Capital City Catfishing

When you get that hankering to catch a mess of catfish for a fish fry this summer in the Montgomery area, you have several places for the angling. Let's have a closer look at your options.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Mike Handley

If you live in or near Alabama's midsection and want to catch a fish that tips the scales into double digits, you don't have to drive to Orange Beach to tangle with some saltwater denizen. The potential exists right here within the mid-Bama area to find freshwater fish of that size. The fish of your dreams could be swimming in any of a number of bodies of water right in Montgomery's back yard.

According to results of a survey commissioned by Alabama's Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries in the 1980s, one-third of the freshwater fishermen polled listed catfish as their most favorite finned fare. That is not surprising, since they grown to outrageous sizes and are ideal for the dinner table.

The whiskered fish has become such a delicacy nationwide that it has spawned a lucrative industry in catfish farming and processing. Alabama is among the leading producers in the field of aquaculture.

Still, many folks in Alabama would rather catch their own than buy the fish in a supermarket. That's because the fixings for a fresh catfish dinner, which can cost up to $12.95 a head in a restaurant, are as close as the nearest body of water.

Whether you prefer to sit on a 5-gallon bucket on a creek bank, holding a cane pole and watching a bobber, or to recline in a bass boat while waiting for a rod tip to bounce as the line is snatched taut, the opportunities abound in the Yellowhammer State.

There are numerous rivers, creeks, small public fishing lakes and even commercial catfish ponds where you can find and catch the makings of a good old-fashioned fish fry. Plus there's always the possibility that a cat of monstrous proportions could take the bait.

Here are only a few spots where central Alabama catfishermen have found the pickings anything but slim.

PUBLIC LAKES
If one prefers looking for Mr. Whiskers from the bank, then the numerous state-owned public fishing lakes in Alabama offer sound footing and good fishing. Fisheries biologists stock between 50 and 150 channel cats per acre into the 23 state lakes every year.

"Most of our lakes have pretty good channel catfishing," says Stan Cook, who formerly supervised the public fishing lakes program run by the division.

The one yielding the greatest catches in central Alabama is situated in Dallas County. Dallas County Public Fishing Lake consistently grabs the top spot as the best producer of cats, notes Cook, who is now the assistant chief of the division's fisheries section. Located just south of Selma off State Route (S.R.) 41, it covers about 100 acres.

In addition to an abundance of small cats, this lake is also home to some real line-breakers. A Selma angler once claimed to have pulled a 50-pound channel catfish from there - very unusual when you consider that it is extremely rare to come across a channel cat exceeding 40 pounds anywhere in the South.

The man's catch, however, was never verified because he cleaned and ate it.

"But it's entirely possible," Cook says of the 50-pounder. "Dallas is a super catfish lake. And if there was one out there, there's probably more."

Other big producers are Dale County Lake, near Ozark, and Crenshaw County Lake, close to Luverne.

Many of the state lakes have fishing piers, ample spaces for bank angling, rental boats and equipment. In most cases, however, they are only open during daylight hours.

Contour maps of each state lake can help you decide where to fish, but asking the local lake managers may be an even better bet for learning exactly where to wet a line, Cook adds.

MITCHELL TAILRACE
Cook says some of the state's best catfishing can be found in the tailrace below Mitchell Dam on the Coosa River - just a short drive from Clanton. Those waters have coughed up many beefy blue cats, some reaching or exceeding the 50-pound mark.

The locals run their boats as close as they can get to the dam itself, depending upon the current and the number of turbines running, then use a cast net or a dip net to collect shad, which they cut up before putting on the hook.

You had better have at least medium-action rods and baitcasting reels spooled with 20-pound test if you're serious about tangling with the brutes swimming here. If the current is too swift to anchor, drift with the flow. Use at least a 1-ounce weight to keep your line down - heavier if all four turbines are running.

If you drift farther than a half-mile, though, you will probably snag one or more of the many trotlines strung on the river.

LAKE MARTIN
Lomax Dunham of Goodwater, a retired postman who has found a second career in guiding crappie and catfish anglers on Lake Martin, likes to go after catfish in his V-bottom aluminum boat. He baits his hooks with meaty Canadian nightcrawlers and casts them alongside dropoffs and onto mud flats near Wind Creek State Park.

"The Mailman," as he's called by other anglers on this Tallapoosa River reservoir, also likes to fish with catalpa worms, the caterpillars sometimes found on catalpa trees during the early summer.

He leans the rods against the side of his boat and waits, and the slack time usually is not very long. It is not uncommon for him to catch between 40 and 50 cats in only a few hours, most weighing close to a pound and perfect for frying.

Dunham prefers anchoring on the shallow side of an underwater point or hump, then throwing the baited lines off the deep end.

If you are looking for a fun fishing trip, give Lomax Durham a call at (256) 839-5094 to book a day of catfishing with him at Lake Martin.

Larry Collins of Eclectic is the longtime striper guide and restaurateur who had a hand in elevating Lake Martin's fishing reputation to the position of fishing status it enjoys today. But he's also invested thousands of hours looking for and catching catfish.

He prefers worms, too, but he likes the garden-variety wigglers living under the leaves close to home. He fishes on the bottom,

but instead of anchoring he allows the boat to drift in order to cover more water.

Collins says small live shad, other minnows, chicken livers and even crickets catch cats as well. But one of his secrets to boating plenty of catfish involves baiting his favorite fishing holes periodically with white rice.

CATFISH TACTICS
No method of catfishing can compare with rod and reel, whether you're fishing from the rocky bank below the old Jordan Dam or from a boat somewhere in the middle of Lake Martin. But it's best to match your tackle with the size fish you expect to catch.

A small closed-face spincast reel with a medium-action rod is fine for the "squealers" so abundant in the Tallapoosa River, but such a combination is woefully inadequate below Coosa River dams or along the Alabama River below Selma. A mere 7-pound channel cat could strip the gears of a spincast reel, which happened to me at Monroe County Lake a few years back.

You have more options if you fish from a boat. You can anchor and tight-line in prime waters too far to reach from shore, or you can drift with the current, dangling your line off the side. When drift-fishing, you can choose to keep your bait and weight off the bottom, or rig the line in such a way that an egg-sinker crawls along the bottom, pulling the baited hook slightly behind and above it.

The latter could result in more snags, but it is the preferred method of a lot of anglers who fish tailraces.

There is another way to catch lots of catfish that doesn't involve a reel at all, and I'm not talking about trotlines. Running a trotline is much more like work than play. While I'm not knocking the practice, I have to say that, for me, it's far less gratifying.

I was hooked on jugging the first time I tried it back in the early 1970s. Someone's renegade gallon milk jug floated into Bill Gross Slough on the Black Warrior River. When I discovered that it had a hook and line attached, I baited it and tossed it back into the water. The next morning, a 2-pound blue cat was waiting for me. By that afternoon, I had raided all the garbage cans in camp and assembled quite a flotilla.

In the three decades since, I've practically turned the enjoyable pastime into a science. From plastic gallon-sized milk and vegetable oil jugs, I soon turned to vessels with slimmer profiles - quart-sized bleach bottles and then motor oil bottles, which were not as likely to be manipulated by the wind. I eventually settled upon 20-ounce soft drink bottles, which served the same purpose and didn't take up as much space in my boat.

From nylon cord, I switched to longer-lasting 20-pound monofilament, and I prefer small stainless steel to any other type of hook because they don't rust as fast.

The "scientific" part of this sport lies in the color-coding equation employed. I have at least three different colored jugs, carrying lines of different depths. This way, I know immediately at which depth the hungriest fish are swimming. If I happen to be fishing a creek or slough in which the depth is relatively the same, I can use three different baits at a time.

If more yellow (than pink or orange) jugs are dancing, I know that nightcrawlers are producing the most strikes. I might have cut bait on the pink and live shad on the orange ones.

I also put a handful of small rocks in each bottle. When fishing at night, I can often hear the violent "rattle" before turning on the spotlight. Also, to help with visibility, I have wrapped reflective tape around every jug.

BAITS
Because they have so many taste buds - all over their bodies - catfish have been called "swimming tongues." Plus, their sense of taste is but one of three incredible senses. Both their hearing and eyesight are keen as well. In his book Fishing for Catfish, author Keith Sutton says their eyes are so similar to humans' that scientists are using them in disease research.

But if you want to catch enough cats to feed the whole family, you had better target their sense of smell. It helps, too, if your hands don't smell like gasoline or insect repellent.

An amazing variety of baits can lead to a tug of war with Mr. Whiskers, ranging from chunks of roadkill to soap. An entire magazine could be devoted to the different morsels that have been used to catch catfish. But the most tried-and-true are stink baits, worms, live and cut-up fish.

Live offerings, usually small bluegills and large shad, are the baits of choice for flathead catfish. When the live bait is no longer alive, your chances of hooking up with channel and blue cats increase. Or you can skip the sometimes long wait for a passing flathead and just cut up the baitfish. If you're going to use cut bait, however, don't waste anything.

While many anglers discard the heads when using cut bait, former world-record blue catfish holder Bill McKinley of Thatch caught his 111-pounder on the head of a skipjack.

Since you can't buy fish heads at the local bait shop, you might just have to stick with worms.

Nightcrawlers, yard wigglers and "Florida pinks" are year-round favorites. Yet one of the most popular choices for this time of year is the catalpa worm, which is actually a moth's caterpillar. If you can find them, there might be no better bait. Their effectiveness has been documented back to Civil War times.

If you don't have access to a catalpa tree, you might want to order some and plant them. They're available through C.P. Daniels and Sons in Waynesboro, Ga., which you can check out on the Web at www.burke.net/cpdaniel/. Once plucked from a tree, the worms can be used immediately, refrigerated or frozen. They stay alive for a little while if you store them in a container of corn meal in a refrigerator. If you want to use them long after the peak summer months, freeze them.

For best results, heat a pot of water (not allowing it to come to a boil) and drop the caterpillars in for a minute. Afterward, drop them in cool water. Now they're ready for a freezer bag, filled with just enough water to cover them. This way, they maintain their color instead of turning black.

While the catalpa trees are on order, go out and buy some Canadian nightcrawlers. If you have a couple of extra days before going to the lake, put some garlic in the container and stick it in the refrigerator. In a couple of days, the worms will take on the garlicky smell, which fish love.

Before we leave the kitchen, here is a stink bait recipe you might want to whip up.

Mix 2 rounded tablespoons of any popular blood bait, a cup of powdered milk, 2 cups of grated cheese, 2 cups of flour and a cup of wheat. Knead the mixture, adding more flour, until the dough gets stiff. Pinch off small pieces and roll into bait-sized balls, and then boil them for 30 minutes. Afterward, allow them to dry in the sun.



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