Guide knows Tennessee River reservoirs are full of big catfish that aren’t reluctant to eat in the heat

Richard Simms, a guide for Scenic City Fishing Charters, weighed one of the big catfish he caught at daybreak on the Tennessee River.
Richard Simms, a guide for Scenic City Fishing Charters, weighed one of the big catfish he caught at daybreak on the Tennessee River. The Kansas City Star

Richard Simms didn’t have to wait long to find out if the big blue cats in the Tennessee River were stirring on this hot, early-summer day.

Not long after he baited his hook with a chunk of chicken breast and dropped it into the current on the upper end of Nickajack Lake, he was greeted with a big tug. When he set the hook, that big tug turned into a big fish.

“That doesn’t happen every day,” he said as he fought the catfish. “First drop of the day and we get a fish.”

The big blue fought hard, pulling out line and twisting and turning to get free. But in a matter of minutes, it tired and was scooped into a waiting landing net.

Simms removed the hook and hoisted the fish onto a hand-held scale.

Simms squinted at the readout and announced, “Seventeen pounds.” Then he eased his catch back into the water.

All of that before the sun even made its way over a mountain ridge. Not a bad way to start the day.

But Simms’ mornings often begin that way. As owner and guide for the Scenic City Fishing Charters business out of Chattanooga, he often is on the water before the sun is even up.

If he’s lucky, his customers will have a big cat in the boat before dawn arrives. But even if they don’t, Simms knows chances are good that the big blues will bite later.

Richard Simms tackles big catfish on the Tennessee River.

The upper end of Nickajack Lake, which looks more like a river than a reservoir, is part of the Tennessee River chain of lakes. And it is known for its big cats.

“My best day ever, we caught 478 pounds of blue cats in nine hours of fishing. We smacked ’em,” said Simms, 60, who has been guiding since 2006. “Of course, those days don’t come along that often.

“But it’s not unusual for us to catch 75, even 100 pounds in a day. Let’s put it this way. If we don’t catch 50 pounds of blue cats in a day, I’m disappointed.”

Simms wasn’t disappointed on this day. For most of the morning, Simms and I were busy reeling in big catfish, including one that went 27 pounds. By noon, Simms estimated our total catch, all of which was released, was close to 100 pounds.

Just another day at the office for Simms. He is a trophy-cat addict. Forget your stereotypes of the old-time catfishermen with the smelly boats, crusty appearances and salty attitudes.

Simms represents the modern-day catfisherman. His neat boat is loaded with electronics — and he knows how to use them.

“Just like bass or anything else, catfish like structure,” Simms said. “They like holes.

“This area here is like a big basin with a rock bottom. It pretty consistently holds catfish.”

Simms generally fishes vertically, raising and lowering his bait so that he keeps in contact with the bottom. He prefers to drift rather than anchor so that he can cover water.

He uses 50-pound test braided line with a 60-pound-test monofilament leader. His secret bait? Chunks of chicken breast, not the livers or gizzards that most fishermen use.

“I go to the grocery store for my bait,” he said with a laugh. “I like the chicken breasts because it stays on the hook better.

“Besides, if I have any left over, I can take it home and eat my bait.”

That bait lures some huge catfish. A customer caught a 77-pound blue catfish earlier this year. And Simms remembers the day in 2009 when a customer set a line-class world record by landing a 75-pound blue on 10-pound test.

“My biggest weighed 65 pounds. but my wife will be quick to tell you that she caught one that weighed 67 pounds,” Simms said with a laugh. “I’m still waiting for that really big one.”

Simms has a colorful past. He grew up in the outdoors and went on to earn a degree in wildlife and fisheries management at Tennessee Technological University. Out of school, he became a game warden for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. His interest in journalism led him to a job as a photographer and public relations officer for that state agency.

Today, he wears many hats. He is an award-winning freelance writer, book author, videographer, photographer and guide. He specializes in catfish, but he also guides for bass, crappies and other species.

“I’m lucky to live where I do,” he said. “We’re fishing for big catfish today and we’re still in the city limits of Chattanooga.

“There’s a lot of good fishing close to us.”

To reach Brent Frazee, The Star’s outdoors editor, call 816234-4319 or send email to bfrazee@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter@fishboybrent.

The Tennessee River: Big-cat water

▪ WHAT/WHERE: The Tennessee River is a 652-mile waterway that weaves through the southeastern United States.

▪ ITS PATH: The Tennessee is formed on the east side of Knoxville, Tenn., at the confluence of the Holston and French Broad rivers. From there, it flows southwest through Chattanooga before dipping into northern Alabama. It becomes part of Alabama’s boundary with Mississippi for a short distance, then flows back into Tennessee. There, it becomes part of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers navigation waterway. The Tennessee flows into Kentucky and meets up with the Ohio near Paducah.

▪ DAMS/RESERVOIRS: Some of the nation’s best fishing reservoirs were built by dams on the Tennessee: They include Chicakamauga, Nickajack, Pickwick, Fort Loudon and Watts Bar in Tennessee; Guntersville, Wheeler and Wilson in Alabama,; and Kentucky in Kentucky.

▪ BIG CATS: From its origin in Tennessee to its journeys into Alabama and Kentucky, the Tennessee River contains huge blue catfish. Stories of “Catzilla,” a catfish as big as car below one of the dams, still ring among fishermen. Probably just a fish story, fisheries officials say. But 100-pound blue cats have been taken from the river and the reservoirs that were formed by the river. At Wheeler Reservoir in Alabama, for example, a 111-pound blue catfish was taken in 1996. That stood as the Alabama state record until 2012.

▪ BASS WATER: Most of the reservoirs in the Tennessee River chain are nationally known for their bass fishing. Pickwick offers some of the best smallmouth fishing in the nation. Guntersville, Wheeler, Wilson, Chickamauga and Kentucky are frequent sites for BASS and FLW national tournaments because of their excellent largemouth fishing.

Brent Frazee; bfrazee@kcstar.com.