July 24, 2019
By John N. Felsher
During the winter of 2018-19, frequent torrential downpours made fishing difficult in many rivers across Alabama. While a mighty flood messes up fishing for weeks, or sometimes even months, high waters also traditionally create better fishing conditions eventually as water levels return to normal.
Catfish thrive in muddy, flooded systems. With their incredible senses, cats can detect food in the darkest, murkiest conditions. In addition, floods refresh the waters nutrients and restock tributaries and backwaters. They also flush the system of debris. During floods, fish seek places where they can find cleaner water and less current.
“In high water, fish find better cover and more places to feed and spawn,” explained Dave Armstrong, an Alabama Wildlife & Freshwater Fisheries Division biologist in Spanish Fort. “A good spawn means more fish to catch down the road. High water is good for catfish. When the water starts falling, that’s a good time to catch catfish.”
High waters affected almost every system across the Cotton State, but probably nowhere near as severely as the Alabama-Tombigbee-Mobile river system. When high waters turned much of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta into a lake, catfish ventured into the flooded cypress swamps where people and predators couldn’t get to them. They feasted on many food items they normally would not find in the main river channels and grew fat before spawning season. Healthy fish during spawning season means good news for the next several years.
“The lower Mobile-Tensaw Delta covers a lot of water and it’s full of fish,” advised Glenn Flowers with Cat Hunters Trophy Catfishing Guide Service (850-208-4667, www.cathunters.net). “We normally fish around the Interstate 65 area. That area has a lot of structure that attracts good flatheads, but we’ve caught flatheads almost all the way down to the Mobile Causeway. Between the Causeway and Interstate 65, people can find some excellent catfishing.”
All of the delta rivers, tributaries and backwaters hold fantastic flathead, channel and blue cat populations. The larger rivers frequently give up 40- to 60-pound blues and some flatheads topping 50 pounds. In the rich delta, big cats enjoy a buffet of food items, nourished by the plentiful nutrients flowing into the system. They munch on baitfish such as mullet and shad, bluegills and other panfish, crawfish, mussels and many other items. In the tidal lower sections, catfish can add salty morsels like shrimp to their diets.
“Blue catfish seem to be a little more abundant in the lower delta than other species,” Armstrong commented. “They can usually tolerate saltier water up to about a third the strength of seawater, which is about 35 parts of salt per thousand. Through most of the year, water in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta usually has less than one part per thousand to about five parts per thousand of salinity. The system is fresh enough to allow catfish to survive. In the lower delta, fish have the best of both worlds when it comes to food. Some catfish in the lower delta get pretty fat, much fatter than what most people catch in some fresh-water reservoirs.”
Upriver, both the Alabama and Tombigbee channels can provide outstanding catfish action. The Alabama and Tombigbee rivers merge to create the Mobile River near Mount Vernon north of Mobile. Rick Conner landed an 80-pound flathead while fishing in the Alabama River near Selma to establish the state record. Holt Reservoir on the Black Warrior River produced the state record blue catfish, a 120.25-pound behemoth. The Black Warrior River runs into the Tombigbee near Demopolis.
“The free-flowing portions of the Tombigbee and Alabama rivers are the best places to catch catfish in that part of the state,” Armstrong recommended. “The Alabama River produces the best blue catfish numbers due to a variety of bottom habitat types, productive water, ample prey fish and high spawning success. The Tombigbee River produces larger blue and channel catfish with many blues exceeding 50 pounds.”
On the Alabama River, some of the best catfishing occurs on the William “Bill” Dannelly Reservoir, better known as Millers Ferry Lake, near Camden. Millers Ferry Lake runs about 105 miles along the river to the Claiborne Dam in Monroe County. Below the Claiborne Dam, the river returns to its natural flow down through the delta. Numerous fallen trees, weed beds and other cover create ideal catfish habitat.
The entire system produces excellent channel catfish numbers plus big blues and flatheads. In the summer, blues often follow baitfish schools. Deep holes or drop-offs with some current flowing through them make great places to look for both blues and flatheads. Any fallen trees in 8 to 20 feet of water might produce good flathead catches. Also fish near any riprap shorelines, which can hold tremendous amounts of bait. When water levels fall, cats congregate at the mouths of cuts that are off the main channels to snatch any prey coming out of the backwaters. Cooler tailrace waters can provide outstanding action in the summer.
Another river with good fishing is the Tombigbee, which enters Aliceville Lake on the Mississippi-Alabama line near Pickensville. As the river turns eastward, it flows into Gainesville Lake in Sumter County. The river channel continues downstream through Demopolis until it eventually hits the Alabama at Mount Vernon.
“The Tombigbee River is a hidden catfish gem,” said Joey Pounders, a professional catfish angler. “The lower river is a relatively isolated area, so it doesn’t receive that much pressure. I’ve caught quite a few catfish bigger than 50 pounds in it. We might catch a 40-pound blue and a 40-pound flathead from the same hole.”
For flatheads on the Tombigbee, look for blue rock walls, which are actually steep banks of hard clay that create nearly vertical bluffs where water drops off quickly. Just a foot or two off a wall, water might plunge to more than 20- or 30-feet deep. Sometimes, a ledge protrudes from the bank and then drops rapidly into deeper water. At times, big cats lurk on the ledge, but more often, they hover near the bottom.
Several other streams, including the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers and associated lakes, can also produce excellent catfishing. Lakes Weiss and Logan Martin commonly produce blues and flatheads in the 30- to 50-pound range and numerous channel cats. Neely Henry Lake also holds some monster blues. Many people fish the tailrace at the Neely Henry Dam. In some places, people can fish from the bank and catch big cats.
In eastern Alabama, the Chattahoochee River creates superb catfish habitat. The Chattahoochee forms part of the Alabama-Georgia line and flows through several lakes including West Point and Lake Eufaula. It eventually flows into Lake Seminole near Chattahoochee, Fla. The river and associated lakes frequently produce 30- to 40-pound flatheads and some big blues.
No system in Alabama consistently produces bigger catfish than the Tennessee River and its lakes like Pickwick, Wilson, Wheeler and Guntersville. The river frequently delivers blue catfish exceeding 60 pounds with some topping 80 pounds. Occasionally, one breaks into triple digits. More known for giant blues, the system also holds some big flatheads and abundant channel cats.
“The Tennessee River consistently produces good numbers and trophy-sized catfish, especially blue catfish,” reported Phil Ekema, a WFF biologist in Tanner. “For trophy catfish, the Tennessee River system is always very strong, particularly Wheeler and Guntersville, but Wilson and Pickwick lakes are also very good.”
Some of the biggest catfish in the nation come out of the two biggest reservoirs in Alabama, both on the Tennessee River: Guntersville and Wheeler.
“Wheeler Reservoir is well-known for good numbers of blue catfish,” Ekema said. “The lake has fish in excess of 60 pounds, but can potentially produce some 100-pounders. The lake produced one former world record, which weighed 111 pounds. I personally saw a 132-pound commercially caught blue catfish that came out of Wheeler Lake near the mouth of the Elk River several years ago.”
To the west, Pickwick Lake covers about 50,000 acres between the Wilson Dam at Florence and the Pickwick Dam at Counce, Tenn. about 53 miles downstream. More known for numbers of fish than trophy potential, Pickwick produces bountiful channel cats and many sizeable blues and flatheads.
“At Pickwick Lake, channel cats and blues are the predominant species, but people can catch flatheads below the dam in the rocks and timber along the creeks,” confirmed Brian Barton (256-412-0969, www.brianbartonoutdoors.com), who guides out of Muscle Shoals. “Pickwick Lake has a strong forage base with abundant shad and skipjack herring. Several large feeder creeks create huge flats for shad spawns. Channel cats are everywhere, but blues like current, so fish the tailrace, main river ledges and channels. In stronger current, blues typically go more shallow.”
Often overlooked by anglers because of its three much larger neighbors on the Tennessee River, Wilson Lake only covers 15,930 acres from Wheeler Dam 18 miles downstream to Wilson Dam. However, it can produce giant catfish. Wilson contains an enormous amount and variety of cover for catfish. The lake drops to more than 100 feet deep in places. Some hot whiskerfish holes include the mouth of Shoal Creek by Turtle Point, Bluewater Creek, Town Creek and McKiernan Creek areas. Use electronics to find rocky ledges, drop-offs, humps, submerged timber and old manmade objects on the bottom.
“Wilson and Wheeler generally produce large blue catfish,” Barton said. “Some of the heaviest tournament strings in the country come from Wheeler. The majority of the entire lower portion of the lake is ideal blue cat habitat. Wheeler probably produces more trophy catfish because it is so much larger, but it gets more pressure. Wilson Lake has an abundance of deep cover and forage, but gets much less fishing pressure than the other lakes on the Tennessee River.”
When looking for blues in the summer on Wilson Lake, slowly drag baits over ledges and humps along the old river channel on the north side of the lake. Some people also anchor near humps or other deep structure like submerged timber. For flatheads, fish many of the same spots after dark with live bait.
“If I was targeting flatheads in the summer on Wilson Lake, I’d fish with live bream or big gizzard shad at night,” Barton recommended. “I like to fish a live bait under a slip float or drop a bait straight down into cover. The best flathead fishing on Wilson Lake is right at the foot of Wheeler Dam or on those steep straight wall bluffs. Flatheads like those bluffs and holes.”
So get your catfish gear together this summer: Practically every suitable waterbody in the Cotton State can offer good opportunities to fill a freezer with catfish fillets. In some spots, anglers could land the fish of a lifetime on any cast.