The largest member of the pike family, muskellunge go by many names. They get their moniker from an Ojibwe word maashkinoozhe, meaning “great fish.” They’ve also been dubbed “water wolf” and the “fish of 10,000 casts.”
Call them what you will, but one thing is for certain: Tennessee offers excellent muskie fishing, and it keeps getting better.
Muskies are native to waters throughout the Ohio River drainage, including the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. However, habitat alterations all but eliminated native muskie populations from their home waters in Tennessee by the late 20th century.
It doesn’t help that some anglers think of these fearsome hunters as a threat to bass and other game fish, often leaving them to die on the banks when caught.
But as the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) continues reintroducing muskies to their historical range, opportunities to catch them continue to expand.
And as fishing for muskellunge in Tennessee gains popularity, so too does the availability of trophy-size fish. Check out the following spots to improve your odds of catching one.
Melton Hill Reservoir
Covering 5,690 surface acres and stretching 57 miles from end to end, Melton Hill Reservoir is a long, meandering impoundment on the Clinch River. It’s been called the best muskie lake in the South, and the Tennessee state record, weighing 43 pounds, 14 ounces, was caught here in 2017.
The TWRA stocks muskellunge in Melton Hill Reservoir every year, sustaining a population not known to reproduce naturally. Like most southern muskie waters, the best time to fish is during the cooler months.
The muskie bite typically starts to pick up in October most years and really gets into a good rhythm once winter conditions stabilize. Peak fishing is from December into March.
Winter is the season when muskies are most likely to be in relatively shallow water.
The two main tactics are trolling large crankbaits and plugs, and casting with oversized bucktails, spinners and jerkbaits. Typical musky lures are 8-10″ long, sometimes bigger.
The key section of Melton Hill Reservoir to focus on in winter is downlake from the Bull Run Fossil Plant. The warm water discharge from the plant attracts baitfish when the rest of the lake is cold, and muskellunge are seldom far behind.
The section from the plant down past the Route 62 bridge is excellent, and nearby boat ramps are at Quinn Road and Clark Center Park. Pay particular attention to the many small coves that notch the shoreline in this area, as muskies often prowl laydowns in the coves.
Muskellunge were once native to many rivers in Tennessee, but the era of hydroelectric dams took a heavy toll. Fortunately, the TWRA has reintroduced muskellunge into a handful of rivers, with the Collins River in Central Tennessee being a real success story.
The state continues to stock muskies here, but they also spawn naturally in this small to medium-sized river, a tributary of the Caney Fork. Muskies are commonly caught around laydowns, overhanging rock banks, and tight to cover in the river’s deep pools.
A wide range of lures work well here, with Whopper Ploppers and Mepps Aglia Spinners being great options. The river also has a great smallmouth population, and bass anglers commonly catch an occasional muskie.
The Collins River is perfect for paddling, and kayak fishing for muskies is a great option. There are numerous put-in and take-out spots, with the stretch from the Myers Cove Boat Launch to the Shellsford Road Access being an ideal day trip.
Summer and fall are excellent times to float the Collins River for muskies, but avoid targeting them at midday in summer. The stress of being caught in hot conditions leads to high post-release mortality.
Great Falls Lake & Caney Fork
Central Tennessee’s Great Falls Lake is a very long, narrow riverine reservoir formed by the Great Falls Dam, which backs up the Caney Fork just below its confluence with the Collins River. Several additional tributaries also feed this 2,110-acre reservoir.
Great Falls Lake is prone to significant fluctuations in water level, but it has a great forage base and supports a substantial muskie population. Occasional fish push the coveted 50-inch mark, while individuals measuring 30 to 36 inches are not uncommon.
The best fishing tends to be in the upper end of the lake and its various tributaries. Muskellunge head upriver during the winter months in anticipation of the spring spawn, with key areas including the upper reaches of the Caney Fork, Rocky River and Calfkiller rivers.
The post-spawn period in April and May also sees muskies hunting actively in shallow water.
A good boat ramp is just off the Route 111 bridge, and anglers with small craft will find an additional kayak launch farther up the Caney Fork at Mitchell Ford.
You’ll also find part of the Caney Fork on our rundown of Tennessee’s best trout rivers.
The Nolichucky River is an excellent muskie option in East Tennessee. Beginning in North Carolina, the river tumbles down through the rugged Nolichucky Gorge’s thrilling whitewater before leveling out to become a slow-rolling river with long, deep pools.
Most folks fish the Nolichucky for smallmouths, but muskellunge have gained a reputation for engulfing lures intended for bass.
Also, a small but dedicated group of anglers fly fish for muskies here using 10-weight rods and large streamers.
To find muskies on the Nolichucky, target slack-water areas such as pools and pockets. Any deep hole at a bend in the river is a good bet, and eddies formed by current breaks are always with a few casts.
Kayaks and canoes work best, as the Nolichicky has some very shallow sections and a lot of snags and hazards that can spell trouble for larger craft.
David Crockett Birthplace State Park has a popular launch site, and there are also informal access points at various bridge crossings.
The Nolichucky River is a tributary of the French Broad River, which also offers some solid muskie fishing in its own right. The two rivers meet at Douglas Lake, and the upper end of this reservoir has produced some big muskies as well.
Dale Hollow Reservoir
A 27,700-acre impoundment of the Obey River, Dale Hollow Reservoir straddles the state line between Tennessee and Kentucky. It’s best known for bass fishing, especially for its long-standing world record smallmouth, and many anglers are surprised to learn that there are muskies here, too.
Muskellunge haven’t been stocked in Dale Hollow since the 1960s. And even then, the TWRA planted only a handful. The muskies appear to sustain themselves through natural reproduction, and by most accounts, their numbers have increased in the 21st century.
Dale Hollow has real trophy potential and has produced multiple 40-pound fish. The period from Thanksgiving to the end of February is the best time to catch one.
Because Dale Hollow Reservoir is quite clear compared to most Tennessee lakes, anglers usually catch muskies a little deeper. Work 30- to 50-foot depths in summer, but muskies may strike anywhere from 30 feet to as little as 2 feet below the surface during the prime winter months.
Trolling is the method of choice, particularly over ledges, stump fields, and deep weed lines. The upper reservoir, above where the Obey and Wolf River arms meet, is generally best.
Similar to the Nolichucky River, the Pigeon River is a tributary of the French Broad River in the mountains of East Tennessee. Muskellunge have been reintroduced here in recent years through cooperation between the TWRA and the NC Wildlife Resources Commission.
Any of the deep pools between the North Carolina state line and the point where the Pigeon River empties into the French Broad River has the potential to produce muskellunge, though most are caught incidentally by bass anglers.
As a smaller river, downsizing your lure can be a good choice, especially if you want to hedge your bets and catch both bass and muskies. The Pigeon produces more trophy smallmouths than any other river in East Tennessee.
Fall is a good time to take advantage of fairly low water levels and look for muskies in the Pigeon River’s pools. The public boat launch in Newport is a popular place to get on the water.
The TWRA started stocking muskellunge in Southeast Tennessee’s Parksville Lake in 2017, and this 1,930-acre reservoir has received additional muskie stockings most years since. It hasn’t quite developed into a trophy muskie lake just yet.
But it does produce excellent numbers of fish measuring 30 to 36 inches. If you just want to experience what it’s like to have a muskie at the end of your line and don’t care much about trophies, Parksville Lake might just be the best spot in Tennessee.
It helps that this relatively small lake is easier to get a handle on than some of the vast, sprawling reservoirs across the state. There’s great fishing around the lake’s abundant shallow cover from fall through spring.
The shoreline is mostly undeveloped and lined with laydowns and timber—perfect muskie cover.
Top areas include the upper end of the lake, Sylco Creek and any of Parksville Lake’s many coves.
Downsized lures work well; try a 6″ Phantom or a Mepps Giant Killer.