Reelfoot Lake, a 15,500-acre water-world in the northwest corner of Tennessee, belies the nature of its origin. Over 200 years ago, a series of earthquakes — perhaps the strongest ever in North America — radically changed the landscape of this region. Today, an angler can catch fish in shady cathedrals of stately trees or on open water and shorelines interspersed with fields of water lilies, occasionally blown apart by bass smashing minnows on the surface.
Bald cypress trees grow alone and in groves throughout Reelfoot’s 11-mile length. Canals and ditches, both natural and man-made, connect the lake’s four major sections, leading boaters through shady areas of lush marshland. And Reelfoot’s overall shallow depth — an average of 5½ feet — combined with its tremendous amount of structure in both open water and shore areas have produced a fish factory that would be hard to top in the United States.
Once a dense, lowland hardwood forest, the lake was produced in mere days through the land-altering forces of nature: the massive New Madrid earthquake series of 1811-1812. The flooded trees died in the new impoundment and were broken off at water level to create a lake-bed filled with rock-hard stumps cured by continual submersion. Now the stumps dictate the slow-and-easy pace that dominates this natural marvel.
In the fall, migratory birds visit Reelfoot, filling the area with sporting species that attract waterfowl hunters from afar. In the winter, Tennessee offers bald eagle tours, and bird-watchers themselves flock to the lake throughout the year to view some of the 240 species in the area.
But now is the time of fishing on Reelfoot. From the earliest era of rustic fish camps to the present day of modern lodges and cabins with all the conveniences, the emphasis here has been on a relaxed atmosphere and outstanding angling opportunities. More than 56 species swim in the lake’s fertile waters, with crappie, bluegill, bass and channel catfish dominating as the fish of choice.
Crappie season comes first and is now in full swing. Fishermen come to the lake in droves to catch big crappie with jigs or minnows. Good crappie structure abounds in the waters. Sometimes the fish are holding against the live cypress trees, or in the “stake beds,” which are the leafless stems of the previous summer’s lily pads.
At times, one will see boats in small flotillas, cruising the open-water stumps at depths of 4 to 6 feet (deeper in the southernmost Blue Basin), fishing with minnows or swimming jigs past the preserved trees, waiting for the light, telltale thump at the end of the line.
Newcomers will be surprised at the sight of “spider rigs” for crappie — racks at the boat’s bow supporting several poles out front, each baited with a minnow. The fisherman in the front seat watches to see a rod “bounce” him to action as the partner in the back maneuvers the craft forward. Again, the pace matches life here: slow and easy.
Bluegill fishing is a later spring activity, peaking in May and June when the fish begin to spawn in beds and can be caught in huge numbers at once. As soon as the water starts to warm, however, the fish that local folks call “brim” become very active. As early crappie fishermen using jigs can attest, these sunfish are large and aggressive during March and April as well.
The key to catching bluegill is finding a pattern or a good area. If it is spawning time, catching one big, copper-bellied male means catching plenty. But sometimes, one has to probe several areas before locating the places that are holding fish. The bait of choice on Reelfoot Lake is the noble cricket. But jigs, especially one made locally that is called a Grizzly and is tipped with a wax worm, also work extremely well. It is the only bait some regulars will use for pan fish.
The key to success is to keep motion in the bait. Things to eat in the water do not usually stay still. Thus, even a cricket dangled near the bottom with a split shot beneath a sensitive “quill” cork needs to move with twitches or a steady swim to improve success. It is often the only difference between those who say, “They just ain’t bitin’,” and those who arrive at the dock with a cooler full of bluegill.
Many lodges and camps are right on the shoreline. Walking out to the dock at daybreak with a cup of coffee on a warm spring morning to absorb the early calm of the water means the day is already a success and can only get better. Maybe you will think of the Chickasaw Indians of the region who plied these waters first and told of how their gods made the lake through anger with their chieftain, Reelfoot.
The great blue herons and snowy egrets already fishing from their stumps, and the osprey circling overhead, do not mean that you are late. It is just a reminder that the lake is waiting to treat you to a show like no other. Do not be surprised later when a boat eases by as you fish in the shadows of the stately cypress, and a voice rings out that sounds like a song of the South, “Y’all risin’ any brim?”