Photo by Keith Sutton.
Georgia is blessed with an abundance of fresh water. No one living in or visiting the state is more than a short drive from a public waterway of some kind. Hence, fishing is one of the Peach State’s most popular forms of recreation.
Among the many fish species inhabiting these waters, the catfish is particularly prized as an angler’s target. Few fishermen here don’t know the catfish. Year ‘round, all the favorite species of cats are regularly taken in a variety of sizes and numbers. It’s entirely proper to use the old cliché “a dime a dozen” when discussing Georgia’s often-dense catfish populations.
Catfishing here is as old as Georgia itself. The earliest Native Americans doubtless viewed the catfish as a desirable food species. Early European settlers as well — particularly those inhabiting homesites near large streams — used the fish as a vital source of protein. Commercial catfishing had its heyday in the state’s major river systems. In addition, recreational anglers have always caught catfish with great regularity.
Plenty of old, washed-out black-and-white photographs survive that show smiling fishermen from all walks of life and time periods happily hoisting stringers of cats from pan-sized to gigantic. The catfish indeed figures heavily in Georgia’s fishing tradition and lore.
Naturally, most catfish pulled by hook and line from state waters are small. In fact, many fishermen consider a fish of 5 pounds or better large by their standards. Ten-pound cats, for most, are rare and highly prized.
For some, though, catfishing has become a veritable clash of the titans. These anglers have honed their catfishing skills and perseverance to the point that satisfaction only comes from doing battle with true bewhiskered behemoths. Plenty of these inhabit Georgia as well (though the previous dime-a-dozen reference can’t always be used where they’re concerned). A bona-fide trophy catfish, here as in other places, is special: No easy-to-skin, easy-to-fry panfish he!
Just ask Brinson’s James Tyus. The Decatur County angler was fishing the tailwaters below the George W. Andrews Lock and Dam on April 1, 2006, when he hooked and landed a gargantuan blue catfish. No April Fool’s joke, this 67-pound 8-ounce monster: The 48-inch-long cat was subsequently weighed on certified scales and determined to be a new state record. Unfortunately, though every effort was made to keep the fish alive, it died within a few weeks of capture, before it could be placed on permanent display at the Flint Riverquarium in Albany. Tyus’ giant blue bested the old state-record fish, a 62-pounder taken from Clarks Hill Lake in 1979 by Ralph Barbee Jr.
Though 13 or more catfish species have at least minimal ranges in Georgia, but three merit discussion by veteran and prospective trophy catfish anglers: the blue, the channel, and the flathead catfish.
The blue catfish is usually a pale blue in color with a deeply forked tail and white chin barbels. Its upper and lower jaws meet evenly, or the upper jaw may project slightly beyond the lower jaw. The anal fin of a blue cat has 30 or more soft rays; the outside edge of this fin is straight. As attested to by the recent state-record catch, blue cats can attain great size in Georgia and, looking at trophy catches nationwide, are the true giants among the big three.
The natural historic range of the blue cat in Georgia is not wide, but has increased through the years owing to stream-to-stream migration and intentional and accidental introduction.
Blue catfish prefer riverine and reservoir habitats. The largest individuals are usually encountered in tailwaters below dams, where currents are swift and substrates consist of sand, gravel and rock. They also like to congregate in holes around deeply submerged treetops. Blue cats are opportunistic feeders, consuming live or dead fish and various invertebrates with relish.
The channel catfish is generally more slender and elongated than is the blue cat, but also features a deeply forked tail. It has a protruding upper jaw. Adult channel cats are dark gray along the back, grading to light yellow or greenish-yellow along the sides. Juveniles are typically light gray on the back and silvery on the sides. The head profile of the channel cat is curved from the dorsal fin to the snout. The anal fin has 24 to 29 soft rays and has a rounded or bow-shaped margin.
Distinguishing between small blue and small channel catfish is normally simple, as young channel cats usually exhibit small, scattered dark spots. Identification can be more difficult with big adults, at which stage the channel cat often loses most or all spots and the body takes on a bulkier conformation. At this stage, the anal fin is the only readily identifiable characteristic for the layman. Just remember: straight edge on the blue, curved edge on the channel.
To date, the largest channel catfish caught in Georgia weighed 44 pounds, 12 ounces. It was taken by Bobby Smithwick from the Altamaha River on May 18, 1972.
The natural range of the channel cat encompasses practically the entire state and, of course, stockings have long since introduced it into those few areas where it does not naturally occur.
This species inhabits rivers, reservoirs, creeks, backwaters, swamps, and oxbow lakes. It likes slow-to-moderate currents over sand, gravel, and silt. Submerged trees and areas with aquatic vegetation are also favorite haunts. Preferred foods include live or dead fish, insects, crayfish, and mollusks.
The flathead catfish, ugly even by catfish standards, is the only large catfish with a head flattened between the eyes. It features a projecting lower jaw, giving it a belligerent, bulldog-like expression. The back and sides of the body and fins are mottled with black, white, olive and even pale yellow. This mottled coloration underlies the colloquial title “Appaloosa cat” in some areas of the state. The short, rounded anal fin contains 14 to 18 rays; the tail is slightly notched, but never forked.
The state-record flathead is a 67-pound, 8-ounce fish that was pulled from the Altamaha River by Gene Middleton on May 24, 2000. In the spring of 2004, also in the Altamaha, an 85-pound flathead fell prey to a setline. That fish ranks among the largest all-time Georgia flatheads, but was ineligible for record status because it was not taken by means of conventional tackle methods.
The natural range of this fish in Geor
gia, like that of the blue cat, is quite small, but has grown considerably over time. Illegal stockings have been rampant in certain areas, particularly in portions of the Altamaha, and in a number of waterways, native populations of bullheads and redbreast sunfish have suffered.
Flathead catfish prefer flowing water and deep holes with sand, gravel and mud substrates. Individuals are usually associated with underwater structures such as fallen trees, stumps, rock ledges, and riprap. Larger fish are solitary by nature; a single flathead hole usually contains no more than one or two big ones.
Extremely aggressive predators, flatheads are opportunistic enough to take a dead morsel when it’s available, but they much prefer live food. Shad, sunfish and smaller catfish species are favored.
In many parts of the state, big catfish may be sought and taken during all seasons. However, many expert trophy-cat anglers point to the hotter periods of the year as prime times to go after them. In the southern half of Georgia, the peak season is longer, from spring through early fall. In north Georgia, high summer is when most big cats seem to be taken.
Veteran anglers like hot-weather fishing primarily because the biggest fish are more likely to hole up longer — that is, remain in those deep-hole areas for longer periods of the day. At night, of course, warm-weather cats are more apt to prowl the shallows, and some anglers prefer summertime fishing for that reason alone, arguing that big shallow-water catfish on the prowl are more-willing biters. That’s debatable: Big cats are opportunists that, on the move or not, can seldom resist a properly presented bait.
Georgia has plenty of big catfish of all species — quite enough to provide a viable fishery. That understood, just where does one go to find them? Obviously, the local pay-by-the-pound catfish pond is not a prime destination.
Indeed, big cats can show up in practically any fishing hole, but big cats in consistently strong numbers don’t. Certain waterways have good track records and reputations, and these are the places a trophy catfish angler should target for his best chance at success.
For those seeking big blue cats, all roads lead (according to most anglers and fisheries biologists) to the Coosa River in northwest Georgia. Easily accessible from Rome, a favorite stretch of the river for trophy-cat fishermen is from Mayo’s Bar Lock and Dam downriver to the Alabama state line. Along this reach one finds plenty of river bluffs that drop steeply off into deep water. Here as well are good deep creek mouths and a lot of outside river bends — all places where the current over time has carved out the deep, dark holes the big blues love. Here, 30- to 40-pound blue cats are not too uncommon, with fish in the 40-plus-pound range showing up from time to time.
The Andrews Dam tailwaters, in southwest Georgia, might be an up-and-coming trophy blue cat stream, though it’s really too early to proclaim that. For several years now, more and more blues of better than 10 pounds have been brought to hand downstream from the dam. This is a large tailwater area that holds many fish, and the new state record provides good evidence that quite a few more monster-class blues could be out there. It bears watching with interest.
The best chance for a trophy blue cat on a reservoir is likely found at Clarks Hill. Besides the 1979 state record, several large blues have been taken there in recent years. Remember, though: A large reservoir often proves more difficult to fish than a river, especially for a newcomer. It takes a lot of searching on a reservoir to pinpoint where the big cats lie in wait.
With the channel cat’s broad range, it stands to reason that there are now more areas in the state in which to find a big one. That’s more or less true — and, frankly, if some of the larger streams in the state are little known for producing big channel catfish, that could be because folks just aren’t fishing for them there. For example, scores of 20-plus-pound channel cats have come from the Andrews tailwaters during the past 30 years, with a number of larger ones showing up as a bonus; farther up the Chattahoochee River near the Walter F. George Dam tailwaters, big cats are not as often heard from. Same river, two similar expansive tailwater fisheries — and more big catfish in one than in the other? Not likely. The cats simply aren’t the favored targets at one that they are at the other.
Big channel cats are also pulled from the Coosa with some regularity. Someone going there for the blues can expect to find the closely related channel cat in some of the same holes.
Southeast Georgia’s Altamaha River, home to the current state-record channel cat, might also be suggested, though one can’t be certain that the illegally introduced flatheads in that stream may not have done harm to the channel cats as well as to the bullheads.
If a No. 1 big channel catfish site must be chosen, the Chattahoochee River between West Point Lake and Lake Seminole contains a lot of underused catfish-rich water.
For big flatheads, it’s a no-brainer: the Altamaha River. Many flatheads, large ones included, remain in the river despite a years-long campaign by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources urging anglers to remove as many of the fish as possible from the stream. With a 67 1/2-pounder in 2000 and an 85-pounder in 2004 added to the big ones that are publicized only locally (and to those never heard about at all), it is, as they say, ‘nuff said.
Georgia’s big flathead destinations also include Middle Georgia’s High Falls Lake, home of two previous state records and a 60-pounder caught in 2001. And one can’t neglect the southern stretch of the Flint River, especially that portion between the Lake Blackshear Dam and Albany and from Albany to Newton. These spots contain plenty of Appaloosa holes that hold large flatheads, especially from July through August.
When targeting big catfish of any species, think big as well where tackle and bait are concerned. Heavy freshwater gear is a minimum requirement, and even medium to medium-heavy saltwater tackle isn’t out of the question. Use no line lighter than 20-pound-test, and consider switching from monofilament to braided line, which can be more sensitive to a catfish’s nibbling a bait, as well as being much tougher.
Baitwise, palm- to hand-sized bream, big shiners, small suckers, shad and even large goldfish are prime live-bait offerings for big cats. All species readily eat a good-sized live fish, and live bait is almost a necessity for flatheads. Cut mullet, cut shad and cut-up chunks of skipjack herring are good additions to the list of large blue and channel cat baits.
Where technique is concerned, several fishing methods work well, but two are tried-and-true favorites: standard bottom-fishing and drift-fishing.
For successful bottom-fishing, anchor above likely deep holes containing preferred catfish structure such as stumps and snags. The size of the hook should be 3/0 to 7/0, and the sinker 1 to 4 ounces or larger. The we
ight and size are mostly determined by the size of the bait and the current flow. Use enough weight to keep the bait on the bottom.
The best rigs are fishfinder (Carolina-rig) styles or drop-rigs with the hook tied on the line above a large pyramid or bell sinker. Hooks can be placed anywhere from a few inches to several feet from the weight, with 18 inches to 2 feet being about average. Don’t be afraid to move the bait every few minutes, especially when fishing a very large hole.
Drift-fishing is favored by some anglers because it allows them to cover more water in a short period of time and lets them fish multiple lines at different depths at the same time; it’s a favorite night-fishing method. Moving with the current while strategically maneuvering the boat near likely underwater structure can increase the likelihood of finding actively feeding fish at any given time. Hangups can occur quite frequently using this technique, but many feel that that’s a small price to pay for upping the chances of hooking a trophy catfish.
Whatever method you choose, whatever bait you opt to present, and whatever species you decide to pursue, you really do have a legitimate shot at catching a really big catfish in Georgia. It’s all very simple, really: just a matter of going where they are, finding them and dropping a big meal right in front of their faces.
Oh, yes — lest I forget: Holding tightly to your rod and reel wouldn’t be a bad idea, either.