Depending on what type of catfish angler you ask, July is either a great month to be on the water or a time to stay home.
It’s all a matter of size.
Fishermen who target trophy catfish will tell you that summer is not an ideal time, but those simply looking for a cooler for a fish fry believe it’s just the right time.
So forget the 50-pound fish and go small.
The bonus is that good, eating-size catfish are available just about anywhere you look across the Magnolia State.
Mississippi’s three most common species of catfish are channels, blues and flatheads. Each has its owns peculiarities that are more pronounced as the fish age, but for fish in the 2- to 5-pound range — the size that makes for the best fish fillets — all three can somewhat be grouped together and fished for in the same manner.
To help supply the main course for your summer fish fry, here’s some tips on finding and catching summer catfish.
Start with the state lakes...
According to David Berry, former state lakes coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, some of the best and most-available resources for eating-size catfish are right around the corner from most fishermen — and the MDWFP’s state lakes and state park lakes are underutilized.
All of the state lakes are stocked with channel catfish and get an additional influx of eaters after the spring and summer fishing rodeos held on most of the lakes. Berry said the average fish isn’t huge, something in the 2- to 2½-pound range, but the numbers are there.
“I could probably count on one hand the number of people who fish strictly for catfish on all our state lakes,” Berry said. “It’s a very underutilized fishery. Most people head for the rivers, and a lot of them are more interested in netting or trot lining.
“As far as rod-and-reel anglers, we just don’t get that many who are targeting just catfish.”
…But the rivers do rule
Often the best catfish holes on south Mississippi rivers will be in the middle to lower reaches, along tree-lined banks. Fishing bank holes presents a bit of a challenge when compared to deep areas near the center of the channel. Anchoring a boat is more difficult, as surface currents will try to force the boat to the bank, while bottom currents draw baits to the side. Practice and experience with anchoring pay off, and additional time spent insuring a good anchor position often pays off in whiskered fish.
Angler Neil Sargeant of Hattiesburg spends much of his summer fishing time on the Leaf River near New Augusta, and he has mastered anchoring skills.
“I like to anchor my johnboat upstream from a likely hole and
let the current wash my baits back to the fish,” said Sargeant, who swears by catalpa worms as his No. 1 catfish bait for the river. “I give each spot about 30 minutes, and if I’ve not gotten a bite by then, it’s on to the next spot.”
Albert Fortenberry of New Hebron grew up along the banks of the Pearl River in Lawrence County. He runs trot lines nearly year-round and has been doing so most of his life, enjoying the fellowship of running lines with friends, spending a weekend camping on the banks of the river, catching bait, cleaning fish and enjoying the outdoors.
“The average channel cat we’ll catch is about 3 pounds,” Fortenberry said. “Blues will average about 5 pounds, and the average (flathead) is going to run about 6 or 7 pounds. If you fish hard over a weekend, you have a good chance of seeing some decent-sized flatheads and a couple of blues that will go 8 to 10 pounds.”
Bob Crosby, who guides on the Mississippi River, focuses much of his effort on deep holes and washout created by wing dikes in the river near his hometown, Vicksburg. These washouts typically have plenty of deep water — anywhere from 60 to over 100 feet depending on the river stage — and some structure inside the hole that will provide a current break to protect catfish.
“Most of the dikes come out of the water at Vicksburg at about 14 feet, but they’re all out at 12 feet,” Crosby said. “If water conditions remain steady at this level, meaning not a lot of rapid ups or downs, it’s no trouble to fish the scour holes at the end of the dikes. That’s where I catch the majority of my catfish.”
When setting up in the Mississippi River, boat positioning is critical; your boat needs to settle close enough to reach the right areas with your baits. You must account for the direction of the current, then backing off the distance of the cast plus the amount of anchor scope.
“The average dike is probably a couple hundred yards long,” Crosby said. “You can anchor up on the edge of the dike, where the main current is blowing through the cut out. Catfish will hold right on the edge of the main current and the slower current. Use your graph, find the fish and anchor up on them.”
While the Mississippi River is known as the land of giants, plenty of eating-size catfish are available. Crosby’s advice for catching numbers is to match your bait size to the size of the fish you’re targeting.
Reservoirs can produce
The flood-control lakes in northern Mississippi are often overlooked for their catfish potential because of their tremendous crappie fisheries. Whether you’re talking Grenada, Arkabutla, Sardis or Enid — and even Barnett Reservoir near Jackson — catfish often take a back seat to crappie and bass.
That’s just fine with David Wall, who fishes Grenada, along with many other summer catfish anglers.
Wall is quick to point out that commercial catfish baits may work for some, but he’d much rather “match the hatch” by using fresh cut bait right out of the lake.
“Don’t come to Grenada Lake unless you’ve got some shad,” he said. “That’s the best bet. Of course they’ll bite anything, but shad is their natural bait.”
Wall said that like himself, most commercial catters on Grenada have been fishing the lake for a long time. They understand the bottom contours that catfish find to their liking, and they fish those locations. He said anglers who are unfamiliar with catfish habits on any of the reservoir lakes could do worse than just be observant for jugs and fish those areas.
A feature around the shallow areas that can attract catfish is a site where cormorants roost. The birds sit up in the trees, and their droppings fall in the water. Wall said it’s like having automatic feeders for the fish. Local catfish anglers refer to it as “splat” fishing.
“I wouldn’t anchor under any of the trees because of the bird droppings,” he said. “But catfish hang around those long points and islands after those droppings.”
Wall said it’s also best to take the wind and the waves from pleasure boats into consideration when looking for catfish during summer.
“Fish the side the wind or the waves are washing on,” he said. “That mixes up the water and churns up the bottom and gets the food chain started. Catfish will always come to that side to see what there is to eat.”