The Mississippi River is woven tightly in the fabric of America. It's in our culture's stories, songs, myths. Its very existence has helped us (America) exist through travel and commerce. It's a tremendous resource in so many ways. Tennesseans are very lucky to have it along our western "shore," running south from the state line of Kentucky to the border line of the State of Mississippi.
(Credit: Josh Ness, Nashville Explorers Club)
And, of course, through my livelihood and love for fishing, I've long come to know of another major benefit—recreational fishing.
The Mississippi is a prime location to fish catfish. In fact, it's fabulous; and actually, these adjectives that I'm tossing around, may not accurately be enough. Right here in Tennessee, and fortunately for me, almost in my backyard, I have a massive waterway where I can go to catch huge, trophy catfish.
And you can, too.
The river has five different kinds of catfish: blues, yellows/flatheads, channels, bullhead and spoonbills. The most popular of these five are, in order of preference: blues, yellows and channels. History notes that at one time, circa 1800s, blue catfish were caught in the river that weighed more than 150 pounds and measured more than six feet long.
Though you don't catch them that big anymore, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, with assistance from Collierville, Tennessee Commissioner Bill Cox, introduced a length limit to protect trophy catfish. Today, anglers (both recreational and commercial) can only keep one catfish per day more than 34 inches. Most recreational anglers catch and release them. Over time this has allowed more of these fish to enter into the trophy category. And when you throw in the surge of the exotic Asian carp species as forage, well, you can see how a lot of catfish are getting plump and plentiful.
In the Memphis area alone, several fish have been recorded recently that have weighed in excess of 100 pounds. Catfish in the 60-pound, 70-pound, and 80-pound class are fairly common and there are lots of fish in the 30-50 pound range. But the real fighters, the ones that will give you that "who-won?" bout, are those cats falling in the 20-30-pound class.
I fished the river recently, and with every such trip it is evident Tennessee's trophy management is working. The big blues are most targeted by trophy anglers…primarily because they get humungous, but all catfish are remarkable creatures.
For instance, the blue catfish have the equivalent of 5,000 tastebuds, per square centimeter (a cm is 1/3-inch) along its skin. It's kind of like an external tongue. The whisker-like (thus the name catfish) barbels on catfish have the heaviest concentration of scent and taste detectors and are very important in locating food. It's also a reason, anglers need to use caution and not damage these when hooking and releasing fish. Catfish also have tastebuds in their mouths, of course; and they have the best sound detection (ears, of sort) of most species in the river. They receive sound waves via their skin and their swim bladder. They can detect both low and high frequency sounds. They really are unique—a species that can find food in pitch black water, at depths of 40-50 feet. Their ability to recognize a food source at great distance is truly amazing.
As with most fishing, catching them requires knowledge of their food source; you have to fish with what they eat daily. In the Big Muddy, that's Asian carp both silver and bigheads. It's what's for dinner (and supper and breakfast), and it's an excellent bait as well as "skip Jack," freshwater herring. The best fishing begins in July and can last through December. The river levels are normally low and predictable through late summer and fall. Various public ramps are located in Memphis/Shelby County and to the north, in other West Tennessee counties.
If you want to come down and fish in the Memphis area, one of the best river guides is James "Big Cat" Patterson, Bartlett, Tenn. (firstname.lastname@example.org; 901-383-8674). James is a knowledgeable and entertaining guide. He knows the river better than an otter knows water.
Most river anglers use medium-heavy to heavy-action rods, level-wind reels loaded with braided line that offers more sensitivity. Sinkers, typically are 4- to 8-ounces. Circle hooks are commonly used. Today there are many models, but research has indicated those that have outer bend bent inward, toward the shank by 30 degrees, provide more consistent hookups in the corner of the mouth, and fewer fish will be foul- or gut-hooked. In short, it encourages a more successful catch-and-release.
Now, there's a misconception that the Mississippi River is more dangerous. Well, true, they do often call it "mighty," but this river is no more dangerous than any other. As on all waterways, you just have to use caution and common sense. Wear a personal floatation device. When running, stay in the well-marked channel. Barge traffic is common, but simply give the barges their right of way, and there should be no problems. Debris often floats along, but use caution and you'll be fine.
If I had to choose a depth to target it would be 35-45 feet. I also like to drift the areas that have a rollercoaster-like bottom. Cast a line where the bottom is up and down with troughs where catfish lie in wait for the current to bring forage. The down-current ends of shoals and sandbars are good, also where catfish are waiting for food. Current typically increases farther down a shoal, and fish like these areas. Controlled-drifting, bumping baits along the bottom, is a great way to catch them until the water gets cold. In warm-water periods the fish roam a lot. You may see them shallow in the morning, while they drift back to greater depths as the day grows long. I've caught them in depths of 85 feet, and seen big, old catfish roll at the surface at this time of year.
The Mississippi River is a catfishing site in Tennessee you need to fish. Be sure to go!
Until next time, catch one for me in Tennessee!