(Editor’s Note: The final stop on our year-long Catfish Hotspots tour takes us back to the Mississippi River, based out of casino-lined Tunica Lake, where the best bet around is filling coolers with catfish.)
Our final stop on this year’s tour of Mississippi’s best catfishing locations takes us to the northwest corner of the state to Tunica Lake, an old oxbow off the Mississippi River.
It’s our fourth and northernmost stop on the Big Muddy, and for good reason. The river is a great year-round catfish producer, and in December, as the water cools quickly at Tunica, it makes big blue catfish active and fishermen can put some nice fish in the boat.
David Magness of Hernando started fishing the river for big catfish as a teenager with his dad and has been fishing the area from Memphis, Tenn., south to Rosedale for the last 25 years.
He works at the local John Deere dealership in Hernando by day, but days off and week-nds will find him probing the depths of the Mississippi year round.
Magness said December offers two options, catching big blues in deep water holes or filling coolers with eating sized cats in undercut or backwater areas. He said the cooler water makes catfish movements and locations more predictable.
But, he adds, the cooler water also means making adjustments in the style of fishing, slow and even smaller. It is necessary to allow fish more time to locate your baits, and downsizing portions from the huge summer buffets most anglers are accustomed to using.
Let’s take a look at what Magness has identified as his top 10 picks for the Tunica stretch of a chilly Old Man River.
1. Tunica River Park Ramp
GPS: N 34 50.390 / W 90 21.693
One of the nicest access areas on the Mississippi River is located at the Tunica River Park. Since reopening in 2012, the Park’s Mississippi River Museum now offers multiple interactive attractions and seasonal exhibits featuring different aspects of Delta culture. The River Park also offers nature trails, beautiful views of the river, riverboat cruises on the historic Tunica Queen, and plenty of space for hosting weddings, meetings, and receptions.
“The Tunica River Park is a beautiful place,” said Magness. “Once you enter the park, you can use the ramp to launch your boat. The boat ramp here is excellent, probably one of the nicer ramps on the river system in north Mississippi and is well maintained. They have security that patrols the area and a nice parking lot. It is a $10 charge to launch a boat but to be able to come in and know that your pickup and trailer are safe while you’re out on the river, to me, is worth $10 every time.”
2. Gold Strike Gravel Bed
GPS: N 34 52.129 / W 90 18.338
Magness’ Hotspot No. 1 is within sight of the Gold Strike Casino and Resort, but there’s no gambling at this location.
Magness said it’s a consistent producer of blue catfish in the 8- to 12-pound range, especially in the winter time when catfish metabolism slows.
The most noticeable feature is a row of trees in the water to the north. He will fish it using a 4-ounce Carolina rig with smaller than typical chunks of cut shad or herring for bait. Fishing on the Mississippi means being aware of prevailing water levels, so he suggests checking the local river gauge before heading out.
“The water is about 25 foot deep,” he said. “River levels at 23 to 25 on the Memphis gauge are when you want to fish this. The river bank actually makes a cut back in the side and it lets the swifter current go straight downstream. Between the main current line and the bank, you’ve got a slower current. You want to anchor up right on the end of these trees and fish on this gravel. This fish love to feed in that gravel.”
Unlike some other locations where he simply places his baited rods in holders, Magness will fish this area on a hold-and-bounce tactic that allows the bait to cover more ground than simply letting it sit on the bottom.
“Instead of just anchoring and putting rods out, actually hold the rod, let it go to the bottom, then lift your rod tip, let the current carry it down 2 or 3 feet, then let it hit the bottom again,” said Magness. “Sometimes, you might have so much line out you think you’re going to spool your reel before you get a hit. However, when you’re catching 8-pound fish in the current with 100 feet of line out, that’s a lot of fun.”
3. The Blowout Dike
GPS: N 34 52.352/ W 90 17.966
No. 3 on Magness’ list is a wing dike with a hole in its center section. Depending on the water temperature, he said it produces either blue catfish or flathead catfish. The pivotal mark is around 50 degrees. Earlier in the month, above 50 degrees is more likely to wrangle up a big flathead than later in the month.
“Before the water gets below 50 degrees, you can catch flatheads here,” he said. “When the water gets cooler, it’s mostly blue cats but there is a very real possibility of catching 30- and 40-pound fish in this hole.”
Typical of many areas up and down the Mississippi, wing dikes can be virtual hotspots for catching big catfish. In this specific location, Magness fishes the center area, where a missing section, known as a blowout, has created a deep scour hole that concentrates fish behind the dike.
“The dike itself is probably a couple hundred yards long,” he said. “You can anchor up on the edge of the dike, where the main current is blowing through the cut out. Catfish will hold right on the edge of the main current and the slower current. Use your graph, find the fish and anchor up on them. Here again, use the smaller bait for cold water and you can catch fish.”
4. Porter Lake
GPS: N 34 52.079 / W 90 20.242
Jumping across the river — and the state line into Arkansas water — Hotspot No. 4 is also adjacent to a rock dike. Both flatheads and blues are targets here. A deep-water hole, Magness suggests beefing up with a little heavier tackle here.
“We’re sitting in roughly 80 feet of water,” he said. “You’re going to catch bigger fish here. This will also be a place that you want to anchor up. Use your heavier gear with bigger baits; you probably wouldn’t use as big as you would in the spring or the fall but still bigger than thumbnail size cut bait pieces of shad or river herring.”
Magness said that cut bait is best for catching blue catfish. In moderate water temperatures, live bait would be a better choice for flathead catfish.
“I would probably carry some live shad or possibly a small 4- to 6-inch Asian carp, if I could catch some and keep them alive, because this hole has potential for a good flathead or blue cat.”
5. Hidden Hole
GPS: N 34 51.934 / W 90 20.623
No. 5 sits directly behind No. 4, inland from the Mississippi River via a small chute. According to Magness, the river level needs to be up to 17 feet or higher on the Memphis gauge to get in the chute. He said that anything lower than 17 feet could be a hazard to navigators coming in through the mouth of the cut.
“I call this the Hidden Hole,” he said. “It’s off the beaten path. You have to take a little chute off the main river and come back in the woods. There is quite a bit of current entering that chute but, once you get down here to the hole, it’s a very slow current.”
The benefit of Hidden Hole is that it’s a consistent producer of fish and a good place to get out of the wind, when that is an issue.
“There’s roughly 30 feet of water back in here and it’s a very good place to get out of the wind,” said Magness. “If you happen to have some kids with you, you’re not in so much current or out in the wind. Anchor up right in the middle. Throw rods out the back. You’re going to catch good eating size channel cats and blue cats in the 6-, 7-, and 8-pound range.”
6. The Junk Yard Hole
GPS: N 34 52.291 / W 90 19.941
Where No. 5 is the kids’ fishing hole when the weather gets rough, then No. 6 is the big kids’ fishing hole. Located three miles north of Tunica River Park and on the Arkansas side of the river, the junkyard Hole, as Magness calls it, is more difficult to fish, both from a boat positioning and line management perspective. But, it has the potential to produce a big fish.
“We’ve got a point just north of this hole with a cutout in the bank,” he said. “It’s a pretty deep hole behind the point. In addition, off that point is a rock dike that is under water. The water comes over the dike beginning at 21 feet and actually turns back upriver. Positioning your boat is the hard part of fishing here.”
Magness said water depths will range from 30 to 70 feet deep and suggests covering all depths with baits until you figure out which the fish prefer.
“If you don’t get positioned just right, the current will carry your lines back upstream and get them tangled up, so it’s kind of touch and go,” he said. “You may have to drop anchor 2 or 3 times to actually get on the spot. But it’s worth the effort to get anchored down just right. This hole has potential for trophy-size fish. I fish this hole with live bait and/or bigger cut bait with potential for trophy blue cats and flatheads here.”
7. Finley Light Hole
GPS: N 34 52.593 / W 90 19.358
Still on the Arkansas side of the river, Magness plays the current against the bank at Hotspot No. 7 to target channel catfish.
“Through the early winter and early spring when the channel cats really start moving in and out of their wintering positions, this is a very good place to sit with a cork, some worms or crickets and catch you a cooler full of eating size channel cats,” said Magness.
He was hard pressed to explain why channel catfish find this location so much to their liking, but they were there nonetheless. Part manmade and part natural, it is a fairly deep hole, when considering channel cats.
“This cutout on the bank has got concrete slabs that were put down by the Corps of Engineers to help with erosion,” he said. At a river stage around 20 or 21 feet at Memphis, this hole will be 35 to 40 feet deep. These fish seem to hang in the deepest part of this hole in around the 35-foot range, right on the edge of the faster current and the slower current.”
8. Commerce Run
GPS: N 34 53.119 / W 90 18.236
Wrapping up the last of his Arkansas bank holes, No 8 is can be a little misleading. The coordinates mark a general area that he will troll in the summer, but prefers to anchor up and fish from a stationary location in the winter.
“The area is nearly a hundred yards long and the fish can be holding anywhere in this hole. You just have to find them on your graph and anchor above them, then put bait down there to them and see what happens,” he said. “This hole is a little misleading. It’s on the Arkansas bank, but it’s a very flat bank here. It doesn’t look steep at all but we’re sitting within 20 yards of the bank and in roughly 35 feet of water.”
Hotspot No. 8 falls more in the category of consistent producer than that of a trophy fish hole. To catch fish, Magness looks for subtle differences in bottom contour.
“When you find little pockets where the water depth drops 2 or 3 feet, you’ll find a concentration of mainly blue cats. I’ve never caught a trophy fish in this hole, but it is good for 5- to 15-pound fish,” he said.
9. Basket Bar Dike
GPS: N 34 49.745 / W 90 25.188
Reversing course and traveling about 7 ½ miles downriver, Magness targets a dike stuck out in the middle of the Mississippi. The dike is submerged when the river level is at 21 feet on the Memphis gauge.
“This is a dike that runs almost out to the main river channel,” said Magness. “You come inland toward Arkansas and you actually drop off in a hole that runs 60 to 80 feet deep. It kind of looks weird sitting right out in the middle of the river but the current does slow down behind this dike.”
Magness suggests dropping anchor in the shallow water and letting the boat drift far enough back to reach the deep hole. He also beefs up his tackle because this spot is where some big fish are likely to hold.
“The way I fish this, I anchor up close to the dike and let out a lot of anchor rope,” he said. “Get back in where you can fish in 75 to 80 feet of water. Use bigger baits and heavier tackle here. You have a very good chance of catching a trophy blue cat and flathead.”
10. Gold Strike Creek
GPS: N 34 51.871 / W 90 18.717
To round out his 10 spots, Magness ran back up river past the landing to targes a little feeder creek running out of the Mississippi bank. This spot fits into the average-sized catfish producing spot, but is a consistent producer of fish in the 7- to 8-pound range.
“We’re about 2 miles, 2 ½ miles north of the Tunica River Park. This particular spot is on the Mississippi bank and is a little feeder creek that runs into the river,” said Magness. “The water runs through a gravel flat roughly 23 to 25 foot deep and then drops off into the mouth of this ditch. Blue catfish like to hold right in the mouth of this creek. They’ve got shallow water and deep water there, in the same place.”
Boat positioning is a matter of either anchoring out in the river or attaching to the bank. Either way, he wants to be able to reach a variety of spots around the mouth of the feeder creek so catfish don’t slip by without a shot at one of his baits.
“I would probably anchor down and tie to a tree 25 or 30 yards upstream from the mouth of the creek and then fish out the back of the boat,” he said. “Place four rods in different places, one close behind the boat and then just stagger them around and have the last rod dead in the mouth of the creek.”