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Catfish Capitals: Big-Fish Hotspots in the South

For catfishing at its finest—for both size and numbers—try these outstanding Southern fisheries.

Catfish Capitals: Big-Fish Hotspots in the South
Blue cats of massive proportions, including potential new world records, lurk in various water bodies across the South. (Photo by Keith Sutton)

Whether you’re hoping to catch eating-size channel cats for your next fish fry or are eager to tussle with a monster blue or flathead catfish, there’s no shortage of top-notch waters throughout the South in which to achieve your goal. The lakes and rivers below are among the best catfish waterways in the South. For each, we’ll cover the top target species and recommended tactics to hook some of the biggest whiskered predators on the planet.

big flathead catfish
A natural bait fished on a slip-sinker rig is an ideal choice for extra-large cats. (Photo by Keith Sutton)

CAROLINA TRIFECTA

Lakes Marion and Moultrie, covering a combined 170,000 acres, make up South Carolina’s Santee Cooper Lakes, perhaps the best-known catfishing destination in the nation. Lake Marion, known locally as the Upper Lake, is elongated and includes a flooded forest stretching much of its length, plus a huge alligator-filled swamp at its upper end. Moultrie is rounder and more open, with shallow cypress brakes and swampy margins around it.

Both lakes have an ideal mix of deep and shallow habitats, as well as a healthy forage base—consisting of shad, herring, crawfish and sunfish—that promote the growth of the lake’s channel, blue and flathead catfish to impressive sizes. Here, channel cats of 5 to 15 pounds are common, and blues and flatheads often exceed 50.

The current all-tackle world-record channel cat, a 58-pounder, was caught in Moultrie in 1964, and the lakes and adjacent canals have produced blue cats weighing up to 136 pounds, including several state and world records. South Carolina’s record flathead, a 79 1/4-pound specimen, came from the Diversion Canal connecting the two lakes in 2001.

The Tactics: While anglers can go after any of the “big three” North American catfish at Santee Cooper, it’s the monster blue cats that attract most visitors. The Santee Cooper rig, developed in the 1980s by innovative local anglers, is a proven producer. This variation of the slip-sinker rig incorporates a slinky weight instead of an egg sinker, and it adds a foam panfish float on the leader to suspend the bait and reduce hang-ups.

The rig can be used to fish either while anchored or drifting, and most anglers bait with cut white perch, mullet or herring to entice the lakes’ massive blues. Both still-fishing around prime structure and cover or drifting through key areas with the wind or aided by a trolling motor can pay off. Rod holders may be used to suspend the rigs at various depths until a successful fishing pattern is determined.

flathead catfish being caught
The Mississippi River is a known producer of husky flatheads, which also abound in South Carolina’s Santee Cooper Lakes. (Photo by Keith Sutton)

VOLUNTEER BUFFET

Reelfoot Lake, a 15,000-acre lake in northwest Tennessee, was formed by earthquakes in 1811 and 1812. Two-thirds of Reelfoot is 3 feet deep or less and filled with stump fields, cypress brakes, aquatic vegetation and other excellent catfish habitat. Plentiful cypress hollows and logs provide prime catfish spawning sites. And while big blue cats and flatheads are only caught occasionally, eating-size channel cats up to 5 pounds are incredibly abundant. With a density exceeding 400 pounds per acre and no creel limit on cats of 34 inches or less, anglers often come here to fill their coolers.

The Tactics: You’ll catch plenty of channel cats at Reelfoot Lake casting minnows or stinkbaits on light tackle. Local anglers like to boost their catches with Yo Yo Reels (yoyoreel.com), automatic fishing reels made by Golden Scout Industrial in Ash Grove, Mo. The devices are hung from low-hanging cypress branches, their hooks are baited with night crawlers, then line is pulled off their retractable spool and a catch is set to hold the line at the preferred depth. When a catfish bites, the catch releases and spring tension pulls the line tight, setting the hook. Yo Yos should be checked regularly to remove hooked fish and replace any missing baits.

Anglers are limited to 25 Yo Yos with no more than one hook per line, and each must be tagged or marked above the water line with a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency identification number or the owner’s name and address.

yo-yo fishing reel
A Yo Yo Reel, with its retractable spool, lets anglers set additional baits for catfish along many lake shorelines or river banks. (Photo by Keith Sutton)

FLAT-OUT FLATHEADS

Stretching 1,000 miles from its confluence with the Ohio River to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico, the Lower Mississippi River is considered by many to be the best place in North America to hook a giant catfish. Its vast waters harbor blues weighing 100 pounds or more, flatheads exceeding 75, and millions of channel cats in the 5- to 20-pound range.

While the area of the Mississippi bordering Memphis, Tenn. is a top hawg-production site, no one would be surprised if new world records for blue or flathead catfish were caught somewhere along the stretch between Blytheville, Ar. and New Orleans, La.

The Tactics: Often overlooked by anglers targeting the river’s big blues, the Mississippi’s flathead cats also reach impressive size, especially along cut banks with cavities or lined with dislodged trees and roots, or around the big mats of floating, rotating logs and debris that usually form in backwaters and coves. These log rafts and debris piles attract shad, Asian carp and other forage, which in turn draw exceptional numbers of hefty flatheads.

Recommended


Anglers fish the rafts’ outer edges from the bank or a boat, presenting live baits like sunfish and carp on a simple slip-sinker rig anchored by a 1- to 4-ounce egg sinker above a barrel swivel. The line is cast and, with the rod tip high, the angler strips line from the reel, guiding the rig under the circulating carpet of logs and debris.

Bites usually come quickly, so it’s best to maintain a firm grip on your rod and reel and remain prepared for action.

BLUE CAT SPECIAL

Northern Alabama’s Wheeler Lake is another Southern waterbody renowned for producing huge catfish. This 60-mile-long, 67,100-acre reservoir on the Tennessee River has a thriving population of monster flatheads, including some pushing the century mark. But most visiting anglers come to try for a personal-best blue cat, as Wheeler has given up scores of blues weighing from 75 to more than 100 pounds in the last few decades, including a former world record of 111 pounds.

The Tactics: Most experienced catfish anglers coax bites from Wheeler Lake’s giant blues using fresh, cut bait prepared from locally-caught skipjack herring. These baitfish form huge schools in the tailwaters of area dams and are easily caught casting 5/8-ounce Luhr-Jensen Reflecto spoons or 1/32-ounce crappie jigs around lock walls, power-generation channels and wing dikes. The skipjacks should be kept on ice and cut into head, middle and tail sections or chunks, then fished on the bottom around ledges, drop-offs and deep holes.

The lower part of the lake, below Brown’s Ferry Nuclear Plant, offers the kind of deep-water habitat that big blues prefer.

UNSUNG HERO

Though not as well-known as the other bodies of water discussed here, Arkansas’ Millwood Lake is every bit their equal when it comes to producing trophy catfish.

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built this 29,200-acre impoundment in extreme southwestern Arkansas in 1966, they flooded more than 24,000 acres of timber and underbrush, creating many oxbow lakes, sloughs and creeks. These topographical features provide ideal habitat for resting, feeding and spawning catfish.

Baitfish such as shad and sunfish are abundant, so there’s no lack of food. And Millwood’s extreme southerly location and shallow water keep temperatures on the mild side, thus promoting the year-round growth of catfish. Blues here are known to top 100 pounds, flatheads exceed 70 and channel cats weighing 25 pounds or better are caught frequently.

The Tactics: Flathead cats ambush their prey—mostly live fish and crawfish—in dense, woody cover, and Millwood Lake has plenty of it. Visiting anglers will find such cover and jumbo flatheads around creek and river channels and the old lake beds (Horseshoe, Bee, Yarborough, Mud, Beard’s and Clear) that were inundated when Millwood filled.

A live 6- to 8-inch bluegill or sunfish fished near the surface is the ticket to success. Fish the bait on a short line (6 inches or less) beneath a big slip float, like a Thill 6-inch Big Fish Slider, so it splashes and attracts the attention of hungry flatties. Hook the baitfish just behind the dorsal fin with a 5/0 to 7/0 wide-gap circle hook, running the point completely through so the barb is exposed. Cast the rig near cover and then give the line a tug at regular intervals to disturb the sunfish and get it to struggle and splash around. Flatheads often bury themselves deep inside wood cover, so keep your bait just far enough to avoid snags. Move from one likely hidey-hole to another, carefully placing the bait where you think it might draw the attention of lurking cats.





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