February 02, 2016
By Jeff Samsel
The easy answer is yes; you should take the day to go fishing. Once that is decided, the only questions left are where and after what? Fortunately for Tennessee anglers, answers to those questions exist 12 months a year. In truth, there are too many good answers, as opportunities exist for everything from bluegills to blue catfish, and everything in between.
Old Hickory Striped Bass
Old Hickory Lake produces fine opportunities for big striped bass throughout the year, but cold water turns good prospects even better because the warm water discharged by the Gallatin Steam Plant concentrates baitfish, which in turn concentrates stripers. The fish can get a little fussy because a huge buffet stays set up all the time. Still, with so many big fish gathered in a fairly small area, anglers usually can convince some to play.
Guide Jim Duckworth suspends 18-inch-plus live skipjack under balloons to target trophy stripers. An alternative way to target these big powerful fish in the steam plant area is to wake a 7-inch Cotton Cordell Red Fin by reeling slowly and steadily with the rod held high.
OTHER OPTIONS: Saugeye perform well at Cherokee Lake and remain underutilized. Catch them by fishing minnow-tipped jigs in the upper end of the lake early in the year. At the same time, the winter trout program delivers plenty of catchable rainbows in the Stones River below Percy Priest Dam.
Norris Lake Smallmouths
February conditions put many kinds of fish in slow motion, but the fat smallmouth bass that call Norris Lake home don't seem to be bothered by the cold weather. Baitfish school up and suspend every winter, and the smallies, which really don't mind cold, take advantage of the easy groceries. Primary areas include the main lake and the lower reaches of major creeks in the lake's steep and deep lower end, with the bait and the fish often hovering over points or beside bluffs.
A float-and-fly rig suspends an outstanding baitfish imitation nicely and accounts for many winter smallmouths. Other effective strategies including hopping blade baits down steep slopes, vertical jigging the same lures, casting hair jigs tipped with live minnows and slow trolling with live minnows on split-shot rigs.
OTHER OPTIONS: In the western part of the state, Gibson County Lake annually yields some tremendously big largemouth bass early in the year. Fish a jig slowly and don't expect fast action. Speaking of big fish, any striper that takes a live bait at Cordell Hull during February could be an absolute giant.
Percy Priest Crappie
Spring delivers the most predictable crappie fishing of the year to waters all over the state. Percy Priest Lake offers some intriguing possibilities because its fertile waters hold plenty of crappie year after year. In addition, Percy Priest is convenient to Nashville, and numerous parks and recreation areas offer excellent shoreline access.
Early in March, bridge crossings, riprap banks and shallow cover close to a creek channel edge offer good prospects. As the water warms, the fish move farther back into creeks and coves and up onto shallow cover. Good strategies include fishing a jig directly below the tip of a long crappie pole and dangling a jig or live minnow under a float and casting to cover.
OTHER OPTIONS: At Watauga Lake, an excellent population of walleyes produces good action for anglers fishing nightcrawlers or jig-tipped minnows along the bottom during March. Meanwhile at Kentucky Lake, white bass run to the heads of creeks and well up the Tennessee River.
Pickwick Largemouth Bass
Choosing between largemouth and smallmouth bass for spring fishing at Pickwick has been a tough proposition in recent years. Both have been outstanding. But since the best smallmouth action tends to be concentrated in the Wilson Dam tailwater, which is in the Alabama part of the lake, a lot of Tennessee anglers tend to target largemouths.
Weather and water levels can be fickle during the spring, so adjust strategies based on recent conditions. Guide Gary Harlan (fishpickwick.com) likes a Strike King KVD Suspending Jerkbait or Red Eye Shad if cold water has persisted, focusing on middle depths near the mouths of creeks. As spring progresses, he moves shallower with the fish, often throwing jigs and Texas-rigged soft-plastic lures.
OTHER OPTIONS: April ignites a great bite from black-nose crappie at Center Hill, with the fish using shoreline brush in major creeks. At Cherokee Lake, striped bass/white bass hybrids (Cherokee bass) typically bite well during April.
Chickamauga Tailwater Blue Catfish
May brings some of the most fun catfishing of the year at the Chickamauga Dam tailwater, according to Richard Simms of Scenic City Fishing Charters (sceniccityfishing.com). Simms mostly drifts this time of the year, and he catches big numbers of blues on fairly light spinning tackle. Action from fish up to about 20 pounds can be furious, with an ever-present chance to catch a true heavyweight.
It's worth noting that a boat isn't necessarily needed to catch fish from the Chickamauga tailwater. A fishing platform and riprap banks put good catfishing in easy casting range. If the tailwater isn't too crowded and the water isn't running too hard, a good strategy is to angle long casts upstream and repeatedly let the bait sweep downstream. Aim casts for seams between swift water and slower water.
OTHER OPTIONS: Despite having yielded excellent trout fishing for several years, the Holston River below Cherokee Lake has remained largely overlooked, and May is a fine time to fish these waters. For bluegills, any one of TWRA's Family Fishing Lakes provides very good prospects this month.
Reelfoot Lake Bluegills
Bluegills grow shoulders in the fertile, cover-laden waters of Reelfoot Lake, and the June bluegill bite can be outstanding. Many fish spawn during June, so beds hold major concentrations of adult fish. Others will be long done and can be found near lily pads, stumps, dock supports and other shallow cover.
Blue Bank Resort (bluebank.com) Fishing Manager Billy Blakley keeps his spring bluegill approach simple, fishing primarily with crickets under floats. Anglers venturing out in boats can do well this time of year simply by casting to visible cover (which is everywhere at Reelfoot) and keeping the rig moving until the bobber starts dancing.
OTHER OPTIONS: At Woods Lake, June is a great month to get on the water a little before sunset to fish the evening and the first few hours of the night for largemouth and smallmouth bass. Meanwhile, in Gatlinburg, stream trout fishing opportunities include a couple of youth-only stretches.
Pigeon River Smallmouths
From the North Carolina/Tennessee Border, immediately downstream of the Waters Power Station, all the way to the backwaters of Douglas Lake, the Pigeon River serves up outstanding summer smallmouth fishing. It's a tailwater fishery that gets too high for most fishing when water is flowing, but low-water conditions open outstanding opportunities for wading. Because high flows are required for commercial rafting trips on the same section, the water is pretty predictably low until 11:30 a.m. most summer days.
The Pigeon is highly productive for an Appalachian stream, and the fish grow quickly. Add in special regulations and the result is much higher fish quality than most might expect. Good July options include small topwater lures, soft-plastic stick worms, grubs and live hellgrammites.
OTHER OPTIONS: July nights yield some seriously large blue catfish at Fort Loudoun. An after-hours approach also produces good crappie action at Lake Barkley, at a time when fish don't get a lot of angler attention.
Kentucky Lake Largemouth Bass
Kentucky Lake's current largemouth bass population is in outstanding condition, with several strong year-classes providing good numbers of fish of all sizes. Plentiful forage throughout this huge impoundment keeps bass in excellent condition. Average size is very good, and any fish that takes a bait could turn out to be a giant.
Most Kentucky Lake bass relate to the main river channel through the summer, stacking up on structures that break the current. By day, fish the deep sides of the breaks with spoons, deep-diving crankbaits and football-head jigs. At night, focus on tops of ledges and humps that are close to the main channel with soft-plastic offerings and spinnerbaits.
OTHER OPTIONS: Night fishing with dark-colored crawfish imitations can produce good smallmouth action at Boone Lake. Not far away, deep-water trolling provides the unique opportunity to catch lake trout at Watauga Lake during the summer.
Nolichucky River Smallmouths
As much as we all like to pretend that September is a fall month, conditions tend to say summer, and it remains a great time to wade waist deep in a cool river and cast for smallmouth bass. The Nolichucky River, which is already a decent-size stream when it enters Tennessee, offers many miles of outstanding fishing, with plentiful smallmouths of good size. Access the river on national forest land and road rights-of-way. Get landowner permission for private land access.
The river generally runs low and clear during September, which opens extra areas for wading. Several sections can also be floated in canoes or fished from small johnboats. To catch fish, begin with a small topwater like a Tiny Torpedo, but if the fish won't come up, go down after them with a grub or small crankbait. Topwater lures; however, offer an unparalleled fun factor when fish hit them.
OTHER OPTIONS: September is also an excellent time to cast bucktails, jerkbaits and swimbaits in the swift waters beneath Pickwick Dam for hard-fighting striped bass. A fun wading alternative to the Nolichucky is the Sequatchie River, which yields outstanding mixed bags.
Mississippi River Flatheads
James "Big Cat" Paterson (bigcatfishing.com) likes October fishing on the Mississippi River because the big flatheads and blues both tend to bite well, and it's possible to catch good catfish of both kinds in a day. Temperatures also moderate during October, so it's a nice time to be out on the river, and the normally low water makes the big river a little easier to read and to fish.
Patterson generally uses big live shad for flatheads during October, setting up parallel to a revetment bank or a deep run with moderated current. Flatheads also like the slack sides of wingdams. Big blues will take the live baits, but Patterson also puts out a couple of lines baited with big chunks of cut shad or skipjack with big blue catfish specifically in mind.
OTHER OPTIONS: From the merger of its north and south forks to the headwaters of Cherokee Lake, the Holston River offers excellent smallmouth bass fishing in October. Meanwhile, at Watts Bar, crappie follow shad into creeks during the fall, providing nice opportunities.
Dale Hollow Walleyes
Dale Hollow is best known for giant smallmouths, but the same cool waters also provide excellent habitat for walleyes. Natural reproduction is limited at best, but the TWRA stocks plenty of young fish to sustain a strong population of walleyes, which stay fat and happy by eating alewives. Cold nights and shorter days prompt heavy walleye feeding during November.
Walleyes roam a lot, following schools of alewives through open water. Trolling, therefore, is the most reliable way to find the fish. Use electronics to figure out the level of the water column where the most baitfish are suspended and troll crankbaits or minnow baits at that depth or slightly higher.
OTHER OPTIONS: November is an outstanding time to target brown trout in the Great Smoky Mountains because the leaf peepers are gone, the weather tends to be comfortable and the trout are generally a little more aggressive than normal. At the opposite end of the state, late fall normally brings good crappie fishing action.
Melton Hill Muskellunge
Although no muskellunge reproduction has been documented at Melton Hill, this clear, cool impoundment of the Clinch River offers very good muskie habitat, and the TWRA has stocked more than 50,000 muskies in Melton Hill since 1998. Both catch rate and quality are very good for muskie waters.
Muskies favor cool water, so they actually get more active from late fall through early spring in Tennessee. They do congregate in the warmer water downstream of the Bull Run Steam Plant through the coldest part of winter, but that likely has more to do with the concentration of baitfish than their own need for warmer water. Use big spoons, spinners, plugs and bucktails, and focus on rocks, downed trees and other cover.
OTHER OPTIONS: December also delivers good bass fishing without the crowds of spring in the Tennessee portion of Lake Barkley. For those who enjoy catch-and-release trout fishing, the Hiwassee River stays heavily stocked during the delayed-harvest season.
These, of course, are only a few of the many options available across the Volunteer State to anglers. Now it is time to start planning which one to try, or even to try and find your own.