Eavesdrop on a dockside conversation anywhere on Lake Pickwick, and statements like "I'm on 'em," "They're thick," and "Boy, you shoulda seen the one I hooked yesterday" rarely refer to catfish.

They could, and they very well should - despite this willing warriors PR deficit.

Catfish aren't fancy; they're not pretty. They're decidedly unglamorous and most unlikely to ever become the focus of national fishing tournament trails. They're about as blue collar as freshwater fishing gets, but catfish eat practically any bait, pull like they want to sink your boat and yield some mighty fine fillets that fit nicely next to cheese grits and baked beans.

Given the lake's abundance of largemouth and smallmouth bass, Pickwick cats take a backseat until you give them the chance to prove their merit. Channel, blue, white and flathead catfish are the common species, and with lots of favorable bottom contour, Pickwick offers prime opportunity for those who would seek these modest opponents.

"On a scale of 1-10, I'd rate the lake an 8 or 9," said Pickwick guide Roger Stegall. "It's not known so much for the 40- to 50-pounders, but it will hold its own in the 3- to 10-pound range, and you'll see a few 20-pounders."

In addition to the Tennessee River's deep channel, several tributary channels and a bounty of mussels - catfish candy - Stegall notes that the Tennessee Valley Authority's power generation cycles through the Pickwick Dam further contribute to productive catfish habitat.

"There's a good bit of current because of TVA pulling power through the (lake water), and that makes the catfish feed," he said. "The water stays oxygenated because of the dam, but the current also keeps it stirred up, and that's what catfish like."

Get the drift

Gary Harlan, an accomplished bass angler from Tishomingo has spent plenty of time tending jug lines - a tactic that, along with trotlines and limb-lining, accounts for much of Pickwick's grassroots catfish effort. However, while those methods depend on catfish coming to the bait, Harlan takes his game to the fish.

Drifting the river channel's deep drop-offs, along with the edges of creek channels, Harlan monitors his depth recorder, and looks for concentrations of fish before deploying baits. With catfish typically holding toward the lower edges of the drops, Harlan likes to drift diagonally, as opposed to moving in a perpendicular line over the channel. Making sword swipes through the target zone keeps his baits in the fish longer.

Maintaining his presentation in the right depth is critical, but Harlan also watches for any variances in bottom contour or any random structure. Such features redirect water flow, and create catfish feeding zones.

"Any obstruction in the current - a high spot, a low spot, a stump - catfish will relate to that structure," Harlan said. "They'll just lay there and wait for the current to bring them some groceries."

When wind and/or current push him along too quickly, Harlan uses a drift sock to slow his momentum, or he'll use his trolling motor to "feather" the drift. Ideally, he likes to start on an east bank in the morning and switch to the west side in the afternoon.

"A real key for my catfishing is to run the shady side of a channel," Harlan said. "Not so much shade from trees, but shade from the bank. The fish just seem to be more aggressive in the shady areas."

Assembling a day's variables into one productive pattern takes time, but Harlan said there's no substitute for persistence.

"The biggest thing I've found is that you keep moving until you get bit," he said. "Somewhere, there's catfish feeding, and you just keep drifting until you run into them."

Rigs and baits

They say there's more than one way to skin a cat, and there's more than one rig that'll catch them. For drift fishing, a heavy Carolina rig is probably the simplest option, but Stegall said a double-hook setup can also get the job done. Start with 3 to 4 feet of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader, pull out a loop and secure it with a half-hitch knot. Repeat to form a second loop about 6-8 inches lower. Fasten a sinker of appropriate weight to the tag end.

To attach each hook, poke the loop through the hook eye, pull it forward and swing the hook through this loop. Pull the leader tight to close the loop and snug it up behind the hook eye. This no-knot system allows you to quickly change hooks and remove them after fishing for safe storage.

Harlan opts for a different rig that he said offers him optimal diversity. He uses a three-way swivel with his weight suspended on a leader from the bottom ring, his main line tied to the top and the bait and hook projecting on a leader fastened to the middle ring. Adjustability and an independent leader prove beneficial.

"The biggest advantage is that it doesn't twist your line," Harlan said. "You can adjust your leader length depending on the current and how close to the bottom you think the fish are relating.

"Also, after they've been fished a couple of days, (the catfish) can get a little skittish, so you can adjust the length of your leader accordingly. This is a flexible rig - there are a lot of things you can (alter) without changing the rig."

Harlan uses a lighter leader between his swivel and weight, so if he does snag bottom, he can retrieve the rig and only lose the weight.

Fall brings an abundance of shad throughout Pickwick, so netting a load provides a great bait option. Catfish anglers also fare well with oily skipjacks, nightcrawlers and a variety of manufactured "stink baits." Harlan prefers a small bluegill or pumpkinseed, either butterflied or cut into strips.

"What you want to play on is their sense of smell," he said. "That's what they depend on more than anything."

Point of contact

Of a catfish strike, Harlan said: "When they're biting, they'll just about take the rod out of your hand. They're typically going to swallow anything they can get. They're not exactly nibblers.

"The smaller ones up to about 10 or 12 pounds are going to spin when you stick them. They're going to pull, but they do like an alligator roll. The big ones are like pulling up a Volkswagen. They will just lie in one spot and not move. I've seen it where I had to give them slack just to get them to move."

Generally, catfish are a misunderstood lot. Actually, "underrated" is probably a more fitting description. Considered lazy, plodding couch potatoes, cats seldom enjoy the same respect as Pickwick's hard-charging smallmouth, the voracious largemouth or even the pugnacious crappie. Nevertheless, these swimming appetites won't hesitate to unload on whatever they want to eat.

"When I put out jugs sometimes, I'm fishing in 50 feet of water, but I only have 6 feet of line out," Stegall said. "They're just like a bass - they'll come right up to the surface to get a bait."

Case in point: While bass fishing with Harlan, I cast a Smithwick Rogue toward a Pickwick shoreline known for resident smallies. My guide had modified the basic shad pattern by drawing diagonal bars with a black permanent marker. Apparently, the artwork impressed one of the locals because about five casts into the exercise, a freight train strike nearly relieved me of my rod-holding duties.

Gathering myself, I put the heat on what we thought was a respectable smallmouth. The fish kept its head down, and made several spirited runs before finally rolling topside. To my surprise, we found no brown bars on these cheeks - just long, fleshy barbels and slime, lots of slime.

The next day, while casting a Strike King crankbait along the edge of a residential canal, I came tight on what I thought was my first bass of the morning. The fish took drag, but when it surface - you guessed it - another catfish.

By the end of my trip, the "catfish boy" label hung most ignominiously around my neck. What can I say? I didn't exactly request a catfish on either cast, but the force with which each fish struck and the resulting struggle left a lasting impression. This may not be the most photogenic fish in the lake, but can anyone question its sporting value?

So whether it's soaking stink baits, drifting deep edges or - perish the thought - casting plugs, Pickwick's whiskered wonders present an underpublicized resource that's worth experiencing.