Chaney Fork River Tactics
Two distinct patterns are used by anglers on the Caney Fork, depending upon whether they are after a limit of fish or a lunker. To produce numbers of trout, corn, worms, or other natural baits are hard to beat. Tossing Rooster Tail, Panther Martin, or Beetle Spin spinners will take the stockers as well, along with Little Cleo spoons or small jigs.
Fly-casters have particularly good results using Woolly Buggers in dark hues, or Tellico Nymphs. Despite the presence of rising trout in downstream areas, aquatic insects are rather scarce on the Caney Fork’s rocky bottom.
For the larger trout, fish during low water and look for the deeper runs, rocky banks, and downed trees in the water. Especially where the trees and rocks are found together, expect to encounter some bigger brown trout.
Most such areas are located 4 to 5 miles below Center Hill Dam. During hot summer months, the browns will be in this type of cover almost exclusively during the daylight hours.
Spin-casters often resort to crawfish-pattern crankbaits for the big browns and rainbows, and will even tie on large topwater jerkbaits like the Red Fin, Thunderstick, or Rapala. Fly patterns to use for the lunker trout are leech, crawfish, or minnow imitations.
Southern trout fishing entered a new era in the 1930s, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Tennessee Valley Authority began erecting dams throughout the region’s rivers. Although the dams were designed to control floods and generate electricity, they also led to the unintentional creation of some tremendous tailwater fisheries. In a region known for scorching summers, tailwater (cold water released from the bottom of a dam) maintains temperatures, water levels and food supplies necessary for the survival of trout. Tennessee is home to several top-notch tailwater fisheries, rivers where the trout thrive and offer outstanding angling year-round.
The Caney Fork River is noted as the best trout water in Middle Tennessee. Since this region did not originally support trout, one might assume that the competition for this title is not very tough.
There are, however, 39 streams in this part of the Volunteer State that now hold rainbow and brown trout. Most of these are spring-fed tributaries of the Cumberland or Tennessee Rivers. These feeder streams drop down from the highlands of the Cumberland Plateau and flow into the rivers from the south or east.
Although some are quite good trout fisheries, the Caney Fork tailwater stands head and shoulders above the rest.
From Center Hill Dam near the community of Laurel Hill, the Caney Fork flows for 28 miles to the northwest, eventually emptying into the Cumberland River at the town of Carthage. Located about an hour’s drive due east from Nashville, the Caney Fork is also the midstate area’s most popular trout fishing destination.
Particularly in spring and summer, this tailwater attracts a lot of canoeists, bank-fishers, and wadeanglers. Due to its limited shoreline access, float-fishing in a canoe is the best option for covering the water during its low periods. There are so many shallow riffle areas that venturing out in a float ring requires plenty of downstream walking along the way.
Lots of Stocked Trout
It is, of course, the trout fishing that attracts most of the visitors to the Caney Fork below 18,220-acre Center Hill Lake. Each year the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Authority releases up to 125,000 brown and rainbow trout into the flow (usually 80 percent are rainbows).
The fish range from 4-inch fingerlings to catchable-sized adults. The TWRA uses boats to stock the Caney Fork along its entire length, unlike the procedure on most tailwaters, in which fish are simply dumped from bridges or other access points. For this reason, the entire 28 miles of water provide fairly dependable fishing.
The Caney Fork is noted for producing quality trout as well as quantity. Rainbows of 2 to 3 pounds tend to be common, while fish of that species in the 6- to 10-pound range also occasionally turn up.
As with any water in which brown trout are found, catching a large fish is a consistent possibility. These battlers turn up in the 5- to 10-pound range regularly, and 15-pound behemoths also have been reported.
Although the most oft cited problem with fishing the tailwaters of the Caney Fork is lack of shoreline access, there are several places open to the public.
Center Hill Dam
The most popular is at the foot of Center Hill Dam. This part of the river comprises the tailrace from the dam, plus a backwater eddy. An underground creek empties into the eddy via a waterfall after popping out of the rocky cliffs on the northeastern shore.
When the flow from the dam is low, the best area to fish for browns is around the waterfall. For rainbows, the vicinity of the boat ramp on the eastern shore is good. The water between these two points is deep, but at the foot of the falls becomes quite shallow.
It is not unusual to see anglers wading around the east-side boat launch during low water. However, when wading this pool, be aware that the water can rise up to 8 feet when power generation begins.
When the water begins to rise, angling interest is redirected to the western shore along the riprap below the tailrace. Through here, stunned minnows will surface after coming through the turbines. Fishing this area with minnow- imitating lures may yield some of the biggest trout in the river.
Below the pool, foot access is possible for roughly a mile down the eastern shore, along the part of the tailwater that is more riverine. Access to the western side is via the Long Branch Campground and the paved boat ramp beside it. The east-side access is through the Center Hill Lake Resource Manager’s office parking lot.
The first “official” downstream access to the river is found at the TWRA’s Happy Hollow Access. A parking area is provided at the Putnam-DeKalb county line on the southeastern side of the river. Although there is no boat ramp, it is possible to get a canoe down to the water here.
The river skirts a long gravel bar at this point, and the river bottom is made up of marble- to baseball-sized rocks. This provides excellent footing for wading. Walking the bar or wading provides about a mile of access along the river from this entry point. When water is released at the dam, it takes about an hour for the surge to reach Happy Hollow Access.
One unique aspect of the Caney Fork’s gravel bars is that when the water falls rapidly in nongeneration periods, isolated pools of it are left on the bars. These often contain trout and provide beaver-pond-type fishing. The trout cruise these pools, continuing to feed as they await rising water and an opportunity to escape back to the main flow.
Expect fishing pressure and competition for parking spaces to be heavy on weekends at all of the access points along the river, since this spot is a particular favorite of anglers. Also expect to see a lot of cars in the Happy Hollow parking area bearing license plates from Nashville’s Davidson County.
To reach Happy Hollow Access, take TN 96 north for 2-1/2 miles from its intersection with TN 141 just east of Center Hill Dam. The parking area is on the western side of the highway.
The next downstream access point is Bettys Island Access, just upstream of Laycock’s Bridge. Positioned on the northeastern shore, a gravel bar, from which small boats or canoes can be launched, runs for about 1/2 mile along the river. All of this area is wadable during low water.
There are more of the “beaver ponds” described at Happy Hollow here. But unless you want to see your car washed away, don’t park on the gravel bar. It takes the rising water roughly 21/2 hours to reach this point from the dam. The gravel bar also provides a takeout point for a good 6-mile day float-fishing beginning at Happy Hollow.
To reach Bettys Island Access, take St. Marys Road west from 96. This intersection is 51/2 miles north of the junction of TN 96 a TN 141 near the dam. Follow St. Marys Road until it changes to Stonewall Club Springs Road (the transition point is not clearly marked, but proceeding straight at each intersection will keep you on the proper road). At 4 miles a gravel spur marked with the access sign is on the left. It runs down to the gravel bar on the river.