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AON’s 2017 Catfish Special
Top 5 spots for monster catfish and best for eating-sized cats
 
By Mike Bolton
Originally published in the July 2017 issue of AON
 
You’ll get no argument from Skyler Barecky, of Gurley, that the Lake Guntersville Dam tailrace is a trophy catfish spot. He caught this 82-lb. blue there in May.
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In the world of catfish, there are skillet-sized fish that folks call squealers, and then there are the gargantuan catfish that look like creatures from the black lagoon. No matter which of these is your preference when it comes to catching cats, Alabama has plenty of both.



Best For Giant Cats

The Below are five places where you might catch a monster catfish, followed by five great spots for finding the main entree at your next fish fry.

Wilson Lake

Wheeler Lake, the western neighbor of Wilson Lake, is often ballyhooed as Alabama’s best lake for monster catfish. The truth is, it may not even be the Tennessee River’s best big catfish lake.

Those who fish for trophy catfish on Wilson Lake are perfectly content for Wheeler Lake to receive the accolades.

On Wheeler, someone searching for really big catfish must battle top catfish anglers from across the Southeast who pound the lake unmercifully. On Wilson Lake, fishing for catfish is more secretive.

“Personally, I know of more really big catfish coming from Wilson than I do from Wheeler,” said catfish guide Brian Barton. “I’m talking about 80-lb. fish or better. It’s local fishermen on Wilson, not all those out-of-town visitors you see at Wheeler who are going to post a picture of any big catfish they catch on Facebook.

“There are a lot of 50-lb. blues on Wilson. In every catfish tournament on the lake, there will be three to five that weigh 50 pounds or better, and 30- to 40-lb. fish are common.”

Fishing for the really big catfish on Wilson is not that complicated, even for someone not familiar with the lake. Start with a good topographic map to locate creek mouths and the nearby ledges next to deeper water. Then pick a few areas to concentrate on. It’s possible you may find a giant catfish along any ledge near deep water.

Trolling long lines is your best bet of stumbling onto that catfish of a lifetime, Brian says. Use a rig with 80-lb. braided test line, a three-way swivel, and two 4-foot leaders with 50- or 60-lb. test braided line. At the end of one leader, attach a 2- to 4-oz. pencil sinker, and to the other a 7/0 to 10/0 Daiichi circle hook. About 8 to 10 inches above the hook, secure a red float to suspend the bait off the bottom. Use cut bait such as skipjack herring heads or gizzard shad heads.

With this setup, you can slowly troll in the deeper water off the ledges. The pencil weight will drag the bottom, stirring up mud and drawing attention. The bait will suspend off the bottom and can easily be found by the bigger catfish. Brian insists the red float makes a difference.

Oh yeah, bring a big landing net.



Guntersville Dam Tailrace


Any time you venture below Lake Guntersville Dam, chances are that you may tangle with a big fish of some sort. Big catfish and striped bass are common there. You may even catch a big paddlefish or a surprisingly big largemouth bass. The big drum  frequently caught in the swift water may stretch your line, too.

Fishing from a boat and tight-lining cut bait is your best chance at catching that catfish-of-a-lifetime, but many big catfish are also caught from the fishing platform beneath the dam and from the bank.

Skyler Barecky, of Gurley, recently proved that catching a trophy catfish doesn’t necessarily require a boat. He was fishing from the bank below Guntersville Dam when he caught an 82-lb. monster.

“I fish for catfish there as much as I can,” he said. “I catch a lot of good fish there. I caught a really big one that I never weighed seven or eight years ago.

“I was using a big deep-sea fishing pole that I have. I just use a 40-lb. test line, a 6/0 Gamakatsu hook and a 4-oz. egg sinker. I hook a whole bream in the back and use that for bait and just throw it out there as far as I can, and I sit back and wait.”



Lake Neely Henry

If you encounter a fisherman on this reservoir on the upper Coosa River, he’s probably in search of bass or crappie. That’s perfectly okay with the smaller number of anglers who target trophy catfish there.

A 101-lb. blue catfish that Cody Haynes caught on the lake last month (see page 8 of this issue) did nothing to keep the lake’s big catfish possibilities a secret. The truth is, a few regulars routinely catch 30-, 40- and even 50-lb. blues on a routine basis.

The lake is full of big catfish, both blue cats and flatheads. In the summer months, the big catfish gather in deep holes in the original river channel, and those holes can be found on a topographical map. Some of those holes are located in downtown Gadsden a few hundred yards away from the launch.

Rigging is easy. You’ll need 65-lb. braid, a 6-oz. bank sinker, a 5-foot leader and a 10/0 circle hook. You can use a bream head for bait for blues, and a live bream is best for a flathead.

You can drift over the larger holes tight-lining the bait just off the bottom. If you put the bait anywhere in a big catfish’s vicinity, he’s going to come and find it.



Lake Eufaula

The general rule-of-thumb is that the farther south you go from north and north-central Alabama, the smaller the catfish. One of the rare exceptions to that rule is Lake Eufaula.

Like many other lakes where bass fishing dominates, the catfish thrive and get huge because they are virtually ignored.

Lake Eufaula’s blue cats don’t have to compete with flatheads for food. Flatheads are found in the river below the Eufaula dam, but not in the reservoir. Blue catfish in the 65-lb. range have been caught in the lake, and 20- and 30-lb. blues are common.

“Lake Eufaula is full of big catfish, and they are the easiest fish to catch on the lake,” said retired bass fishing guide Jackie Thompson, who spent many days in his 86 years jug fishing for catfish when he was fishing for fun.

“Eufaula is a long, narrow lake, and big catfish can be found in the channel all up and down through there.”

In summer months, the fishing for cats is better in the early morning hours when there is current, or at night when the fish are most active. The catfish move out of the deep holes and come onto the ledges to feed during those times, he says.

“I liked to jug fish, and all I used was 65-lb. test line, a 2-oz. egg sinker, a swivel, a 4-foot leader and a hook,” he said. “You can use about any bait you want. Some people use cut bait or stink bait, but I always like to use a live bream that was about three fingers wide.”

Jackie said you can drop a jug off on a ledge near deep water and let it drift.

“The problem most people run into is that they don’t have any way to get a catfish bigger than 20 pounds into the boat to get the hook out of its mouth,” he said with a laugh. “You need a big net.”



Choctawhatchee River


Looking for big catfish in extreme south Alabama in years past was futile. Big reservoirs do not exist there, and the shallow, narrow rivers and creeks that exist on the Alabama-Florida line just aren’t textbook catfish habitat.

For some reason that fishery biologists don’t fully understand, flathead catfish began migrating northward from north Florida several years ago to set up permanent residence in a number of south Alabama rivers and creeks. It has resulted in an exciting fishery where one hadn’t previously existed.

Ken Weathers, the fisheries supervisor of the WFF office in Enterprise, says those who target the deeper pools in the Choctawhatchee River below Geneva catch big flatheads that cannot be found anywhere else in extreme south Alabama. He even likes to get into the action sometimes himself.

“You wouldn’t think that the Choctawhatchee River is deep enough to have big catfish, but there are actually some pretty deep pools in places,” he said. “You can toss some kind of a live bait in those pools and let it swim around and you’d be surprised what you can catch.”



Best For Numbers

The five places below are where you’ll want to fish to load up for a backyard fish fry.



Neely Henry Dam Tailrace


If you are looking for a fun, relaxing evening of just catching catfish, the fishing platform in the tailrace below Neely Henry Dam in Ragland is a great place to gather the main ingredient for a backyard catfish fry. Both the blue cats and channel cats you catch there are the perfect size to fit in a skillet.

District Fisheries Biologist Nathan Hartline says while the tailraces below any of the dams on the Coosa River offer excellent fishing for catfish, the Neely Henry Dam tailrace outshines them all. He credits that to catfish numbers and the ease of fishing there. Unlike other nearby tailraces, such as the one downstream at Logan Martin Dam that is laced with boulders and other line-grabbing and cutting hazards, the tailrace below Neely Henry Dam is obstacle free.

Just about any fishing rig from a medium-heavy bass outfit to a stout rod with a Zebco 33 will work on the small catfish there. With heavier bass tackle, try using 20-lb. test line, a 1-oz. egg weight, a swivel and a 4-foot leader on a 3/0 hook.

Cast liver, cut shad, worms or stink bait into the edge of the swift water, and let in settle in slack water. If the current is not moving, cast the bait as close as possible to the deep hole directly below the turbines, and let it fall and sit.

If you have a lighter fishing outfit, 10-lb. test line rigged the same way as above with a 1/2-oz. egg sinker and a smaller hook will work fine out of the swift water and in those areas closer to the bank.



Marion County State Lake

All of Alabama’s 22 WFF-operated State Lakes are stocked with channel catfish annually and offer the opportunity to catch enough fish to fill up a frying pan, but none of those lakes  perform quite like Marion County Lake, located in Guin.

Each fish removed from the lake is carefully weighed and documented. Records show that in 2016 the lake out-performed all of the other state lakes by producing an incredible 100 pounds of catfish per acre. State Lakes Supervisor Matt Marshall says the lake is known for its eating-size channel cats. Fishing costs just $3 per day. Anglers may bring their own boats or rent one on site. A fully stocked tackle store is located on the property.



Walker County Lake

This lake located within the city limits of Jasper is a well-known, pay-to-fish hotspot that features largemouth bass, bluegill, shellcracker, channel catfish, crappie and even hybrid striped bass.

A couple of factors make it a great catfish lake. Fishermen primarily target bass and bream there, and the lake’s 163-acre size is large enough that it can easily handle the fishing pressure from those who primarily target catfish.

Charlie Skalnick, the lake’s manager, said the lake is re-stocked with catfish every fall, and the lake has plenty of baitfish for the small catfish to put on weight fast.

The lake’s catfish population is also helped by a limit of six catfish per angler. Charlie says most find anglers find success by tight-lining  liver or stink bait in 6 to 7 feet of water in the early mornings or late afternoons.



Brook Hines State Lake

Most Alabamians have never heard of Brooks Hines Lake. The catfish anglers who fish the 184-acre lake, located in the Conecuh National Forest in Escambia County, are perfectly fine with the lack of notoriety.

The lake is located near the Alabama-Florida line 23 miles east of Brewton. It’s part of the state’s public lake fishing system and is stocked with channel catfish annually. What sets this lake apart from others in the system is its ability to produce the best average-sized catfish of all the state lakes. Keeping in mind that the state stocks 6- to 8-inch fingerlings in the lake annually, the lake produces plenty of channel catfish weighing more than 2 pounds.

“The state does a jam-up job of maintaining this lake,” said Donna Moye, who operates the lake full-time.

The most successful catfish anglers on the lake catch their fish from boats, Donna said. Chicken livers and worms are the most popular baits.

Like the other state-operated public fishing lakes, there is a $3 per day charge to fish.



The Mobile Delta

Those who fish the upper Delta may scoff and tell you catfishing is awful  there. They may not be exaggerating, but the lower Delta is an entirely different story, says Dave Armstrong, the district’s fisheries supervisor.

“Below I-65 on the lower end of the Delta, there is a good population of both blues and channel catfish,” Dave said. “The best numbers  can be found in the lower reaches of the Mobile and Tensaw rivers.”

Those fishing for catfish primarily do so with trot lines and use cut baits, Ivory or Palmolive Gold soap and stink baits, Dave said. They typically anchor and fish in the 9- to 10-foot-deep holes they find.

Attaching lines to tree limbs that overhang the water is also popular, Dave added.
 
 
 
 
 
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