Georgia Giant Catfish: Top 4 Destinations

Georgia has four great destinations that consistently produce monster catfish.

Lindsay Thomas Jr. | June 7, 2001

The places you can go in Georgia to catch a catfish are unlimited — in fact, try to find a state Public Fishing Area, big public reservoir, river or pay lake that does not have catfish of some kind and see what you come up with. But if a trophy rod-bender is your target, the decision about where to go is a little easier. When it comes to producing big catfish, two rivers and two lakes in this state consistently stand out from the rest like a 50-lb. catfish in a bathtub.

You’ve probably heard or read about all four of these catfishing holes before, but if it’s still a good thing it bears repeating. High Falls Lake in middle Georgia, for instance, has long been known as a hangout for big flathead catfish — it has held the state record twice in the past. But the party isn’t over there by a long sight. A month ago, on April 26, a new lake record was set at 60 pounds even, only eight pounds short of the current state record. Our other big-cat recommendations include the Altamaha River in southeast Georgia, Clarks Hill Lake north of Augusta, and the Coosa River from Rome to Lake Weiss. Here’s a detailed look at how to go after big cats at each location.

High Falls Lake
It’s a little bit of a mystery how a lake that is only 650 acres in size is one of the best bodies of water for big flathead catfish in the state. The evidence, however, is clear. For years this state-owned lake between Forsyth and Jackson, on the Towaliga River, has built a name for itself among those who love to tangle with big, ugly flatheads on the end of a line.

The history goes back a long way, even before 1987 when Larry Smith officially set a new state record with a 53-lb. flathead. Larry held that mark for six years, until Charles Price of Locust Grove claimed the new state record with another big High Falls flathead, 53-lbs., 8-ozs., in 1993.

Charles’s state-record mark has since been topped by several fish from other parts of the state, but he held the lake record for High Falls much longer. In fact, it was only just beaten a month ago on April 26 by a 60-lb. flathead. The new lake record was caught off a lake dock through a team effort: Hugh Rainey fought the fish on the rod, Bobby Beasley (who lives on High Falls) jumped in the lake to net the fish, and Billy Redding helped get the fish out of the water.

DNR Fisheries biologist Ted Hendricks said there’s no particular reason why High Falls produces big flatheads — it’s just an all-around good lake, with strong crappie, bass, bream and even hybrid fisheries. A heavy forage base of gizzard and threadfin shad fuel the productivity and probably acts as a buffer that keeps big flatheads from eating up all the bream in the lake.

How do you go catch one of these fish? As with flatheads in either rivers or lakes, live bait is the ticket. Flatheads are predatory fish, preferring bream, shad, and any other live fish that will fit in their mouth. Cut shad, livers and other traditional baits are fine for channel cats and blues, but only rarely do they attract flatheads.

“You want a live bait, and you want a big bait,” said Larry Lewis, owner of Kelly’s Bait & Tackle near the High Falls dam. “Bream, shiners or shad will do.”

The standard live-bait rig for flatheads is simply a heavy-duty Carolina-rig. Choose heavy monofilament or braided line for your main line, at least 25-lb. test. Tie on a short leader of around two feet in length, with a 1-oz. egg sinker above the barrel swivel (go with heavier lead if you are fishing in current). For your hook, choose a large wide-gap bait hook, 5/0 or larger. Circle hooks will also work, and a lot of catfishermen are switching over to this type. Circle hooks are designed to catch in the corner of the fish’s mouth as it swims off slowly with the bait or the line is tightened, but you have to resist the urge to set the hook. If a circle hook hasn’t already dug in, it will pop right out of a fish’s mouth on a violent hookset.

Hook your live bream, shiner or other bait through either the lips or the back right beneath the dorsal fin. Hooking through the lips is preferrable in current, so that the bait will face into the current and stay lively longer.

For your rod, something meant for the ocean surf is not overdoing it if you really intend to go after a whopper and also expect to get it into the boat.
On High Falls in the spring and early summer, the flatheads make a kind of spawning run, heading up the Towaliga into current, their natural spawning habitat. In June, some are coming back down the river, a few may still be heading up, and a good many are scattered throughout the main lake. On the main lake, the pattern to follow is to find deep holes on the river or creek channels, particularly those close to shallow coves and pockets, the types of places where bream will be bedding and hanging out. The flatheads will be in the deep holes during the day, moving out to nearby shallows to hunt bream after dark. The new lake record was caught before daylight in about three feet of water off a dock, not far from the Buck Creek channel and deep water. Generally, the cats are most active just before and for a while after sunset.

Fishing the Towaliga River is also an option. In current, flatheads hang out in the deep holes in the bends of the river and under washed-out bluffs. They emerge from these holes at night onto shallow flats. Tie up above the holes shortly before dark, drop the baits on the edge of the holes and wait.

There are two boat ramps on High Falls, and the main one is by the dam. For information about camping, call High Falls State Park at (912) 993-3053. Just west of the dam on High Falls Road is Kelly’s Bait & Tackle, where you can see Polaroids of a lot of big High Falls flatheads caught by locals, as well as the mount of Larry Smith’s former 53-lb. state record.

Coosa River
Over the years, the Coosa River from Rome to Lake Weiss has produced some newsworthy blue catfish, usually caught by striper fishermen. Glenn Brown of Rome has been featured in GON before in a story on striper fishing, But Glenn regularly catches blue cats of big proportions.

Sometimes in the summer he goes after them specifically. You can catch blue cats anywhere in the Coosa above Lake Weiss, and around Rome fish in the 5- to 10-lb. range are common. But the whoppers seem to be thicker around Brushy Branch and down to upper Lake Weiss.

“That’s where I’ve caught 80 percent of the big ones I catch,” said Glenn. “The hotter the weather, the better it seems to be. July is a good time to catch 30- or 40-lb. cats.”

Whether he’s in the lower river or on what he considers Lake Weiss, Glenn seeks the deep holes to fish for catfish, and he has found them along the river channel in the upper lake as deep as 47 feet. He fishes live or cut shad on a bottom rig: 20-lb. main line and a 17-lb. leader with a 2/0 or 3/0 Kahle hook. In the lake, his rig is set up like a Carolina rig, with a 2- to 4-oz. egg sinker, depending on the current. In the river, he uses a 3-way swivel — the sinker and the hook each have their own separate leader, which keeps the bait up where fish can see it.

“When you see the end of the rod go down, if it’s just a real slow, steady pull, you better hang on when you set the hook,” said Glenn.

Glenn’s biggest blue cat from the Coosa River weighed 44 pounds, his biggest flathead 37. Only three weeks ago, he boated a 42-lb. blue. There are heavier fish, but Glenn often fishes alone, and boating a big blue can be tough this way. Last summer, he fought a blue cat that he feels was in excess of 50 pounds. He got it near the boat five times before the leader gave out, but he was never able to get the fish’s head in his large dip net.

Even though the big fish are not as common around Rome, Glenn still catches 30-pounders and better now and then. Five-pounders are thick in this area, though, and to catch these, Glenn said fish small chunks of cut bait rather than whole live bait.

There are several boat ramps at Lake Weiss, Brushy Branch, the Mayo Lock & Dam, and in the city of Rome, to name a few. For more information call the DNR Fisheries office in Calhoun at (706) 629-1259.

The Coosa River in northwest Georgia is notorius for growing monster blue cats. Striper fisherman Glenn Brown of Rome consistently catches blues of 30 and 40 pounds or better.

Altamaha River
You’ve read before in GON about the awesome flathead fishery that has grown up in the Altamaha River in recent years. They’re still there and still thriving. Just ask Jimmy Adams, the chief of police in Lumber City.

Jimmy and his brother Ted enjoy camping on the river overnight and running sets of up to 35 limb-lines. On Friday, May 5, they ran their lines and came up with a flathead that pulled uncertified scales to the 52-lb. mark. Amazingly, the next morning at around 3 a.m., Jimmy and Ted broke their personal record of 77 pounds from 2000. Jimmy ties his heavy-duty cord lines to a sturdy but flexible limb several feet off the water.

“When we shined the light to see if we had one on, the fish was hitting the water with the limb,” Jimmy said. “I knew he was a good one.”

Jimmy and the fish fought for several minutes before the cat ready to come close to the boat. Finally, with the fish alongside, the brothers leaned out and rolled the hog-sized cat into their boat. The flathead was close to five feet long. “I had a big marine battery in the boat, and he slapped it slam out of the way,” said Jimmy.

At One-Stop Bait & Tackle in Jesup, the cat pulled a 100-lb. spring scale to the 96-lb. mark. Though not a certified weight, this is nearly 30 pounds more than the rod-and-reel state record. It also is the heaviest flathead anyone knows about being caught by any method from the river — or in Georgia for that matter — topping a 90-pounder that was caught on a limb-line a few years ago.

Jimmy doesn’t use rod-and-reel, but his advice for those who want to catch a big one is to head downriver.

“I caught the big fish near Paradise Park, and I mostly fish in that area, in Wayne County out of Jesup. The biggest one I’ve caught up around Lumber City was 45 pounds — the big ones are definitely downriver.”

You don’t necessarily have to catch live redbreasts to use as bait. Jimmy uses golden shiners bought at bait stores, and that’s what the 96-pounder hit. The rest of the formula for rod-and-reel anglers is the same as we’ve already mentioned. In the Altamaha, anglers target shallow flats above deep holes as dark moves in. Anchoring is difficult in this big river, and you’re likely to lose your anchor on a log, so tie up to a snag instead.

For more information on boat access, call the DNR Fisheries office in Waycross at (912) 285-6094.

Lumber City Chief of Police Jimmy Adams (above right) lifts what may be the heaviest flathead catfish ever caught in Georgia, if you include limb-line catches. Jimmy caught it in the Altamaha River on May 5, and the fish came within four pounds of bottoming out a 100-lb. scale. The photo below shows the 96-lb. cat next to a 52-pounder that Jimmy caught the same weekend.

Clarks Hill Lake
For flathead catfish in the 40-lb. range and bigger, another top choice is Clarks Hill, which held the flathead state record twice in the 90s.

Though live bait works fine on Clarks Hill, several local anglers have perfected another method. Albert Moody of Augusta and his fishing partners have learned to chum with cut blueback herring and then bait their lines with half a herring. Albert said that he used to grind up herring for chum, then baited his lines with live, whole bream or herring. This works, he said, but not as good as what he and his partners do now.

“We find a long point or hump near deep creek channels and double-anchor on the point in about 18 feet of water. We cut herring into small chunks and use badminton rackets to knock the herring out away from us in a big circle. Then we lob half of a herring on a line out just inside the circle. Our theory is they smell the bait, come in and get a chunk of fish, and now they’re really scouring the bottom instead of just going everywhere looking for the smell of blood.”

Albert said that he has learned to go with 15-lb. test line. You may lose a big one now and then on line that light, but with heavier lines he has found that he pulls the boat off the anchor point trying to break off from a stump or snag. He uses 1/0 VMC hooks — the catfish don’t seem to notice the smaller hooks and are more likely to take the bait, while this particular hook is strong enough to do the job on big flatheads.

The best time to fish is from sunset to midnight, which is usually when the feeding dies off. Albert notes that striper fishermen fishing cut bait in the same areas during the day rarely catch flatheads. As for areas to fish, Albert spends most of his time on the big water near the dam, in the Parksville and Modoc areas, and his luck there has been good enough that he hasn’t explored a lot of other places. Points and humps in Little River should work just as well, though.

Albert said June, July and August is when the fishing is hottest. “We were pretty successful last year, said Albert. “Our big fish was 45, and we caught an absolute gob of 25- to 35-lb. fish.”

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