The combination of great fishing, outstanding access and complete facilities make Laurel Hill an ideal destination for a family bream fishing outing, according to Dough Markham, Region 2 public information officer for the TWRA.

"If I were to lead most readers to a lake in Middle Tennessee, it would be Laurel Hill Lake in Lawrence County," he said. "Anglers catch big bluegills and big shellcrackers out of Laurel Hill."

At 325 acres, Laurel Hill is the largest of the Family Fishing Lakes in Middle Tennessee, and it is one of the only lakes in the program that allows the use of private boats and big motors. Inexpensive boat rentals are also available, though, and because a speed limit is enforced on the lake, small-boat fishermen need not be concerned about larger boats being allowed to run on the lake. Shoreline access is outstanding, and a road runs alongside much of the lake. There is also a handicapped-accessible fishing pier and "youth only" fishing in two small ponds near the concessions area.

Cover around Laurel Hill includes overhanging trees, laydowns and some rock. Structure includes humps and the old creek channels. Anglers need not possess a lot of specialized knowledge or tote much equipment for May bream fishing, though. The bluegills will generally be within casting distance of the shore and fairly shallow and can be found pretty much anywhere around the lake with a tiny spinner or a cricket under a cork. The shellcrackers may be a little deeper, and anglers will do better drifting over flats, tight-lining worms on a split shot rig, barely off the bottom.

A concessions area offers licenses, food and bait. A $5 daily permit is required in addition to a regular Tennessee fishing license. The combined bluegill/shellcracker limit is 20 fish, with no minimum size.

Other TWRA Lakes
Laurel Hill is one of 18 lakes in the TWRA Family Fishing Lakes program. All the waters listed as part of the program offer good access for family outings and ample panfishing opportunities. Specific facilities vary, but most offer good bank access, boat rentals, restrooms and concessions. They are generally small, and most have boating restrictions, making them nice for small-boat fishing or bank-fishing. And because they are managed specifically for fishing, most are fertilized to maximize productivity. For complete information on these lakes, most of which are in Middle or West Tennessee, visit

It would be tough to talk about Tennessee panfishing without talking about Kentucky Lake. This massive reservoir annually serves up some of the best bluegill and shellcracker fishing in the state. In addition, white bass, which actually grow big enough in Kentucky Lake to put a stretch in a "panfish" designation, provide furious action at times.

Most of the best bream fishing on Kentucky Lake is found in the embayments, and good opportunities can be found in virtually any embayment. During May, the fish will be shallow, with many on the beds. Bluegill beds will be in back in pockets and coves, often around buckbrush or other woody cover. Shellcracker beds will be a little deeper, sometimes by a stump or in a gap in the vegetation. Whether an angler targets bluegills or shellcrackers (or both), it's hard to beat a cricket or an earthworm dangled beneath a small float and set to hang just off the bottom for spring bed fishing.

White bass make spawning runs every spring, moving to the heads of creeks all up and down the lake and also stacking up beneath Pickwick Dam. Most will have wrapped up their runs during May and will be working their way back down creek arms toward the main lake. Anglers can find good numbers along creek channel edges in the lower parts of the creeks, especially when the Tennessee Valley Authority is pulling water through the lake.

Jigging spoons, grubs and in-line spinners produce well when the fish are near the bottom; however, the same fish may come up schooling at any time, creating really fun topwater fishing opportunities.

The fish that pile up below Pickwick Dam won't necessarily head back downstream right after they spawn. They'll find a steady feast of shad in the tailwater and won't be in any hurry to leave the area. Anglers fishing live bait on three-way rigs or casting grubs or bucktails in the swift water can enjoy terrific action beneath the dam.

The daily shellcracker limit on Kentucky Lake is 30 fish. There is no limit for bluegills or other sunfish. The white bass limit is 15 fish. Visit for more information on Kentucky Lake fishing, including guides and fishing lodges.

Reelfoot Lake sort of looks like a giant farm pond, with its vast weedy flats, endless stumps and big stands of flooded timber. It should be little surprise, therefore, that Reelfoot's bluegills grow to farm-pond proportions. Despite heavy panfishing pressure, Reelfoot serves up fabulous bluegill action year after year, and May is prime time for fast action and jumbo-sized fish.

The spawn will hit in full swing at Reelfoot this month, meaning that where an angler finds one big bluegill, he's apt to find many others. It also means the fish will be along the lake's edges, holding on or very near the bottom in shallow water. Bream beds may be anywhere from less than a foot deep to about 6 feet deep on Reelfoot. Most beds will be close to a stump or a log or some other kind of cover.

Even an angler who does not really know the lake can find plenty of action by simply working along the bank and fishing a cricket or a worm under a bobber or tight-lining the bait just off the bottom and using a long pole to place it close to cover. A float, when used, should be set to suspend the bait just barely off the bottom and be sufficiently slender to ensure that every bite of any size is recognized.

Anglers fishing Reelfoot Lake need a Reelfoot Preservation Permit in addition to a Tennessee fishing license. Permits are $3.50 daily or $17 annually. The shellcracker limit on Reelfoot is 20 fish. There is no limit for bluegills or other sunfish. For fishing reports and information on lodge, boat rentals and guided fishing, call (877) 258-3226, or visit

Twisting endlessly as it flows lazily toward the Mighty Mississippi, the Hatchie River is a West Tennessee gem. Free flowing throughout its course, the Hatchie cuts through a broad floodplain of tupelos, cypress and river birch. Much of the wetland area bordering the river is part of the Hatchie or Lower Hatchie National Wildlife Refuge or is protected from development by The Nature Conservancy.

As unaltered and strikingly scenic as the Hatchie is, however, it is fairly accessible to boating anglers. Several access points scattered along the river provide not only boating access but also places where shoreline anglers can fish. Much of the river can be run in a johnboat at most water levels, but many anglers use canoes to access the upper Hatchie, floating from one access point to another.

Fishing pressure on the Hatchie is light overall, and anglers who do fish t

he river most commonly target either catfish or largemouth and spotted bass. Bluegills and assorted other sunfish species get very little targeted effort, so an angler who opts to fish the river's edges with miniature offerings can have the river's mixed bag of panfish pretty much to himself.

Some of the best fishing will usually be just off the main channel in backwaters or pockets that allow the fish direct access to the main river but also afford them a break from holding in the current. Because specific types of areas that yield best vary enormously by water level and from one type of sunfish to another, it's important that an angler fish a lot of different types of areas and pay attention to details any time the cork darts under. The amount of current, the bottom depth, the kind of cover and the location relative to a bend in the river can all be important clues for patterning panfish.

The Hatchie River falls under statewide regulations for bream, with a 20-fish limit applying to shellcrackers only and no limit or minimum size for bluegills or other sunfish.

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