Cotton State Catfish Roundup

In every corner of Alabama there are waters holding catfish. Whether you want a monster cat or a stringer's worth for a fish fry, you won't have to go far to find them! (June 2009)

Our forecast for catfishing across the state is for another great year of full stringers and big fish. No matter where you live in Alabama, quality fishing is within a reasonable distance from home.

Mike Hall hooked this 87-pound blue catfish on a trip below Wilson Dam on the Tennessee River.
Photo by Mike Mitchell.

Catfish populations are self-sustaining, stable and productive. These factors result in a fishery offering some of the best catfish action available anywhere in the nation.

For some anglers, catfishing is a numbers game, and their stringers are table fare. For others, it's strictly about size. Trophy anglers mostly practice catch-and-release. For those who do not, a new fishing regulation in Alabama limits anglers to the harvest of one catfish longer than 34 inches per day. It's our first catch limit on catfish and is aimed at protecting big fish stocks.

Let's take a closer look at a few selected fisheries for the coming year and see how you should approach them. We'll focus on places around the state with good fishing and the different techniques successful anglers use to catch Ol' Whiskers with rod and reel.

If you enjoy catfishing, now is the time to get serious about wetting a line.

Last year, the team of Mike Mitchell of Albertville and Sammy Mitchell of Russellville won the Cabela's King Kat Tournament for Pickwick and Wilson lakes with five fish weighing 163.95 pounds. Mike Mitchell, who also guides for trophy blue catfish on the Tennessee River, reported poor fishing for the big bruisers during June, but he pointed out this month is a great time for catching channel catfish for the table.

"Since blues spawn on the Tennessee River in June," Mitchell explained, "it is my least favorite month for catching big fish. Feeding is not a priority for spawning fish. Furthermore, it's difficult to get bait to blues spawning under heavy cover.

"Instead of fishing for big blues in June, you can catch 100 channel catfish weighing 2 to 10 pounds, with an occasional 20-pounder. It's tremendous fun catching these fish on light tackle."

Even though Mitchell's drive takes two hours, his favorite place to fish during June is the Wilson Dam tailrace. It's not surprising, since he landed an 87-pounder there last year on the same light tackle he uses for channel catfish.

Mitchell's tackle consist of a light spinning rod spooled with 14-pound-test monofilament, a swivel, and a 3-foot leader of 30-pound fluorocarbon tied to a Team Catfish 6/0 circle hook. When he uses sinkers, they weigh up to 3 ounces.

For bait, the guide cuts fillets of skipjack herring into 3-inch pieces.

"Most of the time," he explained, "I don't fish in the current below the dam, so it's just the hook and bait. The skipjack sinks quickly in calm water. When fishing in the current, use enough weight to get the bait to the bottom."

Mitchell targets fish in depths between 2 and 20 feet, between the turbines and the lock.

"It's tricky getting in there," he admitted, "but it's where they discharge the lock. When they do, water rises 7 or 8 feet into the air, so you must leave when they sound the horn. Catfish are conditioned to feed during the discharge, because it kills baitfish.

"After 10 or 15 minutes, it's safe to return, and fishing is excellent for about 30 minutes. Then, the bite returns to normal until they lock another barge through."

Mitchell allows his boat to drift in the current created by the discharge and uses a heavy sinker to keep his bait near the bottom.

When not fishing adjacent to the lock, Mitchell slowly maneuvers his boat with the trolling motor, casting fresh-cut bait without a sinker.

"It more like crappie fishing," he explained, "only slower. Let the bait sink to the bottom, move it a little and let it sink again. Often, catfish take the bait as soon as it hits the water. When the shad are thick, you can see catfish attacking bait near the surface. I have pitched my bait in front of fish and caught them."

When moving and casting for cats, Mitchell fishes two rods from rod holders off the back of the boat that are rigged with corks about 6 feet above the hooks. He selects bigger baits for these rods, and they usually produce the biggest fish.

For information on booking a guided trip on the Tennessee River with Mike Mitchell, call him at (256) 673-2250.

Another winning tournament angler on Cabela's trail is Scott Haynes of Wetumpka. One of his favorite places to fish is the Coosa River below Jordan Lake. In June, Haynes narrows his search even farther by fishing downstream between Wetumpka and the mouth of the Tallapoosa River.

As river temperatures increase, Haynes reports blue catfish migrate to the habitat of the lower Coosa River.

"By June," Haynes pointed out, "blues have moved to the deep holes in the river. Look for holes 20 to 30 feet deep at outside bends in the river or off points. Fishing deep holes is especially productive when there is a current."

If Alabama Power Company is not releasing water from either of Jordan's dams, hungry blues leave the protection of deep holes to feed. When this occurs, Haynes moves into the main channel to drift with the slow-moving water. He uses his trolling motor to control the boat's speed and direction.

On a good day, Haynes reported anglers who target big fish could catch a number of cats weighing more than 20 pounds.

"It's slow fishing," he advised, "but when you catch one. . . !"

Before a trip, Haynes collects enough bait for a day's fishing. He prefers large gizzard shad or skipjack herring. Shad are fairly easy to catch with a cast net below dams, at boat ramps and creek mouths. Skipjack are best caught on ultralight spinning gear below the dams and are fun to catch because they leap into the air like a mini-sized tarpon viewed on videotape set to fast-forward.

An average skipjack weighs between 1 and 2 pounds. Most, if not al

l, serious anglers believe skipjack is the best bait for catching blue catfish. Many a trophy has fallen for the skipjack's oily flesh.

"They bite just about anything," Haynes instructed, "and are fun to catch. Tie two or three crappie jigs -- color or size doesn't matter -- in a row and cast to the schools of skipjack below dams."

When drift-fishing, Haynes cuts skipjack and shad into steak chunks. When at anchor at the front of a hole, he fillets the baitfish so it rotates in the current.

"In either situation," Haynes advised, "big baits catch big fish. Use a big chunk if you want to catch a 40- to 50-pounder. Also, fresh bait is very important for success."

Haynes fishes these baits on 30-pound-test monofilament spooled onto Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 6000 baitcast reels. He said the biggest mistake anglers make is not fishing with a heavy-action rod.

"You will not get a good hookset with a limber rod," he emphasized. "I use a 7-foot heavy-action Ugly Stick. It's sensitive and has the backbone for big cats."

Haynes threads the main line through an egg sinker before attaching a swivel. Sinker weights vary between 1 and 5 ounces and are selected based on current speed.

To the swivel, Haynes ties an 18-inch, 50-pound-test leader of Stren fluorocarbon and then a 4/0 hook.

"When you fight big fish," he explained, "their teeth are rough and will cut through a lighter leader of monofilament."

To fish the Coosa River below Wetumpka, launch your boat at the state-operated boat ramp at Gold Star Park, which is located directly behind Wetumpka City Hall.

For Jordan Lake's generation schedules and river flows, telephone Alabama Power at (800) 525-3711.

Farther south, the Conecuh River flows across the east Gulf coastal plains until reaching the dams of Gantt and Point A lakes. The dams, which are located a few miles northwest of Andalusia, are power hydroelectric plants. Once free of the Point A Dam, the river continues southwest to Brewton and then into Florida.

Suitable for canoes, kayaks and small johnboats with light outboards, the Conecuh below Point A is often low enough to walk boats over riffles but is too deep in places to travel any distance by wading.

The river supports blue, channel and flathead catfish. Of the three, only channels are native. Since introduced, flatheads have thrived on bream and other forage to reach weights of nearly 50 pounds.

Two veteran fishermen who stalk the Conecuh's flatheads are Clifford Thomas II and his son, Clifford Thomas III of Gantt. Their biggest yellow cats weighed 30 and 45 pounds, respectively. On an average fishing trip, they said anglers could expect to catch fish weighing 5 to 12 pounds.

Unlike other species of catfish, the flatheads' diet consists mainly of live fish. The father and son team recommended fishing with bream, and if that's not possible, visit the bait store for large shiners.

The Thomases target fish in deep holes, but they usually fish from the opposite bank standing on the sandbar at the inside bend in the river. If the hole at the outside bend is within casting distance, they don't fish from their boat.

The duo doesn't fish every outside bend in the river. Instead of a sharp bend, which has one small, deep hole, they prefer a wide, sweeping turn. The latter may have a number of holes in a 30-yard stretch. And even though flatheads are known to seek safety in logjams, these anglers avoid those for the headaches of tangled lines and the heartaches of lost fish.

Before setting up on a new hole, the Thomases drift a 1/2-ounce egg sinker through the area on a tight line to read the bottom and determine the amount of debris. If the hole is acceptable, they set out two rods each.

When targeting big flatheads, the team recommends fishing with 20-pound-test line rigged with an egg or pyramid sinker heavy enough for the current and the size of the live bait on the hook. A big bream can quickly tangle line on a snag if the sinker is too light. They fish both bream and shiners on a 5/0 hook.

The pair cast their baits to the upstream lip of the hole and patiently wait for the cats to move out of the cover. With reels set to click, father and son sit in lawn chairs watching the gentle river.

"Sometimes you can catch a stringer of fish when you first set up," said the elder Thomas, "but other times you have to wait for the fish to turn on. If you are on a good hole when the flatheads start biting, the fast action can keep you from fishing with two rods, because they take the bait as soon as it hits the water."

With a lightweight boat, access to the Conecuh is possible at bridges. Public ramps are available in River Falls off U.S. Highway 84, at the end of Mancil Rock Road off U.S. 29, and in Brewton off State Route 41.

For current fishing conditions, visit Conecuh Bait and Tackle on Bush Isle Road in Gantt, or telephone them at (334) 388-0404. The shop sponsors a catfish tournament for the biggest fish during the month of July. Last year, the winning fish was a 43-pound flathead.

"June is a great month to fish the Alabama River," reported O.J. Birge of Monroeville, "because it's after the spawn and water temperatures are not too hot. On a good day, you can expect to catch 40 catfish weighing 3 1/2 to 4 pounds. Occasionally, you catch a yellow cat, but mostly it's a 50-50 mix of blue and channel catfish."

The river also yields big fish. Last year, Birge caught two fish back-to-back. The first weighed more than 60 pounds and the second weighed more than 40 pounds.

Birge's hunt for catfish takes him from the Claiborne Dam down to Dixie Landing, which is about half the distance to the confluence of the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers. During periods of low water, this veteran angler finds the best fishing at the tailrace of Claiborne Dam; otherwise, he works the river's deep holes.

"The last two years in June," Birge observed, "low water levels have improved fishing so much that I have not traveled more than five miles below the dam. The best fishing occurs when the river gauge is 8 to 12 feet."

When water is low, Birge's success is due to the reverse flow created below the dam.

"The direction of current," he continued, "depends on the position of the gates. If the gates are open, water flows downstream as you would expect. But when they are closed, the current flows toward the dam. With the gates closed, anchor your boat below the buoys and the bow will face downriver. This allows you to cast toward the dam where the big fish swim."

Downriver, Birge searches deep holes under bluffs, at sharp bends in the river, and at creek mouths, especially those creeks with wing dams.

"When you find a hole, move downstream," he instructed. "Then, using your sonar, search for fish by maneuvering in a zigzag pattern through the hole. I do not set up on a hole unless it shows fish."

Once Birge has located fish, he anchors upstream from the rim of the hole, and then using six rods, he evenly spaces baits across the hole. He positions his baits near, but not in, any submerged snags that may lie within the hole.

Birge's tackle for fishing both the tailrace and deep holes consists of heavy-action rods with 6500 Abu Garcia Ambassadeur reels spooled with 20-pound-test monofilament. He ties a loop at the end of his line for a bank sinker and another loop for the hook, which is 10 inches above the sinker. Depending on the current, his sinkers weigh between 2 and 4 ounces. His hooks are 2/0 or 3/0 circle hooks by Eagle Claw.

Birge's favorite bait is fresh shad, which he collects with an 8-foot cast net below the dam. Specifically, he fishes with the shad's belly and guts. To remove the belly, Birge places the shad's back against the cutting board and makes a cut behind the abdominal cavity down to the backbone and then forward to the gills.

"One of the biggest mistakes anglers make," Birge advised, "is not using the correct bait. If you fish with wigglers, expect to catch squealers."

When fishing the upper section of the river, Birge launches at the ramp just below the dam. Farther downstream, he recommends Eureka Landing north of Eliska or Dixie Landing, which is below Chrysler.

For current fishing information, call or visit McKissick Grocery Feed & Bait at 2577 County Road 17 in Franklin. The telephone number is (251) 282-4458.

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