Your Guide to Peach State Catfishing

Whether you're planning a fish fry or seeking battle with a monster-sized lunker, Georgia has plenty of catfish to suit your taste. Here are some places for catching the critters this year. (June 2007)

Photo by Tom Evans.

Catfish get no respect. But if you want to pick a fight that'll have your biceps bulging as you begin to wonder who really has hold of whom, then give catfish their due. Peach State cats grow big and mean. If you want to take on truly huge fish in Georgia, catfish are the best game in town short of what you'd tangle with on a trip to the salty brine. Georgia is blessed with many good catfish holes, so let's look at what the state has to offer.

Before you can beat your opponent, you have to know what it is. Three catfish species attract the most interest from Georgia anglers -- blue, flathead, and channel cats.

THE FISH

Perhaps the most popular of these is the channel catfish. Channel cats are easily recognizable by their deeply forked tail and dark spots on the body. Trophy-sized channel catfish's spots are often faint or absent, and distinguishing on first glance a monster channel cat from a big blue cat is a job that can stymie even an expert. The best way to distinguish a large blue from a large channel is the anal fin. Blue cats have a razor-straight anal fin, and on a channel cat, the fin's shape is slightly rounded.

Channel catfish can be caught from nearly any river or lake throughout Georgia. The fish are not picky eaters and attempt to make a meal of nearly anything they can fit in their mouths, dead or alive. Despite their questionable culinary habits, the flesh of channel catfish is delectable, and a meal of deep-fried channel cat fillets and hush puppies is a Dixie tradition.

Although the long-standing state record for channel cats is 44 pounds, 12 ounces stories always are circulating of much larger fish caught using commercial fishing methods. Most channel catfish, however, weigh less than 10 pounds.

Although not as widespread as the channel catfish, flatheads are found many places in Georgia. Especially good for this species are the large rivers and reservoirs in the northwest corner of the state, along with the Altamaha and Flint River systems in South Georgia. Flatheads are easily identified by their brown and yellow coloration, and a big, wide head that's flat enough to set your favorite cold beverage on. The tail of the flathead catfish is square or only slightly notched, and its lower lip sticks out beyond the upper lip in a permanent pout.

Unlike channel catfish, flatheads like the thrill of the chase and prefer their supper to be alive and swimming when they pounce on it. The Georgia flathead catfish state record stands at 67 pounds, 8 ounces and was caught from the Altamaha River.

Although flatheads are commonly thought of as strictly a river fish, Georgia's large reservoirs can hold some monster specimens, and the anglers who devote some time to figuring out how to catch flatheads from big water can have some tremendous fishing all to themselves. Surprisingly, large flatheads can also be found in larger creeks and small rivers in their range, especially near where these feeder streams dump into a large lake or river.

The final member of the catfish "big three" is the blue catfish. Blue cats are creatures of big water. Like the flathead, blue cats prefer their food to be alive and kicking when they eat it, but they won't turn up their nose at a piece of cut bait either.

Blue cats are one of the largest catfish species, and fish in the 100-pound range are not unheard of, although in Georgia the state record stands at 67 pounds, 9 ounces.

Blue cats somewhat resemble a channel cat. The tail is deeply forked, but the color is more of a slate blue, and dark spots are absent. As described above, the distinguishing characteristic is the anal fin with a straight margin.

GEARING UP

Catfishing gear need not be complicated, but it must be up to the challenge of landing a large fish from the rough neighborhoods they live in. Winching a big fish out of a pile of timber is not for ultralight tackle. A heavy-duty spinning or baitcasting outfit spooled with 20-pound or heavier monofilament or braided line, a few strong 4/0 or larger baithooks, and a pocketful of heavy slip-sinkers are all that is needed. A reel with the "baitclicker" feature is nice but not absolutely necessary.

A simple fishfinder rig -- a slip-sinker ahead of a swivel, followed by a couple of feet of leader, and then the hook -- will be the ticket. This rig is easy to cast, and lets a fish take the bait without feeling the resistance of the heavy weight. The size of the weight depends on the current. In slack conditions, a 1/2-ounce sinker should be fine. Strong current may call for 2 ounces or more of lead to keep your bait firmly anchored to the bottom.

One key to keeping the number of snags to a minimum is to get your bait on bottom and keep it pegged to one spot. Large fish call for large bait, which catches a lot of water. In current, using just enough weight to get the bait to the bottom results in lost rigs. The current pushes against the bait and slowly moves it along the bottom dragging the lead until it snags.

When it comes to bait, shad are hard to beat. A big live shad catches the eye of trophy catfish looking to fill their bellies in one gulp. For lots of action, just about any size catfish will find a piece of cut bait. Cut a shad in half making sure to leave the guts with the head and cast that part out. It shouldn't take long for the rod tip to start bouncing.

Other old standby baits like chicken livers, night crawlers, and dead shrimp attract a lot of strikes too, but it is sometimes difficult to get the little fish to leave your bait alone long enough for the "keepers" to catch a whiff and mosey over to have a taste.

Acquiring bait is as simple as finding a spot where shad congregate. A few good throws with a cast net should give you all you need. If shad are hard to come by, bream can be used for bait. Bream cannot be legally taken in a cast net, but a few minutes work with a bream pole, tiny hook, and pinch of worm around some shallow rocks or brush should put bait in your bucket.

Catfish feed best under the cover of darkness and during low light conditions, but good fishing can be had during the day too. Contrary to the stereotype of an old, grizzled river rat camped out for days at a time waiting on that one big bite, the most productive catfish anglers know when to hold them and when to fold them. Set up on a likely spot like a deep hole or channel drop-off and put out your bait. If things aren't going your way in 30 minutes or so, don't be afrai

d to head for greener pastures. The move need not be far. Sometimes just relocating a few cast lengths away is all it takes to improve your fortunes.

Now that we know a little bit about our quarry, let's look at some of the best places in Georgia for tangling with Mr. Whiskers. You may run into it just about anywhere in the state, but the fishing holes listed below are some of Georgia's best.

WHERE TO FISH

Peaceful and full of monster flatheads, the Altamaha River is close to perfect for catfishing. The Altamaha is a large river, and one of few left in Georgia not impounded at some point along its course. With 137 miles of river downstream of where the Oconee and Ocmulgee meet to create it, the Altamaha is the largest flow found entirely within the Peach State.

The Altamaha has seen some changes in its recent times. Non-native flatheads were illegally introduced into the river sometime in the 1970s and have dramatically changed the fishing the river offers. The angling for other species, notably redbreast sunfish, has suffered because of the flathead's predatory nature and booming numbers.

But efforts to introduce anglers to flathead fishing have proven successful. Pulling huge flatheads from the Altamaha's deep holes has become a favorite pastime of local anglers.

The Altamaha is a wide and meandering river. Bends in the river channel are always the most productive areas to fish, and this stream has plenty. Since their introduction, flathead catfish have spread throughout the Altamaha River. However, the lower half of the flow has the most fish and offers the best fishing. Flatheads can be found even into the tidal zone, although their numbers decrease the farther into the brackish water you go. Anglers shouldn't completely overlook the upper river though, since it too has produced some huge catfish.

The river stage strongly influences fishing. High water generally means a poor day, and stable or falling water means your chances of catching catfish are good. Since the Altamaha drainage is large and extends well up into the Piedmont, weather conditions many miles away can be a factor. The best fishing is when the U.S. Geological Survey gage near Baxley is at 3.5 to 5.5 feet. When the reading is above 6.5, fishing is going to be very tough. Low readings of 0.5 to 2.5 result in good fishing, but navigating the river can become a problem.

The river is full of good places to fish from start to finish, but a few areas stand out. Upstream of U.S. Highway 84, the big bends in the river have plenty of cover and deep holes favored by flathead catfish. Really, anywhere in the nearly 40-mile stretch of river from Jaycees Landing to Altamaha Park has the potential of supporting a great fishing trip.

The Georgia Wildlife Resources Division publishes a free pamphlet titled Guide to Fishing the Altamaha River. This includes a river map and has information on launch sites, camping, and fishing hints. As a quick glance at the guide shows, access is excellent, with a selection of public ramps and private fish camps up and down the river. Contact the WRD Waycross Fisheries Section office at (912) 285-6094 to obtain a copy. Also available free from WRD is their Flathead Catfish Fishing Guide, which includes everything you need to know about flathead catfishing.

Heading to the opposite corner of the state, northwest Georgia offers good catfishing opportunities. The Coosa River is prime catfish water because of the variety it offers. Blue catfish, flathead catfish, and channel cats are all native to the Coosa River. The Coosa is one of only a handful of places in Georgia that offers this variety, and although blue cats make up most of the catch, it would not be surprising to catch all three species in one day of fishing.

The Coosa flows from downtown Rome to Weiss Lake in Alabama. The section of the river from Mayo's Bar Lock and Dam downstream to the state line is the most popular with anglers. It won't take a long look at the river before you spot a good catfish possibility. Deep holes are the places to look for. Likely areas include creek mouths, outside bends, and bluff banks.

A feature local anglers key in on is a rocky bottom. Most of the Coosa's banks are mud and sand, but if you can locate a rocky area, you likely have found a honey hole. The stretch of river from the State Route 100 bridge downstream to the Brushy Branch area has some good rocky areas.

Most anglers target the main river for catfish, but the shallow backwater sloughs scattered along the river are convenient places to catch bait. Access to the Coosa is excellent with good boat ramps at Heritage Park in downtown Rome, Mayo's Bar Lock and Dam, on River Road just downstream of the intersection of SR 20 and SR 100, and at Montgomery Landing in Brushy Branch.

Contrary to the stereotype of an old, grizzled river rat camped out for days at a time waiting on that one big bite, the most productive catfish anglers know when to hold them and when to fold them.

The Georgia WRD publishes a free pamphlet titled Guide to Fishing the Coosa River. This includes a river map and has information on launch sites, camping, and fishing hints. Copies are available by calling the Calhoun Fisheries Office at (706) 624-1161.

Moving south, two places on the Flint River stand out. Perhaps the No. 1 catfish hole in southwest Georgia is the Flint River below Blackshear Dam. Anglers do very well on channel catfish in this tailrace, with a few flatheads thrown in as a bonus. The east bank of the river below the dam has improved facilities including a boat ramp and bank access.

Shad are popular bait, but since channel cats are tops on the list at this location, it might be a good idea to carry along some chicken livers to help fill the cooler with fiddler-sized channel cats destined for the corn meal and hot grease. The Blackshear tailrace can be reached from SR 300 southwest of Cordele.

Moving on downstream, the Flint River below Lake Chehaw in Albany also offers good catfishing. The Georgia Power access point below the dam makes a good fishing destination. On the west side of the river, anglers find an improved fishing pier, a boat ramp, plenty of parking, and rest room facilities. Both channel cats and flatheads are found here in good numbers and there is the potential for big fish. Lake Chehaw is in Albany near the U.S. 19/82 bypass on the north side of town.

If you prefer your catfishing to be of the still water variety, one up-and-comer to consider is Lake Oconee. There are plenty of smaller channel catfish to keep your attention, but both flathead and blue catfish have recently become established in the lake and their numbers are on the increase. Flathead catfish exceeding 20 pounds are testing Oconee angler's gear on a regular basis.

Live shad or bream are good choices, and cut bait produces too. A rod set out with worms or a small piece of cut bait should draw constant attention from channel catfish, and with another rod soaking a large live bream hoping for a big bite, you should have all the action you can handle.

Lake Oconee is located in Greene County near the towns of Madison and Greensboro. Both bank and boat access is excellent on this 19,050-acre Georgia Power reservoir.

Our final catfish destination is in fact composed of nine different fishing holes. All of the WRD's public fishing areas have fishable populations of channel catfish. Depending on the area, anglers may have numerous smaller ponds to choose from, or there may be one large lake.

These areas are geared toward anglers, and especially families. Boat ramps, restrooms, picnic facilities, and fishing jetties are maintained to help fishermen get to the cats on these intensively managed areas. Public fishing areas are scattered around the state; to locate one near you, go online to GoFishGeorgia.com

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