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Catch Caney Fork Trout Now!

Catch Caney Fork Trout Now!

As the trout population in this tailwater fishery gets bigger and the hatches get stronger, a good fishery is getting better and better. (April 2007)

Photo by Jim Bedford

The Caney Fork is the tailwater of Center Hill Lake, and, not coincidentally, a great trout fishery.

There are several reasons for the high quality of this fishery. One of two important factors is the habitat, and the quality of the habitat stems from the fact that the water released from the dam is drawn from the deepest parts of the lake. That water runs right at 55 degrees all year long.

Another factor has to do with the released water being oxygenated. Since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started sluicing the river to keep it oxygenated in periods of low dissolved oxygen levels, we have had some of the most prolific hatches in the mid-South. The dam also keeps the river flowing about 125 cfm, so that helps quite a bit as well.

Those two factors -- cool water and healthy, diverse populations of aquatic insects -- combine to make the Caney Fork capable of sustaining and growing trout in abundance.

The limits and regulations on the Caney are the final critical factor, and the biggest reason the river is fast becoming a trophy fishery. The daily creel limit is seven fish total. Of those seven, however, only two can be brown trout and both of those must be at least 18 inches. Because brown trout tend to live longer than rainbows and more easily shift their diet from insects to forage fish as they grow, brown trout are good candidates for producing a trophy fishery. The brown trout regulations complement that potential.

The brown trout regulations have been in place since the onset of the 2004 season. And, in fact, this simple regulation has had a very positive impact on the quality of browns caught in this fishery. After just two years, this size limit had many fish being measured in pounds rather than inches. A 5- to 6-pound brown is not uncommon on this river.


The habitat is there and the fish are there. So, how do you catch them, and where can you get to them? We'll discuss the most popular tactics and rigs first.


Methods for catching Caney Fork trout are as diverse as the anglers who grace the river's banks. Probably the most common approach is to use spinning gear.

Spinning Gear

The best option is an ultralight rod; I personally prefer rods at least 6 feet long with a rather soft tip. On the Caney, however, more important than the rod, reel or even lure is line. The Caney is generally gin clear, so colored mono line is definitely out. My personal choice is the tried-and-true Stren clear blue.

Anything much bigger than 4-pound-test is probably too big: The bigger the line, the more likely it is that trout will detect it in these clear waters. And most of the bigger fish and been fished for before.

A reel, of course, should work, but it is largely simply something to hold the line, so use what you are comfortable with. If you use spinning gear and light line, however, try to close the bail on a spinning reel by hand. This will keep the line from forming a loop and becoming tangled beyond belief.

Lure selection is pretty straightforward. In-line spinners are a huge producer of trout. They look like small baitfish trying to get away, and few things catch a trout's attention faster. The Rooster Tail line is my choice because they don't twist the line as bad as some others.

When using in-line spinners, make sure you have the Caney Fork's three "go-to" colors in your box. These colors are olive, black and hot pink. The hot pink is a great early springtime color. Although they are harder to find, I like the 1/6-ounce size because they will get to the bottom of a run even if the dam is generating and the water is running high.

Other good choices in artificial lures are small spoons in gold or silver and small Rapala crankbaits. The crankbaits seem to work best in a blue back/silver bottom color combo. Every year, there are many huge trout caught by anglers who troll with the smaller crankbaits when the generators are running water. It's a deadly tactic.

Fishing with spinning gear here is not just a "chunk and wind" operation -- not if you want to catch as many fish as possible. One thing that I see clients doing is fishing too fast with the Rooster Tails. The blade does not have to be spinning to catch fish. In fact, especially on the Caney, I would rather retrieve so slowly that the lure rides slightly above, and at times bounces off, the bottom. If you try to keep the blades turning, you're retrieving too fast and missing fish.

Lure presentation, as a rule, is much like bass fishing: You find structure and fish it. A stump, islands, eddies and deep runs are prime targets for the spin-fisherman.


Before we can really discuss the most popular method for catching Caney Fork trout, which is fly-fishing, we must first talk a bit about the aquatic life found in the river.

Thanks to the water flow and constant temperatures of the released water from the dams, there are healthy populations of aquatic insects in the river.

You will find scud, sow bugs, caddis, crane flies, and black flies are the predominant insects on the river. There are hatches of blue-winged olives as well; in fact, they are becoming more common. Along with the abundant insect life comes a host of shad, minnows, crickets and hoppers that always catch fish.

Since the river is now teeming with aquatic life, the fish quality has, of course, skyrocketed as well. According to the TWRA, there is a plan in place to install a turbine that will run constantly providing a steady flow rate of 200 versus the 125 we see now. This is great news for the fishery and the anglers who frequent it.

Fly-fishing the river is the most popular method as of late. That can be contributed to the improved dissolved oxygen levels and the better insect hatches.

The river, however, is by no means easy to fish; in fact, it can be a humbling experience at times. Even with its abundance of trout and growing insect density, over 25 percent of the anglers who visit the river never catch a fish. While I was fishing with Jim Mauries, owner of Fly South, he said if a flyfisherman can consistently catch trout on the Caney, that angler would be able to catch fish anywhere in the world.

On this river, fly-fishing can

be a game of inches: If your offering is an inch too far from feeding fish, they won't give your fly a second look. The primary reason is there are so many bugs that the trout don't need to move to eat. Like most predators, dominant trout have both stamina and the capacity to move very fast, but that doesn't mean they want to work any harder for a meal than they have to.

The result is that fly-fishing the Caney is technical fishing at its finest. I have fished numerous other tailwaters in our great state and none test your abilities like the Caney Fork.

If you intend to chase fish with your fly rod there, you better get used to thinking very small. Other rivers give up plenty of trout on flies in the No. 12 to No. 16 size range, but not the Caney Fork. Most days, you will be fishing ultra small flies, size 18 to 24, under indicators.

Paying attention is paramount: These fish are smart and will spit your fly back out faster than you can imagine. Be ready to pick that rod tip up very quickly.

Since the fishing pressure is quite high on the river, smaller leaders and tippets are in order. Generally, start with nothing larger than a 5X leader and tippet combination. Most days, you will end up with a 6X tippet tied on. To those who say, baloney, a fish can't see the difference, you are sadly mistaken. While on the river recently, I was using 6X mono tippet right beside Jim Mauries who was using 6X fluorocarbon and he was banging fish three to my one. Those fish would see my mono tippet and not eat. They couldn't see the fluorocarbon and would eat. When you fish the Caney, remember the trout here act like trout!

Before choosing a fly, I like to watch the river for a time. Often you can tell what insects are in abundance, and the fish will tell you where to start every time. If they are simply "pushing" water, try a midge pattern or possibly a scud. If they are in the shallows and appear to be feeding, try a sow bug or minnow imitation.

But if you see them actively chasing food, that means it's time to break out the streamers like Woolly Buggers, Muddler minnows or small deceivers.

Once you decide where to start, don't stop watching by any means. The fish will change entrées in a heartbeat. On one trip, for example, I'd been fishing a zebra midge early in the morning and having good success with it. Then, as soon as the sun came into view, the trout just seemed to shut down. After a frustrating period and couple of expletives, I saw the reason: A blue-winged olive hatch was beginning, and the trout were switching gears to take advantage of it. If you are lucky enough to see that kind of hatch, you are looking at a chance to get in on some of the mid-South's best dry-fly fishing!

Bait Fishing

The other method for catching a limit of trout is the time-honored technique of bait-fishing. I personally release the fish I catch, so I am not a bait-fisherman -- but if you hold a license and follow the rules, more power to you. The standard worms or corn are always big producers and if you visit the dam on a nice weekend, you will see the bait-fishermen lined up along the bank. I have seen others use salmon eggs and the numerous flavors of PowerBait or Power Worms with great success.

The most popular method is bottom-fishing by placing a small sinker about a foot above the bait and letting it drift along right on the riverbed. If you choose this method, do not leave the bail on your spinning reel open so the fish can run. This allows them to swallow the bait and you could kill a fish that's not legal to keep.

Lastly in the bait department is simply a can of corn. If you're looking to catch some trout for the table, these baits will surely get it done throughout the year.


Deciding what to throw at the fish and figuring out how to throw it effectively is trickier than finding a place to access the Caney Fork, luckily. The river itself is rather easily found and the entire river is open to the public.

The fly in the proverbial buttermilk, though, is that most of the land bordering the river is private. Nevertheless, this river has public access a plenty.

The access to the dam is reached from Interstate 40 by taking Exit 268 and turning south. You will travel a little less than four miles and then come to a stop sign. Turn right here and go another one-third of a mile until you see the "resource manager" sign. That's the turn to the dam access point. At this point, you have the option to fish at the resource manager's area or you can travel across the dam and turn right at the stop sign. This is Highway 141 and there are several pull-offs on this road that allow you to access the river for several miles.

Happy Hollow is another good access point. Once you exit the interstate and travel south for 1.5 miles, you will see the sign for Happy Hollow on your right. Happy Hollow has a gravel boat ramp and parking lot.

Betty's Island is now a great access point. From the interstate, travel north for about two miles and then turn left on St. Mary's Road. Travel four more miles and you will see the Betty's Island access point on your right. As of this year, Betty's has a concrete boat ramp. Now, boat ramps on a tailwater fishery are generally only useful during periods of generation or high water. It's entirely possible, though, to put a trailered johnboat in on the gravel bars at both Happy and Betty's and as a matter of fact, it is done on a daily basis.

Another popular access point is the rest area on Interstate 40. If you are traveling west, it will be past Exit 268, and if traveling east, it's right before the exit. The rest area has great parking and is less than less than two-tenths of a mile from the water. The only downfall of the rest area is that travelers and truckers primarily use it. It's highly advisable to avoid leaving valuables in your vehicle, especially if you're fishing early or late in the day. There are some other places you can access the river, but since you would have to at the very least make a short trek across private property, I will not elaborate here. If you choose to access the river in places that require you to walk through private property, please do the right thing and gain permission first.


Overall, the Caney Fork has improved leaps and bounds over the past decade and appears to be on track to continue this trend for years to come. The key to the continued improvement of this fishery is as dependent on the anglers as it is the agencies. Don't kill more fish than you intend to eat. Turn in those you see taking more than the legal limit; it's the duty of all the law-abiding anglers to assist in the enforcement of the laws. Finally, yet importantly, please take out not only your trash but also any other trash you happen upon while fishing this scenic river.

I was fortunate enough to fish with probably the top Caney Fork guide, Chris Nichan of Rod and Gun Guide Service, in preparation for this article. He talked about the evolution of the river from his days as a student at UT. It appears that he is pleased with the positive impac

t of the brown trout regulation, but is careful to say the river could be improved even more by establishing a minimum flow and possibly more stringent regulations in the future. He draws parallels between the Cumberland River in Kentucky, which is a true destination trout stream. There are regulations there on both rainbow and brown trout. To hear a man who guides this river almost daily most of the year make that statement gives me hope that the TWRA is headed in the right direction. They are working closely with both the TVA and the Corps of Engineers to improve this fishery.


Before one can safely fish the tailwater, one must understand what happens to the river when the TVA is generating power. The generator turbines draw large amounts of water from the lake floor and discharges that water directly into the river at a very fast rate. Depending on how many generators the dam is running, the river level can raise several feet very quickly. The flow will increase dramatically as well. The wading fishermen need to exit the river when the water level begins to rise.

Boaters should pay attention to flow as well. If you choose to fish from a boat, you need to be comfortable operating your boat in some very fast current. You must be wearing your flotation vest at all times when fishing this method. Do not let your watercraft become jammed against a log when landing a fish, because you will sink.

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