By Eileen Davis
Flowing from the confluence of the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers near Montgomery, the magnificent Alabama River meanders southwesterly for 304 miles before meeting the lower Tombigbee River to form the Mobile River. Along the way, it fills three reservoirs and offers some of the state’s best fishing for the “big three” species of catfish – blues, channels and flatheads.
Whether you’re fishing Jones Bluff, Millers Ferry, Claiborne or the remaining river, nearly every mile has the potential to produce a trophy or a heavy stringer of cats. In fact, the current state record for a flathead weighed 80 pounds and was caught by Rick Conner near Selma.
The Alabama River never sleeps; skilled catfishermen find action day or night. Here’s some inside information from local anglers that can help you catch a nice stringer on your first trip – or possibly land a monster cat.
When Mark Nichols of Prattville met Jody Atkins of Pittsview a few years ago, it didn’t take long before they were swapping tales about the catfish in their home waters. Atkins, a well-known catfisherman on the Chattahoochee River, found it difficult to believe Nichols’ stories of 40-pound fish and straightened hooks.
“I could not imagine that the fishing Mark described on the Alabama River was possible,” Atkins said. “He claimed each trip would produce a number of fish weighing between 15 and 20 pounds, with a few tipping the scales at more than 25 pounds.
“So my partner and I made a trip to Jones Bluff. Immediately, we caught a 15-pound flathead. The first 10 fish in the boat each weighed more than 10 pounds.
“When night fell, the bite stopped; then about midnight the fish began to feed again. We rounded a curve and found one of our 6-foot limbs in the water. Oh man! Just to feel the power of that fish on the other end was unbelievable. We broke the handle on our net pulling that fish into the boat, and I’ll bet he measured 10 inches between his eyes.
“On our first trip two years ago, we caught a 29-pound blue cat, a 36-pound flathead and 10 fish over 15 pounds,” he continued. “And we did have some of our hooks straightened. Every trip since then has been just as exciting.”
Nichols, who has fished Jones Bluff between Prattville and Autaugaville for 20 years, has caught several catfish weighing more than 40 pounds. Like all anglers, he’s seen a few big ones escape.
“We have had some blues on our hooks weighing more than 50 pounds,” he said, “but we could not get them in the net fast enough.”
To catch these big cats, both anglers rely on limblines. They say nothing beats a hook and line tied to a tree limb. You can position your bait where the catfish feed, and you can eliminate losing fish on nearby snags by controlling line length. These lines are so effective when set by Atkins and Nichols that the anglers only fish 10 to 15 hooks.
Their limblines consist of 120-pound-test bonded nylon tied to a quality swivel, followed by a 60-pound-test monofilament leader. Atkins uses a 10/0 circle hook for live bait and an 8/0 straight-shank round-bend hook for cut bait. Nichols prefers 2/0 and 4/0 hooks. Additionally, he attaches a sinker to the main line.
Nichols also has some tips on selecting limbs.
“You want a small green limb,” he said. “If it’s too stiff, a big fish will break your line or straighten your hook. Also, make sure your line is short enough so the fish will not reach any snags when hooked. And don’t forget to wrap reflective tape on the limb before leaving.”
For late-summer fishing, Atkins recommends fishing the main river and setting limblines on steep banks, shallow points and hard bottoms.
“When fishing steep banks,” he said, “the fish tend to hug the bank due to the depth of the water. More than likely, steep banks hold blue and channel cats, so cut bait works best. All catfish prefer hard bottoms, so look for limbs on marl banks.
“A limb on a point or knoll where current changes direction is extremely effective. We fished one limb on the Alabama and caught four fish weighing 75 pounds in less than three hours. All species of cats hold behind points, picking up bait as it flows past. If you want to target flatheads in this situation, use live bait.”
Both anglers adjust their lines to keep their baits shallow. Often they fish their baits just below the surface, and that’s especially true for flatheads.
“A flathead’s eyes sit high on his head,” Atkins explained. “As a predator, the flathead does not look down to scavenge off the bottom; he’s looking up.”
Atkins and Nichols bait their hooks with freshly caught shad.
An excellent boat ramp for fishing the upper lake is off U.S. Highway 31 at Cooters Pond. Use the ramp at Swift Creek southeast of Autaugaville for fishing mid-lake, and use the ramp north of Edsons to fish near the dam. These ramps and others are easily located by referring to the Alabama River Lakes map, which is available from the Corps of Engineers Resource Office for Alabama River Lakes by calling (334) 872-9554. The Alabama Atlas & Gazetteer, by DeLorme, also shows boat ramps, back roads and outdoor recreation sites using topographic maps with GPS grids.
For current water and fishing information, visit Big Bass Bait and Tackle in Prattville on State Route 14 west or call (334) 365-0600.
One afternoon in late summer, Paul Strickland II of Camden set a 50-hook trotline just above Buzzard Roost. A few hours later, his line was alive with catfish jerking it hard in different directions. The nearly full line held fish ranging in size from 6 to 12 pounds that, when dressed, produced more than 150 pounds of catfish filets.
As a versatile pursuer of the largest North American catfish species, Strickland also fishes for blue catfish with jugs above the dam and with a rod and reel below the powerhouse. His biggest blue tipped the scales at 37 pounds.
“The best fishing for blue
s in August and September lies within the main-river channel above the dam and in the swift water below the powerhouse,” he said. “Both are productive, but they present very different situations. Fishing trotlines and jugs is just a lazy day on the river. As your lines soak and you’re drifting down the river with your jugs, nothing is more enjoyable than watching the sunset.
“On the other hand, for fast non-stop action combined with the possibility of catching a monster, nothing beats fishing below the dam,” he continued. “It’s a totally different experience. If the fish are feeding aggressively, you don’t even need to cast. Just drop your bait to the bottom and reel the fish in – it’s that fast. In less than two hours, you can easily put 30 fish in the boat.”
When Strickland is in the mood for a lazy day on the river, he fishes from Pine Barren Creek downstream to Roland Cooper State Park. It’s not that this area produces more or bigger fish; it’s the lack of recreational boat traffic.
“In August,” the catman said, “the water is hot and a little low. The best time to fish Millers Ferry is just before dark. Usually, they start generating about 11 a.m., but the water doesn’t start moving 21 miles upstream where I fish until late afternoon. That’s when the fish begin to feed.”
The flowing water also creates a pattern you can duplicate along the entire length of the river.
“Blue catfish position themselves at the mouths of creeks to feed on bait flowing into the river,” Strickland noted. “It doesn’t matter whether you fish shallow or deep. In the stretch of river I fish, Buzzard Roost, Foster and Pine Barren creeks offer excellent fishing.”
To discover your own trotline hotspot, Strickland advised using sonar to find a defined dropoff in front of a large slough or inlet. This dropoff is the bank of the original river channel. Look for a drop from 6 to 8 feet down to 25 to 30 feet.
Strickland ties his line upstream from the inlet and then runs out at an angle of about 25 degrees. To ensure that his hooks cover the dropoff in front of the inlet, he may add 10 to 15 yards of line between the bank and his trotline. He places one anchor at the end of the line.
With his lines soaking, Strickland begins setting out jugs.
“I try to keep them close to the bank,” he said, “but not so close that they get tangled in low-hanging tree limbs.”
To keep them from catching snags, he rigs his jugs with lines less than 4 feet long.
Since Strickland targets blue catfish, he baits all of his hooks with fresh-cut shad.
As demonstrated by Strickland, water flowing from the turbines into powerhouse canals creates an ideal feeding trough for cats. The canal funnels bait to scores of waiting fish of all sizes. It’s where Strickland caught his 38-pound blue.
“Anchor your boat where the powerhouse meets the dam,” he advised. “I don’t like fishing with heavy tackle, but it’s necessary to turn the big fish in swift water. Sometimes it feels like you have hooked a snag. It’s amazing!”
Below the dam, Strickland fishes cut shad on a slip-sinker rig made from 25-pound-test line.
Excellent public ramps are available below the dam at Cobbs Landing and above the dam at L’n L Marina, Gees Bend and Roland Cooper State Park or upstream on Bogue Chitto Creek.
For current fishing information, call or visit Lori Stogner at L’n L Marina, located off State Route 28, or call her at (334) 682-5125.
Hours of generation for Jones Bluff and Millers Ferry are available by calling (334) 682-4655.
Roland Cooper State Park (334-682-4838), near Camden, has excellent accommodations and camping on the shores of Millers Ferry.
“There is nothing like a day of Alabama River catfishing,” exclaimed O.J. Birge of Monroeville. “I wish I could fish it seven days a week.”
A veteran catman of the Alabama, Birge began fishing the river in Montgomery nearly 50 years ago and has soaked baits in nearly every deep hole between there and the Mobile River. Presently, his focus is Claiborne Lake and the river downstream from its lock and dam.
Birge, unlike most serious summer catfishermen, fishes exclusively with a rod and reel during daylight. More importantly, his multi-rod technique produces good stringers of fish on nearly every trip.
“It’s not unusual to catch 20 fish weighing 70 pounds,” Birge reported. “An average blue or channel catfish in this stretch of the river weighs between 1/2 pound and 3 pounds. I have caught blues weighing more than 20 pounds, but they are not common. My biggest flathead weighed 18 pounds.”
To find cats on this lower portion of the river, Birge relies on sonar and his long experience in the haunts and habits of blues, channels and flatheads.
“You must find the holes during summer,” he said. “The current flowing against bends in the river – particularly with bluffs – usually forms a good hole, as does the merging of currents at the mouth of a creek. Use your sonar to check all sharp bends and rock ledges, especially where current changes direction to form an eddy. Also, check the ends of wing dams installed by the Corps on the river below Claiborne.
“When you find a hole, move downstream,” he continued. Then, using your sonar, search for fish by maneuvering in a zigzag pattern toward the hole. I do not set up on a hole unless it shows fish.”
Birge’s fishing method is rarely seen on the Alabama; nevertheless, it’s popular with catch-and-release catfish tournament anglers elsewhere. It’s very effective when used to fish structure in flowing water.
Once he has located a promising hole, Birge anchors 30 to 40 feet upstream from its rim. Then using six rods, he evenly spaces the baits from shallow to deep water. He positions his baits near, but not in, any submerged snags that may lie within the hole. With the lines set and the rods in their holders, the spacing resembles the hooks of a trotline.
Birge baits the hook closest to shore with live shad to target flatheads. That outside position also keeps a strong baitfish from tangling with the other lines. He baits the remaining hooks with cut shad, fresh chicken livers or catalpa worms.
“If you fish for cats,” Birge said, “you must have a selection of baits. My favorite bait is also the slowest; even so, I had rather fish with shad because it’s the natural forage of the catfish. However, if you want fast action, catalpa worms work best. Some days, they produce 90 percent of my catch.”
Birge begins collecting the worms from catalpa trees in late April when th
ey reach a length of 2 inches. To preserve the horned worms, he soaks them in cold water for 30 minutes and then freezes them 50 to a bag with water added.
“As long as you keep catalpa worms cold,” Birge cautions, “they remain green with black stripes. If not, they turn black and do not make good bait.”
When fishing with chicken livers, Birge has found it effective on both small squealers and big fish. As an aid to keeping the bait secure, he ties the liver to a straight-shank 1/0 or 2/0 hook by wrapping it with No. 50 white thread.
Regardless of the enticement used, Birge fishes all of his baits on a basic slip-sinker rig on 30-pound-test. His sinker weight varies between 3/4 ounce and 1 ounce, depending on the current. Likewise, he uses an 18-inch leader in a slow current and a 6-inch leader in a strong current. Adjustments in the rig keep the bait on the bottom.
Current also determines whether Birge fishes above or below the lock and dam.
“If they stop pulling water while you are fishing Claiborne,” Birge noted, “you should put your rods away and leave. As long as there is a current, the fish bite aggressively. Catfish are conditioned to feed then, because the flowing water moves the bait.
“Without current, I fish below the lock. The fishing is slow, but the fish will bite,” he concluded.
From the many public ramps maintained by the Corps, Birge launches his boat at Davis Ferry off County Road 17 to fish Claiborne. Below the dam, he uses the ramp just off U.S. Highway 84. Farther downstream, he recommends the ramp north of Eliska.
For current fishing information, call or visit Paul’s Tackle Box on State Route 21, just south of its junction with U.S. 84 near Monroeville. The telephone number is (251) 575-4354.
Digital maps of the Alabama River from mile 0 to mile 133 are available from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the Web at the following URL: www.sam.usace.army.mil/op/ tu/Userinfo1.html#ala.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Alabama Game & Fish