Delta Catfish Options

The bayous, rivers and lakes of the Mobile Delta provide some intriguing catfishing possibilities, yet attract little notice. Here, we raise the visibility of the region's unheralded prospects. (August 2006)

Photo by RON SINFELT

Anglers visiting the Mobile Delta for the first time are amazed at the beauty and complexity of this natural estuary system. The scenery is only matched by the outdoor opportunities the area offers. The many creeks, lakes and bayous all but scream out to the anglers, "Fish here!"

The delta of the Mobile and Tensaw rivers is the second-largest such floodplain in the U.S., second only to the Mississippi River Delta. The Mobile Delta is 30 miles long and 12 miles wide. All of its waters empty into the north end of Mobile Bay.

The Mobile Delta is home to over 30 species of mammals, including hogs, deer and turkeys. This wetland is also a sanctuary for a multitude of fish -- even saltwater species, when brackish waters back up into it.

With so much water in such a vast area to fish, plenty of options are present here. But one fish, however, doesn't get the attention it deserves: the catfish.

CATFISH POSSIBILITIES

Even though catfish don't feel that much pressure in the Mobile Delta, they're plentiful. Three species are common in the region: blues, channels and flatheads (often referred to as "yellow cats") -- all possible catches in the Delta. For the professionals' view on Delta catfish, the local fisheries officials are the experts.

Dave Armstrong, District Five Supervisor for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, sees a strong and viable catfish population thriving as he goes about administering his region, which includes the Delta.

"We have three species of catfish available to anglers in our Delta waters," said Armstrong. "While the sizes these cats reach are not huge, the numbers make up for the size. Blue catfish in the Delta average 2 to 5 pounds. Channel catfish average 1 1/2 to 5 pounds. Flatheads average 2 to 10 pounds, with an occasional bigger fish landed. Blues and channels are regular catches, while the flatheads are not as common."

While doing studies on catfish, Armstrong has discovered that the cats are prepared to dine from a very wide menu.

"Catfish feed on a variety of things. The larger catfish that are able to battle strong currents will feed on crawfish, small bream, shad, small frogs, salamanders and various insects. The smaller fish focus on juvenile fish, minnows and insects normally found near the bottom of the water column in lesser current," Armstrong explained.

While most rod-and-reel anglers choose to target catfish in daylight hours, Armstrong believes that the success ratio between night-angling and daytime fishing is significant. "The catfish are more tactile feeders," he explained, "meaning they can sense their prey a lot better in dark conditions due to the sensitivity of their barbels and whiskers as they move slowly along the bottom. This makes catfish much more adept at night feeding than other species."

Another sense that catfish use more than do most other species is smell. Because of this trait, baits with a strong odor lure the catfish. With this in mind, Armstrong has his ideas on which catfish baits are best.

"With such a keen sense of smell, any baits that deliver a steady distribution of scent into the water should attract catfish," he said. "Blood baits, like chicken livers or hearts, put out a lot of smell. Fresh cut baits do well, especially oily baits like eels. People still catch a fair amount of cats on hunks of Ivory soap as well."

Over a few years of doing fish population studies in the Mobile Delta, Armstrong has started to notice a trend with catfish -- one that should put a smile on catfish anglers' faces.

"Our sampling studies have shown a steady increase in catfish populations in the Delta," he said. "We really have no scientific evidence for the increase, but feel it's a sign of a very healthy population and environment. Fishermen looking to bring home a few catfish for dinner should do well in the Mobile Delta."

POPULAR FISHING METHODS

A rod-and-reel angler in the Mobile Delta can select from a multitude of locations at which to pick up a few catfish.

Philip Guy is a south Alabama native who thrives on the opportunity for catfishing in the Mobile Delta. Although his fishing methods include running trotlines, Guy also enjoys the one-on-one matchup of rod-and-reel angler and cat.

"There's not anything much better than tangling with some Delta catfish on a lazy summer morning," Guy offered. "Besides being so great to eat, the catfish we catch are pretty feisty, too! Whether fishing alone or with friends, the excitement of locating a good school of catfish can measure up with almost any species of fish we target."

For Guy, the nuances of catfishing in the Delta region were partly self-taught and partly a legacy. "I learned so much about catfish from an old commercial catfish man I met at the launch one day," he recalled. "I struck up a conversation, and soon the old-timer was leaking out his wisdom to me in dribs and drabs. Naturally, I soaked up as much as I could to use myself when fishing rod and reel.

A lot of what the old-timer told Guy about commercial fishing for cats was very helpful, especially when it came to baits.

"When a man who makes his living doing something gives you advice about the subject, you better listen!" Guy continued. "I always used chicken livers for my catfish, but the old man said no.

"He told me that one of the best baits to use in the Delta for catfish is a common freshwater eel. He told me to cut up the eels in small chunks -- just big enough to hide the hook. When checking trotlines for catfish, the old-timer often caught eels on the baits intended for catfish. So one day he kept some of the eels for bait and discovered how effective they were."

When he can't get his hands on any eels, Guy will use fresh cut shad for baits. He also uses another bait very familiar to Delta catfish.

"Since we are so close to the coast and saltwater on the Delta, the brackish water environment will harbor lots of shrimp when conditions are right," the veteran angler said. "Fresh dead shrimp is great bait for Delta catfish. Obviously, the c

atfish are familiar with them and the fish hit them readily."

Speaking of salt water and brackish conditions, Guy advises paying attention to salinity, particularly when we have a dry summer. "The Delta can actually become too salty to do very well on catfish at times," he pointed out. "Strong southerly winds and incoming tides push the salt waters of Mobile Bay up into the Delta. When this happens you'll have to target catfish farther north. By farther north I mean above Interstate 65."

When it comes to a setup, Guy uses a medium action 7-foot casting rod that he matches to a baitcasting reel spooled with 14-pound-test monofilament, a Carolina rig with a barrel weight of 1/2 to 3/4 ounce, and a No. 4 Kahle hook.

"I use the monofilament so that I can break off on any snags I encounter," Guy explained. "Catfish love to hang around logjams that give them a place to ambush fish from. If you get hung up on this structure, using braids or other superlines may result in breaking an expensive rod."

Not all sportsmen who enjoy the taste of freshly caught catfish satisfy this need with the aid of rod and reel. Mack Clay, a south Alabama outdoorsman who frequents the Mobile Delta in search of all sorts of game and fish, regards catfish as one of his favorite targets during his year-round Delta outings.

"Targeting catfish on the Mobile Delta is one my family's favorite past times in summer," Clay said. "Myself, my dad and my sons all enjoy catfishing. However, we prefer to target them without using traditional rod and reel. Our group makes it a family affair by using both trotlines and jug-fishing methods.

"It's a lot of fun teaching the boys how to put together catfish lines in the back yard at home. We stretch our main line out by tying it between two trees. We then show the boys how to attach the weighted drop lines at 5-foot intervals, explaining to them that we spread the drops to prevent tangling of any caught fish on the line."

Some of the equipment that Clay uses on his catfish lines may appear rather unsophisticated to some, but despite its appearance, it works fine. "Some folks might look at us kind of funny when we start setting out our catfish lines. We store all the line on a very crude but effective device: We use an old automobile tire rim. The heavy steel rim gives us a large circular reel to hold the line, while also serving as a very effective anchor point.

"We then stretch the line out and attach a milk jug every 20 feet for buoyancy. We also use common (three-hole) bricks as weights to keep the baits near the bottom. We normally place these bricks 20 feet

Jug-fishing is a common method used by catfish anglers to target the whiskered fish. Using plastic bottles or milk jugs baited and set loose in the current, while setting out more bottles, has been done for years. After setting out the series of jugs, the anglers often take a break to eat a sandwich or enjoy a soft drink. There's no pressure to keep track of the jugs at all times, making it leisurely fishing at its best.

After giving the baits a little while to attract the cats, the anglers move up current to the first jugs set out and begin the collection process. Using white jugs or jugs painted in fluorescent colors makes the task of keeping up with them much easier; any jug that's bouncing or moving erratically signals a possible catch.

Although Clay and his family use some simple tools on their trotlines, they've discovered a great way to use a modern swimming pool toy to aid in catching fish by the drift method.

"One of the main problems using jugs for catfishing is securing the lines on the jugs," said Clay. "Due to the round slick surface of the jugs it's difficult to attach and secure the lines without them sliding off, making a huge tangle in the lines. We have started using swimming pool noodles instead of jugs. The noodles are very buoyant foam tubes that come in 4-foot lengths. We cut the tubes into 1-foot sections and substitute them for jugs.

"There are two main benefits to the tubes: The line wraps tightly around the tubes, and you can easily sink your hooks into the foam for neat line storage, and the tubes are made in very bright colors, making them easy to keep up with."

When it comes to catfish bait, Clay sticks to just a few options. Being a year-round sportsman actually aids Clay in this area. "We really like to use blood baits," he said. "Since I deer hunt often in the Delta, I like to recycle my harvest. One of the ways I keep the circle of life going is by saving all my deer livers and hearts for catfishing. I find these baits to really attract the catfish. Another benefit is their toughness and ability to stay on the hook."

Despite collecting from other hunters, it would take a lot of deer livers and hearts to keep up with the demands of a regular catfish angler, so Clay uses other baits as well.

"When I run out of my supply of deer blood baits I will also use store bought chicken livers. I don't find them to be very tough," he said, "so I end up checking a lot of empty hooks. If I can find some live shad or fresh dead ones I choose them over the chicken livers for my catfishing."

AREA HOTSPOTS

The Mobile Delta is such a large area that you can spend days searching out the best catfish hotspots. Besides the natural places to look for cats, like the deep bends in creeks or rivers, there are several bodies of water that offer great catfishing opportunities.

McReynolds Lake has long been a popular stop for catfish anglers. The lake has many creeks branching off of it, providing lots of points and drop offs. For more information about McReynolds Lake, contact Jack Perkins at Hurricane Landing, (251) 937-1222.

The Battery is at the fork of the Appalachee and Blakely rivers. This location has several rows of submerged pilings that hold catfish throughout the summer. For more details on The Battery, call Larry Scott at Scott's Landing. His number is (251) 626-5323.

The junction of the Raft River, Spanish River and Grand Bay is also a popular catfish spot for Delta anglers. For more information, contact Shirley's Fish Camp at (251) 438-6010.

CONCLUSION

While the size of Delta cats may not be overwhelming, the numbers will satisfy even the most hardcore catfish angler. If you fall into that category, give the Mobile Delta a try this summer.

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