Watts Bar Reservoir Fishing in Tennessee
Watts Bar Reservoir is a mainstem impoundment on the Tennessee River that was built in 1942 with the completion of Watts Bar Dam at TN River mile 530 in both Rhea and Meigs counties. Watts Bar has a surface area of 39,600 acres and 722 miles of shoreline. During the wintertime, these surface acres are reduced as Watts Bar goes through a drawdown of 5-6 feet.
Watts Bar has several tributaries with some of the more notable being the Clinch River, Emory River, White’s Creek, and Piney Creek. Several cities lie near Watts Bar, such as Spring City, Rockwood, Harriman, Kingston, and Lenoir City. Watts Bar offers great opportunities for a multitude of game fish.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) also stocks several gamefish into Watts Bar on an annual basis, including striped bass, black crappie, walleye, and Florida largemouth bass. Watts Bar offers several different habitat types for multiple fish species, including rocky shorelines and points, stumps, lay downs, aquatic vegetation, and varying types of substrate. Watts Bar Reservoir is a destination for recreation of many types.
Largemouth Bass (LMB)
Largemouth bass in Watts Bar provide consistent opportunities for anglers thanks to varying habitat and forage that are favorable for this species of fish. Recent spring black bass electrofishing surveys conducted by TWRA at Watts Bar have shown higher catch rates than average. Additionally, angler surveys show that the average size bass caught is over 2.5 lbs. Largemouth bass have ample forage in the form of threadfin and gizzard shad. Additionally, LMB can take advantage of the varying habitat types associated with Watts Bar for cover and spawning sites. Currently there is a daily creel limit of 5 and 15-inch minimum size limit (MLL) for LMB at Watts Bar 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 Watts Bar Reservoir. There were three main stocking sites (Piney embayment at Rhea Springs, Big Springs in Meigs Co, and Caney Creek) selected for stocking the FLMB fingerlings. Annual stockings of FLMB will be repeated for the next several years. Ongoing data surveys (i.e. electrofishing, genetics, and creel) will be conducted during this process to evaluate the success of this project.
Target Areas and Techniques (Largemouth Bass)
Anglers can be successful pursuing largemouth bass year-round at Watts Bar. Largemouth bass are pursued heavily by anglers during the spring months (March-May) when they start to move shallow to spawn. During early spring, largemouth bass can be caught on primary and secondary points leading into spawning bays. Artificial baits such as crankbaits, jerkbaits, spinnerbaits, and jigs are great options. Some fish may be spawning toward the end of March, but during the months of April and May the spawn will be at its peak. This is a great time for bank anglers to get out and search for largemouth bass along shallow banks with woody cover, rock, or boat docks. Spawning bass can be caught on a variety of different baits including topwater lures, weightless soft plastic worms, and Texas rigged creature baits. As water temperatures begin to rise into the 80’s during the early summer, fish can be targeted on deep points, breaks near the main river channel, and structure off the bank. Carolina rigged worms, crankbaits, jigs, and flutter spoons are effective baits during this time. As the summer progresses, many anglers find success fishing during the nighttime hours. During the fall, largemouth bass can be targeted in the backs of creeks and embayments where shad concentrations are high. Grassy areas are popular with anglers during the fall. Fishing grass edges with spinnerbaits, buzzbaits, square billed crankbaits, plastic worms, and chatterbaits are effective ways to catch largemouth bass during the fall. As water temperatures drop during the winter, baitfish including shad move out to deeper water on the main river. Largemouth bass follow these prey migrations and can be found schooling around shad on the lower end of the lake. Jigging spoons, A-rigs, and swimbaits are great options. Steep banks with good depth are also productive areas to look for largemouth bass during the winter. It can also be productive to check shallow areas during the early winter months following some warm weather or a warm rain.
Smallmouth Bass (SMB)
Smallmouth bass are surveyed with semi-annual spring electrofishing surveys by TWRA. The smallmouth bass fishery in Watts Bar Reservoir is held in high regard by the fishing public. Since the onset of the 18” minimum size limit, 5 bass/day creel limit on smallmouth bass at Watts Bar several years ago, the population has responded well with observed increases in abundance of SMB up to the 18” minimum length limit (MLL). SMB over 18” are common as well. SMB have great habitat available at Watts Bar as well as ample forage bases of shad and crayfish. Smallmouth bass can be caught throughout Watts Bar Reservoir from the deepest summertime holes to the upper reaches of different tributaries around rocky shoals and substrates. Smallmouth bass typically spawn when water temps are in the 59-60-degree range (March-April), which also signals some of the best opportunities to fish for smallmouth. Currently, there is great concern for the smallmouth bass fishery at Watts Bar because of an invasive species, Alabama bass. Alabama bass presence in Watts Bar has been confirmed by genetic testing, mainly within the White’s Creek embayment at this time. Alabama bass are known to outcompete and hybridize with smallmouth bass, leading to a decrease or eradication of smallmouth bass in shared waters. Alabama bass are expected to expand within Watts Bar and the results will not be favorable to native fish like smallmouth bass. Alabama bass likely gained access to Watts Bar through illegal stockings by the public.
Target Areas and Techniques (Smallmouth Bass)
The mid to lower portions of Watts Bar Reservoir provide the best opportunity to hook up with a smallmouth bass. The tailwater below Ft. Loudoun Dam is another productive area for smallmouth bass. During the spring, anglers find success focusing their efforts on rocky primary points, secondary points, and flats that are adjacent to deep water. Crankbaits, jerkbaits, jigs, and a variety of finesse soft plastics are effective this time of year. Typically, smallmouth bass have finished spawning by mid-April. Following the spawn, the same baits used during the pre-spawn period are effective on humps, ledges, points, and gradual sloping rocky banks. Topwater lures and swimbaits are also effective following the spawn and into the summer months. During the fall, smallmouth bass can be caught on rocky primary and secondary points that have deep water access. During the winter months smallmouth bass will be oriented in deeper water along points, ledges, and steep banks. The float’n fly method is a great option for catching smallmouth bass during this time. This method allows anglers to adjust the depth at which they are fishing, making suspended bass easier to catch. Smallmouth bass can be caught year-round in the tailwater below Ft. Loudon Dam. Anglers find success fishing this area with artificial lures such as swimbaits and jigs, as well as drifting live bait in the current that represent the shad species that utilize this area.
Spotted Bass (SPB)
According to the spring electro-fishing surveys conducted over the past ten years at Watts Bar Reservoir by TWRA, catch rates for spotted bass have decreased to nearly non-existent in areas where spotted bass were historically located. Other reservoirs in Region 3 along the TN River are experiencing this same trend according to TWRA creel and electrofishing surveys. One possible explanation for this decline could be the change in springtime full reservoir water levels due to TVA’s Reservoir Operations Study (ROS) that was instituted in 2008. This new plan delayed the summertime fill of Watts Bar and other TN River reservoirs in Region 3 to May 15 instead of the traditional April 15. This ROS plan has potentially compromised spawning success, as low water levels limit access to preferred nesting sites for spotted bass. Spotted bass in Watts Bar Reservoir tend to be less numerous and smaller in size than some other Region 3 reservoirs like Center Hill and neighboring Chickamauga Reservoir. For these reasons, it is not anticipated that Watts Bar Reservoir will be a high destination for targeted SPB fishing. The best opportunities to catch SPB are likely in the upper reaches of tributaries that service Watts Bar. There is also great concern for the SPB fishery at Watts Bar due to the confirmed presence of invasive Alabama bass within this reservoir, mainly within the White’s Creek embayment. Alabama bass are documented to outcompete and hybridize with spotted bass, leading to a decrease or eradication of SPB in shared waters.
Target Areas and Techniques (Spotted Bass)
Focus fishing in areas with rocky substrate. Baits that mimic spotted bass forage (i.e. crayfish, shad, aquatic insects) will be effective. Spotted bass are visual predators and rely heavily on their eyesight when foraging, so finding clean/clear water around the appropriate habitat may increase angling success. Downsizing your presentation and using finesse applications can provide the best results in these conditions. Many of the same tactics that work for smallmouth bass will be equally effective for spotted bass.
Crappie (Black and White)
Watts Bar Reservoir traditionally provides a good crappie fishery with opportunities for both white and black crappie. Recent TWRA creel surveys have shown that crappie harvests from Watts Bar are nearly even between black crappie and white crappie. During the 1980’s, white crappie were the dominant species of crappie caught supported by the large year classes produced at Watts Bar, with some estimated harvest rates of over 650K annually according to creel surveys. For the past several years, crappie in Watts Bar have struggled with consistency in regard to successful spawning. This is likely from delayed fills of the reservoir to full pool levels as well as sudden alterations in pool levels during peak spawning times. For the past several years, TWRA has stocked black and blacknose crappie into Watts Bar in hopes of augmenting crappie spawns. Ample forage and habitat remain at satisfactory levels for crappie in Watts Bar. 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)
In the spring, when water temperatures near the upper 50’s to lower 60’s, crappie begin to move shallow. This process can be anywhere from early to late March and is highly dependent on the weather. Trolling or spider rigging early in the spring can be effective. Starting in deeper water in the backs of creeks and trolling towards bays or sloughs where spawning occurs is a great way to locate fish. When water temperatures hit the upper 60’s the crappie spawn will be in full swing. Fish can be caught on jigs with minnows and soft plastics that are either trolled in shallow water or vertically jigged around bushes, laydowns, or docks. The peak of the spawn is a great time for bank anglers to target crappie in visible shallow cover. Following the spawn, crappie move to deeper water where they will hold near deep docks or offshore brush and structure. Jigs and minnows fished with or without a float are effective. Baits can be casted under docks or to brush piles and slowly tight lined back to the boat. Night fishing with lights around deep bluffs with minnows, jigs, and spoons is also a popular way to catch crappie during the summer months. As fall approaches, dock fishing can be great because of the shade and cover that they provide. The same baits mentioned above will work during this time. As prolonged periods of cold weather set in fish will move to deeper areas and ditches in large creeks and the main river channel.
Good bluegill populations, known more for quantity rather than quality, provide ample opportunity for angling on Watts Bar Reservoir. Sustained bluegill populations are expected for Watts Bar Reservoir due to favorable habitat and consistent spawning success. Bluegill are prolific, often realizing 3 spawns in one year, especially in environments like Watts Bar Reservoir and other neighboring TN River impoundments where bluegill habitat is abundant.
When compared to other redear sunfish fisheries in other Tennessee reservoirs, Watts Bar is not a high destination for anglers seeking redear angling opportunities. This is because the densities of redear sunfish are not comparable to neighboring reservoirs like Chickamauga, which lies directly downstream. According to roving creel surveys, low average catch rates have been realized for redear sunfish over the past ten years at Watts Bar.
Target Areas and Techniques (Panfish – Bluegill and Redear)
Bluegill and redear sunfish (shellcrackers) will begin to move into shallow water to spawn in later 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 fish are in deeper water or the depth at which the bait is presented needs adjustment, a float is a great option. Concentrate angling efforts around shallow banks, boat docks, and gradual sloping rocky banks in 5 to 10 feet of water during spawning. Also, look for signs of panfish bedding areas. You will see groups of round depressions on the lake bottom with gravel or shell outlining the floor of each bed. These are some of the best areas to target during the spawning season. As spring transitions to summer, keep an eye out for mayfly hatches, as this is a great time to target panfish with flyfishing equipment. As water temperatures cool in the fall and into the winter focus on river bluffs, deep boat docks, and creek channels for panfish action. Split shot rigs with small hooks and worms work great when targeting panfish in deeper water. Remember to downsize your tackle when fishing for panfish. Smaller line (4-8 lb. test line) and hooks (#10 or #12) are the better option and will likely increase your success.
Due to inconsistent and unpredictable sauger spawning success, annual stockings of sauger were historically recommended to ensure dependable annual year classes of fish. However, it was determined that the close relative of the sauger, walleye, be stocked in Watts Bar instead of sauger. This decision was based on several factors; walleye live longer, get bigger, and offer a better year-round fishing opportunity when compared to sauger. In 2011, TWRA launched a new walleye stocking project in Watts Bar. Sauger will still be represented at Watts Bar through natural spawning success and it is expected that they will provide good opportunities for anglers periodically because of favorable spawning conditions resulting in large year classes of fish. Traditionally, sauger spawned in areas of close proximity to Ft. Loudon tailwaters and specifically the Browder Shoals area downstream from Ft. Loudon dam. Sauger typically spawn when water temperatures are in the 40-52-degree range.
A walleye stocking program was implemented at Watts Bar Reservoir in 2011 and walleye fingerlings have been stocked annually since. This has been a successful project and has provided anglers with great opportunities. Walleye have mimicked sauger in Watts Bar regarding habitat preference, forage species selection, and preferred spawning sites. Therefore, fishing for sauger and walleye should involve similar places and methods. Walleye have been caught throughout the reservoir but congregate at spawning times below Ft. Loudon dam and in upper reaches of sizeable tributaries. Walleye prey heavily on thread fin and gizzard shad as well as skipjack herring, depending on availability. Walleye spawn within the same timeframe that sauger spawn.
Target Areas and Techniques (Walleye/Sauger)
The best time to pursue walleye and sauger is during the late winter and early spring when these fish move upstream to spawn, near the dam and heads of sizeable tributaries. Specifically, focus on the upper ends of the reservoir near the tailwater below Ft. Loudoun Dam. Fishing vertically with heavy bright colored jigs that are tipped with a minnow has proven to be an effective means to catch sauger and walleye at Watts Bar. Trolling crankbaits and drifting live bait such as minnows and shad are also preferred techniques this time of year. Bank anglers can also experience success, especially after dark, when casting crankbaits, jerkbaits, and jigs from the banks near congregations of spawning walleye. During the early summer months, walleye and sauger can be tough to catch. Fish move back to the main lake areas and become hard to locate. Walleyes and sauger can be caught when casting crankbaits on main lake points. As the fall season approaches walleye and sauger fishing below the Ft. Loudoun Dam to the Interstate 75 bridge improves. This continues into the winter months. The same baits and techniques that are successful in the tailwaters will also prevail when fishing main river areas downstream.
Watts Bar 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. Additionally, white bass can be caught at certain times of the year as they are in the “jumps” pursuing schools of shad. White bass spawn when water temps are in the range of 54-68 degrees. White bass populations experience populations that have highs and lows. This is because of inconsistent spawning success which is largely dictated by favorable flows during peak spawning times.
Target Areas and Techniques (White Bass)
The spring season is an exciting time to get out and target white bass. Beginning in March, white bass move upstream during their annual spawning run. Mid-lake to the upper ends of Watts Bar Reservoir at Ft. Loudoun and Melton Hill Dams provide the best opportunity for anglers to locate and catch white bass. Large numbers of fish will be concentrated in these areas during the spring and anglers can employ a variety of tactics to catch them. Crankbaits, spinners, small swimbaits, and jigs are all great lure options. Many anglers also find success drifting shad or shiners in the tailwaters below Ft. Loudoun and Melton Hill Dams. Later in the spring and into the summer, white bass are commonly caught in the mid-lake during the evening hours while surface feeding on baitfish, an activity called “the jumps”. Topwater lures, spoons, and spinner-type lures work great. Other areas to look are mid-lake ledges and underwater islands. During the fall white bass can be caught in many parts of the reservoir. The tailwater and flats off the main river channel will produce some great white bass action.
triped bass fishing continues to be a very popular endeavor on Watts Bar Reservoir. Many out of state guide services in pursuit of striped bass can be observed in striped bass waters such as below Fort Loudon Dam on the Tennessee River and below Melton Hill Dam on the Clinch River, a main tributary to Watts Bar. Although conditions aren’t favorable in Tennessee reservoirs like Watts Bar for natural striped bass spawning success, striped bass numbers remain consistent because they are stocked annually in Watts Bar by TWRA. Striped bass have flourished at Watts Bar due to ample dissolved oxygen, thermal refuges, and abundant forage bases (gizzard and threadfin shad, skipjack herring). Striped bass were first stocked into Watts Bar in 1964 and have been part of a long tradition ever since. Striped bass prefer large bait such as adult gizzard shad and skipjack herring. For this reason, they also provide good biological controls of shad species that are too large to be utilized by other predatory gamefish.
Target Areas and Techniques (Striped Bass)
Watts Bar Reservoir provides anglers with the opportunity to pursue striped bass twelve months out of the year. Mid-lake to the upper ends of Watts Bar Reservoir at Ft. Loudoun and Melton Hill Dam provide the best opportunity for anglers to catch striped bass. Many anglers find success fishing for striped bass near the Kingston area. Tennessee rigs, crankbaits, and jigs are great options. Drifting or trolling live shad with planer boards in the river channel is also a great choice for striped bass. These areas and techniques produce all spring and summer. As the temperatures drop in the fall, a large majority of striped bass will have moved to main lake areas. Waters near Rockwood and Whites Creek are good areas to start. This time of year, anglers can find striped bass in relatively shallow water. Fishing with crankbaits, swimbaits, and spoons in the 10-20-foot range is effective.
Three species of catfish call Watts Bar home: flathead, blue, and channel catfish. Fishing for catfish while utilizing a variety of methods (trotlines, rod & reel, jugs, noodling, etc.) remains popular on Watts Bar Reservoir. The majority of catfish harvested on Watts Bar are blue catfish, and channel catfish are second most harvested. It is expected that catfish angling at Watts Bar will remain positive respecting pursuit and success. Recent creel data collected by TWRA shows great consistency with angling hours expended in pursuit of catfish at Watts Bar. Unlike neighboring Chickamauga Reservoir there is no commercial fishing allowed at Watts Bar, which could impact catfish populations. Catfish enjoy preferred habitat and forage within Watts Bar that promote these species of fish to their greatest potential.
Target Areas and Techniques (Catfish)
Catfish can be caught all year long on Watts Bar Reservoir. During the early spring through May anglers are successful catching catfish while drifting the river channel. Meaty baits seem to produce the most catfish. Shad, bluegill, shrimp, and chicken parts will catch fish during the spring. Beginning in June, catfish become very active and fun to target due to spawning activity. During this time catfish can be caught near rocky areas. Great bait choices to use during the month of June include Ivory soap and Catalpa worms. Catalpa worms are considered a favorite by many catfish anglers. They can be found on Catalpa trees in June. As the summer progresses many anglers find the most success from mid-lake up to Ft. Loudoun Dam using meaty baits that are drifted in the main river. These same techniques are successful throughout the fall and into the winter.
Yellow perch populations in Watts Bar have been present for several years but inconsistent with densities and predictability. This is probably in large part since spawning success is dependent upon aquatic vegetation presence. Yellow perch need habitat such as aquatic vegetation and woody habitat to deposit their egg masses on. Aquatic vegetation presence on Watts Bar has varied greatly for several decades with a large abundance observed in the late 1980’s. Yellow perch depend on bugs and small fishes to satisfy their diets. Yellow perch spawn when water temperatures are in the 45-50-degree range.
Target Areas and Techniques (Yellow Perch)
Yellow perch can be caught throughout Watts Bar in small numbers, but the Clinch River provides the best opportunities. Late winter through spring is the best time to target yellow perch. Jigs with small soft plastics or live bait around rocky bluffs and steep banks are great. Another good technique is using a split shot and hook with a worm either by casting, dragging along the bottom, or fishing vertically.
Muskie aren’t caught in large numbers on Watts Bar Reservoir, although catches are recorded with many being incidentally caught by bass anglers. This can be attributed to the fact that muskie aren’t stocked into Watts Bar and natural reproduction is limited due to the small population represented there. This doesn’t mean anglers who want to pursue this species won’t have success, however. Muskie find their preferred habitat in the Clinch and Emory Rivers. Lots of habitat such as aquatic vegetation and laydowns provide the cover that muskie prefer as they hide and wait to ambush their prey. Muskie typically spawn when water temperatures are in the 49-50-degree range and they are not afraid to be in waters adjacent to strong currents as well as sluggish waters around large structure.
Target Areas and Techniques (Muskie)
Anglers who pursue muskie at Watts Bar can realize limited success, while many catches are by accident while fishing for other species like bass. The Emory and Clinch Rivers provide the best opportunity for an angler to target muskie. Focus efforts in the spring and fall with larger swimbaits, spinnerbaits, and roostertails. Muskie, also known as the fish of 10,000 casts, can be difficult to catch. Many anglers only catch a single fish every few trips and view these trips as an opportunity, not a guarantee. Covering a lot of water and fishing hard will increase your chances of landing this awesome fish.