People don’t need to spend a fortune heading offshore to battle giant fish. In fact, some of the biggest fish in Alabama probably live very close to everyone’s home.
Catfish thrive in nearly every freshwater system in the state and some species grow to gigantic proportions. The Alabama record blue catfish weighed 120.25 pounds and came from Holt Reservoir, an impoundment on the Black Warrior River north of Tuscaloosa. Flathead catfish can also weigh more than 100 pounds. The state record flathead weighed 80 pounds and came from the Alabama River near Selma.
Although anyone can land a massive catfish anywhere in Alabama on any cast, people who consistently catch enormous whiskerfish intentionally fish for them with heavy deep-sea tackle in waters well known for producing trophy catfish. All the major rivers in Alabama hold giant catfish.
Some better places to catch these monsters include the Tennessee, Chattahoochee, Tombigbee and Alabama river systems plus associated waters. In 2020, Mike Mitchell, a professional angler and guide for Southern Cats Guide Service in Russellville, caught and released a 117.20-pound blue catfish on Wilson Lake, a Tennessee River impoundment near Florence.
“The Tennessee River is well known for producing big catfish,” says Brian Barton, who guides on the river out of Muscle Shoals. “Anything above 80 pounds is a special trophy, but 70-pounders are becoming more common.”
To keep more huge catfish swimming in Alabama waters, the state changed the regulation a few years ago. Now, people can only keep one catfish of any kind 34 inches in length or greater per person per day, but unlimited numbers of smaller fish. That size limit does not apply to certain waters in the state. In addition, people cannot transport live catfish 34 inches in length or greater beyond state lines.
All catfish can follow a scent for a long distance. Blue catfish will eat almost anything they can fit into their mouths and gulp down. Even the biggest blue cats might take a small bait, but true behemoths habitually want one big meal and prefer fish. A 50-pound blue can swallow a baitfish weighing several pounds.
First, anglers must find big cats to catch them. After finding big catfish, tempt them with something they want to eat. That requires large fishy baits and great patience waiting for that one big bite. For whiskered whoppers, use fish chunks, strips or whole fish, either live or dead.
“Most people who don’t specifically fish for big catfish can’t believe the bait sizes we use,” says Phil King, a professional angler with multiple national championship titles and a 103-pound blue catfish to his credit. “I also vary my baits to give fish options. Sometimes, finicky fish might only want live baits.”
More picky than blues, flathead catfish occasionally hit fresh fish chunks or strips, but typically want live fish. Blues might wander in search of food, but flatheads use their excellent camouflage to hunker down in thick cover, such as fallen trees, brush, rocks or log piles, waiting to ambush unsuspecting fish. Some good baits for these voracious predators include live shad, mullet, shiners and sunfish. They also eat other catfish, especially bullheads.
Widespread and abundant, channel cats might hit almost any natural bait, but don’t grow nearly as large as blues or flatheads. Channel cats can weigh more than 50 pounds, but people generally catch fish ranging from one to five pounds. The state record weighed 40 pounds and came from Inland Lake in Blount County. Some better channel cat baits include worms, nightcrawlers, cut fish, crawfish, cheese, shrimp and livers.
“Channel cats are not shy about biting and usually school in small numbers,” Barton says. “If someone catches one in an area, there’s a good chance that person could catch more. When fishing for channel cats, I downsize my line, hooks and bait and only use enough weight to get the job done.”
Even the most outstanding trophy catfish waters only hold so many fish exceeding 50 pounds. If people want to catch river leviathans, they need to release big catfish. It takes years to grow a 70-pound blue or flathead. Keep the small ones to eat if you wish.
Some of the best fishing for channel cats in Alabama occurs in the 23 state public fishing lakes found in 20 counties totaling 1,912 surface acres. For more information on the state public fishing lakes, seeoutdooralabama.com/where-fish-alabama/alabama-public-fishing-lakes-pfls. For catfishing regulations, seeoutdooralabama.com/fishing/freshwater-fishing-creel-and-size-limits.