Editor’s Note: The third stop on our year-long Catfish Hotspots tour takes us to the northeast corner of the state to Pickwick Lake, where Brian Barton, a guide and former commercial catter for 30 years, shares his knowledge and some of his favorite fishing holes.
Guys like Brian Barton are a rare find. He spent his early years working his way through school by day and tending catfish trotlines at night. Decades ago, Pickwick Lake produced much of the supply to meet the demand for commercial catfish.
Then catfish farming hit the scene and commercial cat fishing began to dwindle. Barton parlayed his experience as a mass producer into a new career, becoming a one-at-a-timer, and hosting clients as a recreational catfish guide.
When the name Pickwick is heard in general sport-fishing conversation, it’s generally in context with the great bass and crappie fisheries associated with the lake. Say catfish and most anglers think they misunderstood you. Barton is out to change that perception.
“Pickwick has a healthy population of several species of catfish — most importantly channels, flatheads, and blues,” said Barton. “The typical-sized blue catfish on this lake is probably between 10 and 15 pounds. But we also catch trophies that go up to 50 and 60 pounds.”
Barton fishes Pickwick for catfish throughout the year but is particularly fond of early spring fishing when blue cats can be found hugging the edges of deep channel drop-offs in search of schools of baitfish. With catfish on this “edge” pattern, it’s a great time to slow vertical troll deep-water contour lines. The guide claims that like many species of fish in cold water, where you find one, you’re likely to find several.
“Blue catfish just aren’t going to chase a bait down in water that’s hovering around the upper 40s and lower 50s,” he said. “In order to find them, and catch them, I’ll troll very slowly and methodically and try to put the baits right on top of them.”
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 catfishing vessel, the guide fans four to six medium heavy action baitcast rods along the stern in a rod holder rack and uses and autopilot trolling motor with spot locking technology to troll at speeds as low as .1 miles per hour.
Like most area catfishermen, Barton relishes skipjack herring for bait, which he catches during their fall migrations and freezes for use during the winter. The baits are then cut into bite-sized pieces and hooked on a 3-way rig that utilizes high-test braid on the main line, a weighted dropper, and a 24- to 36-inch leader tied to a 5/0 circle hook.
“There’s not a rush to grab the rod and set the hook,” Barton explains. “Most times the rod will simply bow over slightly as the catfish takes the bait, then ease off to one side in the deep, cold water. That’s when it’s time to reel in slack and let the hook do its thing.”
Barton was happy to provide this month’s hot spots on Pickwick Lake so Mississippi Sportsman readers could enjoy the fun.
1. Bear Creek Ditch
GPS: N 34 52.792 / W 88 05.281
Located about halfway down the lake, hot spot No. 1 is in the mouth of Bear Creek on the Alabama side of the lake. Barton explains that a ditch comes off the flat just off the main river channel. The ditch goes north and straight up the left or east side of Bear Creek, and he said fish love to lie along the pea gravel bottom in the vicinity of a steep drop. Barton concentrates his efforts on the base of that drop, trying to catch blue cats moving along the ditch.
“When the water temperature hits the upper 50s to low 60s, blue catfish will start moving in here and they’ll stay here through the spring spawn time,” Barton said. “The bottom of the ditch is around 22 feet and you’re most likely to find fish in the 20- to 22-foot range at the bottom of the drop.”
Barton further describes the area as a 100-yard stretch that he’ll fish along the drop while slow trolling. He drop’s his baits to the bottom, pulls up 3 cranks to put the bait about 12 to 15 inches off the bottom, and follows the contour line, using the autopilot function on his trolling motor to troll .1 to .3 miles per hour over the structure.
2. Old Shoals Canal
GPS: N 34 53.829 / W 88 04.147
Located a half mile upstream on the south side of the mouth of Bear Creek, hot spot No. 2 has a lot of history to it. Prior to the impounding of the Tennessee River, there was an old canal system called the Shoals Canal that ran all the way from Blue Water on Wheeler Lake down to the point of Waterloo. At the end of the old canal is a deep hole where the water drops to around 50 feet and the surrounding water depths are in the 30- and 40-foot range.
“There is a rock ledge here,” he said. “I’ve never been able to identify the structure but what I think happened is the current goes down the river and the water hits this rock ledge and has scoured it out, which makes it a super hot spot to catch catfish in the springtime.”
Barton targets this spot in one of two ways. If there’s strong current in the hole, he’ll go upstream of the hole and just slowly drift downstream, walking bait, bumping it across the bottom. If there’s not much current, he uses the anchor lock system on his trolling motor and positions the boat on the edge of the hole and fishes vertically.
3. Waterloo Bridge
GPS: N 34 54.899 / W 88 03.445
No. 3 is Waterloo Bridge, which spans the mouth of Second Creek near the town of Waterloo. There is a 50-yard stretch of opening underneath the bridge that opens up into about a 400- or 500-acre impoundment. Barton said that in the springtime, catfish, particularly channel cats will move in here to spawn in the pea gravel flats. Most anglers target medium and small channel catfish in this location, but Barton has also caught blue catfish here up to 30 pounds.
“Unlike a lot of places on this lake, these fish tend to suspend a little so I can actually find them on the electronics but I’m going to try to position between the eastern most and the central bridge pier, where the creek channel is actually the deepest, ” said Barton. “Just work that area back and forth, real slow by slow trolling or bumping the bottom.”
The guide’s baits of choice are cut herring, shrimp, cheese baits and commercial stink baits.
4. The Gap
GPS: N 34 55.759 / W 88 09.638
Moving a few miles downstream from the Bear Creek area, The Gap lies in the mouth of Indian Creek. Looking at the GPS, there are 2 distinct points that run out, very shallow from both sides of the creek edge. The result is a 40- to 50-foot wide neck of deep water.
“I found this area back in the 1980s, when I was a commercial fisherman,” he said. “Catfish have just always stacked right here. I don’t know if it’s a migration route or a holding route but I once took a 72-pound flathead off this spot on a live bream and have caught some pretty good fish in the immediate area around this gap.”
Barton said the water depth on top of the points can be as shallow as 22 feet, and drop off to around 26 feet on the bottom of the cut.
To fish the area in decent current, Barton suggests positioning the boat on the upper most point of the cut, and let baits fall off the point down into the gap, east to west. If it is not a current situation he will slow back and forth through the gap with his baits.
5. Indian Mound
GPS: N 34 55.686 / W 88 09.818
While hot spot No. 5 doesn’t have the classical round shape of other Indian mounds, Barton explains it does have a very distinct drop on the inside of Indian Creek. He discovered the location while crappie fishing, and ended up catching several nice blue catfish on crappie jigs. He later returned and found it held good numbers of catfish.
“Normally, they’ll be on the drop,” he said. “It’s about 11 feet on top of the mound, dropping off to about 30 feet over probably a 40- or 50-foot area. Midway down the slope is where the fish like to hold, on the inside (creek side) of the slope.”
Barton said he is most likely to slow troll this spot or use a controlled drift and just work around the rim of the mound until he locates fish.
6. State Line
GPS: N 34 57.142/ W 88 09.962
Hot spot No. 6 is located two miles upstream from State Line Island and about a third of the way up from Pickwick Dam. Barton describes the feature as an area where the main river channel has 50- to 55-feet of water coming up on a hump that tops out at 19 feet, and then it drops into a trough, which has a depth of about 36 or 37 feet at it’s bottom. This trough runs downstream about a mile towards the point of State Line Island. Barton has had great success catching blue catfish here in the spring.
“When the current is pulling hard, catfish will pull up on top of the shelf, but most of the time, you want to fish them off in the ditch in 35 to 36 feet of water,” said Barton.
The entire stretch runs for approximately two miles, but Barton explained that there are sweet spots along the way. Fortunately, it does not feature a lot of stumps or structure to hang on so he prefers to fish it using a controlled drift or a slow troll along any part or the entire ditch.
7. Bluff Bank
GPS: N 34 57.206 / W 88 10.415
Spot No. 7 is one of many bluff banks, where channel catfish gather each spring to spawn in the cracks and crevices of the walls. These spots are more common the further you travel north toward Pickwick Dam and are responsible for most of the channel cat production that made the lake famous.
Barton uses a somewhat non-traditional method in cat fishing circles.
He said that in the spring, channel cats will hold along and in the cracks and crevices along the wall. To target them, he will cast a Mr. Twister weedless worm hook, and thread a piece of shrimp about two inches long. He rigs the bait weedless, just like he would a plastic worm or grub. He then pitches the bait using 8-pound test on spinning tackle up against these bluffs, targeting the cracks and crevices he sees above the waterline.
“During late March and into April, channel cats come into the banks to spawn,” he said. “I’ve caught them as shallow as 18 inches of water, but you’ll find more at 7 to 8 feet,” he said. “Pitch that shrimp up there and work it back real slow, almost like fishing a Texas rig plastic worm and you can load the cooler with channel cats. It’s a lot of fun and a different way to catch catfish.”
8. Channel Outcrop
GPS: N 34 54.977 / W 88 08.889
Barton describes hot spot No. 8 as just a classic catfish holding spot. Located about a mile upstream of Indian Creek, he describes the area as an outcrop where little points stick out into the river channel.
“What I have found, particularly, on the south side of the lake which receives the most direct current, anytime you can find one of these little outcrops, catfish will tend to bunch up either at the base of them, near the channel, or stack up on the contour lines,” said Barton. “My theory is bait gets pushed into these areas and schools up on them and the catfish follow them in there.
“Anytime you see a decent-sized indentation in the channel in an area where the bottom contour rises up, you want to check to see if it’s holding fish.”
9. The Junction
GPS: N 34 53.583 / W 88 05.864
Back to the mouth of Bear Creek, the largest tributary on Pickwick Lake, hot spot No. 9 is the junction of an old creek channel and the Tennessee River channel. Barton describes it as a classic springtime travel route for catfish.
“We’re sitting at the mouth of the old creek channel where it hits the Tennessee River channel and this is just a highway for catfish,” he said. “Catfish will move in from the main river and work their way up this channel into the creeks to spawn throughout the spring. During early spring, around the first of March, this is a great place to search for catfish starting to migrate in.”
Barton said he starts the spring catfish season as soon as he can locate fish in this type of area. He will slow troll, working baits 1 to 2 foot off the bottom unless his electronics showed bigger fish suspended along the route. From here, he’s just working the edge of the channel, making 200- to 300-yard controlled drifts and moving until he locates the fish.
10. East Port Ramp
GPS: N 34 53.288 / W 88 05.982
No fishing trip is complete without knowing where to put the boat in the water. That brings us to spot No.10.
“To fish the areas we’ve talked about today, this would be the most central location to put in in North Mississippi,” said Barton. “You’re within 4 to 5 miles of the farthest coordinates we talked about and it’s a really good ramp with plenty of water to put in here year round.”
The nearest Mississippi town to East Port Ramp is Iuka. Mill Creek Marina is located about half way between this ramp and Iuka and it sells bait — minnows, chicken liver and worms — and all your basic needs.
Mississippi fishermen should be aware that while the state has reciprocal license agreements with both Alabama and Tennessee, reciprosity is only in effect in areas with shared waters on Pickwick Lake. On Barton’s list, for example, Hotspots No. 2 and No. 3 are both in a part of the lake where both shorelines are in Alabama. Fishing those places would require that a Mississippian obtain a non-resident Alabama license.
The rest of Barton’s hotspots are all located in reciprocity waters.
Pickwick Lake is approximately 43,100 acres, involving 52.7 miles of the Tennessee River between Wilson Dam in Florence, Ala., and Pickwick Dam near Counce, Tenn. The majority of the lake is in Alabama. Mississippi has approximately 7,500 acres of the lake along its shoreline.