Known for screaming runs, brutal strength and awesome size, blue cats are the "big dogs" in many Volunteer rivers and lakes.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
By Jeff Samsel
Huge blue catfish hardly look like track stars. Unlike channels, which are lean and mean, or flatheads, which are stocky and strong, great big blue cats have burgeoning bellies that border on grotesque.
Looks can be deceiving, though. Much more so than either of their two popular game fish cousins, blue catfish are known for screaming initial runs. They take baits on the run and don't slow for quite a while. Occasionally, they just never slow at all and leave anglers standing amazed, with gaping jaws and no line on their reels.
Blues are the big dogs of Tennessee cats. Tennessee's record, which came from the Cumberland River, weighed in at 112 pounds.
Commercial anglers have caught countless fish over the years that would shatter the world record, and sportfishermen have become far more serious about targeting heavyweight blues. Higher quality gear, more targeted effort and more refined techniques are resulting in more and more really large fish being reeled in. All three of Tennessee's major rivers - the Mississippi, Tennessee and Cumberland - are good candidates for producing the next world-record blue.
While blues do get stocked in all of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's "Family Fishing Lakes," serious fishing for heavyweight blues is pretty much limited to Tennessee's three major rivers. Blues are big-river fish by nature, and they thrive in large systems that offer room to roam and abundance of forage and the opportunity to escape harvest for several years. The lakes have plenty of blues up to about 20 pounds, but few true jumbo blues.
Adult blue catfish feed primarily on fish, especially shad and herring. In Tennessee's big rivers, their main forage species are gizzard and threadfin shad and skipjack herring. Most anglers consider cut skipjack, which is extremely oily, the bait of choice for big blues, followed by cut gizzard and threadfin shad. The cats sometimes favor other "flavors," however, and at times cut shad or even cut bream or some other kind of fish will produce faster action than cut skipjack.
Because of the huge sizes that blue catfish can grow to and the strength of currents in the big-river systems where the fishing is best, anglers need to gear up with heavy tackle for taking on big blues. Veteran anglers use stout rods and geared-down reels spooled with at least 30-pound-test, and many anglers favor 80- or 100-pound-test braided line.
Because the Mississippi, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers include so many miles within or along Tennessee's borders, anglers in all parts of the Volunteer State have outstanding big-blue prospects fairly close them. Anywhere along any of these rivers offers potential for serving up really big cats, but let's look at some of the "best of the best." We'll begin along Tennessee's western border and work our way east, looking at some of the finest spots in the state for tangling with really big blue catfish.
Blue catfish are the main attraction for James "Big Cat" Patterson during July, August and September. Patterson, who guides exclusively for cats and has been fishing the Mississippi for more than 25 years, pretty much abandons flatheads and channels through the dog days because the blue cat action really heats up.
Patterson does all of his guiding within 25 miles or so of Memphis, fishing the same waters that produced the former all-tackle world-record blue catfish on Aug. 3, 2001. Most fish are between 5 and 30 pounds, but Patterson also catches a lot of real heavyweights during the summer.
Patterson uses two main summertime techniques. The first is to anchor over fairly swift and deep water, whether along a revetment bank, off the end of a wing dike or at the edge of a natural channel. When he anchors, Patterson will put down several big chunks of shad or herring weighted with several ounces of lead. He'll cast downstream, let the baits settle on the bottom, engage the reels and wait for the rods to surge down.
In addition to anchoring, Patterson spends a lot of time drifting during the summer. Cats will spread out on sandbars, where the river gets wide and currents moderate, and will watch for food passing overhead. Patterson will drift several hundred yards in the current to look for the most active cats, and let his baits bounce up and down the sandbars as he drifts. He'll turn the boat sideways and use his trolling motor to move back and forth across the river as he drifts, always with one eye on the graph to watch for catfish and baitfish.
Because of the extremely dynamic nature of the Mississippi River, specific hotspots vary radically from season to season and even from week to week. The level of the Mississippi commonly fluctuates 50 feet over the course of a year, and it can rise several feet in a single day. Consequently, one summer's hottest spot might be high and dry the next summer. At the same time, the river's powerful currents continually reshape sandbars, channels and scour holes.
The Mississippi River does not get heavy pressure from recreational anglers, partly because it can be very hazardous. Anglers going out in the big river must be cautious. The Mississippi is no place for small boats or inexperienced or careless boaters. Powerful currents, hidden obstacles, large floating debris, whirlpools and heavy chop are just a few of the common hazards.
For guided fishing on the Mississippi River, call James Patterson at (901) 383-8674. For more information, log onto www.bigcatfishing.com.
Despite running right through Nashville, Cheatham Lake does not get a lot attention from serious fishermen. Overshadowed by Lake Barkley downstream and by the Tennessee River, Cheatham sometimes gets overlooked as a big-cat destination.
Cheatham heads up just northeast of Nashville at the base of Old Hickory Dam. The entire lake, which is 68 miles long, is highly riverine, flowing generally east to west, but twisting fairly often as it goes. The upper end, especially, winds through huge bends. Used for flood control and power generation, the lake level and the strength of its currents fluctuate significantly according to the amount of water being poured through the system.
Cheatham is shallow and rocky at its upper end and offers good tailwater fishing for blue catfish. Through the heart of summer, especially, much of the best fishing for the biggest cats is within sight of the dam. When two or three of the dam's four turbines are turning, anglers can set up in the "slo
t" downstream of a turbine that is not running and catch fish that are holding right along the current line.
Big chunks of cut skipjack fished on three-way rigs are pretty tough to top for this style of fishing. Anglers try to position their boats directly over the waters they want to fish and bounce the weight off the bottom. Some drift, making repeated passes over prime areas. Others keep the motor running and try to hold themselves in position as they fish.
Below the dam, the lake alternates between fairly straight and uniform river sections and big bends. Cats tend to concentrate in the bends, which are bordered by bluffs on the outside and sandbars on the inside. By day, the big blues feed in the deepest parts of the holes. By night, they move up onto the flats and sometimes can be caught quite shallow.
Through the lower half of the lake, which contains less really exaggerated bends, anglers generally focus on main channel ledges and mouths of creeks and holes formed by more subtle bends. If all four turbines are turning at Old Hickory Dam and especially if any floodgates are open, the best fishing will be well down the lake. In fact, some of the most productive holes in the lake, most of which border big bluffs, are in the far lower reaches of Cheatham Lake.
Access points are scattered all along Cheatham Lake, but some are separated by several river miles, leaving long sections of river that get very light fishing pressure.
Anyone who has been to the Tennessee Aquarium knows that there are some huge catfish in Chattanooga; however, not everyone knows that massive cats also swim freely in the Tennessee River, which runs right beside the aquarium in downtown Chattanooga. Beginning at Chickamauga Dam, just northeast of Chattanooga, Nickajack Lake is one of Tennessee's hotspots for heavyweight blue catfish.
Some of the best summer fishing is in the Chickamauga tailwater, where fish find an abundance of rocky cover, current and forage. Adding appeal for many anglers, some of the best fishing below the dam is accessible to shoreline fishermen. Shore-bound anglers who are serious about catching big cats use surf-fishing rods to cast big chunks of cut bait long distances when necessary.
Whether an angler is fishing from a boat or from the bank, the key to finding and catching big blues in the tailwater is to find "edges" beside current lines or breaks in swift current, formed by divider walls, barge ties, submerged rockpiles or other structure. Hotspots vary according to which turbines are running or spill gates are open. Generally speaking, big cats will hold out of the swiftest water, but close to it.
Tennessee Valley Authority maintains a public access area below the dam, which provides a plentiful bank-fishing access from riprap banks and a ramp for boating in the tailwater. As on the Mississippi, boaters need to be extremely careful. Conditions change quickly when turbines get turned on or off, and the tailwater contains turbulent water, strong currents and rockpiles, the tops of which sometimes lie just under the surface.
Downstream of the tailwater, the river winds through downtown Chattanooga before turning south and then going through a massive bend at the base of Lookout Mountain and then snaking through a narrow gorge between Signal and Raccoon mountains. Much of Nickajack remains highly riverine, with the river twisting back and forth through a series of hard bends. Each bend scours a huge hole and offers outstanding habitat for blue catfish.
River bends through the gorge section dig out classic big-river holes, with deep water close to the bluff that extends several hundred yards. Some anglers anchor upstream of these holes or beside them and put big chunks of cut bait down in the deep water. An alternative approach, which is highly effective for locating cats in huge holes, is to drift along an outside bend, bouncing baits along the bottom through an entire hole.
The far lower end of Nickajack Lake, from around the Interstate 24 bridge to the dam, opens up more and looks more like a lake. Big blues make good use of the lower lake as well, but locating them can be a bit more difficult in the summer.
Drifting can work well, especially if a good wind is blowing across the lake, allowing anglers to drag baits across flats, down into the channel and back up the slopes. Blue catfish follow big baitfish schools in open water, so most anglers will spend a lot of time looking at their electronics before they begin drifting.
WATTS BAR LAKE
"Is that enough bait?" I asked Tom Evans, eager as child on Christmas morning to get to our first catfish hole. As much fun as I had been having catching skipjack, I had fished with Tom during midsummer before, and I knew that the big blues would serve up a huge treat.
"We'd better get a couple more," Tom answered with a patient, knowing smile.
Evans, a full-time guide who spends a lot of summer days on Watts Bar, has learned the hard way to bring plenty of bait. Some days the big holes that Evans fishes are loaded with big blue catfish, and an angler can go through skipjack pretty quickly when the cats really start biting.
While Evans' guide business takes him from Canada to Central Florida, he spends the dog days close to his Knoxville-area home, and he spends a lot of days on the Tennessee River fishing for super-sized blues. He catches a lot of 30-pound-plus fish (sometimes several in a day) and wrestles 40- and even 50-pound-plus fish into the boat fairly often.
Evans focuses most of his attention on big bluff holes along outside bends, usually anchoring near the top of a hole and putting his baits down in the hole. He fishes mostly by day, having found no better success at night. He lays several lines downstream, all baited with big chunks of skipjack and laid on the bottom, and leaves the reels open, with clickers engaged.
There's no question when big cats latch on. The reel clickers scream as the rods surge down and the line races downstream. Evans uses big circle hooks, so all anglers have to do is push the reel into gear and the fish usually is hooked. "That's when the fun really begins," Evans said.
While Evans typically anchors, he said that some local anglers do very well by drifting on Watts Bar, especially in the lower end of the lake.
"They don't necessarily fish on the bottom," he noted. "Instead, they'll suspend baits at a variety of depths and drift over big holes or over the open main body in the lower lake. Some guys catch a lot of big blues that way."
Evans has found that current is the key to success with big cats on Watts Bar. The more water that is running through the lake, the better the fish tend to bite. When little water is running, Evans will seek out narrow spots where he can detect even a little bit more current.
To book a trip with Tom Evans, give him a call at (865) 604-9233. Fo
r more information, visit his Web site at www.tomevansoutdoors.com.
BEFORE YOU GO
Tennessee anglers may keep only one catfish of any species daily over 34 inches. There is no statewide limit on smaller catfish.
Any blue catfish that is 34 inches or longer (whether kept or released) qualifies for a certificate of accomplishment under TWRA's Tennessee Angler Recognition Program. For more information, including certification procedures and an application that can be downloaded, go to the Web site at www.tnwildlife.org.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeff Samsel is the author of Catfishing in the South, which includes sections on the Mississippi, Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. To order, send a check for $21.95 (postage paid) to Jeff Samsel, 173 Elsie Street, Clarkesville, GA 30523. For more information, log onto www. jeffsamsel.com.
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