How to Catch Trophy Catfish in Alabama
How to Catch Trophy Catfish in Alabama

The boat drifted slowly backwards against the river’s current, even as the tug motor’s propeller whirled, trying to push forward against the current. As the boat passed a rise 15 meters below, the rod tip twitched ever so slightly. Then the powerful rod bent as a river monster devoured the victim.

Huge catfish can be found in big rivers, but anglers have to search for them. It takes years to catch a catfish that weighs at least 50 pounds, and few make it. Even fewer reach the 100-pound mark. To find giant barracuda, many anglers float down rivers like the Alabama or Tombigbee.

“The Tombigbee River is a hidden catfish gem,” said Joey Pounders, a professional catfish angler. “I’ve caught quite a few catfish in it that were over 50 pounds. We could catch a 40-pound blue and a 40-pound flathead out of the same hole.”

When drifting on a river, an angler can cover considerable areas of water. A moving lure is more likely to get close to the whiskers of a large, hungry catfish than one that is simply sitting on the bottom. In systems like the Alabama, Tombigbee, or Mobile-Tensaw Delta, large catfish can lurk anywhere.

Catfish do not normally stay in the current. They often stay next to or behind some kind of current break, such as a hole, tree, or stump. Behind the current break, catfish look upstream, waiting to pounce on anything that comes their way. When they see tempting morsels, they dart out into the current, slurp up what they can, and retreat back into their burrows.

Sometimes river bottoms resemble old-fashioned washboards because the current has carved rolling hills and valleys or dug holes over time. Large catfish sink to the bottom of these troughs. Usually the most active catfish lurk just below the upstream edge of the depression.

“Current plays a really important role in catfish fishing,” says Mike Mitchell, a professional catfish angler from Alabama. “Catfish are used to current. A big catfish likes to swim near something it feels safe in and let the river feed it.”

While fishing Wilson Lake on the Tennessee River near Muscle Shoals, Mitchell landed a 117.20-pound blue catfish. The fish bit a skipjack in 28 feet of water. His fish nearly broke the Alabama state record. John Paul Nichols currently holds that honor with a 120.25-pound blue caught in Holt Reservoir on the Black Warrior River. The Black Warrior River flows into the Tombigbee River near Demopolis.

Drifting can bring huge barbels into the boat, but anglers can’t just cast a line anywhere and expect to catch a river monster. Drifting requires significant planning long before the bait hits the water.

Use electronic devices to do a little spotting before drifting. Look for holes, humps, drop-offs, sunken logs and other bottom contours or objects that might attract large catfish. Forward-facing sonar allows anglers to see through bottom debris and clutter in the water. Anglers can even watch how a fish reacts to a lure or at what moment it will bite.

“A good sonar can give an angler 30 years of experience in five seconds,” explains Phil King, a national catfish champion. “I look for depth changes. It doesn’t have to be more than a foot deep to catch a big fish. I like to fish right on the break-off edge where the current runs across the surface and seems a little churning. Sometimes little mounds on the bottom at the front end will hold debris, which makes the spot that much better.”

After you have searched an area with electronics, plan a drift through the best area. When you head upstream to begin the drift, do not go directly over the best fishing spots. If the current is strong, point the boat upstream. Use the trolling motor to control speed and direction. Run the trolling motor just a little slower than the current of the river so the boat backs up slowly.

“When drifting on a big river, speed is critical,” explains King, a member of the 100-Pound Catfish Club. “When I’m trolling upstream, I’m going downstream slower than the current. That’s the key to a good drift. It gives me the opportunity to present the bait to the fish two or three times instead of it going too fast past the fish. The longer you keep the bait in front of a fish’s face, the more likely it is to bite.”

At the starting point, drop the lines so that the sinker weight touches the bottom. Spin the reel a few times so that the bait is hovering above the weight and a few feet above the bottom. Let the bait run downstream with the current.

“A lot of people think they should put the bait on the bottom, but a catfish’s eyes are on top of its head,” Pounders advised. “We like to keep the bait about two feet off the bottom. In a flowing current, the bait looks more alive when it’s off the bottom. Having the bait off the bottom also spreads the scent, making it easier for the catfish to find it.”

Many anglers fish with multiple rods in holders, each tipped with a different bait, to see what the giant catfish want that day. Generally, bigger bait means bigger catfish, but fewer bites. Big blue catfish usually prefer fish. A giant blue catfish can easily swallow a 5-pound fish.

Oily baits such as whole or cut bonito, herring and mullet are excellent attractants, especially for blue catfish. When fishing with cut bait, use the heads or body cavity parts or both together, as these pieces release the juiciest juices. A catfish can follow a scent trail for a long time. Also try U-shaped fish steaks cut from the gut section. Run the hook under the spine so that the two dangling belly pieces flap in the current. Cast the tail section overboard as bait.

(John N. Felsher/Contribution)

Large flatheads usually want live bait and feed almost exclusively on fish. These aggressive predators eat bluegills, other sunfish, threadfin or gizzard shad, and smaller catfish, especially bullheads, also called mud catfish. Flatheads use their excellent mottled camouflage to attack prey from dense woody cover such as logs and fallen trees.

Strip baits can attract both blue and flathead because they look alive when rigged properly. Fillet off a baitfish’s side about 5 to 9 inches long. Run a circle hook through the thorax to provide better support. In the current, the trailing strip moves like live bait, secreting enticing fluids as it goes. Attach a small float to the leader to keep the bait off the bottom and away from obstacles. A wine cork slid onto the leader looks more like natural flotsam floating in the current than a colorful plastic float.

The extensive Mobile-Tensaw Delta system is rich in catfish and is home to some giants. The Alabama river system has produced the state’s record flathead, an 80-pound catfish. Some of the best fishing is in the main rivers north of Interstate 65. Blue catfish can tolerate more salinity than other catfish species, so they may even penetrate into upper Mobile Bay.

Anglers who float the rivers in the area could potentially catch some of the biggest fish in the area without having to venture out to the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and for significantly less money!

Felsher is always looking for ideas or outdoor adventures that make good stories. If you have a good idea, contact Felsher at (email protected) or through Facebook. He also hosts an outdoor tips show for WAVH FM Talk 106.5 radio station in Mobile.

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By Aurora