Tracking Mr. Whiskers

If you're looking for some fast action this summer, Magnolia State catfish are more than willing to provide it. And you can find these tasty fish throughout Mississippi! (June 2007)

Austin and Wesley Partridge show off a stringer of Barnett Reservoir cats. The anglers from Terry were fishing from the family pontoon boat.
Photo by Robert H. Cleveland Jr.

The lure of catfishing can best be explained in one simple statement: Sprawling is allowed, if not encouraged.

Standing -- or even sitting, for that matter -- is not required. If you have a big enough boat or a soft enough place on a grassy bank, lying down is actually the preferred posture for the sport.

"I remember growing up, when my dad was first teaching me how to fish, we did it all, from bream to bass to catfish," said Wilbur Thomas of Vicksburg. "He'd be all business when we'd go after bass, and he was very serious about bluegill, especially up at Lake Chotard.

"But our catfish trips -- they were different. His whole attitude was different -- laid back, you know. We'd put in the boat, run up the river to a big sandbar, stop, cast our lines in the water and relax. We'd lay out blankets and lay down on the sandbar. We'd put little bells on the rod tips and when they'd tinkle, we'd get up and go get the fish. If I wanted to explore, I could, but mostly we just lay there and talked or lay there and slept. I think that's probably why I fell in love with whiskered fish."

Half a century later, Thomas still makes those trips. In his lifetime, he has gone from student to teacher as a fisherman, passing on the lessons of the water from his father to his children. Those grown kids now chase bass in the spring and fall, and they all target bluegills when they want a big fish fry. But when summer comes, they still come back to Dad, his pontoon boat and the Mississippi River.

"When you're talking quality time, it doesn't get any better than a catfish trip," Thomas said. "Everybody relaxes, and we get caught up."

And when you're talking quality eating, it doesn't get much better than an ice chest full of catfish. Filleting up a big mess for a fish fry is about as Southern and as much Mississippi as you can get.

"Yes, and there's that," Thomas agreed.

Finding a catfish dinner is as easy as driving down the road. This is Mississippi after all, and fresh, hot catfish plates to go are now as much a fast food staple as a hamburger.

But if you think that's good, you're missing out.

"My apologies to the catfish farmers and their industry, but it's not the same as catching them yourselves, wild from a river or lake, enjoying your time on the water with friends or family, cleaning them up and cooking them yourself," said Keith Partridge of Terry. "Heck yeah, in the long run it is cheaper maybe to buy them in a store. But it's not the same."

No, it isn't, and what makes catfishing such a great thing in Mississippi is that finding a place to catch catfish is just as easy as finding a restaurant or store that sells them.

"We aren't hurting for places to catch catfish, that's for sure," said Ron Garavelli, chief of fisheries for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. "Shoot, it doesn't matter where you live in this state -- if you got the 'want to,' you've got a place nearby to catch catfish."

Garavelli hedges a bit when he talks of the southeastern corner of Mississippi, which is still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Katrina, and even a part of the Delta, which only a month later was inundated with the heavy rains of Hurricane Rita. The two 2005 storms did a lot of damage to many catfish holes.

"In southeast Mississippi, after Katrina, a lot of our coastal rivers, connected streams and their backwater lakes were devastated," he said. "A lot of old pothole ponds and lakes in the swamps and forests were hammered. Then when Rita hit in Texas and Louisiana, it brought heavy rains to the Delta as it moved northeast. All that fresh water from both storms caused fish kills in their wakes. Lakes either turned over prematurely or suffered heavy oxygen depletion.

"We have begun restocking in all of the affected areas, and they will recover soon enough, but right now fishermen will notice a shortage of big fish. Of course, we've still got hundreds of choices of places to fish that were not affected. You just need to pick one and go."

To help get fishermen started, we've listed some of the top choices for 2007, based on history and from reports posted in 2006. They are listed in no particular order, and our list includes all kinds of waters from rivers to reservoirs to state lakes.

ROSS BARNETT RESERVOIR

The big lake near Jackson is best known for its crappie and bass, but for many fishermen like those in the Partridge family, "the Rez" is mostly a catfish hole.

"What's great about it is that it doesn't take a whole lot of rocket science to figure out," said Keith Partridge, who spends a lot of time on his pontoon boat with three excited anglers -- his wife Leigh, and boys 9-year-old Austin and Wesley, who is 7. "We can go out there, pull up on a deep flat near the river channel and there will be channel or blue catfish. We bait up with night crawlers, cast out our lines, turn on the music and get comfortable.

"About every 10 or 15 minutes, if that long, one of the rods will start twitching and the boys start hollering. Without any work at all, we can take enough 1- to 3-pound catfish -- with an occasional 5- or 10-pounder -- home for dinner for a night or two that week. Then we go get some more the next weekend."

While the Partridges do most of their catfishing in the lower part of the main lake body by tightlining, many others do even better by running jugs or trotlines in other areas. Jugging and trotlines are not allowed in the lower main lake.

The stump fields in Pelahatchie Bay and upper main lake areas are ideal trotlining holes. Two or three lines set at night keep a team busy and quickly fill an ice chest.

But jugging has become a popular sport on Barnett Reservoir, mostly because it's just so darned easy.

"All you have to do is have a couple of dozen plastic bottles or jugs, a few feet of line, a weight and a hook for each, and some cut bait and you're in business," said Tony Holeman of Florence. "We spent two or three nights a week up there, either in Pe

lahatchie Creek or in the upper river. We pitch them out and then drift along with them waiting for one of the jugs to start bobbing. Usually, it doesn't take long."

PICKWICK LAKE

One visit to this big, pretty lake on the state's northeast corner border with Tennessee and Alabama, and you learn that catfish is king. It may be best known as Mississippi's top smallmouth bass destination and a crappie haven, but locals know it for what it really is: One big old catfish pond.

"As good as this lake is for bass and crappie, the vast majority of people up here spend their time chasing catfish," said Larry Pugh, the state's fisheries biologist for District 1 in the northeast. "Unless they're having a big bass tournament up here on a weekend, two out of every three boats you see from May through July will be people chasing catfish.

"Trotlines, jugs, fly rods, cane poles, rods and reels -- you name it and they use it up here to catch channel and blue cats. Pickwick has the big bluff banks that create perfect holding spots for catfish. They form rock bottoms with cracks in anywhere from 4 to 12 feet deep, immediately adjacent to deep water. Most people just pick a bank, start a drift depending on which way the wind is blowing and how much current is moving, and fish it out."

In the dead of the summer, when it's so hot, jugging is the preferred method and is mostly done at night. But Pickwick is not a place for small jugs. Forget the 1-quart bottles. You need more like the gallon-sized ones.

"There are some monster blues and channels in here that will take a small jug and run with it like it ain't even there," said George Williams of Tupelo, a regular at Pickwick. "I learned that lesson the hard way. I chased one 50-pound blue for two hours and never caught him the first night I was here. I got him up to the boat once, and almost had him when he took off again. That small bottle never did tire him out.

"During May and June, I'll jug along the bluff banks and catch all I could ever want to clean. Mostly they'll run 3 to 5 pounds. In July, I will still work the bluff banks during the day and catch plenty of keepers up to 3 pounds, but at night, I move out to the channel and drop the hooks down to 10 feet and catch the monsters. My biggest is 52 pounds. It was a blue, but I've had bigger ones on that I couldn't handle."

MISSISSIPPI RIVER

Of course, no Mississippi catfish story would be accurate without listing the Big Muddy as one of the top spots to fish. So we won't dare leave it out.

"I fish all over, but when I go catfishing, I usually go to the Mighty Mississippi," said Wilbur Thomas. "There's never a crowd, except in the fish box. We usually can fish until the ice chest or chests are completely full, and we always run out of room before we run out of steam.

"Personally, I like the simple approach. I try to find a sandbar just below a bend in the river where the current is good. In the summer, I'm looking to fish in 5 to 8 feet of water and I'm looking for any erratic break in the bank of the sandbar, either a point or a runout where baitfish will gather. Catfish will naturally gather around them."

In addition to his catfish poles, Thomas also takes some ultra-light rods with some casting-friendly hair jigs to use to catch bait. If he sees a school of skipjack shad, that becomes his priority.

"Catching skipjack can be fun, and it's also important," he said. "There is no better catfish bait on the Mississippi River than cut skipjack. That's what I want. If I don't have it, I use night crawlers or other cut fish."

Jugging has become a popular method of catching big cats on the river, especially in July.

"What I like to do is find a sandbar that I want to bank fish from and then go upriver and pitch my jugs out," said Sidney Montgomery of Jackson. "I'm looking for a bar where the current sweeps right down the bank. The same thing that makes it good for bank fishing makes it good for jugging. Once my jugs are out, I run over to the bank and start tightlining. Usually, I'll have about an hour before the jugs arrive. If any are missing, I run up, find them, take off the fish and return to the bank. I can do it all day long, rounding up the bottles and repositioning them in the same run."

Newcomers to the Mississippi River should be aware of the boating dangers that exist. It is a big waterway with strong currents and big tugs.

"Aw man," said Montgomery, "it's not that big a deal in the summer. Besides, the tugs are your friend. When they come by, the droning of their engines sparks a catfish bite. You best be ready for it."

LAKE CALLING PANTHER

It took less than six months for this new 500-acre state lake near Crystal Springs to become a popular catfish destination.

"We thought it was going to be the big bass lake," said Garavelli. "It probably will be one day, but right off the bat, catfish have been king."

With catfish growing to 7 and 8 pounds in just three years, Calling Panther produced a lot of action for fishermen willing to bait up with night crawlers or goldfish.

"We first came here to bream fish and were using night crawlers we dug ourselves," said Jimmy Walker of Jackson. "We did OK with the bluegill, caught some big ones, too, but mostly we were catching catfish. We couldn't get on the bream steady for the catfish.

"So the next time we came, we brought bigger gear and bigger worms and we really worked them over. We took home our limit, and we didn't have but one under 5 pounds. That was 30 fish at an average of 6 or 7 pounds. That's a load."

Walker's secret for catching that 10 fish per angler limit? "There's not one. The lake is full of catfish," he pointed out. "You just keep fishing around and you'll find them. Shallow in the spring and summer, deep in the winter."

LAKE GEIGER

PAUL B. JOHNSON STATE PARK

Just south of Hattiesburg off State Route 49, Paul B. Johnson State Park provides a scenic retreat for campers and fishermen -- and lots of catfish, too.

"I really wish you wouldn't write about it," said Gerald Green of Hattiesburg. "It's pretty much been a secret hot spot for the few of us who have stumbled on it."

Green said his discovery of Geiger's prolific fishery for cats was accidental.

"I was here bass fishing and on two of my first 10 casts with a spinnerbait, I caught catfish," he said. "I was fishing the edge of lily pads and I caught a 5-pounder right off the bat, on my first cast. Not more than five minutes later, I hooked a 7-pounder about 20 yards away.

"I figured, if they'd take a spinnerbait, what could I do with night crawlers or minnows. My next trip down, I found out. Awesome, man, awesome."

Green suggested

fishing the east side of the lake away from the campground and picnic areas.

"They just seem to like the quiet side best in 6 to 10 feet of water," he offered.

LAKE TOM BAILEY

Reopened in the fall of 2005, Tom Bailey hasn't become the prolific catfish hole that it was back in the 1990s when it was producing new state records for channel cats every few years. But we list it based on Ron Garavelli's reasoning.

"You have to, just based on its history," he suggested. "What made it a great catfish hole once is still there. It will just take a few years for the fish to become giants."

In the meantime, the ample stocking of channel cats has filled the 230-acre lake with fishing opportunity.

"You take night crawlers and a sinker and go out around the creek channel in July and you'll get all the action you want," said biologist Clay Ready. "We're managing this lake to be a trophy bream lake, and what that does is also promote good catfishing. There's plenty of keeper catfish now, and in the years to come, I bet the giants return."

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