Tennessee Catfish Best Bets

Learn where you can find the best prospects for channel, blue and flathead catfish this summer.

Tennessee Catfish Best Bets

All of the larger river systems (including their lakes) hold a wide range of flathead, blue and channel cats in Tennessee. (Photo by Ron Sinfelt)

Almost everywhere. That’s the short answer to where to find good catfishing in Tennessee. Fine opportunities are widespread across the state and range from ponds and creeks to the state’s largest rivers.

Depending on the kind catfishing experience you seek, the best place to fish might be in a river or lake that is quite close to home. Channel catfish, especially, thrive in waters of all sizes, and dozens of waterways provide fine opportunities for solid action during the summer. That said, some Tennessee waterways do stand out, whether based upon trophy cat potential, high catfish abundance or the nature of the total opportunity. We’ll highlight four of those premier destinations, providing the direction needed to begin planning a productive summer cat outing.

Many Tennessee waterways support strong populations of blue and flathead catfish, both of which can reach crazy sizes, and the pursuit of these heavyweights is a major objective of many catfish anglers. Because of the time it takes for catfish to reach trophy size, Tennessee has a special regulation in place to help protect larger, older catfish. The statewide daily limit for catfish of any species over 34 inches in length is one fish. There is no statewide limit on catfish measuring 34 inches or less.

Whether you’re seeking trophy catfish, wanting fishing to bring home for dinner or simply enjoy fast action from hard-fighting fish, the waters covered below have something for you.


MISSISSIPPI RIVER

Looking at Tennessee catfish waters, it makes sense to start with the grandest of them all— the Mighty Mississippi River. Having gathered the waters of the Missouri and Ohio rivers by the time it hits Tennessee, the Mississippi is truly a massive flow, and it offers an extraordinary amount of habitat for channel, blue and flathead catfish. The Class B (methods other than rod and reel) state record flathead, which weighed 92 pounds, came from the Mississippi River, and a former world record blue catfish, which weighed 116 pounds, 12 ounces, came from within sight of the Interstate 55 bridge between Memphis and West Memphis, Arkansas.


Because the Mississippi River drains about 2/3 of the nation, river levels and the character of the river change dramatically, with the water level sometimes swinging as much as 50 feet over the course of a year. That means that a spot that has produced well in the past could be either high and dry or washed out on a return trip. It’s a complexfishery that can be dangerous.

One virtue of summer is that water levels tend to be moderated, making the river somewhat more manageable than at most other times. Blue catfish, especially, scatter across big areas with moderated current and uneven bottoms, making drift-fishing an extremely effective approach. High-percentage areas for this approach include the insides of long bends, wide spots between narrower sections and waters just downstream of large islands. Cut shad or herring is tough to beat for drifting.

Summer is also an outstanding time to fish oxbows and other backwaters that are separated from the main river flow for channel catfish and smaller blues. Backwaters allow for easier navigation and setting up, and they often produce outstanding action. In oxbows, which tend to be shallow on the inside of the old river bend and deep on the outside, channel cats commonly hold toward the deep end of the slope during the day and move shallower at night.

KENTUCKY LAKE

Like Tennessee’s largest river, the Volunteer State’s largest impoundment, Kentucky Lake, offers fabulous catfishing and an extraordinary amount of opportunity. Kentucky Lake begins with the Pickwick tailwater, near the Tennessee/Mississippi/Alabama border, and cuts a south-to-north swath across the entire state and well into Western Kentucky, where the lake impounded by Kentucky Dam. The first 70 miles or so of Kentucky Lake, to near the Interstate 40 crossing, are completely riverine in character. Just north of the interstate the main body begins widening, and increasing numbers of creek arms and bays come in from both sides.


Kentucky Lake’s catfish fishery is as diverse as it is large. Channel, blue and flathead catfish all offer outstanding prospects, and experiences vary enormously, depending on whether you target flatheads up the river, drift for blues near the channel in the open lake or set up on in a big bay with channel catfish in mind. The common denominator is that all offer fine fishing prospects on summer days and nights.

Flatheads bite best at night, and it would tough to beat a remote hard bend in the upper river as a place to set up. Flatheads like thick cover, so look either on the extreme outside edge, where deadfalls invariably collect, or over an eddy along the inside bend, where trees settle on the bottom. Find cover and a good eddy near deep water and, ideally, use your sonar to locate some large fish that could be catfish. Then anchor directly over what appears to be the prime spot. Fish downlines just off the bottom baited with live shad or bluegills, put the rods in holders and wait. The open waters of the same holes often have blues in them, so a good strategy to increase your odds of success is to put a few bottom lines baited with big pieces of shad or skipjack down in the holes.

Blue catfish can be found throughout Kentucky Lake, but some of the best summer fishing occurs along lake’s open main body, atop structure along the edge of the river channel. When water is running through the lake, the fish congregate on the downstream sides of humps and points, in the upper ends of river bends holes and in channel confluences. On low water, they spread out atop flats that are close to the main channel. A solid strategy in either case is to tight-line with a three-way rig, either drifting across holes or moving the boat slowly with a trolling motor to work structure.


For channel catfish, a good bet is to anchor over a point or a hump in a creek arm and spread out several lines, baited with cut shad, chicken livers or dip baits.

CHEATHAM LAKE

Although larger Old Hickory and Barkley lakes get more catfishing acclaim, Cheatham Lake, which runs between them and through downtown Nashville, should not be overlooked. Cheatham gets less serious catfishing pressure than Barkley and, being farther down the Cumberland River than Old Hickory, has more flatheads and blue catfish, which grow much larger than channel catfish.

Good summer fishing on Cheatham begins at the base of Old Hickory Dam. Cooler water and plentiful bait attract big numbers of catfish to the first several miles below the dam. The immediate tailwater has a craggy bottom and complex currents and current breaks and holds extremely high numbers of channels and smaller blues most summer days. Deep outside bends in the first 10 miles or so of river below the dam provide great habitat for all three major species of cats, including some very large fish.

The Old Hickory tailwater provides good opportunities for shoreline fishing. Long rods that allow for long casts maximize opportunities to put baits in the best places are handy for shore-based anglers. By boat, an excellent approach is to drift, using a 3-way rig with the weight bumping the bottom but not dragging. Fish can be anywhere in the tailwater, but cats that are actively feeding often hold on the slack sides of seams that divide strong currents with weaker currents. Medium flows, with a couple of generators running and a couple of them off, create the best conditions for fishing in the immediate tailwater.

Higher flows trigger a better bite in big holes along bends downstream of the dam, but still in Cheatham’s upper reaches. For long sweeping bends, drifting along the slope into the deepest water can be very effective. A good alternative approach is to anchor near the head of a big hole and cast several bottom rigs into the deep water. Use modest-sized pieces of cut shad for steady action from channel cats and smaller blues or big chunks of skipjack for heavyweight blues.

Cheatham remains river-like from end to end and continually winds through bends. Virtually every major turn of the river creates quality habitat and holds plenty of catfish at times. Generally speaking, though, the upper end of the lake produces the most dependable action through the summer.

FAMILY FISHING LAKES

For dependable easy-access catfish offerings from year to year, it would be tough to beat the 18 lakes that are managed specifically for fishing by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and dubbed collectively as Family Fishing Lakes. Although these lakes vary substantially in character, and range in size from 12 to 560 acres, they have a few important common denominators. All are intensively managed to maximize output, are stocked regularly with catfish and provide good public access and small-boat opportunities. Many offer outstanding bank-fishing access.

Catfish are a vital part of the management plan at these lakes because of the family focus. Cats provide dependable action with simple approaches, making them fine targets for anglers of all ages. Consequently, TWRA keeps all the lakes well stocked with channel catfish and stocks blue catfish in several of the larger lakes because the blues provide a possible trophy catfish bonus.

Whether you fish by boat or from the bank, the best approach is simple. Use bottom rigs with just enough weight to cast comfortably and keep baits in place. Bait up with chicken livers, shrimp or dip bait, cast out, and wait for the rods to start dancing. Don’t wait around too long, though. If channel cats don’t respond in a half hour or so, it’s time to pull anchor or try another spot on the bank. Likely fish-holding areas are creek confluences, areas around dams, points and waters near the crowns of large deadfalls.

All the Family Fishing Lakes except one (VFW Lake) have at least one fishing pier. Seven have bait and tackle available. Eleven offer rental boats. A daily combined limit of five channel and blue catfish applies to all the Family Fishing Lakes. On some of the lakes, a 14-inch minimum size also applies. A $6 daily permit is required in addition to a fishing license. All the lakes except Garrett Lake in Weakley County, which is open 24 hours a day, are open form 1/2 before sunrise until 1/2 hour after sunset.

The TWRA website offers excellent information about the Family Fishing Lakes, including locations, directions, specific regulations facilities and more, to help you pick the best specific lake or lakes to try this summer.

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