In Mississippi, fishermen are blessed with a system of state lakes and state park lakes managed by the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks that, while popular with some locals, remain some of our most underutilized recreational resources.
From Tippah County Lake near Ripley just south of the Tennessee line, they dot the map all the way to Lake Perry near Beaumont. There are 18 state lakes, just as many state parks with fishable waters, and all of them are managed to produce quality-fishing experiences for bream, bass, crappie and channel catfish.
And, in these oft-overlooked lakes, there is an oft-underutilized species, which seems strange for a state where fried catfish is practically a food staple.
Fried catfish, whole or filleted, served with slaw or greens with hushpuppies is a Mississippi go-to meal, so much so that catfish farming became a boom in the delta and remains a viable aquaculture practice.
Not every community has a Chevy dealer, but just about all have a fish house. It was at the Chunky River Fish House, on U.S. Highway 80 at the Newton-Lauderdale County line that one youngster decided to be a commercial fisherman, one day hauling long stringers of fat cats to the fish house for a huge payout and a free fish sandwich. But, by age 10 I had decided to be a smoke jumper instead. … But, I digress.
If you are one of the many who prefers to catch his own meals, then the state lake system is an ideal way to put catfish on the table.
Regulations prohibit free-floating fishing devices (a.k.a. jugs), trotlines and any other unattended lines on these MDWFP waters, but don’t fret. With a simple setup, some good bait and a little time, can poles and basic rods and reels can produce a stringer of fat cats headed to your own personal fryer.
Sounds simple, right? Bait a hook, throw it in the water, make yourself comfortable and wait for the bite.
That is the proper course of action; however there are a few variables that could make the bite come sooner, rather than later. Among those variables are the time of day, choice of bait and location on the lake. Here are some nuggets of wisdom from a number of veteran anglers.
Baits for catfish, especially channel cats, can run the gamut from stinky blood baits to live goldfish and shiners. Most anglers will choose the former, either creating their own concoction, or buying pre-packaged bait from bait shop or big box store. All will get the job done, with some doing better than others.
Ready to hook baits, being those bagged or boxed include small pre-formed balls of blood or fish byproducts such as Berkley Gulp. There are minnows that have been processed into packaged bait as well. These baits are convenient, but seem to lose their potency after being in the water a while.
Several manufacturers offer hook mechanisms made of sponge or other absorbent material to be used with tubes or tubes of stink bait. Work the bait into the sponge and it will become a time-released catfish bomb.
Natural stink baits, such as chicken livers or ripened shrimp are a common choice. The warmer the water and the air the more these baits will stink. Since most state lakes have little or no current to disperse the scent of the bait, the longer they last, the better the chances of hanging a catfish.
Biologists often describe a channel catfish as a swimming tongue. Much of their body and head are constantly scanning for the odor of food. Since the current is slack, moving the bait every minute or so is one method of covering more water. The more stink in the water the better the chances of catching fish.
Last, but certainly not least are the live bait options. Earthworms are cheap and easy to acquire, especially if you have a worm bed or compost pile. Catalpa worms have a tough hide and will last longer on the hook than their earthy cousins. Just remove the head and turn the worm inside out on the hook. Shiners and goldfish are other live baits that work well on catfish, the latter being a tough and hardy bait that can withstand a lot of punishment.
Other baits include hotdogs cut into lengths and allowed to ripen in garlic and fish oil; deer hearts and liver; bar soap (where you can find it) such as Octagon or P&G; and roadkill. I have actually heard of anglers who have used roadkill.
Finally, in the bait category I have to list my favorite bait. Cut shad, and shad guts. A big shad, six to eight inches in length, can be cut into three chunks, two filets and the head with guts attached. They provide excellent benefits: A lot of stink, bait stealers don’t bother it as badly and it stays on the hook well.
Most important, it catches catfish.
As previously mentioned, only a single hook and line, such as a rod and reel or cane pole, is allowed for catfishing on state lakes. Several can be deployed at once, but all must be monitored.
Spinning reels are by far the most common method seen in use around state lakes, but any tackle that will handle a bass will handle a catfish. For line choose a 12- to 15-pound mono or braid. State lakes can produce some large catfish. The state record 51-pound, 12-ounce channel cat came out of Lake Tom Bailey in Lauderdale County.
At Prentiss Walker Lake, near Mize a 30-pound channel cat was caught in 2014.
“We’re not known as a destination lake for catfish,” said Prentiss Walker Lake Manager Stan Sullivan. “We had a rodeo last year and the catfish were released into the lake afterward. Those were hybrid catfish, a cross between a blue and a channel. But we still have some of the original channel cat stock and while I don’t think a lot of people fish just for them, we do see some good catches.”
Sullivan said he sees catfish being caught by boaters and bank fishermen on a 50-50 basis.