Catfishing in the state of Mississippi is mostly associated with the Mighty Mississippi River on the west side of the state.
Even the Tenn-Tom Waterway on the east side of the state night seem more of catfish destination than any reservoir.
Let’s face it, when considering the far and wide range of popular ponds, lakes, and big impoundments that call Mississippi home, the casual angler probably wouldn’t look at the deep, clear waters of Lake Pickwick and think of catfish.
Smallmouth bass? Of course.
Big white crappie? Got those, too.
Well, allow local Pickwick fishing guide Brian Barton to be the one to let the cat out of the bag, or rather drag it over the side of his custom-designed War Eagle 2170 Blackhawk catfish boat.
Barton said that while Pickwick Lake may not be the first place one would look for catfish, the 43,100 acres houses all three major species of catfish and the month of July is prime time to go catch any of these.
The Arkansas blue cat is just as at home in Mississippi as it is in it’s native state, and Pickwick has a growing population of large trophy-sized blues and a surplus of smaller, eating-size ones. Barton encourages anglers who target the big fish to catch them quickly and release them healthy, as warm water temperatures can take its toll on a big blue cat that is pulled from deep water during an extended fight.
Because of increased boat traffic and generally sunny conditions found during the summer, Barton is going to focus most of his big catfish activity during the early daylight hours and the last few hours before sunset.
“For big fish, I’m going to fish the area from State Line Island to the dam and I’m going to be concentrating on the bottom of the ledge that lines the main river and the river channel itself,” said Barton. “Look for wash holes. There are not that many, I think there are two or three down through there that are programmed on the Navionics chip, but anywhere you’ve got a deeper hole or a pocket, you definitely want to hit those places.”
Barton trolls for trophy blue cats and relies on his programmable trolling motor to lead the way.
“I think a lot of the tournament catfish guys call it controlled drift,” he said. “I’m going to use my iPilot trolling motor to record a trail, usually along the bottom of a ledge or channel. I always try to troll downstream because, if you’ve got current, the fish are facing upstream. Then I’ll turn around and run that recorded contour because the big cats like to hold along those edges.”
Barton’s trolling rig is a modified version of the popular Santee drift rig, except he uses 3- or 4-ounce pencil weights he pours himself and a T swivel in place of the standard 3-way. He prefers a big 7/0 Daiichi circle hook and will go as large as a 10/0 on occasion.
He temps big cats with large sections of fresh cut skipjack herring when available and cut gizzard shad or other panfish when he can’t get the river herring.
His pattern for smaller blue catfish, those destined for the frying pan, is a similar location but instead of concentrating on the bottom of the river ledge, he focuses on the top. Instead of trolling for those fish, he will solidly anchor the boat and downsize his tackle to match the quarry. He also uses smaller cuts of herring, shad or the gut wad of the bait.
“Throw the bait up on top of the ledge and drag it over to the edge of the ledge and let it fall off,” said Barton. “Those little fellows are usually on top of the ledge right on the channel or just off the edge of it where it drops. They won’t be all the way to the bottom.”
Barton says he has caught thousands of channel cats from Pickwick Lake, most of them during his younger days as a commercial trotliner. He said the biggest fish he has ever seen from Pickwick was around 15 pounds, but that 90 percent of the channels caught by recreational anglers would be in the 1½- to 3-pound range, which are just right for eating. Although he occasionally catches channels mixed with smaller blues, he said channels head into much shallower water this time of year.
“Channels are going to be shallower and they like rock,” he said. “The best places to fish are around bluff lines or rip rap, somewhere you’ve got some rock with a pretty good drop. But, even in July, they’re going to be in 3 to 9 or 10 feet of water.”
He uses the same spinning and light baitcast tackle he uses for small blues but forgoes cut bait for commercially made dip baits to catch channels.
“I use the Secret 7 Stink Bait if I can find it,” he said. “Put that on the little sponge treble hooks you can buy at the bait shops. That stuff is deadly on channel catfish.”
Barton also likes bait shrimp that’s gone over (spoiled) just a tad. He has a Gulf Coast connection and said channel cats seem to prefer shrimp to fresh cut shad or herring.
The last, but not least, of the big three catfish species available at Pickwick is the flathead. With a face only a mother catfish or a tournament fisherman could love, flatheads are not as prevalent on Pickwick as blues or channels, but Barton said finding and catching them is not that difficult.
To find flatheads, Barton heads to the headwaters of Pickwick behind Wilson dam on the Alabama side of the lake or the tailrace of Pickwick which is considered part of Kentucky Lake and in the state of Tennessee. He waits until night fall, usually after 11 p.m. when the dam operations have shut down for the night.
“Once they shut that water off, you can go up there with hand-sized bluegill, which is legal in Alabama, or a big gizzard shad,” he said. “I fish them on a Carolina rig suspended under a big slip cork. The water on the face of the dam is roughly 30 feet and I set the cork to about 22 to 24 foot deep.”
Barton said right after power operations cease, flatheads come out to mop up fresh dead or maimed fish, and he will cast his rig right up to the face of the dam and let it wash back to him.
“I don’t guide doing this, but If somebody just wants to catch a flathead, that’s the best luck I’ve had,” he said. “On a good night, I’ll catch five or six from 5 to 8 pounds, but on occasion you’ll run across a good one.”