Top Places for Bass Fishing in Tennessee

Top Places for Bass Fishing in Tennessee
Photo By Jeff Samsel

The only bad thing about spring is that it doesn't last forever. Daytime highs eventually start creeping higher, without much break at night, causing the water to warm. As that occurs, the bass tend to stray deeper and become more challenging to catch.

No use fretting about what's to come, though. Spring and some of the year's finest bass fishing in Tennessee are just around the corner. With that in mind, let's look at some of Tennessee's best waters for largemouths, smallmouths and spots and consider how you can make the most your spring fishing days.


Reelfoot Lake is a steady producer, with high numbers of thick-sided largemouth bass calling its fertile waters home. A big forage base includes shad, bluegills, crawfish and assorted aquatic insects, so Reelfoot's bass very well fed. Meanwhile, countless stumps, cypress trees, lily pads, deadfalls and various other kinds of cover provide outstanding nursery habit and ambush positions for bass of all sizes.

Despite supporting an outstanding largemouth population, Reelfoot gets only modest pressure from the serious bass crowd. This is partly due to the lake's renown as a panfish factory. When folks visit Reelfoot, many want to catch bluegills or crappie. It's also due to the minefield of stumps that makes the lake an unwelcoming destination for fiberglass bass boats. If you own an aluminum boat or are content to fish for bass from resort rental boats, spring fishing can be amazing.

A collection of shallow basins that was flooded when earthquakes caused the Mississippi River to jump its channel and "flow backward" in 1811, Reelfoot differs dramatically in character from any other lake in Tennessee. Extremely shallow and loaded with cover, it looks like and fishes like an enormous farm pond. During the spring, most fish use visible cover that you can work effectively with square-billed crankbaits, plastic worms, spinnerbaits and buzzbaits.

The key at Reelfoot is figuring out which cover to concentrate on because everything looks like it should hold fish — and most of it does at one time or another. Begin by asking questions around fish camps and launch ramps. Beyond gaining local knowledge, you simply have to experiment and pay attention to details. Effective patterning and the discipline to skip past great looking stuff that doesn't fit the pattern can be the difference between catching a few bass and enjoying a really good day on Reelfoot.

The combined limit for largemouth and spotted bass on Reelfoot Lake is five fish, with a 15-inch minimum size for largemouths. A Reelfoot Lake Preservation Permit is required in addition to a Tennessee Fishing license.

For reports and fishing information and details about lodging, food and guide service, visit


If it wasn't for Kentucky Lake, Barkley might be among most celebrated bass lakes in Tennessee. As is, Barkley doesn't rank very high on the list of headline destinations. That's partly because Kentucky Lake is so close and earns so much acclaim and partly because more than 2/3 of Barkley's acreage is in Kentucky.

That still leaves more than 18,000 acres in Tennessee, though, and the Volunteer State portion of this Cumberland River impoundment serves up outstanding bass fishing year after year.

Barkley officially begins at the base of Cheatham Dam, between Nashville and Clarkesville. However, the first 40 or so miles of river below the dam have no significant backwaters along them. Just upstream of Dover, the river's impounded waters begin spreading into shallow backwaters, which become increasingly plentiful closer to the Kentucky border and which serve up the bulk of the best spring fishing opportunities.

Although all three major black bass species call Barkley home and the riverine upper end does produce some big smallmouths through the cool months, largemouths are the main attraction in the Tennessee portion of the lake. Mostly shallow, typically stained and loaded with stumps and buck brush, the flats that border several big creeks and that spread out from the main river near the Kentucky border offer ideal spring habitat for largemouth bass.

Early in the year, focus on channel edges that are close to big flats, especially along the main river and the lower ends of creeks, using suspending jerkbaits and lipless crankbaits. As spring progresses move onto the flats and up the creeks and focus more on the cover, fishing the edges of the cover initially with a jig and then flipping the thick stuff or swimming a spinnerbait or square billed-crankbait among the bushes and the stumps.

The combined limit for largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass at Lake Barkley is five fish, with a 15-inch minimum size for largemouths and an 18-inch minimum size for smallmouths. The reciprocal licensing agreement between Tennessee and Kentucky does not apply to Barkley, so stay south of the border unless you have a Kentucky license.


Chickamauga moved into the national spotlight last spring with serious attention-grabbing catches brought to the scales in major tournaments. Tennessee River guide and tournament pro Rogne Brown of Chattanooga set a national record for FLW Bass Fishing League events in March with a five fish limit that weighed 40 pounds, 14 ounces. That is an 8-pound-plus average for a single day's catch. In a local team event, Brown and a fishing partner, Tim Saylor, weighed five bass that weighed 44.31 pounds.

The Chickamauga bass population is in outstanding condition, with large numbers of heavyweight bass and plentiful fish of all sizes. Likely factors contributing to the trophy bass surge include several years of Florida strain bass stocking, the existence of hydrilla in recent years and a few especially strong age classes reaching maturity.

The big fish population likely has been growing for quite a while but was highlighted this spring by giant tournament bags that were largely brought on by the popularization of fishing castable umbrella rigs. Through the cool months, when bass suspend and feed heavily on schooling shad, these bait-school-imitating rigs become exceptionally effective and seem to be tough to resist even by biggest and best educated fish.

By Tennessee law, only three baits in such a rig can have hooks in them; however, anglers commonly use umbrella rigs that include five or more baits to represent a school. All except three are simply clipped on, with no hook, and the three that have hooks typically are slightly larger, set back farther or colored a little differently to cause fish to favor them when they strike.

Beyond the umbrella rigs that produced many of last spring's headline catches, productive offerings for Chickamauga bass during the spring include jerkbaits fished over long points near the mouths of creeks, lipless crankbaits swam over flats and Texas-rigged soft-plastics fished in brush piles within the creeks.

Largemouths have gotten the most attention and make up the bulk of the bass population at Chickamauga, which covers 34,500 acres and impounds 60 miles of the Tennessee River, but anglers who focus on rocky, main-river structure also catch some jumbo smallmouths. Like other Tennessee River impoundments, Chickamauga can be moody and the fish change their holding areas and feeding patterns substantially based on the amount of water that is flowing down the river.

The combined black bass limit for Chickamauga is five fish, of which only one may be a smallmouth. Minimum length is 15 inches for largemouth bass and 18 inches for smallmouth bass. No minimum length applies to spotted bass.

To learn more about fishing with Rogne Brown on Lake Chickamauga, visit


Neither a major reservoir nor handy to many people, Williamsport Lakes Family Fishing Lakes is another one of those destinations that rarely comes up in conversations, except among local anglers. Such neglect is not due to any shortfall in the quality of the fishing, though. Blue Cat, Shellcracker and Goldeneye lakes, which cover 80, 45 and 13 acres respectively, all provide outstanding opportunities for targeting quality largemouths.

Because these waters are managed as a Family Fishing Lakes and no outboard motors may be operated, the lakes are ideally suited for an angler who doesn't own a big boat. Rental boats are available in season, and trolling motors work just fine for fishing the lakes. In fact, bank access is quite good in some areas, and anglers walking the shoreline sometimes haul in some big bass.

Originally built to be "washing ponds" for a phosphorus mining operation, the lakes remain highly fertile and support an abundance of forage fish and invertebrates that keep largemouths well fed. Plentiful downed trees along the banks, meanwhile, provide good protective cover. Because of the lakes' fish growth potential, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency manages for trophy bass with Florida-strain largemouth stockings and a restrictive limit.

During the spring, when many fish feed shallow, fishing these little lakes is pretty straight forward. Work the banks, focusing on visible cover and on unique contours formed by points and cuts, using Texas-rigged plastic worms, spinnerbaits, square-billed crankbaits and other classic shallow offerings. Big bass potential, plentiful wood and green water suggest using fairly heavy line for fishing these lakes.

A daily or seasonal pass is required in addition to a fishing license to fish the Williamsport Lakes. The daily largemouth limit is one fish, with a minimum size of 20 inches.


Center Hill offers Tennessee's finest opportunity to catch chunky largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass from the same lake. Plenty of waterways offer all species, but not with the same opportunity for quality fish of all three kinds.

Impounding the Caney Fork River atop Cumberland Plateau and covering 18,220 acres, Center Hill is steep-sided, rocky and clear. The clear water makes the bass tough customers at times, but when you find the right combination of lures and locations, the fishing action and setting would be tough to top.

Pressed to pick, smallmouths probably earn top billing at Center Hill. Shad, alewives and craws provide plentiful food for smallmouths throughout the year, while rocky points, ridges and humps and numerous bluffs offer ideal bronzeback habitat. Early in the spring, work suspending jerkbaits over the ends of points for pre-spawn smallmouths. As the season progresses, switch to crankbaits and swimbaits, fishing farther up the points and hitting adjacent flats.

Whatever strategy you select at Center Hill, pay attention to the wind. More wind normally equates with more aggressive fish, and the most wind-beaten banks normally produce the best bite. If the wind lies flat, prepare to downsize your offerings, slow your presentations and work deeper.

The combined black bass limit for Center Hill is five fish, with a 15-inch minimum length for largemouths, an 18-inch minimum length for smallmouths and no minimum length for spotted bass. Edgar Evans State Park offers lakeside cabins, boat ramps and marina facilities on Center Hill. For information, call 1-800-250-8619. To learn about guided fishing trips, visit


Unlike many East Tennessee lakes, Douglas Lake is highly fertile. Gizzard shad, bluegills and assorted minnows keep the bass well fed in this 30,600-acre impoundment of the French Broad River. A complex shoreline contains a mix of rock bluffs and modest hillsides and a blend of forests, farms and residential areas. Although much of the main lake is deep, vast shallow coves provide plentiful spawning and nursery habitat for bass.

Largemouths offer the bulk of the best bass fishing opportunities, but smallmouths have grown in average size and numbers in recent years. The past couple of years shocking efforts have suggested an increased abundance of smallmouths, with plenty of small fish in the mix to suggest good recruitment and a bright smallmouth future.

Water level is a major factor at Douglas during the spring and has big impact on fishing patterns. As a tributary reservoir, it gets drawn hard during the winter. The timing of the lake returning to full pool depends on rainfall throughout the Tennessee River Valley, and the lake level can rise and fall fairly quickly based on weather systems and water needs.

Lower levels during the first part of the year keep most fish in the main channel and in deeper creek channels, where three-hook umbrella rigs rigged with grubs or swimbaits produce well. As the lake rises and the water warms, the bass move onto flats and congregate around button bushes and black willows. When that happens, flipping baits, shallow crankbaits and spinnerbaits produce well. Late in the spring, after most bass have spawned, Douglas becomes an excellent topwater lake.

A final important thing to remember about Douglas is the lake can begin stratifying as early as April, and the division of layers becomes more establish as the water warms. By early summer, water below the thermocline typically contains too little dissolved oxygen for bass to hang out there, so focus fishing efforts at or above that level.

The combined black bass limit for Douglas Lake is five fish, only one of which may be a smallmouth bass. The minimum length is 20 inches for smallmouth bass. No minimum length limit applies to largemouth or spotted bass.

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