A Life Spent on the River

As long as I can remember, I’ve been fishing rivers all over the states of Mississippi and Alabama for catfish. By the time other kids my age were learning how to tie their shoes, I was learning how to drive a boat on the Alabama River. I’m fortunate to have had family that made sure that I knew how to do this, you know, just in case. Of course, learning how to drive a boat at such a young age came with a price. I probably got yelled at more than most kids, but it certainly didn’t hurt me. Maybe the world would be a better place if more fathers made their kids drive the boat while they ran trotlines.

Speaking of being yelled at, I saw a meme the other day that almost perfectly summed up my childhood. It read, “You can’t hurt my feelings, I used to hold the flashlight for my dad.” Growing up in my household wasn’t always easy, but I’m tougher for it. Now that I’m older, I can look back and be thankful for all of those butt chewings. Back to the river. My dad and my uncle were avid river fishermen. When other families were taking vacations to the mountains and to the beach, we were going fishing on the river. I even skipped my Senior Prom to go run lines on the Strong River with my uncle. My date probably wasn’t happy when I canceled about two weeks before the dance, but I had priorities. We’d pitch a tent on a sandbar and put out trotlines, limblines, and yo-yos in pursuit of the three freshwater catfish that rivers in the South have to offer.

The targeted species was usually flathead catfish. You may call them flathead, tabbies, or yellow cats. To me, this is the gold standard catfish in the river. They can grow in excess of 100 pounds and they have gigantic mouths. They also taste better than other catfish, to me. To catch flatheads, it usually requires live bait. We’d spend the day catching small pond perch to use on our lines at night, for night is when the bite is best. You can usually find flatheads holding in deep holes just off of steep embankments and in eddies. Aside from line placement, the key is to keep your bait lively and fresh. One of my favorite ways to catch flatheads is handgrabbing. In Mississippi, we have a season that runs from early May to the end of June for handgrabbing. If you’re leery about sticking your hand in a dark hole in the river, just stick to limblines and trotlines.

The second species of catfish that we would often catch are blue cats. This silver medal fish is found in pretty much all rivers in Mississippi. You can catch them on almost anything. If some of our pond perch died before we could use them to catch flatheads, we’d cut them up and bait our hooks for blues. I’d much rather catch a blue cat on a rod and reel than on a trotline, or limbline. They are awfully fun to fight on a rod and reel. They are also the largest species of catfish in North America, with the world record catch coming in at 143 pounds. As for taste, they don’t make my mouth water as much as a flathead, but they are still pretty darn good eating.

The third species is the most popular catfish in America, as well as the easiest to catch. The bronze medal goes to the channel catfish. Most restaurant catfish that you will consume will be channel cat. Channel cats eat anything, and I mean anything. I’ve often heard stories of people catching channel cats using Ivory soap. While I’ve never personally tried this, my cousin did catch a mess of them last year with cut up pieces of chicken that he soaked in red Kool Aid. We would catch channel cats on trotlines using worms, minnows, and anything else we could run a hook through. Yo-Yo’s were also a popular choice of tackle when trying to catch channel cats, and we’d bait them with minnows as well. While fun to catch, you‘ve got to catch a pile of them to have a mess of fish. It takes far fewer flatheads and blues to fill your cooler. As far as taste, they take a backseat to the other cats, but with the right batter combination and some hot grease, they go down just fine.

The warmer weather has caused me to have catfish on the brain lately. I even learned a new method last year of river fishing. Bank poling is something that I wish I had learned 20 years ago. There’s no telling how many fish we’ve missed out on due to not having somewhere to put a line. Bank poles solve that problem. Now I can put a line almost anywhere on the river, and it’s a lot of fun to pull up to that piece of pipe dancing on the river’s edge with a big fish on the line. In the coming weeks, if you need to find me, you can catch me at one of a couple of places…on the diamond, or on the river.

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