July 30, 2019
By Steven Johnson
From simple shoreline approaches to sophisticated strategies that utilize the most modern electronics and an arsenal of matching rods set in mounted holders, catfish angling takes on many forms.
In Georgia, we’re fortunate, because opportunities for every manner of catfishing outing are plentiful and widespread. Whether you favor channels, blues or flatheads, rivers or reservoirs, or fishing from the shore or from a boat, fine opportunities are spread from the mountains to the lower coastal plain.
Picking top catfishing spots in Georgia is a tough proposition because so many rivers and lakes offer fine fishing prospects. Some waterways do stand out, though, and we’ve picked five premier destinations that are likely to serve up fine fishing for you this summer.
ALTAMAHA RIVER CATFISH
The Altamaha River earns more acclaim for its catfishing than any other river or lake in Georgia for good reason. This big river offers exceptional catfish habitat and a food-rich environment that supports tremendous numbers of fish and plenty of legitimate trophy catfish. Evidence of the Altamaha’s trophy potential is obvious from a glance at Georgia’s freshwater state-record fish listings. The state-record channel catfish (44 pounds, 12 ounces), blue catfish (93 pounds) and two flathead catfish that tied for the state record (83 pounds) all came from the Altamaha River!
The blue catfish record is the most recent, having been set in October 2017, and blues indeed represent the most significant recent shift in the river’s catfish population. Blue catfish have grown much more plentiful and have increased in average size over the past few years, especially in waters downstream of Jessup.
River-wide, the Altamaha does not produce as many giant flatheads as it has in the past. That said, this river remains one of the South’s premier flathead catfish fisheries, and state-record caliber fish undoubtedly still lurk in some of its holes. Hands down the best way to find the largest fish is to run the river to remote sections that are several miles from popular access points, especially in the lower half of the river’s run.
Even more impressive than the Altamaha’s top-end potential, though, is the sheer productivity and scope of the fishery. Georgia’s largest free-flowing river, the Altamaha winds 135 miles through the coastal plain. It twists constantly through its course, creating endless deep outside bends that provide the range of depths, abundance of cover and blend of current lines and eddies that keep catfish happy.
The upper half of the river provides the best prospects for channel catfish, and fishing chicken livers, night crawlers or shrimp on the bottom beside woody cover or along drop-offs is likely to yield steady action. Flatheads are found throughout the river, though, so putting out at least one large rod and reel baited with a live bluegill or shad is apt to produce big reward. Anywhere in the river, live bait and heavy-duty tackle are important if flatheads are the target species.
Blue catfish also require seriously stout tackle. Unlike flatheads, though, they will readily take cut bait. A big chunk of cut shad or mullet is an excellent option for blue cats in the lower Altamaha River.
CLARKS HILL CATFISH
Georgia’s biggest reservoir is also one of its best from a catfishing standpoint, and the fishery has only gotten better over time. Unlike the Altamaha River, Clarks Hill is better known for other sportfish species, including stripers and largemouth. However, catfish are both big and plentiful in this vast impoundment of the Savannah River, andopportunities are diverse.
Clarks Hill offers all three major catfish species in good numbers — and with large fish in the mix. Blue catfish, which have been showing up in significant numbers and sizes in biologists’ samples for about five years, mostly stay in the main body, along the Savannah River channel. Flatheads and channel catfish are found throughout the lake, but some of the most productive lake arms are Little River, Keg, Germany, Big and Hart creeks and the Broad River.
Drifting with bottom-bumping rigs and cut shad or herring over flats that are adjacent to the main river channel works well for targeting blues. For channel cats, it’s tough to top anchoring atop a point or hump in a creek and fanning bottom lines to different depths. Flathead fishermen typically seek fish with electronics along hard bends in creek and river channels and at channel confluences. They then anchor directly over fish, using live bait fished just off the bottom. Flatheads can be caught by day or night, but they definitely bite best after the sun goes down.
Something noteworthy about Clarks Hill is that this lake has exceptional shore-fishing access for a major reservoir. Dozens of Corps of Engineers recreation areas and state and county parks are scattered from the lake’s headwaters to the far lower end and provide access to all different types of areas. Pick parks with prominent points (there are many), whether on the main river or in a tributary, for the best opportunity to cover a big range of depths simply by varying cast lengths and angles.
Although the Georgia/South Carolina border divides Clarks Hill, a reciprocal agreement allows fishing anywhere in the lake from a boat or from the shore with a license from either state.
FLINT RIVER CATFISH
The Flint River, which rises just south of Atlanta and runs all the way to Lake Seminole, near the Florida border, offers a huge amount of opportunity and variety. The upper river has a Piedmont character, with rocky shoals alternating with deep bluff holes. The lower river is broader, flatter and slower, and rock bluffs give way to sand bluffs along outside bends. It continues to twist and provide high quality catfish habitat, though.
Channel catfish are very plentiful through the upper Flint, with good average size, and can serve up fast summer action. Many shoals lend themselves to wade-fishing, and the cats congregate in deep current-fed holes immediately below the shoals. Several sections can also be accessed by jon boat. Big bluff holes on hard outside bends also hold large flatheads for anglers who are patient enough to target them and bring sufficiently stout gear to wrestle them out of their lairs.
The lower Flint River is famous for its flatheads, which have been in the river for decades and most likely were the source of the Altamaha’s original flatheads. Most fish are less than about 10 pounds, but there some seriously big cats among them. Biologists point toward waters downstream of the Highway 32 Bridge access in Lee County and above Newton in Baker County for flathead fishing. Again, using live baitfish is the key for targeting flatheads.
Channel cats are found throughout the lower river, but waters immediately downstream of Warwick Dam tend to be especially productive during the summer.
LAKE OCONEE CATFISH
Lake Oconee has long been a fine place to find steady catfishing action, but it has gained extra fame in recent years as non-native blue catfish have become extremely well established and displaced a part of the lake’s channel catfish population. Blue catfish in the 15- to 25-pound range are very common, based on biologists’ surveys and angler reports, and plenty of fish twice that size are available.
Lake Oconee, which covers 19,050 acres near Madison and Greensboro, is generally narrow and is used for pumpback operations in conjunction with Lake Sinclair and power generation. Because of those functions Oconee often has good current pushing through it. Blue cats relate to the current in the main river channel and definitely bite best when the water is moving.
A good summer day strategy is to search out shad concentrations and catfish with electronics in the lake’s main body and then drift, dragging bottom-bumping rigs baited with cut shad. At night, when the cats move onto flats and up points that are adjacent to the main channel, a better approach is to anchor atop the structure and spread out bottom lines baited with large chunks of cut shad.
Although growing numbers of hefty blue catfish have drawn the most attention at Oconee in recent years, don’t overlook a strong population of flathead catfish, which continue to produce outstanding fishing for anglers who target them. Flatheads average 10 to 15 pounds, but there are plenty of 40-pound plus flatheads available to keep things exciting.
MCDUFFIE PUBLIC FISHING AREA CATFISH
Six of the seven ponds on the McDuffie Public Fishing Area get stocked with channel catfish, collectively creating an outstanding catfishing destination. Fish average a pound or two, but catfish that escape harvest for a few years can grow large in these fertile ponds, and any time a fish bites, it could turn out to be a double-digit fish.
The ponds, which range in size from 5 to 37 acres, have mostly open, grassy banks and therefore lend themselves wonderfully to easy bank-fishing.Some of the lakes also have boat ramps and are well-suited for fishing from jon boats, canoes or kayaks. While PFA stands for “Public Fishing Area,” the Georgia Wildlife Resources Agency likes to point out that these are “Perfect Family Areas,” and from a catfishing standpoint, McDuffie fits that description.
Catfishing can be good year around at McDuffie, but the bite definitely picks up late in the spring and stays hot throughout the summer. Simple bottom rigs, with chicken livers on small treble hooks and just enough weight to cast, are tough to top for fishing these ponds.
Keep gear minimal, with only a rod or two per person and a bucket to carry bait and tackle and to use as a stool, for bank fishing. That makes it easy to move to another spot around a pond or even to another pond if the fish don’t respond. With so much bank access, there is no reason to stay in a spot if the rod tips don’t dance for a half hour or so. If the first spot is a grassy cove, try a point or a rocky bank next. If you catch fish for a while and the bite wanes, make a smaller move or look for a similar looking spot to try next.
Although we’ve chosen to highlight McDuffie PFA, it’s worth noting that all of Georgia’s PFAs offer similar virtues as catfishing destinations. All have waters that get stocked with good numbers of catchable-sized channel catfish and are intensively managed specifically for fishing, with property managed to provide the best possible opportunities for fishing from the shore, piers or small boats. If you live in another part of the state, therefore, don’t drive a few hours, passing other PFAs, just to fish McDuffie. The Georgia Wildlife Resources Division Website provides excellent information on all eight PFAs.