One sharp tug on the pull cord of the trusty old Mercury outboard was all it took for the ancient motor to purr to life. Not waiting for instructions from my uncle, I gently shoved the boat clear of the sandbar on Middle Ground Island. The swift current of the Mississippi River caught our 16-foot johnboat and swept it out into the main channel. Using the powerful outboard, my uncle swung the bow of the boat upstream and headed in the direction of our first trotline set.
Photo by Cliff Covington.
John Butler Smith, like all my uncles on my mother’s side of the family, was a seasoned trotline catfisherman on the “Father of Waters.” I, on the other hand, was a true greenhorn. In fact, this was my first overnight fishing trip on the Big River. Even at the young age of 14, I knew this trip would be a life-changing experience. And I was more than ready for the adventure that lay in store.
“Shine your light over there by that clump of willows!” shouted my uncle over the rumble of the outboard. “See if you can find our flagging!”
The bright beam from my coon hunting light bounced off the muddy water as I slowly scanned the shoreline for the orange and white flagging that marked the location of our first trotline set.
“There it is!” I shouted back. “It’s just to the left of that big cottonwood tree on the bank!”
With the skill of a riverboat pilot, my uncle carefully guided the bow of the boat within inches of the willow tree marked with flagging tape before hitting the kill switch on the engine. Holding onto the tree with one hand, I grabbed hold of the white nylon trotline with the other. Instantly, I felt a gentle tug on the line, then another.
“We’re going to have some fine catfish fillets for supper tonight,” I laughed confidently as I worked my way down the line to the first hook.
“Don’t start counting your chickens too soon,” my uncle shot back. “You have to get them in the boat first.”
We pulled three pan-sized cats off that first trotline and 11 more off our other four line sets before heading back to our campsite.
Back at the sandbar, my two older brothers had pitched our tents, started a campfire, and begun heating a pan of oil for the catfish fillets.
“How did ya’ll know that we wouldn’t come back empty-handed?” I asked looking at the pan of oil beginning to sizzle on the Coleman stove.
“We figured with all the laughing and carrying on that we were hearing, ya’ll had to have caught at least enough for supper,” my brother Dwayne replied. “Besides, Uncle Johnny always catches fish!”
In a matter of minutes, we had our first batch of catfish fillets sizzling in the frying pan. And I can tell you from experience, there is something truly special about fresh catfish that is fried up on the banks of the water that produced them.
While my first river catfishing trip took place over three decades ago, I still feel the same sense of adventure and excitement each time I venture out onto the Big Muddy. It’s like my good friend, Sydney Montgomery, who grew up fishing the Mississippi River, once said, “If a man doesn’t like catfishing, then there’s something wrong with him. He just ain’t right!”
Fortunately, catfish anglers in South Mississippi have numerous rivers of all sizes in which to pursue their passion. Let’s take a closer look at some of the better river catfishing opportunities available in the southern half of the Magnolia State.
No other river anywhere in the country can compare with the fantastic catfishing available on this famous waterway. The muddy waters of the Mississippi River offer up a smorgasbord when it comes to the various sizes and kinds of catfish an angler is apt to catch. However, the “big three” of the whiskered sport fish on the Father of Waters and its tributaries are blue cats, yellow cats (flatheads) and channel cats.
When it comes to size, channel cats cannot compete with monster blues or flatheads. Channel cats can grow as large as 51 pounds, as the Magnolia State record indicates. However, flathead catfish have been known to exceed 120 pounds. Blue cats can also reach the triple-digit mark. In fact, old records indicate that gigantic blues weighing nearly 400 pounds were pulled from the Mississippi River in the 1800s.
No one really knows for certain just how big a catfish will grow. However, I have witnessed several giant catfish caught by trotline and setline fishermen that would easily shatter current world records for blue cats and flatheads. And that doesn’t include the monster blues taken by commercial fishermen on Old Man River over the years.
Although 100-plus-pound catfish are possible in the deep waters of the Mighty Mississippi, a typical blue cat or flathead catch will include fish in the 15- to 20-pound range with channel cats running closer to the 5- to 10-pound range.
When it comes to gear for catfish, you have a variety to choose from. And best of all, they are all very effective for catching cats. Most anglers on the Mississippi are die-hard trotline fisherman. Every now and then you come across a jug-fisherman, and on the rare occasion, you may even run into a hand grabber, but they are more commonly found on smaller rivers and streams where the water is much shallower. Tight-lining with rods and reels is another very effective method that has gained much popularity in recent years.
In order to select the best bait, you must first understand the dining habits of each species of catfish. Blue cats and channel cats eat almost anything, but prefer dead animal matter. They prowl through the water scouring the bottom for morsels, but also prey on live creatures.
Flatheads are less opportunistic feeders, preying almost exclusively upon live fish, such as bream, shad, skipjack or other catfish. Most experienced catfishermen refuse to use anything other than live pond bream when fishing for big yellow cats. To say that bream is their bait of choice would be the understatement of the century.
Another attractive feature of the Mississippi River is its accessibility. In addition to the modern boat ramps located in Vicksburg, Le Tourneau, Grand Gulf, Natchez and Woo
dville, access can also be had via the numerous tributaries that feed into the Big River.
BIG BLACK RIVER
The Big Black River serves as the physical boundary between many of the counties in central and southwest Mississippi on its trek to join the Mighty Mississippi near Grand Gulf. This muddy river serves as prime habitat for catfish to live, spawn and grow. In fact, this slow-flowing river system has produced enormous blue, channel and flathead catfish of almost mythical proportions.
While trotlining remains the most popular method of catfishing on the Big Black, the river has gained national notoriety as one of the premier hand-grabbing destinations in the South. Thanks to an overabundance of hollow logs, stumps and deep cutouts in its banks, big catfish are plentiful during the spring spawning season.
According to Woodie Reaves, who has earned the reputation of being a master of hand grabbing monster cats in the lower Mississippi Delta, there is no better place for this grabbing than the shallow waters of the Big Black. While Reaves’ personal best is a 93-pound whale of a flathead catfish that he wrestled from its underwater bed just a few years ago, his group routinely lands up to 25 big cats, averaging 50 pounds each, every time they venture out on this stream.
The main access to the Big Black is available at five public boat ramps maintained by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. Two of those are located in Claiborne County, with one each in Madison, Holmes and Yazoo counties.
The Pearl River rises in the historic area of the Nanih Waiya Indian Mounds of Winston County, where it is formed by the confluence of Nanawaya and Tallahaga creeks. It flows southwesterly into the Ross Barnett Reservoir and through Mississippi’s capital city of Jackson before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico through Lake Borgne and the Mississippi Sound. Along its length, this scenic river offers excellent catfish opportunities.
While the cats found in the Pearl can’t compare with the enormous monsters found in the Mississippi River, they more than hold their own when it comes to sheer numbers. As with most of the river systems in South Mississippi, blue cats, channel cats and flatheads dominate the catch.
The MDWF maintains seven public boat ramps in Neshoba, Leake, Copiah, Marion, Pearl River and Hancock counties. These are located along the flow from Philadelphia downstream to Pearlington.
The Pascagoula River is formed by the confluence of the Chickasawhay and Leaf rivers. From that junction the river flows southward for about 80 miles before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. The largest natural, free-flowing river in the contiguous United States, the Pascagoula is considered the “jewel” in the crown of high-quality wild places along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Catfish are making an excellent comeback following massive die-offs resulting from the effects of Hurricane Katrina. Amazingly, there were fish kills seen as far upstream as George County. According to Jimmy Rayburn, MDWFP District 6 fisheries biologist, the department’s fish surveys are showing quite a bit of promise in total catfish numbers of all three of the most sought-after species.
Access to the Pascagoula River is divided equally between George and Jackson counties. In addition to Smith’s Landing and the other ramps operated by the Pat Harrison Waterway, George County has a public ramp on the east side of the river on the road to the Upper Pascagoula Wildlife Management Area headquarters. There is also a second ramp located six miles south of Benndale on State Route 57. To obtain a map of the water district ramps, call (601) 264-5951.
Jackson County offers three MDWFP boat ramps on the Pascagoula as well. Dozens of other boat ramps, both public and private, can be found all along the Pascagoula River.
The Homochitto River flows from its source in southwest Mississippi for about 90 miles west and south, emptying into the Mississippi River between Natchez and Woodville. Homochitto, meaning “Big Red,” is the local Indian name for the river.
While the upper Homochitto is primarily a shallow, clear-flowing stream, the lower end gets much deeper and murkier before emptying into the Mississippi River. Shoreline and wade-fishing with a cane pole or setting a series of short trotlines in the occasional deep hole are two of the more common methods used to extract the abundant channel cats that call the upper portion of the river home. The lower third of the Homochitto affords the use of a small johnboat to set trotlines, tight-line, or even jug-fish for the larger blue cats and flatheads that move up into the river from the Mississippi.
Access to this river is limited, with only two public boat ramps. One is located 17 miles south of Natchez on U.S. Highway 61 and the other is the Homochitto Landing at Lake Mary in western Wilkinson County.