Photo by RON SINFELT
Sometimes the best way to stay unnoticed is just to go along quietly, minding your own business — right in front of everybody. Which is the tactic used by some of Georgia’s biggest sportfish: Hug the bottom and stay under the radar. If anglers only knew what lurks in the dark depths of our North Georgia streams, rivers, and lakes, there’d probably be a run on heavy tackle at the local sporting goods store.
The fish in question here are catfish. Despite an ability to grow to huge sizes and a willingness to bite under nearly any conditions, cats are accorded their due by too few anglers. Sure, catching a 2-pound bass is fun — but catching a 20-pound catfish is even more fun. And in northwest Georgia — given the noteworthy catfishing that the region has to offer — catching that 20-pounder isn’t all that unlikely. Further, a bonus comes with this action: For every big catfish that swims these waters, many other smaller cats, each just right as the main ingredient for a summer fish fry, are waiting to take your offering. No matter how you cut it, big fish or small fish, sport or supper, you can’t go wrong.
So let’s spend a little time exploring the ins and outs of North Georgia catfishing.
Several catfish species are out there for anglers to catch, and knowing the habits of each will both help you determine the most promising location for your next North Georgia catfishing trip and suggest the tactics to deploy there. Although the Georgia list of state-record fish includes six catfish species, anglers only regularly target three: channel, flathead, and blue catfish.
Channel catfish can be found in nearly any body of water, while flatheads and blue catfish are a little more choosy about the habitats that they call home. Since they’re some of the biggest, baddest cats around, blues provide a good place to start.
Caught from Clarks Hill Lake in 1979, the Georgia state-record blue catfish weighed 62 pounds, but substantially larger specimens of the species have been officially attested to elsewhere. The range of the blue catfish in Georgia is limited, but they abound in some areas within that range, providing your best shot at a trophy catch through their sheer numbers at those venues.
Either live or as cut bait, shad are highly appropriate enticements for blue cats, which won’t hesitate to eat a shad. In reality, any hunk of fish flesh — suckers, bream, freshwater drum, what-have-you — will work, because blue cats really aren’t particular. And no nibbling on finger foods for this species: When one of them’s ready to eat, it wants to fill its belly in one gulp. Prime places at which to soak bait for blue catfish are on the bottom in deep river bends, below islands, and near creek mouths.
With its deeply forked tail, the blue catfish looks very much like a channel cat, but lacks the spots commonly seen on the latter. Distinguishing large blues from big channel cats can be very trying, since large channel catfish often lose the spots and the yellowish cast that make them easy to identify at smaller sizes. Happily, one blue catfish feature is easy to spot: The outer margin of the long anal fin is very straight, not rounded as in other catfish species.
Both of the genus Ictalurus, channel and blue cats are closely related. As their name would suggest, channel catfish find rivers and moving water especially attractive. However, they’re very adaptable, and have been successfully stocked into lakes and ponds all across the state. Not picky eaters, channel catfish will hit nearly any bait, alive and kicking or dead and rotting — it doesn’t matter.
Channel catfish hunt mostly by scent and taste, which explains the success of bait that leaves a strong scent trail for the cats to follow to the hook. Channel cats are nibblers that often play with bait for some time before finally taking it all the way.
Anglers hunting monster channel cats generally prefer a palm-sized bream or shad for a live bait, as the larger bait discourages nibbling strikes from smaller fish.
In the pursuit of eating-size fish (a couple of pounds, roughly), stink bait is hard to beat for drawing strikes. Many different stink bait recipes, store-bought and home-brewed, are in use, but the consensus on effectiveness is firm: If it’ll gag a maggot, it’s apt to catch channel cats like there’s no tomorrow. Chicken entrails, a mix of rotten cheese and blood, shad guts, and a variety of commercially prepared concoctions are all options for channel cat angling.
A channel catfish is readily identified by its deeply forked tail and the small dark spots on its body. The spots may be faint or absent on large fish, though, sometimes making it difficult to determine if your trophy catch is a channel or a blue. A big clue is the reverse of one mentioned above: If your cat with a forked tail also exhibits a rounded anal fin, it’s a channel catfish.
Channel cats have been known to grow into the 100-pound range; the Georgia record stands at 44.75 pounds. “Fiddler”-sized fish are a dime a dozen in nearly any lake or river in Georgia, and fish weighing 10 pounds and more are hardly uncommon.
Owing to their large size and predatory skills, flathead catfish occupy the top of the food chain nearly anywhere they’re found. Any fish foolish enough to get crossed up with a large flathead probably won’t live to regret it!
Flatheads are native to some Gulf Slope drainages in Georgia, but their range has expanded as a result of illegal introductions into other Gulf and Atlantic drainages. These ill-conceived transplantations have seriously affected other native fish species like redbreast sunfish and bullheads.
The flathead catfish is a creature of large streams, rivers, and reservoirs. In flowing waters, deep holes are the chief places to probe for these monsters; in reservoirs, flatheads are usually associated with submerged channels.
Flatheads are solitaries, and any one piece of cover will usually yield only a few adults. Flatheads feed actively at night, and will spend the daylight hours loafing in a favorite deep hole before venturing shallow to feed.
One overlooked aspect of flathead action is stream-fishing. Although their numbers may be limited by the size of the water, big flatheads can be taken from even small streams. Flatheads prefer their prey alive and kicking, or at least freshly dead, and any f
ish that a flathead can fit into its mouth is fair game. Shad and sunfish are popular prey items.
Slender, with a broad, flat head, the flathead exhibits a back and sides colored pale yellow to light brown mixed with dark brown or black and a pale yellow or cream-white belly. The flathead can be distinguished from other Georgia catfish species by its white-tipped tail and a lower jaw that extends slightly beyond the upper jaw. The fish’s appearance reflects its attitude: big and grumpy.
The Georgia record flathead catfish weighed 67.5 pounds. Some of the largest Georgia sportfish, flatheads, especially those in reservoirs, are habitually overlooked by anglers. Indeed, all across North Georgia, reservoir catfish represent a virtually untapped resource.
Tackle selection should be guided by your expectations for your catfishing expedition. If catching supper’s what you’ve got in mind, a medium-weight baitcasting, spinning or spincasting outfit spooled with 12-pound-test monofilament will do fine. For the bruisers, however, heavy tackle is really the only way to go — so much so that you might even want to consider saltwater tackle.
If you plan on tangling with a big catfish, 20-pound monofilament is the minimum to spool on your reel. Modern braided lines are well suited to catfishing, since 30-pound-test line of this sort is small in diameter. Besides its allowing you to put plenty of it on the reel and its near-zero stretch, braided line confers several advantages. The sensitivity of the braid allows you both to feel the bottom — making it easier, say, to pick out a hard, rocky area on an otherwise soft bottom (the sort of place in which fish are likely to be holding) — and to detect even the slightest nibble. And when the fish takes the bait, the line’s lack of give puts the force of the hookset into burying the hook, not stretching the line, and as catfish have tough mouths, this can be particularly important when you’re setting a hook in deep water with a lot of line out.
Whatever reel you go with for the pursuit of plus-sized cats, consider a model incorporating a bait-clicker feature. It’ll alert you to the bite while allowing the fish to take the bait and run without meeting heavy resistance.
For terminal tackle, a standard fish-finder rig has a lot to recommend it. Consisting of a sliding sinker, a heavy swivel trailed by a 3-foot leader of heavy monofilament, and a large sturdy hook on the end, it’s simple yet productive.
If you’re using live bait with the fish-finder, hook it so that it stays as lively as possible. For smaller catfish, just downsize the same rig.
FINDING THE CATS
North Georgia anglers are blessed with worthwhile catfishing in nearly every lake and river in the region. A few venues, however, do stand out.
This has got to be the hands-down favorite for upstate catfishing. The blue, flathead, and channel catfish native to this stream are present in almost mind-boggling numbers. And even though the river is just slap full of catfish, that doesn’t stop them from growing to huge sizes: Fish exceeding 30 pounds are regularly caught, and specimens topping 50 pounds are definitely out there.
The Coosa comes into being at the confluence of the Etowah and Oostanaula rivers in downtown Rome and wends its way from there to Alabama and Weiss Lake. The section of the river from Mayo’s Bar Lock and Dam downstream to the state line is the stretch most favored by anglers.
It doesn’t require a long survey of this river for an angler to find a profitable catfish hole. Likely areas include creek mouths, outside bends and bluff banks, and the section of the river around the state Route 100 crossing harbors plenty of those.
The Coosa can be accessed by both bank-fishermen and boat anglers at Heritage Park in downtown Rome, Lock and Dam Park off Blacks Bluff Road southwest of the city, the River Road boat ramp off SR 20 west of Rome, and the Brushy Branch boat ramp off Blacks Bluff Road west of SR 100. Download a free Coosa River fishing guide, which contains a map, at www.gofishgeorgia.com.
We’ve already met this medium-sized Coosa tributary, which offers creditable catfishing in its own right. Blues, channels, and flatheads all are available.
The Oostanaula has surrendered some huge catfish over the last few years, as a dedicated band of local anglers has taken to spending summer nights relaxing on the river and figuring out the secrets of its whiskerfish. A smart technique to try involves fishing large live bream in deep holes at night in the SR 140 crossing area.
For much of the year the Oostanaula is easily navigable by small boats, but shoals sometimes prove to be obstacles during summer’s low flows. Paved boat ramps are available at the SR 140, 156, and 136 Connector crossings.
You can download a free guide to fishing the Oostanaula River, which features a helpful map, at www. gofishgeorgia.com.
Blue Ridge Lake
Moving east into a total change of environment — from a fertile lowland river to a high mountain lake — we come to Blue Ridge Lake, whose considerable catfish prospects are largely neglected. This 3,290-acre Tennessee Valley Authority reservoir, which impounds the Toccoa River near the town of Blue Ridge in Fannin County, is celebrated far more for walleyes and smallmouth bass than for anything with whiskers. But according to Georgia Department of Natural Resources surveys, a solid population of channel catfish and even some large flathead cats are out there for anglers to catch.
Target fiddler-size channel cats by tossing them chicken livers, cut bait or commercial stink bait. Stick with a live bream near deep-water structure if a large flathead catfish is what you’re after.
The several public access areas scattered around the lake, including sites near the dam and at Morganton Point, make it easy to find somewhere to go catfishing.
A little farther east in the mountains is Lake Chatuge, which offers some decent possibilities. About half of the lake, a 7,050-acre TVA reservoir in Towns County, spills across the state line into North Carolina.
Chatuge supports a respectable population of channel catfish, and although the lake’s not known for big cats, anglers should find plenty of action from smaller fish. Bank access is good. Areas you might want to try out: Towns County Park at the Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds; the county park at the U.S. Highway 76 crossing east of Hiawassee; and the U.S. Forest Service’s Lake Chatuge Recreation Area on SR 288.
Another choice for North Georgia catfishing is Allatoona Lake, near Cartersville. This 11,860-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundment on the Etowah River boasts numerous channel and flathead catfish.
Channel cats can be ca
ught all over the lake, but areas near submerged channels hold the most and biggest fish. Chicken livers, stink bait or a gob of night crawlers will all prove good choices for catching a mess of fiddler-sized catfish.
Allatoona flatheads are a little more challenging, but the species receives almost no fishing pressure, so you should have them to yourself. Focus on presenting live bait near the channel ledges, main-lake points and other offshore structure in the vicinity of which flathead catfish like to loaf.
Assuming that you’ve found the right spot, a small sunfish or shad anchored near bottom with a heavy slip-sinker rig should eventually get some results — if, that is, the angler’s willing to wait the fish out.
Another workable tactic: Drift or use a trolling motor to move very slowly along a depth break or other offshore feature and downline your baits so that they stay just off bottom. This tactic is a savvy way of evaluating a large structural feature and keying in on the few small areas that hold the most fish.
Public access to Allatoona Lake is excellent, numerous day-use areas and boat launches being present.