Casting For Peach State Cats
October 04, 2010
Regardless of the species of catfish you prefer, the Peach State can fill your needs. Here's a look at some real hotspots for cats around the state. (June 2009)
Anglers are an odd lot -- we get fixated on a favorite species while forsaking all others. At the same time, we complain that fishing isn't what it should be, while failing to adapt and try new things. There's not an angler out there that doesn't enjoy going toe to toe with a big bruiser of a fish, and if that happens all too infrequently for you, maybe it's time to try something new.
If you want to catch a big fish in fresh water, catfish are the best game in town. Not only do catfish grow larger than other Peach State fish species, but they also are overlooked by many anglers.
A largemouth bass that lives long enough to reach tackle-busting size is truly a notable event. No matter how good an angler you are, your chances of encountering one are slim. On the other hand, just about anywhere you choose to wet a hook in Georgia, there are catfish lurking in the depths that can strain your favorite bass rod and reel to the breaking point. If you want to catch a big fish, fish for the fish that get big!
There are several Georgia catfish species that interest anglers, and knowing the distribution and habits of each helps you connect with a big fish. Although the Georgia list of state-record fish includes six different catfish species, three draw the most attention -- channel, flathead and blue catfish. Channel catfish can be found nearly anywhere in the state, while flatheads and blue catfish are a little more choosy about where they call home.
Since they are the biggest, baddest cats around, the blue catfish is a good place to start. The Georgia state-record specimen weighed 75 pounds, 8 ounces and was caught from a private pond in 2007. The range of blue catfish in Georgia is limited, but in some areas, they are very abundant. Through sheer numbers, they provide the best chance for a trophy catch.
Shad are excellent bait for blue catfish. Either live or as cut bait, blue cats won't hesitate to eat a shad, but bream are also a favorite. No nibbling on finger foods for this species though, when they are ready to eat, they want to fill their belly in one gulp. Prime places to soak bait for blue catfish are on the bottom in deep river bends, below islands, and near creek mouths. But they also can be found in large reservoirs, too.
Blue cats look very much like the familiar channel catfish but lack the spots commonly seen on channels. Distinguishing large blue cats from big channel cats can be difficult since large channel catfish often lose their spots and lack the yellowish cast that makes them easy to identify in smaller sizes. One blue catfish feature that is easy to spot is that the outer margin of the long anal fin is very straight, not rounded as in other catfish species.
Closely related to blue catfish are channel catfish. As the name suggests, this species has a special attraction for rivers and moving water. But, channel cats thrive in just about any neighborhood. Large lakes, small ponds or big rivers, it doesn't matter. As long as there is something to eat, channel cats make themselves at home.
Channel catfish are not fussy eaters. They hit nearly any bait. Alive and kicking, or dead and rotting, it doesn't matter. They feed mostly by scent and taste, which explains the success of bait that leaves a strong scent trail for the catfish to follow to the hook.
Channel cats are nibblers and often play with a bait for some time before finally taking it in all the way. Anglers hunting monster channel cats generally prefer hand-sized bream or shad as live bait. The larger bait culls out smaller fish.
For pursuing eating-size fish, "stink bait" is hard to beat. Many different stink bait recipes have been developed, and the general conclusion is the worse it smells, the better it works. Chicken guts, a mix of rotten cheese and blood, dead shad and a variety of commercially prepared stink baits are all options for channel catfish anglers.
Like blues, channel catfish have a deeply forked tail, but also have small dark spots on the body, which blue cats don't. The spots may be faint or absent on large fish though, sometimes making it difficult to determine if your trophy catch is a channel or blue catfish. If it's a channel catfish, the anal fin is rounded.
Although channel catfish have been known to grow to the 100-pound range, the Georgia record has stood at 44 pounds, 12 ounces since 1972. Fiddler-sized fish that are just right for the frying pan are very common in nearly any lake or river in Georgia, and fish weighing 10-plus pounds are caught regularly.
Because of their large size and predatory skills, flathead catfish are at the top of the pecking order anywhere they are found. Flatheads are native to some Gulf Slope drainages in Georgia, and their range has expanded by illegal introductions into other Gulf and Atlantic drainages. In some areas, introduced flathead catfish have seriously affected other native fish species like redbreast sunfish and bullheads.
The flathead catfish is a creature of large streams, rivers and reservoirs. In streams and rivers, deep holes are the best places to look for these monsters. In reservoirs, flatheads usually associate with submerged channels.
The flathead is a solitary species, and usually any one piece of cover only yields a few adults. Flatheads feed actively at night and spend the daylight hours loafing in a favorite deep hole before venturing shallow to feed.
Flatheads prefer their prey alive and kicking. Any fish that the flathead can fit into its mouth is fair game. Shad and sunfish are popular prey items.
While large blue and channel catfish can be difficult to distinguish, no such problem exists with flatheads since they look totally different. As the name suggests, flatheads are a slender catfish with a broad, flat head. The back and sides are a pale yellow to light brown mixed with dark brown or black. The belly is a pale yellow or cream-white. Flatheads are easily distinguished by the white-tipped tail that is not deeply forked and a lower jaw that extends slightly beyond the upper jaw.
The offset jaws make for a really convenient handle for horsing a big one into the boat -- if you value your fingers though, don't try that same trick with a big channel or blue.
As we will see, Georgia has some excellent river fishing for flatheads, but large impoundments should not be overlooked. Reservoir flatheads are almost completely overlooked by anglers and offer some great fishing. The Georgia record flathead catfish weighed a whopping 83 pounds and was ca
ught from the Altamaha River in 2006. Interestingly, although large channel and blue catfish are not considered good eating, with flatheads a 60-pounder is just as tasty as a 5-pounder.
For catfish, match the tackle to the target. If catching some fiddlers for supper is what you have in mind, a medium-heavy baitcasting, spinning or spin-casting outfit spooled with 14-pound-test monofilament or 20-pound braid is a good compromise. It's light enough to let the smaller fish show off their fighting skills, but still give you at least a hope of landing a larger fish that may decide to snack on your bait.
If you are targeting the bruisers in big water with big bait, heavy tackle is really the only way to go. Light saltwater tackle may even need to be considered. A reel with a bait clicker feature is nice since it alerts you to the bite and allows the fish to take the bait and run without feeling heavy resistance.
If you plan on tangling with a big catfish, 20-pound monofilament is considered light. Modern braided lines are great for catfishing. Even 30-pound braid has a small diameter, which means you can put plenty of it on your reel, and the near zero stretch of braided line has several advantages. First, the braid allows you to detect even the slightest nibble, or even determine whether the bottom is mud or rock. The latter can be important to finding the best holes.
Then, when the fish has taken the bait, the zero stretch allows a forceful hookset to sink a heavy hook into a catfish's tough mouth.
For terminal tackle, a standard fish-finder rig consisting of a sliding sinker, a heavy swivel trailed by a 2- to 3-foot leader of heavy monofilament, and a large sturdy hook on the end is a simple yet productive rig. If using live bait, hook it so it stays as lively as possible. For smaller catfish, just downsize the same rig.
From border to border, Georgia has some great catfish holes. No matter where you live, good catfishing isn't far away. Let's take a look at some of the best.
The best North Georgia catfishing has to be on the Coosa River from Mayo's Bar Lock and Dam near Rome to Lake Weiss on the Alabama border. Blue, flathead and channel catfish are all native to the river, and there are plenty of them. Thirty-pound fish aren't uncommon, and there are numerous monsters topping 50 pounds swimming in the Coosa's fertile waters.
Shad are the favorite bait on the Coosa. A few throws with a cast net in any of the backwater sloughs should result in plenty of bait. Good anglers fish several rods and mix up their presentation between live bait and cut bait until they find what the fish prefer. Flatheads are the least common of the three species, and if targeting them, it's probably best to lean toward live bait.
Good places to try include creek mouths, outside bends and bluff banks. The section of the river around the Georgia State Route 100 crossing has plenty of these areas. The Coosa has several good access points. Anglers can find them by downloading a free Guide to Fishing the Coosa River map at www.gofishgeorgia.com.
BLUE RIDGE LAKE
Illustrating the diversity of Georgia catfishing, one can't find two more different bodies of water than the one just described, and our next choice. Blue Ridge Lake offers overlooked catfishing for channel cats and flatheads. This deep, rocky 3,290-acre Tennessee Valley Authority reservoir on the Toccoa River near Blue Ridge in Fannin County is more known for walleyes and smallmouth bass than anything with whiskers.
But according to Wildlife Resources Division surveys, a good population of channel catfish and even some large flatheads are out there for anglers to catch. Target fiddler-size channel cats with chicken livers, cut bait or commercial stink bait. For large flatheads, stick with large bream for probing deep ledges and dropoffs.
The WRD working in conjunction with the TVA has also constructed numerous deep-water fish attractors on the lake that should draw catfish along with other species. A map showing their locations can be found at www.gofishgeorgia.com.
Moving into central Georgia, Lake Jackson is a 4,750-acre Georgia Power Company impoundment located in Jasper, Butts and Newton counties. Catfish are popular with lake regulars, and while there are plenty of the smaller catfish species like bullheads and white catfish, channel catfish are the real attraction. According to WRD surveys, the lake has one of the best populations of large channel cats in central Georgia.
Anglers wanting a stringer of fish for the table should do well with night crawlers or stink bait. Nearly anywhere on the lake should produce some fish. For larger cats, use heavier tackle with cut shad or bream. Target main lake points, dropoffs and channels near where the lake's three main tributaries enter.
One would be derelict not to talk about Georgia catfishing without mentioning the Altamaha River and flathead catfish. Although several places in Georgia offer good fishing for flatheads, they all pale in comparison to the Altamaha. Over the past decade, every year brings reports of monster fish from this large coastal river.
The Altamaha is the largest river of the Georgia coast, and one of few unimpounded rivers left in Georgia. With 137 miles of water downstream of where the Oconee and Ocmulgee rivers meet to form it, the Altamaha is the largest flow found entirely within the Peach State.
The Altamaha is a wide and meandering river. Bends and turns in the river channel are always the most productive areas to fish, and the Altamaha has plenty. Since their introduction, flathead catfish have spread throughout the Altamaha River. However, the lower half of the river has the most fish and offers the best angling.
The river stage strongly influences fishing. High water generally means a poor day, and stable or falling water means your chances of catching fish are good. Since the Altamaha drainage is large and extends well up into the Piedmont, weather conditions many miles away can be a factor.
The best fishing is when the U.S. Geological Survey gauge near Baxley is at 3.5 to 5.5. When the reading is above 6.5, fishing is going to be very tough. Low readings of 0.5 to 2.5 result in good fishing, but navigating the river can become a problem.
The river is full of good places to fish from start to finish, but a few areas stand out. Upstream from U.S. Highway 84, the big bends in the river have plenty of cover and deep holes favored by flathead catfish. Really anywhere in the nearly 40-mile stretch of river from Jaycees Landing to Altamaha Park has the potential of providing a great fishing trip.
The WRD publishes a Guide To Fishing The Altamaha River. The free pamphlet includes a river map and has information on launch sites, camping and fishing hints. It can be accessed at www.gofishgeorgia.com.
WALTER F. GEORGE RESERVOIR
Finishing up our Georgia
catfishing circuit is Walter F. George Reservoir, a sprawling 45,180-acre Corps of Engineers impoundment near Columbus. Numerous access points make finding somewhere to fish an easy job for both boat- and bank-anglers.
The lake's catfish population is dominated by channel cats, but blue catfish have recently shown up and their numbers are increasing. For both species, the average fish caught weighs a couple of pounds, but large fish are present. Hooking up with a fish in the 30-pound range is a distinct possibility.
For the best success, target depths of 15 to 20 feet with shad or stink bait. Both species are present throughout the reservoir, but blue catfish seem to be more common in the lake's upper end, with channel catfish holding their own in the lake's lower half.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Georgia anglers are blessed with arguably the best catfishing in the region, if not the whole country. Whether it's snoozing under a shade tree waiting for a bite with your pole propped up on a forked stick or drifting in the middle of sprawling reservoir, Georgia catfishing offers something for everyone, and all of it is good.