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November 28, 2014

Outdoors: Giant catfish call North Alabama home

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Posted: Saturday, July 5, 2014 10:00 am | Updated: 12:22 am, Sun Jul 6, 2014.

Everybody loves to catch catfish, and the small 1- to 2-pound ones are scrappy fighters.

They can provide a tasty meal alongside hush puppies and french fries. There are a variety of baits and techniques for catching these whisker fish.

Catfish are at home in small farm ponds to large reservoirs across the state. A majority of anglers have caught catfish in the 8- to 15-pound class. However, catfish can grow large and are closer by than most anglers may realize. Anglers have the opportunity to catch fish over the 50-pound mark here in north Alabama.

Records books

Alabama waters harbor three basic species of catfish — blue, channel and flathead cats are the most common in the Tennessee and Coosa River reservoirs. The state record for a blue catfish is 111 pounds caught in July 1996 on Lake Wheeler in the tail waters of Guntersville Dam. An 80-pound flathead holds the record caught back in 1986, and the record channel cat tops the scales at 40 pounds.

Reports of other big blue cats have come about in recent years. But for various reasons they were not certifiable as record catches. In the same waters as the current state record blue, a man using a gill net hoisted in a 132-pound blue cat. Anglers have reported hooking large cats on the Tennessee only to have their lines and hearts broken.

Folklore stories have been concocted over the years about giant catfish in the Coosa and Tennessee Rivers. Anglers have told tales of scuba divers inspecting dams with catfish nearby as big as Volkswagen Beetles. Catfish that big may not be lurking in those waters, but there are some numbers of big cats around.

Hangouts for big catfish

Richard Simms of Chattanooga, Tenn., operates Scenic City Fishing Charters, a guide service for catfish on the Tennessee River. Over the years, Simms has focused on the larger size cats for his clients, but he will put them on some smaller cats in the 5- to 10-pound range if that is their desire.

“The first place to start looking for big cats is on the main river channels,” said Simms. “This is where the large catfish like to hang out most of the year.”

Simms advises to look for any change in topography on the lake bottom that will break the current. These locations provide a spot for the catfish to lie and wait on a meal. A quality sonar graph and/or GPS will be beneficial in locating these underwater catfish hide outs.

“Look for any obstruction or a drop to a deeper hole,” Simms said. “Depth is not that important as some type of structure with good oxygen levels. Cats want a place to hide out and find food.”

Simms usually fishes the tail waters below dams. His method involves drift fishing with the current, although he provides his own twist to the drift.

“I like to drift nose forward to the current and just slightly slower,” Simms said. “I am trying to keep the bait vertical and not move too fast.”

Simms says on some lakes he will use his electric trolling motor to move around, keeping the bait along the edges of the channel drop. Large creeks or areas with deeper cuts along the bank are also good places to search for larger catfish. He has caught cats in water from 15 to 20 feet deep and all the way to 70 feet deep. Usually the tail waters below most dams are not much more than 20 feet.

Big baits for big cats

Probably every catfish angler who has ever wet a hook has developed some type of bait, usually stinky. Catfish anglers have tried everything from Ivory soap to white grapes trying to fool ol’ Mr. Whiskers.

“The best bait for big catfish is live shad or river herring (Skipjack),” Simms said. “We use cast or dip nets to catch shad along the wing walls at the dam.”

Shad are easy to locate when the dam is releasing water. The current moving along the concrete walls and barriers will move the shad against the surface of the wall.

There are two types of shad in the Tennessee and Coosa rivers, Threadfin and Gizzard. Simms prefers his shad, Threadfin, about 5 to 6 inches long. He will use the whole shad and place the hook just behind the head.

“With trophy cats, you can’t use bait that is too big,” said Simms. “I sometimes use a whole 10-inch Skipjack on my hook.”

Chicken breast is an alternate bait Simms has discovered which works well on all sizes of catfish. You read that correctly — chicken breast. Simms says the chicken breast can be cut into strips or chunks and placed on the hook. It is easier to cast and not as messy as livers.

Tournament fishing

Most catfish tournaments are operated along the same lines as a bass event. There are usually two anglers in one boat fishing with rod and reel combos attempting to bring in a limit of fish with the heaviest weight. A few exceptions being the heavier tackle required for the giant cats, live bait and mega-sized live wells or catch tanks to keep the monster cats alive.

“We use big shad, skip jack and bream for most of our tournament fishing,” said Josh Blankenship of Childersburg. “You have to present a larger bait to get the catfish’s attention.”

Tournament catfish gear is comprised of heavy rods and reels spooled with high pound-test line. Moses and Bridges use 40-pound test big game and 80-pound braided line for different set-ups. Their circle hooks are the 10/0 size tied to a three-way swivel off the main line. A 6-ounce bell-shaped lead weight is tied on the other swivel end below the hook. This rig helps to get the big baits down to the fish.

There are several methods employed by tournament catfishers to reel in big fish. Some anglers may choose to anchor their boat near the fishing area and cast their baits out. Others may use the slow trolling method to cover more water. A popular method is drifting which uses an electric trolling motor to keep the boat in position and from drifting too far off course.

Important gear

Simms prefers the large ABU Garcia Ambassador reel in the 5500 and 6500 models. The larger reels are able to hold a higher capacity heavy line required for big cats. The rig for catfish used by Simms is fairly simple. He uses at least 50-pound test braid for the main line tied to a heavy duty three-way swivel.

“I use 20-pound test monofilament line for a leader for the lead weight around 2- to 3-feet long,” Simms said. “The leader for the hook is 40-pound test line tied to a 7-0 wide-gap hook.”

Simms fishes the rig vertically with the weight on the bottom. If the weight becomes snagged, it can be broken free easily without loosing the entire rig. The drop-shot style weights work really well and can be attached quickly if the weight pulls off.

The key, Simms says is to keep the weight bouncing along the bottom and keep the boat moving slower than the current. It will be no problem knowing when you get a strike. The big cats are more aggressive and the strike will be obvious, even to a novice angler. Simms advises his clients not to set the hook, but allow the cat to pull the rod tip down into the water and then begin reeling.

Simms said it is important to release the big cats where other anglers can enjoy the tough fight of these brutes. In Alabama, only one catfish over 34 inches in total length may be kept from public waters. These huge catfish are amazingly fun and exciting to catch. Most anglers across the sate may never have a chance to catch or even see fish of this caliber, but they are home in the rivers of north Alabama.

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