Perched comfortably on a riverbank at the mouth of a feeder, two friends watch the glow in-the-dark tips of medium spinning rods. Just down the same river, two anglers in a boat wait to hear one of their stout rods rattle in its holder. Big circle hooks are baited with live shad, and if a flathead grabs one of those baits, there will be no question that the fish will be hooked by the time they know about it.
Catfishing takes on many faces, often in the same waterway, and the way anglers fish vary according to the character of a river or lake, the species make-up, the size structure and what the angler hopes to catch.
Of course, different catfishermen have distinctive preferences, so it is lucky that there are multiple waterways in different parts of the state that offer fine fishing for a variety of catfish species.
The Georgia portion of the Coosa River is fairly short. It begins in Rome, at the confluence of the Etowah and Oostanaula rivers, and runs westerly into the headwaters of Lake Weiss, which straddles the Georgia/Alabama border. That short section of river packs a lot of catfishing punch, though. In fact, Jim Hakala, the fisheries biologist over the Coosa for the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, believes the Coosa may be the best overall catfish fishery in Georgia.
The Coosa River supports strong populations of all three major catfish species, and all three are native to the river. Blue cats are the most plentiful and grow to the largest sizes, according to Hakala.
"Blues in the 20- to 30-pound range are not uncommon, and bigger 50-plus-pounders are present," Hakala said.
Channel catfish are the second most abundant, and both channels and blues up to about 2 pounds are plentiful for anglers who are more interested in catfish action than targeting big fish. Most Coosa River flatheads weigh less than 20 pounds, but larger fish are present.
Hakala noted that there seems to be better concentrations of larger catfish in the lower portion of the river, pointing at the section from the Old River Road boat ramp to the state line. Anglers targeting big blue cats use big chunks of cut shad and focus on deep areas with current by day and adjacent flats by night.
Smaller cats, which feed readily on smaller pieces of cut bait, night crawlers and commercially produced dip baits, are plentiful throughout the river, as well as up both major Coosa River tributaries. The Etowah River, downstream of Lake Allatoona, and the entire Oostanaula River produce outstanding catfishing action.
The Georgia state record for flathead catfish is a tie. That doesn't, however, cause debate over the state's top flathead destination because both fish came from the Altamaha River. Both record flatheads, which weighed 83 pounds even, were caught during the summer. Previous flathead records also came from the same big river, and trotliners have caught a few fish from the Altamaha that would have shattered the record if they had been caught by rod and reel.
While flatheads attract the most attention, the state record channel catfish also came from the Altamaha, and the river produces exceptional numbers of channel cats. Blue cat abundance also has been growing in the Altamaha, especially toward its lower end.
The Altamaha forms at the juncture of the Ocmulgee and Oconee rivers and flows more than 135 miles to the Georgia coast. Along the way, it twists endlessly, creating hundreds of deep, timber-choked bends that provide exceptional catfish habitat. Near the coast it becomes much wider and divides in many fingers, which weave through the marsh.
Neither flatheads nor blues are native to the Altamaha. The flatheads are believed to have been stocked into the Ocmulgee in the 1970s. Blue catfish showed up more recently, but that population continues to expand. The current catfish population in the Altamaha is in outstanding condition, aided by a years of high water, which expands already plentiful habitat, while making many areas more difficult to fish.
Channel cats abound from the river's start to well into tidal waters. Prospects for bigger flatheads and for blue cats tend to be better in the lower half of the big river, especially in stretches that are somewhat distant from boat ramps and therefore get less fishing pressure.
Altamaha flatheads favor live bait, and most anglers choose some sort of sunfish. Because of the huge sizes flatheads can reach and the very thick cover in many river holes, stout tackle and strong line are critical.
LOWER FLINT RIVER
The first flatheads in the Altamaha most likely were moved there from the Flint River. Although not native to the Flint, flathead catfish have been popular in this river for decades, and the lower river remains one of the state's most popular flathead rivers. Channel catfish also provide outstanding action throughout the Flint, but blue cats have not yet shown up in the Flint in appreciable numbers.
The lower Flint is generally defined as the section downstream of Warwick Dam, which impounds Lake Blackshear. From that point the river winds 135 miles to its confluence with the Chattahoochee River beneath the impounded waters of Lake Seminole. The river mostly meanders between sandbars and willow thickets
Largely due to fishing pressure, the Flint River doesn't produce many really big flatheads any more, Kilpatrick said. However, the Flint remains an excellent river for targeting smaller flatheads and plentiful channel catfish together. For flatheads, Kilpatrick pointed toward the section downstream of Albany Dam, which impounds Lake Chehaw (also known as Lake Worth).
Lake Chehaw, which is located immediately north of Albany, provides very good catfishing, with abundant channel catfish that average about 2 pounds and flatheads up to about 10 pounds. Channel catfish congregate in deep holes along bends in the impounded channel of the Flint. Flatheads hold tight to the edges of the same holes, and feed after the sunset.
LAKES OCONEE & SINCLAIR
As neighboring impoundments of the Oconee River, lakes Oconee and Sinclair have much in common, but each is distinctive in character. However, their catfish stories are similar. Both offer outstanding catfishing and are going through similar transitions with catfish populations. They are at different points in the transition, though, so the dynamics of the fishery are different.
The main changes in the fishery have to do with the continued expansion of blue cat populations, which are gradually displacing native catfish.
"Blue catfish were illegally introduced and first detected in Lake Oconee in 1997 and had spread downstream to Sinclair by 2004," said Steve Schleiger, WRD fisheries biologist. "Therefore, Oconee has at least a seven-year head start on Sinclair and yields the largest blue catfish."
Growth has been excellent with the relatively young blue cat populations in both reservoirs, with the portion of the fish biomass in the lake comprised of catfish increasing substantially. Catfish now make up approximately 60 percent of the total biomass in Oconee and Sinclair.
Oconee still supports big numbers of smaller channel cats, but blues continue to grow in number and size. Blue catfish in the 15- to 20-pound range are fairly common catches, and Schleiger knows of four different 40-pound-plus blues that were caught just last year. Oconee also has growing population of flatheads, with some large fish in the mix.
Catfishing has long been popular at Lake Sinclair, with anglers traditionally targeting channels, whites and bullheads. Blues now outnumber channels though, and catches of white cats and bullheads have fallen off dramatically. As the blue cat population continues to develop, anglers are turning to bigger baits and stouter gear to target blues. Trophy channel catfish (15 to 25 pounds), blue catfish (20 to 40 pounds) and a few 40-pound-class flatheads are available.
Cats in both lakes relate heavily to main channels during the summer, holding in deep bends by day and moving to adjacent flats at night. They feed best when current is running through the lakes.
Blue catfish numbers and sizes also have been on the rise in the lower Chattahoochee River system for several years, and a few really big cats have begun showing up.
"While the size structure is not what you'd see in the Tennessee River system, there are good numbers of 2- to 5-pound fish, and for those willing to put in little effort, catches of 20- to 50-pound fish are not uncommon, with a few of them being larger yet," said John Kilpatrick, WRD fisheries biologist.
Kilpatrick pointed toward the river stretches immediately upstream of lakes Walter F. George and Seminole as holding the best overall populations of quality blue catfish.
Flathead catfish also provide an outstanding opportunity along the lower Chattahoochee, with good quality fish in the mix and lighter pressure than other trophy-cat waters. According to Kilpatrick, the stretch between Columbus and the upper end of Walter F. George is a good area for targeting heavyweight flatheads.
Channel catfish are plentiful all along the lower Chattahoochee, including riverine and impounded sections, with Lake Seminole offering the best quality of channel cats through the lower river.
Stripers, hybrids, largemouths, spotted bass and crappie all get plenty of attention at Lake Hartwell, which impounds the Savannah River along the Georgia/South Carolina border. Seldom mentioned are catfish, but catfish are actually quite plentiful in this big impoundment, and those numbers have been on the rise.
The total catfish biomass in Hartwell has risen substantially over the past few years and is currently at about twice the historical level according to WRD fisheries biologist Anthony Rabern. For perspective, catfish biomass is currently equal to that of striper/white bass hybrids, which are among the most popular sport fish at Lake Hartwell.
Channel catfish are by far the most prevalent of the catfish in Lake Hartwell and average about 2 pounds. However, the cat population also includes a mix of white catfish and flatheads, plus a few bullheads. White cats, which are only found in a handful of Georgia waterways, are similar in appearance to channel cats, except their tails are less deeply forked. The flatheads, though not big in numbers, grow to large sizes and create a definite trophy-cat opportunity in Lake Hartwell.
Spreading over 56,000 acres, Hartwell provides a vast amount of opportunity. Making a good thing even better, plentiful city, county and state parks and Corps of Engineers access areas provide good access to the all parts of the lake, including good shoreline access in many cases.
It's worth noting that a fish consumption advisory warns against eating more than one meal per month of channel catfish from Lake Hartwell due to PCB contamination. Because catfish are such popular eating fish, that my actually be part of why catfishing has never gained great popularity and why the population is growing. The fact is, though, that abundant channel catfish make outstanding sport fish whether or not you keep any.