John N. Felsher's Catfishing Adventures
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Catfish offer anglers opportunities
to catch monster fish on a budget
TOP: An anglers
shows off a large blue
catfish he caught while
fishing on the
Tennessee River near
Sheffield, Ala.

RIGHT: Two anglers
show off a flathead
catfish (left) and a blue
catfish they caught
while fishing on the
Tennessee River near
Sheffield, Ala.
     Not every angler can afford big game ocean action, but catfish offer
tackle-busting tight lines on a budget close to home just about anywhere in
North America.
     About 45 catfish species inhabit North America, but people mainly fish
for three -- blues, channels and flatheads with two species putting up
impressive numbers. Tim Pruitt holds the world record for blue catfish with a
124-pound monster he pulled from the Mississippi River near Alton, Ill., in
May 2005. However, old records boast of anglers hauling catfish topping
300 pounds from the muddy river during the 19th century.
     Monster blues thrive in big rivers like the Mississippi, Arkansas, Red,
Ohio and Tennessee. Impounded pools on these streams can also provide
excellent catfish action. Drift baits over structure along the channel edges
or fish scour holes created on the outside of bends and at the ends of
jetties. Big cats often sit in holes or around structure looking upstream for
morsels to wash over them.
     “We like to fish structure on the ledge at the edge of a river channel
with cut bait on a slip rig,” said Bruce Paulk of Michie, Tenn., who along with
Brian Vohol of Hermitage, Tenn., won the 2009 Cabela’s King Kat Classic
catfish championship on the Tennessee River. In two days, they landed 10
fish weighing 277.10 pounds including a 73-pounder. “In this system, a 73-
pounder is usually not even the biggest fish of a tournament. This system
can produce a lot of 80- to 90-pound fish and some over 100 pounds.”
     On rivers with dams, such as the Tennessee, slack water may gather
between open generator gates. Catfish sometimes hide in “current tunnels”
and dash out to gulp morsels flowing downstream. Position baits at the
edge of slack water or float bobbers between currents. On the other side of
the dam, released water creates current and may spark feeding activity.
     “The Tennessee River is a world-class fishery for catfish,” said Darrell
Van Vactor, King Kat Tournament Trail president. “In 2006, we held a
tournament in Sheffield, Ala., and set a record by catching 12,000 pounds
of fish in two days. At that time, the winning weight was 504 pounds. That
was before the 34-inch rule, which says each angler may only keep one fish
over 34 inches long each day, went into effect.”
     Anglers don’t need to challenge the waters of mighty rivers to catch big
catfish. Giant cats can live in anything from the Great Lakes to the tiniest
farm pond. Many people pull big whiskerfish from canals, creeks, bayous,
even drainage ditches. Voracious nocturnal predators, flatheads may top
100 pounds and often live in smaller streams. Loners, they hide like
cantankerous hermits in thickly wooded cover or patrol shallows around
fallen trees and logjams to ambush sunfish, shad or bullheads.
     While flatheads almost exclusively eat live fish, blues and channel cats
devour almost anything including night crawlers, crawfish, cheese, shrimp,
stinkbaits, livers, kidneys or even soap. Any odorous bait that oozes an oily
slick may cause blues to home in on tempting smells like sharks, but most
big cats prefer fish. Blues may follow beneath a school of shad waiting to
pounce. Sometimes, striped bass, white bass or largemouths attack the
shad while blues slurp up the cripples.
     For whopper blues, use whole fish four to six inches long or meaty
chunks. Half a skipjack makes an excellent bait or use a whole one with the
tail cut off. A strip of fish fillet undulating in a river current makes an
irresistible temptation.
     “Sometimes, we cut our baits a little differently or use different size
baits,” said Tim Haynie, a professional catfish angler from Corinth, Miss.
“Unlike bass and crappie guys, we can’t just change colors so we have to
manipulate that skipjack.”
     Also use heavy deep-sea rods and reels loaded with quality braid of at
least 65-pound test with a 6/0 to 12/0 hook. An egg-shaped slip sinker
keeps bait near the bottom, but allows a fish to take it with little resistance.
In current, use a bottom float rig. Add a small plastic float just above the
bait to suspend it off the bottom and out of snags. Catfish see a suspended
chunk more easily than one resting on bottom.
     In the right spot, an angler might catch the fish of a lifetime. However, to
keep catching monsters, release the big ones. It may take a catfish
decades to reach 50 pounds. Kill it and it will take decades to grow another.