The Pascagoula is far from the longest river in Mississippi, running only 80 miles from the convergence of the Chickasawhay and Leaf rivers to where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico without great fanfare.
But it is the longest river in the continental United States that is uninterrupted by a dam or has never been channelized, which makes it a jewel to the Magnolia State.
Taking its strength from much of the central and eastern portion of the state, the Pascagoula is a near pristine waterway, harboring a wide assortment of fish and animal species.
It is rich with legend, as well. It is said that the Pascagoula Tribe chose to join hands and walk into the river singing a death chant rather than fight their neighbors, the Biloxi Indians.
Some swear that on quiet evenings, if you listen closely, the spirits of the river’s namesakes can still be heard singing the chant.
More likely, you will hear fishermen singing the praises of the great fishing the Pascagoula River offers. Indeed, every species in the state is found in the river, with the exception of the smallmouth bass, yellow perch and southern walleye.
Perhaps a few chubs and darters might be missing, as well, but who’s counting.
But catfish are one of the most-sought species. Just as with other rivers, flatheads, blues and channels are plentiful, and in the southern reaches gaftopsail and hardhead catfish may be added to the harvest. Not that they are always kept.
Think of the Pascagoula as being two parts: the upper four-fifths (or more), with its predominately freshwater species; and the lower one-fifth, the coastal portion that is increasingly brackish as it nears the Gulf.
Beginning near Merrill, the Pascagoula River winds and bends its way through most of George and Jackson counties. But as is the character of a free river, there are bends with steep banks opening into other curves with broad sandbars.
In a word, the upper portion of the river is a catfish anglers “paradise” famous for its production of the whiskered fish.
Nearer the Gulf, what you can catch is anybody’s guess.
“The salt ledge moves according to tidal influences from the Gulf and freshwater influx from feeder streams,” said fisheries biologist Jeremy McClain of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. “In late summer the brackish water may start just a few miles north of the I-10 Bridge.”
Go north for cats
In the freshwater of the upper river, the three main catfish, in order of desirability are the flathead, the channel and the blue. Understanding the three different fish will better enable an angler to boat the targeted species.
Flatheads: Treasured for their sweet tender flesh, flatheads are active both day and night. Preferring live bait, these fish want a big meal when they stop to eat. Bream, shad, or large shiners are top choices. Many anglers will use a large chunk of cut shad or mullet. Using a scent enhancer is never a bad idea, even with the live offering.
“Catfish have been compared to a living tongue,” McClain said. “They smell and taste their surroundings with several methods, and can follow a scent in the current for a relatively long distance. They will be smelling food all the time, but a little blood or stink at the bait source will get them moving in that direction.”
Flatheads, also known as tabby or appaloosa cats, appear to prefer deeper pools and a fair amount of structure. Look for logjams in the deeper bends of the river. This is a prime location for a flathead to lay in wait for a passing meal.
Channel cats: Also known as specks or spotted cats, channels are fish you eat when you purchase farm-raised catfish. But why buy them when you can catch them. Not a finicky eater, the channel will woof down night crawlers, live shiners, goldfish, hog dogs soaked in any of a dozen concoctions, chicken liver, or even chopped up road-kill.
Since channels patrol the water column most hours of the day, running trot-lines is a very popular way to catch these river ramblers. To insure the most bait exposure, secure the trot-line securely on one end and allow it to run diagonally to the bottom. Make sure to note the hooks that get most bitten and adjust for that depth by adding or removing weighted lines to the main line. Since catfish are notorious about swallowing the bait, equip your trotline with quick attach clips and keep several on hand in the boat. When a fish has swallowed the hook, just swap out the drop and deal with the hook in the fish when finished with rebaiting.
Limb lines are another popular catfish method used by Pascagoula River anglers. Just as the name implies, a line is tied to a stout limb or root and thrown or dropped into the water. If the limb is pulled down or is shaking when you return, you have a fish to collect.
Blue catfish: Blue cats are common all along the river and several of the tributaries feeding the river. They have the feeding tendencies of both the channel and flatheads, meaning they eat live or prepared or cut bait. On a rod and reel, these cats can put up a ruckus and are fun to catch.