From the Mighty Mississippi to high-mountain streams and from bluegills to blue cats, the abundance and variety of quality fishing opportunities in Tennessee borders on astounding (and could become overwhelming). With such consideration in mind, we've sought to simplify planning by selecting some specific fisheries that offer especially good prospects each month.
Dale Hollow Smallmouths
Stephen Headrick waits all year for the cold to hit hard because frigid water heats up the float-and-fly smallmouth bite. Headrick, who owns and operates Punisher Lures and the Dale Hollow 1 Stop, loves watching a bobber slide out of sight and knowing that when he sets the hook, he's apt to have a heavyweight smallmouth at the other end.
Headrick begins the winter throwing craft-hair flies, but in January, he switches to extra subtle duck-feather flies. Smallies can be just out from main-lake bluffs, over points or atop deep rocky flats in Dale Hollow's lower main body and toward the mouths of hollows. Finding and catching big smallmouths usually begins with finding schools of suspended baitfish.
Other Options: Meanwhile, on the Tennessee River, big live-bait offerings yield super-size striped bass to Watts Bar fishermen. In the far western part of the state, anglers who don't mind fishing slowly for only a few bites are apt to connect with a heavyweight largemouth at Glenn Springs Lake.
Watauga Lake Walleyes
Stocked annually for the past 30 years, Watauga Lake supports an outstanding walleye population, with high numbers of fish and great size distribution. Up to 7- and 8-pound walleyes are not uncommon, according to Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency creel reports and sampling data.
Late in winter, walleyes make spawning runs up the Watauga River and major tributaries, concentrating the fish and creating excellent opportunities. The opportunity is so good, in fact, that regulations permit only a single hook (lure or bait) in the upper portions of the Elk and Watauga rivers and Doe and Roan Creeks from Jan. 1 to April 30. (See regulations for boundaries and exact restriction.) Grubs, hair jigs and live minnows all work well for late-winter walleyes.
Other Options: In the western part of the state, Lake Graham, a 500-acre TWRA Family Fishing Lake, yields giant largemouths on select days in February. Meanwhile on the Cumberland River, anglers who upsize their baits and tackle are apt to be rewarded with jumbo stripers.
Chickamauga Lake Largemouths
Chickamauga's bass fishing flew under the radar for many years, but not anymore. Giant bags in spring tournaments and other noteworthy catches have been well documented over the past few years, drawing national attention to this big Tennessee River impoundment. Last spring, Chickamauga yielded two monsters — one 13 pounds, 9 ounces and another 13 pounds, 13 ounces — and many anglers believe the next state record bass will come from this lake.
Florida bass have been stocked in Chickamauga since 2000, and genetic research shows that most of the biggest bass caught in recent years have at least some Florida genes. Chickamauga also has excellent habitat and plenty of food for bass to grow big. Umbrella Rigs (with only three hooks) fished over deep structure for suspended largemouths account for the lion's share of the biggest bags of bass on Chickamauga.
Other Options: March is a great time to catch jumbo smallmouths from the deep, clear waters of Watauga Lake in the northeastern corner of the state. In Nashville, Percy Priest produces fast crappie action every spring.
Lake Barkley Crappie
April and crappie fishing simply go together, and there's no finer place to tap into spring crappie action than Lake Barkley, which forms just west of Nashville below Cheatham Dam. The lower half of the lake's Tennessee portion, which contains broader flats and more backwaters than the upper reaches, generally yield the best crappie fishing.
A key to success on Barkley during the spring is keeping an open mind. Diverse habitat, black and white crappie, and volatile conditions based on the flow of water through the main river and the season make every spring day a bit of an experiment on this lake. That said, an angler who is willing to explore a little will often find big reward. Trolling creek channel edges, vertical fishing around stakes and brush, and casting float rigs or dipping jigs in shallow buck brush can all produce well.
Other Options: Meanwhile in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, April stands out as one of the best months for targeting wild brown trout in the lower halves of many park streams. Much closer to Barkley, Kentucky Lake produces outstanding largemouth fishing during April, when the fish tend to be shallow.
Reelfoot Lake Bluegills
Reelfoot Lake's fertile, cover-rich waters
produce big numbers of jumbo bluegills year after year, and May stands out as prime time to target hefty 'gills. Shallow and loaded with cypress trees and lily pads, Reelfoot resembles a giant farm pond, and in truth it fishes a lot like a farm pond during April.
Billy Blakley, head guide at Blue Bank Resort, keeps his spring bluegill approach simple, using long rods for easy presentations of crickets under floats. Blakley says to keep the boat moving and covering a lot of shoreline cover at first, slowing when a fish bites. Bluegills build beds in colonies, so where there is one good fish, there often are many more.
Other Options: On Pickwick, May typically prompts the first big move of largemouths onto Tennessee River ledges and produces some of the best offshore fishing of the entire year. In the eastern part of the state, anglers enjoy good spring action from rainbow and brown trout in the tailwaters of South Holston Dam.
Lake Chilhowee Trout
Lake Chilhowee and its upstream neighbor Lake Calderwood are hidden gems on the backside of the Great Smoky Mountains that produce outstanding trout fishing and get fairly light pressure due to their remote access. Although these narrow impoundments of the Little Tennessee River aren't actually that far from Knoxville, the super-abundance of waters that are closer and quicker to access keep big numbers of anglers from finding Chilhowee and Calderwood, which are both stocked annually with trout.
If current is flowing in either lake, a popular and productive approach is to cast upstream with worms, manufactured trout bait or corn on a split-shot rig and let it tumble downstream in the moving water. Fishermen who favor artificial lures do well by working shoreline cover with spinners, spoons and small plugs such as Rebel Teeny Wee-Crawfish and Rapala Countdown Minnows.
Other Options: Anglers who enjoy casting big artificial lures for stripers can find good success in the tailwaters of Pickwick Dam during June. Tims Ford offers good smallmouth action occurs by day and by night, especially if a bit of wind is blowing.
Old Hickory Lake Catfish
Blue, flathead and channel catfish all serve up fine summertime action on Old Hickory Lake and in the tailwater section below its dam. Within the lake, hard bends in the main river channel hold the best concentrations of cats through the summer. Doug Markham, TWRA Region II public information officer, especially likes the dependable action found in the swift tailwater.
Channels and blues to about 20 pounds serve up the fastest action in the lake and the tailwater, but flatheads and blues both grow to heavyweight proportions, offering legitimate trophy potential. Channel cats prefer chicken livers, or small pieces of cut shad or skipjack. Bigger chunks of cut bait produce big blues. For flatheads, it's tough to beat a live gizzard shad or bluegill.
Other Options: A good mid-summer alternative is to float or wade the cool waters of the Clinch River between the Virginia border and Norris Lake for plentiful smallmouths and a mix of other fish. Along Tennessee's western border, extensive backwaters of the Mississippi River produce outstanding summer bluegill fishing.
Center Hill Smallmouths
Smallmouths garner the most talk from anglers who fish Center Hill, but in truth this deep, clear reservoir is one of Tennessee's finest for a "black bass slam" of largemouths, smallmouths and spots. For any species, night is the right time during August. Tough customers by day, bass feed well after hours.
Billy Stanton of nearby Liberty often focuses on rocky humps and points during summer nights at Center Hill. The fish move shallow to feed, but only if there is good deep-water habitat nearby. Topwater lures produce well right at dusk and dawn. Through the night, dark-colored soft plastics on Texas rigs, jigs and single-blade spinnerbaits work well.
Other Options: Speaking of August nights, flathead catfish bite well in the dark along the Tennessee River channel at Pickwick. For daytime fishermen, stripers move well up the Hiwassee River out of Chickamauga during August, both to find thermal refuge via the cool outflow of the Apalachia Powerhouse and to feast on stocked trout.
Watts Bar Blue Catfish
Tennessee River guide Scott Manning (tennesseestriperfishinguide.com) doesn't mess with little cats. That doesn't mean he never catches smaller fish, but his spots and baits, and the locations he chooses all favor "monster cats," as he likes to call them. September is Manning's favorite month to target big blues and flatheads.
Manning often fishes Watts Bar and Chickamauga, but Watts Bar produced the best big-cat action last September. Either way, he fishes along the main river channel, often close to the channel edge, and if conditions allow, he drifts, suspending big chunks of cut bait or live gizzard shad just off the bottom.
If the current is too swift for a slow drift, he'll look for a good concentration of fish with his electronics and anchor.
Other Options: Other excellent options this month include wading Little River through Townsend and downstream of town for rock bass (plus smallmouths and trout), and targeting fat largemouths around lily pads at Reelfoot.
Kentucky Lake Crappie
Kentucky Lake crappie make a second run of sorts during the fall, which creates great opportunities with far less company from other anglers than during the spring. As the water begins cooling, large numbers of crappie move into Kentucky Lake's bays and creek arms to feed on shad and minnows. Most don't move as shallow as during the spring spawning run, but they become far easier to find and effectively target than when they are out on the main channel.
Trolling jigs or minnows works well for finding concentrations of crappie. Wise anglers watch their electronics as they troll, though, and remain ready to toss a marker and circle back if something lights up the graph, or if two or three rods go down at one time. Anglers with good modern electronics also can seek out hidden stake beds that they can then fish vertically.
Other Options: October is a good time to fish the Caney Fork for trout, giving special attention to the brook trout fishery TWRA has been developing through annual stocking and special regulations. At Reelfoot Lake, plentiful cats are apt to bite nightcrawlers fished close to downed trees or around the bases of cypress trees.
Melton Hill Stripers
Bryce Roberts, a guide for Tennessee River Monsters, has learned that any striper that takes bait at Melton Hill could turn out to be an absolute giant.
"No doubt there are world-record size fish in there," Roberts said.
When the weather starts cooling down, Melton Hill striper fishing heats up, and Roberts get serious about targeting the line-sided fish.
Roberts fishes exclusively with large baits for Melton Hill stripers. Typically he uses live baitfish, suspending 1- or 2-pound live skipjack or gizzard shad under balloons. Alternatively he'll throw a hard-bodied swimbait that looks like a big gizzard shad and will wobble it slowly just beneath the surface.
Other Options: Speaking of big fish and big baits, November is an outstanding time to target overgrown muskies in Great Falls Reservoir, which impounds the Caney Fork, Collins and Rock rivers immediately upstream of Center Hill. Moving west to Kentucky Lake, anglers who target redear sunfish (shellcrackers) catch some really nice fish during November.
Boone Lake Hybrids
Despite its relatively small size of 4,500 acres, Boone Lake supports an outstanding game-fish population. Surprisingly fertile for a mountain lake, Boone is loaded with baitfish, which allows hybrids and stripers to thrive. Neither species reproduces in the lake, but both are stocked annually, with a combined 50,000 fish released in an average year.
Hybrids and stripers are sufficiently similar in behavior that fishing for one is really fishing for the other at Boone Lake. The most popular and effective way to targeted Boone hybrids and stripers during winter is to fish live gizzard shad or bait shop shiners on down lines over the ends of long points or flat lines farther up the same points
Other Options: For anglers in the middle part of the state, Woods Reservoir serves up really good bass fishing with fairly light pressure during December. At the far western end of the state, December typically offers moderate water levels on the Mississippi River and good prospects for a really big blue catfish.
These, of course, are just a few of the many opportunities that are available to Tennessee anglers. Now you just have to get out there and give it a shot.