Sure, Mr. Whiskers will never win a beauty contest, as catfish are slimy, flat-headed, big-mouthed and beady-eyed, with icky tendrils and venomous barbs on their dorsal and pectoral fins that sting like the dickens when they prick a careless finger or hand. They can also thrive in water that would gag a guppy, and eat stuff that would make a buzzard blanch.
So why are they so popular? It's hard to say, but Tennessee anglers arguably pursue catfish more than any other species.
"Some of the same qualities that might make them seem 'undesirable' are the same qualities that work in their favor," said Bobby Wilson, fisheries chief of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, which annually stocks catfish in numerous waters around the state. "They are hardy fish that can survive and thrive in conditions not conducive to other species. They are plentiful, relatively easy to catch on simple tackle, hard fighters and delicious to eat."
Another plus is that unlike most other species, catfish don't take time off after the spring fling is over. They continue to feed actively throughout the late spring and summer, making them year-round targets of opportunity. Even better, Tennessee has numerous lakes and rivers full of catfish, including the vast Tennessee and Cumberland rivers.
The Tennessee River, especially near Chattanooga, contains meandering loops and deep-water bends, which is where Richard Simms, retired TWRA officer and self-proclaimed "River Rat" has spent more than four decades. In recent years he has specialized in charter-boat fishing for big cats (ScenicCityFishing.com), frequently in view of the Chattanooga skyline, specifically big blue cats.
Channel cats and flatheads, the state's two other main species of catfish, follow the same general patterns as the blues, although their preferred habitats may differ somewhat.
"Like every freshwater fish, big cats go on the prowl in early spring, but unlike other species they don't sull up when the weather heats up," Simms said. "They can be caught anytime, which makes it more convenient for fishermen to schedule trips."
Without giving away too many trade secrets — after all, Simms does this for a living — his basic cat-catching technique involves drifting or bumping baits along the bottom of the river. Big cats require big baits, such as large chunks of skipjack herring, shad or other fresh cut bait. Raw chicken breasts can make a big cat's mouth water, as does live bait, such as frisky, hand-size bluegills.
The secret to bumping a bait on the bottom is knowing exactly what part of the bottom to bump — the Tennessee is 652 miles long — which is where experience and expertise enter the picture. Simms is familiar with the sections of the river he fishes, knowing the holes quite well. He also understands that one stretch of the river may be barren, while around the next bend is a hole laden with whiskered monsters.
There are two ways to learn the river; hire an experienced guide like Simms or work it through trial and error. A good place to start is the bends, where the current curls and gouges out deep holes on the far side of the bend.
Use a heavy sinker, usually a pyramid or egg-type, to get the bait down and hold it in the current. A three-way rig with the sinker on the bottom and the hook on a dropper 2 or 3 feet up will get the bait down to the bottom yet reduce snagged hooks. Circle hooks are increasingly popular, but standard hooks also work, and sturdy rods with lots of backbone and, at least, 50-pound-test line are a must.
Some anglers prefer to use a single hand-held rod, concentrating on bumping the bottom, while others put a couple of rods in holders with the boat anchored or drifting with the current. Either way, when a big cat hits, hang on. A 70-pound blue cat doesn't surrender without a fight.
"Fishermen who have never caught one usually think they're snagged on the bottom," said Simms. "Then suddenly the bottom' starts to swim away."
In Tennessee, there is no state-wide creel limit on catfish, but only one fish 34 inches or longer can be kept daily. The reason is that the TWRA wants to discourage removing too many big catfish, which are often sold to commercial fishing farms out of state.
Simms, like most anglers who specialize in catching giant cats, encourages catch-and-release. He believes anglers should enjoy the thrill of the battle and then return the fish to fight another day. A photo can record the trophy.
Smaller catfish are better eating, and Simms says if someone is into numbers, it's no problem to catch a stringer of 5-pounders.
Tailwaters below the numerous dams on the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers are catfish havens, especially for channel cats.
Below the dam on Old Hickory Lake, catfish move upstream and congregate in the deep pools and eddies where they gorge on the baitfish churned through the turbines during periods of hydro-generation.
Brownie Stricklin, who has fished for catfish below Old Hickory Dam for years, says his two favorite times are during periods of generation, and during periods of no generation.
"When they're generating, the current stirs up the water and seems to get the fish more active," he said. "You can drift along and cover a lot of territory. But the fish don't stop biting just because the generation stops, and sitting still and jigging a bait vertically is a lot easier than fighting the current and getting snagged on the rocky bottom. If I had to pick just one, I'd rather sit still. Bounce the bait off the bottom all around the boat. If you don't get anything after a new minutes, ease over and try another spot."
Stricklin's favorite catfish bait is turkey liver because it is tougher than chicken liver and stays on the hook better, but he also uses nightcrawlers, shrimp and even commercial stink baits.
Above the dam, Old Hickory Lake is noted for its plentiful, mid-size catfish, and in addition to rod and reel, a lot of anglers like to use trotlines and jugs on the lake.
Jug fishing has increased in popularity in recent years. In fact, commercially made jugs are replacing homemade detergent-bottle and soda-bottle jugs, but the technique is the same. Simply dangle a baited hook a few feet below the jugs, return later and haul in the bobbing jugs.
In Tennessee, there is a limit of 50 jugs per angler, each limited to a single hook and required to be marked with the owner's name and address or TWRA license number.
Over on Percy Priest, the trend is toward bigger cats, especially channels and flatheads. Priest, with its shallow, rocky shoreline, is well suited for noodling or grabbling — feeling around and under submerged structure for catfish.
During the late spring and summer, twilight and nighttime is the time to fish Priest. The heavy recreational boat traffic subsides as the sun sinks, and as the water calms, cats go on the prowl. Fishing commercial stinkbaits, cut baits, night crawlers or turkey livers off the bottom of coves and points, or 5 to 6 feet beneath bobbers along rocky banks, will lure in cats. Sundown is also a pleasant and productive time to be on the water.
Reelfoot Lake is nestled in the northwest corner of the state, and has some of the best — and often overlooked — catfishing anywhere. The reason why Reelfoot's cats are overlooked is because of the lake's famous bluegill, crappie and bass fishing. But its cats aren't shabby.
"Reelfoot is full of catfish and there's all kinds of ways to fish for them," said Bill Blakley, guide with Bluebank Resort. "It's just a matter of preference."
Blankley often recommends working baits around the trunks of the big cypress trees that festoon Reelfoot. Dead, hollow trees are particularly effective.
Other Reelfoot catfish hotspots are around the myriad of duck blinds and endless natural structure. The mouths of cuts — man-made channels — are also good because of the current that tends to run through. A bait under a bobber is simple and effective.
Limblining is another popular way to catfish on Reelfoot because of its many cypress trees. The springy branches are ideal for hanging a line for feeding cats. Some cypress look like Christmas trees adorned with yo-yo ornaments. There is a 50-line limit for yo-yos and other limblines and, like jugs, each must be tagged with the owner's name or TWRA ID.
Minnows are a favorite bait of limbliners, because bluegill will quickly clean a nightcrawler.
More excellent catfish hotspots include the numerous TWRA managed lakes, such as Marrowbone Lake north of Nashville. The lakes have resident populations of catfish, primarily channel cats, and annual stockings replenish numbers.
There is a five-fish limit on catfish on the TWRA lakes, and a lake permit is required in addition to the standard fishing license. Such lakes are ideal for youngsters or impaired fishermen because there is convenient parking, fishing piers and excellent bank access.
Taking a youngster to a TWRA lake to fish for catfish is a great way to start him or her off because they can usually catch fish and be comfortable while doing it. Of course, be sure to remind kids to beware of the barbs when handling their slippery catch.
TWRA lake catfish range from 1 to 3 pounds, although bigger holdovers are not uncommon. In fact, Marrowbone produced a 23-pounder a few years ago, which was caught on a crappie minnow. Also, a limit of five fair-size channel cats makes for a excellent fish supper at the end of the day. Best baits are worms, nightcrawlers, liver or commercial stinkbait fished beneath a bobber.
Tennessee's catfishing has been great in the past and there's no reason to think that this year's catfishing won't be just as productive. Whether it's wrestling a 70-pound monster from the swirling Tennessee River, or reeling in one-pounders in a quiet cove on Marrowbone, catching cats is a blast. Mr. Whiskers is ready and waiting to be caught.
CORRECTION: In the April "Going Big on Smallies" story we incorrectly referenced the smallmouth slot limit on Dale Hollow Lake. According to the regulations, anglers may keep one fish below 16 inches and one fish over 21 inches. We apologize for this mistake.