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Battling Giant Catfish on Tennesse River Reservoirs
Wheeler, Wilson and Guntersville offer some of the state’s best catfishing.
By Greg McCain
Originally published in the August 2009 issue of AON
Mike Mitchell holds a 41-lb. blue catfish that hit a chunk of cut skipjack below Wilson Dam.
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Tennessee River catfish guide Mike Mitchell was baiting a second rod with a chunk of skipjack when his first rig bounced in the rod holder.

“That looked like a pretty good fish,” Mike said. “He really popped it. It’s been in the water maybe 30 seconds.”

Moments later, the rod bowed for keeps. I grabbed the rod and reeled, letting the circle hook do its job of setting the hook on its own.

While I played the 5-lb. blue catfish to the boat, Mike, who has run SouthernCats Guide Service for a little more than five years, lobbed another bait into the water and then knelt to unhook the first catch. He barely had the catfish back in the water when the second rod arched under some fairly intense pressure.

Again, I grabbed the rod and reeled, encountering a little more resistance this time. The fish sliced under the boat, prompting Mike to grab the net. The blue wasn’t a monster, probably about 10 pounds when safely aboard, but indicative of the quality of the fish along the Tennessee River.

We were fishing one of the most public of destinations along the Tennessee River, that area at the base of Wilson Dam known simply as “The Hole.” The area, a treacherous rocky jungle of jagged boulders, wing walls and concrete abutments, is roughly a 10-acre rectangular pool framed by the Wilson locks on the north, the dam proper to the east, an irregular row of rocks to the west, and a wing wall jutting from the base of the dam on the south.

Just entering “The Hole” is a difficult proposition, perhaps not as precarious when Pickwick Lake is at full pool but dangerous still. Hulls have been punctured, props clipped and lower units sheered on the boats of fishermen attempting to enter “The Hole,” which is best accomplished the first time accompanied by someone experienced at the task.

The action continued steadily for the next few minutes as we caught about 10 catfish as quickly as we could get lines in the water. Mike played the role of guide well, deftly baiting hooks and unhooking fish and allowing me to fight the fish, all of which were between 3 and 10 pounds.

“It’s usually not this easy,” Mike quipped. “I was going to fish four rods this afternoon, but we may just need two.”

Despite the action, we were missing what has become a specialty for Mike – locating, hooking and landing giant Tennessee River catfish. That talent not only allows Mike to regularly put clients on big catfish but also serves him well when he fishes competitively.

Earlier in the day, Mike had guided noted outdoor writer Keith “Catfish” Sutton on a trip that started on Wheeler and ended up below Wilson Dam where we were fishing now. The result of the morning’s work was five fish weighing more than 23 pounds, anchored by a 46-lb. blue.

“You never know when the big fish will show up,” Mike said somewhat prophetically.

Mike had finally gotten all four outfits rigged and baits in the water. He fished three drift lines and an additional rig he dropped vertically to the bottom. The rod on the vertical rig suddenly dipped dramatically, and I grabbed the rod, tightened the lever drag, and reeled, feeling a sensation similar to that when hooked into a log. The fish stayed deep for a moment before surfacing in a tremendous swirl and then slapping the water with its tail before diving again.

Unlike some encounters with bigger catfish, the ensuing fight did not last long. In less than a minute, Mike slipped the net safely under the fish, which weighed more than 41 pounds on digital scales.

Like all of Mike’s catches heavier than 15 pounds, the big blue was released moments later after we snapped a few pictures of it.

“That was a 41-lb. fish on a 50- or 60-lb. frame,” Mike said. “They have just finished spawning, and most of the fish are long and thin. That’s also why he didn’t fight that long.”

Our catfishing session was interrupted by water release from the locks. All boats are required to exit “The Hole” when water is dumped to allow boat traffic to move from Wilson Lake to Pickwick. The action never returned to the earlier pace, but we managed to catch two more quality fish, one about 10 pounds and a second of about 15.

“I want to try one or two more things before we call it a day,” Mike said.

Returning to the tailrace area adjacent to “The Hole,” Mike aimed his boat at the first of two rectangular openings in the base of the dam. The first was more than large enough to hold Mike’s G3 deep-V, 17-foot boat.

“The catfish love these openings,” Mike said. “You can catch blues, but the flathead also get in here and feed on fish.”

I caught one 10-lb. blue in the first opening before we moved to the second, which was partially blocked by pipes. An avalanche of water dumped vertically from the dam itself, creating more current than we had encountered in the first hole.

“This hole really holds some good fish at times,” Mike said. “But the obstructions and the water make fishing it really difficult.”

Without a taker after about 15 minutes of battling the current, Mike ended the trip, and we trailered his boat at the Rockpile ramp just downstream from the dam.

“The fishing today is somewhat like what you will encounter in August,” Mike said. “The temperature is well into the 90s with very little wind. The fish are looking for some cooler water or some current to hold in.

“We actually did pretty well on both numbers and size of fish. I’m sure we had more than 100 pounds of fish in a fairly short period of time.”

Tennessee River Giants

Mike frequently catches fish of a size more commonly associated with saltwater fishing off the Alabama coast. In fact, a chance encounter with a big blue five years ago ignited his fascination with catfish. After catching one that weighed more than 40 pounds while bass fishing, Mike has since fished almost exclusively for catfish.

Just how big do the fish grow along the Tennessee River? Mike has caught or guided clients to four fish heavier than 82 pounds in this calendar year alone, including the largest fish that he’s ever brought into the boat. That blue, caught in January on Wheeler, weighed 98 pounds.

“I don’t fish exclusively for big fish because some people want meat,” he said. “But most of the people that I guide would rather catch a big fish. Of course, I can’t guarantee a big fish, but we still catch them regularly.”

The current world record, which came from the Mississippi River in 2005, weighed 124 pounds. Alabama’s record blue, caught in 1996 near the Brown’s Ferry nuclear facility on Wheeler Lake by Bill McKinley, of Elkmont, weighed 111 pounds and stood as the world record for about two years.

Mike suggests the world record could easily return to Alabama.

“I think it’s here,” Mike said, “probably on Wheeler. Wheeler is not overpopulated with catfish, and that allows the fish to grow really big.”

The Albertville guide fishes all of the Tennessee Valley Authority reservoirs in north Alabama and southern Tennessee. Each Alabama reservoir —from east to west, Guntersville, Wheeler, Wilson and Pickwick — offers catfishermen a common denominator, a chance to catch both quality and quantity of catfish.

“I guess Wheeler would have to be my choice for big fish,” Mike said. “But the others are good also. Wilson seems to be improving in terms of quality. That lake has always had a lot of catfish, but the size of the fish also seems to be getting better.”

Gearing Up

The gear Mike employs is not greatly different from that owned by most fishermen. However, the subtle differences are obvious from the catfish-specific rods to the lever-drag reels to the terminal tackle on the end of the line.

Earlier this year, Mike began using rods custom built by Mississippi River guide Steve Brown, <www.catfishsa fari.com>. He can be reached at (660) 438-3135.

The rods are light yet sturdily built. When I held one of them for the first time, I thought they would serve well for light- to medium-bottom duty in the Gulf of Mexico. They are constructed in a variety of lengths with the ones in Mike’s boat measuring 7-foot, 6 inches.

“They are easily the best catfish rods I have ever used, and I’ve used a lot of different ones,” Mike said.

Mike matches the rods with lever-drag reels made by Shimano and Ambassador that are capable of handling line up to about 40-lb. test.

On the end of the line, Mike uses all Team Catfish components, including two 8/0 circle hooks. The end hook goes in the nose of the skipjack, while the other hook is tied 6 to 8 inches up the line and hooks in the back of the bait. For more information, go to <www.teamcatfish.com> or call (866) HOOKSET. Almost always, whether fishing a weighted or an unweighted line, Mike attaches a swivel to the main line, followed by an 80-lb. mono leader about 3 feet long and ties the hook to the leader with a snell knot.

If weight is necessary, Mike utilizes sinker slides and sinker bumpers above the swivel, all of which work to protect the line. Mike uses a monofilament main line – 30-lb. Suffix Siege in a variety of colors the day we fished – for all of his catfishing techniques.

Basic Techniques

Mike pinpoints standard fish-holding areas in his pursuit of catfish: bends in main-lake channels and other types of bottom breaks that will interrupt the flow of current and provide ambush sites for feeding fish.

“Cast out along the main channel bends, scour holes, any kind of bottom contours can be good,” Mike suggested. “We have a lot of rock, so the outside creek bends are usually deeper with faster current. The cats like fast current but will usually hold directly in front of or behind structure — boulders, logs, etc. — to break the current some.

“They are just waiting there using very little energy and waiting for the river current to bring them a meal. You want to get that fresh cut bait above them some so the current will send a scent trail down to them.”

The time-honored big-bait, big-fish adage works for Mike. For example, a 12-inch skipjack (or river herring) becomes three pieces of bait with the head being Mike’s favorite offering for catfish. Mike prefers fresh skipjack, which he catches at the start of most trips with spoons or Sabiki rigs.

Mike anchors above or drifts across likely areas, preferring to anchor in the winter and drift in the summer. He catfishes 30 to 45 minutes on a spot. If no action ensues, he continues on to the next target area. However, if a spot is a known catfish hole, he is likely to return there later in the day in hopes the fish have returned to feeding mode.

“If cats are numerous in the area, you can catch cats for hours non-stop, but other times you wait until you can’t wait any longer, and then he takes it,” Mike said.

Flathead Fascination

Mike mainly catches blues with channels available in abundance as well. However, there is a constant fascination among catfishermen with flatheads.

“I tell people that inquire about catching flatheads that we can try, but that we might fish an eight-hour trip for one bite,” Mike said. “There are big flatheads in the river, but they are not easy to catch. They are extremely territorial, and the fact that they are nocturnal makes for a lot of nighttime fishing.”

Mike points out that most of his clients do not have the patience for a one-bite trip. Therefore, he mainly fishes for blues.

“Flatheads require someone with patience and with an understanding of the fish,” he said. “You are not going to catch the numbers (of flatheads) like you would blues.”

Join Mike on a catfishing trip. Go for numbers or chase a giant.

SouthernCats Guide Service is online at <www.TnRiverOutfitters.net>. Mike’s e-mail address is <cprbigcats@yahoo.com>. He can be reached at (256) 673-2250.
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