The implication is there are fish to be caught and word hasn't gotten out yet.
That's a pretty fair assessment when it comes to Pickwick Lake in the upper northeast corner of Mississippi. When the name "Pickwick" is heard in fishing conversation, it usually concerns the great smallmouth bass fishing or tremendous crappie fishery contained in the lake.
Say "catfish," and most anglers think they misunderstood you.
However, Muscle Shoals, Ala., native Brian Barton can attest to Pickwick's catfish potential. Barton was a commercial catfishermen who plied his trade on Pickwick through the 1980s and '90s, and he has now returned to the reservoir as a recreational fishing guide.
"When I was commercial fishing back in the late '80s, on any given day on Pickwick you would see 10 to 12 commercial catfishermen pulling trot lines five or six days a week," Barton said. "We were catching an average of 500 pounds a night for eight to nine months out of the year."
The heyday of this commercial-fishing paradise ended with the rise of fish farming operations.
"When the farm-raised catfish market came on in the early '90s, it shut the river fishing market down," Barton said. "Today, you hardly ever see a trot-liner anymore."
And that means the recreational catfishing has neer been better.
"With no more demand for commercially caught Tennessee River catfish, the catfish population in Pickwick has increased dramatically," Barton said.
Barton fishes Pickwick for catfish throughout the year, but is particularly fond of early summer fishing when blue cats can be found preparing for the spawn that occurs in Junem and channel cats are coming off the spawn and are ready to eat.
With catfish on this before-and-after pattern, it's a great time to slowly vertical-troll contour lines leading from deep water to the spawning grounds. And this guide claims that, like many species of fish, where you find one you're likely to find more.
"My primary target at Pickwick is blue catfish," Barton said. "It also has a healthy channel catfish population, but you don't normally catch those two in the same places. Channel catfish are going to be post-spawn. You're going to find them in the main lake on bluff walls and edges. Blue catfish, just before and during the spawn, will be on stump flats or mud flats.
"When the post-spawn blues start coming back out, they'll come out to the main river ledges. Pickwick also has a great flathead population, but I don't target them much because it's a different pattern."
After commercial catfishing the lake for so long, Barton relishes targeting trophy blue catfish with rod and reel. In the process, he will work his way through the size range and, catching channel catfish when one of his clients wants to take fish home to eat.
But, it's old blue that gets him on the lake most often.
"Pickwick is a good place to catch blue catfish," Barton said. "The typical-sized blue on this lake is probably between 10 and 15 pounds.
"But we also catch trophies that go up to 50, 60 and 70 pounds."
Since he's targeting river and creek drops, Barton skips the typical anchor-out-and-fan-cast-lines-in-all-directions routine and vertically trolls to find catfish.
Blue catfish are often compared to cows grazing, where two or three will hold along a ledge at different locations along a run.
All of the rods are trolled from the rear of the boat.
"My controlled-drift or slow-troll, whatever you want to call it, is a somewhat vertical presentation that I use almost year round," said Barton. "The only difference this time of year is, except for getting out on those humps and ledges in deeper water, I'm going to be concentrating on flats, on the spawning grounds.
"On the upper end of the lake, we'll be fishing gravel bars in 4 foot of water in June. On the lower end, you may catch them on flats in 25 feet of water."
Barton's trolling tactics are somewhat equipment-intensive. He uses state-of-the-art electronics and gear to both control the boat and put him on the fish
Fishing from the rear of his 20-foot aluminum catfish boat, the guide places four to six medium-heavy-action bait-cast rods along the stern in a rod-holder rack and uses an autopilot trolling motor with spot-locking technology to troll at speeds as low as .1 mph.
Barton, like most area catfishermen, relishes skipjack herring - that he catches during their fall migrations and freezes for use during the rest of the year - for bait.
The baits are then cut into bite-sized pieces and hooked on a three-way rig that utilizes high-test Vicious braid on the main line, a weighted dropper and a 24- to 36-inch leader that ends in a 5/0 circle hook.
That circle hook allows fish to set the hook - no rearing back on the rod necessary.
"There's not a rush to grab the rod and set the hook," Barton explained. "Most times, the rod will simply bow over slightly as the catfish takes the bait, then take off to one side in the shallow water.
"Just keep tension in the linem and let the circle hook do its thing."
Catfishing before, during and after the spawn typically takes place in the tributaries of Pickwick rather than the main river itself. Pickwick spans three states, Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama, but there's no concern over boundaries because a license in any of the reciprocal states is good all over the lake.
That said, most of Barton's hotspots this time of year are in Mississippi and Tennessee waters.
"Yellow Creek, the mouth of Yellow Creek, is blue-cat territory," he said. "Look around any of the flats associated with State Line Island or Dry Creek. One half of that island is in Mississippi, and one half's Tennessee - but it doesn't matter as far as your license.
"The 200-acre flat behind State Line Island is a great place. The humps at the mouth of Indian Creek are also one of the better blue-cat spots - anywhere in that whole section of the river."
He makes a bit of an adjustment when his clients want some eating-sized fish.
"For channel cats, I like to take a size 1 BoJoLe spoon and hook a small piece of shrimp to it, and pitch it right at the base of the bluff ledges that are all over the lower end of the lake," Barton said. "Fish it like a plastic worm - just lift and fall, lift and fall, and work it back to the boat.
"I have better luck on that than I do using chicken livers or typical channel cat baits."