Photo by Ron Sinfelt
The lowly catfish is the Rodney Dangerfield of the fish world — it gets no respect. Bass get all the glory.
Don’t believe it? Then why isn’t there a Catfish Pro Shop where you can go to buy stinkbait and ready-made limb lines? Or a C.A.T.F.I.S.H. Masters?
But Hoop Hooper doesn’t let that bother him. He’d rather fish for catfish any day — or more precisely, any night — of the week. To his great relief, there are plenty of places in the mid-state where you can fish for them.
“I used to bass fish some,” Hooper admits. “But I got disgusted with all the city boys with their fancy bass boats running over me and crowding out all the good fishing holes. So I mostly fish for catfish at night. They fight just as good, and they’re a lot better to eat — even the big ones.
“It’s just a myth that only the small ones taste good,” he continues. “Just cut filets off the big ones with an electric knife — you don’t even have to gut and skin them. Fry them up with some jalapeño hush puppies and add some homemade cole slaw — man, there ain’t no better eating than that.”
Les Ager, head of fisheries management for the west-central Georgia region for the Wildlife Resources Division, said there are a number of good fishing spots for catfish in Middle Georgia. Picking one just depends on what type of catfish you are after.
“If you are looking for big flatheads, trophy-sized fish, then High Falls Lake and the Ocmulgee River just south of Macon are good places to try,” Ager said. “If what you want is a good mess of channel catfish for a fish fry, then Lake Sinclair is probably the best place close to Macon to fish. And Lake Tobesofkee, in west Bibb County, is also a good place for channel catfish.”
We’ll take a closer look at these choices, and list a few more, but first a description of the types of catfish and how to catch them is in order.
Channel catfish get their name because their natural habitat is the flowing waters of the state’s river and stream channels. But they are also versatile fish that adapt well to living in large impoundments and smaller ponds. They are relatively easy and cheap to produce in great numbers in fish hatcheries, so they have been widely stocked throughout Middle Georgia in the ponds of private landowners, and by the WRD in larger impoundments. Channel catfish are also what you eat if you go to a restaurant. They are raised commercially in farm ponds throughout the state.
They are predators and scavengers, feeding on all sorts of live prey and on dead morsels that float on top of the water or fall to the bottom. They love commercial catfish feed, which looks like dry dog food.
Channel cats have a deeply forked tail and rounded anal fin. Small and medium-sized ones usually have small dark spots on their bodies, but the spots may be faint or disappear entirely on larger ones. The average size caught by anglers ranges from 1/2 pound to 5 pounds, but they can grow much bigger. The Georgia record is less than 50 pounds.
These fish sometimes hit moving artificial lures, which is why bass and crappie anglers occasionally hook channel cats. But channel cats much prefer organic prey that has a smell, thus their affinity for commercial or homemade stinkbaits, chicken livers, worms, mullet guts or cut fish.
The larger channel catfish prefer live bait, so they are more likely to hit shiners or small bream.
Flathead catfish are a bigger cousin, but they are a more finicky eater than channel cats. They are master predators, so they much prefer live bait such as bream and large shiners.
On average they are bigger than channel catfish, with 10- to 20-pound flatheads pretty common in the waters they inhabit. The state sportfishing record using a rod and line is 67 pounds, 8 ounces, but larger ones have been caught on trotlines and limb lines.
Flathead catfish are not native to Middle Georgia river basins. Fishermen illegally introduced them some years ago. Because of their affinity for bream, they have had adverse effects on the redbreast sunfish populations in some parts of the river systems.
Flatheads have large, flat heads, and their lower jaws extend slightly beyond the upper jaw, helping to distinguish them from other catfish. Their relatively slender bodies are pale yellow to light brown on the back and sides, and mottled with dark brown or black splotches. Their bellies are creamy white or pale yellow. The tail is rounded and slightly notched, and sometimes the upper part of the tail is tipped in white.
These cats prefer moving water, so they are mostly found in rivers or streams, though they generally avoid rapids or fast-moving currents. But there is a good population of big flatheads in High Falls Lake.
As for fishing tackle, it depends on the habitat you are fishing and the size catfish you are seeking.
Light and medium spinning tackle works well on relatively clean-bottomed ponds that have small and medium-sized channel catfish. But if there is much brush or standing timber in the water, or you are seeking larger catfish, move to heavier line and equipment.
You can use bobbers when fishing with worms, chicken livers, stinkbaits or even with live bait. Or simply dispense with the bobber and let the weight take the bait to the bottom, where most cats feed.
Fishing for the trophy-sized flatheads in the rivers around snags requires really heavy equipment — 20- to 40-pound line, 4/0 hooks and saltwater rods and reels may be needed.
Catfish can be caught throughout the day and night all year long, but in the hot summer months Hooper and Ager both suggest night-fishing. The catfish are more active and feeding in a band of water from about 2 feet deep to 8 feet deep because of the absence of bright sunlight that would force them deeper to avoid detection.
“It’s also more comfortable for the fisherman to be out of the heat of the day,” Ager noted.
“At night you don’t have the skiers and kids on personal watercraft running over you,” Hooper chimed in. “It’s just a lot more peaceful, and that’s what fishing is supposed to be.”
Ager said one mistake catfish an
glers make during hot weather is to fish too deep, whether in an impoundment, farm pond or river.
“They think fish go deep to find cooler water,” he explained. “But as the water heats up, there is less oxygen in the deeper water. So fishing deeper than 10 or 15 feet in the big lakes or 5 or 6 feet in most ponds means you’re fishing where there aren’t any fish.”
Now, where’s the best place to catch catfish in the mid-state?
This Georgia Power Company reservoir impounding the Oconee and Little rivers north and east of Milledgeville has long been a favorite with area anglers.
“Sinclair has a very good population of channel catfish, although they aren’t very big,” said Ager. “But there are a lot of fish in the 1-pound range, and that’s a size people like to catch to eat.”
Hooper, who lives in the country a little north of Macon, agreed with Ager that Lake Sinclair is probably the top choice to fill a fish cooker for catfish suppers.
“It’s my favorite big lake,” he confirmed. “I know some folks who have catfish ponds on their land who let me fish there. That’s usually pretty easy fishing, because the ponds are so well stocked. But I only go a couple of times a year and don’t take many because I don’t want to wear out my welcome.
“But you can go to Lake Sinclair almost any time and catch enough catfish to feed the family.”
He fishes most often on the Little River arm of the lake in southern Putnam County, but not because it is any better for catfish than other parts of the lake.
“I have a cousin who has a place on the lake there off Twin Bridges Road, so I can go up on a Friday afternoon, fish that night, lay around the cabin during the day Saturday, and then fish again Saturday night. That’s usually all I need to get plenty of fish for the freezer,” Hooper said.
But he also said that other parts of the lake can be just as good, if they have the right type of habitat. For Hooper, that means fishing out from the end of lighted docks near the river or creek channel. He looks for sloping areas where the bottom goes from about 6 feet deep to about 16 feet deep before dropping off into the channel.
“Sometimes they are out deep, along the edge of the channel. Other times they are in close to the docks. I’ll try different depths until I find them. And usually when I do, they are at about the same depth on other docks in the area.”
He uses a Carolina rig with a 2-foot leader below the weight so that the bait — he uses chicken liver or fish guts mostly — can float up a little off the bottom.
When he is going to fish two nights in a row, Hooper often baits the area, using sinking catfish pellets scattered loose in the water if there’s not much current, or if there is a flow in a paper lunch sack he has weighted with rocks and punched holes in with a pencil.
Ager said others use cottonseed meal cakes or bags of rice to do the same thing.
“The feed attracts the catfish to the area, so there’s more of them to find your bait,” Hooper noted. “I’ll go out a little after dark and put out the bait at three or four spots, take a break to eat and get my gear ready, and then go back and fish those spots after 10 or 11 p.m. I’ll stay on a spot 45 minutes or an hour and then move if they aren’t biting. If they are, I stay until I’ve caught what I want.
“The next night you can add a little feed, but you don’t have to. There’s usually some left from the night before.”
Channel cats aren’t the only whiskered fish that can be caught in Lake Sinclair, however.
“Something relatively new in Sinclair is that blue catfish have been showing up in the lake in the last couple of years,” Ager offered. “Blue catfish look a lot like channel catfish in small sizes. They’re really a distinctive species and in a lot of ways don’t behave so much like channel catfish, but behave more like striped bass. They have much more trophy potential than channel catfish. There are 50- to 60-pounders in Clarks Hill and some other lakes. I don’t know if they’ll get that big in Sinclair, but there’s the potential.”
The blue catfish were not stocked in Sinclair.
“They probably escaped from private ponds in the drainage area,” he said. “They are also in Lake Oconee upriver from Sinclair, so they may have come in from there.”
Blue catfish are predators the same as flatheads, so fish for them with live bait, Ager suggested.
An alternate choice for a public impoundment for catching summer channel catfish is Lake Tobesofkee. This impoundment on Tobesofkee Creek in west Bibb County also receives heavy recreational boating traffic during the day, so fishing along the main channels and coves is best at night.
“Tobesofkee is very much like Sinclair in that it has a pretty abundant channel catfish population that doesn’t reach very large size,” Ager said. “There’s particularly good catfish fishing up the lake where the creek comes in and in the Fingers Area near there.”
For those more interested in hooking a really big flathead than catching a mess of channel catfish to eat, Ager points to the stretch of the Ocmulgee River from Macon south to the boat landing on State Route 96, southeast of Warner Robins in Houston County.
“It’s a stretch that is relatively lightly fished and has the potential for big flatheads,” he explained. “If someone walked into the office today with a 60-pound flathead they caught there, I wouldn’t be surprised.”
The river slows down as it twists and turns through this swampy area, providing great habitat for big flatheads. Perhaps the best stretch is from I-16 down to Bullard Road in Twiggs County. Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge borders much of the river there. Bank fishing is allowed in the refuge, but there is no boat landing. Unless you hand carry a boat in, you have to put in at I-16 and go downriver to fish or at Bullard Landing and come upriver.
“There are plans to put a boat ramp in Bond Swamp, but I don’t know when it will happen,” Ager said.
During the day, fish the deepest, darkest holes with the slowest-moving water for big flatheads, Ager suggested. At night, flatheads come up into the shallows to feed along the banks and sandbars, so setting limb lines in those areas is also a good way to catch a big flathead. Live bream are the best bait.
Hooper also fishes the Ocmulgee some, but he targets channel catfish that can be found just below the old milldam at Juliette and just downriver from where the SR 18 bridge crosses the river.
de the shallows when the river isn’t too high,” he said. “I’ve also floated down in a canoe, but that can be an all-day affair.”
HIGH FALLS LAKE
This impoundment, part of High Falls State Park, has produced 50-plus-pound flathead catfish, but it is a bit more difficult to fish because of a horsepower restriction for boat motors and because of its being closed to fishing after dark.
“Because you can’t be on the lake at night when they are up near the surface and banks during the summer, limb lines may be the best way to catch a really big flathead there,” Ager noted.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Chuck Thompson is a newsman who makes his home in Macon. He is a feature writer for the Macon Telegraph and an occasional contributor to Georgia Sportsman.