On March 28, 2020, Mike Mitchell landed the lunker of a lifetime when he slipped a large skipjack chunk onto a 10/0 circle hook for a catfish bait, and dropped it into Alabama’s Wilson Lake. The bait at the bottom of the 15,930-acre impoundment on the Tennessee River enticed a 117.2-pound blue catfish.
"I was anchored where I had caught good fish in the past," recalled the guide for Southern Cats Guide Service in Russellville. "It’s about 25 to 30 feet deep with some timber coming up off the bottom that stops about 14 to 15 feet below the surface. The catfish bait was right on the bottom, about 28 feet deep."
Mitchell missed setting a new Alabama state record by 3 pounds, and he released the fish to continue growing. Even most professional catfish anglers seldom—if ever—land a whiskerfish breaking the century mark, and it almost never happens by accident. To catch giant blues and flatheads, anglers must first find them and then specifically target them with catfish baits.
Carved by eons of current, river bottoms often resemble old-fashioned washboards, with countless humps, valleys and scour holes. Big catfish drop into these holes and valleys to rest out of the current. However, the most active catfish commonly lurk just below the upstream rim of a hole, facing into the current and waiting to grab any succulent morsel that flows toward them.
"In August, I like to drift and cover a lot of water when I’m looking for big catfish," Mitchell says. "I do what I call ‘dragging’ with a snagless weight. I use a longer leader and add a float to the leader close to the hook so the bait stays off the bottom and doesn’t hang up as easily."
In many places anglers can simply drift along with the current. If the current is moving too swiftly, run the trolling motor upstream just fast enough to keep the boat drifting downstream at slightly less than the current speed in order to cover large swaths of water.
"When the lake doesn’t have much current, I run the trolling motor at about .5 to .6 miles per hour to keep the boat moving," Mitchell says. "I pull up the maps on the GPS and look at contour lines. I watch the depth finder to keep the bait where I want it."
Blue and channel catfish eat almost anything, but monsters usually want a fishy meal. Many anglers use cut skipjack or shad. Some people use the head and gut section. A strip bait makes another great temptation for blue cats and flatheads. Fillet a baitfish side and stick a hook through the ribcage for better support. Current makes the strip undulate, mimicking live fish while oozing tempting juices. Keep the strips hovering just off the bottom.
"Many people think they should put the bait on the bottom, but a catfish’s eyeballs are on the top of its head," says Joey Pounders, a professional catfish angler from Caledonia, Mississippi. "We like to keep the bait about two feet off the bottom. With the current running, holding the bait off the bottom makes it look more alive. Keeping the bait off the bottom also helps disperse the scent so catfish can find it better."
Catfish detect prey in any conditions with natural ‘scanners’ in their heads that pick up tiny electrical fields emitted by all living creatures. … With the ability to smell scent down to one in 10 billion parts of water, a catfish can find a bait in even the darkest depths.
Finagle a Flathead
Voracious predators, flatheads almost exclusively eat live fish, but will hit strip baits and occasionally fish chunks. Typically hunting at night, flatheads naturally prey upon bluegills and other sunfish, shad, smaller catfish (especially bullheads) and just about anything else they can swallow. A large live gizzard shad makes an excellent flathead catfish bait. Fish it on a Carolina rig so it can swim more freely.
Blue catfish frequently roam open water, following shad schools and picking off stragglers, but flatheads prefer to ambush prey from the thickest cover they can find. They hunker down around logjams, stumps, flooded timber, downed trees and similar cover where they use their superior mottled camouflage to their advantage.
"When I’m fishing for flatheads, I look for wood, especially piles that have been there a long time," says Glenn Flowers with Flathead Catfish Hunters in Pensacola, Florida. "I also look for lines of willow trees hanging over the shoreline in front of deep holes, but where the water comes up to about five feet deep. Flatheads hunt along those willow lines."
During summer, boat traffic is typically heavy on the South’s lakes and rivers, and that can shut down fishing. Also, when the temperature skyrockets, fish seek deeper, cooler holes and might not move when the sun’s up.
"During the day, catfish tend to drop down to deeper water when motors keep going over them, especially the bigger outboards," says Mike Haney, a professional catfish angler from Perkinston, Mississippi. "At night, though, we can target big catfish practically anywhere we want to go and don’t need to compete with many other anglers.
"At night, fish are on the move and feeding," continues Haney. "Catfish move up shallow to hunt. Bait tends to stack up around sandbars and ledges close to deep water. Instead of looking for deep holes, we look for places like a flat or a sandbar near a hole. We’ll fish the sandbar and the ledges around the deep water."