Whiskerfish On The Tennessee

This big river and its reservoirs in North Alabama offer a world of catfishing. On these waters in July, you can either go after bragging-sized monsters or get some smaller ones for a fish fry! (July 2007)

Photo by Marc Murrell.

Only two kinds of catfish swim the Tennessee River in Alabama -- eaters and trophies. Fisheries biologists might dispute that, citing the channels, the blues, the flatheads and the several other kinds of catfish there. But when you fish the Tennessee River, you catch small ones to release into a frying pan's sizzling grease and big ones to release back into the river -- after taking some pictures, of course.

Regardless of which you're after, the cool, well-oxygenated waters in the tailwaters below Wheeler and Wilson dams are the places to be in the sizzling summer heat.

"When you fish from mid-May to September, you usually can catch 50 to 100 pounds of catfish per day in the tailraces of Wheeler, Pickwick or Wilson," remarked Jerry Crook of Birmingham. "Many people who fish here regularly know where to locate the eddy holes in the current where the cats like to hold, and usually can catch more than that."

Crook should know: He's been fishing these waters for decades. These waters are also accommodating: You can tightline for the cats, or put out some jugs and just wait for the cats to hit. Either way, putting together a fish fry is possible here.

Also, Crook reported, this section of the Tennessee River has spring, summer and early-fall runs of catfish. "All of these months are great times of year to catch cats on the Tennessee River," he said. "The dead of winter is the only time you won't take a lot in these tailraces."


On an average summer day, Crook expects to catch at least 25 catfish, and sometimes as many as 100. He mostly drift-fishes with 8- to 10-pound-test line, a set up of three No. 1/0 hooks and enough weight to sink his bait to the bottom. The amount of weight will depend on the amount of water coming through the dam and, thus, on the kind of current he's contending with. If he's consistently picking up cats in one area of the drift, he does toss out and anchor and concentrate on that location.

"If I'm not fishing live shad minnows, I'll fish cut skipjack herring, shad gut, chicken livers or night crawlers," Crook noted.

When anchoring, Crook doesn't set up in the current of the tailrace; instead, he searches for underwater rockpiles that break the flow. "You can pinpoint the location of the rockpiles because the water looks rough on the surface but is slick and calm behind the piles. The catfish hold behind the rocks and feed on the shad that swim by in the current," Crook said in describing his reason for fishing downstream of the rough water.


If you want to catch truly huge catfish, your best bet is to ask the advice of someone who performs that feat regularly -- and on the Tennessee River, you'll find no better source of information than Phil King. He travels regularly from his home in Corinth, Miss., to challenge the big boys on the river. He targets the cats both above and below the dams on the flow.

"At this time of year, big cats hold in deep water," King explained. "They'll be suspended above the dam, and you can see them on your depthfinder. Once I spot the cats, I begin slow-trolling for them."

Below the dams, King is looking for big cats a different way. "In the middle of the river you see big holes on your depthfinder and can locate really big cats there," he said. "I position my boat upcurrent of the holes, bounce my bait along the bottom, and then let the current sweep my bait over the lip of the hole so that the bait falls to where the big cats are waiting."


"The depth of the water I'm fishing, the strength of the current and the size of bait with which I'm fishing determine the size of the sinker I use," King offered.

While trolling for big catfish, King uses 60- to 65-pound-test braided line. "I want small-diameter line that falls quickly in the water, but also is strong enough to land really big cats," he said.

To that main line he ties a heavy-duty three-way swivel. Coming off the second eye of the swivel, he attaches 2 feet of 60-pound-test monofilament line for a leader. Then to the end of this line, King ties a hook in sizes ranging from No. 5/0 up to size 8/0. From the third eye of the swivel, King ties 2 more feet of 60-pound leader and attaches a barrel swivel. "I rig it the same way I rig the drop hook on the first three-way swivel," he said.

The angler uses the two-hook setup for big catfish because he needs both hooks to handle the heavy bait he uses. "To catch big cats, I use bait that's at least three fingers long and three fingers wide," King explained. "I've also learned I'll catch 20 to 30 percent more cats by fishing that second hook."

Whether you want to catch numbers of catfish or one or two trophy cats, you can't beat the Tennessee River. And now that you've heard from the local experts, it's time to hit the water and try your own luck

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