Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee
Reelfoot Lake is in the upper northwest corner of the state in Lake and Obion Counties, Tennessee, and Fulton County, Kentucky. Most of the lake lies within the state of Tennessee and is the largest natural lake in the state (10, 427 acres). The lake was famously formed by an earthquake in 1811-1812 which caused the Mississippi River to flow backward into a shallow basin. Approximately 68% of the lake has a depth of 3.0-feet or less and is filled with many stump fields and pockets of aquatic vegetation which can hamper navigation, angler access, and fishability. The lake also has many cypress trees which offer an area of shade during mid-day fishing expeditions.
The lake is basically divided into four basins with “ditches” connecting the second, third, and fourth basins. One important note is that the US Fish and Wildlife Service manages parts of Reelfoot Lake from Kirby Pocket to Brewer’s Bar. The Grassy Unit is closed from November 14 – February 15; the Long Point Unit on the north end is closed November 15- March 15. The closed areas are marked clearly with USFWS signs. Most of the shoreline at Reelfoot Lake is undeveloped and not accessible to the bank angler. Public access is limited in the two middle basins.
Reelfoot is famous for its bluegill and crappie fishery, both of which rank among the best in the state. White crappie is the most harvested fish with angler harvested crappie averaging over three-quarters of a pound during the last ten years. The majority of crappie are harvested in Lower Blue Basin which also receives the most fishing pressure. Although black crappie catch rate by anglers is lower than for white crappie, black crappie in the half- to the one-pound range can be found in the Buck Basin area. Anglers are limited to 30 crappie per angler.
The bluegill fishery ranks as one of the best in the state for both catch rate and average weight. Anglers can be found fishing with crickets or a little grizzly jig around the cypress trees and in the bonnet patches. The mean weight of bluegill has averaged 0.45 pounds during the last ten years.
Largemouth bass have historically experienced low densities due to lack of spawning habitat and/or excessive siltation. A 15-inch minimum size limit with a five fish per day creel limit has been in effect since 1996.
Other sport fishes include yellow bass and channel catfish.
BEST BETS: Crappie, bluegill CONTACT INFORMATION: TWRA Region I Office: 731-423–5725 US Fish and Wildlife Service: 731–538-2481 Reelfoot Lake State Park: 731–253-9652
Preservation Permit required for lake users except those under 16 years of age, residents 65 years or older, and lifetime or sportsman license holders. The use of gasoline powered boats is prohibited in TWRA posted areas April 1 through May 31.
- Largemouth/Spotted Bass: 5 per day in combination.
- Largemouth Bass: 15 inch minimum length limit.
- Spotted Bass: no length limit.
- Crappie (all species): 30 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.
- Yellow Bass: no creel or length limit.
- Paddlefish: 2 per day; season is open from April 24 through May 31. Culling is prohibited.
- Redear Sunfish: 20 per day, no length limit.
- Bluegill/Warmouth and other sunfishes: no creel or length limit.
During the winter period, anglers will usually fish a few feet off the bottom using what is locally called the Reelfoot Lake rig. The rig consists of a three-way swivel with two leaders which drop about 25-28-inches off each swivel. A 3/8– to ½ ounce sinker is tied 14-16-inches below the swivel and a hook tied about 12-inches below the weight. The hook is baited with minnows.
Anglers will troll the Reelfoot Lake rig in deeper water around Lower Blue Basin. Popular areas to fish are near Green Island or around Caney Island. During the Spring, crappie will move to shallower water usually closer to the shoreline. The Reelfoot Rig remains popular in deeper water, but anglers will have to adapt to conditions as crappie will move vertically in the water column.
Popular areas to fish are near Swan Basin and Grooms Pocket trolling the open water at about 4-6 feet of water. Another popular area is the Moultrie Field which is full of submerged logs where single pole or spider rigging is popular around full moons in April and May. During the Spring the wind is known to blow, and it can make fishing open water not only a challenge but potentially dangerous.
The lake has several ditches that connect the four basins where an angler can escape the wind. Nations Ditch, Donaldson Ditch, Willow Bar Ditch, and The Channel are good areas jigging with 1/8- or 1/16-ounce jig tipped with a wax worm or Crappie Nibble.
Although all the basins are popular for crappie fishing in the Spring, anglers must be willing to adapt their techniques. In the summer, success is better early and late in the day since air temperatures can reach into the 90’s. Fall fishing is also popular on the lake by following the schools of shad since crappie are looking to put on weight in preparation for the colder winter water temperatures.
Full moons in May, June, and July are prime time for Reelfoot bluegill. The Agency has developed “Trolling Motor Only” areas on Rat Island Shore, Eagle Nest Timber, and Air Park shoreline that were developed to protect the shallower bluegill beds from the outboard motor wave action.
Anglers usually fish 3-10 feet from the shoreline fishing a #6 or #8 long shank hook with crickets under a slip float one to three feet deep just off the bottom. Small jigs tipped with wax worms can also be productive. Spring fishing for bluegill can also be productive around the old bonnet stems leftover from the previous year.
A favorite lure is the little grizzly jig (usually around 1/80 ounce) in various colors. A pink head with a black feathery body is popular with many anglers but with this jig, a small BB weight is needed to maintain a feel for the jig. When fishing bluegill beds, an important note is to not get too close to the shallow beds as it will spook the fish.
During late Spring and early summer, anglers will use crickets and fish along with the cypress tree bases that are numerous throughout the lake. The middle two basins are popular.
You can throw your arm off fishing all the stumps, logs, and cypress trees in search of largemouth bass. As with bluegill, popular habitat for largemouth bass may be the leftover bonnet stems from the previous year during late Winter to early Spring. However, old logs or even around duck blinds may produce a strike or two.
Spinnerbaits and jerk baits are popular baits, but some anglers prefer heavy jigs and fish the logs and stumps bumping the bottom in a slower motion. Largemouth bass fishing on Reelfoot Lake takes patience as every stump, log and blowdown look like good places to catch largemouth bass.
Catfish are not heavily sought by anglers at Reelfoot Lake, but historic surveys estimated the density of channel catfish at over 400 pounds per acre. Trotlines are often used by sport anglers (limited to 100 hooks total if fishing more than one trotline) but typical sport fishing methods include tight-lining on the bottom with a #6 hook baited with nightcrawlers or stink bait.
Nations Ditch and Walnut Log Ditch are popular areas following rain in the area. Anglers should look for current in the ditches or current coming from the fields into the lake. During the summer months, submerged logs or standing timber in Eagle Nest Timber and Palestine are good choices. Jugging in Lower Blue Basin has also become a popular technique.