Chickamauga Reservoir Fishing in Tennessee
Chickamauga Reservoir was created in 1940 when the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) impounded a section of the Tennessee River. Chickamauga is a 36,200-acre reservoir with 810 miles of shoreline.
Chickamauga Reservoir lies within Rhea, Meigs, Bradley, and Polk counties in the south eastern portion of the state. Major cities adjacent to Chickamauga Reservoir include Dayton (mid-reservoir section) and Chattanooga, TN (lower end of reservoir).
The upper half of this reservoir is more riverine while the mid to lower end of the reservoir has more sluggish water with large sloughs and embayments. Chickamauga offers great opportunities for several species of gamefish such as largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, striped bass, bluegill, redear sunfish, walleye, sauger, and catfish. Chickamauga Reservoir offers a variety of habitat types (ex. stumps, laydowns, humps, points, rocky shorelines, aquatic vegetation, etc.) that support these fish species.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) annually stocks several species of fish into Chickamauga including striped bass, walleye, and Florida largemouth bass.
- Largemouth/Smallmouth/Spotted Bass: 5 per day in combination, only 1 may be a smallmouth bass.
- Largemouth Bass: 15 inch minimum length limit.
- Smallmouth Bass: 1 per day, 18 inch minimum length limit.
- Spotted Bass/ Alabama 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.
- Striped Bass or Hybrid Striped Bass: 2 per day in combination, 15 inch minimum length limit.
- White Bass: 15 per day, no length limit.
- Yellow Bass: no creel or length limit.
- Walleye: 5 per day, 16 inch minimum length limit.
- Sauger: 10 per day, 15 inch minimum length limit.
- Paddlefish: 2 per day, season is open from April 24 through May 31. Culling is prohibited.
- 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.
Hiwassee Refuge is closed to all forms of use and trespass from Nov. 15 through the last day of Feb., except the wildlife viewing area. During the refuge closure, public entry and fishing are permitted while on the main river channel passing through the refuge.
Fishing for largemouth bass in Chickamauga Reservoir has been very positive and is expected to continue thanks in part to a TWRA Florida largemouth bass (FLMB) stocking project. Other positive influences affecting the largemouth bass fishery on Chickamauga Reservoir include establishments of aquatic vegetation, ample forage bases, and good natural recruitment because of spawning success. TWRA launched an FLMB stocking project in the year 2000 at Chickamauga Reservoir and well over 3 million FLMB fingerlings have been stocked into Chickamauga since. While the original project goals (15% Florida genes present in the LMB genome) were met and surpassed by the year 2010, genetic testing continues to evaluate the ongoing success of this project. On February 13, 2015, the 1954 Tennessee largemouth bass record of 14.5 lbs. was broken by an early morning catch at Chickamauga Reservoir. The new record largemouth bass, weighing 15 lbs., 3oz., was caught by angler Gabe Keen. The fish was reviewed by the TWRA, Region 3 Reservoir Crew, and certified the following day. Tests were conducted to determine the age and genetic makeup of this fish. These tests confirmed that this record largemouth bass was 12-year-old and an F1 hybrid (Native LMB X FLMB). F1 hybrids, a result of TWRA’s FLMB stocking efforts, have proven to be the fastest-growing largemouth bass within the Chickamauga Reservoir system.
Most recent TWRA spring electrofishing surveys have shown an increase in abundance of largemouth bass > 15 inches, especially during the FLMB stocking project. Creel surveys, conducted by TWRA, have shown that the average size of LMB has more than doubled over the course of the FLMB project. Specifically, the average weight for LMB caught in the year 2000 was 1.42 pounds but that weight currently is consistently over 3 pounds, a direct correlation to the TWRA FLMB stocking project. Hopefully, the positive contributing factors (aquatic vegetation, growth rates, forage availability, etc.) that are currently present in Chickamauga will continue to provide a premier largemouth bass fishery. The current regulation for largemouth bass at Chickamauga is 5 fish/15-inch minimum per day. Largemouth bass spawn over several weeks in the spring (March-May) when water temperatures are in the 68-72-degree range.
Target Areas and Techniques (Largemouth Bass)
Largemouth Bass can be caught year-round using a variety of baits such as spinners, topwater lures, lipless lures, swimbaits, blade baits, crankbaits, and jigs. Largemouth bass tend to be deeper during the winter months but can also be found in shallower water on warmer winter days, especially in stained water which absorbs the sunlight. On these warm days during the winter months, target shallower water in embayments (ex. Chester Frost Park), main channel banks, drops, ledges, and stream banks near the mouths of various tributaries. As warmer weather becomes more consistent in the spring of the year, fish will continue to move toward shallower water away from currents. Fish can be found spawning in shallow water areas near large creeks. Target areas with submerged vegetation or structures for angling success during the post-spawn. During the summer months, largemouth bass can be caught throughout the lake in a variety of habitats. During this time, focus on shallower areas along the shoreline with ample vegetation or in the main channel on ledges, humps, or deep areas with structure. As fall approaches use topwater lures, spinnerbaits, crankbaits, and plastic worms near flat, grassy areas or areas with structure. Aquatic vegetation areas will be at the highest densities at this time. Focus on schools of shad in sloughs and bays to find the bass.
According to the TWRA bi-annual electrofishing surveys on Chickamauga Reservoir, spotted bass numbers have declined over the past ten years, especially on the upper end of the reservoir. This is also true for other reservoirs on the TN River within Region 3. Electrofishing surveys at the Chickamauga headwater area give evidence that at best a limited number of spotted bass still exist there. However, the invasive Alabama bass genes have shown up in “spotted bass” tested in Chickamauga. This is not good news for the smallmouth or spotted bass species, as Alabama bass are known to outcompete and hybridize with these native species. Anglers targeting spotted bass do not have the promise of much success while fishing Chickamauga unless they target the upper reaches and tributaries of the Hiwassee River. Spotted bass spawn when water temperatures are in the 63-68-degree range and prefer gravel substrate.
Target Areas and Techniques (Spotted Bass)
Spotted bass can be caught on a variety of different live bait and artificial lure options. Historically, spotted bass could be caught from early spring through late winter while drifting shiners or shad below Watts Bar Dam. Crankbaits, jerkbaits, and finesse soft plastics that mimic spotted bass forage, such as gizzard and threadfin shad, will also produce in this area. Rocky banks and bars, and shallow islands are other great areas to fish. Many of the same tactics and areas that work for smallmouth bass will be equally effective for spotted bass.
The numbers of smallmouth bass in Chickamauga Reservoir have remained stable or possibly increased within the last several years. The upper headwaters and lower end of Chickamauga Reservoir provide the best smallmouth bass habitat and therefore host the greatest numbers of SMB in this reservoir. Smallmouth bass spawn in early spring when water temperatures are in the 59-60-degree range and they prefer gravel bottoms.
Target Areas and Techniques (Smallmouth Bass)
Smallmouth Bass are often caught using jigs, small worms, trick worms, plastic worms, jerkbaits, and crankbaits. Anglers in search of smallmouth bass should target points and gravel flats when smallmouth bass are spawning during early spring (March-April). Use baits that mimic forage bases such as shad and crayfish. After spawning has concluded, use topwater lures and swimbaits around rocky areas and bluff banks on the river. During hot summer months, anglers typically fish at night while targeting points 15-25 feet deep and areas with vegetation nearby. Live bait will work best during winter months, typically while fishing rocky banks with some current. The headwaters of Chickamauga (below Watts Bar Dam) provide some of the best opportunities to catch smallmouth bass year-round. This area has rocky habitat that smallmouth love as well as ample shad for food.
Crappie (Black and White)
Angling for crappie (both black and white) on Chickamauga Reservoir continues to be very productive. Chickamauga has been ranked nationally by media sources as a top destination for crappie fishing over the past several years. Crappie tournaments frequent Chickamauga as well. Catch rates by anglers are currently above long-term averages according to TWRA angler interviews. Black crappie, as opposed to white crappie, make up most of the total crappie harvest at Chickamauga according to creel surveys. Recent creel surveys recorded an average catch rate of 2.85 crappie/hour with an average weight of 0.76 lbs. for black crappie and 0.80 lbs. for white crappie. Angling pressure for crappie on Chickamauga remains consistent due to the realized success there. Crappie action cranks up in early spring (March-April) coinciding with crappie spawning efforts. White crappie typically spawn when water temperatures are between 60-65 degrees while black crappie spawn a bit later when water temps are in the 62-68-degree range.
Target Areas and Techniques (Crappie)
Crappie can be caught year-round in Chickamauga using various jig types (hair jigs, trolling jigs, jig heads), minnows, crankbaits, and tubes. During the spring, which coincides with spawning, target shallow areas (2-5 feet) with a lot of structure such as submerged trees, laydowns, and stumps. Finding this structure on rocky banks can increase success. Trolling for crappie is very productive in pre- and post-spawn patterns. Trolling efforts should be concentrated on embayments where crappie like to spawn, with a focus on creek channels, humps, etc. Good electronics will help pinpoint schools of crappie for trolling success. Try trolling at varying depths and speeds while using different lure weights to find what the crappie prefers. Additionally, crappie anglers find success using hair jigs or minnows during and after the spawning period while fishing different types of habitat, often using a floater to keep the bait suspended at the preferred depth. In the summer, fall, and winter, anglers should target crappie in secondary slack waters at depths of 8-12 feet. Fish around brush piles, bridges, and docks using jigs or tubes or troll from deeper areas toward shallow water using crankbaits. Docks are very good producers of crappie in summer and fall, especially on bright days due to the shade that docks can provide. Jigs or tubes are great choices for fishing docks. When night fishing during the summer months, use lights to help draw fish in near structures. As the weather begins to cool off, fish in deep water along river bluffs.
Panfish (Bluegill & Redear)
Anglers pursuing “panfish”, such as redear sunfish and bluegill, will find great opportunities at Chickamauga Reservoir. Redear sunfish regulations at Chickamauga are currently a creel limit of 20 redear/day with no minimum length limit (MLL). Bluegill have no creel or MLL restrictions. Bluegill can spawn several times per year with the first spawn typically occurring in the month of May when water temps are in the 70-75-degree range. Because Chickamauga Reservoir has great habitat to support various sunfish species, there are good expectations of sustainability and angling success there. Catch rates for bluegill remain consistent at Chickamauga; however, redear sunfish success is not as good as it has been historically. Full reservoir levels at Chickamauga aren’t realized until May 15. Prior to the implementation of TVA’s Reservoir Operations Study (ROS) plan in 2008, full reservoir levels were achieved by April 15. These one-month delays in achieving summertime pool levels have not allowed redear sunfish to utilize historically preferred spawning sites. Redear sunfish and bluegill will continue to be a target for consumptive and sport anglers at Chickamauga Reservoir and consistent angling opportunities are expected.
Target Areas and Techniques (Panfish – Bluegill & Redear Sunfish)
During the spawning season (late April- May) both bluegill and redear begin to move toward shallower areas, typically less than 5 feet deep. Look for large craters about 1-2 feet in diameter in the back of coves to reveal bluegill and shellcracker beds. Often these beds will be illuminated by the light-colored gravel or shell fragments that line the bottom. Target panfish using natural baits (i.e. various worms and crickets) while using a bobber for the desired depth. Sometimes it can be advantageous to fish on the bottom in bedding areas. Outside of spawning events, fish in depths of 5-10 feet along structures such as brush piles, shell beds, docks, stumps, boat ramps, bridges, and gravel pockets in slough areas. Throughout the winter, fish along rocky creeks or riverbanks. Areas around the Watts Bar nuclear plant offer great opportunities while fishing small jigs, crickets, or worms. Bluegill can also be caught using just a hook and sinker with a split shot for weight while drifting in creek channels. These panfish are great table fare.
Sauger populations can vary considerably due to flow requirements during spawning times and other critical factors affecting spawning success. Sauger often called “Tennessee’s mystery fish”, has been one of the most researched fish species in Tennessee by both TWRA and university studies. Sauger remains one of the most difficult fish to manage for a variety of reasons, many unknown. The state hatcheries have not had consistent success in propagating this fish due to natural hindrances. In the past, there have been annual stockings of sauger fingerlings to help augment the populations in the TN River impoundments in Region 3, including Chickamauga and neighboring reservoirs. Fishing success for sauger can be hard to predict because of all the variables (i.e. weather, water flows, access) affecting this fishery during the winter and pre-spring months when sauger are most vulnerable to angling. This is magnified by the necessity to fish heavy river flows to connect with sauger during peak spawning times (Feb-March). In 2014 there was a shift to stocking walleye instead of sauger in Chickamauga due to hatchery limitations with sauger and the realized benefits of walleye over sauger from an angling perspective (i.e. walleye get bigger, live longer, and offer a more year-round fishery). Sauger densities are expected to remain low overall with the sole dependency on their natural spawning success, which is not consistent.
A walleye stocking project was initiated on Chickamauga Reservoir in 2014 and walleye fingerlings have been stocked annually every year since initiation. These walleye have done well in providing angling opportunities, especially in the headwaters below Watts Bar Dam. A walleye stocking program upstream in Watts Bar Reservoir has no doubt contributed to walleye in the upper reaches of Chickamauga Reservoir due to dam passage of walleye from Watts Bar to Chickamauga. The initial TN River walleye stocking project was instituted at Watts Bar in 2011. Like saugers, walleye are native to the TN River. Confirmed reports of walleye catches at Chickamauga have been on the increase and are expected to continue with current regular annual stockings of walleye. A roving creel survey conducted on Chickamauga Reservoir in 2018 showed that on average, harvested walleye weighed 2.66 lbs. at an average catch rate of 0.46 walleye/hour. Walleye spawning gets cranked up in late February through March as water temperatures reach the 45-50-degree range.
Target Areas and Techniques (Walleye & Sauger)
During the winter months and leading up to early spawning in February, a good technique is to troll crankbaits below Watts Bar Dam and also to bounce heavy jigs (often tipped with a minnow) along the bottom while drifting with the main river current. Another good area to drift fish is around the Eaves Bluff area on the upper end of the reservoir. From fall through early spring, anglers fish along rocky banks using brightly colored, heavy jigs (red, orange, yellow) and minnows along the bottom. From winter’s end through early summer, anglers troll at nighttime below the dam using crankbaits in 10-12 feet of water.
Chickamauga Reservoir continues to be a destination for those anglers in pursuit of catfish, both sport and commercially. Catfish are typically the second or third most sought-after game fish at Chickamauga, and for good reason. There are three species of catfish targeted by anglers at Chickamauga: blue, channel, and flathead catfish. Roving creel surveys are the main source of data used to evaluate this fishery. Catfish spawn in early summer when water temperatures are in the 75-80-degree range, which typically peaks in June. Chickamauga offers a great deal of habitat to support catfish throughout the reservoir and at varying times of the year.
Target Areas and Techniques (Catfish)
As the spawning season begins in June, catfish become more active. Fish along river bends, rocky riverbanks, or near creek mouths using meaty baits (i.e. live or cut fish, raw chicken, or hot dogs), rotten cheese, or chunks of ivory soap. During colder months fish along the main channel of the river. As spring approaches and heavy rains occur, catfish will move up into creeks. Try using alternate methods along creek banks such as limb lines, trotlines, or jug fishing. Be sure to check the current fishing guide for rules and regulations regarding these methods. Fishing the river current along bluffs and in deep river holes while drifting various baits is also very productive most of the year, but especially in the summer. Additionally, there are always collections of catfish in the headwater area of Chickamauga, below Watts Bar Dam. Catfish in this area are feeding heavily on shad and skipjack. The amount of river current will dictate the success of fishing in the river, especially near the dam. Catfish are more active when there is good river flow as they wait for bait to be carried to them.
Chickamauga Reservoir harbors a good forage base and historic spawning areas preferred by white bass. White bass can be observed in large numbers as they make spawning attempts in the upper end of the reservoir as well as tributaries (e.g. Sewee Creek) with favorable flow. White bass spawn when water temps are in the range of 54-68 degrees.
Target Areas and Techniques (White Bass)
The spring season is an exciting time to get out and target white bass. Beginning in March, large numbers of white bass move upstream on their annual spawning run. During this time, they concentrate in headwater areas and creeks of Chickamauga Reservoir. Anglers find success pursuing white bass in the spring while targeting banks below Watts Bar Dam, Sewee Creek, and other small tributaries. Crankbaits, small swimbaits, jigs, and drifting live bait are all effective techniques. The upper end of the reservoir including the tailwater below Watts Bar Dam remains a good area to target white bass for the rest of the year. In the summer, some anglers find success fishing topwater lures and crankbaits for white bass in the reservoir when fish are schooling around shad that are congregated on river structures.
The striped bass fishery in Chickamauga is mainly a tailwater fishery at the headwaters of Chickamauga below Watts Bar Dam. There is also successful fishing for striped bass in the upper reaches of the Hiwassee River, a tributary to Chickamauga Reservoir. Striped bass congregate in the Watts Bar tailwaters (Chickamauga headwaters) during various times of the year, especially in spring and fall. An abundant forage base of gizzard and threadfin shad are some of the biggest reasons for this assemblage. Skipjack herring also represent a preferred forage base at Chickamauga for striped bass, although populations of skipjack are cyclic which makes acquiring them for bait a challenge at times. Good fishing for striped bass is expected to remain consistent in Chickamauga, mainly in the headwaters and upper navigable reaches of the Hiwassee River where striped bass seek out thermal refuges and abundant forage in hot summer months. Striped bass fingerlings are typically stocked into Chickamauga on an annual basis.
Target Areas and Techniques (Striped Bass)
During the colder months fish with shad, swimbaits, spinner-type lures, spoons, jigs, crankbaits, or rooster tails below the dam, in backwater areas, or in river channels. As spring approaches, fish begin to move upstream toward the tailwaters. Target creek flats adjacent to the main channel using jigs or crankbaits. During summer, fish can be found in the tailwaters and in the Hiawassee River where the water is cooler. Target fish using live shad, swimbaits, or jigs. As the weather begins to cool off in the fall, these fish make their way toward the lower end of the reservoir and can be found throughout much of the reservoir seeking out schools of shad. Anglers typically catch fish using topwater and spinner-type lures and spoons during this time.