'Big Cat' Country

Few catfish anglers so master the intricacies of the Natural State's stretch of the Mississippi River as does James Patterson. We look inside the mind and tackle box of the man called "Big Cat." (July 2008)

James "Big Cat" Patterson prepares an offering of shad guts fit for a Mississippi River whiskerfish.
Photo by James Joslin.

I've crossed the Mississippi River into our eastern neighbors of Tennessee and Mississippi many times at Memphis and Helena-West Helena, respectively.

I've heard its nicknames -- a list almost as long as its length (2,300 to more than 2,500 miles, depending on the source cited) from its headwaters at Lake Itasca in northwestern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico not too far from New Orleans.

I've even read the stories of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer and the Native American tribes who, as legends have it, pulled catfish in excess of 6 feet long from its waters.

So, I feel as if I know a little something about the Mississippi River.

But there's a difference between knowing about the Mississippi and knowing the Mississippi.

Enter James "Big Cat" Patterson, owner/operator of Mississippi River Guide Service, www.bigcatfishing. com. He's fished these waters, mainly for catfish, for decades. In fact, it was he who got his father started fishing after pestering the elder Patterson, a barber, to stop cutting hair and start cutting bait so they could go catch some cats.

So when you begin to list the names of Mississippi River islands and bars that might hold some good catfish, it seems as if Patterson has fished at or near any you could mention.

There's Loosahatchie Bar, Redman Point Bar, Hatchie Towhead, Island No. 30, Forked Deer Island and Island No. 21 that can be found above the Interstate 40 bridge connecting West Memphis and Memphis and below the southern tip of the Missouri bootheel.

Downstream from there are Cat Island and Rabbit Island, near Tunica. Or Prairie Point Towhead, just upriver from Helena-West Helena. Or Island No. 63, just downriver from this historic Arkansas Delta cradle of blues.

Motoring farther toward the Gulf of Mexico, we find Cessions Towhead near the famously deer-rich Mozart deer camp adjacent to the White River National Wildlife Refuge.

We then end our trip down the Mighty Mississippi by boating past Choctaw Bar Island No. 78, now part of an 8,300-acre wildlife management area under the ownership and management of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Choctaw's roughly even in latitude with Arkansas City, while, last, Kentucky Bend Bar is found along the Arkansas border just below Lake Village.

But the names of these locations are less important that the whereabouts of the fish at any given time, Patterson explained recently.

HERE TODAY, GONE TOMORROW
"On this river, fishing can be good here this year," he said, pointing around toward the Memphis skyline, "but it may not be good next year. In fact, it can be good one day and not the next."

The reason for the constant shifts in catfishing hotspots is the constant shifting of the Mississippi River itself.

Anchored below one of the many rock dikes constructed in the river by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Patterson then turned his attention from Memphis, his usual base of operations, to the banks and sandbars near the dike.

"You see those trees over there?" he said, gesturing again. "The short ones, not the bigger ones. About 20 to 25 years ago, there was 20 to 40 feet of water there. Now, it's all trees and islands."

The dikes are among the Corps' tools for managing the river for navigation by both commercial and personal watercraft. But, as Big Cat noted, the dikes have other effects as well. "The dikes will attract fish," said the longtime catfisherman. "There will be a scour hole below them that could go to 50 or 60 feet deep. But with time they will fill in and begin to build bank."

It's that process, forever ongoing, that keeps the river from being a pushover when it comes to knowing where, when and how to fish for the cats that are found in these waters.

Also, the Mississippi takes the brunt of precipitation run-off from the Rocky Mountains to the west all the way to the Appalachian Mountains to the east. That fact -- which makes for the nutrient-rich waters that grow monster catfish -- couples with the ever-changing topography of the river bed and banks to cause some fishermen to scratch their heads perennially and go on the move in search of catfish.

In fact, while Big Cat does the majority of his fishing a few miles above or below Memphis, he noted that hotspots in recent years have had him parked near Osceola or above Helena-West Helena in the neighborhood of the Tunica casinos.

So instead of answering the obvious question from an angler not quite so familiar with the Mississippi -- "Where do I go to catch some catfish?" -- Patterson offered a question as his reply. "What time of year are we talking about?" he asked matter-of-factly while adding another shad to a hook and then tossing the bait into the eddy current's edge below the rock dike.

Soon, Patterson began to lead the way on a journey through a year in the life of Mississippi River catfish and those wanting to catch them.

JANUARY-MARCH
At this time of the year, blue catfish can be caught in both good numbers and good sizes. The blues are wintering, which means they can generally be found in holes 30 to 60 feet deep.

Also, channel catfish up to 10 pounds can be caught, sometimes in much shallower water, perhaps 4 to 10 feet.

Heavy bass tackle is the weapon of choice for Patterson during these months. "Right now," he said, speaking of the first three months of the year, "the fish are in their slow, winter pattern. They are easy to catch if you can locate them, but they are not going to chase after a bait."

This period, when water temperatures are usually around 40 degrees Fahrenheit -- and often even below that mark -- has Patterson anchoring the boat below rock dikes. He noted, however, that he'll also work what he called "reverse current sandbars," which are created by the current circling back upstream in areas between the rock dikes, or revetment banks. Here, he said, you can find the same slower current that he targets below the rock

dikes in late winter to early spring. Usually, a 2-ounce to 3-ounce weight is, in his words, "just enough weight to keep it on the bottom."

Then, use a sinker in conjunction with line in the 30- to 40-pound-test range and shad or skipjack rigged on a three-way swivel.

For anchoring down, Patterson suggested, keep the sinker lead line shorter than the hook lead line, thus allowing the bait to move more freely in the current rather than just burying in the mud at the river's bottom.

While fishing can be quite productive during this part of the year, the river can fluctuate greatly from day to day, Patterson warned, and inclement weather -- from thunderstorms to ice storms -- can always create a travel plan akin to the worst backlash bird's nest in history.

APRIL-JUNE
Spring has sprung, so the catfish are leaving their winter haunts to move into their pre-spawn feeding phase, and will be working toward areas of stronger current. High water is common, but big fish are more commonly caught during these months. That rule generally holds true for both blues and channels, with the latter sometimes exceeding 10 pounds.

Stressing how the April-June period can produce big fish, Patterson exclaimed, "I can remember one day in May of 2006. I had a guided trip out. We caught 23 fish that weighed a total of 451 pounds in just six hours."

The average water temperatures in the Mississippi have started warming to or above 50 degrees by now, so a change in tactics is on the way. Anchoring down for the catfish is in the process of being replaced with a controlled drift.

JULY-SEPTEMBER
"This is the best time of the year for the drift technique," Patterson asserted, speaking of what he referred to as the "most interesting" among the methods he employs for catching catfish.

"This controlled drift involves lifting and dropping the bait, up and down," he said, "keeping it in contact with the bottom. So you have to pull it up to get it over a ridge, and you have to let it down to drop it in a hole." He added that the lead line for the sinker is longer for this technique -- roughly the same length as the bait lead line.

Unfortunately for Patterson, this also seems to be the method of fishing that's hardest for his clients to master. "People need to realize that to catch lots of catfish," he explained, "you have to put in some work. The better the fishing, the more work you must generally do." Further, he noted, he wasn't trying to discourage people from catfishing, but was instead trying to encourage them to learn more about how to fish well for catfish.

In July through September, cat anglers on the Mississippi can expect to find the blues and channels in a good mood most of the time. Fish in the 1- to 20-pound range are common, but some trophies can be caught at this time. Flatheads are usually in a biting mood early and late in the day, when low-light conditions prevail. The only drawback to this period is the spawn, which occurs between the April-June and July-September periods.

"The cats will not bite during the spawn," Patterson said. "The male will back up in a hole and guard the nest. The bite will be good both before and after the spawn. But he will be up in there guarding the young until they hatch and can swim off.

"As far as the summer bite, you want to find lots of current. That water is more oxygenated. For instance, water running around or over a revetment bank will hold catfish. They'll be there feeding on mussels, shad, Asian carp or other smaller fish."

Otherwise, Big Cat warns that one of the most important keys to a good catfishing trip at this time of year is preparation for the sun, heat and humidity.

OCTOBER-DECEMBER
Patterson swears by this time of the year as the absolute best for catching blues and flatheads, with October being the high point.

The drift technique is still effective right now, plus water conditions and weather conditions are usually more stable and comfortable for the fisherman, which can make it easier to concentrate on this technique.

"This is my favorite time of the year to fish," Big Cat said, explaining that the flatheads and blues are beginning to "cycle" back toward their wintering habits.

As long as the water is above 50 degrees, though, Patterson said the flatheads will continue to "put on the feedbag" -- a phrase he uses to describe the times when the various cats are feeding heavily.

Then, his attention shifts to the blues again as the water temperature retreats below 50 degrees once more.

Often, the proper rig will require up to a 16-ounce sinker until the water temps begin their annual drop. Then, Patterson begins to work the waters with lighter weights in lighter currents again.

SAGE ADVICE
For the catfishing novice or the educated cat-catcher wanting to know a little more about the whiskerfish, Patterson enumerated a few things to keep in mind.

"Shad guts are the best bait ever for catfish," he began. "You can catch fish in shallow water, deep water, slow current or fast current on shad guts. . . . If you are looking for the fish, you can begin by checking around revetment banks, behind islands or along sandbars. The fish could be in slow or fast flow. They could be in 4 to 10 feet of water or deep holes. So the idea is anchor and fish a spot. If you have not gotten a bite or caught a fish in 15 or 20 minutes, move. But don't just take off and go somewhere else. I see lots of people make that mistake: They will pull up to a spot where they have been catching fish, and not do as well, so they will say, 'The fish just aren't biting today.' Well, they may not be biting there -- but they may be biting somewhere."

PLACES TO STOP
Keeping in mind that silting is a natural process on this river, consider fishing around any timber or wood cover because there is little of this actually available to the fish, except during periods of high water.

Other likely spots at which to hook up with cats are revetment banks, channel edges or bluff sandbars. In the fall, consider anchoring along riprapped banks; in winter, look for deep holes.

The blues, which seem to be the biggest rock dike fans among these types of catfish, can be found lurking in the swirling currents that gouge scour holes along the revetment banks, likely on the edges of these dike eddies.

In the summer, channel catfish may be found in calmer backwaters. Another possibility is any wider section of the river, particularly below big bends, as current will be weaker there; otherwise, look for underwater differences to hold channels: logjams, rocks, fallen trees, brushpiles, sandbar edges.

As for flatheads, look for the deepest available water near rocks or woody cover, preferably in or near stronger

currents. The flatheads may also be found in "underwater houses" or cavities near the banks or buckled revetment. The fish may hang out in water troughs whose current is slower, but they're still going to be near stronger currents.

TOOLS OF HIS TRADE
For heavier tackle, Big Cat prefers medium-to-heavy-action Quantum Big Cat rods mated to Quantum Cabo reels spooled with Stren Super Braid line in 60- to 80-pound-test line. Bait with shad or skipjack placed on an Eagle Claw Black Platinum Hook (L141BP) in 7/0 to 10/0 sizes or an Eagle Claw Black Platinum Hook (L7228BP) in 6/0 to 8/0 sizes.

When going a little lighter, Patterson switches to Quantum rods and reels spooled with 30- to 40-pound-test line. He may even go to smaller circle or Kahle hooks down to the 1/0-2/0 range.

The big rods and reels are used with 4 to 12 ounces or more of weight in heavier current, and generally catch the larger fish. Meanwhile, the smaller and lighter rigs are for less current and are the norm for going more specifically after smaller fish like channel cats.

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