Catfishing today means something different than it did when I was a boy. Back then, it meant to dig some worms, put them in a pinto beans can, grab a cane pole — one we cut down in the river bottom — and head to a pond or river slough. You'd thread a worm on a 4/0 hook and sit back in the shade, waiting for the bobber to disappear.
You can still fish the same way today, but most folks don't have the patience. Today, I hear people talking about fishing on the bottom near holes and drop-offs — or setting trotlines during high water, when large rivers such as the Mississippi flood up into creeks.
Fished every day
After Mom died, we auctioned off Dad's house and farm, and bought him a cabin on the Tennessee River — in the county where he grew up. He was in heaven — catfished at least every other day. Caught fish too. Lots of fish. He had a depth finder, and would drift along the river until he drifted over a hole or drop off. He'd then set anchor and catch catfish — weighing from three to 20 pounds.
After three or four years, his depth finder broke and he's never bought another one. Guess what, he quit catching catfish. In fact, I went out with him in his boat a couple times this year — just drifting down the river with the rig on the bottom — and we didn't catch a single fish. We tried every kind of catfish bait you could imagine — and some you couldn't — no matter what we tried, no fish. The moral: You have to fish where there are fish, and we haven't found the spots since Dad's depth finder broke.
River has changed
I know what some of you are probably thinking. Yeah, right. People caught catfish before depth finders were invented. I agree with you. I did too, on the same stretch of the Tennessee River where we can't catch them now. The difference is, the river where we fish has changed a lot since the old days.
When the Kentucky Dam was built, it impounded a long section of the river, including where we fish today. Back then, there was still a lot of structure on the bottom — trees, stumps, and the like. The structure provided breeding grounds for aquatic insects and escape cover for small baitfish.
Over the years though, this lake, like every other, has gradually filled with silt, covering the structure and reducing fish productivity. And while you can still catch fish in places, those places are fewer and father between and you have to find them.
I just finished reviewing an excellent book published by the University of Tennessee Press, entitled, “Catfishing in the South” by Jeff Samsel. It covers everything from a treatise on different species, to how to catch them, to where to catch them. He gives tips. For example:
Bait — We all know, that at times, catfish will eat almost anything. But Jeff says that of all things an angler can use for bait, it's hard to beat using fish and other critters actually living in the same body of water. And he tends to favor fresh fish for bait.
Location — Favorite catfishing spots — best found with a depth finder — are ledges, brush piles, slopes at the heads of steep runs, sides of humps and points. Jeff maintains that dangling bait 50 feet from key spots is only slightly better than casting the same bait onto the bank. Another type spot Jeff heavily favors is river bends — the bluff bank on the outside of the bend.
Tackle — Jeff covers tips on a variety of catfishing tackle and methods: Trotlines, jugs, limb-lining, tight-lining, drift fishing, noodling — reaching your hand into a hole in the bank and pulling one out — wading, and Yo-Yoing.
“Catfishing in the South” also lists state records and favorite recipes. In short, if you like to catfish — whether you're a novice or an old hand — you'll enjoy this book. If you want a copy, you can get it through and bookstore, or by contacting U.T. Press, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tenn., 37996.