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Cold-Water Cats At Guntersville
Guide Mike Mitchell will look for big cats in the winter on contour changes.
By Greg McCain
Originally published in the December 2017 issue of AON
Although fishing is good below the Guntersville dam, the best fishing this winter will be in the main lake.
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Winter weather doesn’t necessarily mean cooler action for Tennessee River catfish.

In fact, guide Mike Mitchell finds hot action for cold-weather cats up and down the Tennessee Valley Authority chain of lakes. One of his favorite spots is Lake Guntersville, near Mike’s home in the Marshall County town of Grant.

Long known primarily as a bass lake, Guntersville is home to diverse populations of species targeted by anglers throughout the winter months. Mike ignores the quality cold-weather bass and crappie fishing and focuses on Guntersville giants. When the water temperature drops to 50 degrees and below, Mike targets trophy blue catfish holding tight to main-lake structure like underwater islands and humps.

The result on most trips is a blue in excess of 50 pounds, which he calls “quite common on Lake Guntersville.” His purpose on most trips is to catch something even bigger, a “really big fish” of more than 80 pounds. While those bigger blues are rare, Mike and his clients have landed their share through the years, boating trophies up to 100 pounds and slightly over.

While Guntersville has a well-deserved reputation as a bass lake, Mike said the catfishing rivals any found on the Tennessee River.

“Winter fishing is one of the best times to put a bigger fish in the boat,” Mike said. “They have plenty of shad and rough fish to eat on Guntersville. They reach their biggest weight in the winter and spring before they spawn later in the year. They seem to bite well even in the coldest of weather.”

Mike and I talked catfishing several times early in November, although we never managed a trip on the water between his work schedule, guide trips and a quick hunting trip to Missouri with his son. However, he shared his recent experiences on the river, saying he found the catfishing generally tough around Guntersville. Unlike certain trips at this time of the year, he said he has had to work hard to put his clients on fish.

“It’s been pretty tough everywhere,” Mike said. “The weather and water temperature is just now getting to where I like it, and the catfish have started to bite a little better. The bite should improve as the water temperature continues to drop.”

Mike has experienced most of his recent success in the Guntersville Dam tailrace, an area that yields good numbers of blues and a few flatheads but not necessarily the bigger trophies that he is accustomed to catching.

In the tailrace area, Mike has found his best bite either anchored in the current just below the dam or at times a mile or so downstream.

“I don’t mind telling people; the best bite that I’ve found has been around the powerlines (about 200 to 300 yards) below the dam,” he said. “I have fished seams or deeper holes, and the blues have been in those areas.”

On other trips, he’s been forced to move on downstream, where he targets catfish in log jams and around rockpiles.

“We find those areas on our side
scan, and they seem to be holding fish,” he said. “They are not huge—up to about 40 pounds—but plenty big enough to satisfy my clients.”

Mike has discovered his best bite late in the afternoon and even had one good overnight trip. While most of his catfishing takes places during daylight hours, the recent fishing has dictated a different approach.

“That was a really good trip,” Mike said. “We found the fish a mile or 2 downriver around some logs.”

While the action wasn’t non-stop, he managed to find some quality fish topped off by a bonus catch, a 48-lb. flathead.

“We didn’t catch huge numbers, about eight on the trip,” he said. “We did catch three or four in the 30s and 40s. The flathead was the biggest fish.

“That’s not a huge flathead but still a fish of a lifetime for some people. I’d compare it to catching an 80-lb. blue.

“My clients were from Ohio, and they had done most of their fishing in pay lakes. They couldn’t believe just how hard the fish fight. Catching those fish in pay lakes is sort of like shooting deer in a pen. There’s just not that much to it.”

Mike said the action below the dam should continue into the winter, with more flatheads moving into the area as the water temperatures drop. In the current just below the dam, Mike anchors and drops his baits into deeper holes, at times fishing almost vertically with heavier weights anchoring baits in place.

His said most of the area immediately below the boils is shallow, but the water begins to get deeper a few hundred yards downstream.

“I’ve probably been fishing in about 15 or 20 feet of water,” he said. “I will fish two or three rigs almost straight down and fish another one with a slightly smaller weight that I will bounce downstream behind the boat.”

The process is similar downstream. Mike pinpoints a likely location on his electronics, anchors and fishes a spread of baits around the structure.

“It’s just like any other place,” he said. “You never really know where the fish will be, and you have to move around until you find them.”

Despite the opportunity to catch fish below Guntersville Dam, Mike spends most of his time in the late fall and winter on the main lake above the dam. The reason is simple. The odds of catching a Lake Guntersville giant are much better in that location.

“Normally, by October or at least by November, I’m fishing the main lake,” he said. “The problem so far this year and in the past two winters is that it’s just too warm.”

In particular, temperatures ranged far above normal this past winter, a fact further complicated by the drought that plagued the area in the fall of 2016.

“I’m expecting much better fishing this year,” Mike said. “Quite honestly, my last two winters haven’t been the best, not normal quality fishing for bigger blues that I usually find on Guntersville.

“I’m liking what I am seeing already. With the cooler temperatures we have experienced (in late October and early November), the cats should turn on.”

Mike finds fish all over Lake Guntersville with the possibility of catching bigger blues just about anywhere. When discussing locations, he mentions the area around the Highway 431 bridge just to the north of the city of Guntersville. The ramps in that area are just a short drive from his home.

He also fishes the mid-lake section extensively from the Town Creek/Seibold areas up to about Waterfront. A multitude of humps and underwater islands are found in this section of the lake, easily located on good paper and electronic maps.

Mike demonstrated that approach to me on a trip a few years ago, focusing on an area just outside of Seibold Creek where two channels sandwiched an island. The water depths rose to about 20 feet at the head of the island.

Mike scanned the area with his electronics, marked a few bigger fish, and anchored well upstream, letting out line until he got to the perfect spot. A few minutes later, the first rod dropped, and Mike winched a 55-lb. blue to the net.

“Those are the types of areas that almost always hold bigger fish,” he said. “The fish have everything they need to live throughout the winter. The baitfish will usually hold on the island or in the channels on the sides, and the catfish don’t have to work very hard to feed.”

Such a location produced Mike’s biggest Lake Guntersville catfish, a big blue that weighed just more than 90 pounds.

“I can’t guarantee that we’ll catch one that big or even one that weighs 50 pounds,” he said. “If we get enough bites, the odds are pretty good that we’ll catch one that weighs 50 or better. There are plenty of fish that size on Guntersville.”

In addition to the mid-lake section, which features thousands of acres of catfishing possibilities, Mike also fishes upstream above Scottsoboro, where Guntersville begins to have a more riverine look over its entire course to Nickajack Dam in Tennessee.

“There are all types of structural features on Guntersville that will hold catfish, anything with a contour to it,” Mike said. “Channel bends and swings, underwater islands or humps, holes out in the main channel, all of these places will hold fish.”

Regardless of whether he is fishing below Guntersville Dam or on the main lake, Mike rigs in a similar fashion. His rigging is roughly a modified Carolina rig commonly used in bass fishing.

He places a Team Catfish Sinker Slide and a sinker bumper (used to protect the knot) on the main line and ties on a 200-lb. swivel. To the swivel, he adds a leader that he calls “slightly longer than average,” usually about 3 feet of 80-lb. mono. His main line is normally 30- or 40-lb. mono.

He adds enough weight, up to about 6 ounces, to keep the bait on the bottom, although he occasionally fishes a weightless drift line that catches fish roaming over and above the structure.

He baits a snelled 8/0 Team Catfish ( circle hook with skipjack herring. Mike prefers fresh skipjack that he cuts into several pieces. His choice cuts are the head and the chunks or steaks from the body.

“That’s the bait that I prefer,” he said. “I occasionally will use some live bait, but I much prefer the skipjack.”

He fishes with Team Catfish or Catfish Warrior rods, usually 8-foot, medium-heavy action models paired with Shimano Charter lever drag reels.

“Especially in the winter, I like to fish real slow, mark stuff, and wait them out,” Mike said. “I will sit there for 20 or 30 minutes, and if I don’t do any good, move on to another spot.”

Unlike other times of the year when the fish tend to roam more, Mike said the fish are more lethargic in the cooler water and don’t move as much.

“Sometimes I will fish a little tighter,” he said. “Instead of fishing upriver from the structure, I will fish in it and try to put the bait right in front of the fish. I will let the boat slip back a little tighter, fish some of the rigs straight up and down and lob a few on the sides of it.”

Mike said his favorite winter days on Guntersville require a rain suit.

“It seems the best days are in the 50s with a slight drizzle,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what causes them to bite then, but the best bite seems to occur in those conditions. I’ve caught some really big blues in the rain during the winter months.”

To book a trip with Mike’s Southern Cats Guide Service, contact him at (256) 673-2250. You can also visit his website at The site provides an overview of what to expect on a trip with Mike with many photos of trophy catfish caught on the Tennessee River through the years.
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