Editor’s Note: The second stop on our year-long Catfish Hotspots tour takes us to Bolivar County to explore the legend of what many believe could have been the world record blue catfish and the man who caught and released it in the Mississippi River.
After only a few minutes talking to John Summers, you immediately get the impression that’s he a man with nothing to prove. From the massive deer on his office wall to the breathtaking photos of a behemoth, better-than-world-record-class blue catfish that Summers caught — and released — on Dec. 1, 2007.
Summers, who most people in Bolivar County simply refer to as “Radish,” pursues his outdoor passion for his own satisfaction, which is what makes his story so undeniable.
On the fateful day, Summers was fishing alone on the Mississippi River that borders Bolivar County, where two weeks earlier, the angler had hooked, and lost, a possibly equal-sized brute.
This time luck and skill worked to Summers’ advantage and he got the massive fish to the boat. That’s about all he could do.
“The bite came on the corner of the boat and it took me a while to get the rod out of the rod holder so I let him run,” said Summers. “Finally I got the rod out of the holder but I didn’t think I’d ever see the fish. He’d go a while but I never could get him to come back. Then for some unknown reason, the fish made a run upstream. That was its mistake. I’d get him up to the boat and then he’d tear out again and finally I got him up and got my hands on it but I didn’t know what to do with it then because I couldn’t get him in the boat.”
Unable to transport the fish and not wanting to kill it, he called his wife and daughter with the news and the pair made a 12-mile trek through the backcountry and walked out to a sandy area to take photos of the fish.
Summers then released it.
“A lot of people think it went over 150 pounds,” he said, a weight that would have easily topped the world record of 143 pounds caught in Virginia in 2011. “I tried to weigh the fish. I had a 100-pound scale with me but it bottomed out at 100 pounds even though most of the fish wasn’t out of the water.”
Summers’ big fish was no fluke. The angler only targets trophy blue cats, and he’s lost count of the number he’s caught that topped 60 pounds.
A day of fishing for Summers means heavy tackle, fresh skipjack herring or better than hand-sized bream, depending on whether he’s after blues or flatheads, and several of the hotspots listed below.
1. Dennis Landing, Mississippi River, Bolivar County
GPS: N 34 01.122 / W 90 55.707
Dennis Landing is the only public access within range of his favored fishing area. It’s a remote, dirt ramp with a one lane concrete ramp. Water fluctuations of the Mississippi River often deposit debris on the ramp, which means the locals frequently have to clean the ramp off to use it. The landing is accessed by a dirt road that winds through the country from Mississippi Highway 1 then crosses the levy to take you to the landing.
2. Mile Marker 601
GPS: N 33 58.832 / W 91 04.314
This spot, No. 2, is where Summers caught the biggest catfish — the one that might have been the world record. It’s his go-to big fish spot and he’s caught plenty from this bend in the river.
“The river’s got a straight run that comes down and kind of breaks off that point,” he said “Big cats love to lay right in here and catch shad right off the point. It’s just a natural draw for them.”
Summers said the water depths drop from 15-20 feet off to 90 real quick and he likes to get anywhere along the drop off. He’s found that fish prefer to follow that shelf.
“There’s a big eddy going back in here,” he said. “I like to fish on the swift side of the eddy where the water’s going down. I use a two-hook rig with 9/0 king kahle hooks baited with skipjack herring and an 8-ounce weight.
3. Island Across from MM 601
GPS: N 33 59.039 / W 91 04.559
Summers’ next location is just across the river and technically in the state of Arkansas. It’s not only a good spot for big catfish, it’s also a good place to collect the species of bait that most trophy catters swear by.
“We’re probably 8 miles below Dennis Landing,” said Summers. “There’s a chute that comes all the way down from the Arkansas side and it’s just a place I know a lot of big catfish have been caught. That’s the reason I fish here.
“We catch a lot of skipjack when the water’s running across the sandbar, dropping in this hole. That’s another reason I fish here. The water goes off 80, 90 feet just straight off. I like to fish in about 65 feet on the drop-off between the bar and the deep hole.”
A typical setup for Summers is four 50-pound class rods and reels spooled with 50-pound main line and 17-pound leader off the weight. If he gets hung up fighting the fish, he’ll break the 17-pound line and he’s still got the fish.
4. Scrub Grass
GPS: N 33 57.848 / W 91 05.719
Spot No. 4 gets its name from a shallow lake that’s known more for duck hunting than cat fishing. When chasing blue cats, Summers prefers to anchor off the point and fish out in the eddy where the water goes from a shallow flat to an 80-foot hole.
“For flatheads, I fish where the water’s coming out of the scrub grass,” he said. “When the river’s falling, current comes out of the lake. It dries up in the summer. In the wintertime, the water is a degree or two warmer out of the main channel and that’s the reason fish like to congregate in this eddy where the water is slow moving instead of fast.”
5. Arkansas Rock Pile
GPS: N 33 57.556 / W 91 05.625
Summers’ basic winter game plan for fishing for blue catfish is to find a steep drop-off from shallow to deep. If current enters the area from another source, even better. He targets eddies where current can be seen swirling on the surface and frequently collects trash and debris from the river. Spot No. 5 is another example of this type of underwater terrain.
“I catch a lot of fish here,” he said. “It’s where the water’s coming down from that crossing and there just seems to be a lot of bigger fish in this area. I guess one thing all these spots have in common is that they’re relatively deep holes. I like to catch big fish, but you can go closer into the bank in places where the water’s not so swift and catch a lot of little fish, 5, 6, 10 pounds, something like that.”
Obviously, the water levels of the river dictate just how deep a hole is going to be. Generally speaking, Summers considers anything with at least 45 feet of water in it to be a deep hole, especially in the summer when water levels are typically lower in the river.
“In February, it’s pretty easy to find 45 feet of water,” he said. “ In the summer, it would be more like in a hole. But, some of the holes can be 80 or 90 feet.”
6. Mouth of the White River
GPS: N 33 57.109/ W 91 04.958
A classic spot to find cross currents, drop-offs, deep water and big catfish is where another tributary enters the Mississippi. For Summers, No. 6 is exactly that, where the White River comes in to Old Muddy.
“Try to find where the currents meet from the White River into the Mississippi.
You can’t miss that,” he said. “It’s where the water’s mixing. This water will usually be clearer in the White than the Mississippi.
In this spot, Summers will position his boat more in the White River and throw out into the Mississippi, fishing in water probably 100 feet or deeper. “It starts at 8 to 15 feet and just goes straight off right there to probably about 120, 130 feet on the Mississippi bar,” he said.
7. Montgomery Point Lock and Dam
GPS: N 33 56.804 / W 91 05.244
When the lock is engaged, the Montgomery Point Lock and Dam is both a good place to fish as well as a good place to catch bait. Summers will pull out to deeper water to fish for catfish, but for catching gizzard shad, a good alternate winter time bait if skipjack are hard to come by, he’ll fish right up against the locks.
“The locks go up to hold more water in the Arkansas River so they can go all the way to Clarendon,” he said. “Up there, about 10 miles, they’ve got another other set of locks. They’ve got a channel the Arkansas cuts through. The actual Arkansas channel is dammed completely off so the boats have to come across and come down the White.
“It’s good catfishing here when the lock is up. I guess all the bait fish are trying to come up here and then they can’t get any farther so then they’re stopped right there. You’ll see jumping carp trying to jump the dam. You don’t want to get too close to them, they’ll jump in the boat.”
8. Mussel Bed
GPS: N 33 56.947 / W 91 04.951
Just several hundred yards downstream on the White River, spot No. 8 is a bit off the normal pattern than Summers’ other spots. It’s a spot where catfish will come in at times of the year to feed on freshwater mussels.
“Catfish love to eat mussels and you can catch a lot of fish in here, you just have to watch out for the boats,” said Summers. “You’ll have to move when the big boats move through but at certain times catfish will congregate in here eating those mussels. You catch a fish and turn him upside down, he’ll be full of mussels.”
Although he admits it’s a numbers location, Summers said he’s caught fish here that have weighed up to 70 pounds. The average depth range on the mussel bed is around 30 feet, depending on river level, but the available food will bring big cats out of the depths.
“You could fish from the point out here in front of the deer stand on the hill all the way back to the lock,” he said. “Just watch out for boats coming through the lock.”
9. Montgomery Island
GPS: N 33 56.854 / W 91 03.673
Hotspot No. 9 is located right on the north end of Montgomery Island where an old river chute goes in and travels 15 miles before it comes back into the river below Rosedale. Summers recommends this spot because it’s a nice deep hole with suitable current that will hold the boat in a steady position.
“In any of these fishing spots, its always good to have enough straight flowing current where you can get your boat anchored good and the current will hold it in a straight line,” he said. “That way you don’t have to put anchors out in both the back and front.”
Current will vary by water level, which Summers prefers to gauge by the Arkansas City gauge south of Bolivar. He’s going to fish anytime he can but prefers to have water around the 25-foot mark.
“We’ve had so much change lately with it straight up and straight down, from record lows to record highs,” Summers said. “I like to fish when it is either real slow falling or real slow rising. Not when it’s falling 2 feet a day or rising 2 feet a day,” he said. A slow rise is probably when I do my best.”
10. Flathead Hole on Montgomery Island
GPS: N 33 56.163 / W 91 04.131
The majority of hotspots Summers has listed are trophy blue catfish spots. He also likes to target flatheads, but rarely in February when water temperatures make the yellow cats lethargic. However, the last spot on the list is his favorite flathead hole so tuck these numbers away and come back in late April, May, June, or July.
“There’s a lot of cover under here and these banks are constantly caving off,” he said. “I think they like worms and stuff that cave of the banks. The water is generally real slow moving and that seems to be what flatheads like. It’s a deep hole right off the bank and I catch a lot of flatheads here.”
Summers distinguishes between blue and flathead fishing by the style of fishing and the type of bait used.
“Flathead fishing is a slower type fishing and usually occurs in calmer water,” he said. “I also use live bait. You can catch them on earthworms and every once in a while, you’ll catch one on cut skipjack, but 90 percent are caught on live bream, the bigger the better.”