Flint River Lake Cats

You don't hear much about the catfishing in the reservoirs along the Flint River -- but the channel and flathead action on Blackshear and Chehaw is well worth noting. (August 2008)

It's completely true: The flathead cats in both Blackshear and Chehaw are fast-growing eating machines
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

The cooler full of fish in the bed of the pickup offered evidence that the sticker on the tailgate reading Will Fish for Food was meant literally. In an era whose prevailing angling mantra has become "catch-and-release," the catfisherman driving the truck was taking advantage of a guilt-free, mouthwatering alternative in order to buck the trend and savor his catch.

According to John Kilpatrick, a senior fisheries biologist for the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, two impoundments on the Flint River in southwest Georgia offer anglers ample opportunity to fill their cooler with the prime ingredients for a fish fry.

Along the 220-mile course of the Flint River, which is recognized as one of the least obstructed flows in the United States, lie only two dams. The Flint was first restrained in 1919 by the construction of the hydroelectric dam in Albany that created what is today 1,400-acre Lake Chehaw. In the 1930s a second impoundment, Lake Blackshear, spread over approximately 9,000 acres when the Crisp County Power Commission built another dam and hydroelectric plant on the river.

As was the case with many Southern impoundments constructed during the first half of the 20th century, little or no effort was made to remove the trees that would be submerged by the rising waters of lakes Blackshear and Chehaw. At the time it was believed that the trees would quickly die and decompose, but that assumption, as we know today, was incorrect: Many cypresses in the shallows of the reservoirs survived and continued to grow, while those trees that were killed remain in various stages of their former grandeur above and below the water's surface.

The positive aspect of this situation: The submerged trees provide tremendous structure for attracting and holding all species of fish, including cats. The downside: They pose a potential hazard for unwary boaters.

"If you look at the numbers, Blackshear is an awesome place to fish," Kilpatrick pointed out. "There are really good numbers of channel catfish, and the flathead population is fair in the reservoir, with some decent fish in the 20- to 25-pound range being caught regularly.

"Blue catfish are here, but haven't made it above the Albany dam yet. We really don't see them in the Flint. We primarily find them in the Chattahoochee. Not to say that some aren't here -- but we haven't seined them in Chehaw or Blackshear yet."

Flatheads -- "Appaloosas," some anglers call them -- were introduced into the Flint River Basin sometime during the 1930s or '40s and have become acclimatized to both lakes, according to the senior WRD biologist. "People love or hate the flathead," he remarked. "We've come to accept them. They're not at a detrimental level in the Flint, although there are a lot of them in the river. But we also still have a good bream fishery. We've kind of come to a new equilibrium, so we don't view it as a problem in this region."

Kilpatrick went on to explain that one of the biggest differences between the two impoundments is in their use and management. "They draw Chehaw down every few years for maintenance on the boat ramps and docks, as well as trash pickup," he said. "From a fisheries standpoint, we definitely lose fish that get flushed out, although we've never seen any big fish kills due to the drawdowns. One reason for this is possibly because they do it in the winter, when there is less oxygen demand."

Interestingly, the biologist acknowledged that the stocking of Chehaw has been looked at. "We've found," he noted, "that the escapement is so high coming out of Blackshear that it does in fact stock Chehaw without us doing so directly."

Another difference between the two lakes relates to size. Lake Chehaw spreads out over the Flint's original channel for about 10 miles, whereas Blackshear covers more than 15 miles of the original river valley. Both have a high level of recreational traffic from boats and personal watercraft. "It's just a little easier to get away from that on Blackshear," Kilpatrick stated.

"We have a lot of subsistence fishing in the region," he continued, "and as far as the public has indicated to us they are happy with the catfish numbers. They aren't after the trophy fish as much as they are something to eat. However, we have the flatheads for those in search of a trophy."

One thing that's the same at both lakes is the formula for taking catfish consistently. Todd Krause has been fishing for Blackshear's cats for decades, relying predominantly on trotlines to collect his cats. His experience there backs up Kilpatrick's seining data: Channel cats are plentiful.

"We get sick of catching them," the angler said in mock consternation over the effort that it takes to remove the predominately 3- to 8-pounders from his lines. Then, switching to an enthusiastic tone: "We're after the flatheads. If you want to catch Appaloosas, it's live bait only. We use bream for bait, at least three fingers (in size). Most of the time night is better, but if you've got a front moving through, it doesn't matter -- when the weather's changing, they just follow the bream shallow into the sloughs."

Flatheads are true predators, consuming live bass, bream, shad and other catfish but rarely eating dead or decaying bait. They feed in the shallows and even on the surface at night, returning to deeper holes during the day.

Flatheads grow faster than channel cats, rapidly attaining substantial size in impoundments like Blackshear and Chehaw. Krause has heard of flatheads being caught that pushed the scales to 60 pounds. "But," he added skeptically, "you actually put them on the scales and they're in the 40s."

Kilpatrick related a story about having hooked two flatheads on the same line. That presented a bit of a problem: They weighed 7 and 47 pounds each. "The 7 had a hole in his mouth that the hook slid through," he said, "and the bigger one was on the hook. The 7 was sliding along the line between the hook and the swivel with its head mauled up like somebody had just taken its hide off with sandpaper."

Although Krause may sound dubious about the existence of 60-pounders, that doesn't mean that he may not have come in contact with them. "I use the biggest bait I can find," he stated.

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