By: Dorothy Allen & J. Nolan White
Do monster catfish really exist in Alabama waters?
In the fishing world, Alabama has the reputation as one of the best bass fishing destinations. However, there is another facet of the fishing world where Alabama excels— monster catfish. This monster is especially found on the Tennessee River and specifically Wheeler Lake, the river’s second-largest reservoir.
In fact, during the Big Cat Quest championship at Joe Wheeler State Park in August, two anglers—Daryl and Jason Masingale of Arkansas—weighed in a cat at 139.30 pounds to take the title on the final day of the event. It’s the largest catfish caught in Alabama waters.
Yet it was three pounds shy of the American world-record catfish, caught in 2011 by Nick Anderson near Clarksville, Virginia. It weighed 143 pounds. But catching big cats that weigh 50 to 100 pounds is common on 67,100-acre Wheeler Lake.
Catfish Guides Can Take You There
Jason Bridges of Arab, Ala., who runs Wheeler Cats Guide Service is familiar with catfishing on the lake. “You have river fishing on one end of Wheeler and lake fishing on the other end. On one end you’ve got current, and on the other end not so much.”
Bridges added that the average cat angler thinks the monster catfish are in deep water. “Not true,” he cautions. “The big cats move into the shallows to get something to eat.”
“It’s safe to say that two or three fish in the 80-pound range are caught on Wheeler every year”
Brian Barton of Muscle Shoals, Ala., has fished the Shoals area for over 30 years. As a respected catfish and striper guide, he owns Brian Barton Outdoors, a guide service. At UNA, he earned his tuition by running trotlines and selling catfish, plus catching and selling skipjack to other anglers.
It’s safe to say that two or three fish in the 80-pound range are caught on Wheeler every year,” Barton says. “It’s a good day in October to land a 30- to 50-pound fish. A catfish in that range is like a 120-inch buck to a deer hunter. And a 50- to 70-pounder is like a 140- to 150-inch class. Anything over 70 pounds is Boone and Crockett.”
Fishing for Monsters at Wheeler
“It’s hard to pinpoint why Wheeler’s catfishing is so good,” says Jason Bridges. “Its diversity of habitat is one thing. Mostly, it’s loaded with bait—shad and skipjack herring. For fish to get that size, they have to eat a lot, and they find a lot of food out there.”
Phil King of Alcorn, Miss., a three-time national champion, agrees. “The availability of forage is why the Wheeler cats get so big. There’s bait all over this lake. Down the lake, where we fish, there are plenty of mussels. These fish feed heavily on mussels. It’s definitely a quality fish area; it’s just that caliber of water.”
“Catching a 30-pound-plus fish is very realistic on a daily basis,” Brian Barton adds. “But you have to know what you’re doing. In the fall, an angler can catch a 50-pound-plus cat if he puts the time in. My best day last fall was eight fish that weighed 178 pounds. My son caught a 58- and 52-pounder within 30 minutes of each other. We caught them in three-and-one-half hours total fishing time.”
One young angler who was observing a fresh monster catfish catch by his friend was overheard to say, “How fish are you deeping?” Combined with the excitement of fishing on Wheeler, humorous expressions like that are what it’s all about for both old and young anglers during the Big Cat Quest championship.
Jeff Williams, who developed the Team Catfish line of tackle and baits, helped 12-year-old Nathaniel Samsel land a 60-pound blue cat the day before the tournament started. “You pattern the fish just like a bass fisherman does,” Williams says. “And sometimes you have to downsize your bait; one time use them whole, half-in-two, or cut the head and tail off and use the middle steak.”
Barton’s favorite bait is fresh-cut skipjack herring. “My next choice is the head portion of a six- to 10-inch gizzard shad,” he says. “My third choice is a three- to four-inch shad minnow fished whole.”
Skipjack are caught at the base of a dam on a multi-hook setup called a Sabiki rig. Shad are typically caught with a cast net. Alternative baits include cut bream and night crawlers. “Shrimp are good too,” Barton adds, “because every living creature loves them. No matter what I use, the bait needs to be iced from the time of collection till it’s put on the hook.”
Fish Like You Mean It
Fishing guides stress that the angler who pursues monster catfish must have a lot of patience, pay attention to detail, and make sure you have the best bait and equipment at all times.
Jason Bridges compares catfishing to angling for bass. “Where I fish depends on the time of year,” he says. “If you fish the current, you look for structure. If I’m fishing the other end of the lake, I’m fishing the flats. Cats like to get up on the flats and feed and roam around. I look for ledges and humps. Like bass fishing, you find out what size bait they want. If they want big bait, I’ll fish a two-pound skipjack.”
Fishing deeper water at the power plant input (always a slow-moving current) where the discharge pipe extends well into the river can be productive. The water under the power lines contains lots of structure and will produce larger fish, too. These areas are within a short ride from the Mallard Creek launch ramp.
Brian Barton recommends using a fish finder. “I use a Humminbird 1198,” he says. “If your unit is set up right, you are going to see 30-pound and bigger fish on the screen. I rarely anchor when catfishing in the fall. When my last hook hits the water, I set a kitchen timer for 20 minutes. If I don’t get a bite by the time it sounds, I’m gone to another location.”
Catfish can be found about anywhere in October. For monster catfish, head down the lake to the Shoals Creek area and to the south toward the Robert Trent Jones clubhouse. These flats range from 50- to 65-feet deep and have numerous humps and other topographic features. When fishing the lower end of the lake, Barton says his best locations are the bases of river ledges and tops of humps.
Again, he uses a deer analogy. “Hunters know deer prefer edge. Anywhere you have two or more cover types coming together, you have more deer activity. Same with monster catfish. They like a contour change and the more rapid the better. Throw in a rock pile, brush or other pieces of cover and you have a catfish hole.”
Rigging Right for Monter Cats
The key to catching monster catfish is not always getting the bites but having the proper equipment to hook and land fish once they bite.
“When targeting smaller fish, Barton switches to traditional bass casting rods, spooled with 17-pound line. He has found circle hooks improve the hookup rate.”
“For big cats, my favorite rig for fall fishing is a Carolina rig,” Barton admits. “My rig consists of an eight-foot B‘n’M Silver Cat bait casting rod with an ABU 6500LC3 reel. The reel’s line counter allows me to position my bait at the depth I locate fish. I keep my baits suspended one to three feet off the lake bottom. It helps prevent snags and keeps the bait from becoming coated with a substrate on the river bottom.”
He spools the reel with 65 or 80-pound Vicious braided line and uses a ¾ to 2-ounce egg sinker, depending on the depth of water and the troll speed. “I attach a size 2 swivel below the weight and extend a 50- to 60-pound test mono leader 24- to 30-inches long. At the end of the mono leader, I attach a 7/0 Daiichi bleeding bait hook.”
When targeting smaller fish, Barton switches to traditional bass casting rods, spooled with 17-pound line. He has found circle hooks improve the hookup rate.
Catzilla or Monster Myth?
Dr. Zeb Hogan, the Nat Geo WILD biologist and host of the show, Monster Fish, has spent the last 10 years with fishermen around the South in search of answers to tales of Volkswagen-sized catfish known as Catzilla. Asked if they were real or a myth, he asserts that enormous car-sized catfish do exist but only in exotic locales.
The largest recorded catfish ever caught was found in 2005 on the Mekong River in Thailand. It weighed 646 pounds and was nearly nine feet long. The species is listed as critically endangered by the World Conservation Union and faces extinction in the wild.
Fueling big fish stories in Alabama is the fact that river creatures likely grew even larger in the past before humans and chemicals interfered with habitats. As far back as 1822, the curse of the river serpent was reported by farmers spotting giant serpents in the Tennessee River.
In 1877 reports appeared in the Gadsden Times of sightings of serpents in the Coosa River, a tributary of the Alabama River. Evidence in the form of fossilized bones of a prehistoric whale that grew to about 70 feet in length was found in Clark, Choctaw, and Washington counties in the 1830s.
Accommodations and Assistance
When visiting Wheeler Lake, out-of-town anglers can rely on the folks at Alabama Mountain Lakes Association (AMLA) to assist them with comfortable lodging, great dining, and up-to-date fishing data. For the novice angler, a lake map is invaluable.
Numerous launch ramps and campgrounds can be found on Wheeler Lake. Bait dealers and commercial fishermen are available to answer any questions that may arise. Feel free to ask for assistance.