Hot Cats In The Southeast
September 28, 2010
August is hot in this corner of the Yellowhammer State. But catfish love the summer heat, and keep right on biting. Catch yourself a few at these recommended sites this month. (August 2008)
Smaller blue cats are becoming common in the Chattahoochee River.
Photo by Bob Kornegay.
In most parts of the country in which catfish abound, the general sense is that that the whiskered fish are usually most successfully sought during hot weather -- often the hotter the better. Knowing that, one must surmise that August catfish angling in a summer hotspot like southeast Alabama must be very good indeed.
And, truth be told, it is, and always has been. Now more than ever, fishermen are coming to realize this in ever-larger numbers.
Though always regionally popular as a food fish, the catfish was until recently felt to merit little more than second-class-sportfish status in Alabama. After all, this widespread denizen of the state's warm fresh waters is homely, slimy and far from glamorous. Largemouth bass are much prettier and better publicized. Crappie and bluegills are also apt to steal Mr. Whiskers' thunder. The catfish is . . . well -- just an old catfish.
Slowly but surely, however, the catfish's Rodney Dangerfield reputation and longstanding angler perceptions of its sporting qualities have changed. Fishermen in southeast Bama are fast learning that catfish are hard-fighting blue-collar opponents that often grow to gargantuan sizes. They can also be much easier to catch than are largemouths and their kin, falling prey to simpler techniques and tactics. Add to this the fact that catfish remain the most popular freshwater food fish in the state, and you can see why minds are changing.
Noted authors like Keith "'Catfish"' Sutton and Jeff Samsel have popularized catfishing through their writings, while competitive catfish tournaments continue to grow in scope and number. In Alabama, talk is rife among state game and fish officials of possibly extending to catfish a measure of regulatory protection -- something that it hasn't heretofore generally been deemed worthy of.
Owing to the ever-growing level of respect now afforded the once-lowly cat, it's likely that increasing numbers of anglers in the southeast part of the Cotton State will continue to take to the water in search of the whiskered ones. And well they should: Their quadrant of the state abounds with prime catfish haunts and habitats. Hot though it may be, catfish and catfishermen love the dog days of summer.
What follows is a look at the catfish in this corner of the Heart of Dixie, and at some destinations one might opt to visit while looking to catch a mess this month.
Nearly a dozen species of catfish have at least minimal ranges in southeast Alabama. Of these, the tiny madtoms, though interesting and attractive, don't warrant categorization as sportfish. For the most part, catfish anglers here encounter channel, blue, flathead, and white catfish, as well as a handful of bullhead species large enough to provide light-tackle sport and decent table fare.
The blue catfish is usually pale blue in color with a deeply forked tail and white chin barbels. Either its upper and lower jaws meet evenly, or the upper jaw projects slightly beyond the lower jaw. The anal fin of a blue cat has 30 or more soft rays; the outside edge of this fin is straight.
Historically, the natural range of the blue cat hasn't taken in much of southeast Alabama, but it's increased through the years owing to stream-to-stream migration as well as intentional and accidental introductions.
Blue catfish prefer riverine and reservoir habitats. Larger individuals are usually encountered in tailwaters below dams, where currents over substrates consisting of sand, gravel, and rock are swift. They also like to congregate in holes around deeply submerged treetops. Blue cats are opportunistic feeders, consuming live or dead fish and various invertebrates with relish.
The channel catfish is generally more slender and elongated than is the blue cat, but also features a deeply forked tail. It has a protruding upper jaw. Adult channel cats are dark gray along the back, grading to light yellow or greenish-yellow along the sides. Juveniles are typically light gray on the back and silvery on the sides. The head profile of the channel cat is curved from the dorsal fin to the snout. The anal fin has 24 to 29 soft rays and has a rounded or bow-shaped margin.
Distinguishing between small blue and small channel catfish is normally simple, as young channel cats usually exhibit scattered dark spots. Identification can be more difficult with larger adults, at which stage the channel cat often loses most or all spots and the body takes on a bulkier conformation; in that case, the anal fin is the only readily identifiable characteristic for the layman.
The natural range of the channel cat encompasses all of Alabama, and stocking has long since increased its numbers in places where populations were relatively small. The species inhabits rivers, reservoirs, creeks, backwaters, swamps and oxbow lakes. It likes slow-to-moderate currents over sand, gravel, and silt. Submerged trees and areas furnished with aquatic vegetation are also favorite haunts. Preferred foods include live or dead fishes, insects, crayfish, and mollusks.
The flathead catfish, unhandsome even by whiskerfish standards, is the only large cat with a head flattened between the eyes. It features a projecting lower jaw, giving it a belligerent, bulldog-like expression. The back and sides of the body and fins are mottled with black, white, olive and, often, pale yellow. The short, rounded anal fin contains 14 to 18 rays; the tail is slightly notched, but never forked.
The flathead is not native to southeast Alabama, but the fish's range has grown considerably over time.
Flathead catfish prefer flowing water and deep holes with sand, gravel and mud substrates. Individual fish are usually associated with underwater structures such as fallen trees, stumps, rock ledges, and riprap. Larger fish are solitary by nature; a single flathead hole usually contains no more than one or two big ones.
Extremely aggressive predators, flatheads are opportunistic enough to take a dead morsel when one's available, but prefer live food. Shad, sunfish and smaller catfish species are favored.
The white catfish is distinguished from other southeast Bama cats by a moderately forked tail fin and a short, large head, which is usually wider than the anal fin is long. The lower jaw is substantially shorter than the upper, and the roun
ded anal fin contains 22 to 24 rays. The back is generally dark to medium olive or gray and the belly is white. Fins are light gray, often with a darker membrane between rays. It resides in waters all over southeast Alabama and is especially plentiful in the lower Chattahoochee River.
White cats prefer slow-moving streams containing silt and sand. Small fish and insects are primary food items.
Five species of bullheads are occasionally caught by anglers in this portion of the state: snail, black, yellow, brown, and spotted. Relatively small at 9 to 18 inches long, bullheads abound in most streams where flatheads are not present. Though excellent food fish, they're often snubbed by fishermen by reason of their small sizes.
HOW & WHERE?
Few anglers in the state's southeastern corner -- from the young farm-pond angler who ever after accounts that little yellow cat as the first fish she ever caught to the trophy enthusiast who's turned big-cat hunting into an art form -- are unfamiliar with the catfish. Be it a barefoot kid's creek-bank bullhead or a semi-pro's bragging-sized big-river blue or flathead, the catfish permeates the region's angling heritage.
Catfishing in August can be Huck-and-Jim laid-back or tournament-strategy high-tech. It's at once a sport for cane poles or high-dollar rod-and-reel combos, done from the decks of expensive boats and, with equal success, from the bank with a 5-gallon bucket for a stool, and carried out with bobber and hook, simple fishfinder rigs, and elaborate vertical-drop and bottom-bumping gear. Anglers may impale such varied offerings as wigglers, night crawlers, cut bait, crayfish, stink baits, blood baits, live fish, or chicken livers. Fishing may be done in daylight or by the light of the moon.
One needn't claim a specialty to be a catfisherman: It's largely a matter of what you're after and where you're after it.
If big-stream catfishing is to your liking, the riverine non-reservoir sections of the Chattahoochee River in Henry and Houston counties are prime destinations. Channel, blue and white catfish all abound in the river, and bullheads are plentiful, especially in the numerous feeder creeks. Flathead catfish have also started showing up in greater numbers during recent years.
Bank-anglers in the tailwater areas below the Walter F. George Dam, near Abbeville, and the George W. Andrews Lock and Dam, just southeast of Columbia, can expect ample stringers of pan-sized summertime cats on a regular basis, primarily caught on earthworms and cut bait. Day or night, these stretches are consistently productive.
Boaters anchored in or drifting the tailrace stand the best chance of catching bigger fish in better numbers, with live shad being the bait of choice. Farther downstream from the dams, worms, shad and frozen shrimp take cats of various species and sizes from deep water behind sandbars and along bluff walls.
The Chattahoochee's tailwaters, it should be noted, are likely the best southeast Alabama trophy catfish destinations. During the past five years at least one 50-pound-plus flathead and the Georgia state-record blue catfish -- 68 pounds, 8 ounces -- were taken from the Andrews tailrace.
The region's smaller rivers can also be profitable locales for the stream angler. The Choctawhatchee River, including the east and west forks of the stream, winds through Barbour, Dale, Henry and Geneva counties. Upper stretches of the stream contain large populations of white catfish and small-to-average channel cats. Bigger channel catfish, large blue cats, and the occasional flathead inhabit the river's lower section. The Choctawhatchee is also the eastern limit of the native range of the black bullhead, which creates an opportunity for many anglers to catch a rather unique catfish they might not encounter elsewhere.
Popular catfish baits on the Choctawhatchee are earthworms, catalpa worms, prepared baits, and minnows. These are usually fished on fish-finder rigs or beneath a bobber on light tackle.
Other "'minor"' streams include the Pea River in Barbour, Pike, Dale, Coffee and Geneva counties and the Conecuh River, which flows through Crenshaw and Covington counties. The Conecuh, including Gantt Lake and Point A Reservoir north of Andalusia, is well known for its nighttime flathead fishing. The Pea River, in Barbour, Pike, and Dale, contains what biologists term a "'robust"' channel catfish population.
Note that many fishable creeks crisscross Southeast Alabama, most tributaries of the aforementioned rivers. All contain at least representative populations of various species of catfish, and are worth a look.
Anglers preferring not to deal with strong river currents but nonetheless seeking to sample some good mixed-bag catfishing should consider Lake Eufaula. The sandy flats on this sprawling Chattahoochee River reservoir provide feeding habitats for large populations of channel and white catfish and smaller concentrations of blue cats and bullheads. As in other southeastern waterways, the flatheads, for better or worse, seem to be on the increase here.
Morning and evening hours during the summer find catfish moving regularly from the river and creek channels onto the flats. The fish use these areas as feeding grounds in conjunction with baitfish and other forage that also heavily populate the flats early and late. Good timing on the part of the angler can often result in large catches.
Though few really big catfish are taken from Eufaula's flats in August, the number of fish available is tremendous. These are excellent locations for the angler who wants a large mess of frying-size cats from 10 inches to 2 pounds.
Fish Lake Eufaula with light to medium tackle and a fishfinder rig. Downsize hooks to No. 4 or No. 5 and use large wigglers, night crawlers or prepared baits. Find concentrations of cats by drifting across a flats area or moving slowly along under trolling motor power. Early and late in the day, it's usually just a matter of time before a catfish is caught; when that happens, anchor immediately and fish that area thoroughly. Though catfish aren't schooling fish in the truest sense, they do tend to congregate in reasonably tight groups during prime feeding hours.
Anglers seeking catfish on the lake at other times of day will discover that vertical fishing along creek or river channels is the best option. Live or frozen bait shad fished up and down the channel ledges at various depths produce the best results.
Ample daytime and nighttime bank-fishing opportunities for catfish are on offer at sites around Lake Eufaula. Look for them at the Barbour Creek Recreation Area, Bluff Creek Park, Cheneyhatchee Creek Recreation Area, Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge, Highland Park (wheelchair-accessible), Lakepoint State Park, Old Creek Town Park (wheelchair accessible), and the U.S. Highway 82 Causeway.
Creek, river and reservoir catfishing is augmented by six state-owned-and-operated public fishing lakes in southeast Alabama. The Alabama Division of Wil
dlife and Freshwater Fisheries oversees these waters as part of a program involving of 23 state public fishing lakes in 20 counties. Originally stocked with channel catfish, each of these ponds receives an annual fall stocking as well. Each is intensively managed for good-quality fishing on a sustained basis. All have public restrooms, concessions, bait and tackle shops. Covered wheelchair-accessible fishing piers are another feature.
Boats and (usually) electric motors and batteries are also available for rental, and a boat ramp awaits anglers with their own boats. Fees, operating times and days, and various regulations are subject to change, so fishermen are encouraged to call the respective lake managers for current specific information.
The old catfish, bless its heart, is a critter ubiquitous in southeast Alabama's waters. What's more, it's mighty good to eat and a ton of fun to catch. With all that going for it -- ugly or not -- it certainly makes good company during a hot summer day's fishing.