Catfish Fishing In Alabama Rivers
Flathead catfish are one of the overlooked gems of Alabama’s rivers and streams. Armed with the best catfish rigs for rivers and some know-how, anglers catfish fishing in Alabama will be filling their ice chests in no time.
Lost among the myriad of game fish and even among the various species of catfish, flatheads grow big, taste great, and provide around-the-clock action for Alabama anglers. Distinctive in their appearance, flatheads are often the by-catch of anglers fishing for other species. Because of their taste for live bait, flatheads often hit artificial lures ranging from tiny crappie jigs to the bigger presentations of bass fishermen.
In most Alabama waters, flatheads are outnumbered by blue and channel catfish but can be caught with some of the same rigging and some of the same baits employed for the other species. Even then, flatheads can be difficult to pinpoint and to catch. They hunker down around structure during the daylight hours and usually only roam during low-light periods and at night. Those characteristics require anglers who specifically target flatheads to focus on the areas in which they normally live and also to feed them baits that they can’t resist.
“I tell my clients that they better be patient and also be prepared to spend some time on the water at night,” said north Alabama catfish guru Mike Mitchell, who catches most of his flatheads below Guntersville Dam on the upper reaches of Wheeler Lake.
Alabama flatheads, a mottled mix of brown, black, and gold with a distinctive flat head that gives them their name, usually grow up to about 60 pounds although anything over 40 is considered a rare trophy. Smaller fish are better for a fish fry, their white meat a delicacy regardless of how they are prepared.
The challenge is first finding flatheads and then presenting baits in such a way that appeals to their finicky nature.
Fish Where They Live
One flathead fisherman states the obvious, “You have to fish where they live.”
Flatheads are not found in catchable numbers in all Alabama streams and rivers. However, choosing likely destinations improves the odds greatly.
“There are streams that we fish in Mississippi that hold mostly flatheads,” said Rodney Crimm, a B’n’M-sponsored tournament angler from Ecru, Miss, who competitively fishes with his brother, Michael Haney, around the Southeast. “That’s not always going to be the case in Alabama.”
The likely destinations for Bama fishermen are the Alabama, Coosa, Black Warrior, and Tombigbee rivers and their tributaries. The Tennessee River also holds big flatheads, but a fisherman is more likely to catch a blue or channel cat there.
Even the Alabama River, which produced the 80-lb. Alabama state record and remains one of the top flathead destinations in the state, yields about a 50-50 mix of flatheads and blues.
“It’s still a great place to fish for flatheads,” said Columbus, Miss., angler Joey Pounders, another B’n’M pro. “The more I learn about the Alabama River, the more I understand the potential for catching flatheads there.”
Pounders has also experienced good success on the Coosa River, especially on Lay Lake. Both the Coosa and the Alabama feature heavy current at times, a scenario that flatheads like. Moving water helps bunch fish in locations that can be easily identified.
That’s not to say that all flatheads come from bigger river systems in Alabama. Flatheads have become abundant in the small rivers of southeast Alabama and in the Florida Panhandle, locations that traditionally have held no native fish. Flatheads, probably illegally introduced some 20 years ago, have become the “apex predator” in certain streams in the region, and fisheries personnel have not been able to slow their expansion.
Fisheries biologist Ken Weathers said flatheads can now be found in the Perdido, Conecuh, Blackwater, Yellow, Chipola, Choctawhatchee and Pea rivers in southeast Alabama.
“They’re here to stay,” Weathers said. “Pretty much, their numbers continue to increase. They have a high reproductive rate and seem to do well in the small rivers down here.”
Find the Structure, Find the Fish
A common denominator for river catfish fishing is structure. Whether the venue is a massive reservoir or a stream that can be cast across, flatheads like structure. Wood is probably the preferred habitat, but flatheads also use boulders, rock piles and indentations in mud.
Still, the classic home to a flathead is some type of wood.
“That’s what we are usually looking for, regardless of where we are fishing,” said Haney, of Perkinston, Miss. “They live around wood. We rarely fish for flatheads other than around some type of wood structure.”
For smaller streams, the wood is often visible at the surface and extends into the water.
“We look for laydowns, stumps, logs that have caught up and wedged into the bank or the bottom,” Haney said. “The flatheads use those types of places to ambush baitfish. A good laydown extending off the bank is hard to beat.”
Haney also noted that the laydown doesn’t have to be that deep.
“People generally think of catching catfish deep, but in some of the smaller streams that we fish in Mississippi, they might be as little as four foot deep,” Haney said. “They always find their comfort zone in the stream they live in.”
Pounders fishes wood as well but also notes a flathead’s proclivity toward staging around mud and clay, especially along his home waters on the Tombigbee River near Columbus, Miss. Most catfish experts, including Pounders, use various features of their electronics to pinpoint likely holding areas. Electronics that provide a side-imaging view allow fishermen to see holes in mud banks or ledges that provide good resting and feeding areas for flatheads.
“Through experience, I have come to understand where they live and feed on the Tombigbee,” Pounders said. “While I don’t always find the same structural features on Alabama waters, most of my knowledge translates to new places that I fish.
“I’ve found on the Alabama River that the fish definitely prefer wood structure. If you can isolate wood structure, as opposed to a lot of woods or stumps, then you are more likely to find flatheads that you can catch. It’s also much easier to get a bigger flathead out of a few trees as opposed to a whole forest of them.”
For years, bream have been the bait of choice for flatheads. Bluegills are the most obvious species that fall under the bream umbrella, but flatheads appear to love the redbreast sunfish frequently found in the southeast Alabama rivers. All bream used as bait must be legally caught on hook-and-line and must meet normal limit regulations.
In recent years, alternatives to bream have proved just as productive for flatheads. Live shad, usually abundant on most Alabama streams, are one such option. Skipjack chunks also account for flatheads as well.
Pounders finds that fresh, live shad are just as good or even better than bream for fooling river catfish. He catches shad in a throw net, places them in his livewell so they can void waste, and then transfers them to his X-treme Bait Systems tank, where they stay lively through a day of fishing or even overnight.
In recent years, fishermen have begun to tweak their shad presentations. A filet from a skipjack or bigger shad, a slender three to five inch slice, provides an enticing look that flutters in current, mimicking live shad.
Pounders, who once held the Mississippi state record with a 77-lb flathead caught from the Tombigbee, also notes that he has enjoyed recent success by “using a lot of shad with the tail shaved off.”
“I’m trying to make sure I don’t cut it back so much that it bleeds out, but enough that it is disorienting to the shad and makes them shake more,” he said. “I do this in hopes that I can get a quick bite from the catfish.”
Haney said the bait does not always have to be alive when catfish fishing. He and Crimm use cut bait frequently and suggest their success rate is just about as good as when using live bait.
“We used to be straight live bait,” Haney said. “What we’ve learned is that fresh cut bait, skipjack, shad, and mooneys will also catch flatheads also.”
Rigging for Success
When considering the best catfish rig, most fishermen use either a Carolina rig or a three-way set-up.
Pounders uses a three-way rig, attaching a heavy swivel to the main line. To the swivel, he ties a leader up to five feet long for his weight and an 18-inch hook leader, which is normally 50-lb. Berkley Big Game mono.
He uses circles hooks by Team Catfish or by Daiichi up to 10/0. Even small flatheads, with their huge mouths, can be caught with hooks of that size.
Pounders’ go-to rods are 10’ B’n’M Silver Cat Magnum 10S models, spinning rods with a sensitive tip. River flathead catfish are light biters at times and the tips on the long spinnings rods help catch more fish. The length – most anglers use seven- or eight-foot rods – also provides more power than an average length rod.
“It’s a good set-up for the best catfish rigs,” Pounders said. “The rods are powerful enough to land the biggest fish but sensitive enough to catch those light bites.”
Haney and Crimm use Silver Cat Magnum rods paired with AbuGarcia 6500 reels. To the main line, they add a sinker slide, which holds the weight, and a barrel swivel. To the swivel, they attach a 12- to 18-inch leader with a snelled 8/0 to 12/0 circle hook. All terminal tackle is by Flathead Fever.
They also slide a cork or float, a Chub model, up the leader on their best catfish rig, to keep the bait off the bottom. Haney said he likes the rattle associated with the Chub model, which he said makes a more vivid sound than other types of catfish floats available. Another rattle is often used just above the hook.
“This is the best catfish rig set-up and will catch flatheads of just about any size,” Haney said. “It doesn’t really matter if we are tournament fishing or just looking for river catfish to eat, we usually rig the same way.”
Other presentations also account for flatheads. If the water allows, jugs are another effective means of targeting flatheads.
Jug fishing is a bit of a misnomer these days. Most fishermen use “pool noodles” cut to about 12 to 18 inches with a line of four to 20 foot attached. The same baits used for rod-and-reel fishing will fool flatheads on the end of a jug line although bream are much more conducive for this type of fishing because of their hardy nature.
Another time-honored option is catching river flathead catfish on limb lines. Fishermen tied a length of line, usually trotline chord, to a tree and then bait with fresh, lively bait. A stout but limber limb that overhangs the water provides the best set-up. Make sure it is strong enough to hold a fish but limber enough to withstand the lunges of a powerful flathead.
Flatheads fall under the normal catfish regulations around most of Alabama. One specific regulation involves trophy fish: only one flathead over 34 inches may be kept per angler per day. That limit does not apply in southeast Alabama because the fish are not native to the region and are considered intrusive. Otherwise, anglers may keep as many smaller flatheads as they wish.
For anglers seeking a new challenge, flatheads may be a viable option. Their many positive attributes, plus the difficulty of hooking and landing them even with the best catfish rig, make them one of the great fishing possibilities in Alabama. Whether from one of the major river systems or from a smaller stream, flatheads are one of the unique fishes of the state, a worthy adversary that demands more attention from Alabama anglers.
This article first appeared in the September 2019 print issue of Great Days Outdoors Magazine. For more great hunting and fishing content for the deep South, subscribe to Great Days Outdoors print and digital editions or click the image to download this issue.