Top 17 Tennessee Game Fish
This post will list the top 17 Tennessee game fish species. Tennessee offers anglers a wide variety of fishing opportunities. The geography is quite diverse and Tennessee, from low lying plains to fairly high mountains. There are many streams, rivers, and lakes that hold a wide variety of game fish species.
Anglers can see more of Happy on her IG page.
The TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) as created many lakes as part of their flood control program. A secondary benefit is the fantastic recreational opportunities. These lakes are what Tennessee is most known for. The top species are largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, and striped bass, but many other species are available as well. Tennessee is the southernmost state in which anglers can catch musky. Freshwater trout fishing is excellent and areas of higher elevations. Anglers can find a detailed article on the best fishing spots in Tennessee here.
Tennessee angler Happy
Visit Adrian’s IG HERE
Happy lives in Tennessee and fishes mostly with her husband Adrian. He is also her photographer, here is a link to Adrian’s website. She shares her awesome pics and information in this article.
“I started fishing about 8 years ago, but didn’t really start getting serious until the last couple years. We fish Old Hickory Lake a lot, sometimes Percy Priest. Stripers are by far my favorite to fish! We downline live shad mostly. I’m working an Alabama rig into my arsenal this season too. We usually fish during the week and leave the weekend to all the pleasure boaters and wake boarders. I have a favorite spot on Old Hickory to striper fish that’s just so beautiful and peaceful. We may not see another boat all day. I do enjoy fishing other species, but I’ve gotten hooked on stripers”.
Tennessee black bass
1) Largemouth bass
Largemouth bass are perhaps most popular freshwater fish in the United States. Panfish anglers may argue, but the attention that professional bass tournaments garner is undeniable. Tennessee lakes and rivers offer anglers excellent opportunities to catch largemouth bass. The state record is a 15 lbs. 3 oz. largemouth bass caught in Chickamauga Reservoir.
Largemouth bass prefer warmer water temperatures and areas where the current is not too strong. They will seldom be found in fast-moving rivers. Instead, they prefer bays and backwater areas. They will certainly be found in main river channels in larger lakes, particularly in the summer and winter. Largemouth bass spawn in the spring when the water temperature eases into the mid to upper 60s.
Largemouth bass habits
These fish are ambush predators. They are stout and powerful with a large broad tail. They use their large mouth to inhale prey. It would generally relate to some type of structure. In the 1960s and 70s, submerged timber was abundant. As this timber has deteriorated, bass relate more to man-made structure such as docks, bridges, and rip-rap. Large flats with weeds, sloping points, river channel edges, and feeder creeks are all excellent spots to target largemouth bass.
Most anglers targeting largemouth bass use artificial lures. Bass fisherman are always on the cutting age of innovation when it comes to fishing tackle. Soft plastic baits, spinner baits, hardbody plugs, and jigs are the most popular bass fishing lures. Anglers targeting largemouth bass with live bait use nightcrawlers, minnows, and crayfish.
The top Tennessee largemouth bass waters are Lake Chickamauga, Kentucky Lake, Parksville Lake, Dale Hollow Reservoir, and Center Hill Lake.
2) Smallmouth bass
Smallmouth bass are a much sought after species in Tennessee. The entire state of Tennessee offers superb smallmouth bass habitat in both rivers and lakes. The world record smallmouth bass is an 11 lbs. 15 oz. monster caught in Dale Hollow Reservoir. Smallmouth bass, while in the same family, are quite different inhabits than their cousins the largemouth bass.
Smallies are as much like a trout as they are a bass. They prefer cool, clear water with some current if possible. Faster flowing rocky streams and small rivers provide excellent fishing for smallmouth bass. They are quite comfortable and larger reservoirs as well. Deep, clear, legs are generally the most productive. These types of Tennessee lakes are legendary for their smallmouth bass fishing.
Smallmouth bass habits
Smallmouth bass will generally spawn in the spring, preferring tributaries with gravel bottoms and a little bit of current. They can be caught year-round in lakes and will generally be found a bit deeper than largemouth bass. Underwater structure such as submerged islands, underwater points, and channel edges will hold schools of smallmouth bass. Fish in rivers will stage in pockets behind boulders and at the heads and tails of pools.
Tackle for smallmouth bass is similar to that of largemouth bass, though on a smaller scale. Light spinning tackle is the best choice in most cases. Lighter lines will draw more strikes in clear water. Small crank baits, soft plastics, spinners and spinner baits, and jigs are the top artificial lures.
Smallmouth bass are well-known for their affinity for crawfish. This is the main reason that smallmouth bass are often found in areas where rock is present. Any lure or bait that resembles a crawfish is likely to draw strike from a smallmouth bass.
The top Tennessee smallmouth bass waters are Pickwick Lake, Dale Hollow Reservoir, Cherokee Lake, Chickamauga Lake, and Watts Bar Reservoir.
3) Spotted bass
Also known as “Kentucky bass”, spotted bass are found in many of the larger Tennessee reservoirs. They prefer cool, clear water. Spots look more like largemouth bass, but they are more like smallmouth bass in their habits. Most spots are caught in deeper water over structure such as points and ledges. They school up and once located, the action can be fast. Soft plastic baits are very effective. They do not grow as large, with the state record being 6 pounds, 1 ounce.
Tennessee striped bass fishing
Striped bass are a huge success story for the Tennessee fish management professionals. Many if not most of the Tennessee lakes were created in the mid-60s and early 70s by the TVA. These lakes had countless acres of flooded timber, offering perfect habitat for largemouth bass. However, over the years this timber rotted and deteriorated. Largemouth bass moved to other structure.
This left an opportunity for an open water fish species and striped bass were the perfect fit. The Tennessee state record of 65 lbs. 6 oz. caught in Cordell Hull reservoir is an excellent example of a thriving striper population
4) striped bass
Striped bass are a saltwater species that can tolerate absolute freshwater. They naturally migrate from saltwater into freshwater rivers to spawn. While striped bass and lakes can reproduce, and most lakes they don’t. This is due to the fact that dams inhibit the migration of fish up into the tributary creeks and rivers.
In order to support this new fishery, forage species needed to be introduced as well. Several different species of shad were introduced and have thrived as well. Shad school up in large numbers over underwater structure. These are the same places where striped bass are found.
Anglers targeting striped bass used two primary methods. Live or cut Shad produces the majority of striped bass by Tennessee anglers. Drifting, slow trolling, and bottom fishing with live baits is extremely productive. The biggest hurdle is catching and keeping the baits alive. Cut Shad will produce as well, though it will also attract large catfish.
Read this article on how to clean and cook fish
Anglers casting artificial lures can catch striped bass as well. This is particularly true when they are found feeding on the surface. This is great fun as any spoon, crank baits, jig, or any other lure cast into the fray will normally draw a strike. Anglers vertically jigging deeper channel edges and blind casting shorelines and riprap areas near dams will also produce fish. Where allowed, tell water fisheries just below the dams can produce some fantastic striped bass fishing and Tennessee!
The top Tennessee striped bass fishing lakes are Old Hickory Reservoir, Cordell Hull Reservoir, Caney Fork, Melton Hill Reservoir, and Watts bar Reservoir.
5) Cherokee bass
Many states have successfully stocked a striped bass white bass hybrid. Tennessee is no exception. They introduced a female striper/male white bass hybrid into the Cherokee Reservoir in the mid 60’s. Thus the name. They are a schooling fish that are aggressive and fight hard. Tennessee white bass average 18” with the state record being 23 pounds, 3 ounces. They are found in the same lakes as striped bass.
6) White bass
White bass are a very prolific fish species. They school up in large numbers, usually in open water. They feed primarily on small bait fish and can be seen feeding on the surface. While bass prefer clear, cool water. In the spring, they migrate up tributaries to spawn. They are plentiful in most of the Tennessee lakes. They average 12′ with the state record fish being 5 pounds, 10 ounces.
Tennessee has all three of the major catfish game species; channel catfish, blue catfish, and yellow (flathead) catfish. There are similar in habits, though each are a little different. Catfish do well in lakes, ponds, and rivers. They have a very diverse diet, which is one o the reasons that they are so successful.
7) Channel catfish
Channel catfish are the most numerous. They thrive in the smallest creeks and up to the largest lakes. They feed on insects, crustaceans, and bait fish. Channel cats average around five pounds. The state record is 41 pounds. They are terrific eating! Nightcrawlers, cut bait, and prepared catfish baits are the top baits.
8) Blue catfish
Blue catfish grow very large. The state record is 112 pounds! While blue catfish feed on a variety of prey, they do prefer larger bait fish. Blue cats are a “big water” species, preferring larger river systems and lakes.
9) Flathead catfish
Flathead catfish feed primarily in bait fish. Bluegill and other panfish are the preferred live bait. Flathead catfish will be found in sluggish, slow moving streams and rivers. They like structure in deeper holes but will move up very shallow at night to feed.
Tennessee trout species
Tennessee offers anglers some excellent trout fishing! Tailwaters fisheries below dams are ideal habitat for freshwater trout to thrive in. These rivers stay below 70 degrees, which is needed for the fish to survive. Water temperature and flow can be controlled by the dams. The state heavily stocks streams on a regular basis. Anglers can find the trout stocking information on the Tennessee government website.
10) Brook trout
Brook trout are the only trout that are native to Tennessee. They are found in the upper stretches on streams in the mountains in the eastern part of Tennessee. They can not tolerate water warmer than the upper 60’s. Brook trout feed on insects and small fish and crustaceans. They are small, averaging 6” or so.
11) Brown trout
Brown trout are not native to Tennessee. However, they have been successfully stocked in many rivers and lakes. Brown trout have a varied diet. Smaller fish feed mostly on insects. Larger trout turn to more substantial meals such as minnows and crayfish. The average brown trout is around 12”.
12) Rainbow trout
Rainbow trout are also a non native trout species to Tennessee. They are most plentiful in the eastern part of the state. Rainbow trout feed on insects and small bait fish. They are a beautiful fish and one of the most easily identified game fish.
The top trout fishing waters in Tennessee are the Watagua River, South Holston River, Hiwassee, Clinch River, Little River, Abrams Creek, Hurricane Creek, Duck River, and Cane Creek. Anglers can read more about these spots HERE.
It would be easy to argue that freshwater panfish are the most targeted fish in the country. There are many reasons for this. They are abundant and easily available to all anglers. They are prolific and numerous. Many species are fairly easy to catch using a variety of techniques. Finally, most are terrific eating!
Crappie are fast becoming one of the most popular freshwater fish species in the United States. They are fun to catch, putting up a decent little tussle on light tackle. Crappie are beautiful as well. However, the reason for their popularity is their value on a dinner plate. Crappie are delicious! They are also the largest of the “panfish” family.
Crappie mostly feed on small bait fish once they become mature. Therefore, small lures that mimic minnows work best. Jigs are extremely effective, as are time crankbaits and spinnerbaits. Anglers using live minnows catch a lot of crappie as well.
The top Tennessee crappie fishing lakes are Chickamauga Lake, Percy Priest Reservoir, Center Hill Reservoir, Barkley Lake, Kentucky Lake, Old Hickory Lake, and Cordell Hull Reservoir.
14) Bluegill and other panfish
There are several species of smaller panfish that will be grouped together. Most are similar in habits and diets, though there are certainly some differences. Most prefer shallow, slow moving waters with weeds, submerged timber, docks, or other structure. Bluegill, redear sunfish, longear sunfish, green sunfish, warmouth, rock bass, redbreast sunfish, flier, and pumkinseed are all available to Tennessee anglers.
Other Tennessee game fish species
There are two species of pike available to anglers in Tennessee; the muskellunge and the pickerel. There are two musky strains. The first is native to streams in the northern portion of the Cumberland Plateau. The other strain of musky prefer lakes and has been successfully stocked in several Tennessee reservoirs.
Musky prefer cool clear water with cover suck as submerged grass beds. They are ambush predators and will seldom be found in open water. Musky feed primarily on fish, but they will feed on just about anything, including ducks, frogs, and small mammals. Anglers target them using heavy tackle. Muskellunge averages about 32 inches. The state record is 43 pounds, 14 ounces.
The top Tennessee muskellunge are the tributaries of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River, and also the Emory River and its tributaries in the Tennessee River system, Upper Caney Fork River and its tributaries, and Collins and Calfkiller rivers. They are also found in Melton Hill, Dale Hollow, and Parksville Reservoirs.
Walleye are an extremely popular species in the northern states and Canada. They are usually found in clear, cool rivers and lakes. Rocky structure is a plus. They feed on or near the bottom in most instances. Live bait fish are their preferred prey, but they also eat crayfish. Walleye are one of the best eating fish on the planet! Tennessee walleye average 18”. The world record walleye came from Tennessee and weighed in at a whopping 25 pound!
The top walleye (and sauger) lakes in Tennessee are Center Hill, Norris, Dale Hollow, Cherokee, South Holston, Tellico, Tim’s Ford, and Watagua.
Sauger are similar in appearance and habits to their cousins the walleye. They do prefer rivers a bit more. They are less fussy about clear water as well. Sauger average 16” and the state record is 7 pounds, 6 ounces.