Tennessee's ever-popular largemouth and smallmouth bass fishing need not give up the spotlight just yet, but the Volunteer State's walleye options are changing.
From rivers to reservoirs, anglers are taking notice of some of the North's more sought after fish. We can't cover all of the options evolving, but let's at least take a look at the tip of the iceberg and hit on what river anglers and lake fishermen are doing.
A Rebounding State
Before you get visions of the Professional Walleye Trail coming into Tennessee and hosting the next round of their tournaments, let's put things into a lit bit of a perspective. The walleye fishing is Tennessee is definitely up and coming. It's what many would term as in a rebounding state with action better on some waters than others. But there's little doubt the opportunities are growing each year directly through the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's (TWRA) stocking program.
TWRA's Tim Churchill, the state reservoir coordinator, said he thinks at the present time Dale Hollow and South Holston Lakes are probably the best in terms of numbers and size of fish. What helps is to have trout to eat, and they're good for growing bodies, added Churchill. He also said Center Hill and Norris lakes are on the rebound after having lost natural reproduction of walleye.
"We try to keep a lake spawning stock as well as a river stock in Dale Hollow to keep fishing good lakewide," added Churchill.
Many call it a blue ribbon walleye fishery these days, and the late smallmouth bass legend Billy Westmorland loved to fish for walleye at Dale Hollow in his later years.
"Our stocking programs pretty much provide all the fish in the state at this point," explained Churchill.
Now is also the time when walleye run up rivers and go through their spawning motions. He said as with most species, this is a very productive time to fish for them.
Churchill said he hasn't heard of the Professional Walleye Trail paying Tennessee much attention, but he thinks our walleye fisheries could easily support their events. There are already local walleye tournaments popping up across the state.
Changing With Them
Jim Duckworth has been guiding on Center Hill for more than 25 years. He's seen the ups and downs of walleye fishing and is happy about its present state - particularly that it's improving thanks to the TWRA stocking program. He said in the early years, walleye fishing was good for native fish on the upper end, the stockings from Greer's Ferry in mid-lake, and the Lake Erie stockings on the lower end.
Duckworth said when the TWRA began stocking walleye fingerlings about five years ago, it turned the walleye fishing around. Times have changed at Center Hill, and Duckworth now said all the walleye are a condition of the TWRA put and take program, and 80 percent of the catchable population is found on the upper end. He said the best fishing is upstream from Sligo Dock or up around the big island.
The bigger walleye at Center Hill are running in the three to five-pound class, Duckworth said. Unlike Dale Hollow, South Holston and even Watauga Lakes, Center Hill isn't home to any serious 10-pound walleye fishing yet - but it's time is coming. Duckworth's best trip last fall turned up 18 walleye in about 30 minutes. They all were in that three to five-pound class.
There are currently two good classes of keeper fish on the lake right now. Duckworth said there's a 17-inch class and a 19-inch class of fish that are capable of being caught. A keeper on Center Hill is the same as statewide length limit at 16-inches. You can keep five per day just like the statewide creel limit as well.
The springtime is the best time to take advantage of walleye as they run upstream to spawn. That's when they're most vulnerable to angling techniques. In the spring, Duckworth said you can catch walleye all day long using slow-trolling methods.
There are two reliable trolling techniques
that will boat walleye at Center Hill or elsewhere. By bouncing the bottom with trolling rigs along migration routes, Duckworth said anglers have been taking their first limits of walleye in recent years at the Hill.
Nightcrawler harnesses employing spinner blade rigs with a half-ounce or one-ounce weights depending on depth and current get the job done. Duckworth said he likes a one to three-foot drop between his nightcrawler rig and the bottom bouncing weight. He will also dip his nightcrawlers in Worm-Glo to turn them a chartreuse green that walleye can't miss in their sight plane.
Duckworth also likes to troll 25 to 30-foot depths with the new Walleye Bandit crankbait in a clown color scheme. The shallow version keys on 12-foot depths while the deeper plug works down to 27-feet.
Duckworth said quality fish come on the crankbait while numbers are best found with nightcrawler rigs. You can cover more water with a crankbait because you can troll it faster.
The veteran guide said to remember that where you catch one walleye, you'll catch more. They're a schooling fish and will be ganged up when you locate them. They also tend to stay around schools of shad.
In the summertime, troll deeper river channels as well as main river lake points.
After the spring run, catching walleye is mostly a low light situation. The beauty of the summer is that walleye can be caught day or night. The nighttime fishing can also be very serious after dark while working the surface for feeding fish with topwater plugs.
When heading out for Center Hill's walleye, keep certain regulations in mind. A Walleye Run Regulation is in effect on the upper end of the reservoir including Caney Fork River beginning at the Rock Island State Park boat ramp and extending upstream to Great Falls Dam. Anglers are restricted to use of one hook having a single point or one lure containing a single hook with one point, from Jan. 1 - April 30. Also, no more than three rods and reels or poles per angler may be used.
Take advantage now. Duckworth said walleye on Center Hill Lake can easily be reached via the ramps at the Ragland Bottoms access. The best news for emerging walleye anglers across the state is that they can also be caught at a variety of tailwaters and reservoirs near you.
Duckworth isn't guiding for walleye just yet because he thinks the best action is about three years away on Center Hill. He said because walleye are a put and take fish, we won't hurt their population by practicing what he calls catch and fillet.
Or better yet, catch and release into hot grease. They're one of the best eating fish around.