South Bama Fast-Water Cats
September 28, 2010
Looking for a different type of catfishing this summer? Why not try tangling with some of these fiesty fish in moving water? These tailwaters can provide plenty of catfish fun.
Targeting catfish in the tailwaters below navigation and flood control dams in Alabama offers some of the fastest action for Mr. Whiskers that can be found in the Cotton State. The fishing is especially outstanding southwest of the line that could be drawn on a map from Tuscaloosa to Montgomery. Downstream of any of the dams in that region are blue, channel, flathead and white cats.
Generally these cats feed very aggressively, bite almost any bait, and make easy catches for both boat and bank fishermen. At times it is possible to catch 50 to 60 pounds of catfish from some of these tailraces in a day's fishing.
Jerry Moss is the fisheries supervisor for District III in the southwest corner of the Cotton State. According to Moss, there are plenty of catfish and much less fishing pressure in the tailraces in the southwestern part of the state than on the eastern side of Alabama.
"Southwest Alabama and the region along the Mississippi border are rural areas," Moss explained. "Because the catfish in these tailraces experience less fishing pressure, you usually find more and bigger cats."
DEMOPOLIS LOCK AND DAM Demopolis Lock and Dam is located on the Tombigbee River just downstream of its junction with the Black Warrior River. According to Moss, the turbulent waters downstream of this structure provide some of the best habitat for catfish anywhere in the state.
"The catfish like to hold in the shallow water and rock shelves right below the dam," Moss noted. "The catfish really seem to congregate in this tailrace region."
Unfortunately, Moss went on to point out that the tailwaters at Demopolis also have the most fishing pressure of any in this portion of the Yellowhammer State.
Photo by Tom Evans
"You won't see near the fishing pressure there that you find below the Tennessee River locks and dams in the northern part of the state," he added.
"Although this tailrace has plenty of channel, flathead and blue cats, channel catfish dominate in this area," Moss continued, while adding that Demopolis rates No. 1 in the region because of the large numbers of eating-sized channel cats it give up.
ALICEVILLE LOCK AND DAM Anglers from both Alabama and Mississippi frequent the tailrace area on the Tombigbee River near the town of Aliceville in west Alabama. However, due to its distance from any large metropolitan area, those fishermen don't show up in large numbers. Catfishing pressure during the summer at Aliceville is relatively light.
"The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has done a really good job of building access for both bank and boat fishermen at the Aliceville Lock and Dam," Moss commented.
He went on to point out that the low fishing pressure below Aliceville Lock and Dam makes it a good area for finding some really big catfish. The fertility of the Tombigbee River system allows these waters to support large numbers of the fish as well.
GAINESVILLE LOCK AND DAM Jerry Moss picked Gainesville, near the town of Gainesville, as another good choice for tailwater catfish.
"Aliceville and Gainesville share several similarities. Both of these rural areas are on a very fertile river system - the Tombigbee. They both have very little fishing pressure, and they both produce large numbers of big cats all spring and summer.
"I like to fish both of these lakes because of the light fishing pressure on them. Light fishing pressure usually means plenty of large cats. And both of these two tailrace areas fit that description."
WARRIOR RIVER LOCK AND DAM When spring and summer rains come, this tailrace receives quite a bit of water and provides ideal catfish habitat. Located on the Warrior River near the town of Eutaw, the official name of the structure is the Armistead Selden Lock and Dam. It is another of the dams that is located in a rural section of the state and gets very little fishing pressure from local folks. It also receives virtually no attention from visiting anglers from Birmingham, Tuscaloosa or Mississippi.
Here again, the tailwaters below the dam share the combination of fertile conditions and low angling pressure that proves ideal for big cat production.
CLAIBORNE LOCK AND DAM Located downstream of Millers Ferry Lake on the Alabama River, Claiborne Lock and Dam is situated between the towns of Monroeville and Grove Hill.
The time to be fishing at Claiborne is in the spring and summer months when rains raise the river level to the point that water comes over the dam. This has the effect of ringing the dinner bell for the catfish.
"Catfish can dodge the current in the structure at Claiborne and have plenty of food and oxygen in the tailrace," Moss explained. "You often see anglers with heavy rods, stout lines and big reels fishing for monster-sized cats in this tailrace during the summer months."
THE CATFISH Channel catfish are the most common of the whiskered fish found in the Heart of Dixie. Needless to say, that holds true for the southwest corner of the state as well. In smaller sizes, the spots on their sides and their deeply forked tails easily identify these cats. Unfortunately, as these fish grow larger, they lose the spots, making it easy to confuse them with blue catfish. Like the rest of their clan, they have barbels around their mouths, which they use in seeking out food.
Channel cats can be found in ponds, lakes and rivers, but because they prefer clean sand, gravel or rock bottom, the scoured area just below river dams is ideal for them. Also, this species is noted for feeding in areas where currents are moderate to strong. Thus they thrive in tailwater situations.
The average size of channel catfish runs about 11 to 30 inches and under 15 pounds. They do, however, get much larger, with fish as big as 60 pounds having been reportedly taken by commercial fishermen. The hook and line record for channel catfish in Alabama is 40 pounds. Ronald R. Cox of Oneonta took that fish from Inland Lake on June 17, 1967.
Although they do take live baits, channel catfish are ver
y much omnivorous scavengers, ready and willing to eat almost anything they find on the bottom of the river.
Blue catfish are probably the No. 2 catch for anglers targeting tailwaters in southwest Alabama. Like the channel catfish, the blue catfish is right at home in tailrace areas. It prefers clean, moving water to muddy, slack flows and is usually found over bottoms featuring boulders, bedrock, gravel or sand.
Generally pale blue in color, blue cats have a deeply forked tail. These fish are considered by many anglers to put up the strongest fight when hooked. Though blues fall victim to cut baits, they are more prone to lie in fast-moving water coming through chutes or channels in the rocks, waiting for small minnows or crawfish to come within feeding range.
Southwest Alabama's rivers are not prime blue catfish territory, so the average fish taken here runs only 2 to 3 pounds. Yet, these blues can grow into the true behemoths on the catfish family tree. The largest blue catfish taken in Alabama also holds the world record for the species. On July 5, 1996, William P. McKinley of Elkmont was fishing cut bait at Wheeler Reservoir on the Tennessee River when he landed a blue cat that tipped the scales at 111 pounds.
Although fairly common in the rivers of southwest Alabama, the flathead catfish is less often encountered in tailwaters of the region than are channel or blue cats. There are a couple of reasons for this situation.
First of all, flatheads are fond of lying in deep, sluggish pools in rivers and rarely venture into areas that have strong currents. Additionally, they feed almost exclusively on live fish and crawfish. Thus, they don't move into tailrace areas very often and any anglers fishing there are probably not offering baits that interest them.
Flatheads are rather easy to differentiate from other catfish species. Their coloration is brown to yellow in tint, and they sport a large square tail. The head of this catfish is wide and flat, with a lower lip that protrudes out beyond its upper one.
Another catfish species that attains large sizes, flatheads in excess of 60 pounds have been taken by both sport and commercial fishermen. Rick Conner was fishing in the Alabama River near his home in Selma when he caught the Bama state-record 80-pound flathead on June 22, 1986.
The final cat that may be encountered in a tailwater of this part of the state is the white catfish. The white cat is one of the smaller members of the family and is easily mistaken for a channel cat. Bluish to silvery in color, the white cat has a tail that is not as deeply forked as a channel cat's, and it does not have spots.
The natural range of white catfish covers ponds, bayous and streams in coastal regions. For that reason, the farther south you are fishing in the state, the more likely you are to encounter them. White cats even show up in brackish water.
Another of their preferences keeps them from being a regular catch in tailraces. Like the flathead, white cats do not regularly inhabit locations with strong currents, although they do feed at times in moderate flows. Eddy areas below a dam are the most likely place to encounter them in tailwaters.
As mentioned, white catfish do not reach monster sizes. The average size of the species is 10 to 18 inches in length and weights of around 3 pounds. Of course, some individuals do get bigger. The state record in Alabama stands at 10 pounds, 5 ounce. Roy T. Britton of Opelika took that fish from Chambers County State Lake on April 3, 1981.
BAITS FOR RIVER CATS When you start discussing the best baits for Bama catfish, you generally end up in an argument. Each catfisherman believes his particular bait is superior at enticing catfish more readily than anyone else's concoctions. So rather than trying to define the best bait, let's simply check out all the ones that are likely to be found on hooks below the dams in the region.
Fresh shad guts may sound disgusting, but they work. Catfish anglers always rate shad guts as one of the five top baits for use at any tailrace. This bait produces a strong scent and has a natural appearance that catfish like. Fishing with shad guts in a tailrace is like feeding hotdogs to baseball fans. Both are very appropriate to the moment. But make sure the guts are fresh, so they spread their alluring odor downstream to attract Mr. Whiskers.
Cut shad is another part of those baitfish that work on catfish. Cats readily feed on cut shad in tailraces, particularly ones below hydroelectric dams. There cut shad is a primary food source, created by the baitfish being sucked through the generation turbines. Though the same effect is not seen below navigation or flood control dams, the catfish still take advantage of any dead shad they find.
By cutting fresh shad into bait-sized bites, you release an authentic tailrace odor that the cats can home in on and follow to your bait.
Another shad option is to put the entire minnows on the hook, either alive or dead. Tailrace cats are also used to seeing this natural bite-sized forage in their environment.
An advantage of using the live minnows is that they attract large catfish, particularly any blues or flatheads that venture past.
Dead shrimp is yet another catfish bait option. No one knows for sure why catfish like rancid, dead shrimp. There can be no argument that they do give off a strong, pungent odor that cat can home in on.
This bait probably gives you a leg up on hooking any white cats in the tailwater, since those fish often venture into brackish water where they would encounter shrimp.
Live worms have been the staple bait for catfishermen for decades. Many anglers swear by Georgia jumping worms for catfish bait, but night crawlers or just about any type of worm from your back yard can also make a productive catfish bait.
Regardless of where and when you target catfish throughout the state, you are likely to see someone tossing out fresh chicken livers. Don't be fooled into settling for frozen ones. Only the fresh variety is a dependable catfish attractor.
One final tip that is well worth remembering when it comes to targeting catfish in a tailrace is to be flexible. Never set out with just a single kind of bait. For a bottom-feeding omnivore, Mr. Whiskers can sometime get quite picky. By staking out a couple of rods with different bait, it is possible to more quickly figure out what the cats are hungry for on any given day. Once they have made that preference know, then you can serve them up their favorite on all your hooks!
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