Editor’s Note: The fourth stop on our year-long Catfish Hotspots tour takes us to Southwest Mississippi, Lawrence County and the Pearl River, where Albert Fortenberry of New Hebron loads his boat with flatheads, blues and channel cats from his trotlines.
Mississippi catfish come in a variety of sizes, colors and species, and similarly, there’s more than one way to catch them.
When many people think of trotlining for catfish, they envision a business venture, commercially harvesting catfish for profit. Truth is, most trotlining that takes place in the Magnolia State is done by recreational anglers who love the sport and the challenge of placing lines in the water, trying to think like a fish and enjoying the thrill of the unknown on the next hook down the line.
Fishermen like Albert Fortenberry of New Hebron.
Fortenberry grew up in Lawrence County, along the banks of the Pearl River where he has run trotlines nearly year round for most of his life. He enjoys the fellowship of running lines with friends, spending a weekend camping on the banks of the Pearl, catching bait, cleaning fish and enjoying the outdoors.
This month, Fortenberry provides a 10-stop tour of the Pearl, giving readers of Mississippi Sportsman a look into a unique alternative to rod and reel fishing for catfish that’s no less sporting, twice as much work and just as much, if not more, fun.
1. Atwood Water Park
GPS: N 31 33.072 / W 90 05.202
In a logical procession of spots, we’ll start at the ramp. Fortenberry puts in at the Atwood Water Park just off U.S. Highway 84 near Monticello. Along with its centralized location to some of his favorite trotlining spots on the Pearl, Atwood offers a host of amenities for sportsmen looking to spend multiple days in the area.
“It’s a nice park,” Fortenberry said. “If you were to want to spend the weekend here, they’ve got cabin rentals. They’ve also got camper hookup spots and picnic tables. The launch fee is only a couple of bucks and it’s a good location on the river. It’s only about a mile out of the town of Monticello so you can get pretty much anything you need right here.”
2. Cooper’s Ferry Park
GPS: N 31 33.322 / W 90 06.247
A short run upstream from Atwood is a relatively urban catfishing spot with a view of downtown Monticello. It’s one of the only spots on Fortenberry’s list that relies on man-made structure to concentrate catfish in one area.
“We’re sitting here looking at the back of the Lawrence County Courthouse and the Public Library,” he said. “In the middle of the river, you’ll see two or three old bridge pilings which cause a washout hole behind these pilings where fish will lay. You can run your trot line on the downriver side on this piling and you’ll do pretty good.”
Without a doubt, Fortenberry relishes the thought of a big flathead on the line, but flatheads, locally referred to as a “Motley Cat”, are not the only game in town.
“Your most common fish that you’re going to catch is what I call a Motley Cat,” he said. “It’s also known as an Appaloosa or flathead. You’re also going to catch blue cats, sometimes called a high-back blue, as well as channel cats.”
Fortenberry uses two different setups for trotlining. The first is the more typical setup where one end of the line is tied off to a tree or stump, stretched across a span of water, and tied off to another stump. The second is a drop line. One end is tied off to a tree or stump and terminated out in the water using a heavy weight.
Mississippi law permits each person having a valid fishing license to use no more than 100 hooks per person. Fortenberry’s preference is 10 hooks per line. For him, running 6 to 7 such lines per outing is full time work.
3. Limestone Banks #1
GPS: N 31 34.748 / W 90 05.978
Heading north and further upstream, hot spot No. 3 is well known in trotliner circles as a big fish spot. Fortenberry prefers this location early and later in the year when water temps are more moderate.
“Along these limestone banks is a deep body of water,” he said. “In the heat of the summertime, it’s not as good as it is in the fall and wintertime because the oxygen levels drop in this slow water. You can catch big fish here, 30-plus pounds, so I would recommend over a 5/0 hook and bigger bait and you will catch a bigger size fish here.”
A word is in order here about water levels and the type of watercraft Fortenberry uses to do his trotlining. Typically, water levels fluctuate from season to season, so that becomes a consideration when fishing the river.
“This section of the Pearl is about 100 miles downstream from Ross Barnett Reservoir,” he said. “The flood gates at the Reservoir definitely have control over how much water comes down this river. It usually stays around 7 or 8 feet (on the Monticello gauge), which is no problem navigating, but in the middle of the summer, the river drops. Anything below 5 feet gets really shallow and there are places that are only 6 or 8 inches deep all the way across.”
To navigate the shallow stretches, Fortenberry’s choice of boat is a tunnel-hull johnboat equipped with a jack plate.
“Most serious trotliners buy tunnel-hull boats, which allow us to raise our motor up higher on the transom so the foot does not hang below the bottom of the boat,” he said. “Then we’ll install a jack plate on the back of it to pick the motor up even higher and set it away from the back of the boat. The further you have the motor away from the back of the boat, the better off you are at running through the shallows.”
4. The Pipeline
GPS: N 31 34.849 / W 90 04.946
Moving progressively up river, the next hole is one of Fortenberry’s better summer spots. It’s easily recognized by a pair of pipelines on the left bank that gives hot spot No. 4 its name.
“Here at the pipeline, you’ll see a sandbar,” said Fortenberry. “Along the front of the sandbar, the water gets shallow and swift in the summertime. When the heat rises, the oxygen levels drop and in swift water there’s more oxygen so a lot of the fish come to this swift water during the hot parts of the summer. Catfish also come in late in the afternoon and throughout the night and chase shad up this sandbar, feeding on shad.”
He suggests driving a wooden stake into the sandbar to hold one end of the line and use several common bricks as weights along the way to anchor the line in the swift current. While all three main species are represented, Fortenberry feels channel catfish seem to prefer the area more than blues or Motleys.
5. Limestone Banks #2
GPS: N 31 34.365 / W 90 04.685
Similar to Hot Spot No. 3, the limestone banks in this location hold big catfish as well as big numbers of fish. Fortenberry calls it his favorite all-round spot on the river.
“This is a longer stretch of limestone,” he said. “I catch a lot of big fish in this area, but one thing about this spot that makes it different from the other one is the amount of fish. If I had to pick a favorite, this is where it would be.”
Bait choice and size has a fair amount to do with how successful a trotliner will be on the river. Fortenberry prefers live bait over cut bait and his favorite is a native baitfish he nets or traps right out of the river.
“The No. 1 bait we use in this river is a spot tail minnow that lives here in the river,” he said. “You can catch these minnows on any of the sandbars and rock bars using minnow traps or a cast net the edge of the sandbars. The river is full of them and they’re really good bait.”
6. Stump Field
GPS: N 31 34.602 / W 90 04.362
“Stump Field is another shallow body; the river gets wide,” said Fortenberry. “It’s probably only 3 or 4 feett deep all the way across right now. Basically, it’s got a sandbar on one side and high bluff on the other. There’s a lot of oxygen in this part of the river and a lot of current. You need a lot of weight on your line to hold it down.
“Find a stump out in the middle and stretch your line 30 or 40 yards across and bait it with spot tail minnows and sink it to the bottom. Come back the next day and you should have plenty of fish.”
While he trotlines the Pearl year round, one of Fortenberry’s favorite months to fish is April. The reason behind his choice is because April is when the Motleys run.
“The Motleys will run in the early part of the spring, around April,” he said. “When they run, they’re feeding hard, getting as full as they can to lay their eggs. When these flatheads are running, it’s a really good time to catch both big fish and a lot of fish at the same time.”
All of the first six hot spots are located upriver from the launch site, but the final four are all located below the ramp. Let’s make a run down the river and keep filling the boat.
7. Mouth of Halls Creek
GPS: N 31 32.434 / W 90 04.856
Whether trotlining or fishing with rod and reel, the intersection of one stream with another is typically a fish-holding hot spot. Fortenberry’s No. 7 hole is no exception. It’s where Halls Creek dumps out into the Pearl.
“On one side you’ve got a beautiful sandbar, on the other side, you’ve got the creek flowing in,” he said. “It kind of resembles the stump field. It’s shallow all the way across the river. It’s kind of wide and there’s a good bit of current and you would want to have good bit of weight about every fourth or fifth hook. Just run your line across the river here or throw a drop line off the sandbar.”
Fortenberry points out that several homes line the Pearl and that most of the land is considered private property. As such, any time he is out of the boat, he tries to stay on a sandbar within the river boundary.
“I’ve found most of the property owners are nice people and I’ve never had a problem stepping out and fishing off the bank,” he said. “Make sure you do not throw any trash out or anything like that. Use common sense.”
GPS: N 31 31.546 / W 90 04.131
A change in bottom contours is another good feature to look for when trotlining. Hot spot No. 8 features this type of transition where the bottom goes from sand to rocks and small pea gravel.
“You can drive a stake and run a line right where the sand and the rocks meet,” he said. “It seems like little particles of stuff roll off the rocks onto the sand, and where that transfers from sand to rock the fish will feed. I’ve always had good luck fishing on a sandbar that changes from rocks to sand.”
He also said that all three species of catfish in the Pearl were equally inclined to feed in a transition area like this at one time or another.
9. Silver Creek
GPS: N 31 31.153 / W 90 03.920
Another stream intersection makes the list as No. 9, where Silver Creek meets the Pearl River. A locals’ favorite for rod and reel angling, it’s also a great spot for running trotlines.
“Silver Creek is a pretty good size creek that enters the Pearl River,” Fortenberry said. “The fish sit here and feed where the creek dumps into the river. There’s a lot of oxygen in the water here and it’s a deep hole that’s also got some good current. It’s just an all-around good spot.”
Some days the bite is better than others on all of his spots. Fortenberry relates that to changes in the river level. He can monitor he river on a daily basis by checking the National Weather Service/NOAA website at http://water.weather.gov/ and clicking his way to the Pearl River, Monticello gauge.
“I’ve always found they would bite on a fast rise and a slow fall so if the river is jumping up 2 or 3 feet a day or the river is falling slowly, it seems like they do a little better,” he said.
10. Camps on the Pearl
GPS: N 31 32.056 / W 90 04.254
Fortenberry’s final hot spot is located about halfway back up the river between Silver Creek and Atwood Park, and it’s a spot most people overlook.
“As you come past Halls Creek, you’ll see a village of camps on the right, there are some big cypress stumps out in the water,” he said. “A lot of people run past it because they think it gets fished out, but there is some good fishing in this spot. I run one line in the curve and one about half way down the straightaway. Put a weight on it to keep it on the bottom and keep your lines baited and you’ll catch some good fish.”
When asked about what to expect in terms of sizes for catfish in the Pearl, Fortenberry said the small river could often be deceptive.
“The average channel cat is about 3 pounds,” he said. “Blues will average about 5 pounds and the average Motley’s going to run about 6 or 7 pounds. If you fish hard over a weekend, you will see 30- and 40-pound flatheads and a couple of blues that will go 8 to10 pounds.”