Mighty Mississippi, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the height of thy crest, as it allows trotlines in the flooded timber.
I love thee to the summer lows when jugs dance in the eddy currents below rock weirs.
I love thee to the broad sandbars where passing boats and barges urge the cats to bite.
I love thee for the deep holes where baits seem to fall forever, before giant blues end their free fall.
With apologies to Liz Browning, who likely never saw the Mississippi River, there are just so many things to like about this massive moving waterway.
Catfishing, both as a commercial operation and as a recreational pursuit, has been a favorite activity across the centuries. Decades before the pond-raised catfish craze spawned hundreds of eateries, Mississippi and Louisiana restaurants that served catfish probably used what was caught in the Mississippi River or one of its tributaries.
Here are some options to bring home a good mess of fish for the tabe.
Those places where the river floods timber during high-water situations are excellent places to put trot-lines. At 20 feet at Vicksburg the river will get into Lake Chotard, allowing boat access to the river without having to launch into the main river.
As the river rises above 20 feet, timber along the river begins to flood, providing fish a smorgasbord of palatable temptations: Crayfish, salamanders, worms, snakes, mice — the choices are seemingly endless.
Sid Montgomery has lived and fished along the river, and finds the flooded timber a fertile field for fish. His trotlines are often baited with one of his favorites — shad guts.
"When I can catch shad, they, by far, are the best bait," Montgomery said. "Break the head off the shad and leave the guts attached to the head; then thread the hook thru the eyes. Use the remainder of the shad on the next drop."
River levels can be unpredictable, so he looks for just the right conditions to increase his success.
"The river can rise and fall rather quickly, but a slow rise is best for a good bite," Montgomery said.
Montgomery hangs his lines so he can work them if the river level changes several feet in a short time. He does this by tying off high and allowing the line to have a greater sag in the center; this way he can get more hooks at a greater variety of depths.
"Trot-lining in the flooded timber needs to be an immediate activity," Montgomery said. "Hanging lines one day and expecting them to be there in a week may be a stretch; the river rises and drops pretty quickly sometimes.
"So you may find your fish out of reach in the trees or your lines submerged too deep to retrieve. They need to be checked, and adjusted every day or so."
Jugs in the current
Just north of Vicksburg on the Louisiana side are a series of rock weirs. Constructed by the Corps of Engineers, these weirs are used to channel the river’s current. Below these weirs, the water is relatively shallow (depending on the river level at the time).
These are great places to fish with jugs, as Vicksburg’s Walter Scott knows well.
"I use 2-liter soda bottles," Scott said. "They are cheap, and if they are lost there is not as great a loss."
But there’s more to the tactic than just adding a bunch of line with a hook at the end.
"The lines need to be short," Scott said. "Most of my jugs have two hooks spaced about a foot apart on a line that is 24 to 36 inches long.
"Both the hooks are baited with cut bait — usually skipjack herring."
To get set up, Scott idles into the calm water below the weir and prepares each of his 25 jugs. He starts where the current is strongest — where the river current passes the end of the weir — and drops a line of jugs diagonally toward the bank of the river where the weir originates.
Scott then circles down the inside bank to a spot where he can begin to intercept the jugs as they pass.
The river bottom is a series of irregular steps, and the angler said catfish — mostly blue cats — lie in wait where the steps drop off.
Relaxing on a sandbar
When the Old Muddy is within its banks, sandbars emerge on the insides of almost every bend. These are not to be confused with the pristine white sands of the Gulf Coast; however, these bars can be a comfortable place to set up a little camp and do some serious catfishing.
Scott uses such bars as a place to relax and have lunch off the water while he fishes. But there are some requirements.
"Tackle is important when fishing off the bars," he said. "Heavy-action rods and big reels lined with 50-pound braid such as Spider-Wire are the order of the day.
"The other thing is a dependable rod holder — just sticking the butt of the rod in the mud isn’t going to hold it. Logs make nice holders, but even with this, the rod needs to be tethered or a 20-pounder can pull it right off (the bank) before you have a chance to stop it."
Scott uses the same bait he employs on the jugs for his shore lines. But, there is one trick with which he maximizes his effort.
"When a towboat passes, pushing barges up the river, the drone of the engines sets off a feeding frenzy," he said. "I guess (the sound) busts the shad out of the middle of the river toward the banks.
"I’m not real sure on the why, I just know the what. But every pole I have in the water that has bait on it will get bitten when the barges pass. Then it slows down again when the boat has gone."
Finding the right hole
Near a grain elevator on the Louisiana side north of Vicksburg, a deep hole has formed that attracts catfish anglers from both sides of the river.
Estimated to be about 90 feet deep when the river is at 20 feet on the Vicksburg gauge, the hole is renowned as a place to boat behemoth blue cats.
Scott County’s Robert Townsend recounted a trip to this hotspot.
"Once we were in place, we rigged our lines with what had to be an 8- or 10-ounce lead weight," Townsend said. "Below the weight was the biggest hook I’ve ever fished with — it looked more like what them Swamp People use to catch alligators."
"We baited the hook with a shad half as big as a car tag."
Though doubtful, Townsend did as he was instructed by his fishing partner for the day.
"The man I was fishing with said to let the line out until it stopped or I felt a pull," Townsend said. "I figure I must have let 20, maybe 25 yards of line go when the rod was nearly snatched out of my hands.
"Man, I’m here to tell you, that catfish hit it hard."