By Jill J. Easton
A big fire burned on the sand spit, stoked by half-a-dozen excited kids who were getting to stay up until dawn. Four adults sat close enough to the fire to help ward off mosquitoes and stay warm on this cool September night. They told stories and drank campfire coffee. It seemed like a typical camp on the Pearl River, but we were all waiting for the action to start. Everyone kept an eye on the big poles dug into the bank over a deep channel.
Finally, one of the rods assumed a serious bow. After some heavy pulling, Mr. Jim dragged in the first catch of the night, a blue catfish that was the biggest fish I’d ever seen. It took two men to haul the heavy-bodied, big-headed monster out of the water. I was a coast kid who’d never been freshwater fishing before and assumed anything caught in fresh water would be goldfish-sized. This huge fish probably weighed only about 25 pounds, but to a 9-year-old who’d only seen saltwater hardheads, it was a monster cat. The whiskers framed a muscular, evil-looking head, the small eyes almost lost in the hard skull. The blue cat proved to be only the first of many catches that night.
We finished the night and ended up with eight or 10 big catfish taken on the poles and another cooler full of channel cats caught on limb lines spread over a mile or more of the river. Firelight, moonlit boat rides to check and re-bait the limb lines, coolers full of fish, and watching dawn light up the river made the experience a lifelong memory.
One of the many great things about catfish – channels and blues, anyway – is that they aren’t picky about what they eat. Worms, minnows, crawfish, soap, licorice, liver or one of the many prepared catfish baits all bring these sharp-finned fish to dinner. However, the best baits all have one thing in common: They put scent into the water.
Since catfish often hang out in dark, deep channels and muddy water, they hunt more by scent and feel than sight. Most of the time catfish are attracted to bait by tiny amounts of blood or other flavorings, or by thrashing and commotion in the water. They taste and feel motion through their barbels, the four pairs of whiskers that give catfish their name.
Although there are more than 2,200 species of catfish around the world, only four are regularly fished for in Mississippi – blue, flathead, channel and bullhead catfish.
Under good conditions, blues and flatheads can grow impressively large. The state record blue catfish was landed by Carrol Pearson of Gunnison in the Mississippi River near Rosedale in 1997 and weighed 93 pounds. The largest flathead weighed in at 65 pounds, 8 ounces and was caught in Pickwick Lake in 1987 by Wade Arnold of Baldwin.
Throughout the state, channel cats generally weigh in at 1 to 4 or so pounds and are considered the bread-and-butter fish. Surprisingly, though, the state-record channel cat weighed 51 pounds, 12 ounces and was also caught in 1997. It was taken from Lake Tom Bailey by Tom Edwards of Toomsuba. State records for the various kinds of bullheads are between 3 and 6 pounds.
Catfish aren’t listed as game fish by the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP), so in most waterways in the state there is no limit on the number that can be taken or the size they must be.
Methods for catching catfish are almost as varied as the locations where the fish live. Trotlining, limb-lining and jug-fishing are the most popular methods for taking these fish, but a patient angler or skilled hand-grabber can also score big fish.
Even though catfish aren’t as flashy to catch as bass, lots of fishermen rank catfishing as their favorite sport. The MDWFP has been supporting research on catfish to make sure populations remain in good shape in our lakes, ponds and rivers.
“Catfish are doing just fine across the state,” said Dennis Riecke, a fisheries biologist with the department. “We have funded studies on size, structure needs and water conditions on 12 water bodies across the state, and there are plenty of catchable catfish in almost every public waterway.”
Big cats hang in deep water, so catching blues and flatheads often means leaving the bank far behind. These fish prefer deep channels in rivers, pockets at the mouths of streams running into rivers, the holes scoured around dams and river bends, and the center of large lakes.
“In streams, growth of catfish is related to the watershed,” said Don Jackson, professor of fisheries at Mississippi State University. “To grow catfish we have to work with the environment, people and the fish.”
Dr. Jackson and his students have been working for years to learn more about the life cycles and growth of catfish to improve and maintain the numbers of these fish in the wild. As one of the premier experts on free-ranging catfish, he not only conducts studies for the MDWFP, but he also travels around the world to help restore and improve catfish in places like Indonesia and Malaysia.
“We’ve gotten to the point where we can predict the abundance of flathead catfish by flying over a waterway and taking aerial photographs at an elevation of about 300 feet,” he explained. “The proportion of mature hardwood forest in the streamside zone will have a direct relationship to the number of fish.”
He said that catfish angling is best one or two years after a big flood. Flooding not only puts more food into the river, but the overflow of water also allows fish to get into backwater areas and shallows on the floodplain for spawning and early-season feeding.
“Floodplain rivers typically are some of the most productive inland waters in the world,” Jackson noted.
Dredging has the opposite effect, although the fishing may stay good for a while after a river has been opened up. Rivers are usually dredged for flood control, to keep water from backing up into homes and farmland or to improve navigation.
“Dredging hurts. The fish, especially channel cats, won’t immediately die. At first they move aro
und a lot, so fishermen don’t notice a drop in their catch,” Jackson said. “Eventually, though, the fish go to places with a less even bottom that have snags and obstructions.
“They used to dredge rivers about every 20 to 30 years,” said Jackson. “Now on some, like the Yalobusha River, it’s down to about 15 years. This doesn’t allow the river time to recover in terms of fish habitat.”
In lakes, deeper water is necessary for big catfish. Blues and flatheads are generally found in old river channels winding through a lake or in other deep water. The smaller channel cats hang closer to shore.
“They prowl the open water like sharks,” Jackson said. “The 40- and 50-pound blue catfish stay pelagic. To find them, go to deep water.”
J.D. Miller of Meridian agrees with Dr. Jackson’s ideas on lakes. He fishes Okatibbee Reservoir, which is about 12 miles from his house. Okatibbee, a 3,800-acre Pat Harrison Waterway District impoundment, is known for great bass fishing and catfishing.
Miller has a different method of fishing for big catfish, but he says finding stream channels and deep holes is essential. He catches catfish – lots of big catfish – using only bare hooks on his trotlines.
“I use No. 8 or 9 stainless steel hooks without any bait,” Miller explained. “It started years ago when I was using goldfish. At 20 cents each it quickly got expensive baiting multiple sets of 12 to 15 hooks. Then I started putting a goldfish on every other hook. The bare hooks often had big catfish and the goldfish were still on.”
Now Miller suspends his lines above the bottom. He uses a rock or other weight at each end of the line and buoys the line with several floats so it stays above the streambed. He fishes his lines in deep holes, or in the curve of a creekbed that runs through the lake. In a recent stint of a few weeks he caught a 45-pounder and a 29-pounder on these bare hooks.
“It’s important to wipe off the hooks every two to three days, or they start getting dingy,” Miller said. “When they lose their shine I buff them with a Brillo pad.”
But for most of us, a major decision is what type of bait to use. Minnows or goldfish provide bounce and activity on a trotline or jug, but buying minnows quickly gets expensive.
Old-timers used to search out fingerling bowfin, also known as grinnel or choupique, from backwaters and bayous. These little fish are tough and stay alive several days on a trotline.
Crawfish, either alive or tailed, hold up pretty well and can be caught with a dip net and chunk of bait (this is a great way to keep kids occupied), or in various types of traps. Balls of smaller worms seem to work better, although a big night crawler has its fans too. Scent baits that work include liver, stink bait, soap or just about anything that has a strong odor or flavor and will hold together on a hook.
Miller uses a chunk of Ivory soap about 1/2-inch square in the spring for channel cats. He catches mostly fish in the 1- to 3-pound size on soap. For these smaller catfish, he sets the lines about four to five feet deep. Once the water warms up during summer, the soap melts too fast to be practical.
Noted catfisherman Keith Sutton, author of Fishing for Catfish, often fishes the Mississippi River. He feels the big river offers unmatched catfishing for the careful angler.
“The Mississippi portion of the Mississippi River ranks among the world’s top catfishing hotspots, producing giant cats, and numbers of cats, on a scale unexcelled by any other North American waters,” Sutton claimed. “I almost always catch scores of catfish, and a few individual fish on each trip that top 20 pounds.”
Sutton favors skipjack herring and shad for blue cats, fresh chicken liver or night crawlers for channel cats, and live sunfish for flatheads.
Sidney Montgomery of Tara Wildlife near Vicksburg agrees with Sutton that skipjack herring is a great bait for big cats, but he prefers fishing the big river using jugs or tightlining with a rod and reel.
He uses 2-liter Coke bottles with 30 to 48 inches of nylon line, depending on the water depth, and two hooks about nine inches apart. Montgomery spray-paints the bottoms of the bottles in fluorescent colors and puts a wrap of duct tape around the bottles to secure the hooks and keep them from tangling between uses. He carries a gaff and a baitcasting rod with a treble hook lure to retrieve jugs that get into the shallows out of reach of the boat.
“I keep a log of the fish’s habits and habitat. River conditions, water conditions and weather all have an effect on the size and number of fish you catch,” Montgomery said. “The river stage at Vicksburg and whether the water is rising, falling or staying about the same make a lot of difference. I catch more fish on a steady gauge flow of 20 to 21 feet.”
He likes fishing the Mississippi because it has a relatively clean bottom, which leads to fewer hangups when following 12 to 24 jugs as they float downstream along the dropoff.
“Jugging would be much more difficult in the Eagle, Pearl, Leaf or Chickasawhay, with their numerous bends and shallows,” Montgomery said. “We frequently catch 50-pound fish and have fish too big to get in the boat. Occasionally they even drag the bottles so far under that the 2-liter bottles come up crushed. Two of the fish were so big that the bottles went down and never came up at all.”
A 20-pound fish can generally keep a bottle underwater for about half a minute, so some of Montgomery’s fish must be true giants.
Montgomery also enjoys fishing a tight line on a rod for big cats, especially in the spring and early summer, when flatheads are spawning in the shallows. He uses live skipjack hooked through the eyes, or a bait made of 2-inch cubes of the red meat scraps from white bass mixed with a prepared bait, after it’s been heated in a microwave for about 30 seconds. He lets the fish and flavoring melt together for a few days, then freezes the mixture for later use on jugs or for tightlining.
Montgomery fishes close to sloughed-off banks and tries to find stump holes with 25 to 40 feet of water where these big cats go to spawn.
“Catfish are weird. When they are biting it’s important not to move or touch the rod, because they sense the unnatural resistance,” Montgomery warned. “The big ones hit it once or twice, and the third time I set the hook. Then the battle is on.”
Big fish have popped Montgomery’s 50-pound line on numerous occasions. Several times he has had monsters run all the line off a reel after chasing them up and down the river for more than an hour.
Montgomery, Miller and Sutton all agree that a good depthfinder/fish locator is essential for fishing unfamiliar lakes and rivers. They use the bottom-reading equipment to pinpoint the channels, humps, holes
and snags where big catfish hang out.
Catfish feed day and night under all sorts of weather conditions, so don’t let weather make you keep your boat on the trailer.
“Fish on rising water,” Dr. Jackson said. “The fish are hungry and the rain washes a variety of things to eat off the banks. Rainstorms often provide a wealth of fish.”
All of the catfish anglers agree that big flatheads and blues can be as tasty as the smaller channel cats. Cutting out any red meat keeps them from tasting bad.
“Cleaning counts on big catfish,” Miller said. “It’s important to pull the hide completely off and remove any red parts. I skin them twice. Once on the outside, and then I remove all that skin around the belly parts.”
No matter how you take them, or what size they are, catfish are abundant and fun to catch. They lend themselves to family outings, lazy days or campfire-lit evenings. And if those reasons aren’t enough, they’re also wonderful on the table.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Mississippi Game & Fish