All About Mississippi Cats

All About Mississippi Cats

Few states can boast the variety and quantity of catfishing waters that lie in the Magnolia State. Let's have a closer look at some of the best.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

On a spring morning a few years ago, I was seeking fish. The object of my search: pre-spawn crappie.

Rigged up with a minnow hooked through the back and a large turkey quill float adjusted to position the bait 6 feet below the surface, I dropped the hook into a nest of logs along the channel of the Pearl River in the upper main lake of Ross Barnett Reservoir. No sooner had the line reached its limit than the quill stood upright, and then suddenly disappeared. My elation at the quick bite was dashed a bit when a 2-pound channel catfish came up on the hook. But I wasn't complaining: I'll keep a catfish anytime, and 2-pounders are just the right size to filet.

Within minutes, my wife had another cat on the line, a carbon copy of the one I'd just boated. We rebaited and tried the same place, and before very long we'd again caught a pair of channel cats. We had yet to catch a crappie, but my wife was pleased to be catching fish; after a brief lull, she boated another cat.

An older man who was fishing for crappie some 40 yards away had witnessed the action. "You're fishing too shallow!" he yelled. "You need to be deeper for perch."

He was right, of course -- but the experience of taking catfish by using crappie poles was one we remembered. We did adjust to get down deeper, but as the bait was in free-fall, several more catfish all but climbed onto the hook. The outing ended with almost equal numbers of crappie and catfish taken. We had no problem with the outcome -- nor, when the fried filets, cole slaw, hush puppies and iced tea were placed on the table, did the folks back home!

ROSS BARNETT RESERVOIR

Ross Barnett Reservoir offers terrific catfish opportunities. Worthwhile sites extend from the spillway all the way upstream to the low-head dam. The methods used by catfishermen are many -- free-floating single jugs, connected jugs anchored at one end, yo-yos, trotlines and limblines. Rod-and-reel fishermen, and even those who use traditional cane poles, find the action for the popular whiskered fish to be quite satisfying.

The Spillway

The tailrace waters at Ross Barnett are rich with baitfish -- so game fish are present as well. While the catfish isn't considered a game fish, it's far from being a trash fish. The commercial value of "wild" catfish has fallen significantly since farm-raised fish made their way into the markets of America -- good news for recreational catters. Each day, hundreds of rod-and-reel anglers may be seen lining the riprap along the spillway at "the Rez," their common object being to catch catfish. Blues and channels abound within the foaming water, and every size of cat, from those a few inches in length to 40-plus-pound brutes that require some very serious tackle to land, can be and is caught.

Most fishermen agree: A slowly rising water level creates optimal conditions for fishing the spillway. And shad, either whole or cut, is the bait you want to use, a few throws with a cast net generally resulting in enough bait for an outing. The rock-climbers along the spillway will be found to be using goldfish, minnows, bream, liver, stink baits, earthworms and other concoctions -- and rare are those who walk away with no fish on a stringer.

Tackle on the rocks ranges from extreme to extreme. A spin-fishing rig with a medium-heavy rod and a reel loaded with 20-pound test will do nicely in most cases. At times, a surf rod and 50-pound test line will needed to land a big blue, but such situations are the exception rather than the rule.

Small catfish are plentiful in the tailrace, so smaller bait offerings result in a lot of bites, and larger catches of smaller fish. To catch big cats, use big baits. You might get fewer fish, but they'll be better-quality fish.

The Main Lake

Up on the main lake, reports Daniel Golden of Forest, the most rewarding catfishing turns on amid the heat of summer.

"Blues and channels look for any hole they can find when they spawn," he said. "Cuts in banks, hollow logs, fallen timber that makes a cavity of sorts: That's where the females lay their eggs. That's why hand-grabbers have so much success with boxes and old water heaters. This means that where you find catfish one day, you will likely find them all summer."

Golden also likes to float jugs on the stump flats near Rose's Bluff. While he's waiting on the jugs to start bouncing, he can't resist the urge to throw out a line. "I like to use a 20-pound-test fluorocarbon line," he offered. "It is invisible in the water, and I think that makes some difference. I save some of the shad heads with the guts still attached, and fish them under a popping cork until I find the depth where the blues are cruising; in late June and July, as the weather starts to really heat up and the water becomes less stained, that is usually about 8 to 12 feet."

On the upper end of Ross Barnett Reservoir, upriver from the state Route 43 bridge, plenty of catfish opportunities are to be found. Sue Wallace and her husband, Mike, tightline for catfish downriver from Coal Bluff Water Park, which is in the very headwaters of the impoundment.

"We have some favorite holes we always fish," Sue said with a chuckle. "Sometimes we have to use spark plugs as weights to get the bait to the bottom. But we've never been skunked -- we've always caught fish."

The Wallaces are given to using a variety of baits, including chicken liver, earthworms, goldfish and pond perch (bream).

Before we leave the Rez, it deserves to be mentioned that the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks has constructed a pond at the Turcotte Laboratory, just off SR 43 on the Madison County side of the reservoir. This lake is periodically stocked with catfish from the Meridian Fish Hatchery for use in youth fishing programs. The Mississippi Wildlife Federation sponsors one; another is put on by the 100 Black Men of Jackson. These youth fishing days allow children, while closely supervised by conservation officers and volunteers, to catch catfish in a controlled environment. Rods and reels, bait, and instruction are furnished to the youth free of charge. It's a great way to introduce a child to the fun of fishing.

MISSISSIPPI RIVER

Shad innards are the favorite bait of Sidney Montgomery, whose results with fishing the Mississippi River constitute a long-term chronicle of success.

"I think I have tried every possible catfish bait there is -- soap, cheese, shrimp, live, cut sh

ad, you name it -- but shad guts have always caught catfish," Montgomery explained. "Cut shad is my second favorite, especially for fishing below the weirs in the river and along the bars that separate islands such as Paw-Paw Island from the mainland."

Montgomery fishes a tight line, the weight just heavy enough to keep the bait from drifting too quickly. One other valuable lesson that Montgomery has learned about catfish on the Mississippi has to do with barge traffic: He advises being baited up and ready when a towboat comes past, especially going upstream. It's been his observation that something about the droning of the engines sends catfish into a feeding frenzy.

"I'm not sure just what it is," Montgomery said. "I just know it works, and works well."

STATE LAKES

Mississippi's state fishing lakes and state park lakes are some of the most underused waters in terms of catfish. The regulations governing state lakes forbid the use of trotlines or jugs, and night-fishing requires the express permission of the lake manager -- each night trip has to be approved specifically.

All state lakes are stocked with channel cats, says Tom Holman, a fisheries biologist with the MDWFP. "Our state lake system has supplied some fine results when it comes to catfish," he reported. "Lake Tom Bailey near Meridian has been drained for work to be done on the dam, but before it was drained, that lake set the state record for channel catfish" -- a 51-pound, 12-ounce specimen landed on May 31, 1997, by Toomsuba's Tom Edwards, who was fishing with rod and reel.

CATFISH TIPS ONLINE

The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks' Web site provides a range of information on angling locations in the Magnolia State, including for catfish. To access this data, go to

www.mdwfp.com and then click on the link for Fishing.

For current angling conditions follow the link from the menu at the top of the page for Fishing Reports and then the body of water.

For a list of the top catfishing waters in the state, click Best Fishing In Mississippi on the menu at the right of the Fishing page.

 

Repairs to Tom Bailey have been completed and the lake has been restocked, but it won't reopen for fishing until the fall of 2006.

Shadow Lake, at Roosevelt State Park, has just gone through a situation similar to Lake Tom Bailey's. Closed three years, Shadow reopened in September 2004, with over 100 boats joining dozens of pier- and bank-fishermen. Former State Representative and avid outdoorsman David Livingston of Morton was among those on the water that day.

"We were fishing with chicken livers, and at times had a catfish follow another to the boat trying to take the bait away from the one that was hooked," Livingston recounted. "Four of us in two boats caught 100 in just a few hours. I've never seen anything like it."

Most state lakes, such as Lake Ross Barnett at Mize and Simpson Legion Lake near Mendenhall, have had hundreds old Christmas trees placed in the lakes as fish attractors. These provide spawning areas for catfish during the summer months, with the females laying their eggs in the thickest cover they can find. Males will first fertilize the eggs and then hang around to help with guarding the nest. Obviously, when you find such cover and concentrations of fish, the action can be fast.

Other state lakes worth mentioning include Lamar Bruce, Percy Quinn State Park, Mary Crawford, and Charlie Capps.

Since special creel limits apply at the state lakes, always check the site regulations upon entering the facilities.

TENN-TOM WATERWAY

The Tenn-Tom Waterway is another grand place for anglers on the lookout for catfish. Creek channels and flooded timber augment the thousands of acres of impoundments open to fishing. Unlike the situation with unfettered rivers such as the Mississippi, this waterway is punctuated with locks and dams, which are in place to maintain a somewhat predictable pool level along its length.

At Columbus Lake, boats are restricted in the tailrace area, and bank-fishermen have the advantage of a fenced concrete pier. There's ample room for fishermen to gather on the structure to get a hook in the water.

Tales of anglers losing entire fishing rigs when big cats yanked them over the fence and into the water are many. For that reason, some anglers tether their rods to the fence with a length of heavy cord.

The fishing pier at Columbus Lake is an easy walk from a public parking area. The concrete walks allow older or disabled anglers to get to the fishing area with a minimum of effort. Six public boat ramps on this impoundment allow anglers to enter the lake; fishing boats can pass through the locks upstream and down.

The Aberdeen Pool and the Aliceville Pool are nearly carbon copies of the Columbus facility. Maps of all three are available from a number of sources, one of the best being the Mississippi Atlas and Gazetteer, published by DeLorme. It's on sale in the sporting goods department of most major chain discount stores. Such maps allow anglers on the Tenn-Tom to find creeks such as Buttahaychee, Town, and Catalpa -- just some of the places that catfish use to spawn during the summer months. Fishing at the mouth of any of these creeks will be a smart idea; there you can intercept catfish leaving the nest and returning to the river, or entering the creek to spawn.

Check out these creeks just after a summer thunderstorm or other rain event. Rising water in the creek carries with it a host of crayfish, earthworms, frogs and other morsels that catfish find very tempting.

Just about any bait will do for fishing this flash-and-dash phenomenon: minnows, small bream, bubble gum, chunks of unscented soap or hot dogs cut into small portions and soaked in garlic and strawberry Kool-Aid.

In addition to looking for the feeder creeks and spawning areas, the easiest way to find catfish on these big lakes is to locate shad concentrations. In summer, shad are usually found close to the surface, and catfish patrol shallow waters in search of food. More than once when the crappie bite has slowed, or when we have a limit of crappie in the ice chest, we move into the shallow stumpfields just off the river channel and fish for channel cats and blue cats. Fishing with shiners or goldfish suspended 18 inches under a cork works every time. Most of the fish we catch with that method weigh less than 5 pounds, but that's a perfect size for filleting. Two- to 3-pounders will be average.

One other point to ponder: Big catfish like a big meal -- a tendency that seems to hold true across all the whiskerfish species. If you're happy with the size

of the catfish you're catching now, that's fine, but for something bigger, use bigger bait. Just remember that a 30- or 40-pound blue cat is not an uncommon catch in some of the waters we've highlighted, so a stiff rod and heavy line should be holding that bigger bait.

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