Bracketing Bama For Cats
September 28, 2010
Whether you fish the Tenn-Tom Waterway lakes in the west or the Chattahoochee River impoundments on the east, the Heart of Dixie provides great catfish action. (August 2009)
Regardless of the lake you fish, channel cats are staples of the action. Photo by John E. Phillips.
From the eastern portion of the state in the Chattahoochee River to the western section in the Tombigbee River, fishermen find August the most productive time of the year to catch catfish in Alabama. Catfishing provides fun and fast action for old and young, as well as a treat on the dinner table.
No doubt, the most popular tactic for catching catfish in the Cotton State is using a rod and reel. Whether for eating-sized channel cats for the table, or a giant blue or flathead catfish for bragging rights, hook-and-line action is generally favored.
But those aren't the only options. It's also possible to catch a mess of cats jug-fishing or running trotlines.
How To Jug For Catfish
My family always has enjoyed jugging for cats. Even as young children, my daughter and son considered themselves masters of the sport of jugging for catfish.
To jug for catfish, you first need to locate a supply of jugs. In fact, we're very particular about the jugs we use. We don't like big gallon plastic bleach or milk jugs. The wind blows those big ones all over the lake or river. We prefer to use smaller pint and quart bottles. Generally, we spray paint fluorescent-orange on our jugs to help us locate them, especially at night.
Next. we tie lines on the jugs. We use 25-pound-test line tied to the neck or the handle of our jugs. We tie various lengths of lines onto the jugs, ranging from 3 to 12 feet long. We also make up extra lines -- both long and short. Then we can change out the lines on our jugs, once we establish how deep the fish are holding.
After tying the lines, we attach a medium-sized weight about 8 to 10 inches from the end of the line. Next, a No. 1 hook is added. They're small enough to catch catfish that weigh about a pound, yet large enough to hold a 20- or a 30-pound cat.
The day before we head for the lake, we catch our bait. Often, we go to a creek and catch crawfish. Sometimes we seine or put out traps to take minnows. We may even dig worms or catch grasshoppers. But for convenience, we also use commercial baits that are purchased at bait shops.
At the lake, once all the jugs are floating, we watch them like a shepherd tends his flock. When a catfish attacks, the jug tips up, dives down or runs off across the surface. That's when we chase the jug with our boat.
Landing the cats requires a bit of skill. Don't try to horse the fish over the gunnels. The hook may pull loose. If it makes a strong run when you pick up the jug, just let it go. You can always chase it and pick up the jug again after the fish tires.
How To Trotline For Catfish
Trotlining also can pay off big for you during the summer, particularly on rivers. Although trotliners basically all may put out their lines in the same way and even use the same baits, some anglers catch more catfish than others. There are reasons for that.
First, determine at what depth the catfish are likely to feed. In rivers with faster currents, often you can't locate catfish schooled up like you find them in lakes. But you can learn how deep they're feeding in a river by using your depthfinder. Locate three or four spots that are different depths. Bait trotlines in each of these in the same way, and put hooks at several depths to see which lines produce best. Then concentrate your fishing efforts on all the lines at that depth to catch more catfish.
You really don't have to have a boat to run a trotline for cats. You also can use a throw-line method. Tie a 3- or a 4-pound rock or other weight on the end of a main line. Attach five to 10 drop lines with hooks coming off that main line. After baiting the hooks, tie the other end of your line to a bush, tree or stump on the bank and throw the rock out into the creek or river. When you're ready to check your line for catfish, pull it in, take the fish off, re-bait, and throw the line back out into the water.
With these tactics in mind, let's take a closer look at some places to put them to use on the Chattahoochee and Tombigbee rivers as we bracket the state for catfish action.
Anglers have known Lake Eufaula on the Chattahoochee River as the Bass Fishing Capital of the World. But anglers also catch numbers of blue and channel catfish from the impoundment. Lake Eufaula homes blue, white and channel cats, as well as yellow and brown bullheads. But area fishermen primarily catch channel, blue and white catfish.
In the last few years, Lake Eufaula has become one of Alabama's most productive spots for catching big cats.
Ken Weathers is the District VI Fisheries Supervisor for Alabama's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.
"Lake Eufaula has changed dramatically over the last few years," he explained. "For the last four years, catfishing has been really good. There's been a tremendous amount of cats caught on Lake Eufaula."
The blue catfish have made the most dramatic effect on Eufaula during that time, with good numbers of catfish of up to 18 pounds being caught while jug-fishing around the railroad trestle at Eufaula and farther down near the Walter F. George Lock and Dam.
"The growth of new underwater vegetation in Lake Eufaula has provided an excellent food source for sunfish," Weathers said. "Although the shad population of Lake Eufaula has declined, the sunfish population has increased. I'm not certain this is the primary reason for the increase in the catfish population, but after the growth of the vegetation, the catfish population has grown.
"Currently, the most popular method of catfishing at Eufaula is jug-fishing, and the biggest problem is keeping up with the jugs," the fisheries manager continued. "Most fishermen recommend putting out no more than 25 jugs at a time. The most productive places to jug-fish are in the backs of sloughs. I suggest you place some reflective tape on the jugs so you can keep up with them overnight. The best time to fish seems to be right at twilight.
"I take my children jug-fishing, and we generally put out our jugs around 3 or 4 p.m. But we've found that we catch the most catfish about an hour before sunset," he offered.
Where does he fish for this action?
"I've always caught the most catfish around the Lake Point Resort area, especially when jug-fishing. A number of people camp around the lake, and they always throw out a lot of food. So, there's a lot of food around Lake Point. However, you'll catch plenty of cats just about anywhere on the lake."
Lake Point Resort State Park is located on the Cowikee Creek arm of the upper half of the reservoir.
At this time of year, Weathers catches more than 100 catfish in a day, weighing about 1/2 to 4 pounds each -- all good eating-sized cats.
"We don't fish for the big cats," Weathers noted. "We bait with liver or cut bait, and we're trying to catch eating-sized cats."
Jackie Thompson has fished and guided on the Chattahoochee River since before the impoundment of Lake Eufaula. Thompson primarily guides bass fishermen, but also targets cats.
"Many of my bass-fishing customers like to catch and release bass," he pointed out, "but they also like to bring home a mess of fish. If I know my customers want to take home fish, I'll take about 25 jugs with me to catch catfish while we're fishing for bass. Catfishing is a great way to catch fish to take home for dinner."
Thompson searches for cats by floating jugs baited with cut shad or bream at the mouths of creeks and along weed edges.
"If you want to catch really big catfish, you need to use bream about three fingers wide, hooked either in their lips or their backs with slip-sinkers up the line," Thompson explained. "Fishing like this on the edges of the river channel, you catch some big fish."
His favorite spots to catch big cats are in eddy holes below the points formed by big bends in the old river channel. He casts a line to the edge of the current and lets it move the bream into the eddy hole. That's where those big catfish sit and wait. The best time to catch cats is when current is being generated through the lake.
During the summer months, Thompson only targets catfish from daybreak until about 10 a.m. That easily can produce 25 to 30 cats during a morning.
"I never take more than 25 jugs because that's usually all you can keep up with, especially if current is coming through the lake," Thompson described. "Chasing jugs, chasing cats, re-baiting the jugs and chasing other jugs is a lot of fun here at Eufaula. We have plenty of catfish for folks to catch."
TOMBIGBEE CAT REPORT
The Tombigbee River, approximately 400 miles long, connects to the Tennessee River through the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and at its southern end joins the Alabama River. Together they form the Mobile River before it empties into Mobile Bay on the Gulf of Mexico.
Jerry Moss, District III fisheries supervisor for the DWFF in Tuscaloosa, oversees the fish population in the Tombigbee River from the Alabama-Mississippi border down to Demopolis. That stretch includes the impoundments at Aliceville, Gainesville and Demopolis lakes.
"Below Gainesville's and Aliceville's dams, you find the most and the easiest-to-catch catfish on the Tombigbee," Moss advised. "The Tombigbee has a few flatheads in it, but anglers primarily catch blue and channel cats."
Switching subjects, the fisheries manager then mentioned a new catfish fad that targets mainly big catfish.
"One of the hot, new methods of catching cats, especially at the Gainesville pool, is 'noodling,' which has gained in popularity over the years because of the publicity it's garnered from TV shows and magazine articles.
"A fisherman will go underwater and grab a catfish by the jaw, pulling the fish out of a hole and putting it in the boat," he described. "However, because of the new law regulating large catfish, which dictates that each fisherman can only have one catfish 34 inches or longer, noodling has become a catch-and-release sport.
"Because the Demopolis pool is fed by both the Warrior and the Tombigbee rivers, it probably has a wider variety of catfish in it than either Gainesville or Aliceville. The most productive place to catch large numbers of catfish will be the Demopolis pool, mainly because of the amount of habitat available and the size of the pool. Gainesville, however, will run a close second."
Even though there's some trotline, jug and limbline fishing on all three lakes, rod-and-reel fishing in the tailraces below Aliceville, Gainesville and Demopolis dams still produces the most catfish.
"If you're looking for eating-sized catfish from 1/2 to 4 pounds each, you can catch plenty of them below the dams," Moss reported, "but quite a few of them usually are spread out in the upper sections of each one of the lakes at this time of year.
"Creek channels, the edges of river channels and deep holes will be ideal spots to find numbers of eating-sized cats. You'll need a good depthfinder to be the most efficient, not only on the Tombigbee, but also on any lake in Alabama.
"The Tombigbee is still highly productive for trotline, jug and limbline fishing, even though these methods of fishing are not as popular as they were in the past," Moss added. "This lake is filled with catfish and is an under-utilized resource.
"Generally, night-fishing will be more productive than daytime fishing in the summer, and the closer you fish to the dams, the more cats you find," the manager concluded.