Altamaha’s Big Monster Catfish

Alien flatheads are growing faster in size and numbers in the Altamaha than they do in native rivers, and each year heavier fish are hauled in. Here's how to get in on the action.

Lindsay Thomas Jr. | April 7, 2006

Georgia is home to some monster catfish, and the Altamaha River is probably the state’s best area for a huge flathead.

Two summers ago, Johnny Gordon of Ludowici and his partner, Tommy Bacon, made local papers and the pages of GON with a photo of a 70-lb. flathead catfish that they caught in the Altamaha River near Jesup on a limb line and a live bream. At the time it was one of the heaviest flatheads known to have been caught in the river, but what happened a few days after the catch is what teases the imagination of fishermen who hear about it.

“I went back to the same hole where we caught the big one,” Johnny said, “and I put out another bream on heavy parachute cord, but this time I used the biggest hook I could get my hands on, bigger than the one I caught the 70-lb. fish on. When I came back the next morning, that hook had been straightened out.”

Maybe Johnny had hooked a decent cat and an Altamaha ‘gator had come along and found it, or maybe the thing that straightened that hook was a flathead that would make the 70-pounder look small. Lately, the latter possibility seems less farfetched.

The question of whether the Altamaha River can produce a state-record flathead catfish has been answered twice now. It is no longer a question. Instead, there is another mark, a higher achievement, that folks are starting to wonder about, and that is the world record of 91-lbs., 4-ozs., currently held by Texas. Is there a flathead in the Altamaha that would beat that record? Almost certainly, and no doubt more than one.

Last summer, another limb-line fisherman, Paul Hall of Baxley, nearly swamped his boat with a flathead that pulled a scale to 91 pounds. If there has been a heavier flathead caught on a limb line from the Altamaha or its tributary the Ocmulgee, it has not been made known to DNR or to fishermen up and down the river. That doesn’t mean that 91 pounds is as big as they get: any limb-line fisherman will tell you that a fish that size is more likely to break the limb, snap the cord or straighten the hook than to be boated, and it is not uncommon to lose fish this way.

When you go to the Altamaha, however, don’t let satisfaction be defined by catching a world record. Be contented to know that there are some truly mammoth fish under you, but remember that when you boat that 25-pounder you’re going to feel like a world-record angler. That’s the real story for fishermen: there is an excellent chance of catching fish up to the 30-lb. range almost anywhere in the river.

“Our population levels are four to 10 times higher than in the native range of the flathead,” said WRD fisheries biologist Rob Weller. “That’s typical of an exotic or an introduced species. They either fail to thrive or they take over. Flatheads find the Altamaha a very agreeable place to live.”

Since being illegally introduced to the Altamaha system sometime in the 1970s, flatheads have exploded in numbers. Not only are populations of the fish more dense than in their native habitat, but the rate of growth of individual fish is much faster. A 40-lb. Altamaha flathead is a much younger fish than a 40-lb. flathead in native waters, so the potential for an Altamaha flathead to reach huge proportions before dying of old age is much greater.

Currently, the expansion of the population has tapered off, mainly because the fish have colonized every corner of the entire river system that they can physically reach, including the Oconee and Ocmulgee rivers. On the Altamaha, flatheads can be caught anywhere from the confluence of the Ocmulgee and Oconee, where the river begins, to tidewater, but fisheries personnel know that the density of flatheads increases the closer you get to the coast.

“The stretch from Jesup to Altamaha Park contains the highest density of flatheads anywhere in the system,” said biologist Don Harrison. “It’s a bigger river down there, there’s more water and more suitable habitat, which is deep holes with snags.”

The 85-lb. catfish was hooked on a limb line set by Billy Maddox (left) and Clay McDaniel, both of Thomaston. These catfishermen have a freezer full of flathead fillets after traveling from their home waters along the Flint River .. also great catfish water .. to try their luck on the Altamaha.

Both Don and Rob witnessed the density of flatheads in that stretch last summer when they conducted an experimental removal of fish – to see if this method could reduce the flathead population enough to restore some of the traditional redbreast fishing – in an eight-mile stretch from the Rayonier pulp and paper mill at Jesup downriver, the first removal of fish conducted in the lower river.

“There were two boats, one shocking and one netting,” Rob said. “We were boating up to 1,500 pounds of fish an hour, and that was missing a pile of fish. You’d load the boat down until it couldn’t move, and the fish were still there. Looking at the number of flatheads coming up, it was hard to believe there were any other species of fish in there.”

“That area had some whoppers,” Donald said, “a lot of 30- and 40-pounders, especially in the mouth of Lake Bluff (see map). We started out there one morning and started nailing some big fish right off. We had a couple in the 60-lb. range that day.”

That removal may have put a small dent in the population in that stretch, but not for long. On the second day of the removal, the boats were still getting up to 900 pounds of fish in an hour. Since that time, when 9,000 pounds of fish were removed, the river has been at flood stage or higher for many months, and the population has no doubt recovered.

Don said that there are no plans to repeat that removal, or to remove fish from an upper-Altamaha stretch that was hit two years ago. It has become obvious that a scatter-gun approach to removing flatheads, especially in the vast water of the lower river, is not effective. Instead, biologists are focusing removal efforts in a 37-mile stretch of the Ocmulgee river from Lumber City to Jacksonville. For three years, this stretch has been hit repeatedly with shocking boats, and it is estimated that 80 percent of the population has been taken out of that section. Removal will continue in that stretch, and DNR hopes this flathead-free zone can be expanded down to the confluence at the head of the Altamaha. It may be pockets like this where redbreast fishing will survive in the Altamaha system.

Meanwhile, the Altamaha, especially the lower stretches, will remain a heaven for catfishermen.

Where to Fish
How to catch a flathead is well known. This is low-tech fishing: a weighted bottom-rig on at least 30-lb. test and a stout rod-and-reel, a heavy-duty hook (12/0 is by no means too big!), a big, live bream or shiner, and you’re ready to go. It’s the where-to that’s the real trick.

The upper half of the Altamaha, from the confluence down to a few miles above Jesup, actually contains a lower density of flatheads than the Ocmulgee River above the confluence, according to regular Fisheries sampling. Since 1995, the catch rate for DNR shocking boats in the stretch from Plant Hatch down to the Hwy 121 bridge has averaged around 25 fish per hour of electrofishing. In the same period, the lower 80 miles of the Ocmulgee have produced an average of 44 fish per hour. Recall, however, that in a 40-mile section of the Ocmulgee these numbers include fish that were removed from the river. (The maps on this page include shocking success rates in fish-per-hour for last year alone, by section of the Altamaha).

The upper section of the Altamaha is still an excellent place to fish for flatheads. Witness Paul Hall’s 91-pounder, which came out of the middle of this section. Paul said he was fishing in a deep bend just up from Eason’s Bluff Landing at river mile 104.

“In that part of the river we catch a lot of 30-pounders,” Paul said. “I mean a bunch of them. Up from Eason’s the river is real crooked, and below Eason’s is a long, straight stretch. We fish up and down. Just get along the channel side in the deep water and you’ll find the fish.”

Not far below the confluence is a series of landings that includes Gray’s Landing. Rob Weller said electrofishing in this area was especially productive in a deep hole at the bottom of a rocky bluff and outcropping of boulders on the bank. You’ll find this hole at McNatt Falls, a small landing about 3/4 mile up from Gray’s.

Finding good holes is easy anywhere on the river, as long as you know what you are looking for. The deep holes will be found on the low end of sandbars, in the mouths of creeks and rivers flowing into the main channel, and along the outside bank of any bend. Look for places where the hydraulics of high currents have scoured deep holes.

For example, Danny Ammons of Jesup caught his state-record flathead just downstream of the Hwy 84 bridge in the lower river. Within sight of a railroad trestle, there is an old paddle-wheel river boat that upended and sticks up in a bend of the river (any local knows where the old ferry boat is). During high water, the current rounds the bend and drives head on against the old paddle-boat, and the backwash has dug a deep hole on the upstream side of the boat. When the river is down, this hole becomes a 25-foot-deep eddy where it is safe to anchor, and this is where Danny caught his 58-lb., 7-oz. flathead.

Above Jesup, the big bends in the river just up from Oglethorpe Bluff have created some deep holes, especially in the mouth of a cut-through in the Marrowbone Round area, and in the mouth of Tom’s Creek, just downriver.

Three miles down from the old ferry boat is the mouth of a large oxbow in an area known as Lake Bluff. There is a significant hole in the mouth of this cut. This is where fisheries rolled a couple of 60-pounders with the shocking boats.

From Lake Bluff down there are almost 20 river miles without any public access. The next ramp is at Paradise Park off the main river in Pennholloway Creek. This is the kind of situation to take advantage of, because fishermen agree that the farther you are up or downstream from access, the lower the fishing pressure from limb-liners and the better the fishing. This stretch of river is as crooked as they come, with one bend after another, and there are plenty of holes, wash-outs and deep banks to anchor on. And the biologists agree that this stretch is where the density of flatheads is phenomenal – but still not the highest in the river.

The region where Pennholloway Creek feeds into the main river continues the stretch of prime flathead water. It was just upriver from the mouth of Pennholloway, on the outside of a bend, that this month’s cover fish was caught on a limb line by Jerry and Jack Fensler of Jesup. The 46-lb. flathead was caught on the morning of May 2. I showed up at Paradise Park on the morning of May 3 to take the cover photo, and met Jerry and Jack coming in from checking their lines again. They had another flathead identical to the one from the morning before, this one caught downriver. The river was still around 11 feet at Doctortown then, which is very high, and the fishing was slow at the time. Jerry and Jack said that they usually catch a good number of fish in the 20- to 30-lb. range in the Pennholloway neighborhood.
A few bends down from Paradise Park is the Miller Lake Cutoff. Don Harrison said that the shocking boats had outstanding success in the outside curve of the cut-off, as well as under the willow-sandbars where the cut-off rejoins the main river. At this confluence, a big hole has been scooped out by swirling currents. The area around Miller Lake Cutoff begins the stretch with the highest density of fish according to sampling. From Miller Lake down to the tidewater, Fisheries averaged 119 flatheads per hour of electrofishing last summer.

The first access in this stretch is the brand new ramp on Sansavilla WMA. Several fishermen, as well as the biologists, mentioned the mouth of an oxbow cut just upstream and within sight of the new Sansavilla ramp. This deep hole is particularly good.

Dave Barber of Brunswick, who fishes for flatheads when he isn’t directing the Georgia/Florida Bass tournament trail, said that the big bend just below Creels Lake is an excellent hole, and he has hauled a few 20-lb. cats out of it. This hole is more easily reached from downstream at Altamaha Park.
Dave said that he has his best luck from Altamaha Park to Two-Way Marina, over 17 miles of river with no other access in between the two ramps. Though Fisheries said that the density of flatheads tapers off in the tidewater, Dave said he has caught them as far down as the Hwy 17 bridge within sight of Two-Way.

Though I only mentioned a handful of specific holes, the flatheads are dispersed throughout the river in all of the bends and cuts, eddies and holes. No matter where you go on the river, seek the deepest water you can find, preferably a hole with a snag, a tree or some other kind of shoreline or sunken structure. This is the combination that is the key to finding flatheads.

The river maps on page 19 include most of the landmarks mentioned here, but not all of the public ramps are shown. For further assistance, DNR has updated its brochure, “A Guide to Fishing the Altamaha River,” which includes a complete listing of public ramps. DNR has also produced a “Flathead Catfish Fishing Guide,” which diagrams a bottom rig and a float rig for fishing live bait on a rod-and-reel, and it also includes recipes, among other information. You can get both of these brochures by calling (912) 285-6094 or (912) 426-5272.

For an extended weekend trip, you will find camping facilities on the lower river at Altamaha Park (912) 264-2342; above Jesup at Adamson’s Fish Camp (912) 654-3632; and on the upper river at Deen’s Landing (912) 367-2949. A ramp is available at all of these sites, as well as some bait, tackle and supplies, and you can get a check of the river level by calling ahead.

The summer months are the best time for flathead fishing, and there’s no need to hurry to the river: it isn’t likely that there will ever come a day when flatheads have been eradicated from the Altamaha. There’s just too much swamp and too much river – but for a fisherman, there’s nothing bad about that!

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