May 31, 2023
Often overshadowed by Pickwick and Wheeler lakes, its larger sisters on the Tennessee River, Wilson Lake looms larger when it comes to producing giant catfish. For those in the know, Wilson Lake is the place to go when looking to land your next monster cat.
"Pickwick is more known for numbers, but without a doubt, Wilson produces more giant catfish per surface acre than either Pickwick or Wheeler," says Brian Barton, who guides out of Muscle Shoals, Ala.
"In many catfish tournaments where competitors can fish either Pickwick or Wilson, the biggest catfish typically come out of Wilson," says Barton.
Situated between Pickwick and Wheeler, Wilson Lake covers 15,930 acres and runs for 18 miles along the Tennessee River. Wilson Dam separates Wilson and Pickwick lakes at Sheffield, Ala. Pickwick, meanwhile, meanders 53 miles from the Wilson Dam to Pickwick Dam at Counce, Tenn. and covers 47,500 acres. The second-largest impoundment in Alabama, Wheeler stretches 60 miles from Wheeler Dam to Guntersville Dam and covers an expansive 67,100 acres. All three impoundments produce monster cats.
"The Tennessee River consistently produces good numbers and trophy-sized catfish," says Phil Ekema, an Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division district fisheries biologist for northern Alabama. "Wheeler, Wilson and Pickwick all produce big flatheads and blues up to 100 pounds."
While fishing Wilson Lake on March 28, 2020, Mike Mitchell with Southern Cats Guide Service (southerncatsguideservice.com) in Russellville, Ala., caught and released a 117.2-pound blue catfish (earlier that day he caught a 40-pound flathead). Mitchell's giant missed setting a new Alabama state blue catfish record by just 3 pounds.
"I was anchored in about 25 to 30 feet of water, fishing some timber with a shallow ridge when I hooked that monster," Mitchell says. "When I first weighed that cat, it was 119 pounds, but it spit up two skipjack and a small catfish before we weighed it again."
Unlike the more riverine Pickwick and Wheeler, Wilson is more like a highland reservoir, dropping to more than 100 feet in places. Several major creeks enter the system from the north and south. Deep water conceals an enormous amount of standing timber and other cover, making Wilson Lake a challenging place to fish. However, that structure provides trophy catfish ideal hunting grounds to snatch abundant shad, skipjack and other prey.
"Wilson has an uncanny amount of standing timber," Barton says. "It has acres of it in 40 to 70 feet of water. That timber makes it tough to fish without getting snagged, so this keeps many from fishing it. It has a very healthy blue cat population with very little commercial fishing pressure."
In winter and early spring, big cats stay in deep holes. At that time, Barton looks for giant blues off river ledges in 45 to 75 feet of water on the north side of the lake from Wilson Dam to Shoal Creek.
"In water below 50 degrees, I anchor or spot-lock and use a Carolina rig with about a 2- to 3-ounce weight," Barton says. "I fish it vertically over structure, keeping the bait about a foot or two off the bottom. When the water temperature hits 50 degrees or warmer, to cover water and find fish, I troll at about 0.3 miles per hour because fish are not as active then."
ON THE PROWL
As water warms in the spring, catfish search more actively for food and cruise the shallower flats to feed. Before dropping a line, many anglers idle through long stretches of water, scanning with their electronics to locate and mark fish or interesting bottom features that might hold whopper whiskerheads.
"In the spring, I fish the middle portion of Wilson Lake to the upper third," Barton says. "Some good places to fish in the spring include Cox Island, Hog Island and Peach Island. All three submerged islands vary from about 12 feet below the surface to 35 feet deep, with timber in places."
He continues, "I anchor and cast rather than fish vertically because I don't want the boat sitting over fish in water that shallow. I'll fan-cast several rods and secure them in rod holders."
Catfish begin spawning in mid-May and continue through June. Spawners usually head up into about 12 to 15 feet of water at the upper end of the lake. They don't eat as much during the spawning process, but they might grab a bait that passes close to them.
Most of the big catfish spawn in 12 to 25 feet of water right on top of ledges. When looking for big catfish in late spring, locals search the flats with electronics and look for beds. A big catfish bed could be the size of a car tire and shows up well on high-end electronics. Once found, trolling at about 0.5 to 0.7 miles per hour over pea-gravel bars or other hard bottoms works well.
Both Hog Island and Cox Island have water that falls off from 15 to 25 feet down to 35 to 40 feet of water. Fishing is often great on the flats between Turtle Point and Lock 6. Here, the water is about 15 to 28 feet deep and is known as the biggest spawning flat on the lake.
After spawning, catfish go on a feeding binge and head for deeper, cooler water. Look for them below the dams, particularly when those structures release water. Cats face upstream, waiting for the flow to bring them something to eat. Successful anglers get as close to the dam as safely possible.
If the dams are not releasing water, fish the lower end of the lake. From late May to July, drifting the flats in 20 to 40 feet of water adjacent to deeper water also is productive. Trolling on a flat while staying within a few feet of where the ledge drops off produces plenty of fish.
By the middle of July, a thermocline usually forms about 35 feet deep in Wilson Lake, and stays until water cools in the fall. The invisible barrier separates warmer, more oxygenated upper layers of the water column from colder, denser lower layers with little to no dissolved oxygen.
With quality electronics, anglers can detect the thermocline. Fish habitually suspend just above it or stay in other waters above the oxygenation line where they can breathe.
"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. I put the float close to the hook, so the bait stays up off the bottom and doesn't hang up as easily."
In the fall, catfish gorge themselves on anything they can find to prepare for the coming winter forage scarcity. Schools of big blue cats roam the main lake and creek channels looking for baitfish.
September and October are great months to fish for big catfish on Wilson. Barton stays in 70 to 90 feet of water on the north side of the lake. At that time, anglers can troll more effectively in the open and move around to find fish. Trolling speeds should be kept to around 0.5 to 0.6 miles per hour.
Barton uses 80-pound-test braid for his main line. He attaches a swivel and ties on a 2- to 3-foot leader of 50- to 60-pound monofilament. For big tackle-busters, Barton uses a 7/0 or 10/0 circle hook baited with fish.
"If I can get skipjack, that's what I use for bait," Barton says. "I prefer to use just the heads. The heads absolutely work best for trophy catfish, but cut chunks about three fingers wide are also good. If I can't get skipjack, I'll cut a 7- to 9-inch gizzard shad just behind the dorsal fin, leaving the gut pocket to bleed out in the water."
For the itinerant catfish diehard, Wilson Lake is worth a look. The area is beautiful, and you have a great chance at landing a personal-best cat.
Try a little flash and wobble for Wilson Lake catfish.
Bass and crappie anglers occasionally catch the stray catfish on artificials, but most cat anglers opt for natural baits. However, predatory catfish hunt around thick cover where bass also ambush prey. Most traditional catfish rigs hang up in such entangling habitat, but a weedless spoon can wobble through thick cover.
"Spoon fishing is deadly on cats," says guide Brian Barton. "With a spoon, I can cover a lot more water than with just a bait. I can pull a spoon through just about anything. I throw it up into cover and drag it out slowly to get a reaction strike."
A metal spoon creates flash that mimics baitfish and generates tempting vibrations in the water, but it doesn't give off tantalizing scent to stimulate the highly tuned sensory organs in catfish. Add a strip of shad or skipjack (skin attached) to the hook. Hook it so the skin faces outward so it looks more like a swimming fish.
Slowly work a spoon out of cover into deeper water, keeping the bait just off the bottom. The fish sees the flash, feels the vibration and smells the meat. Occasionally pause to let it fall. Spooning generally works best on channel cats, but this technique can also entice giant blues and flatheads.
While in northern Alabama, visitors can find food, lodging and other facilities in Florence on the north side of the river or Sheffield, Muscle Shoals and Tuscumbia on the south side. Or you can stay at Joe Wheeler State Park on Wheeler Lake.
In Muscle Shoals, music lovers will want to visit the Fame Recording Studios (famestudios.com), where musical greats such as Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Mac Davis, Jerry Reed and many others recorded their music. Then, head to Tuscumbia to tour the Alabama Music Hall of Fame (alamhof.org).
While in Tuscumbia, visit the birthplace of Helen Keller (helenkellerbirthplace.org). Not far from Tuscumbia, pay homage to hunting dogs at the Key Underwood Coon Dog Memorial Graveyard, more commonly known as the Coon Dog Cemetery, on Freedom Hills Wildlife Management Area near Cherokee.
For something adventurous, spend the night in a grain silo converted into a round condominium at the Seven Springs Lodge (rattlesnakesaloon.net) outside of Tuscumbia. Head down into the canyon to the Rattlesnake Saloon and dine inside an ancient natural rock outcropping. Try the "snake eyes and tails," "rattlesnake eggs" or monster burgers.
For area information, contact the Colbert County Tourism and Convention Bureau (colbertcountytourism.org) or Florence-Lauderdale Tourism (visitflorenceal.com).