The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers created the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway — the Tenn-Tom for short — to complete a route connecting the Tennessee River to the Tombigbee River and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico.
Comprised of a series of lakes, locks and canals, the Tenn-Tom is used as an improved shipping channel for moving goods from the interior United States to the Gulf. Emptying out of Lake Pickwick near the Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee border, the waterway begins as clear water but can be muddy enough to plant corn in before it merges with the Black Warrior River in Alabama.
Any angler who wets a hook in the Tenn-Tom anywhere along its course must be concerned with current. Whether you are fishing in one of the dead-end runs of an old oxbow or the main flow of water in one of the pools, the currents of the Tenn-Tom have a seemingly mind of their own, owing greatly to the passage of barge or shipping traffic down the river.
By combining fertile waters, current, and the overwhelming abundance of structures such as bridges, washed out banks, commercial development and a giant forest of blow-down trees and stumps, you have a perfect recipe for catfish habitat.
Joey and Jerry Pounders of Columbus are one of the top teams on the national catfish tournament circuits. Having grown up on the Tenn-Tom and learning to fish it from their father, the brothers have that intimate knowledge of the waterway that only comes from experience.
Joey Pounders was one of the founding members of the Mississippi Catfish Hunters club, which fishes all over the state but is most at home on the Tenn-Tom.
“The whole Tenn-Tom Waterway is a great river to fish,” Pounders said. “When the current’s rolling pretty good, you’re going to get on some blue cats. If the current’s not going, you can get some live bait and you can target flatheads. Some of the best flatheads on this whole entire river come out of Columbus Lake, about midway down.”
Pounders said it’s hard to give an overall pattern for success on the Tenn-Tom. Some areas are better with more current and some better with less, but he admits it’s a lot of trial and error and time on the water.
“It’s just getting out there and getting in some of the best holes in the best situations,” he said. “Sometimes you don’t need to fish the deepest holes like you would on bigger rivers. Sometimes 3 or 4 foot of water, when the water is going, is the best place to fish for blue cats. Different conditions mean you need to fish for different species.”
As for the mix of catfish species in the system, Pounders said the Tenn-Tom could be the best flathead fishery in the country, however, there are sizeable specimens and numbers of blue catfish to be found here too.
“I think the blue cats are going to feed a lot more; in my opinion, they feed like cattle,” he said. “They’re going to be (moving) around feeding everywhere through the colder months. They’re not staying in one spot and, when that current gets up, it’s even more spread out. They’re going to shallow up, come out of the deep holes and feed, so I think the blue cats here during the winter time are probably your best bet between November and February.”
While a lot of catters rely on skipjack herring caught further north on the system, Pounders prefers to stay with baits he can find right in the area he’s fishing. Keeping abreast of catfish concentrations also means keeping up with baitfish.
“My bait of choice is live shad, cast-netted directly from the lake at the start of the trip or the night before,” he said. “The better sizes will range anywhere from five to eight inches in length using a filleted shad for blue cats and live whole baits for flatheads.”
Pounders said regardless of whether he is fishing his home lake at Columbus or further down the system, where his brother Jerry lives, finding the right current breaks, setting up on them and presenting good bait is his formula for success.
“You’re going to get more action when the current is going than when not,” he said. “If the water’s dead that day in an area, don’t even worry about fishing that spot. If the water’s blowing, it’s more likely to be a great spot to fish especially if you can find a current break in the water like a bridge piling or lay down tree because the fish are going to huddle around the back side of these things.”
The exception to the current equation is when Pounders is specifically targeting flathead catfish in the Tenn-Tom. Whereas blues will lay in current like a dog with his head out the window, sniffing at all the variety of scents in the water, a flathead is an ambush feeder, looking for live prey.
“You don’t want to fish heavy current for flatheads because when they push a lot of current, flatheads will hunker down and they’re really not going to feed,” he said. “Flatheads like a lot of eddies and they like a lot of mild current, staying on that structure and feeding on bait fish as they come by.”
Older brother Jerry Pounders lives on Pickensville Lake, the last in line on the Tenn-Tom waterway, backed up by the Stennis Lock and Dam before crossing over into the state of Alabama. Pickensville is well known for both blue and flathead catfish but also has a healthy population of channel catfish, just like the rest of the waterway.
One aspect of Aliceville that is found mostly in it’s upper reaches but also in other areas of the Tenn-Tom is a mineral deposit known as blue rock. The reason the elder Pounders favors this as structure for catfishing is because when washed by the river over time, the rock erodes, leaving behind holes and ledges where both blue and flathead catfish love to hold.
“Healthy deposits of blue rock are found in the upper reaches of Pickensville Lake and in several other areas on the Waterway,” Jerry Pounders said. “Flathead catfish favor blue rock walls that have scoured out, creating shallow crevices where they can hide and ambush prey. If they can find that blue rock anywhere around here, they’re going to sit in it.”
Of course catching 30- to 50-pound flatheads from the Tenn-Tom is not as easy as it may sound. Jerry Pounders said you also have to understand the feeding behavior of the fish in order to pattern a particular spot.
“What happens with blue rock wall is the wall gets washed out up under the bank,” he said. “The flatheads lay up under the shelves of the bank of the blue rock walls and they come out and feed every now and then around the trees so you want to get a few of your baits close to the bank and you want to get a few out from the bank, because they may be out feeding or there may be another tier to that shelf a little farther off the bank.”
Boat positioning can be an issue in the swirling waters of the Tenn-Tom on a certain day or period when barge traffic is heavy. The Corps opens a lock, sending millions of gallons of water through the system along with the boat traffic.
The Pounders may opt to anchor if the water is being pulled through the lock or he may rely on a homemade sea anchor and/or his trolling motor if the current is not so bad, or if he’s back in one of the many dead end runs out of the main flow.
“Sometimes you can throw out a five-gallon bucket with a hole poked in it on both sides and that’s going to hold you right on the structure with the current,” Joey said. “It’s going to be pulling you both ways. Other times, you’ll drift fish around and use your troll motor to control your drift.”
Live bait for flathead catfish is a pretty common theme with catfish angler, however, Joey Pounders will add a little twist to at least one rod to see if he can attract attention to his spread.
“I’ll use live bait on most flathead spots but I’m always going to throw out one fillet,” he said. “If the current is running a little bit, it’s going to spin that filet and create a little vibration. That helps to get their attention. Sometimes they don’t want all live bait. Sometimes they want something filleted.”