September 30, 2010
The summer is the best time to hook some catfish in the Magnolia State. Whether you want a stringer of frying cats or a bragging-sized lunker, these waters should scratch your itch! (June 2009)
By Robert H. Cleveland Jr.
Billy Joe and Carolyn Thomas of Vicksburg had it made -- it seemed. You could tell they were having a good day before asking if the fish were biting.
They were sitting in a 16-foot boat, each under big beach umbrellas. Both had a personal drink dispenser (ice chest) at their feet full of their favorite beverages, and the iPod was playing through a portable speaker system in the middle of the boat.
Carolyn had control of the remote, and Carrie Underwood was singing about how she'd show her cheating man the true meaning of a woman scorned.
Both wore cutoff jeans, T-shirts and layers of 45-spf sunscreen.
"The secret to staying cool," Carolyn said, "is keeping the sunscreen in the ice chest. Goes on cold, kind of refreshing."
Neither seemed to have a care in the world, until the mention of fish. Then Billy Joe Thomas seemed a little miffed.
"She's killing me," he said. "She's caught 15 catfish and I only got seven. Don't understand it. My lines are in the same place. We're using the same bait and she's getting most of the bites."
Carolyn smiled deviously, enjoying the moment. It was about to get better. The tip of one of her two rods twitched, and then twitched again.
"Well, Honey, it's about to be 16 to seven," she said.
She eased the rod out of the holder, waited until the line pulled tight and then set the hook with authority. She soon reeled in a 2-pound channel cat.
Billy Joe just shook his head. He leaned forward and fidgeted with both of his rods, like he was checking to see if they were still there.
"The sad part is, that it doesn't matter who catches what or how many, only one of us will clean them all -- me," he said.
His wife, who handled the spiny fish as expertly as can be and added it to the big fish box in the boat, rebaited her hook with a big night crawler and tossed it back in Eagle Lake.
"Yeah, but you know it's worth it," she said. "I cook them as good as they can be cooked and there's nothing like catfish, hushpuppies and a pot of turnip and mustard greens."
Billy Joe laughed and knew he couldn't argue. Eating doesn't get much better than that.
And fishing doesn't get much better either.
Though shunned by hoity-toity fishermen, the catfish offers great sport, and didn't get the recognition it deserved in Mississippi when the legislature chose the largemouth bass the state's official game fish.
After all, what is more Mississippi than the catfish?
Channel cats, blue cats and flatheads are all names synonymous with the sport of fishing in Mississippi. Plentiful in most state waters, from rivers and streams to reservoirs to stock ponds, catfish are here for the taking.
Fishermen like the Thomases don't have to be too serious about the sport to catch a boatload of the whiskered fish.
"It's why I don't like to go with him when he's chasing crappie or bass or bluegills," Carolyn Thomas said. "He gets all serious and won't let me play the music -- scared I'll spook the fish. And except for bream, the other fishing is just too much work. This is leisure, with a bonus. We usually catch more than we can eat and are home by lunch."
Eagle Lake, the old Mississippi River oxbow lake north of Vicksburg, is just one of many catfishing hotspots in Mississippi. There, channel cats and small blue cats dominate the supply.
"I like to fish an edge, like we're doing today," Billy Joe Thomas said. "Early summer is a time when catfish are thinking spawning. If they aren't doing it, they're thinking about it."
Carolyn Thomas giggled when she heard that, and didn't elaborate. Nor did she need to.
"We're sitting on a flat in 6 feet of water, but we're casting toward the edge where the lake begins falling into the old river channel," he continued. "We're on an old inside bend, so it's not a sharp drop. I think most of the fish we're catching are sitting in about 8 to 10 feet of water. They hold there and move up on the flat to spawn.
"We could move up into those stumps over there behind us and try to catch the spawning fish and could probably catch bigger fish, but we like the fish averaging 2 to 3 pounds, and they are plentiful on the drop. I guess I know about eight or 10 other spots just like this on Eagle."
Billy Joe Thomas' second most favorite catfish water is Lake Washington, another old oxbow about an hour's drive north from Eagle near Glen Alan,
"Totally different fishing there," he said. "In the spawning time, like right now, I'd be in the shallows with a jig pole, going from cypress tree to cypress tree, dropping a worm around the knees. It's a lot like chasing spawning crappie."
He has to find a different fishing partner for that, and for his third spot, the Mississippi River. Carolyn Thomas wants no part of the Big Muddy.
"She went with me one time when I went jugging and just didn't care for it," he said. "She was scared of the river."
"I wasn't too thrilled about the size of the catfish, either," she said laughing. "Those are monsters. Anything over 4 or 5 pounds is just too big for me."
Jugging on the Mississippi River is a very popular pastime, and very productive.
"The key is picking the right areas," Thomas said. "I like the inside bends where my jugs can stay in between 4 and 8 feet of water and pass over a lot of logjams. I fish shallower than most folks, and by that I mean I only use about a 2-foot drop line from my jugs. I want my jugs to float over that cover without getting hung up. It allows me to fish where others can't."
For bait, Thomas uses cut skipjack shad he catches in the river.
"The bigger the bait, the bigger the fish," he said. "I don't use a lot usually because I'm really only trying to catch smaller fish. Once you've wrestle
d with a 50-pound-plus catfish, you don't really need to again."
There's not a "bad" river in Mississippi, when it comes to catfish. The Pearl River in central and southwest Mississippi is one of the best, but then so is the Tenn-Tom Waterway in the northeast and the Pascagoula River system in the southeast.
The best reservoir for catfish is a tossup between two -- Arkabutla Lake in northwest Mississippi and Ross Barnett Reservoir near Jackson. Both are excellent, especially in the early summer months when the fish are shallow for spawning.
Perry Reynolds of Jackson can't imagine life without catfishing on Barnett Reservoir.
"What amazes me is how many people live in Jackson that don't have boats," he said, "much less access to some of the best fishing in the world."
Reynolds only fishes for catfish, though he will chase bluegills and redears occasionally on smaller lakes. He doesn't care for bass or crappie at all.
"Thing is, on Barnett, I feel like the lake is mine, when it comes to catfish," he said. "Everybody else is running around chasing bass and crappie. They run all over the place. I can catch all the fish I want and never have to worry about how much gas I'm burning."
Reynolds jugs, sets lines, casts and even noodles (hand-grabs) for catfish on Barnett, but his favorite is jugging at night on the upper river area north of Mississippi State Route 43.
"That is the ticket," he said. "I usually don't arrive on the river until everyone else is leaving or already gone. I don't have to worry about finding a place that isn't crowded because the whole river is good. Even on weekends when the river can be busy at night with campers and trotliners, I can find several stretches to run my jugs and not be bothered.
"The best places have a mixture of shallow runs and deep drops. Oddly enough, one of my favorites is immediately below River Bend (picnic area). That long straightaway run is perfect and always holds a lot of catfish."
At the end of the run is a long sandbar.
"If I haven't caught many by the time they get there, I can count on getting a bunch right there," he said. "Right across from the sandbar are several cuts that run up into the backwaters on the opposite side. It is a perfect holding area for catfish.
"Sandbars always hold a lot of catfish at night on the river. It doesn't matter how many people are camping or how much noise they are making. I just go on plucking catfish off my jugs."
While the jugs are working, Reynolds usually lets one or two trotline sets work in the mouths of the nearby cuts.
"We're only allowed 100 hooks per person, which is enough to run 25 jugs and three 25-hook trotlines," he said. "Any more than that would be overkill. I try to bait everything with cut or whole shad that I catch in a cast net each night. I also use shrimp if I have some and small crawfish.
"I like to set my lines on the bottom across the mouths of the cuts or up in the cuts along a stumprow or shallow cypress bank. I'll set my lines, then run my jugs for a couple of hours and then go back and check the lines. Usually, it only takes a couple of jug runs and two checks on the lines to get all I want to deal with."
Not all of Mississippi's great catfish holes are big, like major river systems or reservoirs.
Some of the best are ideal for smaller boats.
One of them is Calling Panther Lake near Crystal Springs, the three-year-old jewel of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks' state lake system.
The original stocking of channel catfish continues to produce great fishing, as well as new generations of catfish. The strict 10-fish limit insures great fishing for years to come, although some of the fishermen don't understand the tight restriction.
"Ask me, they shouldn't have a limit," said George Fulton of Jackson, a regular at the lake. "The lake is full of them, gazillions of them. Getting a limit isn't that difficult. I can get a limit over a day of bream fishing, or I can target catfish and get a limit in an hour or two."
Fulton loves catching Calling Panther cats, but loves eating them even more.
"They have the cleanest catfish taste I've ever found," he said.
Fulton's game plan is simple enough -- target points.
"The lake has a lot of points, and I know which ones are the best for catfish," he said. "I found them while bream fishing. As a matter of fact, if you find a point that has a bream bed, you can count on catfish nearby.
"What you have to realize is that you have to be ready to deal with heavy cover. When the catfish are on the points, they will be in the timber and the lake is full of timber. I use 30- or 50-pound braided line, and if the water is clear, which it usually is, I use an 18-inch piece of 15-pound fluorocarbon line for leader. You have to fight those catfish out of heavy cover almost every time."
For bait, Fulton uses night crawlers or cut shad.
"But no matter what, I'm spraying it down or dipping into a fish attractant," he added. "The more it stinks the better, but I have found that using live or cut bait works a lot better than the artificial stuff they usually put in prepared baits."
Fulton keeps an old jar of Berkeley Gulp! juice on his front deck. He removed the bass baits that came with it, and dunks his catfish baits down into the juice.
Fulton offers one more tip for catfishing at Calling Panther:
"Take your bream gear with you, too. You will have plenty of time to kill after getting a limit of catfish."
My favorite spot on Calling Panther is the shallow flat on the north side of the lower end of the lake, off the last point. Now, shallow is a relative term in this case. The lower end of the lake is extremely deep, with an average depth of 25 to 30 feet. The flat that produces catfish all year round is 8 to 10 feet deep, surrounded on three sides by that deeper water. Only between the flat and the lake's bank is it shallower.
I found the spot by accident while interviewing some bream fishermen who were cussing the fact that catfish kept interfering with their efforts.
Oh well, one man's pain is another man's pleasure.
Our last hotspot is a "must visit" for all fishermen, no matter their targeted species. Okhissa Lake in the Homochitto National Forest near Bude is full of bass, bream and catfish now, with the promise of a crappie future.
The 1,200-acre lake, managed by the U.S. Forest Service and open since November of 2007, is a fishing paradise attracting anglers from all over the Southeast.
"Oddly enough, as good as the bass and bream fishing has been, the channel catfishing may be the best thing going so far," said Forest Service biologist Rick Dillard. "I'm amazed at how productive Okhissa has been for channel cats.
"Even before the lake opened, during our electro-fishing surveys, we could see how good the catfish were doing. They were growing fast and we kept seeing multiple age-classes developing."
That shocking success has turned into fishing success over the past 1 1/2 years. And, like at Calling Panther, a 10-fish daily limit guarantees future fishing.
"You can hook the catfish all over the lakes, but if you want to land them, it's a good idea to find them on the lower end," Dillard said. "You get up on the upper end on the creek channel and in those coves, and there's so much cover. There's a lot of fish up there, but they can be extremely tough to get out of there.
"On the lower end, it's more wide open. There's still some coves with timber and they may hold the most fish on the lake, but all I'm saying is that the lake is so full of catfish that you can find them just about anywhere and you might as well fish where they are easiest to catch."
The north shore -- opposite the two boat ramps -- on the lower end of the lake offers perhaps the easiest fishing, and some of the more productive.
A key to that production is the literally hundreds of gravel bream beds built by the Forest Service during the lake's construction. When the bream move up on the beds in the spring, the catfish follow. The catfish stay around, even after the bream leave. Again, we learned about that tactic from bream fishermen who were complaining about catfish messing up their quests for bluegills and redears.
Catfish get so little respect.