By Silas Crowley
Florida has a reputation as one of the best states in the country in which to catch largemouth bass and, to a lesser extent, bluegills and black crappie. Lakes Okeechobee, Tohopekaliga and the 300-mile-long St. Johns River have traditionally been some of the best waterways anywhere for fishing for those species.
For pure dining enjoyment, however, there’s probably no better freshwater denizen than the different species of catfish that populate the rivers and lakes of North Florida. Channel catfish, white catfish and bullheads are plentiful, while an occasional blue cat and even flathead catfish also show up. All of them are fairly easy to catch.
If you want to do a little catfishing this summer, there are four North Florida waterways you should definitely check out. These are the Suwannee River; the Ochlockonee River and Lake Talquin; the Apalachicola River and Lake Seminole; and the Choctawhatchee River.
Most anglers who have ever fished the Suwannee know there’s no better river in Florida for catching the brightly colored and excellent-eating redbreast sunfish. The Suwannee, however, is also a great river to visit for a morning or afternoon trip to catch catfish.
If you have never visited the Suwannee, you are missing one of Florida’s real gems. The river begins in the Okefenokee Swamp in southeast Georgia before coursing 213 miles through Florida and limestone bedrock formations and then emptying in the Gulf of Mexico. Owing to its origins, the upper reaches of the Suwannee are filled with dark, tannin-stained water that is slightly acidic. That type of water does not support game fish that are as large or as numerous as does water that has a more neutral pH.
Fisheries biologist Gary Byerley works out of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Lake City office and knows the Suwannee River as well as anyone. Byerley and other biologists annually monitor five areas of the river for fish production. He said the middle of the river from White Springs to Luraville is without question one of the most productive areas of the river for catfish, as is the lower section to the south.
The predominant species of catfish on the Suwannee are spotted and brown bullheads, followed by channel catfish, white catfish and an occasional blue cat.
Bullheads, depending on where you are, go by different names, such as pollywogs, butter cats and bootheads. They’re usually a mottled brown color and rarely go over 1 1/2 pounds. They are tasty, however.
Fishermen everywhere are familiar with channel cats. They are routinely caught from the Suwannee in the 10-to 20-pound range. White catfish are smaller, resembling a channel cat without the black spots, and usually do not exceed a couple of pounds. Blue catfish only rarely turn up and are believed to have been illegally released into the river.
“Most people either anchor out in the river or fish from the bank, but they fish the bottom with enough lead to hold down blood baits, such as chicken liver, or wigglers,” Byerley noted. “There are all kinds of ‘stink baits’ on the market, and they’re probably just as effective.
“You also see bush hooks and trotlines set for catfish like you do elsewhere,” he added.
The best areas for people wanting to catfish are on the middle and lower sections of the river. Byerley said the last boat ramp is at Fowler Bluff, roughly 15 miles from the Gulf of Mexico.
Most catfish anglers who fish near the coast know that tidal influence affects how you fish and that there are times when traditional baits are ineffective. Particularly if you’re fishing south of Fowler Bluff, Byerley recommends that you take along a half-pound or so of shrimp for bait. Unless the shrimp are really small, you can get two or three baits out of each one and catch catfish when nothing else works.
Like some others in the state, Lake Talquin, which is the major feature of the Ochlockonee River drainage, has a reputation as a big-bass fishery. The 8,900-acre reservoir near Quincy is deep and is fed by several creeks, as well as the river, which flows down from Georgia into the Panhandle. Lake Talquin is a super place to fish for catfish, if you know what you’re doing.
One fisherman who long ago figured out how to catch all the channel cats he wanted from Talquin is John Shouppe of Marianna. A retired painter and carpenter, Shouppe grew up in the area and has fished just about every water body in the Panhandle at one time or the other. No fair-weather catfisherman, he regularly goes to Talquin when the weather could not get any hotter.
“We went one day last June and it was tough. It was as hot as the dickens that day – no clouds, no wind, nothing. It was one of those days when you just wilt,” Shouppe recalled.
He and his party fished a spot on the west side of the lake without success, and then they moved to the east shore near the old river channel. Anchoring in water 15 to 20 feet deep, Shouppe did the unpredictable. He took his rod tip and started slashing the water. He believes such commotion attracts fish instead of running them off. Next, he took a handful of a commercial blood bait, cut the chunks into smaller thumbnail-sized pieces and dropped them over the side.
Fishing with a spinning reel, a few split shot, a No. 4 hook and a couple of crickets, Shouppe soon boated three channel cats, one of them weighing a hefty 8 pounds. He moved several times before calling it a day by mid-afternoon and had boated 12 channel cats, the majority weighing 2 to 4 pounds each, and four smaller white catfish. Every place he fished he went through the same drill.
“That lake is full of catfish, and there’s not many people who fish for them,” Shouppe advised.
Lake Talquin’s waters escape through Jackson Bluff Dam near State Highway 20 to the southwest of Tallahassee. From there, the Ochlockonee River winds its way some 40 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Unless there has been a lot of rainfall, the river is a narrow stump- and snag-filled flow with lots of deep holes. It is in those holes that you are apt to catch lots of channel cats.
On trips to the Ochlockonee, we would move from hole to hole, always anchoring our 14-foot boat slightly upstream from the deep water. Depending on how many logs and limbs lay where we wanted t
o fish, we used both cane poles and spinning rigs with wigglers and crickets for bait. More often than not, we came away with a few channel catfish from each hole.
It was not something fisheries biologists wanted to see, but in the last decade flathead catfish began turning up in the Ochlockonee below the dam. Those fish-eating cats that are native to the Mississippi River drainage have spelled some changes in other Florida rivers where they’ve become established. Two of their favorite forage species are bullhead catfish and redbreast sunfish, which virtually disappear when flatheads arrive. It remains to be seen what the effect will be on fish populations in the Ochlockonee.
Lake Seminole covers 37,500 acres and is formed by the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers by Jim Woodruff Dam, near the town of Chattahoochee. The impoundment is also the wellspring for the Apalachicola River.
The lake has a reputation as one of the best places in the Southeastern U.S. for catching largemouth bass, as well as striped and sunshine bass. On the other hand, even local folks often overlook the lake’s catfishing.
Because of the fact that most of the lake is in Georgia, Florida fishing licenses are good only from the eastern side of the Chattahoochee River to the shoreline in Florida. Elsewhere, you need a non-resident Georgia fishing license. Regardless of what license you hold or where you want to fish, the reservoir has plenty of catfish.
The key to catfishing on Lake Seminole is to get away from the hydrilla. Find areas where the depth is 10 to 20 feet near the old creekbeds. There you have a shot at catching channel, white or flathead cats and an occasional bullhead.
For Shouppe, it’s less than a 30-minute drive from his home to Seminole. He fishes the lake frequently and has discovered one oddity about the angling. One bait that works elsewhere but has been a dud on Seminole is crawfish.
“You can catch channel cats on crawfish in a lot of places, but my experience is you’re wasting your time there with them,” he commented. “You can’t beat wigglers and red worms on Seminole.”
Look for the navigation buoys marking the channel and fish along those until you find the cats.
“Most of what I catch in Seminole is about 12 to 15 inches long, which is just the right size to eat. If you want bigger catfish, you need to anchor a quarter-mile or so out in front of the dam in deep water,” he advised.
Below the Jim Woodruff Dam, the Apalachicola River meanders 107 miles to the Gulf at the town of Apalachicola. The river is more than 100 yards wide in places and is a pretty good place for catching channel and flathead catfish, despite significant dredging and other changes by the U.S. Corps of Engineers in the name of improved navigation for barge traffic.
Perhaps it’s because I grew up within a stone’s throw of the river, but one of my favorite experiences is sitting anchored on the river at sunrise just above a deep hole and fishing with catalpa worms or wigglers. There are times when one person simply cannot fish two rods because of the hungry channel cats trying to take the baits.
Two other excellent channel cat baits that are free for the taking are the meat of Asian clams, which are now found along the shoreline, and small crawfish scooped up in “wire drags” in area ditches. Particularly with the meat of the clams, it’s easier to use small treble hooks to keep the bait on, rather than single-shank hooks.
Over the years, I haven’t caught many big channel cats fishing the Apalachicola, but I’ve taken lots of cats in the 1/2- to 1-pound range, which are just the right size for eating.
In 1983 a Jackson County man fishing below the Woodruff Dam caught the first documented flathead catfish from the river. While theories abound as to how those fish jumped from the Mississippi River drainage into other Southeastern rivers, the ones in Florida probably came downstream from the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers in Georgia. Regardless, flatheads are now well entrenched in the river.
Fishing for flatheads is markedly different than going after channel cats. First of all, most flathead fishing is done at night with live bream for bait. Flathead fishermen like to target the deeper holes beginning just after sundown. A 4- to 5-inch bream hugging the bottom is an irresistible meal for a flathead under such circumstances.
Flathead fishing has become so entrenched that there are now flathead catfish tournaments held in Blountstown, Bristol and Wewahitchka as fundraisers for different organizations. A fish that initially was cursed as the worst thing that could happen has turned into a windfall for some of the area’s civic organizations.
The Choctawhatchee River begins in south Alabama, but the Florida portion snakes along for more than 50 miles before emptying into Choctawhatchee Bay. The river has never been dredged or altered and is one of the most pristine streams in Florida.
Probably because of sediments carried by runoff from farmlands in south Alabama, the upper river tends to be shallow, especially from Interstate 10 north to the state line. Wherever there is deeper water, however, there are channel cats, bullheads and, unfortunately, flathead catfish.
Biologists found less than half a dozen flatheads in 2001 during their routine game fish surveys and removed those fish. Despite that effort, last year roughly three dozen turned up. They ranged in size from 6 inches to one weighing close to 20 pounds. Biologists suspect someone transplanted the fish to the Choctawhatchee several years ago.
There are lots of snags on the bottom of both the upper and lower sections of the river. Biologists say wherever you have snags you’re going to have lots of channel cats. Two years ago during sampling in the upper river near U.S. Highway 90, biologists netted, measured and then released a 4-foot channel cat that weighed 46.5 pounds. That is two pounds heavier than the existing Florida state record. As far as biologists know, the big female is still swimming in the upper river.
The Choctawhatchee is another river that John Shouppe fishes, and on the upper river he recommended fishing the deeper bends and holes, particularly areas where there is rocky limestone bottom.
“You can fish right behind the boat with plenty of lead and either crawfish or wigglers,” he said. “The important thing, though, is to fish the holes.”
The lower river is lazier than the upper portion, but deeper. Some places are 18 to 20 feet deep. Again, with so many snags in the river, Shouppe says it’s best to fish immediately behind your boat. The lower river from Choctawhatchee Bay upstream to especially the section from the bay north to State Highway 20 is influenced by tidal flows. Shrimp are a great bait in this lower river for channel cats, and in fa
ct there are times when those fish will only take that offering.
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