Alabama Catfish Prospects

Not only does the Cotton State have a lot of places in which to catch catfish this summer, it also has a variety of whiskerfish to target. Here's a look at these options and where to catch each fish.

By Eileen Davis

There's a fever sweeping across our state, and it peaks on summer nights. Though the symptoms usually abate a few hours after sunrise, some anglers are never cured.

How, you ask, are fishermen becoming infected? The surest way to get the fever is by having contact with catfish. While big blues and flatheads cause almost certain infection, frequent contact with smaller channel and white catfish may also bring on a heightened sense of anticipation.

Enthusiastic anglers across Alabama give many different reasons - size, numbers, aggressiveness, strong fighting ability and food quality - for their love of catfish, but there's more.

"I think it's all those things," says Elise Irwin, who is an assistant professor in Auburn University's Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures.

Irwin is also an assistant unit leader for fisheries for the United States Geological Survey, Alabama Cooperative Research Unit at Auburn. From her base in Auburn, Irwin conducts research on freshwater fish populations in Alabama's rivers and streams. When Irwin is not conducting research, you will probably find her out fishing.

"If you contrast catfishing with bass fishing," Irwin said, "there's a certain amount of excitement in not knowing how big the fish will be. You could be hooked up with a 4-pound flathead or a 40-pounder. Knowing that you have a good chance of catching a really large fish is what makes catfishing so exciting."

Elise Irwin displays a stringer of the channel catfish she spends so much time studying. Photo by Stephen E. Davis

Blue, flathead, channel and white, respectively, are the largest catfish in Alabama. In order, the rounded-off state records respectively are 111, 80, 40 and 10 pounds. Bill McKinley of Elkmont established our most recent state catfish record with the big blue he caught from Wheeler Lake on July 5, 1996. His fish stood as the world record until Aug. 3, 2002, when Charles Ashley of Arkansas caught a 116-pound, 12-ounce blue from the Mississippi River.

Even though catfish thrive in our rivers and reservoirs, the probability of catching a record fish may equal that of winning a lottery. Nevertheless, anglers across Alabama frequently land trophy blues and flatheads weighing up to 50 pounds.

From introductions, the current ranges of blue, channel and white catfish in Alabama have greatly expanded outside their original native waters. According to biologists, the current range of channel catfish includes all our waters except the Blackwater and Perdido rivers. Blues are found in most major tributaries of the Tennessee and Mobile rivers. They are also found in the Chattahoochee, but not in the Blackwater, Escatawpa, Perdido and Yellow rivers.

While flatheads and blues occupy nearly the same waters, flatheads have yet to appear in the Chattahoochee and Choctawhatchee rivers. They have been introduced into the Conecuh and Escatawpa rivers and are common in the former. Researchers believe the white catfish is native to the Chattahoochee River and was probably introduced to the Mobile basin and Tennessee River drainage.

Some introductions were accidental. For example, blues increased their range into the Chattahoochee on March 17, 1990, when heavy rains inundated ponds stocked with the fish. Recently, anglers caught two blues from Lake Eufaula weighing more than 40 pounds, and another angler landed a 65-pounder below the dam.

As you can see, Alabama fishermen are never far from great catfish waters.

Big fish live in big fertile waters. If you want to catch a trophy, don't spend time fishing creeks and small lakes. Also be aware that while blues and flatheads thrive in the same rivers and reservoirs, they favor different habitats.

Blue catfish prefer more current than other catfish and make seasonal moves, sometimes covering large distances.

"The specific habitat preferences of blue catfish are relatively unknown," said Irwin, "but I don't think blues associate with structure like flatheads. I believe they actively search the bottom for shad or mussels.

"Flatheads, on the other hand, live in the deeper holes in the river with some kind of structure - woody debris or boulders - waiting to ambush prey. Unlike other catfish, flatheads prefer live food."

Flatheads also leave their ambush areas at night and move into the shallows to feed. Research on the stomach contents of flatheads greater than 24 inches in length found they lived on a diet of shad, sunfish, suckers and other catfish.

Popular and widespread, channel catfish adapt well to everything from small ponds and creeks to large reservoirs and rivers. Though they prefer slow to moderate current, this species also lives in our swamps and oxbow lakes. Recent tagging and telemetry studies found that channel catfish migrate from winter areas to spawning areas and then to summer feeding areas. In summer, look for channels in submerged trees and aquatic vegetation.

Considered opportunistic and omnivorous feeders, channels are not selective and will eat day or night. They consume live fish as well as rotten ones, and will also eat crawfish, mussels, aquatic insects and vegetation.

White catfish prefer slow current; as a result, the smallest of our big-four species seek protection in eddies and holes. In waters with very little current, the home areas of channels and whites overlap.

Small fish, aquatic insects and crustaceans form the primary diet of white catfish. They are aggressive daytime feeders.

Wheeler Lake, a section of the Tennessee River below Lake Guntersville, is not only where McKinley caught his record blue catfish in 1996, but it's also where Sammy Springer of Rogersville landed a 132-pound blue with a gill net that same year.

"Who knows - there could be more enormous catfish living in that lake," said Springer. "The catfish I caught is the biggest I've ever seen."

Springer, a commercial fisherman, donated the fish to the Tennessee Aquarium because of its monumental size, which measured more than 5 feet.

Unfortunately, the fish died. The aquarium then sent the otoliths (a calcareous concretion in the internal ear) to Irwin for aging. Using an accurate technique that she developed, Irwin found the fish only lived 16 years. Clearly, Wheeler is capable of supporting phenomenal growth rates in blue catfish.

One of the most productive and enjoyable methods for catching blues on Wheeler is drifting the shoreline of the upper lake between the Guntersville Dam and Decatur. This part of the lake is riverine, so the current - though its flow is reduced in the summer - forces shad and catfish into predictable locations.

Habitats that are easy to find are the crags and crevices below the rock bluffs lining the upper lake. Drift the bluffs in water 12 to 18 feet deep using a 1/2-ounce fixed-sinker rig with two short leaders at 18 and 36 inches. Fresh cut shad is the bait of choice.

Access to the upper lake is good, with eight boat ramps upstream of the I-65 bridge. Midway between the upper dam and the interstate, Ditto Landing Marina off U.S. Highway 231 provides a security launch site for a $3 fee. For current fishing information, call Tim Fowler at the marina on (256) 883-9420.

Number five in a chain of six Alabama Power Company dams on the Coosa River, Mitchell Dam controls water flowing into Jordan Lake. The dam is 1,264 feet wide, impounds 5,850-acre Mitchell Lake, and is located less than a mile north of the State Route (S.R.) 22 bridge. Unlike the Coosa tailraces above Mitchell Dam, this tailwater does not have large hazardous boulders.

"If you want to catch big flatheads," says Irwin, "the Mitchell tailrace has a tremendous fishery. With our electrofishing gear, we consistently catch 25- to 30-pound flatheads. Unfortunately, we have not sampled areas known to hold big fish, because anglers are always fishing those spots. Those places are next to the dam."

Irwin says the big yellow cats congregate in the tailrace due to the abundance of shad, the dam's unyielding block to upriver migration, and the highly oxygenated water.

"Apparently, the dam provides incredible catfish habitat," says Irwin. "The expansive rocky shoal below the dam offers cover from the current and concealment for ambush."

To catch big bruisers, start by catching shad with a cast or dip net near the dam. Then anchor on the edge of the deepest washout hole below the dam and cast a live shad into its depths.

When Alabama Power operates its turbines at Mitchell, the water moves to the east bank to create a reverse flow on the opposite shore. Use this opportunity to drift from the bridge upstream to the dam, as the west bank offers excellent fishing during periods of reverse flow.

While a fixed-sinker rig works best for drift-fishing, a swivel-set slip-rig is best at anchor because you can feel the bite better. Make both leaders on the swivel-set less than 12 inches long.

Access to the Mitchell Dam tailwaters is available from ramps on either side of the lake just south of S.R. 22. For current fishing information, call Mama Jean's Fishing Camp, which is located on the east shore, at (256) 377-1144.

On the Conecuh River from Andalusia to the Florida border, anglers are catching trophy flatheads weighing from 30 to nearly 50 pounds. An average fish, though, weighs between 5 and 12 pounds.

Suitable for canoes and small fishing boats, the Conecuh runs counter to the big-water/big-fish axiom.

"When introduced outside their native range," says Irwin, "flatheads have wiped out - at least, they have been blamed for wiping out - the redbreast sunfish fishery. The flip side to that is that the expanding populations grow really fast.

"The old timers ask, 'Have you ever dug up the wiggler to catch the bream to catch the flathead?' If you want to catch a big flathead, use a live sunfish, which is legal in Alabama if you catch the sunfish with a worm."

Fishing for flatheads is a night adventure, so scout the river beforehand. Look for deep holes on outside bends with plenty of rocky or woody structure, and look for the riffles above these holes. The best riffles and holes lie at the end of long, straight runs. Then decide whether you'll fish from a nearby sandbar or anchor the boat.

If a trophy is your goal, use a rod-and-reel combo suitable for 85-pound-test-line and cast the largest bream you have into the hole. While waiting for the whiskered monster to bite, fish the riffle - if it's nearby - with a medium-weight bass rod and small bream. With luck, the flatheads will keep you running from riffle to hole.

Access to the Conecuh is available in River Falls off U.S. Highway 84; in Brewton off S.R. 41; and west of Andalusia below the bridge on County Road 42. For current fishing conditions, call Carolyn Jones at Stokes Sporting Goods on (334) 222-1225.

The Demopolis Dam, which is located just west of the city of the same name, did little to change the appearance of the two rivers - the Black Warrior and the Tombigbee - it impounded. The "Y"-shaped riverine lake covers 10,000 acres and has 500 miles of shoreline. Both arms of the lake offer excellent fishing for channel catfish.

An abundance of catfish weighing less than 5 pounds makes Demopolis a perfect lake for catching a mess of delicious cats for the frying pan. While anglers frequently catch channels weighing up to 10 pounds, a 3-pound average is common.

One of the most popular methods for taking channel catfish here, and across our state, is with a trotline rigged with droplines spaced at 2- to 4-foot intervals. The droplines, which are 12 to 24 inches long, dangle a wide variety of baits on 1/0 and 2/0 hooks.

Trotliners bait their hooks with everything from soap to congealed blood, but fresh cut bait is a better choice, as there is a good population of blue catfish swimming in the lake. After an overnight soak, expect channels on your line to outnumber blues three to one.

Since Irwin's field research has shown that channel catfish spend their days deep in the river channel and their nights shallow, set your trotline accordingly. For a night soak, run it parallel to the shoreline. For a 24-hour soak, attach one end to the bank and sink the other end in the channel.

Access to the lake is readily available via a dozen ramps within 10 miles of Demopolis. For current fishing information, call Ronnie Willingham of Willingham's Sports at (334) 289-4652.

According to biologists who conduct creel surveys and sample Lake Eufaula with gill nets, anglers can expect white catfish to make up 25 percent of their catch. Their field

research also shows that the average white weighs 1 pound.

Native to the Chattahoochee River, on which the lake is located, whites bear a close resemblance to Eufaula's more prolific channel catfish. The white never has spots and its tail is not as forked as the channel's. Unlike the other three catfish species, whites feed anytime of the day.

Lake Eufaula, one of our most popular reservoirs, covers 45,180 acres and stretches from Phenix City to Fort Gaines, Ga. - a distance of just over 85 miles. Fishing for whites is good everywhere the current is slow, but there are a couple of hotspots recommended by biologists. They report that whites congregate on the sand flats south of the railroad trestle across from the mouth of Barbour Creek. On the lower lake, they say anglers do well fishing humps in front of the dam.

An excellent method for catching aggressive white cats is jug-fishing, with four dozen jugs often producing catches of 60 fish per day. Because jugs are simple and effective, they are great for a family fishing adventure.

Within reason, nearly any size bottle works for jug-fishing. Anglers, however, have found that small-diameter 20-ounce plastic drink bottles have enough resistance to set the hook on striking fish. The tall bottles offer plenty of visibility as they bob in the water, and they require less space when you're transporting them to the lake.

After putting a coat of fluorescent paint on the bottle, tie an 8- to 15-foot length of 20-pound-test monofilament around the bottle's neck and the other end to a No. 2 hook. Then pinch a 1/8-ounce split-shot sinker 18 inches above the hook.

Fish the jugs about 40 feet apart in water about 3 feet deeper than the length of your jug lines. If you are in the right spot, a cat will pull a jug under before you finish setting the last jug.

Ramps on Lake Eufaula's western shore are numerous and well marked from the highways. For current fishing information, call Tom Mann's Fish World at (334) 687-3655.

Before heading out to any of these lakes, be forewarned. There is no known cure for the fever you are likely to get from catching catfish!

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