Mississippi's Best Catfish Waters

Mississippi's Best Catfish Waters

Blues, channels, flatheads: The Magnolia State has fast action with whiskered fish to suit any angler's tastes. And these are the waters you should try for some of that excitement this year. (June 2006)

Catfish may not have the cachet of bass, but as table fare they're unrivaled. And June in the Magnolia State is an equally unrivaled time for catching them. Whether you're using a trotline or a yo-yo, whether you're tightlining them or noodling, catfish are one of the best bets this month. And it doesn't matter whether you're going for blues, channels, or flatheads: Mississippi has whiskered fish to suit any angler's desires.

Bubba Hubbard, assistant director of fisheries for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks says that in June, most bedding is about over, but flathead catfish are still spawning.

"Channel catfish and blues are abundant all around the state, with channel catfish as our mainstay," he explained. "We maintain a population of catfish in our state fishing lakes, and do some supplemental stocking in some of those lakes."

Anglers use a variety of techniques for catching catfish. Typical approaches, of course, include floating any kind of stink bait under a bobber, tightlining on the bottom, and using trotlines. One that's definitely off the wall is hand-grabbing, also known as "noodling," the season for which runs from May 1 through July 15.

John Skains, a MDWFP fisheries biologist, declares this technique to be a lot of fun, and suggests that it just might get more fish to your fryer than will dangling a hook and line in the water. Hand-grabbing technique exploits the catfish's tendency to nest in protected areas within structure.

"People wade around looking for the best sites, such as hollow logs, where catfish spawn," Skains said in describing the activity. "Or they put out structures in the water, such as logs or boxes, for the catfish to spawn. When they reach into the log or the structure, the catfish bites them on the hand, holds on -- and they pull it out. It's addicting!"

Hand-grabbing may seem like it might be a little hard on the hand, but by wearing a protective glove, you can prevent lacerations.

Just how big a fish can a hand-grabber expect to land? Pretty big. "The biggest one I've grabbed was a 52-pound flathead catfish," Skains offered. "But hand-grabbers routinely get up to 60- to 70-pound fish. And that's a handful!"

Wading back to the boat with that size fish can be tough -- but it's worth the effort.

What do hand-grabbers need to be successful? It's fairly basic stuff: Any type of neoprene diving glove is the main gear needed. "It's smart to wear a glove," Skains emphasized. Also, he added, some people also use scuba gear for hand-grabbing.

Hand-grabbers catch different species of catfish, according to which one is spawning at the time. "Usually channel cats come in first to spawn, and are the first catfish to catch during the season," Skains explained. "As they're finishing up, then the blue cats and flathead catfish come into the area, looking for any log or hole or anything they can back up into. That's where the female lays the egg mass and the male fertilizes it. The female will stay with the eggs until they hatch, and guard them and the fry for a short time."

Skains also noted that though Mississippi has bullheads, nobody really targets those for hand-grabbing.

Why does hand-grabbing work so well during this time? It's a matter of fish behavior unrelated to feeding. "Catfish don't feed during the spawn," Skains said. "Fish are defending the nest at this time." The fish grabs on to something that it reads as dangerous to the nest and doesn't let go; the angler just pulls it out.

KATRINA AND RITA

Wherever you fish for catfish this year, bear in mind that the twin terrors, hurricanes Katrina and Rita, caused a number of fish kills last year; these, biologists think, will have an effect on our fisheries for several years to come. "We had substantial fish kills in the lower part of the state and through the Mississippi Delta," Hubbard reported.

Though it's hard to know for sure to what extent catfish were affected, Hubbard said that the impact in some areas was appreciable. "The effects will be short-term," he stated, "because the kills were caused by oxygen depletion. It will take a while for the fish to grow back up into the size where anglers like to catch them."

South Mississippi streams most heavily affected were the Pascagoula, Biloxi, Jourdan and Tchoutacabouffa rivers. "It was mostly those coastal rivers that flow into the Gulf," Hubbard said. "It could take as long as three to four or even five years for those areas to recover. Growth rates for catfish vary among all these streams, and the length of time also will depend on the severity of the kill in each area. So some areas may not have the quality that they had in years past.

"The farther upstream you go, the better things will be, but keep in mind that there were some kills up as far as 30 or 40 miles below Jackson. We really don't have a handle on what all this will mean for anglers.

"Manpower limitations don't allow us to sample every place," he continued, "so we just have broad brush information, but we're trying to get some people focused on what we can do."

Remedies may include stocking to help populations recover more quickly, but Hubbard doesn't anticipate any changes in regulations as a result of the fish kills.

NEW REGULATIONS

However, there have been some regulation changes that catfish anglers need to be aware of. The size and bag limit for flatheads changed last year.

"There had been a minimum length of 25 inches and a bag limit of five between May and July of each year in waters open to commercial fishing," Hubbard noted. "That regulation has now been removed."

WHERE TO GO

Lake Tom Bailey

One place for anglers to fish this year wasn't available to them last year: Lake Tom Bailey, near Meridian. A state fishing lake that was closed for renovation and dam repair, it reopened last September.

"Lake Tom Bailey has historically produced some very big channel catfish," Hubbard said. "The fish are in there, but they haven't had time to get real big like they were in the past. We don't know why it's so good for catfish, but they do like it."

And like it they obviously have. The state-record channel catfish caught there by Tom Edwards on May 5, 1997, was a lunker that weighe

d 51 pounds, 12 ounces.

The MDWFP has gone to some lengths to make the state fishing lakes accessible, and Lake Tom Bailey is no exception. Two handicapped-access fishing piers make reaching the water easy even without a boat, but there's also a boat ramp that can accommodate boats of all sizes.

In Lauderdale County 13 miles east of Meridian off US Highway 80, Lake Tom Bailey covers 234 acres. Besides the fishing pier and boat ramp are 10 camping pads with water and electrical hookups. Water-skiing is allowed on Sunday afternoons, so be aware of that if you're going there to fish.

To reach Lake Tom Bailey from Meridian, go east on Interstate 20 to the Toomsuba exit. Go north to U.S. Highway 80; then, turn left and follow the signs west for one mile to the lake.

For more info, call Lake Officer Charles Vaughn at (601) 632-4679.

Lake Charlie Capps

Another good bet for catfish is Lake Charlie Capps, near Cleveland.

"This lake is actually overpopulated with channel catfish," Hubbard pointed out. "We're trying to promote people catching all they want before we drain it. We need to repair the levees and do some major habitat work this year."

Depending on rainfall, biologists expect the lake to be completely drained by sometime in the middle of the summer. With that schedule, June should be an ideal month for loading your freezer up with cats.

"By that point the lake will be low, and the fish should be hemmed up where people can really catch them," Hubbard offered. "But the fish are going to be small. They're over-crowded, and they're not growing very fast.

"That's one of the problems with the lake: The catfish and the rough fish are too abundant. We're going to remedy all that by starting over. So go out there and get a truckload if you want them. There are no limits."

Lake Charlie Capps is in Bolivar County between Cleveland and Rosedale off state Route 8. A shallow lake that was only a swamp area until 1963, when a levee system was constructed to create the 512-acre body of water, it contains many stumps and treetops, which are reliable fish attractors.

Five fishing piers make bank access easy. Although traffic on the lake is restricted to trolling speeds only, the double-wide boat ramp can accommodate vessels of all sizes. Camping with water and electric hookups is available.

For more information, contact Lake Officer Chris Reed at (662) 759-6444.

Spillways

The waters below a number of dams at major reservoirs offer good angling for catfish. Hubbard particularly mentioned the tailraces on the Tenn-Tom Waterway and the one at Ross Barnett Reservoir.

"Catfish at Ross Barnett probably run a little smaller than they do other places because of the amount of fishing pressure," he offered. "But on the Tenn-Tom spillways and places like that, there are some really quality fish, including some quality blue catfish."

The spillways are promising places to fish, for a variety of reasons. "First, a spillway concentrates fish," Hubbard explained. "When they're migrating upstream, they just hit a wall. There's also a lot of forage and food for them there, so they stay in that area."

When targeting these areas, you don't necessarily want to be right at the foot of the dam. "Catfishing is very good a little ways down from the spillway," Hubbard emphasized. "It's an excellent place for someone who has a boat to focus on, because there's not a lot of fishing pressure, and there are tremendous fish populations just downstream. That's true on Lake Ross Barnett, on the Tenn-Tom, on the flood-control reservoir spillways -- that's Sardis, Enid, Arkabutla and Grenada. Even though they're more known for the crappie, the catfishing is real good there also, especially if you move downstream and fish midchannel."

In these tailwaters, Hubbard recommends, try tight-lining with cut bait. "In those areas you can't use trotlines," he cautioned, "because people are concentrated there. You have to pretty much tightline for catfish below the spillways."

Most any conventional catfish bait works well in this situation for most species. "A lot of people cast net for shad and cut them up, and that works well," Hubbard noted. "And all the manufactured stink baits are good. However, if you're fishing for flatheads you need to use live bait."

Mississippi River

According to Hubbard, a considerable trophy fishery will be found in the Mississippi River -- one that's becoming increasingly popular. "There are huge catfish there," he asserted.

One of the first things to note about targeting catfish on the Mississippi River is that the stream is just as big as the fish! "It's a big river," Hubbard warned. "And it's very dangerous."

MDWFP fisheries biologist Keith Meals agrees. "There are strong currents there," he said. "We're talking about giant sucking whirlpools that can pull a small boat down. You have to have a good-sized boat and be very careful. There are barge wakes and everything else that you need to watch out for."

Bank-fishing is possible on the river, but there's limited access. Some anglers opt to run their boat up on one of the sandbars out in the river and then get out to fish from these mini-beaches.

On the other side of the coin, a lot of catfish are waiting to be caught in the Mississippi. "The catfish population is very strong, with good sized fish," Meals noted. "There are some large fish there -- channel, blue and flathead catfish. Most anglers are going after the channel or blue. Channel catfish range from 1 to 15 pounds. Blue catfish are going to run larger -- some fish up in the 40-to-50-pounds-and-up range. Flatheads reach a similar size."

According to Hubbard, you can find big holes in the river bottom just downstream of the sites at which U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has built rock dikes in the water with a view to directing the flow of water to aid in navigation. "If you can find these dikes and the holes, there's tremendous catfishing," the fisheries manager said with assurance. "And when they're feeding up on the sandbars out of the main channel flow, that can be good fishing too."

When fishing for catfish in the river, regular catfish baits are useful. "Also try cut bait, such as pieces of shad," Meals offered. "And use heavier equipment." He suggests surf rods because of the size of the fish.

"I would definitely use heavy tackle," Hubbard said. "You're liable to tie into a big fish any time, and they'd tear up lighter tackle."

The Mississippi is dangerous, but not impossible to fish. "You just have to be careful," Meals cautioned. "You've got to watch the river levels. The fish feed and bite better when the water is on a rise. But the higher the river is, th

e more dangerous the current is."

Lake Washington

Lake Washington is an oxbow lake 5,000 acres in area just off the course of the Mississippi River. Though a public lake, it's not maintained as a state fishing lake.

"Lake Washington is an excellent place to catch a lot of 1- to 4-pound fish," Hubbard said. "We'd love to see it fished more, because the growth rate of the fish is too slow, because there are too many of them there."

Lake Washington is two miles west of the junction of SR 1 and SR 436 near Glen Allen.

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