For a freshwater angler, picking the best place to fish in Tennessee is like trying to pick your favorite breath of fresh air. One of the many great things about the Volunteer state is the vast number of options a fisherman has to get a hook wet.
With over 1,000 lakes covering 540,000 acres and 50 rivers creating roughly 60,000 miles of stream, even if you find yourself in the middle of one of the state’s largest cities, you’re still not more than a ten minute drive from a world-class spot where you can drown a few worms on your favorite boat or kayak.
In this article, we’ll jump into a few of those waters and swim through some of the highlights of each. Get your gear ready, gas up the truck and let’s go for a ride. We’ll move West to East across the length of the state from the Mississippi River Delta, over the Cumberland Plateau, to the foothills of Appalachia and then up the beautiful bluffs of the Great Smoky Mountains. There’s an awful lot of good fishin’ in between!
1. Reelfoot Lake
The largest natural lake in the state, situated in the Northwest corner of Tennessee, Reelfoot Lake is rich with history, legend and of course, great fishing! The main body of the lake was formed in 1811 after a series of earthquakes along the New Madrid fault line. The resulting chain of geological events caused the Mississippi river to reverse course and run backwards for “seven days and seven nights” according to locals.
The National Geological Society tells a slightly different story, but it isn’t as dramatic or interesting, though it does involve a thing called a “fluvial tsunami”. If you visit the Lake, be sure to take advantage of the close-knit, hometown vibe around Samburg, and try out the local cuisine. You won’t find better, fresh from the lake, fried catfish anywhere in the South.
The lake is relatively shallow, often described more like a stump-strewn swamp, but it creates perfect conditions for fishing. The lake is known for panfish like bluegill and crappie, as well as every species of freshwater catfish, but you will often see bass fishermen throwing plastic worms around lily pads or hitting the plentiful underwater cover with square-billed crankbaits. While the stumps they form with their roots may be bad for fiberglass boats, the cypress trees make for beautiful and unique scenery. They are also home to a fairly large population of bald eagles.
2. Pickwick Lake
A Tennessee Valley Authority Reservoir, Pickwick Lake can be found starting at Pickwick Landing State Park and stretching to the Wilson Dam where it impounds the Tennessee River near the southern border of the state. With the state park located so conveniently, there is ample opportunity for family angling as well as camping and other recreational activities.
Though Wilson Dam tailwater at the upper end of the reservoir is noted for record-sized smallmouth bass and catfish, anglers can be seen pulling big slab crappie and sauger from the cold waters of the lake during early Spring. With a lot of big creeks, shoreline, steep banks and cover, the troll-and-jig opportunities are endless.
3. Kentucky Lake
Shared by Kentucky and Tennessee, the lake was formed
in 1944 when the Tennessee Valley Authority impounded the Tennessee River with the Kentucky Dam. This created the largest, artificial lake east of the Mississippi River, and was half responsible for the inspiration behind the construction of The Land Between the Lakes National Recreation area that supports some stellar angling opportunities.
This lake is a big draw for bass fishermen looking to land a monster largemouth, though its waters are home to yellow perch as well as some nice-sized panfish. The beautiful scenery, family-friendly recreation like camping, hiking and boating, as well as plentiful fish to catch, make this lake a must-visit for fishing enthusiasts in Tennessee.
4. Lake Barkley
Situated on the border between Tennessee and Kentucky, touching five counties across both states and covering 58,000 acres, Lake Barkley is a great spot to land some big slab panfish. This Cumberland River impoundment, created in 1966 by the Army Corps of Engineers with the construction of Barkley Dam, is located east of and runs parallel with Kentucky Lake for more than 50 miles.
Because of its location, Lake Barkley is the second half of the inspiration behind The Land Between the Lakes Recreation area which is one of the greatest freshwater recreational complexes in the U.S. While two-thirds of the lake is in Kentucky, it maintains 18,000 acres of water coverage in Tennessee, just north of Nashville.
Anglers can often be seen trolling obstacles in open water and shoreline alike, fishing vertically around sunken cover. Using jigs tipped with minnows and cane poles is common. Since the water will get warm a week or two sooner in the southern parts of the lake during early Spring, bass will begin to spawn there first. For that reason, Tennessee fisherman can count on getting their bass rigs out a little earlier than their fishing buddies in Kentucky!
5. Center Hill Lake
Center Hill Lake is located near Smithville, not quite halfway between Nashville and Knoxville atop the Cumberland Plateau. The 18,220 acre body of water was created in 1948 by means of a dam constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, impounding the Caney Fork River. A bit further upstream on the Caney Fork, by the way, is a fantastic place to throw a fly out for brownies and rainbows during the Spring! The twofold purpose for the dam’s construction was to produce electricity and to allow for flood control. A third, and happily coincidental result, was the creation of one of the state’s best fishing holes.
Situated between hillsides, featuring deep, clear waters and some steep-sided bluffs, Center Hill Lake is a picturecsque place to watch the sun rise from the swivel chair mounted to the front of your boat. Plenty of anglers have spent their nights casting a Texas or Carolina rig across the dark waters of the lake. Fisherman who have spent a lot of time night fighing swear by the western wind.
If it’s blowing a little, expect to bring in plenty of Black Bass; smallmouth being the popular catch. If you find yourself on still waters with no air moving, just slow down your offering and work a little deeper. Here’s a tip: bring your floating black lights and put them out if things get slow. Photosensitive algae will float toward them. As that collects near your boat, you will begin to see small bait fish circling for the feast. Where there are little fish, the big fish are soon to follow. It looks a little eerie when the only light is surrounding the black water around your boat at night, but it’s effective!
6. Percy Priest Lake
Impounding the Stones River, J. Percy Priest Lake is a 14,200 acre reservoir that came about in 1967 after the construction of a dam by the same name, taken from Congressman Percy Priest. That dam can be seen well from Interstate 40 just a few minutes east of downtown Nashville. The lake features family activities like camping and hiking trails as well as a water park and marina, but the fishing can’t be beat.
Just about every species of freshwater bass make this lake home due to efforts of the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency. They do enforce daily size and creel limits, however, so be sure to check for the latest posting if you visit. You’ll see some nice-sized crappie too, and have little trouble catching and keeping your limit (on the right day, with the right jig, of course). There is no limit on the number or size of catfish, however, which are plentiful. Rumor has it, there are channel cats near the dam that will pull the rod right out of your hands. Don’t take my word for it though. Head out there and see for yourself!
7. Cordell Hull Lake
Covering approximately 12,000 acres about forty miles east of Nashville, Cordell Hull Lake isn’t the largest body of water in the state but it makes up for that with quality. The area is surrounded by plenty of family recreation and beautiful private residences. However, the reason this upper Cumberland River impoundment is on our list is simply because it represents the best sauger fishing you will find in the state, and quite possibly in the whole country.
The lake is loaded with bluegill, catfish and bass year round, but during the coldest months, area anglers don their winter gear and rig up for sauger. The greyer, colder, and nastier the sky looks, the better a sauger fisherman likes it; think “duck huntin’ weather”. Most of their rigs include small, heavy jigs that they bounce off the bottom near river holes and beside gravel bars where sauger concentrate for the spawn. Gently troll against a channel current and cast into the underwater eddies caused by the water movement near a creek or even close to the dam. Let your jig sink, carried by that current.
It will land in the mouth of a hungry sauger, sitting near the bottom, waiting for food to be brought in by the current. The trick is keeping your line tight enough to feel the strike, especially since it will be so cold you can’t feel your hands.The fun you will have catching these guys will make fighting the weather completely worth it! Pro Tip: Make double sure you bring a net to dip your minnows out of their bucket. Frostbitten fingers make it hard to fish. And numb fingers make it tough to tell when you’ve stuck yourself with a hook – note from an experienced sauger fisherman.
8. Fort Loudoun Lake
Stretching for about fifty miles along the upper Tennessee River in east Tennessee, this reservoir, and the Dam that incorporates it, take their names from an 18th-century British fort. Built nearby during the French and Indian War, Fort Loudoun is now the centerpiece of a historic state park. That, of course, comes with the usual amenities like camping, hiking and bird watching, as well as some great fishing.
The lake offers the full gamut of freshwater fish, including black bass, crappie, sauger, walleye and catfish. The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency has also stocked Lake Sturgeon into the rivers upstream of Fort Loudoun since 2000. These fish are considered state endangered, however, so they are strictly catch-and-release.
Those bad boys get big though, and they sure are fun to catch! Fort Loudoun Lake has produced some of the biggest catfish in the state. A 130 pound monster blue cat was taken from those waters in 1976. Flatheads and channel cat get pretty large too, so if you go out there using big bait (they prefer bluegill) make sure you gear down your reel, use a sturdy rod, heavy line and eat your Wheaties that morning.
9. Hiwassee River
The Hiwassee River flows for 147 miles from its headwaters in the northern Georgia section of the Rocky Mountains, north into North Carolina and then turning westward into Tennessee where it finally feeds into the Tennessee River. Though the river is long and there are many great places to dip a hook or cast a fly, the place we want to mention for this list is about ten miles downstream of the Apalachia dam near the powerhouse.
What makes that section of water so special is the constant temperature that is maintained there year round due to powerhouse activity. During generation, rainbow trout and brownies in those waters get particularly aggressive. Though, even during non generation, when the water is low and lazy, anglers have no problems filling their limit any time of the year.
10. Douglas Lake
Also known as Douglas Reservoir, this fishin’ hole is created by an impoundment of the French Broad River in East Tennessee. Located only a few miles from Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, as well as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, this lake sees a lot of tourism. With breathtaking views of misty mountain mornings, the serene call of abundant nature and the out of this world fishing there, it’s no wonder so many people visit the area.
Covering about 30,600 acres, the lake boasts 555 miles of fairly complex shoreline. You will find a mix of rocky bluffs, hillsides, forest, farms and even residential areas. Most of the lake is very deep with some shallow coves, though year-round water level depends greatly on spring rain throughout the Tennessee River Valley.
Between the quiet, sheltered coves and the complexity of the shoreline, there are limitless places to cast an umbrella hook for some largemouth bass. Anglers have had good fortune out there using gizzard shad, bluegills, minnows and grubs. If you find yourself in a deeper creek channel, try out your shinier swimbaits and see if you can dip out one of the big ones.
My articles appear in Marketing Edge Magazine, on Gizmogrind, and with various Medium publications. But one thing hasn’t changed in all of my life: no matter where I was or what I was doing. I’ve always loved to be outdoors.
A man needs nothing more than a good flannel shirt, a well-worn pair of jeans, and comfortable hiking boots. I don’t go for all the fancy luxury stuff. Suits are uncomfortable and shaving sucks.