Hot weather and catfishing go hand in hand in the South. Where in the Peach State should you try tempting ol' Mr. Whiskers this summer? (June 2006)
If you grow up a Southern angler, you fall in love early with catfish -- it's hard not to. For many, the farm-pond channel cat is the first fish ever taken. Biting willingly and often, it's the perfect kids' fish.
We never fall completely out of love with the catfish, even when we "graduate" to other, more trendy species. We can't. It tastes too good.
As time progresses, many of us see other virtues in this fish of our youth -- attributes that go beyond ease of catching and the delight of the deep-fried fillet. You can fish for it forever and not tire of it. It's just plain fun at the end of a line, even if it'll never possess the grace of a rising rainbow trout or the majesty of a leaping tarpon.
The catfish is other things as well -- like American history: an early settler sitting on a riverbank seeking the full stringer that will feed his family. And American literature: Huck and Jim fishing trotlines in the Mississippi from the banks of Jacksons Island. It anchors its own sector of Southern social ritual: two or more good ol' boys gathered for a fish fry, a time-honored rite less appreciated or understood by our Northern neighbors than it might perhaps be.
Yep -- catfish and catfishing are vital components of our heritage. Let's have a brief look at them as they pertain to Georgia and the summertime pursuit of "Mr. Whiskers." We'll begin with the Big Three.
The blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus) is a pale-hued, bluish-colored species with a deeply forked tail and white chin barbels. The upper and lower jaws meet evenly, or the upper jaw may project slightly beyond the lower jaw.
This catfish prefers riverine and reservoir habitats and is rarely encountered in smaller bodies of water. Larger blue cats are usually found in tailwaters below dams, where currents are swift and bottoms consist primarily of sand, gravel and rock. They're also frequently found near and in submerged treetops.
As is the case with most other catfish, the species is an opportunistic feeder, consuming live and dead fishes as well as many varieties of aquatic invertebrates.
In Georgia, the blue catfish grows quite large, though most individuals taken weigh well under 10 pounds. The state record is 62 pounds.
Blue catfish very much resemble channel cats in appearance, but never have spots on their bodies. Large blues and channels catfish can be difficult to differentiate at first glance, since big channel cats may also lack spots.
"Distinguishing large blue cats from big channel cats can be difficult," agreed Georgia Wildlife Resources Division fisheries biologist Kevin Dalmier, "but one distinguishing feature of blue catfish that is easy to spot is that the outer margin of the long anal fin is straight, not rounded as in other catfish species."
The flathead catfish (Pylodictis divaris) is the only large catfish in Georgia with a head flattened between the eyes, a projecting lower jaw and recurved tooth patches on either side of the upper jaw. The back and sides of the body and fins are mottled with black, white, olive, and sometimes pale yellow.
The flathead likes flowing waters over a sand, gravel or mud bottom. It is usually associated with underwater structure such as fallen trees, stumps, and rock ledges.
Aggressive predators and opportunistic feeders, these cats eat aquatic insects and invertebrates as well as live or dead fishes. They do, however, seem to prefer live forage when it's available.
The flathead can reach gargantuan proportions. The Georgia record is over 67 pounds, and it's quite likely that larger ones are out there. Many anglers consider large flatheads to be just as tasty and tender as are smaller individuals. The flathead is on this account unique among catfish, since other cat species tend to become less palatable as they grow in size.
The original range of the flathead in Georgia is limited, though illegal introductions have expanded it greatly, often leading to reduction in numbers of native prey fishes such as bullheads and redbreasts.
"Flatheads are one of the largest-growing Georgia sportfish and are often overlooked by anglers, especially in reservoirs," Dalmier said.
The channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) is a comparatively slender, long-bodied cat with a deeply forked tail and a protruding upper jaw. Adult individuals are dark gray along the back, light or greenish yellow along the sides, and white below. The sides of both juveniles and adults have scattered dark spots, but these can become much less apparent as the fish continues to grow.
Channel catfish inhabit rivers, reservoirs, small-to-large streams, backwaters, swamps, lakes, and farm ponds throughout Georgia. Extremely adaptable, they're normally the fish referred to when the collective term "catfish" is heard. The ultimate opportunistic feeder, the channel cat will consume any live prey it can catch; it's also an indiscriminate scavenger.
Channel catfish grow large. The current Georgia record is 44.75 pounds.
Dalmier refers to the channel catfish as a "bread-and-butter" species. "Nearly every angler in Georgia has enjoyed fishing for them at one time or another," he said. "Channel catfish are widely distributed throughout the state, are usually easy to catch, pull like a mule, and are great eating. A meal of deep-fried channel catfish and hushpuppies is a Dixie tradition."
Georgia anglers traditionally go after catfish by means either of rod-and-reel ensembles or of trotlines. The trotline method is universal and is employed for blues, flatheads and channel cats.
The standard trotline is a stationary nylon line tied to an immovable object on shore. These lines can have many evenly spaced hooks that drop off the main line on a swivel. Hooks should be 3/0 or larger to prevent bigger fish from twisting loose. Such lines may require a total weight of several pounds.
Bait the trotline with live bait, cut bait or commercially prepared baits designed specifically for trotlining. Live fish are preferred by flatheads; blues and channels are less fussy.
Single lines can be set up as "bush hooks" and suspended from shoreline limbs. These should be weighted with 4- to 6-ounce sinkers.
Trotlines should be left out overnight and retrieved early in the morning. As long as the baited lines are in the water, check them often; vigilance will result in fewer lost fish.
In Georgia, trotline anglers using more than 50 hooks at any given time must possess a commercial fishing license. Sport trotlines must be marked with the owner's name and address, have visible floats attached, and be submerged at least 3 feet beneath the surface. The line must be removed when the fishing has ended, as old lines and hooks left in a lake or stream can be hazardous to boaters, anglers, and wildlife.
When fishing for catfish with rod and reel, vary your technique according to the species you're targeting.
For flatheads, bottom-fishing with a bell or egg sinker and drift-fishing with a float are two favorite angling methods.
Bottom-fishing generally involves anchoring above likely spots such as snags and stumps in deep, flowing water. The size of the hook (3/0 to 7/0) and sinker (1 to 4 ounces) will be determined by the size of the bait and the strength of the current. Using enough weight to keep your bait on the bottom will result in fewer snagged hooks. A split shot or swivel between hook and sinker can be used to keep the bait at a known distance from the weight. By and large, faster current requires a shorter distance of as little as 3 inches between bait and sinker. For slower-moving water, leaders may be lengthened to about 2 feet. Move the bait -- assuming it's a live fish such as a bream, shiner or goldfish -- every few minutes, which allows you to cover a larger area and improves your chances of enticing a flathead to bite. Big flatheads are often solitary creatures; seldom are many of them in one spot.
When drift-fishing, try bouncing the bait along the bottom while using a trolling motor to maneuver the boat near snags and other underwater structure. Moving with the current increases your likelihood of finding actively feeding flatheads.
Fishing a float rig enables you to cover a lot of flathead habitat, and can take up the slack when bottom-fishing is slow. Tie the hook about 12 inches below the swivel and position a 1- to 4-ounce egg sinker just above the swivel; attach a float 3 or 4 feet above the sinker, and hook the baitfish through the back near the dorsal fin, or through the "nose" between mouth and eyes. Allow the float rig to swirl around holes, steep banks and stumps. The bait's vibrations will likely attract any hungry flathead lurking nearby.
Channel-cat anglers might be wise to decide between quality and quantity. According to Dalmier, an avid angler as well as a scientific expert, most fishermen who seek trophy channel cats use live baitfish such as small bream or shad. "Large channel cats are more predatory than their smaller brethren," he explained. "A lively sunfish fished just off bottom in a deep hole can produce some monster fish."
For these monster fish, "monster" fishing gear is often a necessity. "Horsing huge channel cats out of snag-infested lairs requires heavy tackle," Dalmier noted. "A heavy baitcasting or spinning outfit spooled with 20-pound-test line should be considered the minimum. Hook the live bait with a heavy 4/0 or larger hook and allow it to swim freely. Use enough weight to keep the bait on bottom and, when a strike occurs, allow the fish time to completely take the bait before setting the hook. Reels with a free-spool bait-clicker feature are excellent for this type of fishing."
For small-to-average channel cats, baits and rigs may be downsized and tweaked a bit. "For average-size channel catfish, stink baits and smaller live baits like night crawlers get the nod," the biologist remarked. "Fish these baits on bottom. Use a slip-sinker ahead of a small split shot weight pinched onto the line 12 inches ahead of the hook. This rig allows a catfish to take the bait without feeling resistance from the weight."
Dalmier also offered that when using stink baits, which can be liquefied or pasty, some anglers opt for a rig consisting of a treble hook attached to a small piece of sponge or ribbed plastic. "These hooks are designed to hold the bait on the hook and slowly release it into the water," he said. "Whatever your hook type, the bait should be well secured to prevent the catfish from nibbling away your bait without ever being detected."
Those targeting blue catfish can use baits and methods similar to those employed for channel cats. The two species, so much alike in general appearance, can also be found exhibiting very similar feeding habits in like habitats, and may even be found and caught together on occasion -- though in Georgia the blue's habitat and range are historically more limited than the channel cat's.
Some anglers, however, point out a few differences in bait preference and fighting style of bigger blue cats. They seemingly prefer cut bait as a general rule, which can be anything from Spam to skipjack herring and anything in between. Additionally, they have a tendency not to nibble at a bait but to grab it on the run. When the hook's set, a hefty blue is often already moving off with a good head of steam. If your strength, stamina and equipment aren't up to snuff, the fish is likely to keep moving without ever being turned. In general, though, you can successfully score with a blue if you can successfully tempt and hook a channel catfish.
WHERE TO FISH
Catfish anglers may catch blue catfish from any number of Georgia waterways, usually as part of a mixed-bag fish accompanying larger catches of pan-sized channel cats. However, if really large blue cats are what you seek, northwest Georgia's Coosa River near Rome is the place to go.
"Fish the Coosa for blue cats using a shad, either live or as cut bait," said Dalmier. "Fish on the bottom in deep holes in bends and below islands."
Flatheads and channel cats may also be consistently caught from the Coosa.
Lake Seminole, on the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers in southwest Georgia, is a good bet for summertime channel cats and the occasional flathead that moves from the Flint into the lake. Work the flats along the river channels this time of year with stink baits, live baitfish, and earthworms. The current in these areas provides oxygen-rich water during hot summer days, and the catfish come up to feed on the these shallows early and late in the day.
Southeast Georgia's Altamaha River, the largest free-flowing river in the state, contains dense populations of both flathead and channel catfish. For those on the hunt for a trophy flathead, this is probably the prime destination, having earned itself a regional reputation. Even with their decline in overall numbers over the past few years, there are still plenty of flatheads in all sizes here to provide high-quality fishing. Look for the peak of the flathead season during the hot summer months when the river is running well within its banks.
The Altamaha's channel cats are found in the swifter water around sandbars or along bluff walls. Though smaller than the big flatheads, they're excellent table far
e, and far less finicky about their bait preferences.
Lake Oconee in north-central Georgia provides some good fishing for channel and blue catfish as it sprawls across Greene and Morgan counties. A Georgia Power lake on the Oconee River, this fishery is one of the state's youngest reservoirs, having been impounded in 1979.
While it's the bass fishing on Oconee that keeps most anglers returning year after year, the reservoir's overlooked catfishery is a good bet during the summer. Channel cats abound, and its solid population of blue cats may be taken from deep holes and river channel areas on cut bait and live shad.
Summertime is also one of the best periods for targeting channel catfish at Lake Walter F. George, a Chattahoochee River impoundment in southwest Georgia. The sandy flats on this large reservoir provide plenty of catfish territory. The open expanses also contain a smattering of wood structure that the channel cats relate to as well.
Morning and evening hours during the summer find blue and channel catfish moving regularly from river and creek channels onto the flats. The catfish use these areas as low-light feeding grounds and readily take both live and prepared baits fished there.
The old catfish, bless its heart, is a ubiquitous critter. It can be found in Georgia almost anywhere there's water. What's more, it's good to eat and a ton of fun to catch. With all that going for it, it's mighty good company during a summer day's fishing, wherever you may be.