Yellowhammer Catfish Roundup

Regardless of where you fish in our state, you'll be dangling baits near these whiskerfish! Here's a look at some of the best places for tangling with cats this summer. (June 2007)

Jeff Barnard caught this 48-pound flathead catfish on the Tennessee River last summer, but he's still trying for a 60-pounder.
Photo by Anthony Campbell.

Jeff Barnard was fishing off a rocky causeway in downtown Guntersville last September when he landed a 48-pound yellow or flathead catfish. It surprised some of the people who saw it afterwards, but not Barnard. He's a catfish specialist who makes a habit of working in quick fishing trips anytime he goes to Guntersville to visit his mom Glenda.

Barnard's autumn success shows how catfish -- including some real whoppers -- are closer than you might think. No matter what corner of the Cotton State you call home, chances are good that some really fine catfishing will be found nearby. From the Mobile Delta to the Tennessee River in North Alabama, catfish are abundant statewide.

The tactics Barnard employed are worth reviewing for anyone who wants to duplicate his success on any water in Alabama. Catching big cats regularly requires techniques designed specifically for those lunkers.

He was fishing in Guntersville Lake, a Tennessee River impoundment, when he got the 48-pounder. He was tickled to get it, but said his quest is to get one that goes 60 pounds or better.

Barnard was using chicken livers, a medium-action Ugly Stik rod and an Ambassadeur 6000 reel with 15-pound-test line. Ugly Stik rods are known for their ads that feature a heavily muscled man bending one double without breaking it.

"It was bent just about like the one in the ad after this catfish hit," Barnard mused, adding that Ambassadeur doesn't even make the 6000 series reel any more.

According to the angler, any places like the causeway bridges with deep water and rocks are good for catching catfish. He uses an egg sinker on the bottom with a hook about a foot up the line. He always takes lots of chicken liver with him. "You're always going to lose some bait," he pointed out, "because it's easy to sling off when you cast."

His brother Marty was with him when he caught the big one. They caught four others that weighed about 8 pounds apiece.

"I love catfishing and go every chance I get," Barnard assured.

He works the second shift in the maintenance department at a Boaz industrial plant, so a lot of his fishing takes place in the morning or even in the middle of the day.

The Alabama Department Conservation and Natural Resources Web site indicates biologists from the Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries have captured yellow cats weighing 30 to 50 pounds in the Tennessee River during fish sampling expeditions. That indicates that Barnard's flathead has to be considered a top specimen. While the fish was a good one, it wasn't the fisherman's personal best. The biggest cat he's ever caught was a few years ago when he landed a 52-pounder.

"I still want to get one that weighs at least 60," he offered.

Barnard has two young sons that like to go catfishing with him -- 12-year-old Jeff Jr. (called "J.J.") and 10-year-old Cody.

Barnard admitted that he got some strange looks from passing motorists as he brought the catfish up the rocks from the bridge to his Jeep. "I couldn't get a good handle on him, so I just cradled him in my arms and carried him like a baby," he recounted. "Man, were people looking at this fish!"

If you want passersby to look at you and your catfish this summer, here are some places you can try in each corner of the Cotton State this summer.

DISTRICT 1

The Tennessee River -- considered by most biologists and anglers to be the best catfish water in the Alabama -- slices across District 1 in the northwestern corner of the state.

"If you just want to catch catfish, I'd say go below any of the dams on the Tennessee River," said district fisheries biologist Keith Floyd. "If it's big cats that you're after, I'd fish the main river channel in the impoundments."

He said the biggest catfish tend to come from Wheeler and Wilson lakes. A former world record blue cat -- a 111-pound beast -- was caught in Wheeler in 1996. While chicken livers are considered a top bait for most catfishing, Floyd noted that cut skipjack herring are the best baits for the Tennessee River. You catch the skipjacks below the dams.

"The biggest fish usually come from 20 to 50 feet of water," Floyd offered. "And there's usually some kind of structure in the vicinity, such as a hump or a channel. Submerged islands are good places to fish."

Floyd considers the Tennessee River the premier catfishing water in the whole state; he remarked that you just don't hear about many fish anywhere else as large as those that come from the Tennessee. Genetics may play a role in Tennessee River cats reaching super-size, but the state's biologists have never delved into any research in that area.

"We've got good habitat and a good forage base and that certainly plays a role too," Floyd noted.

Most of the catfish you catch on the Tennessee River are blues and channel cats. Flatheads are also present, but they're not caught as frequently.

"They're more nocturnal and they tend to bite live bait more than cut bait," Floyd explained. "Most people don't fish for catfish with live bait."

DISTRICT 2

Guntersville Lake is in District 2, which covers the northeastern corner of the state. And as mentioned at the beginning of this article, it's a fantastic place to fish for catfish. But fisheries biologist Rob Andress pointed out another water in this corner of the state that catfish anglers need to know about: Weiss Reservoir, which is noted more for its crappie and bass fishing.

"We don't do any sampling for catfish or any other work to estimate populations, so it's hard to know a lot about what's going on with these fish," Andress stressed, adding that they do see lots and lots of catfish when they electrofish for other species: "There are a lot of shallows, and we just see them everywhere when we electrofish."

Weiss is a 30,000-acre impoundment on the Coosa River at the Alabama-Georgia border, so there's plenty of room to wet a hook t

here. The Alabama portion is in Cherokee County.

"Neely Henry is probably another good place for catfishing on the Coosa," Andress added.

DISTRICT 3

The Tombigbee River in far west-central Alabama probably offers the best catfishing in District 3, according to district fisheries biologist Jerry Moss. The waters he likes best for catfishing there are the tailwaters of Gainesville Lake or Demopolis Lake.

"These are very fertile waters with a lot of shad and they produce some excellent catfish," the biologist said. "The access is easy."

There are even some fishing piers in the area operated by the Corps of Engineers that offer catfishing potential. Moss said the fish don't get as big as they do on the Tennessee River in North Alabama, but there are plentiful eating-size fish and a few that are larger than average.

Most of the catfish caught in these tailwaters are blues.

DISTRICT 4

There are lots of good catfishing destinations in District 4, which includes the east-central portion of the Cotton State.

"If I had to pick one place, I would probably choose Jones Bluff Reservoir on the Alabama River," said district fisheries supervisor Chris Greene, who explained his choice by saying that the habitat at this reservoir is more diverse than that of some of the other Alabama River lakes. Covering some 12,510 acres, Jones Bluff is between Montgomery and Selma.

"There's a main-river run, and there are also backwaters," Greene pointed out. "They're pulling water most of the time on Jones Bluff and that tends to help the fishing."

The catfishing on this riverine lake heats up in June. Though the lake doesn't have catfish that get as big as they do in the Tennessee River, it does have good numbers

The lake has blues, channel cats and flatheads, and a 40- or 50-pounder is not unheard of.

As far as baits, it's almost anything goes here. Greene said drifting near the dam is a popular tactic. Recreational jug fishing for catfish is also popular, but the anglers on this waterway don't actually use jugs anymore.

"They take a piece of the foam board insulation like you put on the side of a house, cut it into a rectangle and attach the line to one end," Greene described.

The rectangle lies flat on the water when it's drifting, but tips up when a catfish bites, thus alerting the nearby angler that he's got a fish.

No matter what corner of the Cotton State you call home, chances are good that some really fine catfishing will be found nearby. From the Mobile Delta to the Tennessee River in North Alabama, catfish are abundant statewide.

According to Greene, other good catfish waters in this part of the state are the lakes along the lower Coosa River lakes near Montgomery.

DISTRICT 5

The southeastern corner of the state is one of those regions with so many good catfish waters that it's hard to pick out just one. If he has to pick just one, management biologist Ben Ricks points to the Mobile Delta. It covers some 20,323 acres of water just north of Mobile Bay and is second in size only to the Mississippi River Delta. The Alabama DCNR describes it as a "complex network of tidally influenced rivers, creeks, bays, lakes, wetlands and bayous."

Ricks said catfish anglers here routinely bait their hooks with shrimp, rather than night crawlers, chicken livers or more traditional baits.

"The Delta is a huge area and it has a mixture of blues, channel cats and a few bullheads," Ricks added.

He urged anglers to try their luck in areas with current. If you can cast into an eddy, so much the better.

"We don't have the really big ones like anglers get on the Tennessee River, but we've got some nice fish," Ricks assured. "We hear of fish in the 30- to 50-pound range."

The biologist went on to point out that anglers need to keep an eye on the salinity levels of the water. Too much salt can hurt catfishing in the Delta later in the summer.

Other good bets in District 5 include the three state lakes -- Escambia County, Washington County and Monroe County.

"We stock these lakes with catfish specifically for people to catch," Ricks said. "It's a put-and-take fishery."

Recent sampling indicated abundant numbers of 4-pound catfish in Escambia County Lake.

"That's a good eating size fish," Ricks offered.

Washington County Lake had good numbers of catfish in the 2- to 4-pound range. The state typically adds 150 catfish per acre when stocking the state lakes, so there are plenty of cats swimming in those lakes.

"They provide some excellent fishing and they're underused," Ricks stated. "They're great places to go and do some fishing."

DISTRICT 6

Lake Eufaula is known as a great bass destination, but according to Rob McCarter of the district fisheries office, catfish represent an underused species in the lake. "Everyone knows it for trophy bass," he noted, "but they forget that we have good catfishing, too. It's underfished for catfish by sportfishermen. We know we have good catfish numbers based on our conversations with some commercial fishermen who do quite well on Eufaula."

There are some large fish, but this Chattahoochee River reservoir is better for catfish numbers than for record-size catfish.

SUMMING IT UP

With so many options available, you're bound to have some catfishing success no matter where you go in the Cotton State this summer. May and June are some of the best months of the year for catfishing from one end of the state to the other, whether you're shooting for a fish the size of a small car in the Tennessee River or just trying for some pan-sized fish in the Delta.

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