Nothing says summer like going after some catfish, whether they are blues, flatheads or channels. Here are some places to try your luck this summer.
Jane Shemwell enjoyed the fishing trip of a lifetime on Guntersville Lake early last fall to celebrate her 73rd birthday. Mrs. Shemwell and her sons Charlie Jo and Gary all went on the trip together. They caught 10 catfish with a cumulative weight of 482 pounds. Catfish guru Mike Mitchell of Albertville was their guide.
"We'd never had a day of fishing like that," Charlie Jo said. "You hear people bragging if they catch a couple of 10-pounders."
The big fish of the outing were both caught by Mrs. Shemwell — a 62 pound blue cat and a 67.9 pound flathead cat.
"The flathead came within 12 pounds of the state record," Charlie Jo said.
He said they were fishing in the middle of the lake using "river herring" for bait.
"We wanted to do something special for mother's birthday," he said. "When your mother reaches 73, you've done just about everything for them. We just got to thinking that she likes to fish, so we came up with this."
The Shemwells are from Camden, Tennessee, about a 250-mile drive from Guntersville.
But they'd heard about the big catfish in the Tennessee River and knew the drive would probably be worth it.
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He said they didn't catch anything the first couple of holes they fished, but got into them on the third hole.
"Mama told us she forgave for whatever she might have been mad at us about," Charlie Jo said. "She had a good time."
Mrs. Shemwell looks the picture of health posing with her big fish, but she's had some health issues.
"She's had a rough go the last five years," Charlie Jo said. "She's had cancer and also had a pacemaker put in. On that last big fish, she said she thought she had pulled something. I said, 'Please don't be hurt, because I don't want to have to explain it to the doctors.'"
He said it took her 15 to 20 minutes to wrestle the big catfish up to the surface. They were fishing in about 45 feet of water.
"We love Guntersville and we're going to come back and do this again," Charlie Jo said.
Whether monster size cats are your aim or you'd just like to catch a mess of eating size cats for a fish fry, North Alabama is an excellent place to wet a line.
Here are a few places you might want to cast when going after cats this summer.
THE TENNESSEE RIVER
Keith Floyd, the district biologist who covers North Alabama, said the Tennessee River is a premier destination for people looking for summertime cats.
But not just any site on the river will do during the heat of the summer.
The very best fishing occurs below the dams — Guntersville, Wheeler and Wilson, Floyd said. Live or cut shad are the bait of choice when fishing below the dam.
"You need a system for catching the shad," Floyd said. "Some people use a cast net. I prefer a shad knocker. It's a cone of hardware cloth. You drop it into the water on a rope and pull it up to catch the shad. You see the shad schooling and that's where you drop the shad knocker."
The best fishing below the dam occurs when the current is running. Depending on how strong the current is, you could need some heavy lead to keep your bait in the strike zone. An ounce or even more is not uncommon.
"You want to carry a lot of lead and a lot of hooks and maybe even some extra line," Floyd said. "There are a lot of rocks below the dam and you're going to lose some rigs."
The angling can be excellent both from the bank and from a boat.
Floyd said he sees lots of catfish in the 4- to 5-pound range caught below the dams using shad for bait.
If you want to catch bigger catfish, he said, skipjack herring become the preferred bait.
"You want to cut these up," Floyd said. "I don't know why, but the head is one of the better baits for big cats."
Blue catfish are the predominant species below the dams. But bullheads, channel cats and flatheads are also present. Big flatheads seem to prefer live bait more than the other species.
Floyd sees all kinds of rods and reels employed for catching catfish below the dams. The guys who go after the true heavyweight cats use saltwater rigs.
"But for most people going catfishing, a standard bass rig will do just fine," Floyd said.
A benefit of this type of fishing — drifting live and cut bait below the dams — is that you catch much more than just catfish. It's not unheard of to take stripes, bass, buffalo, drum, even big bluegills and crappie while employing this fishing technique.
While lots of cats in the 4- to 5-pound range are taken here, Floyd said he actually prefers catching catfish in the 2- to 3-pound range for eating.
"I normally don't keep anything over 3 pounds myself," he said.
There's no limit on catfish in Alabama, but only one cat per day over 34 inches is allowed. That rule was adopted to protect the state's larger brood fish after it came to light that out-of-state commercial fishers were targeting big fish and then trucking them in live tanks to the Midwest to place in pay-to-fish lakes.
ANOTHER FISHING METHOD
Dan Myrick of Guntersville has been fishing for catfish below Guntersville Dam for nearly all of his 60-plus years. He prefers fishing with chicken livers.
"You don't want to use livers that have been frozen," Myrick said. But the local grocery stores near the lake have their own meat departments and sell fresh chicken livers.
Myrick said the difference in fresh verses frozen livers is that the frozen livers become mushy when they re- thaw and they don't stay on the hook well in the fast moving water below the dam.
"Keep your fresh livers on ice in a cooler to keep them cool and firm," Myrick said.
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He also has a difference in his preference for tackle. He uses a Texas rig bass weight and worm hook. The bullet shape of the worm weight helps keep it from hanging up in the rocks as much. He also prefers light tackle, line no heavier than 10 pounds. It makes it easier to break off when you do hang up.
"You can catch a big catfish on 10-pound test," he said.
Myrick said worm hooks used for bass have a little flex and you might be able to coax them out of the rocks rather than having to re-rig if you hang up.
Myrick likes to be on the water at daylight in the summer. He then leaves at 8:00 or 9:00, when the heat of the day starts to kick in, hopefully with a bucket of fish.
He has fished with fiddle worms below the dam, but said you catch a lot of non-target species like bass and bream when using them.
When he does fish with shad, he likes to rip the guts out and just fish with the guts. He said the catfish can't seem to resist shad guts and they stay on the hook well.
NORTHEAST STATE LAKES
The big river isn't the only place in the far northern part of the state with abundant catfish. The state lakes in this area, Madison County Lake and DeKalb County Lake, are also good places to try for catfish.
The state stocks 50 catfish per acre per year in the state lakes. They're not quite harvestable size when they go in, but it doesn't take them long to reach pan size.
"We're talking about channel cats in the state lakes and there's a pretty good population of them," Floyd said. "So these lakes are pretty good catfish producers."
While there is no limit on catfish on the big reservoirs, there is on the state lakes, Floyd said. It's generally six.
You won't fish with shad on these lakes. The baits here are night crawlers and rooster livers.
"We have tackle shops at the lake and you can purchase your bait on site if you want," Floyd said.
THE COOSA SYSTEM
Dan Catchings is the biologist in charge of the Coosa River system in north central Alabama and he said it's a fine place to target summertime cats too.
As on the Tennessee River, you likely want to concentrate your effort below the dams.
"The area below Weiss Dam is particularly good for blue cats, although flatheads are there also," Catchings said. "Logan Martin and Neely Henry are good too."
He said they regularly see catfish in the 20- to 40-pound range below the dams.
You can access the fishing either from the bank or from a boat.
"There's a pretty significant bank fishery below Weiss Dam," Catchings said.
If you launch a boat, he said, you want to launch from the Old Mountain View Fish Camp or Kershaw Quarters, depending on which side of the river you are on. You can probably start catfishing not too far from either launch.
As on the Tennessee River, shad are the preferred bait here, although Catchings said most Coosa anglers prefer to cut up their shad.
"Shad is the most common bait, but you run into people who use just about everything," he said. "You see livers and worms, but shad seems to be the better bait."
He said large shad get cut up and smaller shad get fished whole.
The tackle he sees most frequently below the dam is big stuff — 20- pound line and up and weights ranging from 3/4 ounce on up to 1 1/2 ounces.
"Some people use a split swivel so they can fish a couple lines," Catchings said.
NORTHWEST STATE LAKES
Catchings also said a visit to the North Alabama state lakes might be in order if catfish are your target.
"We stock channel catfish in DeKalb County Lake and Clay County Lake," he said. "We stock 8- to 10-inch fish 50 to the acre. That's a lot of catfish and they catch a lot of them out of the state lakes."
He said the 8- to 10-inch fish "are on the low end for harvest," but added that it doesn't take them long to put on some size.
He said Clay County Lake has a small "fish out" pond in addition to the main lake and it's a good place to catch catfish.
"Chambers County Lake in the lower end of the district is another place that gets a big stocking of catfish and is a good place to try," Catchings said.
He said the catfishing on the state lakes starts in the spring and continues strong right on up into summer. He said it picks up even when the weather cools a little going into fall.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
If you'd like to go on a guided catfish trip, Mike Mitchell of Albertville might be your man. His Web site is www.tnriveroutfitters.net.
There are two bait and tackle shops near Guntersville Dam that can sell you everything you need to target catfish, and give you information on whether the fish are biting or not.
Keller's Shell is on the New Hope side of the dam. The phone number is (256) 723-4054.
Cooley Grocery is the source of all things fishing on the Union Grove side of the dam. The number is (256) 753-1013.
Madison County fishing lake is a 105-acre lake near Gurley. It's open six days a week during the summer, but closed on Wednesdays. The telephone number is (256) 776-4905.
DeKalb County Lake is a 120-acre pond near Sylvania. It's also open six days a week during the summer, and closed on Wednesdays. The telephone number is (256) 657-1300.
Clay County Lake is actually a complex three lakes of 13, 23 and 38 acres each. It's open five days a week, but closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays. The phone number is (256) 488-0038.
Chambers County Lake is a 183-acre lake near Lafayette. It's open five days a week, closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The phone number is (334) 864-8145.