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Tennessee's Best Family Fishing

Tennessee's Best Family Fishing

In Tennessee, there's no need to choose between a family vacation and a fishing trip -- you can do both at once! (June 2009)

Although bream are a traditional best bet for kids' fishing, young anglers will find nothing at all wrong with catching nice catfish in the Tennessee River. Photo by Richard Simms.

Vacation preferences are sort of like Jack Sprat and his wife, with the fat being fishing plans and the lean being other forms of exploration and relaxation on the same vacation. And like the nursery rhyme couple, families who are making summer plans can assemble a "platter" that serves up both kinds of opportunities and have a grand time licking the whole thing clean.

Knowing that various family members will have different ideas about what makes a great vacation, we've sought destinations that blend fishing and non-fishing opportunities. Understanding also that different families like different forms of play, we've made selections that vary dramatically in character. From fish species to the types of waters to the types of other opportunities for family play, these four spots offer a little bit of everything. We also sought to spread the picks through all parts of Tennessee, knowing that with economic times being what they are, many families might prefer to stay close to home this summer. So, here are our best fishing vacation picks, beginning in the east and traveling west.

Gatlinburg visitors need not venture far to find fishing action because the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River, which runs right through town, is stocked weekly with trout, as are a couple major tributaries, which also wind through town. Another aspect of the fishery here that makes Gatlinburg especially conducive for family fishing outings, portions of three streams are open for fishing only to children 12 and under.

Gatlinburg's streams get stocked on Thursdays, so no fishing is permitted that day. But that means the waters are freshly loaded at the beginning of every weekend. A special permit is required in addition to a Tennessee license for anglers 13 years old and older. No license or permit is required for anglers less than 13 years old.

The in-town trout waters, always stocked and exceedingly handy, provide the quickest access to fishing action for families who want to wet a line during their vacation, but they are only one small portion of the angling opportunities that await folks who opt to vacation in Gatlinburg. Lying at the base of the Great Smoky Mountains and immediately adjacent to the national park, Gatlinburg is a gateway to literally hundreds of miles of pristine wild trout waters. In addition, the same stream that serves up in-town trout in Gatlinburg offers some of Tennessee's best wade-fishing for summer smallmouths just downstream of town.

Trout fishing in the national park is strictly for wild fish, as no trout have been stocked in these waters for more than 30 years. The streams run clear and cold down both sides of the mountains, and either a Tennessee or North Carolina license (no trout stamp required) allows anglers to fish anywhere in the park. Only single-hook artificial lures may be used. A five-fish combined limit applies to rainbow, brown and brook trout and smallmouth bass with a 7-inch minimum size for all four species.


Trout are clearly the main attraction in the park, but there are also smallmouths and rock bass in the lower ends of a few larger rivers. A couple of streams run roadside and are easily accessible. Most can be reached only by walking, and some are several miles up trails. Success in park waters requires stealth, and accessing many stream sections involves substantial effort. The reward is beautiful wild fish in a spectacular setting, and, more often than not, minimal competition from other anglers.

On the other side of Gatlinburg, fishing opportunities take on a totally different character. The West Prong of the Little Pigeon River, which eventually joins other forks and becomes the Little Pigeon, serves up excellent smallmouth fishing in a setting that is anything but wilderness-like. The river winds right through Pigeon Forge and then Sevierville and some of the best fishing is within sight of bustling tourist attractions. During the summer, smallmouths (and rock bass) often will hammer small topwater plugs all day long. Soft-plastic stick worms or crawfish imitations also work extremely well.

Additional smallmouth fishing opportunities exist in Little River to the west of the Gatlinburg and the Pigeon River to the east. Also nearby are assorted smaller trout streams, plus the French Broad River and Douglas Lake.

Of course, opportunities for family play extend way beyond fishing. Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville together offer a huge variety of opportunities to race go-carts, play miniature golf, explore museums, roam through shops, ride a ski lift, attend shows, eat ice cream or handmade candy . . . the list goes on and on. The national park, meanwhile, is laced with fabulous trails that lead to old-growth forests, historic home sites, waterfalls and more.

For more information about places to play, eat and stay in Gatlinburg, visit

Catfish, stripers, smallmouth bass and a host of other fish species swim right through the middle of Chattanooga, as the city sits on the banks of the Tennessee River. Even outside the river's banks, thousands of additional fish swim in the Tennessee Aquarium, one of many attractions that make Chattanooga an outstanding destination for a family vacation with fishing as a major theme.

From a fishing standpoint, big cats are probably the biggest attraction in the section of river that churns between the plateaus that bound Chattanooga. Blues and channels are abundant in the river, and the blues grow to mammoth proportions. Flatheads likewise reach super sizes, but they are less numerous than blues and require more specialized approaches. Blue cats like a big chunk of cut bait fished on the bottom, and they tend to bite best in the current.

If your vacation plans don't include hauling the catfish boat with you, you might consider a guided trip for these trophy fish. Richard Simms of Scenic City Fishing Charters spends a lot of time targeting trophy cats (although he fishes for everything that swims in the river) and has the right equipment and the knowledge to help anglers hook and land these Tennessee River giants.

Variety is part of the virtue of the Tennessee River's offerings in and around Chattanooga. Chickamauga Dam impounds the river just upstream of town, so families enjoy equally good access to big shellcrackers and bluegills in Chickamauga's coves and the big stripers that favor the moving water downstream of the dam. A combination of parks and access areas operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority and Tennessee

Wildlife Resources Agency provide plentiful access points above and below the dam both for boating and bank fishing.

The shellcrackers and bluegills, which grow to big sizes in Chickamauga, serve up some of the best summer prospects for families. Bluegills will hang around downed trees, docks and most other cover along the edges of coves, and it's hard to beat a simple cricket fished under a cork. Shellcrackers prefer worms and will usually be on or very near the bottom. For family members who want to target something a little larger, the same coves support good largemouth populations.

With so many good fishing opportunities, it might be hard for the true anglers in a family to think about other stuff, but Chattanooga offers a tremendous variety of family attractions beginning with the aquarium and its River Gorge Explorer, a high-speed 70-passenger catamaran. For folks who prefer to see the city by water at a slower pace, the Southern Belle is a 500-passenger riverboat that offers everything from dinner cruises to simple river tours.

Downtown (by land) families can take in a Chattanooga Lookouts minor league baseball game, check out the IMAX 3-D Theater or Hunter Museum of American Art or enjoy live music, good food and shopping in the Chattanooga Market. Just "uphill" from downtown, of course, is Lookout Mountain, famous for Rock City, Ruby Falls and the Incline Railway and offering a host of cool places to explore, dine and stay.

To learn more about fishing in Chattanooga or book a guided trip, visit For more about attractions and lodging, see

Located at the site of a historic riverboat stop, Pickwick Landing State Park contains 1,400 wooded acres along the Tennessee River and offers vacationers a place to stay and play just upstream of Pickwick Dam. The location is ideal for folks who want to spend some time fishing because it provides direct access to Pickwick Lake and is only a few minutes from the lake's productive tailwater.

Savannah, Tennessee, just downstream of the dam, has been dubbed the Catfish Capital of the World and is the home of the National Catfish Derby every summer. Both the town's nickname and the tournament site exist for good reason: The Pickwick tailwater is absolutely loaded with cats -- including some genuine giants -- and summer is prime time to get in on the catfishing action. Adding value, one of the best places to target catfish during the summer is in the Pickwick Tailwater, and the Tennessee Valley Authority access area below Pickwick Dam offers plenty of room for shoreline anglers to work.

For boating anglers, catfishing is good both in the lake and in the river downstream of the dam. A good strategy for families with younger anglers aboard is to fish the lake, staying in the creeks, and to present dough baits or chicken livers on the bottom over prominent points. Larger blue cats prefer cut fish and will orient more to the main river channel than to the creeks.

Cats are only the beginning, though. Many kinds of sport fish call the fertile waters of the Tennessee River home, and anglers can find a tremendous variety of opportunities without straying far from Pickwick Landing. Among the most intriguing are Pickwick's world-famous smallmouth bass. Although not huge in numbers or overly predictable, smallmouths grow to mammoth proportions in this lake, and an angler who finds the right crankbait bite on a main-river ledge truly could be in for a day of a lifetime.

Other good possibilities include largemouths and crappie in the creeks. The crappie will be along creek channels, moving up and down the ledges according to conditions. The best way to find them is to troll or drift with minnows and jigs at a range of depth. Finally, anglers shouldn't overlook always-abundant bluegills, which probably provide the best opportunity for effortless fishing from the park's shoreline. Even families who have very young children can get into fine bream-fishing action without straying far from their cabins or campsites.

The state park itself makes a nice base camp for family vacations, with cabins, an inn, a campground and a restaurant on the property. The park's woods are also laced with hiking trails, and tennis courts, a golf course, two pools and three public beaches, all of which provide additional opportunities for play.

Opportunities for non-fishing exploration definitely are not limited to the state park, though. Hardin County, where Pickwick Landing State Park is located, is rich with Civil War history sites and museums. Other attractions include Southern Belle Riverboat tours and the Tennessee River Museum, which brings to life the colorful history of the Tennessee Valley.

For more information about lodging and other facilities at Pickwick Landing State Park, visit For much more on the surrounding area, including additional lodging options and details about area attractions, visit

If fishing and relaxing are high on a list of goals for a family vacation, it's hard to beat the offerings of 10,400-acre Reelfoot Lake in extreme northwestern Tennessee. Everything except the fishing is slow-paced at Reelfoot, but the fishing action can be fast and furious, with catfish, bass, bluegills and crappie all likely contributors to the action.

Reelfoot is unlike any other lake in Tennessee. The average depth is only about 5 feet, and the lake is loaded with cypress trees, stumps and vegetation. Because of the sheer abundance of stumps and other hazards that lie just beneath Reelfoot's surface, many anglers do not bring their own boats to the lake. Instead, they use rental boats from lodges, which are commonly offered in lodge packages along with rooms and meals. The rental boats are aluminum and are intentionally equipped with small motors to prevent running the lake at hazardous speeds.

Reelfoot actually consists of four separate basins, all connected by water but each distinctive. Cypress stands and lily pad fields and other clusters of cover also serve to break up the lake and make it seem much smaller than it is and less intimidating to newcomers than other lakes of comparable size. Armed with a bit of advice from folks at a lodge, a family typically can take off in a rental boat at Reelfoot and find some good fishing action.

Early summer offers excellent prospects for bluegills, catfish and bass. Some bluegills will still be spawning during June, and anglers need nothing more than a bobber rig and a cage filled with crickets or a container of waxworms to catch a mess of hand-sized (or larger) bluegills.

The bass will hit topwaters in the morning and plastic worms or spinnerbaits as the day progresses. Bass and bluegill fishermen often catch big numbers this time of year simply by hitting the stuff that looks fishy. Reelfoot doesn't produce many true giant bass, but it serves up great numbers of quality fish.

Fishing for channel catfish only gets hotter as the summer progresses, with the most popular approach being to fish night crawlers or stinky dough baits beside stumps and l

aydowns. Most cats will be between 2 and 10 pounds.

Also, while channel cats are by far the most abundant of the whiskered clan and represent a huge majority of the catch, Reelfoot also produces some jumbo flathead catfish. The best time to target flatheads is after the sun goes down, when they do the bulk of their feeding. Flatheads are most abundant in the deepest holes in the lake (mostly in the lower Blue Basin), but they will move onto nearby flats to feed at night. Live fish makes the best bait.

In a way, Reelfoot is quite unlike other destinations highlighted. Families will not find much for shops to explore or other "attractions" around Reelfoot Lake. Reelfoot Lake State Park does offer a visitor center and hiking trails, and golfing can be done at a nearby country club. However, most folks travel to Reelfoot to fish (or hunt during the fall and winter) and to enjoy the tranquility of a beautiful and very rural part of Tennessee.

The lake itself with its cypress forests and lily pad fields is strikingly beautiful, and there is much to be said for the idea of leaving the fishing rods in the room and taking a boat ride simply to enjoy the lake's sights and abundant wildlife.

It's worth noting that to fish at Reelfoot anglers need a Reelfoot Preservation Permit in addition to a Tennessee Fishing License. For more information about the lake and lodging or boat rental options, visit

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