Chattahoochee River Cats Caught Deep In The Holes

The river above Lake Eufaula is loaded with big catfish.

Don Baldwin | April 30, 2010

Shane Smith, owner of Hilljack Catfishing, started a catfishing tournament trail, creating a stage for catfishermen to compete while promoting conservation. This 20-lb. blue cat was caught and released while fishing with the author on April 11.

When Shane Smith moved to Fort Benning, he brought with him a love of fishing — catfishing to be precise. An Ohio native, Shane and his brother established a catfish tournament trail a few years back called Hilljack Catfishing that was designed for avid catfishermen to compete and promote conservation.

Shane is Capt. Shane Smith of the U. S. Army Infantry and as such he has moved around quite a bit. His latest assignment is as a company commander of one of the basic training companies on Fort Benning. Once he got settled, it didn’t take him long to discover the Chattahoochee River and its great catfish population. Within a few months, there was a new chapter of the Hilljack catfishing tournament trail focused on the stretch of water between the Ringer Ramp on West Point reservoir and Franklin Ramp just below the dam at Lake Eufaula.

I met Shane at the Uchee Creek Marina early one morning on the weekend after Easter to go out with him and document his approach to targeting catfish.

The Uchee Creek Marina sits in the headwaters of Lake Eufaula. It’s run by the Army but is open to the public and is a well-equipped and maintained facility. It provides a great access point to the river.

As we left the ramp, Shane explained we would be fishing about a 5-mile stretch of the river between Uchee Creek and River Bend.

“This area has a lot of deep holes and good structure,” said Shane. “Both are important in finding and catching big cats.”

Shane also said current is king. Current concentrates bait and fish and makes finding fish easier. Big cats don’t like to fight heavy current, so they hunker down in deep holes or close to cover where the current flow is broken.

“Current also makes the fish feed more actively as the bait begins to move around,” said Shane.

He was concerned we had very little current on the day we went out. Current flow along the river is controlled by the dams that cross it, and none of them were scheduled to be generating power that day, so the current was creeping.

Our first spot was not far from Uchee Creek. Shane watched the graph and set us up over a hole that was about 35 feet deep, a full 10 to 15 feet deeper than the surrounding water.

He then baited six hefty rods and set them out across the stern.

“My favorite bait is cut skipjack herring,” said Shane. “The fish is easily catchable in the river, and the cut flesh is oily and attractive to the cats.”

Shane catches skipjack using light spinning tackle and a three-jig rig. Three 1/4-oz. jig heads are tied to a line about 3 feet apart, and small curly tail grubs are added to the hooks. About 6 inches below the bottom jig, Shane adds a small, 1/4-oz. sinker to aid in casting.

“The bottom sinker keeps the rig straight on the cast and minimizes tangling the jigs while in flight.”

My favorite bait is cut skipjack herring, said Shane.

Shane fillets out the skipjacks and cuts them into 1- to 2-inch chunks, depending on the size of cats he plans to catch.

Once the jigs are in the water, a simple retrieve causing the jigs to swim will usually produce strikes. In a good school of skipjacks, it isn’t uncommon to catch two on one cast, Shane said. At that rate, it doesn’t take long to collect plenty of bait. Shane puts the bait on ice quickly to preserve the firmness of the flesh and freezes any leftovers for future use.

Shane fillets out the skipjacks and cuts them into 1- to 2-inch chunks, depending on the size of cats he plans to catch. He leaves the backbone in one side of the fillet to take advantage of the extra attraction provided by the blood and marrow.

The cut baits are offered on relatively heavy tackle; there are some big cats in the river. Shane uses 7- to 7 1/2-foot, medium-heavy rods with Hefty Star drag reels attached. He uses and recommends “Tangling with Catfish” rods that are specially made for this type of fishing.

The reels are spooled with 30-lb. test Berkley Big Game mono line. Terminal tackle consists of a Carolina rig with a sliding weight, swivel, leader of about 3 feet and an 8/0 Gamakatsu octopus circle hook.

The amount of weight depends on the current. The day we were out, with little to no current, we had 3- or 4-oz. sinkers on each of the rods. But Shane said under heavy current conditions, he’ll go up to 8 ounces or even 12 if the current is extreme.

Shane hooks the baits on the big circle hooks by going through the flesh side first, at the thickest part of the bait, and coming out the skin side through the skin and scales. The skin is tough and helps keep the bait on the hook as the barb will snag in the skin or scales if the bait slides toward the hook point. Be careful to remove any scales that stick to the hook point as it comes through the skin. The scales are tough and can compromise hook sets.

As each rod was baited and cast out behind the boat, Shane set it in a stern-mounted rod holder. We were anchored just upstream of the hole, and the baits were fanned out across the width of the drop off.

“Now we just sit back and wait,” said Shane. “This is a very relaxing type of fishing. You can sit, talk and enjoy the outdoors and wait for the bite.”

With the circle hooks, there is no need to make a hookset on the strike. The fish literally hook themselves and almost always in the upper jaw.

“The circle hook has done a lot for our conservation efforts,” said Shane. “We release most of the fish we catch in our tournaments, and with the circle hooks we almost never have a gut-hooked fish.”

We didn’t have long to wait and relax, however. Within about 10 minutes of setting the rods out, one on them bumped a couple of times, and the tip bowed down to the water. Shane pulled the rod from the holder and fought a nice blue cat, of about 10 pounds, to the boat.

This rod had a small float on the leader about 10 inches above the hook. Shane explained the float was used for two reasons. First, when there is a lot of bottom structure, particularly rock, the float will keep the hook up and out of the rocks, allowing for a better presentation to the fish as well as minimizing hang-ups. Also, when the current is slack, the float helps to provide a little action to the bait which attracts strikes from the cats.

When Shane first hits the water, he sets up several terminal tackle configurations to determine what the fish want. He will vary the weight, leader length and add a float to some of the leaders. If he gets consistent strikes on one configuration, he’ll migrate his other rods to that configuration to maximize his chances of boating a cat.

After a few more minutes with no further action, Shane pulled up the anchor, and we moved downstream to another hole. The conditions and depth were almost the same as the one we had just fished. With the rods set out, we got bites almost immediately, but Shane could tell from the way the fish hit that these were small fish.

“We won’t stay here long,” said Shane. “When small fish are biting, you are better off to move to another spot.”

Shane said if there are a lot of small fish in an area, big bites are few and far between.

He also said if he doesn’t get bit in about 30 minutes, he’ll move on. If there are cats in a hole, they will usually bite pretty quickly

We picked up and moved downstream to a hole on the Alabama side of the river at marker 132. The hole was about 35 feet deep.

After about a 15-minute wait, the bites started, and one rod bowed sharply with a hook-up. When the big fish broke the surface next to the boat, we knew we had what we were looking for. The big blue cat was in the 20-lb. class, a beautiful specimen.

We caught a couple more fish out of that hole and called it a day. Our best three fish we estimated to top a total of 40 pounds, not too bad for a couple of hours on the water.

Shane said this deep-hole pattern will work right through the summer with the big fish holding even tighter to the deep water in the middle of the summer.

By mid May, the action will slow a little as the cats go on the bed, and you might have to move your baits around a little to find fish. But the bedding activity will be over pretty quickly, and the big fish will again take baits aggressively.

Though skipjack is by far Shane’s favorite bait, gizzard shad and threadfin shad will also produce both as live and cut baits. Live bream is also a good choice, but Shane said live bream is best when targeting flatheads.

“Flatheads hang out around structure in relatively shallow water and are ambush feeders,” said Shane. “Since bream also tend to stay in those areas, they are a natural choice of bait for flatheads.”

If the current is strong, Shane hooks the bream in the mouth, allowing it to trail out on the leader behind the weight and still look natural. In calm conditions, he hooks the bream through the bottom of the tail just behind the abdomen. This allows the bream to swim up freely with the weight on the bottom.

On some rigs, Shane will use a float. The float helps minimize hang-ups. Also, when the current is slack, the float helps provide a little action to the bait which attracts strikes from the cats.

Prepared baits, such as blood baits, can be effective under the right conditions. If there is little current and the water temperatures are high, the scent of the bait can spread through an area and attract fish. But under high current conditions, the scent washes off quickly and becomes ineffective in a short period of time. Shane feels prepared baits are better suited to still-water applications like ponds and lakes. He will, however, let the bait liquefy in hot weather and dip his cut baits into it at times.

“The liquefied bait will provide an explosion of scent when it hits the water and sometimes attracts fish quickly,” said Shane.

For the novice catfish angler, Shane offered a couple of tips. Leave your baits in place for a half hour. Moving rigs around a lot will result in more hang-ups and less fishing time. Only pull the rigs up to change baits or move to a new location.

Keep fresh baits on your rigs. If Shane is in an area he’s catching a few fish, he’ll change baits every 30 minutes. Fresh bait is key to catching quality fish.

In the heat of summer, big cats will often stack up at the upstream end of the deep holes. Under those conditions, anchor right at the edge of the drop, and fish vertically rather than casting out behind the boat. You can often sit in one spot and load the boat.

My day on the water with Shane was very enjoyable. These big fish are great fighters, and it is a very relaxing style of fishing.

You may even consider joining the Hilljack Catfishing trail. The group is serious about catfishing, and the anglers have a great time while they compete. Incidentally, all but 10 percent of the tournament fees are paid back to entrants in one form or another. The other 10 percent is donated to the Valley Rescue Mission to help needy individuals and families in the area.

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