September in Mississippi can be the hottest time of the year. Noted for the return of football, deer-camp workdays and oppressive heat, it is still the heart of summer — even though fall is on the horizon as the ninth month arrives.
Yet, on the water, on the steamiest of cays, the hottest action is often for catfish. As miserable as the mid-day heat may be, it’s never too hot to catch catfish.
Mississippi waters are home to a large number of catfish species and subspecies, but only three — flatheads, blues and channels — are targeted for their size and quality as table fare. Many a skillet of hot grease has welcomed a yellow bullhead, aka mud-cat, but most of those little cats are caught in smaller rivers and creeks on limb lines with earthworms.
Of the big three species, flatheads are by far the most-prized. Their flesh is white and delicate. It can be baked or broiled, but battered and fried is by far the top choice. Flatheads are river dwellers, choosing to occupy deep holes or live under logjams, where they can lie in wait for a passing meal. They prefer live bait.
Blue cats are another river dweller, but without the selective palate. A blue will eat just about anything; stink baits are a top choice, as are cut shad. Goldfish and large shiners are good choices for anglers looking for a less-odiferous offering. Blues like to be close to deep water but will patrol shallow flats at night.
Channels are the most-frequently stocked catfish, both for fishing and for aquaculture purposes.
“Channel cats are the only catfish stocked into state lakes and state park lakes,” said Jerry Brown, a biologist with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. “These fish are easy to catch and are commonly caught by live-bait anglers seeking crappie or bream.”
The agency uses channel cats raised in its hatcheries to stock lakes for childrens’ rodeos, after which those that survive become part of the natural population.
If you eat at a reputable catfish restaurant, you will be getting channel catfish, hopefully labeled Mississippi Farm Raised Catfish, otherwise you may be getting low-quality fish imported from a foreign nation. On average, channel cats are smaller than blues and flatheads, but they grow quickly.
What baits to use
There are two kinds of catfish bait: live or stink. We’ll cover the stinkbaits first. There are two types, store-bought and homemade.
When shopping or creating stinkbaits, consider these two factors:
• How well does it stay on the hook?
• Does it create a little slick or scent trail in the water for the catfish to follow?
Chicken livers are popular baits, but the meat is fragile and difficult to keep on the hook. Beef or pork liver stays hooked better and leaves a decent scent trail. Hot dogs soaked in fish oil and garlic and cut into three equal lengths do well where current is weak. Soak the wieners overnight in a plastic bag. Don’t worry about the grade; the cheap red hotdogs do just fine. A pack of eight cut into thirds will yield 24 baits.
Blood-based baits are sold commercially, with some requiring a sponge to hold the bait on the hook. Some come in a tube, with the contents to be squeezed into another plastic cavity attached to the hook; others are a paste intended to be rolled into a ball, then squeezed onto the hook. These work, but then, some catfish will eat anything.
One angler I know collects road kill that has ripened in the summer sun. He strips the meat from the bones and places it on the hook as is. I’ve seen coolers of catfish he says came from the Pearl River near the Low Head dam.
He eats well.
Fresh or frozen cut bait is my favorite stink bait. Use a cast net to harvest shad or catch small bream on a hook and line. Use the live bream as bait for flatheads and cut the shad/dead bream into chunks for channels and blues.
While fishing on the Tennessee River last summer, I was introduced to a new catfish bait — at least new for me. Richard Simms of Scenic City Charters uses cut shad for big blue cats, but when it comes time to drift, he hooks on a chunk of chicken, the cuts you’d likely find in home refrigerator.
“Boneless breast is best,” Simms said. “Just trim all the excess fat and skin from the chicken. Chicken tenders also work if you are targeting smaller fish.”
I can’t argue. We boated a dozen blues ranging from 15 to 26 pounds during a two-hour drift. I’m anxious to try the technique on the Mississippi River and Tenn-Tom.
Some other bait choices are: live minnows, goldfish, cheese, P&G bar soap, sun-ripened shrimp, squid, cheap cat food wrapped in a gauze bag, and crappie and bream heads from previous fishing trips.
Live bait for big flatheads includes but is not limited to bream or other sunfish. Since law does not allow the commercial sale of gamefish, you will have to catch them yourself. It is legal to use game fish for bait, if they are caught by legal methods. This is not difficult: A few minutes with a hook, line and either worms and/or crickets fished around the edges of a lake or river can usually result in a dozen or so prime baits. Hook the bream under and toward the back of the dorsal fin. Cut off part of the tail fan to add to the injured fish appeal. Big catfish find them difficult to resist.
Crayfish may well be the best live bait going for all species of big catfish. Examine the stomach contents of the catfish you catch; chances are their bellies will be full of shad and crayfish. Remove the pincers and hook them so that they swim backwards. Making a crayfish trap and using it properly will provide all the bait you’ll need for a September outing.
Ask 100 catfish anglers the best way to fish, and you’ll get about 200 answers. Jug-fishing is growing in popularity, and trotlines seem to be holding their own. Rods and reels still have a strong following, as do set lines.
Using a FFFD (free-floating fishing device) — or jug — comes with some restrictions. They are prohibited on state lakes and state park lakes but are allowed on rivers and reservoirs. Consult local and state regulations before throwing out a spread.
A typical jug will consist of a painted bottle such as a 2-liter soft-drink type with a length of line attached to the neck. Fancier rigs are now being made out of PVC inside swimming pool noodles. Add a hook and weight plus your favorite bait, and you’re all set to fish. Using split rings and snap swivels will make the fishing depth adjustable. Adding reflective tape makes the devices easier to see when fishing at night. Needless to say, the devices can be as simple or complex as you wish them to be. Commercial models are sold at all big-box sporting goods stores for those wanting a ready-rig.
Trotlining is simply stretching a long line of set hooks between two fixed objects, such as stumps or poles. Each of the lines holding a hook should be on a swivel to prevent the lines from becoming a hopelessly tangled mess. Another trotline method is to secure one end to a stump or pole and the other end to a weight, such as a rock or a coffee can filled with concrete. This allows the bait to reach a greater depth, presenting the baits to more fish.
Catfish are notorious for swallowing hooks. Removing these hooks can become difficult and time consuming. For that reason, many anglers make up a number of quick replacement rigs. That allows them to simply detach a fish, hook and all, and recover the hook during fish cleaning. A heavy-duty snap swivel is the easiest way to accomplish this. Trotline clips serve the same purpose and are found wherever fishing tackle is sold.
Rods and reels can run the gamut from cheap to expensive. Use the gear best adapted to the size catfish you wish to catch. Using gear that is too light can result in frustration and too many lost fish.
Start with a medium to heavy, 5- to 6-foot rod. A 7-footer will work, especially when long casts are warranted. Saltwater tackle made for redfish is ideal for Mr. Whiskers. Surf rods are good for casting long distances but are gross overkill for smaller fish.
Processing the catch
Very large catfish are fun to catch and definitely make for impressive photos, but big cats are not generally considered the top table fare, especially those in the 30-pound range and up, the size noodlers like Greg Parker of Brandon often grab. He doesn’t hesitate to cook big fish.
“The quality of the meat can be greatly improved by cutting off the tail, just ahead of the tail fin,” he said. “This allows the fish to bleed out. Removing the thin strip of red meat along the lateral line and the yellowish meat along the top of the back will also improve overall flavor.”
Where to go
Citing hot spots for catfish in Mississippi would take forever; it would be a much shorter list if we identified waters that won’t produce.
For bank-fishing, a good starting place would be Mississippi’s state lakes and state parks systems. These lakes boast good populations of channel catfish and constantly restocked as needed. The state-record channel was caught in Lake Tom Bailey in Lauderdale County.
Trotliners love the upper river and creek areas of reservoirs and lakes, as well as the cottonwood trees and willows along the banks of oxbow lakes.
For the most-serious fishermen and trophy anglers, however, nothing short of waters having river as part of their names will do. Whether from a sandbar in the Mississippi River, or a clean bank on the upper portion of the Big Black, flathead and blue cats can be coaxed from the river drainages of the state, just about anywhere you drop a bait in the water.
Mississippi’s Record Catfish
Channel catfish: 51 pounds, 12 ounces, Tom Edwards, Lake Tom Bailey, May 31, 1997.
Blue catfish: 95 pounds, Dakota Hinson, Mississippi River, Natchez, March 16, 2009.
Flathead catfish: 77.7 pounds, Matt Bingham, Mississippi River, DeSoto County, April 21, 2012.
Black bullhead: 5.56 pounds, Harold B. Alexander, Sunrise Lake, June 21, 1988.
Brown bullhead: 6.13 pounds, Bobby L. Gibson, farm pond, Gautier, Jan. 19, 1991.
Yellow bullhead: 2 pounds, 13 ounces, Robert Cason, Mossy Lake, May 26, 1974.