Though the days are getting shorter, anglers looking for mega-catfish are in for a full-time fight.
It might just be too much fun I’m having here. I had lowered my large chunk-bait behind the boat and let it sink toward the bottom. As the current slowly moved me and my buddy Brian Barton in his specially rigged boat, I held my rod loosely in both hands, and I watched the world go by. Fishing catfish in the fall always leads us on an adventure.
And then the rod tip jerked downward, my hands clenched the rod, and my reel made a sharp sound which always means a big, strong fish had come to call. That was the first part of the fun. It took me several minutes of hard work to finally get the hard-puller up to where we could see it.
A broadhead with small, beady eyes and a big round belly, long whiskers surrounding the wide mouth—no, this wasn’t one of my fishing buddies.
It was a large, angry Alabama catfish thrashing at boat side. We got the big catfish corralled in the extra-large landing net Captain Brian uses for big catfish. And then we admired our catch.
We took a few photos of the fish before Brian eased the big fish back into the current. As the fish left us, it showered us with a strong splash of water; the fish’s blessing to an angler who gives it back its life.
I was tired, my arms and back hurt, and my face needed drying off. But I was ready for another round of fall mega-catfishing in Alabama.
About Fall Catfishing
When I want to find out about a topic without the benefit of previous knowledge, I like to go to the experts. And when it comes to fishing catfish in the fall in Alabama, there’s no one much more expert than my buddy Captain Brian Barton.
“In lakes like Wilson, search for big cats along ledges, along with creek and river channels. Depending on the weather conditions, the fish will either be right off the bottom or suspended just below the baitfish schools.”
A former commercial catfisherman, Captain Brian is now a professional guide on three lakes: Wilson, Wheeler, and Pickwick. He shows lots of visitors about the big catfish game.
“November is a great month to land a big catfish,” Captain Brian says. “Numbers of fish taken by anglers sometimes drop off in late October, but the potential for big fish over 30 pounds remains good throughout the winter.”
Barton continues, “In lakes like Wilson, search for big cats along ledges, along with creek and river channels. Depending on the weather conditions, the fish will either be right off the bottom or suspended just below the baitfish schools.”
If the weather is tranquil or pre-frontal conditions exist, look for the fish to be up and feeding underneath the bait. If a cold front has just passed and bluebird skies are above, the fish will most likely be near the bottom.
“In river environments, the fish will be on the side or top of the channel ledges when actively feeding. They will hunker down in deep holes or on the bottom of the channel in post-frontal conditions.”
Captain Brian explains the behavior of the big catfish in fall, saying, “The fish will still be gorging themselves on shad minnows in order to build body fat for the winter until the water temperatures drop into the upper 40s. When water temperatures get this low, the bite often becomes much slower, and anglers must anchor and be more patient.
“Most fish will be in the mid-depth range to deep water. Again, weather plays a role here. Pre-front fish tend to be up and feeding. Post-front fish will often lay down and be much harder to catch.
“Current always stimulates the bite, regardless of the season. When the dams are generating or water is moving due to excess rainfall, the catfish will go into feeding mode more quickly.”
What’s Bait for Big Cats?
Once we have the probable location for trophy size Alabama catfish lined up—that may take a while depending on weather and water temperatures—the next big step to becoming a catfish catcher is to put the best bait before them.
Again, Captain Brian offers some help. “For big cats, I almost exclusively use cut skipjack herring when it’s available. I cut the bait in various sizes from one-inch to three- inch chunks. The fish tell me what size they want. My next choice is to cut shad in the same sizes. If I can get live five- to six-inch threadfin or gizzard shad, they work equally well.”
“Fish in the 50- to 60-pound range are fairly common, but anglers would be mistaken to expect this size fish on every trip.”
Anglers can expect to encounter a wide range of catfish in the fall while using cut bait. If they can get big chunks of bait in their mouths, catfish from one pound to forty pounds are pretty common. Captain Brian’s personal best catfish is a 75-pound monster that was caught in the fall.
Fish in the 50- to 60-pound range are fairly common, but anglers would be mistaken to expect this size fish on every trip. The monster cats are there, but it’s all a matter of good fortune when it comes to hooking one up.
However, the average size fish encountered in Alabama’s best catfish waters in fall will range from eight to 15 pounds.
Rig it Right or Don’t Bother Coming
A serious mistake made by some anglers who seek ‘Bama’s biggest catfish is coming to the fight under-gunned.
Hooking a really big catfish can happen on just about any size gear, but actually getting a trophy to the boat requires some serious gear. Captain Brian tells us, “I use B‘n’M Magnum Catfish rods equipped with ABU 6500LC3 reels. The line counter reels are a must when vertical trolling to make sure your bait is at the depth the fish appear on your electronics. The B‘n’M rods will hold anything that swims in our lakes, plus provides a comfortable handle for the angler while fighting the fish.
“I use Vicious 80-lb test braid on my reels with a 50- or 60-lb test mono leader to the hook. The Daiichi Circle Chunk Bleeding Bait hook in a 7/0 is my hook of choice. These hooks are extremely sharp.
“Last year my son and I quit counting at 45 consecutive hookups without a miss on fish. That’s an astounding percentage.”
Another very important part of Captain Brian Barton’s equipment is his choice of rod holder; they’re not all the same.
He says, “I use Driftmaster 0/30 degree rod holders. I fish four rods out of the back of the boat and two to three rods along the side. The rods out the back are either fished vertically with a Carolina rig set up or pulled 50 to 75 feet behind the boat with a float rig, which keeps the bait about a foot off the bottom.
“The rods along the side are always rigged with a Carolina rig and fished vertically suspended off the bottom. When trolling, I want the vertical presentations at zero degrees. I use the 30-degree angle for dragging float rigs and all presentations if I’m anchored.”
Is November Catfishing Really Worth The Trip?
Captain Brian is adamant about fishing catfish in the fall when he says, “My best November cat was in the 60-pound range. That said, I lost a fish at the surface two years ago that was well over 70 pounds. He was tangled in a cut trotline and I couldn’t get him close enough to get the net under him before he broke my leader line.”
When asked his best advice to potential trophy cattish hunters, Captain Brian says, “Success in November relies on two primary principles. First, spend time riding and using your electronics to locate fish. Fish aren’t moving a whole lot this time of the year, so it’s important to set up where the fish are.
“Secondly, be patient. Try different bait sizes, trolling from different directions and depths before changing locations. The more baitfish there are in the area, the more likely the fish will be feeding. Successful fishing takes time and persistence. I’m very lucky to be in a position where I can fish four to five days a week.
“The average angler can’t do that, so it’s difficult to find and pattern fish. One piece of advice I give each angler is to keep a diary of every trip, good or bad. I log water temps, weather conditions, depths, baits used, and other data on every trip.
“If fisherman will take the time to do this, you will see patterns begin to emerge over time that will help you greatly. Sometimes knowing what not to do, is just as important as knowing what to do.”
Important Contact Information:
Captain Brian Barton