Mississippi Blues

Mississippi Blues

Not that down-home Delta music, mind you -- we're talking about some very hot angling for blue catfish. If it's a trophy cat you're interested in, the Mississippi River is hard to beat!

Although the Mississippi River offers the best angling, big blue catfish can be found in many Magnolia State waters.
Photo by Stephen E. Davis

The water flowed like fresh-washed oilcloth from one muddy bank of the Mississippi River to the other; big tow boats pushing strings of barges were the only disturbance in the distance. Our boat was anchored bow and stern close to a cut into the bank below a huge clearing on the shore that was filled with logs waiting for pickup to the sawmill.

Suddenly one of the four heavy-duty rods with the big saltwater reels bent like an arcing rainbow. Even with the drag set high, line clicked out rapidly. Jim Spencer grabbed the rod and gave it an awesome jerk, but our first catfish of the day swam leisurely off toward the main channel.

Gradually the fish slowed, sulking there at the bottom of the Mississippi River until he realized that something was preventing him from going where he wanted. He rested a minute as Jim commenced cranking back some of the line; then, the fish started pulling in earnest towards the deepest part of the river.

It became a slow battle, and one well fought on both sides. Jim and the behemoth on the bottom traded gaining line -- but overall, the catfish was winning. It became apparent that something would need to change presently if the reel wasn't to be emptied down to the knot at the spool, enabling the fish to escape with nothing worse to show for his misplaced hunger than a bit of lip jewelry; even that would come loose in a few days.

Then the battle seemed to turn, and the heavyweight on the bottom began yielding to the tugging from above. Gradually the large spool refilled with line. After another 15 minutes of disagreement, the fish was almost directly below the boat in about 8 feet of water. But the angler's best efforts could not seem to detach the balky creature from the bottom of the river.

"Keep the tension on him, boy," said Sid Riley, who was hosting the fishing trip and driving the old wooden johnboat. "He's about ready to come unstuck if you just don't give out."

Sweating buckets, Jim looked as if giving out wasn't far off. But after several more minutes the catfish allowed itself to be pulled up and alongside the boat, where Riley scooped him up in an oversized net.

When they got the big blue cat dumped into the tub that kept fish from sliming all over the boat, it was jammed up like a dog on a small circular cushion. The big galvanized washtub was in danger of turning over from the fish's thrashing. We figured that the cat weighed about 30 pounds, but it's hard to tell with something as dense and muscular as a blue catfish. (Not to mention that the estimate was made by an excited angler!)

The system that Riley used to put Jim on the boated cat was a simple one: A punctured can of Cozy Kitten cat food was tied to an overhanging branch about 10 yards upstream from our location. Our heavy rods were each spooled with 70-pound-test braided line; on each, a two-way swivel was about 3 feet from the big hook, where another line fastened to a 1-ounce weight was attached. The bait consisted of chunks of bologna and prepared catfish bait that we'd brought along to try. (That first big catfish had chosen the bologna.)

The bait was allowed to sink to the bottom and rest there. Sid had directed us that if nothing happened after 20 minutes, we were to twitch the bait. Had we not gotten any bites, he was planning to move the boat to a dropoff further out in the river. Fortunately, we never had to resort to that option, since putting the baits on the edge of the bank cut worked just as well that day.

By the time the sun had set over the Louisiana bank of the Big Muddy three more sizeable cats were in the boat, all of them the same slate gray with a white underbelly. Each of us had brought in at least one of the cats -- and all three of us were ready to call it a day. When the boat was pulled up in a sheltered cove, it took all of us to get the two overflowing tubs into the truck.

FINDING FISH

A lot of big catfish loiter in the Mississippi River where it sidles along the western border of the Magnolia State. Rising waters bring some of the fish down from northern states, while many are lifelong residents of the brown water that washes along Mississippi's edge on its way to the Gulf of Mexico; still others are washed out of the rivers and waterways that drain the state and feed Old Man River. Regardless of how they get there, the biggest of these critters are blue catfish.

Most people target catfish by using trotlines set along the river's banks. These strings of baited hooks can yield a thrashing burden of catfish when deployed in an eddy of the river or along a cut in the bank.

But catching cats on rod and reel is an even more enjoyable and challenging way to come home with a cooler of fish. Catching big blue cats is a sport that's just becoming popular in our area, although a few veteran anglers have already earned the reputation of experts at blue cat fishing.

Mississippi State-Record Blue

The Mississippi state-record blue catfish was caught by Carrol Pearson on Feb. 12, 1997. The 93-pound lunker was taken from the Mississippi River near Rosedale.

 

Carrol Pearson of Gunnison is probably as good as they get when it comes to locating big blue catfish and, even more important, wrestling them into a boat. He's fished the river for as long as he can remember, and has been figuring out catfish for more than 30 years.

It was Pearson who caught the state-record blue cat -- a 93-pound behemoth leviathan -- and he's since caught an 84-pound giant, and many others upward of 40 pounds. The amazing thing is that he gets these monsters on rod and reel, 50-pound-test line and a cut-up skipjack or shad.

"I like to get out toward the middle of the river on the edge of a deep hole," Pearson explained. "Then I anchor down both ends of the boat and cast into the current or deep holes."

He stresses that catfishing with rod and reel is a patient angler's sport. For example, he may go out at first light and wait

until after dinner for the first bite. "If you haven't had a bite after 30 minutes of letting the bait sit on the bottom it's time to try casting to a different area," Pearson said. "If nothing's happened after an hour, I move to a different spot."

The behavior of the fish, especially big blues, differs from season to season. "In winter you have to find a school," said Pearson. "Then the excitement begins. In the summer the fish are traveling single, and you wait a lot longer between bites."

He fishes with three to four rods in holders around the boat. When he's fishing alone, he often has to choose between two rods simultaneously hooked up to catfish. Over the years, he's learned to determine size by the way the rod's bending, and always tries to land the biggest fish first. Since catfish generally hook themselves as they attempt to swim off with the bait, he usually gets to bring in both fish.

"If the hook is in the corner of the fish's mouth you generally get them in the boat," Pearson noted. "When you catch the top of the cat's mouth, it's hard, and you have to really jerk heavy to get the hook to stay."

Once a catfish is hooked and on the line, Pearson stresses, there'll be none of the exciting runs and jumps that some fish provide. Just be prepared for a long, hard pull if it's a big blue. He's spent as much as 45 minutes reeling in a big fish.

"It's not so much a fight as a winching operation," he explained. "They pull steady -- it's like they don't realize they are hooked for a long time."

Even though he uses heavy line, Pearson takes no chances with larger fish when he gets them close to the boat. Many things on the bottom of the Mississippi, like rocks and metal debris, can damage line and end up causing the fish to break off in those last few critical seconds.

"For fish up to 50 pounds, I use a net," offered Pearson. "After 50, I use a gaff to bring a fish into the boat."

Although Pearson uses high-quality heavyweight rods and saltwater Penn reels, his other equipment is simple. He spools with 50-pound-test Trilene or Stren line and ties his hook on a loop knot about 2 feet from the end of the line. The hooks are Eagle Claw models in sizes from 8/0 to 10/0. At the end of the line he ties a weight that changes with the amount of current that he has to deal with.

Cut-up skipjack or shad serves as Pearson's bait of choice. He cuts them into 3-inch pieces, since bigger baits entice bigger catfish. Blue catfish will bite almost anything that smells; they don't require live bait. Many anglers use deer liver, but commercial baits, spoiling meat, Ivory soap and cheese are also popular. (Personally, I have trouble keeping cheese on the hook in current.)

Pearson has a few hints on the best times and places for hooking catfish. "Find an underwater sandbar near a deep hole and anchor on it," he said. "The best time to fish is on a slow rise or a slow fall, but avoid fast rising water, since it will carry lots of trash and keep you clearing junk off the line and bait or, worse, taking off your hook and weight."

He also remarked that tow boats coming by with their strings of barges stir up the water, which often stirs up activity as well, and opined that the best time to catch catfish is right before a front comes through.

Pearson fishes near the middle of the river, but he doesn't recommend this for beginning anglers. He suggests starting near the bank, or close to other fishermen, and watching for tow boats until you get used to big water. This will prevent your getting run down or swamped.

Although Pearson's been exceptionally successful at catching blue cats, there have been many times that he's come home with nothing to show for his time on the river but a windburn. "Some days I come in empty-handed, and others there is half a boatload," he said. "Either way I've had a great time."

Another successful strategy for blue cats is to fish at night, says Pearson. Night-fishing is particularly useful on smaller lakes that host lots of water and jet-skiers. Constant boat traffic can make it nearly impossible to keep in position and take much pleasure in the fishing. So set out when the boat traffic clears around sunset, anchor by those deep holes, throw out your baits and enjoy the evening. A light hung over the side will attract bugs, which, falling into the water, attract fish. The increase in subsurface activity may pull in more cats.

WHERE TO GO

Catfish will be found in almost every body of water in Mississippi, but blue catfish, especially those that've got some size on them, are somewhat harder to locate. Since the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks doesn't stock blues, there are no waters that promise a sure thing, and finding blue catfish in lakes and rivers can pose a challenge.

The MDWFP Web site is the prime source of information on the lakes and rivers where blue cats are currently being caught, according to Ron Garavelli, director of fisheries for the agency. There are two Web pages that are particularly useful; the Fishing Report and the lakes and rivers recommended as catfish lakes. Unfortunately, the recommended lakes don't specify what types of catfish are being caught. Local bait shops on the lakes are another source of up-to-date catfishing information. Most of the regulars report in if they've been lucky or had a good day.

In general, the big impoundments in the northern half of the state -- Sardis, Enid and Grenada -- provide the best chances outside of the Mississippi River for hooking a big blue cat. Fish deep holes near the dam, below the spillways or along the edges of old stream channels now under the surface. These deep holes and cuts can be located by means of a fishfinder or by taking a look at a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers map. The maps are available from the local Corps office or their Mississippi Web site.

Contacts

The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks' Web site can be found at

www.mdwfp.com. For Information on catfish, follow the links for FISHING and then BEST FISHING IN MISSISSIPPI.

To access information on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' lakes in the Magnolia State, visit

www.usace.army.mil. Follow the links through SERVICES TO THE PUBLIC and RECREATION. Next click the link to CORPS GETAWAY LAKES and on the map highlight MISSISSIPPI. Finally, from the drop-down menu choose the name of the individual lake.

 

"Hotspots for blue cats include dikes, dams and deep-water holes," Garavelli noted. "On Ross Barnett and the other big lakes, fishing below the dam can be a good bet to catch these catfish."

Since blue cat

s can follow scents in the water over considerable distances, be patient and leave baits in place for a long time, as a fish may be tracking the smell from quite a ways off. Carrol Pearson waits at least half an hour before abandoning a location; in waters you've never fished, 45 minutes would probably be better. But keep an eye on your rods for movement indicating that a fish is taking off with the bait.

Big Black River, the Tenn-Tom Waterway, below the Pearl River below the dam at Ross Barnett Reservoir, Arkabutla Lake, Grenada Lake, Yalobusha River, Big Black River and Lake Chotard are other waterways in the northern half of the state that are home to big blue catfish.

South Mississippi also has some creditable catfish hotspots. The lower Pearl River, Black Creek, Leaf River, Flint Creek Water Park, plus the Pascagoula River and its oxbow lakes are long-recognized venues for big blue cats.

Still, the No. 1 hotspot is the Mississippi and her oxbows. Garavelli and Pearson agree that all areas of the big river will yield some worthwhile cats, and that there's no single "best" place to fish. Each section has holes, channels and dikes that harbor big cats.

Fishing with rods and reels for blue cats isn't complex, technical or difficult, but it does take patience, strength and stamina. So give it a try -- the excitement of a 40-pounder pulling on your line might even make blue cats your favorite fish.

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