Herd Those Alabama Catfish: Blues, Channels, Flatheads
July 26, 2017
Alabama anglers rarely lack for an opportunity to catch catfish. From the Tennessee River in the north to the Alabama River in the south and various fisheries in between, the primary catfish species — blues, channels and flatheads — can be found throughout the state.
By Greg McCain
Each location provides unique opportunities. The Tennessee River impoundments produce giants, especially for blue catfish. Other destinations, notably the Alabama River, offer a better chance of catching an elusive flathead. Just about every lake or stream in the state holds numbers of smaller fish, including the numerous public lakes that span the state.
TENNESSEE RIVER GIANTS
The Tennessee River reigns supreme among state waters in terms of consistently producing big fish. A few blues of 100 pounds are caught each year with anglers boating fish 50 pounds and over with regularity. In fact, some anglers expect to catch a 50-pound fish on just about every trip.
Muscle Shoals guide Brian Barton (brianbartonoutdoors.com) focuses on big catfish primarily on Wilson, Wheeler and the upper end of Pickwick lakes.
"There's no doubt that the Tennessee River is one of the premier catfishing destinations in the country," Barton said. "If you want a truly big blue catfish, it's one of the best places that you can fish. If you want eating-sized fish, there are plenty of them available as well."
Barton fishes year 'round with prime big-fish potential coming in the winter and spring just before the spawn.
After spawning lull in early summer, the fishing picks back up in the dog days of summer.
"June is typically toughest month to catch a big fish," Barton said. "Typically, some of the best fishing occurs in the fall. Even though the calendar says it's not fall, some of the best fishing is the week before Labor Day through the end of October. Then you want to get out in the deep water — 60 to 80 feet on Wilson, 50 to 70 on Wheeler — on the ledges and fish for big fish. Catfish will use the ledges just like people use a highway."
Barton either trolls at about .5 mph or anchors above likely spots. The trolling techniques produce except when the water temperatures drop below 46 degrees in the coldest winter months.
Smaller blues and channel catfish are abundant and usually easy to catch in the summer months. Barton normally downsizes bait and hooks to catch what he calls "restaurant-size" catfish.
Better known as a bass fishery, many of the same factors that make Guntersville such a great bass fishing locale also contribute to the emergence of the lake as a first-class catfish spot.
Guide Mike Mitchell (tnriveroutfitters.net) has long called Wheeler the top big-fish lake in the Alabama, but his experiences in recent years have pushed Guntersville toward the top of his favorite lakes. He says Guntersville was not as good in 2016 because of the drought, with lack of current causing fish to roam into the backwaters and feeder creeks. But when the current is rolling, the big blues stack below the humps and underwater islands near the main river channel.
"Everybody has always known Guntersville as a bass lake and that reputation is deserved," Mitchell said. "But the lake has an abundance of shad and small- to medium-sized rough fish that fuel the growth of big catfish.
"The lake has just about everything a trophy catfish needs, deep water, plenty of food and cover."
Mitchell uses some of the same trolling and anchoring tactics as Barton, but also believes in a spike of activity for a short time after the spawn in early to mid summer.
"The fish will rest for a week or so after spawning and then really feed for a time after they recover," Mitchell said. "You may have only a short window of time, maybe a week or 10 days, but you can really catch a lot of fish at that time."
Winter, however, remains one of Mitchell's favorite times to target big blues on both Guntersville and Wheeler. He anchors above a likely location, either an island, a rockpile or log jam, and fishes a combination of bottom rigs and drift lines, usually baiting with skipjack heads or chunks.
"You're not going to get bit as much in the winter," Mitchell. "You might only get four or five bites in the course of a day, but normally at this time of year, they are going to be good ones. It's one of the better times of the year to catch a big fish."
Mitchell also fishes the riverine section below Guntersville Dam and catches a good number of flatheads and blues in the spring and summer months, normally anchoring in the current above log jams and other wood structure.
Bama Catfish Records
While Alabama waters continue to yield numbers of trophy catfish, at least two state records have stood for years. In fact, the record for channel catfish was set 50 years ago this June. Donald R. Cox, of Oneonta, caught a 40-pound channel in 1967. It's one of the longest-standing records among Alabama freshwater fishes (complete list at www.outdooralabama.com/state-record-freshwater-fish).
That fish is dwarfed by the records for flathead and blue catfish. The flathead record is also long-standing, having been caught by Rick Conner, of Selma, in 1986. That fish weighed 80 pounds.
The blue catfish record has been broken with several 100-plus-pound fish in recent years. The current Alabama record blue came from Holt Reservoir near Tuscaloosa in 2012. The Warrior River monster weighed 120.4 pounds. — Greg McCain
Very few fish in freshwater create as much mystery as the flathead catfish. While flatheads range all over the state, most of the more predictable fishing comes from the river systems in the south. Greenville angler Stacey Gaston is a regular on the Alabama River and catches a mixture of blues and flatheads.
"I fish everywhere from about Montgomery down to the Gulf," Gaston said. "I do most of my fishing on Millers Ferry. If you move down the river, fish the nooks and crannies in the mouth of creeks for the flatheads. Find some type of eddy water, and you will find the flatheads."
Gaston has developed techniques that allow him to fish for flatheads even when lack of current keeps most anglers off the river. With no water moving, Gaston cruises the areas that normally hold flatheads in current situations. Optimal speeds are .3 to .5 mph; anything faster is too fast.
"I can cover a lot more area," Gaston said. "If they are pulling water, I can target about where they are going to be. If they are not pulling water, I think those fish are out roaming. They are going to scatter."
For trolling, he places 7-foot, 6-inch to 8-food medium-heavy rods in rod holders spaced at intervals around the boat and maintains a vertical presentation with what is basically a big Carolina rig. He spools with 50-pound mono or braid, runs a 3-ounce flat sinker onto the main line and then ties on a heavy barrel swivel. To the bottom of the swivel he adds a short leader of 30- or 40-pound mono and completes the rig with an Eagle Claw Kahle-style hook, which he said does a better job of hooking fish than a traditional J-hook.
Baiting with bream or fresh shad, Gaston uses the same tackle and baits when targeting flatheads in the current, anchoring above likely locations and allowing the current to wash his bait into the strike zone.
"Don't expect giants," he said. "Catching a 20-, 30-pounder is not uncommon. I tell people that if they will go with me two or three times, I will put them on a 20-plus. It's very seldom that I don't catch one that size."
While Gaston favors Miller's Ferry, he says the other links in the Alabama chain are good as well. He's had success on Millers Ferry, Claiborne and R.F. Henry (Jones Bluff).
JUG FISHING ON EUFAULA
Eufaula, located in the southeastern part of the state on the Chattahoochee River, is another catfish venue that is better known for other types of fishing. Bass, crappie and bream fishing are excellent; the catfishing might be even better.
Tony Adams catches both blues and channels on just about every trip. Usually Adams is found jug fishing from the Lake Point area down to about Barbour Creek.
"I start back up fishing in February after deer season is over when the fish move to the creek mouths and back in the creeks," Adams said. "Mainly I jug fish and catch a lot of nice channels and lot of blues. As soon as they get finished spawning, they go to the channels on the main river. That's where I do almost all of my summer fishing."
Adams paints a Gatorade bottle with fluorescent paint, attaches 30- or 40-pound mono and ties a circle hook to the end of the line.
In the summer months, most of his jugs have lines that range from 18 to 50 feet long.
He uses 4/0 to 6/0 circle hooks tied directly to the main line with no swivels or weight, and baits with mullet, cutbait and skipjack.
"I fish mostly shallower water early in the morning and late in the afternoon when the fish move up on the sand bars and feed on mussels," Adams said. "In the heat of the day, they will move out into deeper water off the ledges."
While Adams normally only jug fishes in these areas, he watches rod-and-reel anglers who target the same fish. He says rod fishermen target smaller fish with worms and rely on cutbait or mullet in deeper water for bigger fish.
On an average trip, Adams yields 30 or 40 fish that might weigh up to 300 pounds. The blues top out on Eufaula at around 60 pounds, with the biggest channels weighing up to 30 pounds.
"We have an excellent population of blues and channels on Eufaula, so you can expect some regular action on just about every trip," Adams said.
Info on Catfish Baits
PUBLIC LAKE CHANNELS
The Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries division maintains a series of 23 lakes across the state, ranging in size from a few acres to over 100. Just about every one is stocked with channel catfish that range from fingerlings to pan-size fish.
While the limit on most state lakes is six catfish, these lakes provide an easy, fairly predictable catch rate. They are also excellent places to introduce a child to fishing.
Among the good public lakes for catfishing are Madison County Public Lake near Huntsville and Walker County Public Lake near Jasper. Lee County Public Lake just south of Auburn and Geneva County Public Fishing lakes near Coffee Springs are also good.
The lakes are normally open six days a week through the summer, although some close multiple days as the year progresses. Some of the lakes also offer night fishing for catfish on weekends. To see the schedule for an individual lake or for contact information, go to www.outdooralabama.com/alabama-state-public-fishing-lakes.
"We manage the state lakes to provide a catchable population of eating-sized fish," said District I biologist Phil Ekema. "We're not managing for trophy fish but rather providing a put-and-take fishery. The public lakes are an excellent place to catch a stringer of eating-sized channel catfish."
Other waters across the state also provide good catfishing, such as the Coosa, Tombigbee and Black Warrior river systems. The wealth of catfish riches spreads throughout the state. Whether an angler is seeking trophy fish or simply a meal of catfish, Alabama offers plenty of opportunities for cats.