Cotton State Catfishing
September 28, 2010
The Yellowhammer State boasts outstanding waters when it comes to targeting catfish in the summer. Here's a look at some of our best lakes and rivers for catching those whiskerfish!
By Mike Handley
There are two reasons I remember the summer of 1973 as if it were but a week ago. First, I was smitten with a girl whose family lived in the area where mine vacationed - at Bill Gross Camp on the Warrior River west of Birmingham. It was also the summer of "the catfish."
Late one June afternoon, my cousins and I were fishing elbow to elbow on the Dosses' pier. We were all in our own little world - mine heavily influenced by thoughts of Kelly Coleman, who hadn't acknowledged that I existed - when Cousin Clifford's sudden cries of delight almost matched the squeal of the line leaving his Zebco reel.
When the drag finally caught hold and Cliff began to gain some of the line back, a monstrous whiskered maw broke the surface about 10 yards in front of six wide-eyed kids. We all saw it at the same time, this dinosaur of a catfish, before the brittle line snapped and it sank back into the murky depths. A minute later, five bobbers plopped in the exact same place!
"Y'all get out of my spot," Cliff wailed, retrieving his weightless line.
Thus began my love affair - not with Kelly Coleman - but with catfish. And the really good news is that three decades later the fishing for them in June remains outstanding in the Cotton State.
Here is a look at some of the best waters for Mr. Whiskers the state has to offer, beginning with my own beloved Warrior River.
Below Bankhead Dam (Lock 17), the river is commonly referred to as the Black Warrior. Above it, the locals simply call it the Warrior. It's one of the few places where I've caught pretty much every major species of catfish, sometimes during the same trip!
The biggest I've seen come out of there are flatheads - like the one that my cousin Clifford hooked so many moons ago. They're most prevalent in the sharp bends of the main river, and they prefer live bait. Although Clifford was using big, juicy earthworms - what we used to call "Florida pinks" - and fishing in a slough, I've had much better and more consistent luck while drifting live shad or shiners in the bends of the river's Locust Fork.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
My sister once wrestled a 30-pounder into the boat during one such drift between Buddy Vines' and Bill Gross' camps. I shamed her into releasing it, too, once we'd photographed it a bazillion times.
When the live bait is no longer live, the channel cats are more apt to make your reel sing. These are the dominant catfish in Bankhead, and they rarely seem to grow much larger than 2 pounds. Two great places in which to find them are the first sharp bend south of Maxine Bridge and Prescott Creek near Howton's Camp.
The river's blue cats can easily fall into the double-digit-weight range. Your best bet for tussling with a beefy blue cat is to follow the Mulberry Fork up to the Gorgas Steam Plant. Both cut bait and chicken livers get their attention in the waters downstream of the plant's discharge pipes. This is where a couple of World Catfishing Championship tournaments - once sponsored by Howton's Camp - were won.
I was the runner-up in one of those, by the way, collecting my limit of channel cats from the much less traveled Locust Fork.
Some of the small ponds in Alabama's state fishing lake system provide good options for catching channel catfish. Among these, Bibb County Lake rates at the top.
Bibb County Lake is located between Woodstock and Brent, covers 100 acres, and is perhaps best known for having coughed up a brace of 10-plus-pound largemouths for visiting country music diva Tanya Tucker. But in my book, it's one of the best catfishing destinations in the Heart of Dixie.
As an avowed catman, I judge a lake by three standards: number, quality and taste of fish. This state lake scores well in every category. In fact, I live within five minutes of the Chattahoochee River near Valley, but I would rather drive three hours to wet a line in Bibb County Lake whenever I yearn to get my string stretched and have a fish fry.
Bibb is like most other state-owned lakes. If you hit it on the right day, you can catch a limit of catfish regardless of where you fish. To leave the pond consistently with a cooler full of cats, however, you have to focus on wood.
These manmade lakes have relatively clean bottoms. Picture a swimming pool lined with hard-packed clay. The catfish sometimes prowl open water, but they're more apt to bury up in the many trees either blown or cut down along the banks. You break your line a lot, but you can certainly get more bites by dangling the bait into these brushy hideaways.
Other state-owned reservoirs known for great catfishing are Dallas, Marion, Washington, Dale, Crenshaw and Monroe county lakes. They're all stocked annually with channel catfish from state hatcheries.
One-hundred-acre Dallas County Lake, south of Selma, is probably the most popular among fishers of cats. In addition to its abundance of small eating-sized ones, this lake is also home to some real line-breakers. Rumor has it that a Selma angler once tangled with a world-class 50-pounder there, though he says he cleaned it before verifying the weight.
Thirty-seven-acre Marion County Lake lies six miles north of the city of Guin off U.S. Highway 43. For its size, this small pond is among the best, routinely yielding close to 200 pounds of channels per acre to fishermen.
Most of the state lakes have fishing piers, ample space for bank angling, rental boats and equipment. In most cases, however, they are only open during daylight hours. In addition to a state fishing license, daily fishing permits are required.
TENNESSEE RIVER LAKES
Wheeler and Wilson lakes on this north Alabama waterway are among the best choices for both channel and blue catfish. Wheeler even has the distinction of having yielded a former world-record 111-pound blue cat to Billy McKinley of Elkmont back in 1996. He caught his own bait - skipjack - below Wheeler Dam and was using cut bait when the monster hit.
Although he swore me to secrecy at the time, enough years have passed so that I feel safe in saying he was actually fishing with the head of the baitfish, which is the part most of us
discard when sawing into the fish we use for cut bait. He'd cast it into the intake pond at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant.
Below Wheeler Dam, which is actually part of Wilson Lake, the best catfishing is in the tailrace or off the submerged Indian mounds immediately downstream. Lots of fishermen catch their own shad, called yellowtails locally, along the dam's wing wall and fish for whatever takes the live offering. When you've got shad on the end of your line, you can catch almost any species of fish that swims there.
Since we were just speaking of tailraces, I would be remiss not to mention the one below Mitchell Dam on the Coosa River, at the head of Jordan Lake. Locals have learned that late spring and early summer are prime times to hook into monstrous blue cats there. Some of those folks schedule their vacations around that time so that they can fish this stretch.
They motor as close as they can get to the dam, depending upon the current and the number of turbines running, then use a cast- or dip-net to collect the shad that are used as cut bait. Medium-action rods and baitcasting reels spooled with 20-pound- test line are rigged with 1-ounce weights - heavier if all four turbines are running.
If the current is too swift to anchor, they drift down the stretch, but not so far as to encounter the many trotlines that are found about a half-mile downstream. This tactic routinely produces huge blue cats, the biggest of which run in the 50-pound range.
While a lot is said and written about fishing tailraces, the majority of Alabama anglers are accustomed to much calmer waters. If you fall in that category, another stop on the list of top catfishing destinations should be Lake Martin, one of the most serene and beautiful bodies of water this state has to offer.
Former tournament bass fisherman, professional guide and restaurateur Larry Collins of Eclectic was one of my first contacts there, and his storehouse of catfishing information was vast. Yet the first person to actually take me catfishing on Martin was Lomax Dunham of Goodwater, a retired postman who has built a second career in guiding crappie and catfish anglers on this impoundment.
When you're returning to Wind Creek State Park following a day on the water with Dunham, the cooler never fails to be full of eating-sized catfish. He sticks with simple tactics, baiting his hooks with meaty Canadian nightcrawlers and casting the wriggling offerings alongside drop-offs and onto mud flats near the state park. "The Mailman," as he's commonly called, also likes to fish with catalpa worms in the summertime.
Lomax prefers anchoring on the shallow side of an underwater point or hump, then throwing the baited lines off the deep end. He leans the rods against the side of his aluminum boat and waits. He usually does not have to ponder the universe for very long. It is not uncommon for him to catch between 40 and 50 cats in only a few hours, most weighing close to a pound - perfect for "stinking up the grease," as he likes to say.
Larry Collins is a worm man, too, though he's far more apt to rake up his own than buy them in a bait shop. Collins fishes them on the bottom, but instead of anchoring, he allows the boat to drift in order to cover more water.
When he was taking out a pontoon boat crowded with catfish anglers, one of his secrets to sending clients home happy was to bait a few holes beforehand with white rice.
No catfish article written about the Heart of Dixie is complete without the mention of jugging - perhaps my favorite way of spending a summer night and filling the freezer with fresh catfish. I learned the largely forgotten art through trial and error the same summer that Clifford's flathead bewitched us at Bill Gross Camp.
Since then I've dulled many a knife and slimed up many sets of skinners after exploits with homemade jugs. The biggest jug-caught cats I've ever skinned came out of the Alabama River downstream of Montgomery, which is also the first place I ever used live crawfish as bait. They were double-digit-weight channel cats, found prowling the mud flats between the public launch at Gees Bend downstream to cypress-studded Alligator Slough on Millers Ferry Reservoir.
The flotilla of jugs we were using that night belonged to Phillip Criss, then of Tuscaloosa. When the well-known crappie and bass guide on the impoundment learned that I have a penchant for jugging, he rigged up some for the next time I drove to his camp on the Wilcox County side of the river.
When he was no taller than the paddle they used to skull their johnboat, Phillip learned the practice from his father. The biggest Alabama River catfish they ever boated using this method was a 74-pound blue cat.
Jugging involves tying a hook and line to plastic jugs, baiting them and throwing them overboard. Phillip's favorite jugs are quart-sized, and his choices of bait are live shad, cut bait, bass shiners, beef liver or live crawfish.
Criss likes to put out about 100 jugs a night and checks them the next morning after the bass quit biting. I'm more partial to sitting out on the water with the jugs, occasionally shining a spotlight in search of ones skimming across the water at breakneck speed. Another good reason to baby-sit them is so you can re-bait if a catfish happens to steal an easy meal.
I began jugging with gallon-sized milk jugs, but even a modest wind can carry them to the bank in a short time. Nowadays I prefer 20-ounce soft drink bottles. Not only are they less susceptible to wind, but they also take up much less room in the boat.
I paint mine a fluorescent color and put a strip of mining tape around them. That way they are easily visible both day and night.
Ricky Sykes of Silas, who fishes the Tombigbee River near Coffeeville, also taught me to put a handful of small rocks in each jug. That way, you can actually hear the rattle when a catfish bites in the still of the night.
My collection of jugs is painted in at least two or three colors. I try different baits and depths on different color jugs so that I know which is working best. If they were all the same, I might not be able to determine if one bait is preferred over another. This way, it's pretty easy to tell if the pink ones are outdoing the yellow ones, and you can bet that I re-bait with whatever offering was dangling below the color that's producing.
It is also imperative that if you put out 20 jugs, be sure to round up 20 jugs. If you leave them, you upset other anglers and boaters, not to mention litter the waterways. Such negligence could even one day play a role in having the practice banned from Alabama waters.
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