Tennessee River Big, Mean, Ugly Blue Catfish

A short drive puts you onto some of the biggest cats in the Southeast.

Justin Raines | April 1, 2009

The first fish bit quickly, hitting the severed bream head soon after it struck bottom. A brief, drag-squealing battle ensued, but the feisty flathead was soon subdued, finding itself no match for a reel loaded with 40-lb. mono. The beast emerged from the green deeps, savage and primitive looking with mud-colored skin shimmering in the sun. It was a nice catfish, but mere small fry compared to the monsters we were seeking. After pulling the scales past 15 pounds, it was released to grow and breed.

This was not a trip to fill the meat coolers. It was trophy-class only, and nothing less than a 50-pounder would turn Capt. David Harrison’s head. Warm March sun coaxed the first blooms of spring in the trees. Water temperatures hovered in the mid-50s. The baitwell was full. Everything seemed just right for a dance with Mr. Whiskers. Conditions were only slightly cooler than the day last April when David caught the biggest cat of his life.

It was about 5 p.m. on a spring afternoon. Since about noon, David and his 5-year-old son Austin had been fishing on Nickajack Lake, a reservoir on the Tennessee River near Chattanooga, Tenn. They had already boated some decent fish earlier in the day, but the action had slowed down.

“We were fixing to move, actually,” David said. “I was getting bait ready for the next hole, and I heard the drag go off.”

The big spinning rod in the rear holder was bowing steadily toward the water. David dropped his bait knife and jumped into battle. The fish was pulling so hard he needed both hands to free the butt from the holder. Then things got tricky. Of all seven rods on board, the spinning rig held the least line, and it was running out fast.

“I was afraid it was going to spool me,” he said. “I put my hand on the reel to slow the drag down and just worked it to the boat. Then I saw it was huge.”

An absolute leviathan, the big blue was too big to fit in the net, but young Austin managed to get the fish’s head wrapped within the mesh. Father and son folded the beast over a low spot in the transom. David’s boat scales weighed it at 82.8 pounds. It was nearly 4 1/2 feet long. After a few photos, the fish was released. But the Harrison boys weren’t done yet. They reset their lines and caught a 50-pounder later that evening. Such a jackpot might seem like once-in-a-lifetime luck, but to the Harrisons it was just another good day on the Tennessee.

Big fish require big equipment. This net often needs the efforts of two fishermen to boat trophy-class blue cats.

David is a native of Calhoun and has been catfishing Georgia’s lakes and rivers for most of his 34 years. A knack for snagging fat cats seems to run in his family. David, his brother Jason and father Lester each hold catfish records in Georgia. For years, they had heard about huge blues coming out of the Tennessee River system, and it wasn’t long before they began making the short drive north to Chattanooga. Their fishing stories haven’t been the same since.

In February, 2005, David caught his first fish heavier than 80 pounds. It was just a few ounces lighter than the 82.8-lb. blue he landed last April. Lester has caught several heavier than 70 pounds, and Jason has snared his share of Tennessee trophies.

“Between the three of us, we’ve put a couple dozen 50-pounders and bigger in the boat,” David said.

The Harrisons primarily fish Nickajack and Chickamauga lakes, which are adjoining reservoirs running through Chattanooga. The trip from Calhoun is easy, and public boat ramps are a short drive from Interstate 75.

“I can leave the house and be fishing within an hour and a half, and that’s with stopping to put gas in the boat and truck,” David said.

But is the fishing really worth the trip for Georgia anglers who will have to tolerate a little extra road time and a sharp increase in orange checkerboard stickers? Without a doubt, David said.

“There are just more big fish up here,” he said. “If there were fish this big in Georgia, well, then I’d be fishing in Georgia.”

Indeed, if his 80-pounders had been caught 10 minutes to the south, David would hold the Peach State record blue cat. But in Tennessee, his best fish is still 30 pounds shy of the 112-lb. state record.

Blue cats are a species that also thrives in Georgia, so why do they seem to be growing so much larger just a short distance to the north?

David attributes the larger catches to better trophy-management practices, especially a statewide rule that limits fishermen to keeping only one catfish longer than 34 inches per day. He said the catch and release of big fish preserves trophy genetics and breeding stock. Also, since contaminants seem to accumulate in larger, older fish, David said he rarely keeps anything heavier than 10 pounds anyway.

“We might come out here and fill the freezer up with little fish, but I always release the bigger fish,” he said. “A lot of people think you’ve got to kill them to get pictures and to get them weighed, but you don’t.”

One thing about fishing for the biggest of the big is the size of the gear weeds out smaller fish. Youngsters may peck and pull at the bait, but they can rarely get their lips around the hook, which is what makes things all the more exciting when that rod starts shaking and screaming in the holder.

“That’s what I like about fishing up here,” David said. “You never know when it’s going to happen, but there’s always a chance of that huge fish that you don’t get in a lot of places.”

Although the trophy fish will bite year-round, David said the pre spawn period, when water temperatures are in the mid to upper 60s, is when the cats seem to be most active. In April, the fish should still be in heavy-feeding mode, gorging on threadfin shad and skipjack herring. During this period, they can be caught night and day.

One factor to keep in mind when heading up to Nickajack and Chickamauga, however, is water release from TVA dams. David has  noticed a correlation between current and feeding activity. He prefers to fish when dams both upstream and downstream are generating power and releasing water. For Chickamauga, that includes the Watts Bar and Chickamauga dams. Nickajack is impounded by the Chickamauga and Nickajack dams. Visit the TVA website at <> or call (800) 238- 2264 for release rates and schedules. Georgia anglers will also need to purchase a Tennessee fishing license. Licenses can be purchased online at <> or by calling (888) 814-8972. For information on TVA boat ramps, call (866) 494-7186.

When I fished with David on Nickajack in March, conditions were unseasonably warm and both dams were running. There didn’t appear to be much current on the surface, but he explained that even a little flow near the bottom would help disperse scent trails to fish downstream.

We were in his 18-foot SeaArk, which is a wide and stable boat. David said size matters on the lakes, which see a lot of barges and steamers that throw a big wake.

When he first started fishing Chickamauga and Nickajack, David would find holes with his sonar and mark the

spots where he caught fish. He began to build up a catalog of productive spots that he can hopscotch to as he locates fish. Ideal trophy holes combine drop-offs with bank structure such as fallen trees and bridge pilings. Once he finds a good spot, David double anchors his boat with the bow pointed upriver, preferably just upstream of a deep hole. If there are catfish around, they usually won’t take long to bite. He gives each spot at least 30 minutes before moving on. If he’s caught fish at a particular hole, he’ll stay for at least an hour.

We were fishing in 20 to 30 feet of water, but some holes on the Tennessee are as deep as 100 feet. The transition zones where these drops meet shallow water are a good place to set out baits.

The day before our trip, David hit his neighborhood lake with some worms and an ultra-light rod. Once he had a mess of bream, he froze half and kept half alive in the bait well. Sometimes, though, he’ll wait until he’s on the water to get bait. Then, he’ll throw a castnet for shad and herring.

Cut bream fished on a circle hook on the bottom was the ticket to luring this 15-lb. blue catfish from its watery lair on the Tennessee River.

David uses an array of seven medium-heavy action light saltwater rods, some with spinning reels and others with Shakespeare Tidewater 30L bait casters. These are big sticks for big fish. The landing net itself looks like it could pull in a baby grand piano.

“Unless you want to be telling the story of the one that got away, you’ve got to bring some pretty strong tackle,” he said. “You’ve got to have a strong enough pole and line to keep them from getting you hung up.”

He spools each of his reels with 40-lb. monofilament Berkley Big Game line. The terminal rig is fairly simple. He uses about 14 inches of heavy wire leader, teardrop sinkers and circle hooks fished on the bottom.

“I like my leader to be stronger than my main line,” he said. “I would rather lose my hook and weight than lose a big fish.”

Teardrop or no-roll weights are used because they tend to hold the bait steady in current. Depending on which rod he’s rigging and the amount of flow in the river, he will use between 1 1/2 and 4 ounces of weight. He likes his outside rigs to be heavier since they will be cast farthest from the boat in the heaviest current. Lines directly behind the boat will have a lighter sinker; this staggering of weights helps keep all seven lines separate and untangled.

The circle hooks are a key to catching and releasing big cats because they usually set themselves and rarely result in gut-hooked fish.

“I can just put it in the rod holder and let the circle hooks do the work,” he said. “They usually always hook’em in the side of the mouth, and you seem to have a good hookup ratio with’em.”

David uses 7/0 to 10/0 hooks, which he buys online because their size sometimes makes them difficult to find at local retailers. He suggested searching www.catfishconnection for super-sized hooks and equipment.

The hugeness of the quarry really sinks in when you see the bait. Sometimes an entire bream is used. Other times it’s just the head or a fillet stripped from the side. David likes to cut off the fins and tail to make it as easy as possible for a cat to get the bait into its mouth. Instead of reusing baits, he’ll cut fresh fish at each hole to get maximum scent in the water.

Once the lines are baited and cast, the best part about catfishing begins: kicking back on deck and watching the rod tips for wiggles.

“This is my escape from the world,” David said. “I just like being out here. Catching fish is a bonus.”

But the fish didn’t give us much time to rest. That first flathead bit with only two rods in the water. Thirty minutes later David reeled in the second fish, a fat 16-lb. blue. Using such heavy tackle takes a lot of the fight out of anything less than 30 pounds, making a good 20-lb. fish seem tiny. By the end of the day I was even using words like “small” and “nothing great” to describe 15- and 20-lb. fish. I guess it’s easy to get spoiled on the Tennessee.

We caught a total of nine fish, each weighing between 9 and 20 pounds. There were no trophy-class monsters dragged onboard, but not because they weren’t there. In fact, David is convinced the largest fish is yet to be caught in the Tennessee.

“I know for a fact that there’s been 100-pounders caught out of there,” he said. “There’s definitely a possibility of a state- or even a world-record blue coming from up there.”

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