Cotton State Catfishing Prospects

He may not be pretty, but ol' Mr. Whiskers doesn't lack for admirers in Alabama. If you're one of that number, these fishing holes should be of interest to you this year! (June 2006)

The heavyweight champions of Alabama, blue catfish are often found in tailraces below major reservoirs.
Photo by Mike Handley.

It might be hard to swallow in this ever-evolving technological age, but just as many anglers in this state go after catfish as target black bass. Accordingly, it's at least a little a bit incomprehensible that some savvy boat manufacturer hasn't yet marketed a "cat boat." Somebody's literally missing the boat!

For one thing, it costs a lot to be a bass angler; for another, even if you can afford the fancy tackle and happen to catch a few bigmouths from the swivel chair mounted on your high-gloss metalflake vessel powered by the outboard the size of a washing machine, people tend to look at you crosseyed if you stick a knife into one of the sacred fish.

For this we can thank the "catch-and-release" mantra inherited by bass fishermen from trout-huggers -- you know: those guys and gals who seem happy as a clam to stand in cold water to catch a little fish barely bigger than a guppy. So kill a bass in a tournament nowadays, and you lose points -- not to mention your reputation with the other bassers.

On the other hand, nobody cares if you cut up a catfish.

It doesn't cost much to be a fisher of cats, either: The state-record (and, formerly, world-record) blue cat was caught on a shad head up on Wheeler Lake, while the present state-record blue of 117-pound out in Arkansas choked on a chunk of Spam.

Alabamians go after Mr. Whiskers for a couple of reasons. Some simply want to tangle with the biggest freshwater fish available; for a whole other bunch, the sole motivation is to create a fish fry. And why not? This state's waters offer ample opportunities for both.

I was the publisher of a hook-and-bullet tabloid during a former career. I traveled the state dropping off magazines, talking to the proprietors of bait shops and collecting their most recent Polaroid snapshots. Not only did I learn what was catching fish and when -- and, sometimes, where as well -- but I also saw the pudding's proof: lots of photos, taken all over the Cotton State, and in every one of its river drainages, of smiling anglers with their catches.

Based on what I saw in those pictures, I've come to believe that a person doesn't have to travel far in this state to find plenty of catfish. The following destinations are merely the best venues -- as determined by both photographic support and personal experience -- among many in the Heart of Dixie.

GAINESVILLE LAKE

I used to live in Sumter County -- truly a sportsman's paradise -- and became well acquainted with the Tombigbee River. The portion near Gainesville once was known only to locals, and primarily for crappie and catfish. It wasn't until a fellow landed a brace of 14-pound largemouths that this sleepy little reservoir attracted big-time attention.

But I knew Gainesville before Gainesville was cool. Jimmy Bedwell, my barber in Livingston, used to tell wondrous stories of his exploits there -- tales of days that saw him and his buddies set out soap lines for catfish. To hear him tell it, feeding the masses on the banks of the Tombigbee would not have taken a Biblical miracle.

Allow me to digress for a moment. I have no clue as to how using soap chunks to bait trotlines came to pass, but the practice has long been highly regarded, though it's not exactly in vogue these days. The most popular soap, by all accounts, was Ivory, though I've heard that Cashmere Bouquet was another favorite. A Texas company even manufactures its own version nowadays -- strictly for fishing, not for washing. Accounts of the homemade bars' effectiveness are many -- and, in fact, you can see for yourself by going online and visiting www.catfishbaitsoap.com.

But back to Gainesville Lake and the catfish action there. This 6,400-acre stretch of river is where the southern end of the engineered portion of the Tenn-Tom Waterway begins. The starting point is at 28-year-old Howell Heflin Lock and Dam, some eight miles north of Epes. To the north is Aliceville Lake, which crosses over into Mississippi.

At Gainesville Lake, which boasts eight public-use areas with bank and boat access, some of the best catfishing can be found in the venue's southernmost areas. The fish are in the main river channel as a rule, especially when the water temperature is sizzling. But early on in the summer, look for them in the backwater sloughs, where there is plenty of submerged timber. Also, if you're into tailrace fishing, just drive to the dam, which is immediately across the river from the city of Gainesville.

MORE TAILRACES

Whenever you hear about the fantastic catfishing on "Lake Mitchell," I'd wager that most folks are actually talking about the tailrace below Mitchell Dam. If that's the case, they're really describing the upper end of Lake Jordan. The same thing is true for a lot of Wheeler Lake fishing stories: The best catfishing is below Wheeler Dam, which is actually part of Wilson Lake.

This isn't to say that wetting a line at Mitchell and Wheeler lakes is a waste of time, because it surely isn't. It's just that two of the state's best tailraces are on Jordan and Wilson. OK -- the one below Lay Dam, which is indeed Mitchell Lake, is pretty popular as well. To be fair, just about all the tailraces on the Coosa and Tennessee rivers are catfish magnets!

But of all the ones with which I'm familiar, the best is below Mitchell Dam in Lake Jordan. I've lost track of the number of photos I've seen of men holding beefy blue cats weighing 40 pounds or more, so this is where I'd go to target big blues. Wheeler's tailrace on Wilson Lake seems to yield more channel cats, and the occasional flathead. The best bait below any of them is live shad, which beats Spam hands down, as well as night crawlers.

An interesting thing about Wilson's channel cats: Unlike the silvery, speckled-sided specimens most prevalent everywhere else, the ones here are so dark as to appear almost black.

Perhaps the most-used method of fishing for tailrace cats is bottom-bumping, which involves tying a leader with the hook about a foot above a hefty piece of lead tied to the end of the main line. Many shapes of sinkers are used, but a lot of pros at this prefer slender, pencil-shaped weights that are less likely to snag.

It seems best, too, if you catch your own shad from the same waters. One exception is below Wheeler Dam, where the bait s

hops sometimes sell "yellowtails." Of course, nearly everything that swims in Alabama's lakes will eat a live shad, so you might wind up with quite the mixed creel.

COFFEEVILLE RESERVOIR

Another 97-mile stretch of the Tombigbee that's the cat's meow is Coffeeville Reservoir, the 8,500 acres stretching between Demopolis and the tiny Clarke County town for which it's named. You find both channel cats and flatheads here, as well as a strong current, far fewer bass fishermen and plenty of sandbars that are ideal for beaching your boat or even setting out a lawn chair.

One of my best-ever trips involved pulling my little aluminum boat onto a sandbar following several days of rain, when run-off was boiling into the river at several points. I set up a lawn chair and cast live shiners right in the midst of the boils. It seems in retrospect as if three out of four casts resulted in a hookup with a 5- to 10-pound flathead.

This riverine stretch of the Tombigbee isn't overrun with monstrous cats, but that's made up for in sheer numbers. In fact, the river's whiskered denizens helped put Ezelle's Fish Camp on the map. The rustic Choctaw County restaurant, which sits atop a clay bluff overlooking the river, is still the best place on the planet to get Southern-fried catfish and lip-smacking hushpuppies.

The late Ronald Harwell of Siloam introduced me to Ezelle's. He used to lead a flotilla of boats from the Whitfield Landing in Sumter County all the way to the restaurant, where we'd tie up at a dock and climb the long flight of stairs to the main building. Going there and back was pretty much a daylong trip, which included time on one or more sandbars.

The Choctaw National Wildlife Refuge borders the lower portion of Coffeeville Lake. Here, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains a campground just upstream of the dam. Some fishermen camp there and lock through to fish the tailrace and shoals on the downstream side of the dam. Others will jug-fish for cats up top.

Jug-fishing is one of my absolute favorite ways of filling a cooler with catfish. I always prefer to use 20-ounce soft drink bottles, but I know some boys down near Silas who still use gallon milk jugs. They're the guys who introduced me to the concept of dropping gravel inside the jugs to enable you to hear the strikes when you're fishing at night.

CHATTAHOOCHEE AND BLACK WARRIOR RIVERS

Speaking of jug-fishing: Lakes Eufaula and Bankhead might well be the only places in Alabama that have hosted either a jug-fishing tournament or a general catfishing tourney that allowed it. Of course, a person could practice the almost-lost art at any body of water -- but these two impoundments offer almost every conceivable type of catfish haunt: river and backwaters, shallow and deep.

When you're serious about catching catfish, it's imperative to have choices: If the cats aren't biting shallow, they might be deep, and having jugs at both depths helps you find where to fish.

The same holds true for choosing bait. If you have two or three choices of bait in the water and you know which jugs are rigged with which, you can determine quickly what the catfish are dining on most frequently. As a rule, I'll have at least three colors of jugs -- for example, yellow baited with night crawlers, pink with cut bait, and orange ones dangling anything from uncooked bacon bits to pieces of wiener. I've even used those little cocktail sausages with success.

Lake Eufaula has long been considered one of the nation's best bass fishing destinations, and the 45,181-acre reservoir on the Alabama-Georgia border contains its share of crappie as well. But it's also home to plenty of channel catfish ripe for the plucking.

One of the neat things about Eufaula is its bounty of access areas. Among them is Lakepoint State Park, a few miles north of downtown off U.S. Highway 431. Near there is the 11,160-acre Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge.

Black Warrior River, stretching from central Alabama down to where it meets the Tombigbee in Demopolis, is also perfectly suited for catfish of all stripes. Every impoundment on this system is inhabited by all three major species -- blues, channel cats and flatheads -- but if you're looking for really big ones, try fishing near the warmwater discharge at the Gorgas Steam Plant, which sits alongside the Mulberry Fork of the river on Bankhead Lake. During both World Championship Catfishing Tournaments held out of Howton's Camp in the mid-1990s, the winning stringers were composed of big blues pulled out of this artificial version of the Gulf Stream.

Another hotspot for double-digit cats is between old locks 8 and 9, between Akron and Moundville, and well below Tuscaloosa.

STATE LAKES

The catfishing is so good at most of Alabama's 23 state-owned public fishing lakes that it's hard to pick the best. My favorites are Bibb County Lake (between West Blocton and Brent), Monroe County Lake (near Beatrice) and the lakes in Chambers and Dallas counties. In North Alabama, Catfish Central is Madison County Lake in Gurley, not too far from Huntsville. All are stocked with channel catfish from the state fish hatchery, and these fish are excellent table fare.

Another great destination for those seeking the bigger-than-average catfish is 130-acre Lee County Lake, south of Auburn and Opelika. You'd better have stout reels and new line to take on the cats here, which routinely push or exceed the 10-pound mark.

In addition, this place now offers overnight accommodations in the form of lakeside cabins. There's even a "fisherman's special": For about $200, get you two days of fishing and three nights in a cabin for two anglers -- boat, trolling motor, anchors and fishing permits included. To check on the availability, call (334) 749-1275.

The fishing at Lee County, like most of the state lakes, is limited to daylight hours. And, as a rule, it's closed on Mondays and Tuesdays during the summer. The facilities include a lakeside bait shop, public restrooms, a fishing pier, and a launch ramp for those who want to bring their own boats (the launch fee is $2). Boats may have an outboard motor attached, but you can only use an electric trolling motor.

In addition to a state fishing license, you must purchase a $2 daily fishing permit (for ages 12 and older), and -- if renting a boat -- another $3 boating permit. The rental vessels, completely rigged, cost $18. Fishing rods are even available for rent here for $3.

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