By Vernon Summerlin
What many anglers consider the best time to catch catfish is when they can’t tell whether it’s raining or they’re just wiping sweat. It feels like that now and will until October. Let’s take a hot look at Tennessee’s catfish
WHAT’S THAT CAT
Of Tennessee’s six catfish species three are most fished for – blues, channels and flatheads. The blue and flathead catfish grow to weigh over 100 pounds while channels make it to over 50 pounds. Present state records: blue cat – 82 pounds, 7 ounces caught from Ft. Loudoun Lake by Chris Vittetoe; flathead – 85 pounds, 15 ounces caught from Hiwassee River area of Chickamauga Lake by Larry Kaylor; and channel cat – 41 pounds from Fall Creek Falls Lake by Clint Walters Jr.
The flathead is more easily identified by its protruding lower jaw. It has a more flattened head compared to the blue or channel catfish. Its color is yellow-to-brown and usually mottled. Its tail has rounded lobes and is not deeply forked.
The channel cat has bluish grey to silver sides, often spotted when it is young but the spots tend to disappear as the fish ages. Its tail is deeply forked.
The blue catfish can be confused with a spotless channel cat but it is usually silver to bluish in color. The young are not spotted. The anal fin is longer with a straighter edge than the channel cat, whose anal fin is more rounded.
CATTIN’ EAST, MIDDLE AND WEST
It’s a whole lot easier to catch catfish than it is to find a catfish guide. Maybe that’s because catching cats up to five pounds isn’t difficult. Their sensory organs can smell food a long way off, and if you haven’t gotten a bite within 20 minutes it’s time to move to another spot. The following are among the best catfish hotspots in Tennessee.
DOUGLAS LAKE, east of Knoxville is fed by the Nolichucky and French Broad Rivers. You will want to fish the French Broad arm for catfish.
Upper Douglas launching ramps are Rankin Public Access just south of Rankin Bridge on the east side of the lake and about three miles from the mouth of the Nolichucky River. Less than two miles upstream from Rankin Bridge the lake narrows into riverine conditions.
Leadville Public Access on the north side of the lake is less than two miles below the confluence of the Nolichucky and French Broad Rivers.
Generations of anglers fish the Broad from the bank at night when the weather’s hot. A small fire to produce smoke to deter insects, lawn chairs, “Y” shaped sticks for rod holders and a cool beverage is about all a catfisherman needs, except for fishing gear.
There are plenty of flatheads to test your line, which should be 20- to 30-pound test on a strong reel. The best blue cat fishing is below Douglas Dam, but channel cats dominate upper Douglas, 10- to 15-pounders are common.
Fisheries biologist in Region IV, Dave Bishop says “Douglas Lake’s tailwater is probably one of the two best catfish waters in the region. Catfish commonly concentrate below dams because shad congregate there.”
Strong stainless steel hooks baited with shrimp, liver, nightcrawlers, cut bait or homemade concoctions with blood as an ingredient will attract nighttime catfish. Live minnows, bluegill and shad work better for flatheads. All three species will hit shad cut bait, making it probably the best all-round catfish bait.
Daytime wade fishing or float fishing the French Broad are ways to stay cool while casting for cats. Drifting caterpillars or grasshoppers (or the baits mentioned above) over the shoals has been known to keep anglers busy for hours pulling in pan-sized cats. Floating anglers should cast the bluffs that hold larger catfish.
The Broad is navigable by johnboat and canoes from where the river enters Tennessee down to Douglas, but taking a bass boat upstream from Rankin Bridge requires a watchful eye for obstacles and shoals.
Bishop says, “Trot lines and trolling are the favorite techniques used on Douglas this time of year. Catfish will be all over the lake but the upper end gets most of the attention. Limb lines are also popular and anglers use big bluegill for bait. The steep bluffs are the best areas for flatheads. They come out at night cruising the ledges and bluffs for food.”
Limb lines and trot lines must be identified with tags carrying the name and address of the person that puts them out. Anglers should remove their lines when they are through fishing.
“CHICKAMAUGA LAKE,” says Chuck Copeland, reservoir fisheries biologist in Region III, “is one of the best catfish lakes in our part of the state. We have three species that people fish for. We also have bullheads, but they don’t cause much excitement.”
The channel catfish is the most prevalent species in Region III and there are no stocking programs because of the good natural reproduction.
Most anglers fish in the summer below the dam to catch channel and blue cats. Three to four pounds will be your average catch with the upper limits around 10 pounds. Flatheads up to 80 pounds are caught occasionally.
The cats will be along then Tennessee River channel and below Watts Bar Dam in the lake’s headwaters. Copeland says there is a special catfish area below Watts Bar Dam at the lock chamber’s discharge tubes. Anglers drift over these trying to catch the cats holding inside. They will be in the crevices next to the tubes, in the rocks and under ledges.
There is a ramp on the east side of the tailwaters south of Peakland and one up Sewee Creek on Decatur Watts Bar Road; the next ramp is 13 miles downstream at Cotton Port Marina west of Goodfield.
On the lake proper, catfish will be in the places where you would expect to find bass. In fact, catfish are as, if not more structure and cover oriented than bass. Locate humps along the main channel with your sonar and fish for cats like you would bass except for your choice of bait. Nightcrawlers, stinkbaits and cut shad fished on the channel side of the humps should put you in the money.
Also the junction of a good sized creek with the main river channel is usually a good spot. Cast your bait downstream of the mouth. There is usually an eddy, even if it’s a slow one, that forms here and concentrates fish food. If you don’t get bit here, move upstream of the mouth and try again. If this doesn’t prove satisfactory, start working your bait along the bottom down into the main channel. If you don’t hook up this way, then you are probably fishing on “one of those days when you can’t buy a bite.”
If you’re looking for cats that have more heft, fish the mouths of Wolftever Creek, Dallas Bay, Soddy Creek and Sale Creek, and, of course, the Hiwassee River – it surrendered the state record flathead.
“PERCY PRIEST is under utilized for catfish, “says fisheries biologist Doug Pelren of TWRA Region II. He adds that the most sought after catfish is the channel cat. TWRA has been stocking the blue catfish in Priest and they have been doing very well.
“Blue cats prefer big rivers, and reservoirs with moving water. The channel cat prefers calmer waters. The flathead likes deep water and rivers,” says Pelren.
In August the best places to fish in Priest will be the rocks at night. The banks that have chunk rock running shallow to deep will offer you the best catfishing. Also fish the rip-rap at the dam and Hobson Pike Bridge, the bluffs, and logs.
OLD HICKORY (the only lake in this report that has a catfish guide) is finally being recognized for its catfishery. Donny Hall of Nashville (615-383-4464) began guiding for Cumberland River cats several years ago. He fishes the tailwaters to the upper end of Old Hickory. He claims the Cumberland River has the next world record catfish – and he may have had it on for over an hour. Since then he switched from 80-pound test line to 130-test.
Last summer he took a client from New York to one of his hot spots and the client caught a 57-pound flathead. He guides for cats year-round.
Doug Pelren has been saying for years that catfish have not been pursued enough by anglers and there are a great many big ones out there waiting for the right bait. All it takes is a little effort to catch these plentiful fish, less effort than it takes to catch bass.
You have to catch bait first but Donny does it without a casting net. He uses a light-weight spinning outfit with a Piscator Rig for catching skipjacks. It’s about three feet long with five drop-flies along its length. These flies are much like a fly fisherman uses. A 1/8-ounce bell sinker is attached to the bottom of the rig to add weight for casting – heavier weights can be added to go deeper or to cast into strong current.
The rig is cast into and behind the boils below Old Hickory Dam, often catching three to five skipjack per cast. You reel in a stringer of fish, not just one.
After catching about 30 baitfish and putting them on ice, Donny starts fishing a couple of spots along the lock wall. The baitfish are cut into chunks and threaded on 7/0 Gamakatsu Kahle hooks.
After fishing these spots, he goes through the lock to fish the edge of the Cumberland channel drops from an anchored position. He casts out four lines. The first bite usually comes within a few minutes. He ranks catfish as “dinks” (less than five pounds), “deck slammers” (from five to 15 pounds and “ease-me-downs” (heavier than 15 pounds).
Your best chance for catching the ease-me-downs are in the main lake along the channel, bluffs, at creek mouth junctions, heads and tails of islands, and humps during the day. As in most waters, bigger cats hang out at the base of bluffs. At night they move up the water column to feed top of the drops and on the flats.
Information Officer, Alan Peterson in Region I says, “Blues, channels and flatheads are what we have in West Tennessee. The only stocking we do is in Agency lakes.” He adds most cats are caught on trot lines, jug fishing and still fishing.
Before Bobby Wilson left Region I for Region II, he said “The best Agency catfish lakes are Graham, Glenn Springs and Davy Crockett, but all of them are well stocked with blue and channel catfish.”
DAVY CROCKETT LAKE, formerly Humbolt Lake, is by far TWRA’s best catfish lake. It is stocked with bigger fish because the hatchery is right below the lake. Lakes farther away are stocked first with smaller fish because they take up less room in the tank trucks; they put the bigger ones in the closest lake – Davy Crockett.
“This lake is one of two lakes where the biggest catfish roam,” says Alan Peterson. “Someone recently caught a 37-pound flathead catfish in Davy Crockett. The angler had his hook straitened a time or two. He returned with heavy fishing gear and strong hooks. This big boy was caught on purpose and not accidently as some are.” Several years ago a 52-pound flathead was caught here.
Davy Crockett, built in the 1950s, has no standing timber but anglers have added stake beds. TWRA crews cut trees along the shoreline that provide cover at the lake’s edge. It doesn’t have as much cover as it should, but the only way to do it right would be to drain the lake. The fish populations are too good to do that.
Anglers need to check with lake managers before adding fish attractors. They want to control what goes in the lakes to prevent harming them.
The majority of people that are successful at this lake use jugs, but people catch catfish from the bank too. Bank anglers can reach just about the entire shoreline. They probably fish about a third to half of the lake from the bank. They can fish all the way around but it’s too far to walk. And shoreline is kept mowed for this convenience.
It is one of the few lakes that have flathead catfish. The average catfish caught in Davy Crockett weighs close to two pounds according to the creel census. The census is taken at only five lakes.
You get to Davy Crockett Lake by going west of Humbolt on S.R. 152 for about four miles and turning south. This 87-acre lake offers boat rentals, launching ramp, restrooms, picnic areas and fishing pier. Lake Manager: 901-784-3889.
GLENN SPRINGS is the newest kid on the block; it opened in 1995. The catfish population is in good shape here. Glenn Springs has almost a perfect cover situation, standing timber, weeds and fish attractors.
It’s located on Glenn Springs Road 12 miles northeast of Millington, north of Highway 51. This 310-acre lake has many coves, unlike most of the other agency lakes in West Tennessee. A concession sells bait and tackle, and rents boats and trolling motors. Lake Manager: 901-835-5253.
LAKE GRAHAM, largest of all agency lakes covering 500 acres, opened in 1983. It is well established with some monster catfish swimming about; this is the other lake with big flatheads.
In 1995, a 39-pound flathead was caught and, a few years before, a 42-pound flathead was landed. Those catfish must have been about as old as the lake. A few flatheads were stocked when the lake opened 14 years ago. During a population study several years ago, two 35-pound flatheads showed up to be counted.
Since the lake was built especially for fishing, TWRA left standing timber and submerged cover. The shoreline is steep with gullies and woods, and there is no clear trail around Graham but there are three access areas where people can fish from the bank. Creel reports show that the average catfish in Graham weighs about five pounds.
Graham is on Cotton Grove Road about five miles east of Jackson. From Nashville, take I-40 exit 93 to Highway 412, go west to Cotton Grove Road and turn south. From Memphis, take I-40 exit 85, turn right to Parkway and follow the signs.
A concession offers bait, tackle, ramps, boat and trolling motor rentals, fishing pier, vending machines, restrooms and picnic areas. Lake Manager: 901-423-4937.
TWO CATFISH RIGS
This catfish rig is simple and efficient. Tie on a bell sinker with sufficient weight to stay in place if fishing in current. Loop your line 10 and 28 inches above the sinker to form two drop lines. Attach a No. 1 to 2/0 hook to each dropper. Use the larger hooks for big chunks of bait.
One of the best baits for catfish is frozen shrimp. It stays on your hook much better than liver and is not as messy as worms or stinkbaits. Catfish will locate it and bite soon after it hits the water.
For catfish over five pounds use a Carolina rig. Slide a slip sinker on your main line; tie on a barrel swivel, followed by a three-foot leader and then a hook. Use a 3/0 up to 7/0 steel hook and cover it with chunks of skipjack. This works well in calm water and in current. Happy Hooking!