Nickajack Reservoir Fishing
Nickajack Reservoir is a mainstem impoundment of the Tennessee River that was impounded in 1967. At full summer pool, it covers an area of 10,370 acres while claiming 192 miles of shoreline. The operating authority for Nickajack Reservoir is the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).
Nickajack is located in the southeastern area of TN where a major portion of it is bordered by the city of Chattanooga. Nickajack Dam is located in New Hope, TN. The upper two-thirds of Nickajack is mostly riverine with continuing sections of rip rap lining both sides. The lower end of the reservoir has more coves and lazy water, making it more conducive to black bass and crappie fishing.
Better habitat variety for gamefish (ex. laydowns, stumps, bluffs, aquatic vegetation, rip rap) also exists on the lower end of the reservoir.
- Largemouth/Smallmouth 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: From ChickamaugaDam downstream to the mouth of South Chickamauga Creek, 15 per day, no length limit.Rest of reservoir: 5 per day, 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.
Historically, Nickajack Reservoir has seen high catch rates for largemouth bass (LMB) when compared to other Tennessee reservoirs. A variety of suitable habitat (rocky shoreline, humps, woody debris) and sustained aquatic vegetation, most notably on the lower end of the reservoir, have provided an environment favorable to LMB as well as other fish species. Although slight concerns exist regarding consistent spawning success, good fishing opportunities for LMB are expected in Nickajack at this time. Currently there is a daily creel limit of 5 with a 15-inch minimum size limit (MLL) for LMB at Nickajack Reservoir; this is also the statewide regulation for LMB. Largemouth bass spawn over several weeks in the spring (March-May) when water temperatures are in the 68-72-degree range.
In 2015 a Florida largemouth bass (FLMB) stocking program was launched in Nickajack Reservoir by TWRA. There were three main stocking sites (Sullivan’s Bend, Rankin Cove-Marion Co. Park, and Nickajack Cave embayment) selected and annual stockings of FLMB fingerlings will be repeated for the next several years at these locations. Vegetation and other favorable bass habitat were present at these stocking locations. Ongoing data surveys (i.e. electrofishing, genetics, bass tournaments and creel) will be monitored during this project to evaluate its success.
Target Areas and Techniques (Largemouth Bass)
Nickajack Reservoir provides anglers with the opportunity to target largemouth bass year round. Fish can be caught in a variety of areas and habitats. During the spring, largemouth bass can be located in shallow water along grassy banks, riprap banks, and islands. A variety of baits, including crankbaits, spinnerbaits, jigs, and soft plastics, will catch bass this time of year. As spring transitions to summer many largemouth bass will be moving out to points or flats with grass along the main river channel. During the summer fish can be found in ditches leading to the backs of coves, as well as roadbeds, grass flats, and shallow bars. Nighttime fishing around shallow cover can also be highly productive in the summer. Popular baits include topwater baits, plastic worms, and Carolina rigs. During the fall, bass can be caught on grass flats along the river channel. Fish Texas rigged creature/craw type soft plastics in the grass and reaction baits, such as lipless crankbaits, along the edge of the grass. Later in the fall and through the winter many anglers catch all species of black bass while drifting shiners or shad below Chickamauga Dam.
Near the headwaters (Chickamauga tailwaters) of Nickajack Reservoir, several smallmouth bass are caught by anglers, with some being trophy status. Smallmouth bass are also observed during TWRA’s targeted electrofishing surveys there. This riverine environment, coupled with rocky habitat and ample amounts of forage, consistently provides good smallmouth bass angling opportunities year round. Smallmouth bass spawn in early spring when water temperatures are in the 59-60-degree range and they prefer gravel bottoms during this event.
Target Areas and Techniques (Smallmouth Bass)
Anglers have the opportunity to catch quality smallmouth bass at Nickajack Reservoir. The tailwater below Chickamauga Dam produces smallmouth action all year long, and many anglers take advantage of this unique fishery. Many anglers find success drifting shiners and shad with a weight and hook. While live bait will likely outperform artificial bait options, anglers can catch fish using a variety of crankbaits, spinnerbaits, and jigs. Rocky and riprap banks throughout the reservoir, especially toward the upper end, are great areas to try.
According to the TWRA bi-annual electrofishing surveys on Nickajack Reservoir, spotted bass numbers have declined over the past ten years of surveys, especially on the lower end of the reservoir. This is also true for other reservoirs on the TN River within Region 3. Electrofishing surveys at the Nickajack headwater area give evidence that a fair presence of spotted bass still exists there. However, the invasive Alabama bass genes have shown up in “spotted bass” tested in this area. 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 should concentrate on the upper section of the reservoir for increased success. Currently there is a more liberal creel limit of 15 spotted bass/day and no MLL in a specified area on the upper end of Nickajack Reservoir (Chickamauga Dam downstream to the mouth of South Chickamauga Creek) as compared to most regional and statewide regulations. 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 live bait and artificial lure options. Spotted bass can be caught from early spring through late winter while drifting shiners or shad below Chickamauga 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.
Crappie (Black and White)
A consistent crappie population exists in Nickajack Reservoir. The most suitable habitat for crappie is found within the lower end of the reservoir where the water is more sluggish and woodier habitat can be found, versus the more riverine characteristics of the upper end of Nickajack. Fair to good fishing for crappie is expected annually at Nickajack. Angler surveys (creel) conducted in the past at Nickajack showed that catch rates for crappie were above average when compared to other notable crappie reservoirs in Tennessee. The peak spawning time for crappie occurs when water temps are in the 60’s (typically in late March to early May).
Target Areas and Techniques (Crappie)
As water temperatures warm in the spring, crappie begin to move shallow and fishing heats up. This begins in late March but isn’t in full effect until April. During the pre-spawn, anglers can find crappie in the lakes and coves adjacent to the main river. These include Browns Lake, Bennett Lake, Marion Park, and Mullens Cove. Use jigs and minnows over the grass and around stumps and woody debris. As spring turns to summer focus on bridges leading into coves or sloughs (e.g., Cave Slough bridge), ditches, roadbeds, and deeper structure. Minnows are commonly used this time of year. Fishing under lights at night is also effective during the summer. In the fall and winter, trolling and vertically jigging minnows or tube jigs along grass edges works great. Rocky protrusions on the river that create eddies or back currents are also great places to target crappie. The lock side of Chickamauga Dam is also a great spot that will produce crappie year round.
The redear sunfish population in Nickajack continues to provide great opportunities for anglers reservoir wide. Past electrofishing surveys showed a good population of redear sunfish distributed from the 4-to-10-inch range, with the bulk of the redear population typically in the 7-to 9-inch length distributions. Several areas of suitable spawning habitat and desired food coexist in the reservoir, which typically yields consistent year classes of redear sunfish.
There is an excellent population of bluegill in Nickajack Reservoir. Angler pursuit and success for bluegill at Nickajack are expected to remain consistent due to favorable populations of these fish. Multiple areas of bluegill habitat exist throughout Nickajack Reservoir. Bluegill are highly regarded as a fish for consumption by Nickajack anglers. 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.
Target Areas and Techniques (Bluegill & Redear)
Bluegill and redear sunfish (shellcrackers) will begin to move shallow to spawn in April through the first part of June. Natural baits such as worms and crickets work great. Artificial baits such as small jigs can be equally effective. Any of these baits can be used with or without a float. If the depth at which the bait is presented needs adjustment, a float is a great option. During the spawn, concentrate efforts around shallow areas, bridges, gradual sloping rocky banks, and grassy areas in coves or sloughs. Look for signs of panfish bedding areas. You will see groups of round depressions on the lake bottom with gravel or shell lining the bottoms. These are some of the best areas to target during the spawning season. As spring transitions to summer, focus on rock/riprap banks along the river channel, deep secondary areas, and marinas. In the fall and winter, bluegill and redear sunfish can be caught below the Chickamauga Dam and along the bottom in the coves and sloughs. Split shot or slip sinker rigs with small hooks and worms work great when targeting panfish this time of year. Remember to use smaller line (4-8 Ib. test line) and hooks (#10 or #12) when targeting panfish.
Sauger are not currently stocked in Nickajack Reservoir nor have they been in many years. However, sauger are native to the TN River and do exist in Nickajack. Sauger also migrate via dam passage between reservoirs that have been stocked in the past. Neighboring Chickamauga Reservoir (upstream) has received sauger stockings in the past, but was switched to the sauger’s cousin, walleye, in 2014. The lack of consistent success with spawning sauger in hatchery systems is the biggest obstacle to providing Nickajack as well as other viable reservoirs with annual stockings of sauger. A yearlong roving creel survey was conducted on Nickajack in 2017 and no sauger were recorded in any of the interviews conducted. Due to the proven necessity of stocking sauger for sustaining sauger populations, fishing success for sauger in Nickajack Reservoir will be limited and dependent upon natural spawning success. Reports of walleye catches are becoming more common on the upper reaches of Nickajack, most likely influenced by walleye stockings in neighboring Chickamauga Reservoir which lies directly upstream.
Target Areas and Techniques (Sauger)
Walleye and Sauger aren’t commonly caught on Nickajack Reservoir; most are caught in the tailwater below Chickamauga Dam. Late winter through early spring is the best time to target these species. Fishing vertically or drifting with bright colored jigs and minnows are good techniques to use. Trolling or casting crankbaits is another great option.
Nickajack boasts great opportunities for catfishing due to the river-type environment and ample supplies of forage bases like shad. Fishing reports from angler surveys offer great evaluations of the catfish fishery at Nickajack Reservoir and are consistent with the realized success of this fishery by catfish anglers. Several guides and anglers can be observed in pursuit of catfish on Nickajack Reservoir, typically utilizing the current in the main river channel. Blue, channel, and flathead catfish all call Nickajack Reservoir home. As with other Tennessee reservoirs in this region of the state, fishing success for catfish and angler pursuit is expected to remain favorable. The headwaters of Nickajack Reservoir are typically very productive for catfishing. Peak catfish spawning time occurs in June.
Target Areas and Techniques (Catfish)
Nickajack Reservoir supports some great catfish fisheries. Anglers can catch large numbers of fish as well as trophy fish. Anglers typically have the most success fishing with meaty baits such as shad, bluegill, shrimp, and chicken parts. During the spring months drift these types of baits in the main river channel. This can be done anywhere on the reservoir, but current usually creates better fishing conditions. Around late May to early June the catfish move shallow to spawn. This is a great time to target shallow rocky banks and should produce great bank fishing action. During the summer catfish can still be found while drifting meaty baits in the main river, but there is more success fishing below Chickamauga Dam. These same areas and techniques continue to produce throughout the fall and winter.
Nickajack 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 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 Nickajack Reservoir. Anglers find success pursuing white bass in the spring while targeting banks below Chickamauga Dam, North Chickamauga Creek, and South Chickamauga Creek. Crankbaits, small swimbaits, jigs, and drifting live bait are all effective techniques. The upper end of the reservoir including the tailwater below Chickamauga 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.
A striped bass fishery exists in Nickajack Reservoir even though they are not stocked there. Migration of striped bass through dams from reservoirs that have striped bass stocking programs (i.e. Chickamauga and Watts Bar Reservoirs upstream) may explain this. There is also the possibility that a limited amount of natural reproduction may occur during years with appropriate river flow within Nickajack’s long riverine system, which striped bass need for successful spawning. Ample forage bases of shad (gizzard and threadfin) and skipjack herring, especially in the headwater section of Nickajack, help nourish and sustain striped bass present there. Success regarding angling for striped bass is expected at Nickajack Reservoir but likely will not be as productive as stocked reservoirs. A year-long creel survey conducted in 2017 showed a catch rate of 0.78 striped bass/hour by anglers.
Target Areas and Techniques (Striped Bass)
Anglers who pursue striped bass typically have the most success fishing the upper ends of Nickajack Reservoir. The tailwater below Chickamauga Dam is a great area for anglers to target striped bass year-round. A variety of artificial lures and live bait options will catch fish. Tennessee rigs, crankbaits, and jigs are great options. Many anglers also find success drifting or trolling live shad with planer boards below Chickamauga Dam and in the river channel downstream from the dam.