Whisker Warfare

Finding and Fooling Florida Felines

John Felsher August 12, 2011

While Florida certainly offers impressive largemouth bass, there are also numerous species of catfish that inhabit area waters throughout the state. The truth of the matter is that dedicated lunker hunters often overlook these purrfect adversaries for more glamorous targets. However, the state’s menacing hellcats grow to epic proportions and could swallow an adult bass in a single gulp. Catfish, found in many ponds, lakes, rivers and streams, are like all game fish, and are keen to certain geographical attributes that offer prime habitat and nursery grounds with ample forage. Lucky for us, Florida is one such region and summertime is the right time to target trophy cats.

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Photo: John N. Felsher

Although Florida anglers have been battling catfish for years, encounters with truly giant specimens haven’t occurred until recently. Not native to our waters, flathead catfish entered the Apalachicola River system when Lake Seminole along the Georgia/Alabama/Florida border overflowed. “Flatheads got into Apalachicola in the late 1980s after several severe floods,” said Don Minchew, director of the Apalachicola Flathead Catfish Tournament Trail in Wewahitchka.

While blues eclipsing the 100-pound mark exist beyond Florida waters, the state record 64.5-pound fish was taken from the Choctawhatchee River…

“Before the 1990s, a 10-pound channel cat was a big fish, now it’s not uncommon to catch a 40-pound flathead or blue cat,” added Minchew.

Preferring slow, stained rivers, flathead catfish thrive in the Escambia and Choctawhatchee watersheds. Voracious predators with large, sloping heads, wide mouths with protruding jaws, mottled coloration and big squared tails, flatheads almost exclusively eat live prey. They readily devour shad, sunfish and juvenile catfish, while preferring to hunt during low-light conditions. Typically, flatheads ambush targets from deep cover such as fallen timber. The Florida record weighs in at 49.39-pounds, although it’s highly possible larger individuals exist in state waters.

“When targeting flatheads, fresh bait is the key. We normally use live shad over six inches. With humongous appetites, a big flathead can easily devour a huge shad,” said Joey Pounders, a professional catfish angler.

Blue cats, another fairly recent addition to the Florida game fish population, thrive in many Panhandle rivers. With stout slate-gray to bluish bodies, humped backs and deeply forked tails, blue catfish are impressive adversaries. While blues eclipsing the 100-pound mark exist beyond Florida waters, the state record 64.5-pound fish was taken from the Choctawhatchee River in 2008. Unlike flatheads, blues prefer clearer, swifter water with sand, gravel or rock bottoms. While flatheads tend to hunker down in entangling cover, blue catfish frequently roam open water where they hunt for their next meal. Not nearly as fickle as flatheads, blue cats eat almost anything, although big ones prefer oily shad or mullet. Even though they prey upon live shad, sunfish and minnows, blues readily devour pretty much anything with a strong scent.

When fishing for big blues and flatheads you’ll want stout tackle. Among the largest and most powerful freshwater game fish, both species put up spirited fights. The old adage there’s more than one way to skin a cat holds particularly true, with anglers finding success both dragging baits along the bottom and anchoring.

“When fishing lakes, I like to drift, but the Apalachicola River has so much structure on the bottom that drift fishing is almost impossible,” Minchew said. “When specifically targeting blues, I look for current breaks. An intersection of two streams is always worth investigating. The mouths of sloughs or creeks coming off rivers also offer prime territory.”

Channel cats are another worthy target and rank among the tastiest fish in freshwater. These spotted bluish-gray to silvery fish with forked tails cruise the bottom searching for finfish, mollusks, crustaceans or other tidbits of protein. Joe Purvis set the Florida record with a 44.5-pounder in Lake Bluff.

With forked tails and bluish-grayish to mottled coloration, white catfish closely resemble channel cats and eat similar offerings. Although whites seldom exceed three pounds, Jim Miller landed the world record, an 18.88-pounder, while fishing the Withlacoochee River. White cats prefer warmer water and have even been known to enter brackish systems.

Florida anglers might also catch yellow and brown bullheads, relatives of catfish that look like miniature flatheads with squared tails and mottled bodies. Both species live in shallow lakes, slow streams and vegetated ponds and mainly eat minnows, snails, worms, shrimp, insects and crawfish. Although yellow bullheads seldom grow more than three pounds, Tom Flynn of Homosassa set a new yellow bullhead record with a 5.75-pounder while fishing Crystal River.

So what are you waiting for…get out and explore Florida’s freshwater fisheries for some tackle testing whiskered warriors. And remember that although catfish aren’t protected with stringent regulations, special rules and regulations apply to some bodies or water and management areas. Be sure to visit myfwc.com before wetting a line.

Rig It Right

For the biggest cats, tie a three-way swivel on 80 lb. braid. Next, tie 18″ of 50 lb. monofilament to one eye and snell a 7/0 wide-gap circle hook to the end. On the final eye, tie 36″ of 20 lb. mono to your sinker. Bait with fish chunks or whole fish for blue catfish, or live shad if you’re specifically targeting flatheads. When fishing live bait, a shorter leader encourages the bait to swim off the bottom where catfish can easily locate it.

“Many people think they should always put their bait directly on the bottom, but a catfish’s eyes are on the top of its head,” Pounders explained. “With the current running, holding the bait off the bottom makes it look more alive. We also use lighter line on the weight because flatheads typically run for cover when hooked. If the weight snags nearby structure it will break off and enable the angler to continue the fight.”

Anglers can catch catfish by any number of methods with equipment as basic as a cane pole, hook and bobber. Simply drop a succulent chunk of fish into a likely area and wait for the cats to find it.

Here Kitty Kitty

“Blue and flathead catfish are mostly encountered in The Panhandle,” said Bob Wattendorf, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “Both of those fish expanded their range from farther north and are relatively new to Florida. Good places include the Apalachicola, Escambia, Yellow, Suwannee and Ochlockonee systems.”

On the Apalachicola River, anglers catch big flatheads all year, but the best fishing occurs during the summer. Some of the best opportunities fall into place near the Jim Woodruff Dam south to Owl Creek. Fishing deep holes and old creek channels with cover is a proven producer.

Along the Choctawhatchee River, it will be in your best interest to fish the northern stretches for the biggest flatheads and blues. Look from the Alabama state line to West Bay and around the mouth of Holmes Creek.

The Florida catfish population is healthy and while channel cats normally do better in lakes, they also thrive in rivers. The St. Johns River is a perfect example and passes through several major lakes as it drains a 300 mile long 8,840 square mile basin. It contains good populations of channel and white catfish. The Ocklawaha River also offers great action, with some of the best opportunities between Palatka and Lake George. Actually, channel and white catfish can be found throughout the state, with The Florida Keys the only exception.

Anchored by the 44,000 acre Lake Kissimmee, the Kissimmee Chain covers more than 100,000 acres south of Orlando. The Kissimmee River links interconnected lakes with various tributaries and canals that all hold quality fish. Some top catfish spots include East Lake Canal, Southport Canal, Lake Cypress, Shingle Creek and Lake Kissimmee.

Catfish are one of the most important fish for Florida’s freshwater anglers; especially those who want to take home dinner. Although opportunities abound, the FWC annually stocks about 300,000 channel catfish in various public waters.

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