Mississippi waters are full of channels, blues and flatheads. Here’s how to start the process of assembling the main ingredient in a fish fry.
Catfish may not be the most sought-after fish species in Mississippi; that distinction is likely shared by bass and crappie. Bream and catfish get pretty high billing, however, with a faithful camp of followers dedicated to each.
When it comes to the end result — fillets on the table so to speak — catfish more often get the nod. Face it, there just aren’t any bream houses around where customers can get all the fried filets, cole slaw, hushpuppies and fried dill pickles they care to eat, all washed down with giant glasses of sweet iced tea,
Mississippi is No. 1 in catfish production in the United States, with 36,100 acres of catfish ponds producing 55% of the channel catfish consumed by our nation and exported. But anglers who wish to have a catfish dinner by their own hands need look no further than Mississippi’s creeks, streams, rivers and lakes for the perfect, organic, fish-based meal. In addition to the channel catfish, local waters are host to blue cats and the highly prized flathead. There are other varieties of catfish, such as yellow bullhead and mad-toms, but they are not target species.
The three prime species can be found together in river-based impoundments such as Ross Barnett Reservoir, the Tenn-Tom Waterway and oxbow lakes like Chotard or Eagle. Before the advent of catfish farming, the Mississippi River and commercial fishermen accounted for the bulk of processed catfish sold to restaurants. But here’s the deal: outside the river systems, there are few places where all catfish live and spawn. Let’s look at the fish individually and where, when and how to target them.
Channel cats are the cheetahs of the aquatic world. Long, lean and fast, they are smaller when mature than blues and flatheads. These are the only catfish Mississippi stocks or replenishes in state-managed lakes. Aside from the initial stocking when a lake is impounded or renovated, the only replenishment may come when a fishing rodeo is held in an area; after the event, the harvestable-sized fish remaining are released into a lake. Natural spawning does occur, but some of the biggest predators of channel cat hatchlings are largemouth bass. It goes without saying that a great bass lake will not be renowned for catfish — and visa versa.
All catfish could be considered to be a living, swimming tongue. Their unique whiskers, aka barbels, as well as specialized skin cells constantly sample the water for food sources. Channels aren’t finicky about their diet, eating minnows, crawfish, and live bream with equal vigor. Cut shad, earth worms and juiced-up hot dogs also work. According to Keith Sutton, author of two award-winning books on catfishing, a catfish’s sense of smell is nothing short of phenomenal.
“Catfish have two olfactory pits; each pit has two nostrils. Water is inhaled through one nostril and exhaled through the other.” Sutton said. “The number of folds inside the olfactory gland does the actual smelling. Catfish have 140 folds, while bass have only eight to 13. A catfish may detect a food source with a ratio of 1 part to 10 billion parts of water.”
While several different fishing methods can produce a catfish dinner, anglers need to match the style they enjoy to the lake they choose. For example, FFFDs (free-floating fishing devices) are popular with anglers, but they are not allowed on state lakes or state-park lakes. The same goes for trot lines and yo-yos. These lakes are best fished with a rod and reel, but don’t think these little lakes are devoid of prizes, Lake Tom Bailey, just east of Meridian, produced the state-record channel catfish. The 51-pound, 12-ounce record has stood since 1997.
Catfish have a tough mouth and can straighten light hooks such as those used for crappie or bream. A 3/0 to 5/0 offset hook is a good choice when combined with a 20-pound braid. Monofilament is okay, but catfish have raspy teeth that can fray plain line. Given their habit of swallowing bait, some anglers keep a supply of leaders and hooks on hand, a practice that works well with any style of fishing. Hooks and line may be increased in size if the target is the biggest channel in the lake.
Blues are the lions of the water. They travel in schools and congregate around their favorite food source: shad. They are a river/reservoir fish and require big water to survive. Young blues are especially fond of crawfish but will respond well to cut bait, minnows, goldfish and most smelly offerings, but shad may be their favorite.
“In the spring, if an angler locates a large school of shad — also known as a shad ball — blue cats will be underneath them, looking for stragglers or picking them off as they swim on the outside of the ball,” said Jerry Brown, fisheries biologist for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks. “This is a winter pattern that extends until spawning season for the catfish.”
Blue cats are, for the most part, cavity nesters, which makes them especially popular with the hand-grabbing crowd. These brave anglers offer themselves as bait by feeling inside natural cavities or man-made boxes to grab fish with their hands. Blues weighing 40 to 60 pounds or more are caught in this manner. Hand-grabbing, aka noodling, is allowed in some lakes from May 1 to July 15. The state-record blue weighed 95 pounds and was caught in the Mississippi River near Natchez.
“Each year, there are good harvests of large catfish in Ross Barnett Reservoir,” said Tom Holman of MDWFP’s Fisheries Division, “and each year, we field a few calls about the need for a limited creel on older, mature, breeding-aged fish. But over time, there has been no appreciable decrease in the catfish population. The agency monitors the waters through electrofishing and sees no reason to curtail the harvest at this time.”
Perhaps the most-popular method of fishing for blues is FFFDs — jugs in most folks’ vernacular. It’s quite simple; start with a jug, be it a 2-liter drink bottle or a foam swimming pool noodle. Attach a length of stout line with a weight and a hook, bait it with things catfish fancy and sit back and wait. Some anglers have found that alligators have made the connection between a dancing jug and a catfish. If this happens, pick up and move to another part of the lake.
Trot lines are a tried-and-true method of filling the boat with blue cats. Secure one end of the main line to a tree, log, limb or other secure object. Extend the line parallel to the bank if fishing in a river. Stretching a trotline across a deep bend in the river is always fruitful. Since catfish tend to swallow the bait, keep several drops ready to replace the ones taken out of action by fish. Using circle hooks may also help as they catch the fish in the jaw,
Know by many monikers, flatheads are the leopards of the river. Solitary, strong, powerful and highly prized for their delicious flesh, these brutes can be caught in the same waters where other catfish roam, just not as readily nor on the same baits. Flatheads, aka tabby cats, appaloosas or mottled cats, prefer live bait. They are especially fond of bream — or sunfish in general. Large shiners and goldfish will also earn a bite for fisherman.
Flatheads are also cavity nesters, so hand grabbers frequently encounter them in submerged environs. Once spawning has ended, however, the elusive flathead becomes more nocturnal, feeding primarily at night. That’s the reason so many hook-and-line fisherman wait until sundown to get started. Flatheads are not as active in cooler weather as channels and blues, but they are plenty active in summer months.
In rivers such as the Big Black, Pearl, Tallahatchie and Pascagoula, they are fond of logjams, where they lay in wait for a passing meal.
Like all catfish, flatheads possess all the sensory organs required to find food in turbid or stained water. Catfish are blessed with thousands of electroreceptive pores on their heads and bodies that sense the nearby presence of living organisms. That means a catfish doesn’t have to see, smell or taste food in order to find it.
Remember when you were chided as a child for making noise when fishing and were admonished that you were scaring the fish? Well, there is truth to that. While catfish don’t have ears as such, they are very aware of noises around them. Non-natural noises such as banging objects in a boat will switch on a catfish’s defenses. It has also been proven that they can feel footsteps on the bank or on a pier.
The Mississippi record for a flathead catfish is 77.7 pounds; it was taken from the Mississippi River near Tunica. It is commonly believed that bigger fish are swimming today, and that this record will be broken. Ross Barnett Reservoir has surrendered several heavier than 50 pounds in the past decade.
So there you have it; catfish are a complex fish that are fairly easy to catch. Baits are easily acquired and simple to use. Equipment doesn’t have to be fancy, just strong. So grab the tackle and get some bait and enjoy a summer evening in Mississippi filling the cooler with fresh catfish filets.
The bait buffet
Shad are popular catfish baits and are often caught in cast nets in tailraces below dams. To limit the possible spread of the invasive Asian carp, all shad or other trash fish must be killed or allowed to die before being transported above the dam to be used as bait. Gamefish caught by this method must be released immediately.
Sunfish, including bream, may be used as catfish bait, but the statewide creel limit of 100 fish is in force.
Baits for catfish are numerous; tackle shops sell prepared baits like blood-based chunks and natural baits such as worms and minnows. Chicken tenders, deer heart/liver, and crappie heads likewise will catch catfish. Searching the internet will uncover dozens of possibilities.
Catfish regulation particulars
Each person having a valid fishing license may use no more than 100 hooks per person.
State lakes and state park lakes in Mississippi do not have a length restriction on catfish. However there is a creel limit of 10 fish per angler per day.
FFFDs may have two hooks per device, but there is a limit of 25 devices per licensed angler.
Nesting boxes used by hand grabbers are considered as fish attractors; thus, anyone may fish them.
Complete rules for freshwater fishing in Mississippi can be found in the Mississippi Outdoor Digest or online at www.mdwfp.com.