Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Whether you like free-flowing rivers, large reservoirs or small lakes, you can find your pleasure in this year’s picks of our best catfishing waters in the Cotton State.
The Cahaba River is the state’s longest free-flowing river, and the lower stretch supports a fishery rich in blue, channel and flathead catfish. As our second-largest reservoir, Wheeler Lake grows blues exceeding 100 pounds and yet still has an abundance of pan-sized fish. Lee County Lake, which is intensively managed for anglers, has plenty of cats and is our only state public fishing lake with boat slips and cabins. Finally, in the southern end of the state, Lake Frank Jackson is our largest state park lake.
LOWER CAHABA RIVER
“My buddy and I arrived on the Cahaba River at noon on Friday and departed late Saturday with 251 pounds of catfish,” said Alan Jones of Selma. “The biggest cat was a yellow weighing 19 pounds. I primarily fish for yellow cats, because of their flavor, but we caught a good mix of blues, channels and yellow cats on that trip.”
As the longest free-flowing river in our state, the Cahaba flows through eight counties and three geological zones before meeting the Alabama River a few miles below Selma. According to Jay Haffner, management fisheries biologist for the district, the most productive catfish waters lie between Centerville and Selma.
“The Cahaba is the most biologically diverse river in Alabama,” Haffner said, “so there’s plenty of forage for catfish. The river is above average in fertility, and there are no fish consumption advisories or warnings whatsoever.
“It’s a beautiful river, and definitely holds catfish, but when I’m working the river between Centerville and Selma, I don’t see catfish anglers.”
Jones agrees with Haffner.
“I live on the Alabama, but the Cahaba is my favorite place in the world to fish,” he related. “From its swift water, rock bars, soapstone walls, and deep holes to its cypress trees and flats — there’s just no place like the Cahaba. And you can fish all day and not see another fisherman.”
Jones’ favorite stretch of river is between Heiberger and Suttle, and he said the best time to fish this area is now.
“June is a good month to fish,” he said, “because the water is not too low or high. In July, August and September, you will have to drag your boat in a lot of places.”
A typical fishing trip finds Jones setting trotlines and limb lines during the mid-morning hours. He baits the trotline hooks but leaves his limb lines bare. Once his equipment is set, he fishes with a rod and reel until mid-afternoon.
Usually, Jones sets out one or two 25-hook trotlines with cut bait or chicken liver. He sets them either in deep holes or parallel to soapstone walls.
“A good hole or bank has swift water and not a lot of trash,” he explained. “Regardless of whether I am fishing trotlines or limb hooks or tight-lining with a rod, I only fish swift water. The only place to catch fish is where the water is moving.”
With his gear set, Jones motors up the Cahaba looking for an old snag in the middle of the river on which to tie his boat. Moving from snag to snag, Jones fishes the deep water next to rock bars and eddies along the bank with his rod and reel.
“Using worms as bait,” Jones offered, “you catch all three species tight-lining behind the boat — yellows from deep holes, channels next to the rock bars, and blues from eddies.”
The yellows, as Jones calls them, are flathead catfish.
By mid-afternoon, it is time for Jones to run the trotlines and bait the limb hooks, which he has set in deep-water eddies.
“Wait until just before dark to bait your limb hooks,” Jones advised. “If you bait them in the middle of the day, gar will steal your bait. Bait these hooks with live bream to target yellow cats. Limb hooks always catch the biggest fish.”
Jones’ biggest yellow from the Cahaba weighed 35 pounds, and his biggest blue weighed 19 pounds.
Current fishing conditions on the Cahaba River are available by calling Richard Stocks at Central Alabama Farmers Co-Op at (334) 874-9083, extension 111.
Access to the river is available at ramps located in Centerville, Sprott and Cahaba, which is just above the junction with the Alabama River. Most anglers, though, slide their johnboats down the riverbank at highway bridges in the stretches where they want to fish.
Wheeler Lake is legendary for growing monster catfish. Alabama anglers have caught fish from the lake that have set state, line-class and world records.
Stretching for nearly 86 miles on the Tennessee River between Lake Guntersville to the east and Wilson Lake to the west, Wheeler covers 68,300 acres and is our second-largest reservoir. Wheeler’s habitat changes significantly as it approaches Decatur, where riverine bluffs recede into main-lake flooded flats. Add the fertility of the Tennessee River to this combination and the result is a world-class fishery.
Though Wheeler offers anglers an opportunity to catch cats weighing more than 100 pounds, not everyone prefers the giant fish.
“It’s exciting to catch big cats, and I do occasionally catch fish that will not fit into my livewell,” said retired Marine Corps Sgt. Major Bill Hancock of Huntsville, “but I prefer to catch pan-sized fish.”
While fishing for 2-pounders, Hancock occasionally lands big fish weighing between 40 and 57 pounds, and he frequently catches five fish a day weighing more than 10 pounds. The fish are a mix of blues and channels.
Hancock has two different methods of fishing, depending on whether he is alone or not. If it’s the former, he fishes with jugs — only with a colorful twist. If it is the latter, he concentrates on drifting near the shoreline and fishing with rod and reel.
“When I am by myself,” Hancock said, “I usually use floats. It’s the most relaxing and most productive method for catching catfish, especially in the summer. On a warm day, it’s nice to drift down the river and listen to sports on the radio. You have all these
floats around you, and every so often one of them stands on end.”
Catfish jugs can be made from nearly anything that floats, and like fishing corks come in a variety of shapes, the most sensitive being the long, narrow quill. Hancock’s floats closely resemble that type cork and are made from swim noodles, which are approximately 5 feet long and 3 inches in diameter.
“These floats are so sensitive,” Hancock reported, “that you’ll know when they drift though a school of white bass. Suddenly, eight or 10 stand on end and then lay back down. When you see that, you need to re-bait, as they will have taken your chicken liver.”
Hancock rigs the floats, which he finds along the shore, by making a cut to the center and about 2 1/2 feet long. A line is then tied at the mid-point and placed in the cut so the line exits at the end of the float. After closing the cut with duct tape, Hancock attaches his hook and sinker four to five feet below the float.
“I’ve had a lot of success with the floats,” said Hancock. “I’ve caught fish weighing up to 20 pounds — any bigger than that and you may not see your rig again. Since they are so sensitive and visible, they keep your interest.
“When fishing with friends, though, we use rods because I enjoy watching them catch fish.”
To fish with rods, Hancock uses his trolling motor to keep his boat drifting near the bank and over water 12 to 18 feet deep. He caught all of his big fish in about 12 feet of water.
Hancock’s fishing rig consists of 7 1/2-foot rods with 25-pound-test line. To drift his chicken liver near the bottom, he uses a 1/2-ounce sinker on the end of the main line with two short leaders added 18 and 36 inches above the weight.
To fish Hancock’s favorite area of the lake, he recommended launching at Ditto Landing Marina. For current fishing information, visit Tim Fowler at the Ditto Landing Marina on the north side of the lake off U.S. Highway 231 or give him a call at (256) 883-9420.
LEE COUNTY STATE PUBLIC FISHING LAKE
“Last summer, just after a rain, two anglers fished the shallow end of the lake and caught 12 catfish weighing 52 pounds,” reported Dwight Lake, manager for Lee County Lake.
Like all of our intensively managed state lakes, limit catches of six channel catfish are common at the 130-acre lake, which is located six miles southeast of Opelika. Angler success is high, as the catfish population does not hinge on reproduction. The state re-stocks our public fishing lakes annually based on the fish removed and recommendations from fisheries biologists. Unlike pay-to-fish catfish ponds, there is no charge for fish caught.
Last year, Lee’s enthusiastic anglers caught 2,879 catfish weighing 5,800 pounds. The biggest weighed 26 pounds. Each year the lake produces 10 to 12 fish weighing at least 10 pounds each. Anglers who catch one of these big fish win a surf rod and reel.
“We give away the rod and reel every time a cat weighing 10 pounds or more is caught,” Lake explained. “Since more patience is required, we do this to encourage anglers to target our big cats. Additionally for 2005, I have purchased a 12-foot boat, which is valued at about $800, that we are giving away to the angler who catches the biggest catfish for the year.”
Lake is also working hard to improve the fishery and the anglers’ fishing experience.
“I’ve caught fish weighing up to 20 pounds — any bigger than that and you may not see your rig again.”
“Since I became lake manager,” he said, “we have built a lot of structure using 55-gallon drums that we have modified by removing the tops and cutting holes in their sides. In one area, there are 100 drums standing up that run for 100 yards. It makes an artificial forest in the water, and it provides excellent habitat for bass, bream and catfish. And since it’s such a great place to fish, the area is marked with buoys.”
For anglers, Lake has built boat slips to eliminate having to carry the rented trolling motor, battery and equipment to the boat and then back again. Now with the slips, the boats are ready for the fishermen when they arrive. At the end of the day, you only have to weigh your fish before leaving.
Not only is Lee the only state fishing lake to have boat slips, but it also has four rental cabins overlooking the lake. The cabins are new, and according to Lake they are already successes. He said anglers from as far away as Michigan have enjoyed their stay at the lake.
One of the advantages of visiting our state fishing lakes is the great advice available from lake managers on where and how to catch fish.
“Whether fishing from the bank, pier or a boat,” Lake recommended, “anglers should fish their bait in a clockwise pattern, moving a short distance every 10 minutes if they don’t get a bite. They should also systematically search vertically. After tight-lining all the way around the dial, anglers should repeat the process using a cork to fish their bait from deep to shallow.
“Also, if you are fishing from a boat, I have topographic maps and will show you where anglers are catching catfish.”
For information on fishing conditions or to make cabin reservations, call Dwight Lake at (334) 749-1275. Lee County Lake is open for night-fishing during July and August.
LAKE FRANK JACKSON
“When I was a boy setting night hooks for channel catfish on Lightwood Knot Creek,” reminisced Mike Jones of Opp, “I never dreamed the creek would become a big lake and state park. Now that it’s a lake, my favorite fishing spot is only minutes away.”
Covering 1,037 acres within a 2,050-acre park, Jones’ fishing hole is the largest lake operated by the Alabama State Parks Division. Frank Jackson’s primary landmark is the U.S. Highway 331 Bridge, which divides the lake’s open water to the south from the maze of standing and fallen timber to its north. Including a 13-acre island near the ramp, the lake has more than eight miles of shoreline.
Having pursued catfish from the banks of the now submerged creek channel, and on Lake Frank Jackson since it opened in June of 1989, Mike Jones is regarded by many as one of the lake’s best cat men. Jones, who is semi-retired, said that when he is not working, he spends a lot of time fishing.
“I believe the best time of the year to fish the lake is early summer,” Jones advised. “And the best time during early summer is just after a rain when the water is rising. Late-summer fishing is difficult because of the hot water.”
In June, Jones said, a half-day’s fishing may produce a dozen channel catfish weighing between 1 1/2 and 5 pounds each. His biggest cats weigh between 8 and 10 pounds.
Ken Weathers, fisheries biologist for the district, sampled Frank Jackson a few years ago and reported the presence of big channel catfish.
“Auburn was conducting genetics testing on catfish from around the state,” said Weathers, “so we collected fish for them using trotlines on Lake Frank Jackson. Just about all the channel catfish we caught were big — between 3 and 5 pounds. We also caught a good many brown and yellow bullheads.
“That was in 2002. Then in 2003 the state stocked 5,000 more channel catfish in Lake Frank Jackson.”
Although Jones has fished from the dam to the head of the lake for cats, his favorite spot is located above the bridge where the creek channel is 20 feet deep and its submerged banks are 11 feet deep. The bottom there is like a carpet made of logjams.
“Big catfish lie under the timber,” Weathers advised. “It’s tough to catch them, but it’s possible if you use strong line.”
That is also one of the secrets to Jones’ success. His spinning reel is spooled with 20-pound-test line, which is tied to a 45-pound-test wire leader. To keep the fish from moving deeper in the logs, Jones locks his reel’s drag so the fish cannot take line. Even so, he still connects with big fish that snap his monofilament.
Jones completes his rig by adding a hook of high-carbon steel, baited with chicken liver. Above the wire leader, he adds just enough split-shot to sink the rig and then attaches a golf-ball- sized float about 10 feet above the hook.
For current fishing or park information at Frank Jackson State Park, call Park Ranger Donnie Thornton at (334) 493-6988.
Lake Frank Jackson does not have a daily creel limit on catfish; however, anglers may only fish with a rod and reel or pole. In addition to providing fishing and swimming, the park features picnic areas, lakefront camping and a boardwalk to the island.