Fishing The Tennessee River

Monsters, Myths And Great Destinations

By Captain Scott Manning

For more than 100 years, local legends have flourished along the banks of the Tennessee River. True or not, a visit offers plenty to anyone's imagination.

Monster stripper catch on the Tennessee RiverWhile Captain Scott Manning's fishing clients reel in monster catfish and stripers, Manning entertains them with Tennessee River fishing legends.

As a child, my father and grandfather would tell me stories of monstrous creatures that lived in the muddy depths of the Tennessee waters we fished. Many times we would camp on the banks of the river, and I'd wake up in the middle of the night thinking I'd seen some strange creature lurking outside my tent.

The origin of these tales, and others like them, is impossible to determine. Maybe they were cultivated by the campfire under the influence of Tennessee moonshine. Maybe they're based on real-life experiences that transpired in the shrouded moonlit woods. Regardless, they live on from generation to generation. In the 1800s, tales of river monsters abounded throughout the river system, including a legend in which anyone spotting the creature was cursed.

Monster catfish catch

In the mid-1900s, the most popular legendary river creature became "catzilla," a species of catfish. There are some reported photos of monster catfish weighing more than 500 pounds during the 1900s that allegedly back up these claims.

As a professional fishing and tour guide in the region, I'm often asked what actually lives beneath the surface or prowls the banks of the river. I'm not one to debunk these old tales of monster fish that I grew up with, so I gladly entertain my clients with them. One of my favorites is about a dam repairman whose job is to dive to check for cracks in the base of the dam. Deep below the surface, he sees a gigantic catfish that he says could swallow a Volkswagen Beetle whole. He comes up from the murky depths of the lake and quits his job forever.

Young boy with large stripper catch

But the stories go beyond just gigantic fish. According to reports of sightings and unexplained bipedal prints, hairy hominids — often called Bigfoot or Sasquatch — lurk around the Tennessee waterways. As scant as the evidence may be, a 2014 episode of the Animal Planet cable TV channel's "Finding Bigfoot" filmed in the area remains one of the series' highest-rated shows. I personally haven't seen one, but as a child, I did see things that to this day I can't really explain.

The Destination Behind The Lore

Regardless of whether you believe in Volkswagen-eating fish or upright bipedal monsters, Tennessee has a lot to offer to anyone's imagination and passion for the outdoors. The Tennessee River flows for more than 650 miles and ranks high on most catfish and striped-bass anglers' bucket lists. The largest catfish ever recorded in Tennessee weighed more than 110 pounds; the largest striper came in at more than 64 pounds. Without question, there are monster fish here waiting for you to cast a line their way.

Tennessee map

The Tennessee and Clinch rivers, lined with sycamores and silver maple trees, support a diversity of wildlife that includes bears, bald eagles, and deer. Exploring these waters by boat or paddle craft provides breathtaking views. Some of my greatest memories are days of floating down the Clinch River, watching bald eagles soaring overhead and deer wading in the river, while I teased a rainbow trout with my homemade fly.

Each year, thousands of people come here from around the world to fish or vacation, attracted by the natural beauty and history of the region. The Great Smoky Mountain National Park straddles the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. This astonishing landscape encompasses millions of acres of forests and an abundance of wildflowers that bloom year-round. I've spent countless hours hiking the trails and taking photos of bear and deer in Cades Cove.

The Museum of Appalachia, located in Norris, Tennessee, is a living-history museum that interprets the pioneer and early 20th-century period of the Southern Appalachian region of the United States. My first job out of high school was with the museum as a sheep shearer. To this day, sheep shearing continues to be a mainstay of the annual October festival. Another favorite attraction is Ripley's Aquarium of The Smokies in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The aquarium is teeming with life, including more than 10,000 sea creatures — there are more fish in the aquarium than people living in Gatlinburg. Other area attractions include the Oak Ridge Atomic Museum of Science & Energy, Dollywood Family Amusement Park, and Dollywood's Splash Country. Tennessee delivers something for everyone.

Whether you choose catfish or stripers, the passion and excitement of chasing trophy fish can be found around Knoxville, from Melton Hill Lake to the Tennessee River. Whether it's the jolting sound of a screaming bait-clicker or the crushing top-water explosion that comes with a swimbait, fishing rewards the senses in so many ways. Striper fishing is excellent from March all through December. Catfish fishing is excellent from March to late May and from August through December. There are other guides in this neck of the woods, too, and we'd all be happy to show you a taste of the action and put you on some fish. 

Angler, writer, and business owner Captain Scott Manning reports that the attractions mentioned in his story were spared in the tragic December fires, and anglers are returning to area waters. You can find him stalking the river banks in his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee.

— Published: February/March 2017

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