Volunteer State anglers are fortunate to have a lot of truly exceptional fishing lakes at their fingertips. Few are better than the 36,200-acre Chickamauga Lake.
An artificial reservoir on the Tennessee River, Chickamauga Lake is a long, meandering lake that measures just shy of 59 miles from the Watts Bar Dam at its upper end to the Chickamauga Dam at its lower end. Its shoreline, notched with hundreds of creeks and coves, measures 810 miles.
Located a stone’s throw from Chattanooga, Chickamauga Lake is arguably best known as a trophy bass lake. Since first stocked with Florida-strain largemouths in 2000, the lake has become a tournament staple and produced a new state record bass weighing 15 pounds, 3 ounces.
But the reservoir also offers exceptional fishing for catfish, crappie, and a wide range of other fish. It supports a healthy forage base and plenty of aquatic vegetation, with ample shallow spawning habitat and deep structure.
The upper end of Chickamauga Lake (a.k.a. Lake Chickamauga or Chickamauga Reservoir) is narrow and riverine, with a distinct river channel and current. The lower end is more open, with minimal current and expansive bays and sloughs.
Both halves of the lake—the State Route 60 bridge crossing serves as its dividing line—offer phenomenal fishing, including some of the best bass fishing in Tennessee.
Lake Chickamauga supports a well-rounded black bass fishery that includes both smallmouth and spotted bass. But largemouths are the real stars of the show.
Five-fish limits at bass tournaments can surpass 40 pounds here, and no lake in Tennessee kicks out more 10-pounders. The best time to hook a trophy is during the pre-spawn period from the tail-end of January through early March.
The entire lake is potentially in play for bass fishing. The upper end is bordered by navigable backwaters and fed by dozens of high-quality spawning creeks that attract largemouths any time water levels are high enough.
That said, big-bass anglers usually focus on the lower half of the lake, where many feeder creeks form large embayments. Sale Creek, Soddy Creek and Possum Creek are all excellent places to find big bass in spring.
Another crucial area is Harrison Bay and Dallas Bay, which form a huge complex of shallow, fertile spawning grounds at the lower end of the lake. Regardless of the season, don’t overlook this part of the lake.
Early in the year, you’ll find some of the best fishing around ledges and creek mouths as bass transition toward spawning grounds. Largemouths spawn when water temps approach 70 degrees, and you’ll likely find bass on their beds from March until well into May.
Because this is such a large lake, that movement doesn’t happen all at once. Multiple patterns will likely play out at any given time, especially in spring. After spawning, bass return to relatively deep water for the most part.
But it’s worth noting the Chickamauga isn’t a particularly deep lake, and “deep” fishing here usually means searching ledges, humps and points in the 15- to 25-foot range. There’s also a local saying that there are always bass to catch in shallow water in Lake Chickamauga.
Boat docks line many shorelines, and these shady spots are always worth a few casts in summer. Tossing wacky-rigged or Texas-rigged soft stickbaits under docks is a tried-and-true method.
Another good bet is to scoot a topwater frog through emergent vegetation during the dog days of summer or explore laydowns and weed edges. When bass head towards deeper ledge structure, try a lipless crankbait.
Bass often school up and chase baitfish on open water during the colder months, and local anglers have taken to casting modified Alabama rigs, which have multiple spinning blades and up to three hooks to mimic a pod of baitfish.
Virtually all of the Tennessee River lakes have excellent catfish fishing. Chickamauga is no exception, and like Watts Bar Lake above it and Nickajack Lake below, it supports all three major catfish species: blue, channel and flathead.
Blue catfish are the most targeted species. Catches of smaller blue cats, which weigh around 5 pounds, are incredibly high. Trophy fish well over 50 pounds are also available, and blues over 100 pounds have been caught here.
Anglers target catfish on the main lake and at the upper end in the tailwater below Watts Bar Dam. The Watts Bar tailwater is one of the most reliable areas, and there are catfish around virtually year-round.
The tailwater fishes best when there’s moderate flow, which is usually the case in spring. Be sure to check the TVA generation schedule before planning a trip.
Many local catfish diehards focus on tailwater fishing in spring—when flows are suitable and catfish haven’t yet spawned—and then switch to fishing the main lake in summer.
The peak of catfish spawning activity occurs throughout June on Chickamauga Lake when water temperatures are 75 to 80 degrees. This is a great time to find catfish close to shore, especially along rocky and riprap-lined banks, shoreline timber and bluffs.
Once they recuperate from spawning, cats put on the feed bag. Drifting bait along bluffs and deep river holes is especially effective this time of year, with catfish often holing up on the deep side of ledges during the day before following creek channels into shallow backwaters and coves at night.
Shad and skipjack are abundant in Chickamauga Lake and are the preferred forage of the local catfish. Cut bait is highly effective, though cats will readily snap up chicken livers and worms, too.
Catfishing can also be great in winter, but anglers usually must focus on deep water. The area around the warm water discharge at the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant is a popular winter spot for trophy blue cats.
Flathead catfish are less common than other species in Chickamauga Lake, but there are still some nice flatheads here, including some solid 30-pound-plus fish. They tend to bite best on summer nights when they prowl creeks and flats and will strike live baitfish.
The tailwater below the Chickamauga Dam is also a great spot. Forming the head of Nickajack Lake, the Chickamauga Tailwater has been noted as particularly good for flatheads and produces plenty of blues and channel cats, too.
Chickamauga Lake is at the head of the pack when it comes to crappie fishing in the Tennessee River lakes, and there have been years when this reservoir has produced more certified trophy crappies than any lake in the state.
Of course, crappie populations are also notoriously fickle, with boom-and-bust cycles often tied to water levels during the crucial spawning period. Great crappie fishing is rarely a sure bet, but in Lake Chickamauga, at least the odds are in your favor.
Black crappies are the dominant crappie species, though anglers can expect to catch a few white crappies as well. As in most lakes, spring is the best time to catch them.
Crappies spawn a bit earlier than bass, usually hitting peak activity from March into April when water temperatures are in the mid-60s. Early in the season, look for crappies to inch their way from deep winter haunts towards shallow creeks and coves.
This movement happens all over the lake, and by the time the spawn is in full swing, just about any notch in the shoreline with brush, reeds, stumps, riprap or laydowns in 2 to 5 feet of water has potential.
Chickamauga Lake’s creeks and embayments are the most reliable crappie strongholds. The Hiwassee River Arm has a ton of great habitat, and the lower end of the lake generally has larger creeks with more expansive shallows.
Soddy, Possum and Sale creeks are all excellent, and the vast complex of shallows formed by Dallas and Harrison bays at the lower end of the lake might just be the best overall area for crappie fishing.
No bait can beat a live minnow under a float. But when crappies are in shallow water and feeding actively, small jigs can be equally effective. Jigheads from 1/16 to 1/8-ounce are excellent, with hair jigs and soft plastic trailers each having their devotees.
Any time crappies aren’t spawning, they’re usually schooled up around deeper cover, though they don’t usually go as deep here as they do in some lakes. Fishing brush piles at 8- to 15-foot depths can be productive in almost any season.
Dock fishing is another good tactic, with crappies favoring docks that reach into deep water and have some brush nearby. Try fishing around lighted marina docks on summer nights.
Other Fish Species
Chickamauga Lake is a well-rounded reservoir that supports a diverse game fish population. The species listed below also offer excellent fishing opportunities, as do less glamorous species like freshwater drum, redhorse, buffalo and carp.
Smallmouth & Spotted Bass
Hefty largemouths might win bass tournaments, but Chickamauga Lake also supports a thriving population of smallmouth bass. A 6-pound smallie is a trophy anywhere, and there are more than a few in Chickamauga.
Smallmouths flourish in current and prefer rocky habitat. As a result, you’ll find more of them at the upper end of Chickamauga Lake. You might catch the occasional smallmouth on rocky spots farther down the lake, but your chances are better the closer you get to the Watts Bar Dam.
The immediate tailwater is especially good in early spring, but anywhere above Sewee Creek has potential. Follow contour lines along the river channel drop-off, or focus on the riprap banks on either side below the dam.
Tube jigs, Ned rigs and football-head jigs are top smallmouth producers here, with natural crayfish-imitating colors usually working best. Smallmouths will target shad, too, so it’s always a good idea to have a few shad-imitating crankbaits, spinnerbaits, or soft jerkbaits handy.
Spotted bass inhabit Chickamauga Lake as well, although their numbers have declined in recent years since invasive (and nearly identical) “Alabama” bass arrived. You’ll likely find the top spotted bass fishing in the upper Hiwassee River arm.
Chickamauga Lake is one of many large reservoirs that the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency stocks with striped bass, and it consistently offers excellent striper action.
Stripers anglers most often focus their efforts on the Watts Bar tailwater at the upper end of the lake.
Spring and fall are particularly good seasons to fish the tailwater. It’s unusual for at least one generator not to be running at the dam, and you can count on the combination of current, oxygenated water, and abundant forage to attract stripers.
There are big fish here, too. Ten-pound stripers are common, and although Chickamauga isn’t quite as well-known for trophies as some lakes in the Tennessee River system, a 30-pounder is always a possibility.
Live skipjack herring are the preferred bait if you want to catch a big one, but shad and other baitfish will also do the trick.
Drifting bait along current seams in the tailwater is the most productive tactic. Swimbaits and bucktail jigs often prove tempting as well.
In winter, a good option is to head about midway down the main lake, where the Sequoyah Nuclear Plant usually attracts some striped bass. The power plant’s warm-water discharge provides a thermal refuge for shad, and anything that eats them is likely to be nearby.
Walleye & Sauger
The TWRA has been stocking walleye in Chickamauga Lake since 2014. The population is holding up nicely and includes a lot of healthy fish ranging from 2 to 5 pounds, and some bigger.
Even so, walleye are some of the most challenging fish to catch consistently in Lake Chickamauga. They are most often caught at the upper end of the reservoir and in its larger tributaries in winter and early spring.
Walleye typically orient themselves based on current, and their location often depends on the amount of water Watts Bar Dam releases. When fishing the tailwater for walleye, focus on current breaks and seams between current and slack water.
Keeping your bait close to the bottom is also important. Curlytail grubs and swimbaits are effective, with bright colors usually being best. Tipping jigs with minnows and nightcrawlers is a good idea as well.
The best walleye fishing is at night and on overcast days.
Sauger, which are closely related to walleye, were stocked in the reservoir until the TWRA discontinued sauger stocking in favor of walleye in 2014. They seem to reproduce naturally, and anglers occasionally catch them in the same areas as walleye using similar methods.
Bluegill & Redear Sunfish
Chickamauga Lake is one of the best panfish lakes in Tennessee, offering abundant populations of both bluegill and redear sunfish, which locals may call by a variety of names, including bream.
Whatever the name, they grow ’em big here; it’s not unusual to catch individuals of either species that weigh close to a pound.
Redear sunfish—often called shellcrackers—can get especially chunky here. The upper and lower ends of the lake and various creek and river arms all offer great fishing.
The fishing for bluegill and sunfish is incredible from late spring into early summer, when the biggest fish head toward shallow creeks to spawn. Males dig crater-like nests, which often number in the hundreds in a small area and can be spotted using polarized sunglasses.
Activity peaks during the full moon in May and June. Look for overhanging trees in the backs of creeks, which usually shelter shellcracker nests.
Live red worms and crickets are classic baits, and fly fishing with small popping bugs is also popular.
After spawning, smaller panfish will stay in shallow water around docks and weeds while larger fish move into deeper water, often gathering around sunken brush piles and deep sides of weed beds.
Catch More Bluegill and Sunfish
Planning Your Trip
There’s no bad season to plan a trip to Chickamauga Lake, though spring offers the widest range of fishing opportunities, while winter is the quietest time. Summer is the busy season, and the lake does get quite a bit of recreational boat traffic during the warmer months.
Fishing is a big part of the local tourism industry, so there is no shortage of amenities that cater to anglers. Numerous bait and tackle shops are a stone’s throw from the lake, and visitors can find more than a dozen campgrounds and RV parks on its shores.
Getting to Chickamauga Lake
Few lakes in Tennessee are more convenient to get to than Lake Chickamauga. The Chickamauga Dam is just minutes from downtown Chattanooga, and although areas farther up the lake are more rural, they are easy enough to reach.
Tennessee State Route 58 runs roughly parallel to the lake’s eastern shore, crossing the Hiwassee River arm, while U.S. Route 27 similarly parallels the west side. Tennessee State Route 60 crosses the lake at roughly its midpoint.
Bank & Boat Access
The shoreline of Chickamauga Lake is lined with more than 30 public boat ramps, fishing access sites and parks, to say nothing of the many private marinas. Despite many parts of the shore being privately owned, it is one of the best lakes in Tennessee for access.
Access points are too abundant to list here comprehensively, but below are some of the best and most popular places to fish Chickamauga Lake, starting at its lower and continuing up the lake:
- Chickamauga Dam and Day Use Area – Encompassing land above and below the dam, the Chickamauga Dam and Day Use Area is a Hamilton County park that offers bank fishing at the lower end of the lake, as well as a fishing pier and boat ramp on the Chickamauga tailwater below the dam (technically the upper end of Nickajack Lake).
- Booker T. Washington State Park – In addition to boat launch facilities, Booker T. Washington State Park includes a fishing pier and excellent bank fishing access on the east side of Lake Chickamauga. A day-use fee is required.
- Harrison Bay – The Harrison Bay Boat Ramp on Bayshore Drive and the Wolftever Creek Boat Ramp on State Route 58 each have free launch facilities on Harrison Bay, on the lake’s east side. The latter also has very good bank fishing access. There are also excellent facilities, including a campground and full-service marina, at nearby Harrison Bay State Park.
- Chester Frost Park – Just across the lake from Harrison Bay State Park, Chester Frost Park is a popular spot to launch a boat on Dallas Bay. There is no access fee, and the park includes a campground and excellent bank fishing access.
- Skull Island – The Skull Island Ramp on Birchwood Pike is a free public launch site on the east side of the lake. Camping is available at the adjoining Skull Island Campground.
- Soddy Creek – Soddy Creek is a tributary that forms a major embayment on the west side of Chickamauga Lake. Several free public ramps are here, including the Shady Grove Boat Ramp on Armstrong Road and another launch site with bank access at Holly Park.
- Eldridge Road – A free public launch ramp and roadside bank access are available on Eldridge Road, which runs alongside the edge of Eldridge Slough, a productive area on the east side of the lake.
- Sale Creek – A major tributary on the west side of Lake Chickamauga, Sale Creek is accessible at two free public ramps on Lee Pike and Patterson Road, as well as a free ramp at Sale Creek Recreation Area.
- Blythe Ferry – Two free public launch sites (one on either side of the lake) are known as the Blythe Ferry Ramps. Located just above the State Route 60 bridge, the two ramps are at the ends of Blythe Ferry Road and Blythe Ferry Lane, two roads that dead-end on opposite sides of the lakeshore.
- Hiwassee River – Formed by Chickamauga Lake’s largest tributary, the Hiwassee River Arm on the east side of the lake has several excellent launch sites. Free public ramps are at Gray’s Ferry, Price’s Creek, and the south end of the State Route 58 bridge. Another site at the bridge’s north end is only suitable for cartop boats.
- Richland Creek / Mud Creek – These two neighboring tributaries on the west side of the lake each have good launch sites. The Fish Dayton Ramp on Richland Creek is the largest boat ramp on the lake, though a launching fee is required. Frazier Park offers a free ramp and bank fishing on Mud Creek.
- Cottonport Boat Ramp – A free boat ramp with limited parking is on the west side of the lake within the Cottonport Unit of Chickamauga Wildlife Management Area. The privately-owned Cottonport Marina is directly across the lake.
- Goodfield Creek – Goodfield Creek forms a small cove on the east side of the lake, which is accessible through a free boat ramp just south of the Cottonport Road Bridge.
- Sewee Creek – A free public boat ramp with limited parking is on Sewee Creek, one of the last significant tributaries near the upper end of Chickamauga Lake. The creek itself can be productive, but this is also a good launch for fishing the upper lake.
- Pinhook Boat Ramp – Sometimes referred to as the Watts Bar Dam Boat Ramp or the Pinhook Ramp, the launch site at the end of Pinhook Ferry Lane is the final launching point below the dam. This site on the eastern shoreline has a well-maintained ramp with ample parking and good bank access.
- Watts Bar Dam – Some of the best bank fishing access on Chickamauga Lake is at its very upper end, just below the Watts Bar Dam. There is excellent access to the tailwater on the east side, just off State Route 68. There are no developed launch facilities here.