Summer's the time for some catfishing in northeast Mississippi, and the Tenn-Tom Waterway provides plenty of water for the action. Let's see what this string of lakes has to offer in July. (July 2008)
Big blue cats are found in the deepest water on the lakes of the lower Tenn-Tom in Mississippi.
Photo by Mike Marsh.
As the currents naturally carried his array of jugs down the channel, C. T. Burns watched carefully to assess how the assortment of two-liter soda bottles would disperse in the water.
"The key is to make sure they don't all get in a single file," said the regular jugger for catfish on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. "No matter how you put them out, if the current gets its way, it can pull them together in a long row; that's not good. You want a wide spread to let those baits attract fish in a broader area."
It was particularly interesting to watch the spread to gauge the effect that this stretch of the waterway -- the upper end of the 35-mile riprap-lined dugout canal, uniform in size but not in depth, that connects Pickwick and Bay Springs lakes -- would have on it.
"A jugger's dream," Burns called it. "But it's also very good for fishermen who prefer a rod and reel. The canal is loaded with good catfish. And it's not that difficult to learn -- you simply play the bends."
In that respect, the entire Tenn-Tom as it cuts across the northeastern corner of the state from Pickwick south to the Alabama line east of Macon is a celebrated catfishing destination. Though better known for its bass fishing, it's catfish that lure many anglers to its waters.
"Growing numbers," said Larry Pugh, the District 1 fisheries biologist for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. "It's always had a good number of catfishermen, but in recent years that number has grown, due to an increased popularity in catfish tournaments.
"We've seen a few events on the river and nationally it continues to grow. They even practice catch and release. I think from that standpoint, catfishing is where bass fishing was in the early '70s. I think that is one reason why we're seeing catfish activity spreading from the tailraces and spillways to the rest of the waterway."
That's not why Burns hits the Tenn-Tom, though. "No," he said, "I ain't competing against anything other than the fish. And I usually win."
THE CANAL SECTION
Burns prefers fishing on the Canal Section of the waterway, the upper end above Aberdeen, where most of the channel is constructed. From Aberdeen down through Columbus and into Aliceville, the three southernmost lakes, the artificial channel interacts with the old Tombigbee River channel.
"Living in Tupelo, I can fish any part of it without more than an hour's drive, but I like coming up here to the Canal Section for jugging," he said. "We don't catch the monsters up here that we occasionally hear about from Aberdeen on down, but we catch good numbers of quality fish, mostly blues and channels. We get the occasional flathead, but mostly it's the blues and channels.
"The Canal is ideal for jugging, and as I get older, I prefer jugging more and more, because it is so easy: You bait up, pitch them out -- and they do all the work."
Well . . . there's more to it than that. Like knowing where to fish.
"When most people think about the Canal, they think it's just a long straight run between Pickwick and Bay Springs," said biologist Pugh. "But it isn't. The Canal has bends in it just like a natural river, and currents running through those bends carve out different depths, giving it more river-like character."
Burns uses those bends and currents to find fish. "What I do is get between opposite bends in the river, like a stretch below a left-hand turn leading into a right-hand turn," he said. "The main current will switch from the right side to the left side, and where that current hits the bank on the left side of the channel, it will gouge out the river bottom. There will be a deep hole.
"If I am tightlining with a rod and reel, I will try to position above those bends, cast down into them and try to catch the deep concentration of fish. When I'm jugging, I pitch the jugs into the exit of one bend and let them work to the entrance of the next. I fish shallow and I am looking for fish feeding on the surface. I can hammer cats between 3 and 6 pounds."
Burns fishes his droplines from jugs at no more than 4 feet deep.
Pugh backed up Burns' assessment. "The Canal is not a true flathead fishery," he stated, "but if you like good keeper catfish like an average 4- or 5-pounder, then it is ideal. It is loaded with those, both blues and channels; it is ideal for juggers. On weekends when I am working and I run the Canal between Pickwick and Bay Springs, I run across at least three and as many as five or six groups of juggers. They get after them on the Canal. But we also see a lot of pole-and-line fishermen, too. It's just a good stretch of water for catfish."
The catfish attraction ends at the mouth of Bay Springs Lake. "There's not a whole lot of catfish activity on the lake itself," Pugh noted, "just in the Canal to Pickwick. Then, from the Bay Springs Lock and Dam south, you really don't see a lot of fishing until you get down to some of the Alphabet Lakes -- locks A to E -- and even then it's not that much. There is some. And it can be good."
Pugh didn't create the name "Alphabet Lakes" for the five pools formed by locks and dams beginning below the Bay Springs Dam and running to the upper end of Aberdeen Lake. All bear names, like Smithville and Fulton, referring to the town nearest each, but they're officially labeled A, B, C, D and E, with A being the northernmost.
"Most of the catfish activity in these pools is limited to the tailrace fishing below the dams," Pugh said. "The two exceptions, I guess, would be C and B, Fulton and Smithville, respectively. They are the best, with Fulton being the better of the two.
"These are all pretty small runs of the channel, and most of them do not have a lot of true catfish habitat, which is why most of the activity is limited to tightlining in the tailraces. You will see mostly keeper-sized channel and blue catfish."
Other than that, said Pugh, there isn't much to talk about until you get down to Aberdeen.
THE BIG THREE
The most p
opular fishing destinations on the Tenn-Tom are the three lower (and largest) pools formed from north to south -- Aberdeen, Columbus and Aliceville. That final one is split between Mississippi and Alabama.
"Now we're in an area where we can talk about some honest catfishing, open to all forms of fishing from jugs to poles to trotlines," Pugh said. "We've got big enough pools to include all kinds of habitat: manmade channels, old river runs and sloughs, tailraces and flooded backwaters. All three are good, and have the three major species, channels, blues and flatheads."
Aberdeen probably gives up the most flatheads, the target species for tournament catfishermen. "I don't think that more flatheads are caught there because Aberdeen has more of them," Pugh offered. "I think it might have more to do with Aberdeen having more habitat for hand-grabbing. From May 1 to July 15, grabblers are all over the shallow backwaters at Aberdeen."
Actually, all three of the lower pools contain excellent flathead habitat, ranging from the deep holes of the old runs of the Tombigbee River to the spawning grounds in the backwaters.
"Sure they do," Pugh said, "and we have good flathead populations in all three of the lakes. Obviously, because so many people don't have boats, the greatest concentration of catfish activity is in the tailrace areas. It is a place where non-boaters can get on the riprap and fish in the spillways, and it is a place where catfish go to feed. You let the water get up high, and running down with a lot of current, and they will hammer the catfish in all of the tailrace areas on the upper ends of all three lakes."
At a 2004 B.A.S.S. Elite Tournament staged at Columbus, one of the most entertaining moments came from the nearby tailrace. A shirtless man fishing from the east bank was hooked up with a monster catfish for over three hours during the weigh-in at the bass event.
Using bass tackle with braided line, the man was at the mercy of what had to be a monster flathead or blue catfish. We'll never know: The battle extended well past the end of the weigh-in and into darkness.
"We don't see that many monster catfish," Pugh observed, "but when we do, it usually comes from one of the tailraces. But we do see a lot of 20- to 25-pound blues and flatheads from all three pools."
The ticket to finding the cats lies in learning the old river runs. "Definitely the old runs," said Starkville's Tommy Smith. "It doesn't matter if you're on Aberdeen, Columbus or Aliceville: The best catfishing other than the tailraces is going to be related to old river runs. That is where the deepest holes with the kind of logjams that big yellow and blue cats look for -- and what catfishermen better be finding." ("Yellow cat" is a local name for the flathead.)
"I love to catch live shad or bream and then fish those deep holes in the old Tombigbee Channel," the angler continued, "I anchor above them and fish with 4 or 5 ounces of weight, casting downcurrent. I use heavy braided line, but I use 25-pound fluorocarbon line for a leader. I also like stained water over extremely clear water, so it was kind of slow during last year's drought. I do better when the river is up and running pretty good with a lot of stain."
Of all the lakes, the most popular old river-run area is on the Mississippi side of Aliceville in the Pratt's Camp area. "Yes, indeed," Smith said. "I've spent many a day fishing that area, both with tightlines and trotlines. The biggest yellow I've caught on the Tenn-Tom came from Pratt's Camp; it was 45 pounds. I caught it on a hand-sized bluegill fished in 40 feet of water over 10 years ago. The water in that spot now is just 32 feet deep because of silt.
"I was real lucky, because I had just changed over to using braid, and that fish got into a logjam and stayed in it for 15 minutes before he finally tried to make it into some current. I think that tug-of-war in the logs had wore him out, because I was able to stop him from getting into the channel and the current. He was a brute -- but he was a tired brute."
Once at Columbus, Smith caught a 53-pound blue that he fought it by hand. "It came on a trotline," he recalled, "and he had managed to get completely wrapped up in the line, and had ripped the line loose from one end. It was still tied to another stump at the other end, and I was able to pull him in."
The most popular of the three pools is Columbus, Pugh said. "It is bigger, has great access, has plenty of the old river runs and has the influence of Tibbee Creek," he explained. "Because of Tibbee -- the largest tributary to the Tenn-Tom in Mississippi -- we simply have more fishable water for catfishermen. Aliceville has as much, but a lot of it is across the state line down in Alabama."
Trotliners love the Tibbee Creek area, Smith noted. "I think that's one of the attractions for Columbus that draws so many people," he said. "The creek is a perfect trotline area with all the timber. There are shallow areas along the banks that are good from May to September, and there are some deep holes for year-round fishing.
"Aberdeen is also good for trotlining -- but when I go up there, I fish the deep holes, hoping for a big yellow or blue. I love to fish Aberdeen, because even on busy weekends, it is a lot less crowded than either Columbus or Aliceville. But when I'm in my big-fish mode, I'm not competing with many others, because they don't target the deep holes as much as I do with the specialized gear."
Smith had better enjoy that situation while it lasts -- because change looks to be on the way: Competition could be coming soon. According to Pugh, increasing numbers of catfish purists are becoming trophy-oriented anglers. "I'm seeing more and more people beginning to go in that direction," Pugh observed. "You know what I mean: specialized tackle and electronics, all designed to finding the biggest of the big catfish, big blues and big flatheads. Again, I think that is the influence of the growth in tournament fishing.
"It is not as big in Mississippi or on the Tenn-Tom as it is in states like Tennessee and Kentucky, but it is heading in that direction. Tournament catfishing will eventually have the same kind of effect that it had on bass fishing decades ago. That means more specialized and better gear."
The growth could be faster for catfish, thanks to the difference that the age of computers can make. "I can log on and read and learn all I need to know about targeting big cats," Smith said. "I spend a lot of time doing exactly that, surfing the Internet to bone up. I don't care that much about competing -- I just do it for the fun. I love big fish, and in Mississippi, our biggest are the cats."
For C. T. Burns, the classroom will always be the water. "I guess I'm a simple guy," he said. "I'm not into the electronics and the specialized gear and all that. For one thing, I can't afford it; for another, I don't need it.
"Once you learn how to read a river, or the manmade waterway for that matter, you know where the fi
sh are going to be. The deep holes are going to be on the outside bends of the river, and if you know how to read water, you can find the outside bends that have the most current. That right there is all you need to know to find some good catfish."
And there's this: "The way they built this waterway, from Pickwick all the way to Alabama, they created a great place to chase and catch catfish," Burns summed up. "We've got it all. If you like fishing a river, we got it. If you like fishing tailraces, Lord knows we got a bunch of those. If you like fishing flooded backwater, then there's a gracious plenty of those, too.
"No matter your preference, you can find it on the Tenn-Tom."