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Tennessee’s Best Fishing Holes

The onset of summer means different things to different people, but for many Tennessee anglers, it means the time for serious catfishing has arrived. While catfish can be caught all year, as more and more anglers are figuring out, summer brings stable conditions to river systems and makes the fishing very predictable this time of year.

A good argument could be made that Tennessee offers the best catfishing of any state in the country. If it’s not the best, it certainly ranks among the best. The Mississippi River, our nation’s largest and most prolific “catfish stream,” forms Tennessee’s entire western border, and the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers, two other nationally renowned catfishing destinations, run the majority of their miles within Tennessee’s borders. Add thousands of miles of tributaries to all three major rivers, plus dozens of impoundments that range from farm-pond size to the giant Kentucky Lake, and the catfishing opportunities are virtually unlimited.

The Tennessee River is full of catfish from its official beginning point near Knoxville to the end of its Tennessee run under the impounded waters of Kentucky Lake. The Tennessee River offers great fishing in riverine and open-reservoir setting for anglers who know how to locate and set up on the best waters; however, tailwaters concentrate cats and provide great access to a lot of fish for a lot of fishermen.

Some of Tennessee’s best catfishing is accessible from the bank. Catfish also rank among the best eating fish found in Tennessee waters. Adding even more appeal this time of year, catfishing stays good throughout the summer, especially for anglers who enjoy going out after the sun goes down.

Tennessee waters support three major catfish species that together attract 10 percent of all angling effort in Volunteer waters. Blue, flathead and channel catfish all have some things in common, but each species is distinctive in the way that it acts, the waters it inhabits and the food it likes to eat. Blue catfish like a decent amount of current nearby, and catching big blues consistently calls for using big pieces of cut skipjack or shad. Channels prefer a little less current and will bite well on chicken livers. Flatheads like essentially slack waters and want a big live shad or bluegill.

With this in mind, we’ll look at each species separately, examining where anglers are apt to find the most success and with what types of tactics.

Blue catfish are big-river cats, and Tennessee definitely has big rivers. The Tennessee, Cumberland and Mississippi rivers together offer a tremendous amount of large-river habitat, and blue cats abound in all three rivers.

For sheer numbers of blues, tailwaters are tough to top during June. The Old Hickory and Cheatham tailwaters are always productive this time of year, as are the Fort Loudoun, Watts Bar, Chickamauga, Nickajack, and Pickwick tailwater on the Tennessee River. The blues move up the rivers during late spring to spawn and stick around throughout the summer because they find plentiful food, current and cover.

Outside of the immediate tailwaters, the most predictable places for finding and catching big blues on the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers are in big, deep holes formed along outside bends in riverine sections of the pools. The cats hold near the bottoms of the big holes by day and move to adjacent flats by nights. Some of the best sections for heavyweight blues include the upper ends of Watts Bar and Nickajack on the Tennessee River and the end of Cheatham and the upper end of Barkley on the Cumberland.

For large flatheads, Tennessee’s biggest river is probably its best. The Mississippi supports a fabulous population of high-quality flatheads, and June is a good time to catch them.

Beyond the Mississippi, the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers’ tailwaters should not be overlooked. Flathead fishermen look for deep slack areas of tailwaters and good rocky or concrete cover, sometimes around spill gates that aren’t running or barriers between areas, and fish them with big, live bluegills or shad.

The Mississippi River is best known for the huge catfish it produces, but the big river also yields outstanding fishing for channel catfish, especially during spring and early summer. The big holes that produce the big blues are tough to fish when the river is high, but the backwaters and other shallow protected areas that channels stack up on tend to stay in good condition.

Channel catfish prospects are also good throughout the Tennessee portion of the Mississippi River. Anglers should begin by looking for good protected waters, and then they should search with their electronics for concentrations of fish on the bottom. Among Tennessee’s best channel cat waters, year after year, are TWRA’s Family Fishing Lakes. The 18 lakes in this program, all managed specifically for fishing by TWRA, are heavily stocked with channel catfish and managed as put-grow-and-take fisheries. Descriptions of lakes, the offerings of each and special regulations that apply are detailed on the TWRA’s Web site at

Looking at other top channel cat areas, it’s once again necessary to visit tailwaters along the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. Like their cousins, channels pile up in all the tailwaters during the summer and serve up very good fishing to bank-fishing and boating anglers alike.

Good catfishing can be found in parts of virtually all major reservoirs in Tennessee, but some of the lakes best known for their abundant channels are Reelfoot, Old Hickory, J. Percy Priest, Woods and Douglas lakes.

Aside from the big rivers, Tennessee has many, many miles of small- to medium-sized rivers that offer fabulous catfishing prospects to anglers in all parts of the state. Streams like the Nolichucky and Pigeon in East Tennessee, the Stones and Sequatchie in Middle Tennessee and the Obion and Forked Deer River system in West Tennessee offer hundreds of miles of fine catfishing waters.

The most dependable catfish holes, almost universally, are along hard outside bends. Streams of all sizes from the mountains to the Mississippi River drainage pool up on outside bends, and currents create undercut banks, usually toppling some trees into the water in the process. The mix of depths, blend of currents and eddies and abundance of cover create ideal catfish holes.

As a general rule, the cats will hold in the deepest parts of the holes through the day, feeding most actively in the upper parts of those holes, and will roam to the edges and to flats across the river to feed hard at night.

All material taken from the following sources:

Samsel, Jeff. June 2004. “The Best Tennessee Catfish Waters.” Tennessee Sportsman.
Samsel, Jeff. June 2002. “Tennessee’s Sizzling Summer Catfish.” Tennessee Sportsman.

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