Stalking Mississippi Catfish

Stalking Mississippi Catfish
Photo by Ron Sinfelt

The words "catfish" and "Mississippi" are virtually synonymous. And with Belzoni being tagged the "Catfish Capital of the World," it is surprising that Mississippi isn't known as the "Catfish State" instead of the "Magnolia State." But regardless of its nickname, Mississippi is home to some of the finest catfishing on the planet.

Let's take a closer look at the three most popular Mississippi catfish and identify a few of the premier catfishing destinations where they can be found around the state.

FLATHEAD CATFISH

As the name implies, this species of catfish can be easily identified by its long flat head, small eyes and large mouth. In addition, the flathead is the only North American catfish species with a lower jaw that is longer than the upper jaw. Another distinguishing feature is their squared tail, instead of the more common notched tail found on other catfish. Their body color is typically an olive-yellow or brown with darker brown blotches. Flatheads live a long time and can grow to enormous sizes. While most flatheads weigh in the 10- to 40-pound range, they can grow nearly 5 feet in length and reach weights well in excess of 100 pounds.

Flathead catfish are loaners preferring deep pools with slow moving current and an abundance of cover, such as submerged logs and brush. They rest for the majority of the day, venturing into the shallows to feed at night. They also seek out the shallows during the breeding cycle, preferring undercut cavities along riverbanks, submerged hollow logs, and masses of tree roots.

Flatheads are opportunistic and omnivorous in their feeding habits, dining on both plants and animals. As they grow older and larger, they become very predatory, preferring to feed on bass, bream, shad, crawfish and even the occasional mouse or frog. The flathead's large mouth and unique physiology are perfect for observing prey swimming above them, lunging upwards, and engulfing it in a single bone-crushing bite.

Anglers pursue flatheads for their massive size, the strong fight they put up, and the incredible table fare they provide. Some of the more popular flathead baits include: fresh shad, bullhead catfish, large shiners, pond perch, crawfish and nightcrawlers.

CHANNEL CATFISH

Channel cats are the most common of the freshwater catfish. They can easily be identified by their distinctive forked tails and dark spots scattered along the length of their bodies. In general, channel cats have smaller heads and are more slender than other catfish. Their coloration varies depending on location and environmental conditions. The most common coloring is gray or grayish brown with a slightly silver tint on top. Side colorations vary from greens to yellows to a brilliant white. Channel cats have excellent growth potential with the potential to exceed 50 pounds. But while the channel cats size range is smaller than the flathead or blue catfish, their populations are greater.

Whether it is streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, or reservoirs, channel cats thrive in any body of water that provides adequate food, spawning and temperature. They seek out areas with clean bottoms of sand and gravel, preferring deep quiet areas away from strong currents. They also have a tendency to position themselves along eddies where food and food odors wash toward them.

The channel catfish is omnivorous and eat virtually anything, from insects and larvae, to other fish (dead or alive), and even some types of fruits and berries. With its mouth situated on the underside of its sleek head, the channel cat is an efficient scavenger. But like the flathead, a channel cat attacks unwary prey if the opportunity presents itself.

Because channel cats are most active at night, they are a favorite of those who set trotlines. And due to their keen sense of smell, they are most attracted to bait that gives off strong odors. Some of the more effective channel cat baits include: nightcrawlers, chicken or beef liver, minnows, cut bait, and commercial stink baits.

BLUE CATFISH

Blue catfish are often mistaken for their relative, the channel catfish due to their similar appearance. They get their name from the blue overcast to their body, especially on the top of their head and down their back. And while both have deeply forked tails, the differences between the two are quite profound.

Blue cats have larger rounder heads and longer anal fins with flatter margins compared to the more rounded anal fin of the channel catfish. Also, blue catfish never have black spots on their body like those found on young channel cats.

In addition, blue cats are among the largest species of freshwater fish in North America. Only the alligator gar and a few species of sturgeon get larger. It is reported that blue cats exceeding 350 pounds were landed from the Mississippi River during the late 1800s.

Blue catfish are a warm-water fish found primarily in large rivers and lakes, though they do inhabit streams, small rivers and some natural lakes and ponds. Unlike flatheads and channel catfish, blue cats prefer non-turbid rivers with a relatively swift current flow. Blue cats are among the species of fish that flourish in rivers that have been manipulated by locks, dams, and riprap that directs current into the middle of the rivers, while carving out deep holes.

Outside bends in rivers, tailwaters below dams, and the mouths of smaller tributaries are all common blue cat locations. In large reservoirs, they seek areas that provide both deep water security and easy access to shallow feeding areas.

Blue cats have the same nocturnal feeding habits as channel catfish. While they eat nearly anything that is available, large blue cats feed primarily on other fish. Blue cats take a wide variety of bait and aren't too picky about whether it's dead or alive. Because they rely heavily on their keen sense of smell, blue cat anglers use bait with a strong odor. Some of the more popular baits for blue catfish include: shad, skipjack herring, shiners, goldfish, liver, cheese bait, and stink bait.

Now that we know a little more about the catfish species that call Mississippi home, let's take a closer look at some of best catfishing destinations the Magnolia State has to offer.

MISSISSIPPI RIVER

This magnificent body of water is legendary for the excellent catfishing it provides. The "Father of Waters" flows 410 miles along the Mississippi border, and catfishing prospects are superb from one end to the other.

The muddy waters of the Mississippi River offer up a smorgasbord, when it comes to the various sizes and kinds of catfish an angler is apt to catch. However, the big three of the whiskered sport fish on Old Man River and its tributaries are flathead, blue and channel cats.

Although 100-plus-pound catfish are possible in the deep waters of the Mississippi River, a typical blue cat or flathead catch includes fish in the 15- to 20-pound range, with channel cats running closer to the 5- and 10-pound range.

When it comes to gear for catfish, you have a variety to choose from. And best of all, they are all very effective in catching catfish. Most anglers on the Big River are die-hard trotline fisherman. Every now and then you come across a jug fisherman, and on the rare occasion you may even run into a hand grabber, but they are more commonly found on smaller streams and lakes where the water is much shallower.

The main thing to remember when selecting baits for river catfish is that fresher is better. While there is no best catfish bait, my favorite for river catfish would have to include fresh shad, skipjack herring, shiners, and goldfish.

Jimmy Cassell of Port Gibson, a veteran Mississippi River catfisherman, believes in the old saying, "the deeper the hole, the bigger the fish."

With a seemingly infinite supply of deep water holes along the muddy Mississippi, locating a prime fishing spot is never a problem.

"I concentrate mainly on holes that are 60 to 100 feet deep, unless I can find a deeper one," Cassell said. "I don't waste my time on a hole less than 50 feet deep."

Wing dikes are some of the best big river hotspots for catfish. These long, narrow rock structures built by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers are numerous all along the entire length of the Mississippi River. Their intended function is to divert the current of the river into the main channel to prevent shoreline erosion.

Catfish seek out the deep holes on the downstream side of the dikes created by the water swirling back on itself as the current is forced around the end of the dike and toward the middle of the river. The center of these giant eddies or swirls are where you find the really big blues and yellows. By casting into the center of the swirl, your bait is pulled quickly to the bottom where it remains stationary. Then the only thing to do is sit back and wait for that rod-bending strike that soon follows, if a catfish is nearby.

Still, there is no single best place to catch catfish on the Mississippi River. As any veteran catfisherman in the Magnolia State can tell you, almost any location along the river has the potential to produce a nice stringer of catfish.

Other outstanding catfish rivers in the Magnolia State are the Big Black, Homochitto, Pascagoula, Pearl, Tenn-Tom, and Yazoo.

ROSS BARNETT RESERVOIR

Located just northeast of Jackson, the massive Ross Barnett Reservoir offers some incredible catfishing opportunities. This 33,000-acre reservoir is a catfish factory, offering excellent opportunities for catching channel cats, flatheads, and blues.

The tailrace below the spillway is one of the most popular catfishing locations at the "Rez," as locals call the lake. Pan-sized channel cats and blue cats dominate the catch, but any catfish that grabs a line anywhere on Ross Barnett could turn out to be a monster. The baits utilized below the spillway are as varied as the anglers themselves. Some of the more effective baits are goldfish, bream, shiners, stinkbait, liver and earthworms.

Catfishing methods in the main lake vary widely. You are just as likely to encounter a group of hand grabbers running their boxes in the shallows as you are tight-liners in the main channel above the State Route 43 bridge. However, some of the most productive catfishing on the Rez can be had floating jugs or watching a bobber on the stump flats around Roses Bluff. Some of the more popular baits used by catfish anglers in the main lake are earthworms, liver, goldfish, and bream.

There are five additional large reservoirs located in north Mississippi that offer equally good catfishing opportunities. Those are Pickwick, Grenada, Enid, Sardis, and Arkabutla.

OKHISSA LAKE

This relatively new 1,075-acre lake is located in the heart of the beautiful Homochitto National Forest, just 3 miles south of Bude, and off U.S. Highway 98. While Okhissa Lake is better known for its trophy bass and bream fishing, catfish also play an important role in the lake's success.

In fact, renowned bass fisherman Bill Dance was involved in designing Okhissa Lake. Dance's stamp of approval makes this lake a hotspot for anglers, and ensures that the lake is a sustainable fishing site long into the future. And even though he may have earned his claim to fame as a bass fisherman, Bill Dance absolutely loves to catch catfish.

Whether you prefer to fish by boat or from the shoreline, Okhissa Lake has some great catfishing opportunities. This somewhat small lake offers more than 39 miles of shoreline and an abundance of structure. However, catfishing at Okhissa Lake is limited to rod-and-reel or pole-and-bobber. Fishing with trotlines, yo-yos, nets, throw lines, jugs, or hand grabbing is not permitted.

Because the catfish in Okhissa Lake don't seem to be finicky eaters, just about any bait works. However, some of the more effective ones include: catalpa worms, stinkbaits, earthworms, and crawfish.

Most catfish pulled from Okhissa Lake range in size from 1- to 8-pounds, but the weights are certain to increase as the fish get a little more age on them. Additional plans are to restock Okhissa Lake with even more channel catfish in the future to keep up with the high fishing demand the lake receives.

There is a daily limit of five fish per person.

But Okhissa Lake isn't the only small catfishing lake to choose from. There are dozens of these small lake catfishing destinations scattered from one end of the Magnolia State to the other. A few of the small lakes that stand out from the rest when it comes to whiskerfish are Oktibbeha County, Washington, Percy Quin State Park, Roosevelt State Park, Eagle, and Tom Bailey.

For additional information on fishing for catfish in the Magnolia State, visit the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks Web site at www.mdwfp.com.

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