Looking for some of the best catfish holes on the planet? Head for these spots in West Tennessee. (August 2007)
James Patterson of Mississippi River Guide Service displays a nice flathead taken on the Mississippi River at Memphis, one of the nation's top destinations for big cats.
Photo by Keith Sutton.
I felt like Huck Finn. I was bare-footed. A straw hat sat atop my head. A big paddle wheeler, the Delta Queen, was passing by on its way up the Mississippi River. And a catfish was nibbling on my line.
It was a hot summer night. A friend and I were fishing from a sandbar on a lonely stretch of West Tennessee's Mississippi River. A crescent moon painted a ribbon of silver light across the Father of Waters' broad, dark surface. We watched for an hour as the big cruise boat crept upstream, lit up like a courthouse square on Christmas Eve. From somewhere within her depths came the brassy sound of Dixieland jazz.
"There he is!"
We were both laid back comfortably on the warm, moist sand. But suddenly my partner stood, grabbed his pole from its forked-stick prop and yanked back on it hard. His rod tip immediately made a nosedive, signaling the presence of something sizeable at the other end of his line. "Got him!" he said.
His rod arched. His drag sung, Zzzzzzzzzzzzz! Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz!
"Maybe he's got you," I noted.
The fish fought valiantly. But so did my friend. After a five-minute battle, he beached the fat channel cat, which croaked incessantly at the injustice of it all. Ten pounds it weighed, maybe more. It was just one of several 3- to 15-pounders we'd take home that night.
We caught mostly channel cats that evening, but also some nice blues and flatheads. All three species are abundant in the fertile waters of the Mississippi, and all reach substantial sizes. Fact of the matter is the Mississippi River probably produces more giant catfish year in and year out than any body of water in the United States. And the stretch of river running along the Tennessee border produces some of the biggest of those catfish.
The Mississippi is just one of many great destinations for summer catfishing in western Tennessee, however. Several other rivers and lakes serve up superb hot-weather angling for fat whiskerfish as well, and using the information that follows, you can plan a cat-catching excursion to these hotspots this season.
The Tennessee portion of the Mississippi River flows 167 miles along the state's western border. Blues over 100 pounds are always a possibility here, and as more and more catfishermen ply these waters with rod and reel, the probability that a new world record will be caught here increases substantially. In the minds of many, there's no doubt that a 150-pound blue lurks somewhere in the Mississippi. The only question is: Will it ever be caught?
The Mississippi harbors tons of giant flatheads, too. Fifteen- to 30-pounders are common as fleas on a coonhound. Forty- to 70-pounders are probably caught somewhere on the river every day during summer. And once again, the likelihood of someone catching a world-record-class fish is a distinct possibility.
Channel catfish are extraordinarily abundant in the Mississippi as well, and catching 50 or more during a few hours of fishing is simple for savvy anglers. Most range from 1 to 5 pounds, but specimens exceeding 10 pounds will usually anchor the stringers of serious fishermen. (Cont.)
Mississippi River cats -- blues, channels and flatheads -- typically position themselves at strategic places to feed and rest, usually near structure that breaks the current. Focus your fishing efforts around such structures, which include wing dams, rock, gravel and sandbars, deep holes and cover in outside bends, bottom holes or depressions, bottom humps and deep holes at tributary junctions. A fish-finder helps pinpoint prime fishing areas.
Cut baits made from shad and skipjack herring are hard baits to beat when it's big blue cats you're after. When fishing for flatheads, use live fish baits exclusively: shad, skipjack herring, bluegills, small carp and suckers. If you want a mess of eating-sized channel cats, any of your favorite baits will work, from night crawlers and catalpa worms to your own special brew of homemade stink bait.
Plant your bait on the bottom with a heavy sinker (you may need as much as 8 ounces of lead to do this), then flip on your reel's bait clicker and ready yourself for a bite. When cats are actively feeding, it usually won't be long before a nice one bows your rod and the battle begins.
Good boat ramps exist at several areas on the river, including one near the Pyramid in Memphis. You can also find open bank-fishing spots on public lands in several areas, including two in Lauderdale County at the Ed Jones Ramp off Highway 88 on Hales Point-Barr Road and at the Jim Fullen Ramp west of Ashport on Highway 19, and another in Tipton County at Duvall Landing on Coon Valley Road.
If you do fish from a boat, always be safety conscious. Strong current and undertows can get you in a pickle if you aren't careful, and barge traffic is incessant. Keep a safe distance from these big boats, and always wear a life jacket.
Guided fishing is another option, and you can't go wrong booking a trip with longtime Mississippi River cat guide James Patterson of Bartlett. For more info, call (901) 383-8674 or visit www.bigcatfishing.com.
MEEMAN-SHELBY STATE PARK LAKES
Another of my favorite catfishing destinations in West Tennessee is Meeman-Shelby State Park, a beautiful area on the Mississippi River 13 miles north of Memphis. The 13,000-acre park's two lakes -- Peirsol (12 acres) and Poplar Tree (132 acres) -- provide opportunities to catch some dandy channel catfish, and there's no need even to bring a boat. Rental johnboats are available at the park boat dock, and you also can fish from the pier or bank. Personally owned boats with electric motors are allowed on the lake for a small launch fee, but no gasoline motors are permitted.
A small spinning or spin-casting outfit is ideal for the eating-sized cats in these lakes. I keep mine spooled with 6- to 10-pound-test monofilament. Any catfishing rig can be used, but my favorite, a slip-sinker rig, is easily made by placing a small egg sinker on your main line above a barrel swivel tied at the line's end. Add an 18-inch leader to the swivel's other eye, and tie a hook (1/0 to 3/0 bait-holder, octopus or Kahle) to the end of that. Bait can be some worms or minnows fr
om a bait shop, or fresh chicken livers, hot dogs, bacon, cheese or shrimp from the supermarket. Cast the bait out and let it sink to the bottom near good cover or structure, and you shouldn't have to wait long before you're thrilling to the tug of a nice channel cat.
Stop at the park office before fishing to obtain the free permit required for anglers ages 16 and 62. To reach the park from I-40 in Memphis, take Exit 2-A (Millington), turn right, go six stoplights to Watkins Road (Highway 388), turn left and go until the road dead-ends. Turn left here, go one mile to a four-way stop and turn right. A mile down the road you'll see the park entrance on your left. For additional information, phone Meeman-Shelby State Park at (901) 876-5215.
Another great West Tennessee catfish hotspot I've had a chance to fish is Reelfoot Lake in Obion and Lake counties. Formed by the catastrophic New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-12, this 15,000-acre timber-filled lake has some big flatheads swimming in it, but my guide, Billy Blakely of Blue Bank Resort, and I decided to try for Reelfoot's super-abundant channel cats instead. Catching these cats on a rod and reel is a cinch. The lake is bristling with 1- to 5-pounders. However, on this trip, we used yo-yos for our fishing.
In fishing parlance, yo-yo is a nickname for the Auto-Fisher made by Rocking "A" Ltd. in Diamond City, Arkansas. The "yo-yo" nickname makes sense when you see one in action. A length of nylon line is stored on the spring-loaded reel. The device is hung from a tree limb, the hook is baited, then line is pulled off the retractable spool, and a trigger is set in a notch on the spool to hold the line at the preferred depth. When a catfish takes the bait, the catch is released, and the spring tension pulls the line tight. This sets the hook in the fish's mouth.
With the help of two friends, Billy and I set out 75 yo-yos. Reelfoot Lake provides an ideal setting for yo-yo fishing, thanks to the abundance of cypress trees growing out in the lake. Each cypress has low-hanging branches where the yo-yos can be attached, and because the trees grow in clusters, you can set dozens of yo-yos where they all can be watched.
"Small channel cats are abundant in Reelfoot," Billy told me. "And experience has shown me that worms are as good a bait as any when you're after small cats for the dinner table. You can buy a couple hundred worms at any bait store for a pretty reasonable price, and that's plenty when you're fishing a few dozen yo-yos."
Billy and I tied each yo-yo to a branch near the water, baited the hook, and then stripped off enough line to keep the baits 4 feet beneath the water. In the cypress groves we fished, baits placed nearest each tree trunk produced best. Initially, some yo-yos were placed near the trunk, others at the ends of branches several feet away from the trunk. When we determined that in-close yo-yos were producing more cats, we moved the outer devices closer to the trunks.
"Just because you have a lot of hooks in the water doesn't mean you're going to catch a lot of catfish," Billy said. "It's important to place each hook in a spot where catfish are likely to be feeding. Experimenting with different presentations can help you determine the best spots on a particular day, but it's important to learn the specific types of cover and structure catfish prefer in order to be a successful yo-yo fisherman time and time again. If you place your rigs in fishless water, you won't catch fish, simple as that."
At times, you may be able to place and set all your yo-yos before the catfish start biting. But at other times, you'll be setting one out when you hear a catfish fighting the line on another one you already baited. Billy and I experienced the latter. Before we had placed all 75 of our yo-yos, we already had caught 10 nice channel cats. We caught dozens of cats over the next several hours, and I enjoyed one of the most fun afternoons of catfishing ever.
To contact Blakely and fish at Blue Bank Resort, call (901) 253-6878 or go to www.bluebankresort.com.
A good portion of 55-mile-long Pickwick Lake runs through Hardin County near Savannah, Tennessee, the self-proclaimed "Catfish Capital of the World." This 43,100-acre Tennessee River impoundment harbors healthy populations of channel cats, blues and flatheads. Cats weighing 15 to 40 pounds are relatively common, with much larger fish possible. Anglers often land 30 to 100 catfish daily, ranging from 2 to 10 pounds.
I had a chance to fish here a couple of years ago with guide Phil King of Corinth, Mississippi. King practically lives on this stretch of extraordinary catfishing water, and he's won the World Championship of Catfishing and Cabela's King Kat Classic several times here using tactics he's developed.
The method of fishing King showed me is basically a way of bottom-bouncing baits as you drift, but it's not quite as simple as that description makes it sound. To me, it's a form of "finesse fishing." The angler must develop a keen "feel" for his bait rig to keep in the fish zone without becoming hung up.
The rig is a special three-way outfit that has two wide-gap circle hooks. This King baits with the innards of a skipjack herring sandwiched between two fillets from the same baitfish. He starts at the head of a hole and drifts through after the bait has been lowered to the bottom.
Most cats hold beside river-bottom timber and rocks, which "telegraph" signals through braided line to the angler above. The angler must be attentive at all times, raising or lowering the rig with the rod tip so he maintains feel with the rig below and keeps it bouncing across the pieces of cover and structure without hanging.
While drifting, King watches a fishfinder, looking for signals indicating cats holding near structures below. If he spies good fish that fail to take the bait on the first drift, he may drift through the hole again, targeting those spots once more that appeared to hold catfish.
During the four hours I fished with King using this method, we caught scores of blue and channel cats in the 5- to 12-pound range. Bigger specimens eluded us, but Phil has landed blue cats up to 50 pounds and flatheads up to 48 pounds using this tactic. For the big-river angler hoping to catch numbers of cats with an occasional trophy-class fish in the mix, this is a superb technique that's easy to learn.
In summer, Pickwick's many flatheads can be targeted by fishing the lake's riprapped banks.
"The technique for catching these fish is trolling crankbaits that will dive to the bottom where the riprap stops," King noted. "The flatheads wallow out holes to spawn in where the mud meets the rocks. I use deep-diving crankbaits and a variable speed trolling motor that will drive the lures down to the bottom. When the lures start hitting bottom, I back off the trolling motor and allow the lures to skim the bottom. If a flathead is in the area, it will come up and smash the crankbait. Troll two to four rods with lures of different colors, and when the catfish show a preference for o
ne color or another, rig all your rods with that particular color. Natural shad, blue-back shad, bright orange and green work well for me."
Try these techniques yourself, or call King and plan a guided trip so he can teach you first-hand. To contact him, phone (662) 286-8644, or visit his Web site at www.h2o.com/catfish.
(Editor's Note: Keith Sutton is the author of three catfishing books: Fishing for Catfish, Catching Catfish and Catfishing: Beyond the Basics. Autographed copies can be ordered by visiting Sutton's Web site at www.catfishsutton.com)