Fall Fishing at Tennessee’s Cumberland River
I love looking at fall foliage from my boat. This is my favorite fishing season. And most excellent of all I’ve got my best girl and best dog to come along and fish with me.
Baitfish (threadfin and gizzard shad) have grown big enough to make large predators such as bass, crappies and stripers lick their lips. To me this is the preeminent part of the fishing cycle. All species are gobbling up nutrients for the coming cool-down when their metabolism slows to a crawl and they become rather inactive. Anglers also enjoy autumn’s stable weather; spring is more tumultuous.
I prefer fishing the narrower Cumberland River rather than the expanse of tributary reservoirs. That probably comes from my childhood of fishing creeks in south Alabama where farm ponds were the largest bodies of water and creeks were everywhere.
Cumberland River: Waterway to the West
The historic Cumberland River, named for the Duke of Cumberland, remains the east and west water gateway to Middle Tennessee. Early pioneers followed it downstream from eastern Kentucky to Nashville and farther downstream to western Kentucky, Ohio and to the Mississippi River.
Later (from the early 1800s until a century later) travelers boarded steamboats paddling from the Ohio up the Cumberland and into its tributaries – the Stones, Caney Fork and Obey Rivers. Roughly 690 miles long, Wikipedia ranks the Cumberland as the 21st longest in river in the United States. Presently, barges and pleasure boats are the primary traffic.
Cumberland River Angling Opportunities
There are three dams in the Volunteer State that provide us with wide-ranging game fish species: Cordell Hull, Old Hickory and Cheatham Lakes. Lake Barkley flows from Cheatham Dam and north into Kentucky. You can catch trout, sauger and walleye (cool-water species) and numerous warm-water species with bass, crappie, catfish, and stripers being among the most popular in the river. If, however, you prefer tributary reservoirs, Percy Priest, Center Hill and Dale Hollow are popular fisheries for these species.
Cordell Hull Lake looks much like the Cumberland River did before a dam was built near Carthage, with the exception of being wider and deeper near the dam. Impounded in 1973, it’s one of the state’s youngest dams. In its 72-mile length that reaches into Kentucky to Wolf Creek Dam, anglers catch both cool- and warm-water species.
Dale Hollow Lake has a great influence on the water temperature of Cordell Hull Lake. Dale Hollow Dam discharges its 47-degree water from the bottom of the lake and can lower Cordell Hull Lake’s main body temperature by six to eight degrees overnight. There is little or no effect on the water temperatures in the lake’s tributaries. Although stripers are not one of the predominant species in Cordell Hull Lake, the state record of 65 pounds and 6 ounces was caught there.
Old Hickory Lake backs up 22,500 surface acres of water and runs for 97.3 river-miles. Old Hickory Dam is 25 miles upstream from Nashville near the city of Old Hickory.
During the fall and winter, sauger and walleye action below the dam draws anglers. Guide Jim Duckworth (www.fishingtennessee.com) uses trolling and vertical jigging techniques to catch both species. He says better-than-average sauger and walleye catches come from the upper end of the lake. In summer and early autumn the aquatic vegetation has proven a boon for warm-water species. The world record, a 25-pound walleye, came from Old Hickory Lake.
Old Hickory is the widest of the three riverine reservoirs and contains more extensive backwaters. Crappie, bream, catfish, bass, stripe and stripers are the main attractions.
Cheatham Lake when completed in 1960 extended 67.5 miles. It’s a run-of-the-river reservoir with Nashville being about two-thirds of the way upstream. Nashville is at the bottom of an arc the Cumberland River makes when it swings down from eastern Kentucky and returns north into western Kentucky.
The lake contains mostly warm-water species with some trout that escaped from the Stones River where they are stocked in winter. Cheatham was the first dam I ever fished when I moved from Alabama. Beginner’s luck was with me. Casting into the turbulent water below the dam, I landed several walleyes. Walleyes and saugers swim throughout the Cumberland River system and they begin concentrating below its dams in November preparing to spawn in March and April. Both are rated at the top of the table fare menu.
Smallmouths live in the upper end and gradually give way to largemouth bass downstream. The lake has been my favorite catfish and crappie fishing hole. And that’s where my hot date with my best girl and best dog takes place this week.
Where’s your favorite TN spot to fish in the fall?