Seven Great Tennessee Fishing Destinations
If you live in the Volunteer State, great fishing is nearby.
Sure. You can fish close to home.
If you live in Tennessee, good fishing is nearby. That said, if you can grab a couple of days, why not take a little fishing road trip and discover some new water? With that idea in mind, we’ve selected seven great summer fishing destinations.
Any one would make an excellent outing, but the best option would be to combine two or more into a super-cool fishing road trip. For this quick tour, we’re starting Tennessee’s northwestern corner and working east.
REELFOOT LAKE BLUEGILLS
If you like bluegills you can barely wrap a hand around (and who doesn’t?), you need to prioritize a summer excursion to Reelfoot, which is unlike any other major lake in Tennessee, with its expansive stump flats cypress, cypress stands and lily pad fields. Prime time is mid-May through late June, but bluegills continue bedding and providing excellent opportunities throughout the summer.
Work along the edges of the Blue Basin, using a cricket on a long-shank No. 8 hook, beneath a slip cork set about 4 feet deep, with one large split shot on the line. Keep the boat a short cast’s distance from trees and docks and move slowly. Cast to visible cover, but work the rig all the way back with occasional rod tip jiggles to cover water. This is a searching game, and there’s a load of hidden cover that bluegills make use of when they build beds and when they feed. When you get bit, repeat that presentation. If the same thing happens in the same place, drop and anchor and have some fun! Also, if one person in the boat seems to be getting all the bites, check bobber depths. A few inches can make a major difference some days.
If You Go
Reelfoot’s stumps eat boats, but have no fear. Fishing packages at Blue Bank Resort, (bluebankresort.com) include lodging, boat, motor, fuel, bait and ice, and they’ll provide great intel at the dock when you get your boat & and bait.
BARKLEY LAKE CRAPPIE
Nothing can make you slab-happy quite like a visit to Barkley Lake, which supports populations of black and white crappie and produces big numbers of, and excellent quality, fish. A large portion of Barkley is in Kentucky, but there’s no reason to stray north of the border. Backwaters and main-river areas all along the riverine Tennessee section hold more than enough crappie to keep you busy for as long as you want to fish. The stretch from Dover to Bumpis Mills is an excellent area to concentrate efforts.
By the end of May, crappie settle into summer patterns, which means they relate heavily to main river channel edges. While spring crappie fishing draws the most attention, summer fishing can be highly dependable, especially if you can find the key depth or better yet a stake bed or brushpile near a channel edge that is holding a good concentration of fish.
Slow trolling with at least a couple of rods and two-hook minnow rigs is arguably the best way to find fish. Just keep watching your electronics as you fish and be ready to circle back when you see something interesting or when a couple lines get hit at one time!
If You Go
Land Between the Lakes (landbetweenthelakes.us) is a 170,000-acre playground between Kentucky Lake and Barkley lake, with acreage split between Kentucky and Tennessee. It offers public land opportunities for many kinds of adventures (including crappie fishing in Lake Barkley from the shore!)
CENTER HILL BLACK BASS TRIO
Spend days enjoying the area’s splendid scenery nearby — or maybe resting — because Center Hill’s finest summer bass action occurs after the sun goes down. Chunky smallmouths get the most acclaim, but this steep-sided, clear lake almost certainly offers Tennessee’s best opportunity to catch quality largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass from the same water — and on summer nights, you sometimes can catch all three from the same locations.
An excellent night strategy is to arrive a couple of hours before dark and use your electronics to search just off the edges of humps, points and islands that are adjacent to the main river channel or the far lower ends of creeks. Fish holding 20 or 30 feet deep and just off structure during late afternoon will move up onto the structure at night. Fish topwater lures as the last daylight fades, but go subsurface for fishing in the dark. Excellent options include a dark jig and craw trailer and a black spinnerbait with a single oversized Colorado blade. Full moon and new moon nights tend to produce the most dependable action, but the best time to get out there is when you can!If You Go
Edgar Evins State Park (tnstateparks.com/parks/edgar-evins), which covers 6,000 acres on the banks of Center Hill, offers boating access, a full-service marina with a restaurant, cabins and a campground.
CHATTANOOGA BLUE CATFISH
If you like the idea of hearing reels scream and hanging on tight while trying to turn a brutally strong fish in the current, the Tennessee River in Chattanooga demands a visit. The tailwater of Chickamauga Dam and the impounded waters just above the dam both hold great concentrations of blue catfish, including some genuine giants.
For dependable action, drift in the current downstream of the dam, using cut shad or skipjack. Use a three-way rig, with just enough weight to kick the bottom and keep your line fairly vertical. Don’t let the weight drag, though or you’ll snag pretty quickly. When you drift, try to follow seams between current lines, which provide the best ambush positions for the cats.
An alternative, if you don’t want to contend with boat control in the powerful current, is to anchor below an island or major hump, at a creek confluence or at the head of a river bend and cast big chunks of cut bait into the deeper water. Use stout rods and braid for this approach both to manage the heavy weights and baits and to be equipped for the giant catfish that lurk in these types of spots in the Chattanooga area!If You Go
To make the most of your Chattanooga time, invest in a day with Scenic City Fishing Charters (scenic cityfishing.com). Richard Simms knows the right stretch and approach for any situation and has the equipment and know-how to make the best presentations and to land cats of any size.
HIWASSEE RIVER STRIPERS
The Hiwassee River below Apalachia Dam is best known for its trout — and the indeed trout offer a nice bonus for a road trip — but the cool waters provide summer refuge for Chickamauga Lake striped bass. Some stripers move all the way up into the shoals within 10 miles of the powerhouse, while others congregate in deep bluff holes a little farther downstream.
The middle Hiwassee, downstream of Highway 411, provides easier navigation and lure presentations for most anglers than the whitewater section. The middle section also contains excellent striper prospects. The Patty Bridge and Charleston boat ramps mark the upper and lower ends of this section. Afternoons generally delivers the best action because TVA runs water for recreation on summer afternoons, and the stripers capitalize on ambush opportunities. Focus on gravel bars and the upper ends of holes along river bends. Big walking topwater lures and wake baits will draw explosive strikes some days. Good options for going down into the water column for stripers here include a simple white bucktails and big soft-plastic swimbaits with silvery sides and a green back to imitate stocker rainbows. A live rainbow also makes outstanding bait and may be used if legally caught by rod and reel and within a limit.
If You Go
While at the Hiwassee, swing by the Webb Brothers General Store (webbbros.com) in Reliance. Established in 1936, the store now serves as a rafting outpost and outdoors supply store. Webb Brothers also offers lodging in the historic Watchman’s House, directly across the river.
SMOKY MOUNTAINS TROUT
For wild trout in a spectacular setting, the many streams that rise high on the slopes of the Smokies in Great Smoky Mountains National Park provide an unparalleled opportunity. May’s typically strong but stable flows and waters that have warmed just enough to get some aquatic insects hatching provide some of the most dependable action of the year in park streams. As summer progresses and waters warm too much at lower elevations, you can continue to find great conditions by working your way up the watersheds. Several park streams on the Tennessee side offer easy roadside access to good fishing and beautiful backdrops. If you prefer more solitude, virtually every park stream of note is accessible by trail, and if you choose to backpack, you can get as remote as you want to go.
Only single-hook artificial lures may be used or possessed on any stream in the park. A good fly-fishing approach is to use a small but bushy attractor dry fly with a small dropper nymph behind it. For spin-fishermen, a small marabou jig, spoon or crawfish-imitating crankbait (converted to a single hook) work well. Either way stealthy approaches and natural presentations are far more important than the specific offering.
If You Go
Little River Outfitters Fly Shop and Fishing School in Townsend (littleriveroutfitters.com) has all the right stuff for fishing the Smokies and can provide timely insights on areas and patterns. They also can recommend area guides and lodging options.
PIGEON RIVER SMALLMOUTHS
Staying in the same general area, along the eastern edge of the national park, the Pigeon River enters Tennessee from North Carolina and parallels Interstate 40 as it tumbles generally northward toward the headwaters of Douglas Lake. This is mountain river fishing, mostly accessed by wading or walking steep banks, but the potential reward easily justifies the effort. Fertile for a mountain river, the Pigeon offers plentiful food and excellent habitat for smallmouth bass, and special regulations (one fish daily limit; 20-inch minimum size) allow many fish to reach big sizes.
Good access begins at the state line, below the Watersville Power house, reached from the Waterville and Hartford exits of I-40. Several spots in that stretch provide good wading when no generation is occurring. (Best water conditions generally occur in the morning during the summer.) When the water is up, it’s necessary to work from the edges or move farther downriver. Small poppers or prop baits, crawfish-imitating crankbaits and soft-plastic stick worms or grubs are tough to top for smallmouth action. To crank the odds even higher, seine hellgrammites from a shallow shoal and drift them in the current with a split shot rig.
If You Go
Pigeon River Campground (campinginthesmokymountains.com) in Hartford is located right on the river, in the heart of good smallmouth country, and offers a choice of campsites or camper cabins.