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Vicious monsters lurk in Alabama rivers

By John N. Felsher

Although the Gulf of Mexico holds many huge fish, Alabama anglers don’t need to head miles offshore to battle monsters. Throughout the state, anglers can challenge tackle-busting river monsters almost anywhere in the Heart of Dixie, often with little competition.

“Flathead catfish are abundant in almost all rivers and lakes in Alabama, but they are just not targeted as much as other fish,” explained Michael Holley, an Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources fisheries biologist. “It’s not uncommon to catch 40- to 50-pound flatheads in Alabama. We see some in the 60- to 80-pound range.”

Rick Conner set the official state record for flathead catfish at 80 pounds in June 1986. He caught the leviathan while fishing in the Alabama River near Selma. However, flatheads can top 123 pounds.

Most rivers in Alabama hold good flathead populations. The Tennessee and Alabama rivers both produce catfish in the 30- to 50-pound range quite regularly and many bigger ones. The Mobile, Tensaw and Escatawpa rivers also hold good fish, but some of the best flathead action in Alabama comes from the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.

More popularly known as the Tenn-Tom, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway runs 234 miles through Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama to link the Tennessee and Tombigbee rivers for commercial traffic. Several water control structures created 10 lakes along the Tenn-Tom system with a total surface area of 44,000 acres. When the waterway flooded, it linked myriad creeks, oxbow lakes and sloughs to the main channel. Rising water inundated swamps, flooded timber and created backwaters filled with lily pads, cypress stumps, weeds and other structure that flathead catfish love.

Anglers can catch big flatheads throughout the entire Tenn-Tom system, but some of the best fishing in Alabama occurs in Aliceville Lake. The Tom Bevill Lock and Dam near Pickensville creates the 8,300-acre impoundment on the Alabama-Mississippi line. Farther downstream near Demopolis, Ala., the Heflin Lock and Dam creates the 6,400-acre Gainesville Lake.

“Aliceville Lake is a really good lake for flatheads,” says Nick Dimino, a professional catfish angler. “I like to fish closer toward the dam because it creates some current that stirs up the fish. I fish on the upstream side of holes right where the bottom starts to drop off. Catfish like to get just over the drop-off edge out of the current, but they look upstream into the current for any bait to wash over them.”

Ambush predators, big flatheads often hunker down in woody or rocky cover waiting to devour anything they can swallow. Their mottled, splotchy brownish coloration helps conceal them from prey. Eating almost exclusively fish, these voracious predators relish shad, sunfish, small drum, other catfish and bullheads. Bass anglers occasionally catch flatheads on lures that resemble baitfish, but live bait works best.

“When targeting flatheads, fresh bait is the key,” says Joey Pounders, a professional catfish angler who caught flatheads up to 77 pounds on the Tenn-Tom. “We normally use live shad about six to eight inches long. When catching bait, we might catch a thousand shad, but only use 20. A big flathead can eat a huge bait.”

When looking for places to drop bait, use a depth finder to scan for holes or drops near secondary cover such as logs, stumps and rocks. Flatheads also enter holes in washed out banks or hide under submerged treetops along eroded shorelines. Currents can scour holes on the outside of river bends, making excellent places to look for mottled marauders.

Although many people consider catfish summer fish, late winter and early spring can produce excellent flathead action at a time when most anglers find themselves alone on the best honey holes. Cold water can make fish lethargic, but as water warms, flatheads become much more active.

“Catfish have to eat all year long,” Pounders says. “Not as many people want to get on the water when it’s cold, so we get our pick of the best spots. The colder the water gets, the more flatheads hunker down in structure and the less they move. If I’m not getting bites, I’ll move the bait a few feet to get a fish’s attention.”

While the Tenn-Tom offers great flathead fishing, it also holds big blue and channel cats. Some blues exceed 60 pounds. Although most channel cats weigh less than five pounds, a few hit double digits. Not nearly as finicky as flatheads, which prefer live bait, blues and channels eat almost anything. Big blues prefer oily fish and often prey upon shad, sunfish and skipjack. They also take night crawlers, crawfish, mussels, mullets, cheese, shrimp, livers and almost anything else they can gulp down.

A big catfish can provide outstanding sport for anglers wanting big game action close to home without spending a fortune. When a big flathead takes a bait, hang on for one of the toughest fights in fresh water.