Hooking A Mississippi Monster

Hooking A Mississippi Monster

The waters of the Magnolia State hold some true behemoths! Here's a look top places around the state for hooking one of those giant blue or flathead catfish. (May 2008)

Photo by Michael Skinner.

No fish better typifies the storied history of angling in Mississippi than the catfish, and no catfish more so than the most mystifying member of the species -- the flathead.

You may know it as the "tabby cat" or "yellow catfish," or any of the other scores of nicknames given the fish. It's a beautiful fish, but also odd -- odd to the point of ugliness.

"And on the other end of hand-to-gill battle, it's the second-meanest fish you can run into in Mississippi," said Art Mott of Brookhaven, one of the state's growing legion of hand-grabblers.

The meanest?

"A big blue cat," Mott came back instantly. "Now there is one mean dude."

A blue cat, no matter how it's caught, is going to fight with every bit of strength in its body. They've been known to bite at a fisherman even after lying in the bottom of a boat for more than an hour -- so imagine what they can do in the water when irate.

"I remember once, when I was hand-grabbing in Barnett Reservoir, I found a box that had two big blue catfish, a male and a female," said Bobby Herrington of Jackson. "I got my hands on the first one, subdued it and tied a rope through its gills tied to a buoy. I then slid him out, let him go and started trying to get the second.

"We did our grabbing deeper than most folks, so we used scuba gear. I was down there alone in about 10 feet of water trying to get that second fish when I felt something on my shoulder. I turned around and looked right into the face of that first blue cat -- darn thing bit my facemask! I mean, he bit the facemask off my face and wouldn't let go. I had to fight the darned thing off and swim up."

That qualifies as mean -- but not the meanest. Herrington battled the one that earned that rating while sitting in the open end of a homemade fish house built to attract mating catfish for grabbling purposes.

"No, that honor goes to another big blue in another box on another day at Barnett Reservoir," said Herrington, a big old boy in his own right, barrel-chested and as stout as can be. "It was a long cedar box in about 10 feet of water and I pushed a pole down in the box and felt the fish.

"Next thing I knew, things went sort of black and I couldn't breathe. The fish had backed up against the far end of the box and shot forward with all he had and, at full speed, butted me right in the chest; I was stunned. Then he backed up and did it again! Let me tell you, I couldn't get out that hole fast enough to let that blue go. I was black and blue all over my chest and shoulder for over a week."

So much for the horror stories of those variously called "hand-grabbers or "grabblers," or "noodlers." They make up a small minority of the people who fish for flathead and blue catfish, true, but we simply can't leave them out of a story about the two species -- because they tell the greatest tales.

It's the hook-and-line sportfishing for catfish that's the driving force behind better management of the species. But the guys doing that management have the most to learn from the grabblers about fish behavior and the most to benefit from what those hand-grabbers can provide.

"One of the things we're trying to develop with the grabblers is the capture of eggs spawned in their houses," said Ron Garavelli, chief of fisheries for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. "They have access to wild-spawned roe that can be removed from the box and brought to our new hatchery at Enid so we can hatch them for release and restocking. I think there is an advantage to taking roe from that situation rather than from having to remove them from broodstock at the hatchery.

"And restocking those fish is a priority. A lot of our coastal and Delta rivers and oxbows lost a lot of their native populations in 2005 due to hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Katrina destroyed a lot of the coast resource and then when the remains of Rita passed over the Delta and dumped dozens of inches of rain, our lakes and streams turned over and we lost a lot of fish."

Rivers -- the Mississippi, the Pascagoula, the Tenneessee-Tombigbee Waterway an others -- are the best blue and flathead catfish fisheries in the state. One of the most underrated is the Pearl below its dam at Barnett Reservoir.

"It's because of the reservoir and the dam that the fishing has gotten good on the Pearl again," said Earl Allen of Rockport, who has fished the Pearl for more than 50 years. "Back in the '50s and '60s, it had gotten to the point that you couldn't find a big tabby or blue anywhere in the Pearl. It had been fished out by telephoners" -- a reference to the use decades ago of old hand-cranked telephone boxes to shock fish. "They had wiped out the big catfish.

"Then they opened Barnett and built that dam -- and I'm not sure why it turned the river around. But in less than five years by the '70s the river had gotten better. I don't know if it's because the fish they stocked in the reservoir escaped, or if it just gave fishermen another place to go and they quit fishing the river. All I can tell you is that now, this is about as good a catfishing hole as we have anywhere in the state or the country."

Allen, a trotliner and a retired commercial fisherman, has also trained a lot of hook-and-line fishermen to find the big fish. So what's his No. 1 tip for catching a behemoth?

"Fish deep holes," he stated. "That's where the big mamas live. You can catch more fish shallow in current and around logjams, but if you want to get a big one -- and I mean, we got some giants down here that you can't turn with a rod and reel -- you better fish deep."

His No. 2 tip has to do with bait. "If you want a tabby cat, then you need to be using live bait. I like small pond bream or big minnows, but the best is a little mud cat" -- a common name for several species of bullheads. "They can't stand them mud cats -- a big tabby has to eat it.

"We catch a lot of big blues on live bait, too, but they eat anything. They're more like a channel cat, in that they are opportunistic and eat whatever they find."

Diet is a main difference between flathead and blue cats. Af

ter achieving 10 inches in length, flatheads turn to live fish for 99 percent of their diet. While blues do eat fish, they also eat invertebrates and other foods.

Both live in similar waters, preferring rivers or river-related waters. That's good for Mississippi, since those make up basically all of our public waters -- free-flowing rivers or streams, impoundments on rivers or streams, or oxbows formed when the rivers change course. It also explains role of the Mississippi River and its tributaries as the providers of most of the giant yellow cats and blues reported each year.

"Without a doubt, the Mississippi River is one of the world's greatest catfish waterways," said Sidney Montgomery, a lifelong fisherman on the river and a former river keeper on the Big Muddy. "Yet, it is one of the most underutilized fisheries -- at least, it is here in Mississippi.

"When it comes to catfish, there is a never-ending supply in the river. You can catch hundreds of what we call 'keepers.' Or you can target the true trophy catfish like the big flatheads and blues. I have never caught one that big -- but I know I've had 100-pounders on that I couldn't deal with."

What Montgomery likes most about Mississippi River cats is that varying styles of fishing can work on them. "Tightlining, trotlining, jugging and all that," he said, "I love it all and do it all. But nothing beats hooking up with one of those giants on a hook and line and rod and reel."

His favorite tactic: fishing the river on a rapid fall from high levels during the late spring or early summer. "When the river falls, it pulls a lot of the fresh, clear water out of the connected oxbows and sloughs and I love to find where that clear water is mixing with the muddy water blowing down the river," he explained. "The perfect situation is finding where the clean-muddy line is mixing as it passes over a point or a long bar. That's where I like to anchor and cast downcurrent with cut shad and wait for a big old blue to come along. It usually won't take long: It's going to happen -- and chances are it's going to happen fast and regular.

"When I want a challenge, I move to find a deep hole formed by eddy currents whipping around a jetty. Not just any deep hole, but one loaded with long jams with water rising from a depth of 80 or 100 feet up to like 25 or 30 feet. I run that whole area with my graph, and it's unbelievable the number of big arches that it will show."

Each of those arches on the depthfinder is a big flathead catfish. The ones Montgomery is interested in aren't the ones suspended, but the cats close to the bottom.

The angler marks the area and then goes off to catch some fresh live skipjack shador small white bass for bait. He then returns, puts a whole live bait on a hook and drops it down to those bottom-holding fish. All he wants is one bite.

"It's kind of like yellowfin tuna fishing," he mused. "One is enough, and two is too darned many -- because you can't handle it!"

Montgomery has hooked and landed fish up to 60 pounds -- but he's also hooked many more that took all his line and left with it. "And I'm talking 100-pound braided line on offshore tackle," he explained, "and I never had a chance. They either get in the current and run with it until they strip me, or they dig down into the logjams in 40 to 80 feet of water, refuse to move and the hook either straightens or the line finally saws on a log."

For sheer numbers of edible blues, Montgomery loves jugging over the long shallow sandbars formed in the inside bends of the river. "We'll put out a couple of dozen jugs baited with cut shad, with a 3- to 4-foot line and either a 4/0 or 6/0 stainless steel hook, and put the spread out at the upper end of a bar," he said. "The current will pull the jugs right down the river over the bar, and we want them to stay in 6 to 8 feet of water.

"In the meantime, we'll run down the river a mile or so, pull up on the bar and tightline with cut shad for blues and channels until the jugs get to us. We'll gather up the free ones and then run up to find the ones with fish."

In addition to the river itself, all of its connected waters and tributaries are home to yellows and blues, and big ones. The Big Black River is well known for its giant blues and flatheads, as is the Yazoo and Sunflower and their tributaries.

"I think some of the best yellow and blue cat fishing is in the Delta oxbows, and that includes some of the old lakes like Wolf and Broad, Bee and Dump and even George," said Art Mott. "We love hand-grabbling in those old lakes because of the natural stumps and logs that have helped maintain yellow and blue populations even when fishing pressure has gotten so bad.

"All of those lakes have natural blue and flathead populations. They are some of the most popular grabbling waters, so we have to be careful to let as many of the females go as we can. We only take the males, and let the bigger females go. I wish trotliners would do that, too."

Fishing styles differ on those lakes, owing to their shallow waters. They lack the deep holes that help concentrate focus, and all the water is less than 10 feet deep. "You just try to find the deepest water you can relative to the surrounding waters, whether it's 8 feet surrounded by 4 to 6, or 10 to 12 feet surrounded by 8 or 9 feet," offered William Thomas of Yazoo City. "That's where the big fish hang out, but I only do that on occasion for the challenge -- I don't trust eating any catfish over 4 or 5 pounds because of the warnings they've put out. And to catch the small ones, I just fish anywhere where there are stumps. I trotline and I use rod and reel. I fish in between running lines," he concluded.

All of Mississippi's five main reservoirs -- Barnett, Grenada, Enid, Sardis and Arkabutla -- are solid yellow and blue cat fisheries, as are the bigger pools of the Tenn-Tom Waterway -- specifically, Bay Springs, Aberdeen, Columbus and Aliceville.

"I think 90 percent of the fishing in those areas for big catfish, be it blues or flatheads, is in the tailraces below the locks and dams," said Larry Pugh, the District 1 fisheries biologist for the MDWFP. "But the rest of the system is good when you get into the old river channels -- not the canal part -- and fish the deep holes. It's just like any other river system in that respect: Fish for big catfish either in the tailraces or in deep holes."

The northeast corner of Mississippi is home to one other famous catfish hole, Pickwick Lake. "You hear so much about smallmouth and largemouth bass, crappie and all that," Pugh said, "but the No. 1 species up here is the catfish, and big blues in particular. Even some of the bass guides have taken it up."

One of those would be Iuka guide Roger Stegall, who offers his bass clients a jugging sidebar trip. "We put a dozen or jugs out when they're interested and then bass fish and let the jugs float on their own," he said. "It is rare that w

e don't dig up some big blues, some up to 20 pounds. It's a hoot."

Down on the opposite end of the state is the Pascagoula River, the largest undammed river in the country. Its tributaries include the Leaf, Bouie, Chickasawhay and Escatawpa Rivers, and Black and Red Creek -- all outstanding blue catfish producers.

"Fish the deep, deep holes, except in the summer when the fish move up to spawn in stumps and holes in the banks," said Moss Point's Tommy Phillups. "My largest blue was 52 pounds, and I caught it grabbling. My second largest was 49 pounds and I caught it on a hook and line with a small live white trout while I was striped bass fishing. I chased that fish for a mile up and down the river before I got it.

"Now that's fun!"

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