Alabama sportsmen don't need to venture miles offshore to battle monsters. Widespread and abundant, catfish offer anglers incredible opportunities to challenge extremely large fish, some exceeding 100 pounds, often with little competition or expense.
Many people begin fishing by tempting catfish, but switch to more "glamorous" species later in life. In fact, in most lakes and rivers, whisker fish see very little pressure.
Channel cats thrive in almost any freshwater system in Alabama, while white catfish range across eastern North America and exist mostly in the Chattahoochee, Choctawhatchee and Mobile river systems. People can also catch several varieties of bullheads, often derisively dubbed "mud cats," which seldom weigh more than 1 or 2 pounds.
On the other hand, true river monsters, like blue and flathead catfish, can easily break into triple digits. Old tales from the Mississippi River claim 300-pound blues pulled from the muddy waters. Officially, Nick Anderson set a new world record for blue cats on June 18, 2011, when he yanked a 143-pounder from Kerr Lake in Virginia. That fish measured 57 inches long with a 47-inch girth.
Blue catfish thrive across Alabama, particularly in major river systems and associated impoundments. Blues habitually congregate below dams where currents wash bait over sand, gravel and rock bottoms. They eat almost anything, including live or dead fish and assorted invertebrates.
Flatheads mainly stick to rivers, although some reservoirs can produce giants. These mottled monsters almost exclusively eat live fish, frequently hiding around logjams, rock piles, ledges and other cover waiting to ambush prey.
"Flatheads are voracious predators," said Mike Holley, Alabama fisheries biologist. "They are more active at night and it takes live bait to catch them. Bass fishermen occasionally catch them on lures that imitate baitfish. They eat mostly gizzard shad, threadfin shad, bluegill and other sunfish."
Lake Wheeler, the second largest lake in Alabama, is listed as No. 2 on the Fishhound.com list of hot catfish lakes. The lake impounds 67,100 acres of the Tennessee River near Decatur. The upper end of Wheeler remains more riverine, with many rocks and shoals. The lower end contains deep water, weed beds, stumps, flooded brush, rock piles, steep banks, channel drops and points where big cats can prowl.
"The Tennessee River is a world-class fishery for catfish," explained Darrell Van Vactor, president of King Kat Tournament Trail. "In 2006, before the 34-inch rule went into effect in Alabama, we set a record on the Tennessee River by catching and releasing almost 12,000 pounds of fish in two days. At that time, the winning weight was 504 pounds with a two-day tournament limit of 10 catfish. Now, anglers in Alabama may not keep more than one fish longer than 34 inches per day. I don't know anywhere in America that people can catch that quality of fish continuously."
Also making the list of top catfishing lakes, Lake Guntersville on the Tennessee River came in at No. 15 in the nation. The largest lake in Alabama, Lake Guntersville stretches 75 miles along the river channel from Guntersville Dam in Marshall County into Tennessee. One reservoir upstream from Lake Wheeler, Guntersville spreads across 69,100 acres of prime catfish habitat.
Downstream on the Tennessee River, Pickwick and Wilson lakes also produce giant blue and flathead cats, with many in the 30- to 50-pound range. Some even approach 100 pounds. Pickwick Lake runs 53 miles from Wilson Dam in Florence, Ala., downriver to Pickwick Dam at Counce, Tenn. and covers 47,500 acres. Near Wilson Dam, Pickwick Lake still resembles the old river channel. The Tennessee Valley Authority maintains the channel for commercial traffic so it averages 10 to 12 feet deep. The lake spreads out as it flows toward the Mississippi-Tennessee line.
Wilson Dam separates Pickwick Lake from Wilson Lake, which flows about 18 miles along the river channel to the Wheeler Dam and covers 15,930 acres. Wilson Lake can drop to more than 100 feet deep in places. Several big coves, dominated by rocky bluffs and forested tribs, create 154 shoreline miles.
"The Tennessee River is well known for producing big catfish," said Brian Barton (www.brianbartonoutdoors.com) a guide out of Muscle Shoals. "I've had days near the Wilson Dam on Lake Pickwick when I've caught more than 100 catfish. My personal best is a 75-pounder. I know of at least one 93-pounder caught off Lake Wheeler and a couple fish in the 80s. Anything above 80 pounds is a special trophy, but 70-pounders are becoming more common."
Although the Tennessee River system produces excellent blue and flathead action, Fishhound.com named Lake Eufaula the best catfish lake in the nation. Officially dubbed Walter F. George Reservoir, the impoundment near the town of Eufaula covers 45,181 acres along the Chattahoochee River. Many anglers fish Cowikee Creek near Lakepoint State Park Resort. Some holes in the channel drop to more than 30 feet deep. The Chattahoochee River runs for 430 miles, slashing across Georgia before straddling part of the Alabama-Georgia border and combining with the Flint River to form the Apalachicola River at Chattahoochee, Fla.
"Lake Eufaula has a lot of big catfish," advised Rob Andress, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries biologist in Enterprise. "The lake has many big blue catfish and a large channel cat population. Some flatheads have been reported in the Chattahoochee system and Lake Eufaula. The flatheads are mostly in the river below the dam."
Blue catfish accidentally entered the Choctawhatchee River in 1993, when heavy rains broke a dam forming a private lake stocked with blue cats. The Choctawhatchee runs 141 miles through Alabama and Florida before emptying into Choctawhatchee Bay in Walton County, Fla. The river system drains about 5,350 square miles. A lot of Alabama anglers tempt catfish where the Choctawhatchee and the Pea River come together in Geneva County.
"Many people fish the Choctaw-hatchee and Pea rivers," Andress said. "I've seen some flatheads in the 30- to 35-pound range come out of those rivers. We actually encourage anglers in those areas to harvest more big flatheads because that species is not native to those waters."
For catching numbers of catfish, anglers may wish to visit one of the 23 state managed public fishing lakes spread across 20 counties, ranging from 13 to 1,912 acres. The state frequently stocks channel catfish in these lakes to create public fisheries. Among the best, the Geneva County Public Fishing lakes near Coffee Springs can produce outstanding action. One lake measures about 35 acres and the other about 34 acres.
"Geneva County Lake and Lower Geneva County Lake have some of the best fishing for catfish numbers in southeast Alabama," Andress said. "We stock Lower Geneva County Lake really heavily with channel catfish so people can catch them. We completely renovated that lake a few years ago, so we're trying to rebuild the population. Most cats in that lake are in the 2- to 6-pound range. We put a lot of structure close to bank angling areas to attract fish so people can catch them."
Also making the Fishhound.com list, Lake Logan Martin came in at No. 21 among the nation's best. On the Coosa River, Lake Logan Martin covers 15,263 acres near Pell City. Sometimes called "The Lake of a Thousand Coves," the riverine impoundment offers anglers more than 275 miles of shorelines. Impounded in 1964, the lake runs more than 48 miles along the Coosa River and drops to more than 110 feet deep in places.
Beginning near Rome, Ga., the Coosa River flows 280 miles to the southwest with more than 90 percent of it in Alabama. Lay Lake covers about 12,000 acres and runs for about 50 miles along the old Coosa River channel. Lake Jordan, the southernmost impoundment on the Coosa River, spreads across 6,800 acres near Wetumpka.
The Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers merge at Wetumpka to form the Alabama River. Making the Fishhound.com list as the 20th best catfish stream in the nation, the Alabama River flows southward another 318 miles. The Cahaba River flows into the Alabama near Selma.
The Tombigbee River originates in Itawamba County, Miss., and flows about 200 miles through northern Mississippi and Alabama. The Black Warrior River flows 178 miles before hitting the Tombigbee near Demopolis. These rivers produce big blues and flatheads, plus abundant channel cats.
"The best catfish waters in this part of Alabama are the Warrior and Tombigbee Rivers," said Christopher McKee, state biologist from Tuscaloosa. "The tailraces below Demopolis, plus Aliceville and Gainesville reservoirs produce plenty of catfish in May and June, as catfish move upstream to spawn and congregate below the dams. For blues and channels, I would target flats adjacent to deep water. For flatheads, look for large laydowns in areas where the river channel hits the bank."
More popularly known as the Tenn-Tom, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway runs 234 miles through Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama to link the Tennessee and Tombigbee rivers for commercial traffic. Several dams created 10 lakes along the course of the system totaling 44,000 surface acres. Some of the best catfish action occurs in Aliceville Lake. The Tom Bevill Lock and Dam near Pickensville, creates the 8,300-acre impoundment on the Alabama-Mississippi line. Farther downstream near Demopolis, the Heflin Lock and Dam creates the 6,400-acre Gainesville Lake.
"Aliceville Lake is a really good lake for flatheads," said Nick Dimino, professional catfish angler. "I like to fish closer to the dam because it creates some current that stirs up the fish. I fish on the upstream side of holes right where the bottom starts to drop off. Catfish like to get just over the drop-off edge out of the current, but they look upstream into the current for any bait to wash over them."
The Alabama River flows through William Dannelly Reservoir, a 17,200-acre impoundment near Claiborne Lake, a 5,930-acre impoundment near Monroeville. From Claiborne Lake, the Alabama flows south another 72 miles until it merges with the Tombigbee River near Mount Vernon to create the Mobile River. The Tensaw River breaks off from the Mobile and flows 41 miles through Baldwin County. Together, these two streams and numerous other interconnected waterways create a vast delta wetland paradise near Mobile.
"The lower portions of the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers can produce many channel, blue and flathead catfish, as well as several tasty bullhead species," said Dave Armstrong, ADWFF biologist in Spanish Fort. "The rivers can produce some blue cats exceeding 45 to 50 pounds. I know of at least one 46-pound blue cat caught in the delta below Gravine Island in the summer of 2009. I don't doubt that the rivers hold some even bigger ones."
Whether a big blue or flathead, a giant catfish can provide outstanding sport for anglers wanting big-game action close to home without spending a fortune.