Beginning somewhere about mid to late April, an absolute madness falls upon countless bodies of water across Mississippi. It is a frenzy, a panic of sorts that can keep the angler occupied for hours at a time. It can be intense.
All this fuss and rush centers around the common catfish and the activity associated with this fish’s spawning cycle. It is a glad and good time for anglers who know how and where to look for such action.
“If we pull up to a place and don’t catch fish in 30 minutes, we move until we find them,” said Danny Thornton in reference to Barnett Reservoir.
Thornton and wife Sherry are dedicated catfish anglers, and frequent waters such as Barnett regularly from April through July.
“If they’re biting, you won’t have to move much,” he said.
Logical places to look, according to the Thorntons, are those spots along the submerged channels that feed lakes and reservoirs. The channels will give way to shallower water along their banks, and catfish will move out into these shallows to spawn.
This takes place when water temperatures reach approximately 70 degrees, and usually ranges from April through May.
“You need a depth finder and temperature gauge,” Thornton said. “You may find the fish in 3 to 5 feet of water. We fish the flats a lot in April and May.”
Jerry Brown, fisheries biologist with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP), says catfish typically spawn in late spring and early summer.
“May through July in Mississippi,” he said. “They like to spawn in cavities such as hollow logs, stumps and holes in the banks.”
And it is this type of structure that is so very common in those flats out away from channels in the state’s lakes and reservoirs. So there is good reason why the Thorntons gravitate to such locales in their search for catfish as the water temperatures begin to moderate in spring.
“March can be fair, but we start really catching fish in April,” Danny said. “The fishing can last through June. After the water gets hot, usually from the end of June on, we move to the river channels, and fish the deeper water — maybe 20 feet.
“During the summer, we still catch a few in the shallows during the early mornings, but as the sun and temperatures begin to rise in the day, we have to move to the deeper water. We try to fish some on into August and September, but it is tough.”
And what are the perfect conditions?
“Sunny, a light breeze and 70 degrees,” Sherry said. “We’ve had better luck when the sun was shining. The least likely weather is a north and/or east wind and cold temperatures. That will shut the fishing down.”
The Thorntons like a slight chop on the water when fishing Barnett.
“We went there one day when scattered showers were predicted,” Sherry said. “We had just tied up to a channel marker when we saw a dark cloud. I suggested that we go, but the first bait we threw in caught a fish. The cloud and rain came, and then the weather broke off clear and sunny. The fish were biting.
“And then from the same direction of the first cloud, we saw another. This one moved in, and it was bad; we had to hold onto the boat seats. When it broke, we caught more fish, but then we saw a third storm coming. We left.”
Danny agrees with his wife that a little wave action is good for fishing on Barnett, but not as much as they experienced on that day.
“A friend and I were out there one day and it was wavy,” he said. “We were catching fish like crazy. But it just kept getting rougher and rougher; we had to leave. For situations like that, you need at least a 16-foot boat and 40-horse motor to get off those bigger lakes quickly if the weather turns bad.”
Even though the bigger reservoirs can be a bit tricky in bad weather, Danny likes to fish them. Their shallows draw and hold catfish, and their waters can be more forgiving when impacted by spring rains.
“If the water gets stirred and rises in the channels above the reservoirs, as it will in spring, it will pretty much shut down the fishing in that channel,” Danny said. “But it doesn’t seem to affect the big water as much. That makes the big water a good place to fish when there would be very little or no fishing upstream in the channels.”
Methods, baits and locations vary among catfish anglers during the spring and summer.
“The area along the Natchez Trace from Rose’s Bluff and north toward Highway 43 is popular on Barnett, especially during the early spring for anglers fishing for catfish with rods and reels in the shallow water,” Brown said. “Most of the catfish anglers we see during our spring creels are fishing from a boat and using jugs, but there are a few that use rods and reels from a boat.
“I’ve seen boat anglers tied up on the river between Ratliff Ferry and Low-Head Dam next to the bank and tight-lining for catfish — mainly blues and channels. Below the spillway is also popular.”
Many anglers in this area fish from the bank, throwing into the fast water and letting the bait drift downstream.
Brown goes on to say that trotlines, limb lines and hand-grabbing are employed by catfish anglers.
“Common baits for blues and channels can vary from cut bait to stink bait, but flatheads are usually caught with live bait,” he said.
The Thorntons have their preferences.
“We use nightcrawlers and shrimp,” Danny said. “Sherry likes nightcrawlers, and uses them most of the time. I like shrimp for general use if the catfish will bite them. They are a little cleaner and easier to handle than nightcrawlers.
“And we just use pretty standard tackle for our fishing. I rigged a big-fish rig this past year. I didn’t use it much, but will this upcoming spring and summer. We generally put out two rigs each, or maybe two standard rigs and one big-fish rig. The big-fish rig is baited with perch, and is thrown out and left alone until something hits.”
Their methods are fairly low key.
“To properly fish for catfish, you simply throw the bait out, take the slack from your line and then leave the bait alone,” Sherry said. “Don’t be constantly reeling the bait back in. Leave it out there until a fish hits or until you’re ready to move it to another location.”
But things can get hectic in a hurry.
“This is usually lazy fishing,” Danny said. “But when the fish are really biting, you put down everything but one rod, and you will stay busy. It’s not lazy anymore.
“I took my nephew and a friend and his son one day. My friend and his son had never fished like this before. I set them up, and they caught 80 in a short time. It was perfect — and not lazy.
“There is only one kind of fishing that will beat this, and that is trout fishing in the Tennessee mountains. Otherwise, this is as good at it gets.”