Duck River in Tennessee

General Description 

The Duck River flows 284 miles from east to west across middle Tennessee making it the longest river located entirely in the state.  It is deemed the most biologically diverse river in North America with over 50 species of freshwater mussels and 151 fish species.  High productivity lends itself to exceptional fisheries.

Be sure to secure permission to wade if you are on private land while fishing the Duck River.  In Tennessee, you are trespassing if you’re on the bank or bottom, but legal if you are floating.  If you don’t have access to private land, check out the 30 public access sites available for use along the Duck River with no fees.  Locations and descriptions of these sites are listed on the TWRA website in the Boat Access section (link).  They range from concrete boat ramps to canoe/kayak accesses to bank fishing opportunities.

Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park and Henry Horton State Park provide miles of both bank and boat fishing access to the Duck River.  Henry Horton State Park provides lodging, a restaurant, and skeet/trap shooting opportunities as well (TDEC state park link).

Summer is a great time of year to fish the river and cool off.   The Duck River offers anglers excellent fishing for Smallmouth Bass, Spotted Bass, Rock Bass, Channel Catfish, Rainbow Trout, and an array of panfish.  While most fishermen are hitting the lake or tailwater, there is a good chance you will have the river to yourself.  So, grab an old pair of tennis shoes or your wading boots and wade on in. 

What you can catch

Fish Species

Largemouth, Smallmouth, and Spotted Bass are abundant throughout the Duck River providing excellent fishing opportunities.  Rock Bass are more abundant in the swifter, rockier upper half of the Duck River upstream of Columbia.  Electrofishing samples are indicative of healthy populations with a good chance at catching quality fish and good numbers of each of these species.  Monitoring over the years has detected Smallmouth Bass up to 20” with most fish in the 10-14” range; however, anglers often report catches over 20”.   Spotted Bass are abundant but are typically less than 10” long.   We have seen fish of all size classes suggesting strong annual recruitment and good fishing for years to come.  The creel limit for Largemouth, Smallmouth and Spotted Bass is 5 per day in combination with no length restrictions.  The creel limit for Rock Bass is 20 per day with no length restrictions.

Several rivers across Middle Tennessee can provide anglers with excellent catfishing.  However, the Duck River provides probably the best opportunities to all stripes of catfishermen.  TWRA fisheries biologists sample river catfish by electrofishing to keep tabs on the populations.  Across several middle Tennessee streams, biologists observed about 29 channel catfish/hour at an average length of 13 inches.  The channel catfish looked great throughout middle Tennessee, but the Duck River was a certain stand out.  The Duck needs to be split into four major sections to account for changes in river characteristics from the underlying geology and the addition of tributaries regarding catfish abundance and size structure.  Only one catfish greater than 34 inches in length may be harvested per day with no creel limit for catfish 34 inches and less.

A favorite bass fishing spot is the upper section of the Duck River that cascades through Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park.  Old Stone Fort State Archaeological Park, located in Manchester, TN, is a prehistoric Native American structure bordered by the Duck and Little Duck Rivers.  The Duck River forms the northwestern boundary and the Little Duck River forms the southeastern boundary.  As the Duck and Little Duck Rivers approach their convergence, they drop rapidly in elevation and have cut relatively deep gorges around the peninsula upon which the ancient structure is located.  Both gorges are highlighted by a series of substantial waterfalls with deep, limestone pools and repeats of runs and short pools that are great for fishing.

Big Falls is a great place to start.  It is approximately 30 feet high and has a deep, rocky pool at the bottom.  This pool has always been home to large Smallmouth Bass weighing up to 4 pounds and possibly even bigger.  Several methods are productive but live bait seems to produce the biggest fish.  You can stand carefully at the bottom of the falls and vertically jig a live stoneroller in the currents that swirl along the bank.  While Smallmouth Bass are often the main target, Largemouth, Spotted and Rock bass are also abundant.  A dip net comes in handy for the big ones.

The limestone runs just upstream of Big Falls are good places to catch either Stonerollers or crayfish for bait.  A small diameter, 1/4 inch mesh, cast net is the method of choice to catch Stonerollers and crayfish can be caught by hand or with a small dip net.  A floating bait bucket works well for the transport of either.

The state park portion of the Duck River downstream of Big Falls is also a very productive series of runs and short pools.  Live Stonerollers or crayfish on a number 1 hook and drifted in the currents work very well for black bass and Rock Bass.  Walking and casting upstream seems to be the best approach as the bait is presented as downstream drift which appears most natural.

Artificial lures can also be productive.  Some favorites include small crayfish-style crankbaits that will be viciously attacked by all types and sizes of fish.   Another great tactic for medium to larger fish is to wacky-rig a finesse worm or Senko along boulders or current breaks.  It is important to note that Normandy Reservoir is only about 5 miles downstream and is renowned for huge but hard-to-fool bass.

Fish to at least the confluence of the Duck and Little Duck Rivers and the adjoining pool immediately downstream.  This section of the upper Duck River is wadable with either hip waders or preferably a pair of wading shoes on a warm day.  The Little Duck River is shallower but does provide good catches of rock bass.

Continuing downstream below Normandy Reservoir, the Normandy tailwater section of the Duck River from the dam downstream to Three Forks Bridge is stocked annually with Rainbow Trout from November through June.  Water temperatures usually warm above the 70 °F mark during the remaining months exceeding the upper limit for trout survival.  The stretch from Normandy Dam to the second downstream bridge near the Town of Normandy provides a good float trip in a canoe or kayak.  Trout are caught drifting live bait such as nightcrawlers or small, round, scented Power Baits.  Spin fishermen commonly cast small spinners such as Rooster Tails.  Fly fishing is also a popular method with wooly buggers a common thread.  The creel limit is 7 trout per day with no size restriction.

The Duck River from Normandy Dam downstream to Hall’s Mill continues to be swift and rocky providing great bass fishing opportunities, particularly for Smallmouth Bass and Rock Bass.  The stretch from Three Forks Bridge access downstream to the State Highway 41A bridge near Shelbyville provides a nice fishing float in a canoe or kayak, and Rock Bass are abundant.  Live crayfish fished on a number 1 hook with either no weight or a very small split shot is very effective around large rocks and undercut banks.  Small artificial crayfish lures or spinners work too.  If you’re fly fishing, tie on a natural-colored wooly bugger or a bead-headed hellgrammite nymph and target pockets just like you would for trout.  This swift and rocky stretch tends not to be ideal for catfish.  Electrofishing surveys recorded only 2.5 catfish/hour and the average size was 12.0”.  The habitat is more suited towards smallmouth bass, rock bass, stocked rainbow trout in the winter, and the occasional walleye. 

By the time the Duck River has reached Henry Horton State Park, it has increased in size.  Longer, slower pools are prevalent.  Soft plastics like the finesse worm or Senko can be worked slowly through these deeper pools for Largemouth and Spotted Bass.  A medium-sized, wooden Jitterbug that when retrieved with a gurgle through the slower pools when the sun is low during mid-summer produces some very nice largemouth bass up to 6 pounds.

Catfishing certainly picks up downstream of Henry Horton.  The catfish abundance in this stretch is close to average (25.6 catfish/hour), but fish size is excellent.  The average length was 18” and electrofishing data recorded lots of fish over 20” that weigh 2 to 4 pounds.  In the summer, fish undercut banks in shallow swift water that is high in oxygen.  However, in the cooler months, catfish can be anywhere but try drifting meaty baits at the transition from swift water to pool.  There are lots of hungry catfish in the Duck, if you do not get a bite within 20 minutes, try another spot. 

This middle stretch of the Duck River includes Milltown, Leftwich, Iron Bridge, Yanahli, and downstream to the Columbia Dam.  The availability of many public access sites in this stretch provides lots of float fishing opportunities.  Private canoe liveries with canoe/kayak rentals are also available.  

Columbia downstream to Centerville is also a very good area to fish.  Riverwalk Park in Columbia is the most downstream impoundment on the Duck River and fish have a straight shot to the Tennessee River.  Public access is limited in this stretch but worth the effort if you can get a jet boat near Littlelot or Williamsport.  The Duck River has started to slow down and spread out with large gravel bars and sluggish pools a common feature.  The abundance of catfish in this area is close to the highest in middle Tennessee and almost double the average at 53.2 catfish/hour.  While the number of large fish is lower than the previous stretch, there is still a good chance of landing a few catfish over 20”. The Average length was 13”.  Although they do not frequently show up in our samples, the large deep pools adjacent to bluff walls are known to hold big blue catfish which prefer fresh dead shad or large pieces of skipjack herring.  If you are looking to balance numbers and size, this stretch of the Duck River is among the best for catfish in middle Tennessee.

Finally, the most downstream stretch of the Duck is from Centerville to the mouth.  Swan Creek and the Piney River dump into the Duck a few miles apart and afterward, the habitat is dominated by large pools, snags and trees, sand bars, and long wide shoals.  Public access is again sparse this far downstream, but those with a jet drive motor can find some spots that are rarely fished with some trophy Smallmouth Bass.  Our samples do not observe many Channel Catfish over 17” and the average size is 13”.  Abundance is above average at 38.8 catfish/hour.  Be sure to bring heavy tackle and drift live bait near tree tops and chunk rock to hook into large flathead catfish that are common in these parts

For bass, drift weightless soft-plastic crayfish through the swift riffles and keep your line tight to feel for the bite.  Fish deeper diving lures in deep pools with woody debris or directly below a riffle —if you don’t have a bite after 15 minutes, move to another spot.  Free-lining live baitfish, such as Stone rollers, in swift water eddies or on the backside of riffles is another great way to catch big smallmouth.

If you want to stay more local or have already experienced the Duck River, other rivers in middle Tennessee can be very productive.  Anglers in northern middle Tennessee can try these methods for catfish in the Red River from Port Royal to Clarksville. Nashville anglers should look at the Harpeth River around the Narrows.  Those in southern Middle Tennessee wanting to fish the Elk River for catfish and bass should focus on the stretch from Harms Mill to the state line.

Fishing Regulations
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Duck River Map