Center Hill Reservoir in Tennessee
Center Hill Reservoir was created in 1948 by the completion of Center Hill Dam on the Caney Fork River. The United States Army Corps of Engineers is the operating authority of Center Hill Reservoir.
This reservoir lies within Dekalb, Putnam, Warren, and White counties in Tennessee and incorporates 18,220 surface acres of water. Towns near Center Hill Reservoir include McMinnville, Smithville, and Cookeville.
Center Hill Reservoir is characterized by rocky shorelines surrounded by steep ridges that display the beauty of this reservoir. Center Hill Reservoir is home to several gamefish such as black bass, crappie, walleye, bluegill, and catfish.
- Largemouth/Smallmouth/Spotted Bass: 5 per day in combination.
- Largemouth Bass: 15 inch minimum length limit.
- Smallmouth Bass: 18 inch minimum length limit.
- Spotted Bass: no length limit.
- Crappie (all species): 15 per day in combination, 10 inch minimum length limit
- Catfish (all species): No creel limit for fish 34 inches and less in length; only one fish over 34 inches in length may be harvested per day.
- White Bass: 15 per day, no length limit.
- Yellow Bass: no creel or length limit.
- Walleye: 5 per day, 16 inch minimum length limit.
- Muskellunge: 1 per day, 50 inch minimum length limit.
- Paddlefish: reservoir and its tributaries are closed to taking or possessing paddlefish
- Rock Bass: 20 per day, no length limit.
- Redear Sunfish: 20 per day, no length limit.
- Bluegill/Warmouth and other sunfishes: no creel or length limit.
January 1–April 30: On the Caney Fork River from Rock Island State Park boat ramp upstream to Great Falls Dam, anglers are restricted to the use of one hook having a single point, or one lure with a single hook with one point. No more than three rods and reels or poles per angler may be used.
The largemouth bass fishery should continue to provide good fishing opportunities based on trends in electrofishing data surveys conducted biannually in the spring by TWRA. According to annual roving creel surveys, angling pressure for black bass (largemouth, smallmouth, and spotted bass) has remained consistent over the past several years. Spawning success for largemouth bass has been low overall as compared to years past. However, this could be due in large part to an extended, multi-year drawdown of Center Hill Reservoir to facilitate work on the dam, which has left historic spawning grounds high and dry. Center Hill Reservoir is expected to resume full summer pool capacity in 2021, which will hopefully promote great spawning success due to all the available habitats. Largemouth bass spawn when water temps are in the 68 to 72-degree range.
Target Areas and Techniques (Largemouth Bass)
Fishing opportunities for largemouth bass exist year-round. Anglers are active in the pursuit of largemouth bass in the spring when water temperatures approach the 60’s. Largemouth bass is typically caught using artificial lures such as spinnerbaits, jerk baits, crankbaits, jigs, and worms. Artificial baits will vary from season to season. Natural baits such as bluegill and shad are attractive baits for largemouth bass as well. When largemouth bass is spawning, anglers will use jerk baits, spinnerbaits, or finessing soft plastics while fishing in shallow waters within main creeks (ex. Mine Lick Creek and similar areas). After the spawn, concentrate around the standing structure while using top-water lures and soft plastics. Once the water warms up to the ’80s, most anglers change to night fishing which will last through August. Spinnerbaits, jigs, and soft plastics in 10 to 20 feet of water work great. Once the water cools down in late fall, bass will begin to follow schools of shad to forage on. Thanksgiving seems always to be a good time to start jigging spoons under those schools of shad to catch some good bass.
Smallmouth bass fishing is expected to be favorable for the current and upcoming fishing seasons at Center Hill Reservoir. Center Hill hosts great SMB habitat with miles of rocky shoreline, points, and bluff areas. This is similar habitat to famed smallmouth bass capital Dale Hollow in several regards. Current TWRA spring electrofishing surveys have revealed smallmouth bass numbers that are above average in density. These data collections also show that smallmouth bass at Center Hill has had several years of good spawning success which should ensure several years of great fishing opportunities. Smallmouth bass spawn at water temperatures in the 59 to 60-degree range.
Target Areas and Techniques (Smallmouth Bass)
Beginning in early spring, before and during the peak spawning period, concentrate on fishing points with A-rigs, jerk baits, crankbaits, and slow-rolling spinnerbaits in 5 to 15 feet of water. After the spawn as the water temps reach the 70’s, focus on points next to deep drop-offs near the main channel while slow-rolling spinnerbaits. Once the water temps reach the 80’s, most fishermen will turn to night fishing while using spinnerbaits, jigs, and soft plastics in 5 to 10 feet of water. There is also an early bite, just as the sun is coming up, on topwater baits near cover. During the dog days of summer, nighttime fishing is still the optimal time to fish. Concentrate on deeper water in 15 to 25 feet of water while using jigs and soft plastics. Once fall begins to cool the water temperature down smallmouth will begin to move back into shallower water, so focus on long tapering points near the dam while using crankbaits and Zara spooks. As shad begin school in late fall, smallmouth can be caught jigging spoons and Zara spooks near the schools of shad in creeks near the dam. During the wintertime, smallmouth bass can be caught on float-n-fly and tail spinners on the main lake in 15 to 25 feet of water.
Because Center Hill Reservoir has consistently maintained a good population of spotted bass, anglers in pursuit thereof will find ample opportunity for angling success. Optimum spotted bass habitat (i.e. rocky banks, points, bluffs, etc.) is available at Center Hill. Spotted bass spawn when water temperatures are in the 63 to 68-degree range. For many years, Center Hill Reservoir was the host of the state record spotted bass of 5lb 8oz (this record is currently held by a 6lb 1oz spotted bass caught in Chickamauga Reservoir). The catch rates for spotted bass at Center Hill are currently below average according to TWRA spring electrofishing surveys. The past 5 years of data also tell of possible declines in reproduction for the spotted bass at Center Hill. This could turn around in 2021 as this reservoir resumes normal pool levels after years of a drawdown to accomplish repairs on Center Hill Dam.
Target Areas and Techniques (Spotted Bass)
Early spring is a great time to fish for spotted bass at Center Hill. Spotted bass can be caught while fishing jerk baits, spinnerbaits, soft plastics such as floating worms. Spotted bass like the same types of structure as smallmouth bass, so many fishermen will catch spotted bass while smallmouth fishing. The structure will produce lots of bass in late spring. As the water temperatures begin to warm, slow-rolling spinnerbaits are a good choice in 20 to 30 feet of water. Topwater baits will also work around deep structures. During the summertime, focus on the nighttime bite. Again, focus on spinnerbaits, topwater buzzbaits or topwater jerkbaits. Once water temperatures begin to cool down to the ’60s, focus on schools of shad which spotted bass will be utilizing for forage. Thanksgiving seems to be a great time to jig spoons under those schools of shad in creeks on the lower end of the lake. During the wintertime, jigs and finesse worms work best while concentrating on channel banks in 10 to 25 feet of water.
Crappie (Black and White)
White crappie makes up a small percentage of the overall crappie population in Center Hill Reservoir and is more oriented towards the upper end of the reservoir. Black crappie (including “black nose” crappie) represent most of the crappie present in Center Hill Reservoir. Blacknose crappie is simply black crappie with a black genetic mark on their forehead. Anglers pursuing crappie should expect to find good numbers at Center Hill thanks to an annual stocking program of black and black nose crappie (BNC) fingerlings by TWRA. Low reproductive success occurring on an annual basis led to the initiation of a “black nose” crappie stocking program here in 1990, the first crappie project of its kind in the state of Tennessee. Angler catch rates for crappie at Center Hill are above average when compared to past years there. The average weight of black crappie harvested in recent annual roving creel surveys was nearly one pound. Preferred crappie spawning temps are as follows: black crappie at 62° - 68°, white crappie at 60° - 65°.
Target Areas and Techniques (Crappie)
Crappie is best caught in the spring (March – April) by concentrating on fallen trees in 10 to 15 feet of water while using crappie jigs or minnows. Normally if you can catch one around these treetops, you can catch several. As the water temperatures rise into the 70’s, crappie will move to deeper water, so focus on tight line minnows in 20 to 30 feet of water near structures. During the summertime, crappie fishing is slow, but anglers still find success. One method used to catch crappie in the summertime is by fishing “under the lights”. Fishermen will put a waterproof light in the water next to the boat to attract minnows which in turn attract the crappie. Baits of choice for this scenario are minnows and jigs fished vertically directly under the lights. October is a good time to pursue crappie when they move back to shallow water near structures in patterns that were good during the springtime. Focus in 15 to 25 feet of water on minnows and jigs. In the wintertime, crappie fishing is still good while fishing in 5 to 15 feet of water in major creeks or under boat docks using jigs or minnows.
Angler catch rates for bluegill are near the current ten-year average at Center Hill. Good bluegill fishing should be anticipated for panfish anglers at Center Hill reservoir. Center Hill has ample bluegill habitat to sustain a fishery here. Bluegill spawns when water temperatures are in the 70 to 75-degree range.
Target Areas and Techniques (Bluegill)
May is an excellent time to fish for bluegill. Concentrate on gravel pockets in 5 feet of water while fishing natural baits such as crickets, mealworms, and catawba worms. The same will hold true throughout the summer months in 20 to 25 feet of water. Fall fishing is harder but bluegill can still be caught in deep water.
Center Hill Reservoir is a great place to pursue walleye thanks to the preferred walleye habitat and an annual stocking program of walleye fingerlings into Center Hill Reservoir by TWRA. A major spawning run by walleye takes place in mid-March on the upper end of the reservoir in the Blue Hole area of the Caney Fork River near Rock Island State Park. Walleye spawn when water temperatures are in the 45 to 50-degree range. Because of the annual TWRA walleye stocking program, walleye anglers should anticipate stable, good fishing for walleye at Center Hill. The average weight for harvested walleye at Center Hill based on recent annual roving angler surveys was 2.75 lbs. Walleye also utilize numerous sections of Center Hill Reservoir throughout the year and great angling experiences can be realized while fishing many different places with varying methods.
Target Areas and Techniques (Walleye)
March is one of the best times to fish for walleye as they begin making their spawning run upstream in the Caney Fork River. The Blue Hole section near Rock Island State Park is a great place to fish for walleye during this time using jigs and minnows. Please refer to the fishing guide for special regulations from Rock Island State Park boat ramp upstream to Great Falls Dam from January 1 through April 30. After spawning, walleye will begin to move back downriver to deeper, cooler water. Focus on trolling deep-water structures such as points, humps, or ledges while using jigs with minnows or deep-running crankbaits. During the hot summer months, concentrate fishing in 20 to 30 feet of water while trolling nightcrawlers or jigging spoons. While angling for walleye during the fall and wintertime, fishermen concentrate on downrigging stickbaits in 20 to 30 feet of water from mid-reservoir down to the dam.
Catch rates for catfish at Center Hill are stable based on 10-year averages from roving angler surveys. Center Hill Reservoir is not known as a top destination for catfish angling when compared to other reservoirs in Region 3, especially regarding Tennessee River impoundments. Both channel and flathead catfish are reported from those fishing for catfish at Center Hill. The average weight for channel catfish recorded by creel in 2019 was 4.11 pounds. Catfish typically spawn when water temperatures are in the 75 to 80-degree range.
Target Areas and Techniques (Catfish)
April through June is the best time to fish for catfish on Center Hill. Most fishermen are fishing for catfish while using noodles baited with cut bluegill, shad, or raw chicken livers. Some fishermen will also use trotlines to catch deeper catfish when water temps get warmer during the time frame mentioned above.
There are a few reports of muskie from Center Hill each year. Most incidents occur in the upper tributary section of the Caney Fork River near Rock Island State Park. They typically spawn when water temperatures are in the 49 to 50-degree range. They are not afraid to be in waters adjacent to strong currents as well as sluggish waters around a large structure.
Target Areas and Techniques (Muskellunge)
Fishermen often target muskie in early spring while fishing big lures and big baitfish. Some incidental muskie are caught by anglers fishing for walleye in the area near Rock Island State Park in February and March.