Wheeler Lake Home of Monster Cats
By DAVID RAINER
In the fishing world, Alabama has the reputation as one of the best bass fishing destinations in the nation, a fact that is widely known thanks to the media exposure through a variety of professional tournament series.
The Big Cat Quest held its championship on at Joe Wheeler State Park last weekend and huge blue catfish, with an occasional flathead thrown in, were the rule. Arkansas anglers Daryl and Jason Masingale weighed in 139.30 pounds on the final day to take the title. Anglers were constantly weighing in big cats from 60 to 80 pounds – which were released live back into the lake - over the three-day event. Almost all of the contestants raved about how good the catfishing is on the 67,100-acre lake.
Jason Bridges of Arab, who runs Wheeler Cats Guide Service, is extremely familiar with how good the catfishing is on the lake and stakes his reputation on it.
“We target monster catfish, 50-pound-plus fish,” said Bridges, who teamed with Lance Whitaker to take sixth place in the championship. “Wheeler Lake is just a phenomenal fishery, one of the best in the nation. It’s the second largest reservoir on the Tennessee River and it’s just known for monster fish, monster blue cats.
Bridges started tournament catfishing several years ago on a local basis and then moved up to compete in the Bass Pro Shops circuit.
“I just got hooked on those monster cats,” he said. “There’s nothing like it in freshwater.”
Bridges said it’s really hard to pinpoint why Wheeler’s catfishing is so good other than its diversity of habitat.
“The thing about it is you have river fishing on one end of Wheeler and lake fishing on the other end,” he said. “You’ve got two different styles of fishing. On one end you’ve got current. On the other end, not so much. The thing that makes it so good is it’s just loaded with bait – shad and skipjack herring. For fish to get that size, they have to eat a lot. And there’s a lot of food out there.”
One tactic Bridges has used with significant success is to target fish that other anglers overlook.
“Your average catfishermen think the big catfish are in deep water,” he said. “I’ve found that to be a misconception. The main thing you have to do to find the big rascals is to think outside the box. They will move into shallow water and the reason they move up there is to get something to eat. And the bait of choice is skipjack herring. If you don’t have that, it’s hard to put them in the boat.
“Where I fish depends on the time of year. If you fish the current, you look for structure. The current pushes the bait to structure and that’s what I look for. If I’m fishing the other end of the lake, I’m fishing the flats. They like to get up on the flats and feed and roam around. I’m looking for ledges and humps and not so much structure. It’s similar to bass fishing.”
The catfish anglers catch the bulk of their bait in the tailraces below the dams on small spoons, small jigs and Sabiki rigs. Bridges takes special care of his bait.
“I don’t like my bait to be in water because they get soft,” he said. “If we’re going to use them soon, I’ll just bag them up and put them in the refrigerator. If it’s going to be several days, I’ll vacuum-seal them and put them in the freezer. We have to do that a lot in the winter. We have to stock up in October and November. And it’s kind of like bass fishing, you have to find out what size bait they want. If they want a big bait, I’ll fish a two-pound skipjack. We just have to figure out what they want for that day.”
Phil King of Alcorn, Miss., a three-time national champion, said while Wheeler has all three main species of catfish – channel, flathead and blue, the easiest of those to target during the daytime hours is the blue. King also thinks the availability of forage is why the Wheeler cats get so big.
“There’s a lot of water here, a lot of area for the fish to move around in,” said King, who had an eighth-place championship finish with partner Tim Haynie. “And there’s plenty of bait. There’s bait all over this lake. There’s shad and skipjack herring. Down the lake, where we fish, there are plenty of mussels. These fish feed heavily on mussels. There’s plenty of food. And it’s known for its big fish. The team that wins is probably going to have to have two 70s all three days to win. It’s just that caliber of water. It’s definitely a quality fish area and you’ve got to catch quality fish to make the cut to the top 25 for the final day.
King said unlike bass fishermen who can change colors or bait to fish certain patterns, catfishermen must manipulate their bait.
“Some days they’ll eat the biggest bait you can chunk out there, and sometimes you have to downsize your bait to catch fish,” he said. “Some times of the year you can use thumbnail-sized bait and catch 50-pound fish. As a catfishermen, you have to learn when to manipulate your bait. Sometimes you use them whole, sometimes half-in-two, sometimes you cut the head and tail off and use the middle and sometimes you use steaks.”
To maintain Wheeler’s status as one of the top, if not the top, catfish lake in the nation, King considers the regulation that limits anglers to one catfish 34 inches or longer per day a wise decision.
“The 34-inch law is going to help protect and preserve those big fish,” said King, one of three anglers to weigh in a 100-pound-plus catfish (103 pounds in 2007) during tournament competition. “That’s a big plus, and you can’t take them across state lines, which is going to help keep them from going to the pay places. That’s going to keep them in here. There are a lot of catch-and-release fishermen here, which always helps.”
Jeff Williams, who went from guiding for catfish in Oklahoma to fishing tournaments to developing the Team Catfish line of tackle and baits, was at Wheeler Lake to do a little fishing while the tournament anglers were practicing. His opinion of Wheeler was enhanced during his visit when he helped 12-year-old Nathaniel Samsel land a 60-pound blue cat the day before the tournament started.
“I’m here to support our team, but Wheeler is such a good lake I fish when I’m here,” Williams said. “We caught the big fish in the Ditto Landing area on the upper end of Wheeler near the Guntersville Dam,” Williams said. “It came in current, fishing about 35 feet deep. We were fishing some submerged trees and rocks that had washed into an area. We anchored above it and he came out and grabbed a skipjack.”
Williams said catfish anglers have to decide what species they’re after and then know what the fish are doing at a particular time.
“You pattern the fish just like a bass fisherman does,” he said. “I was looking for blue catfish in heavy current with good structure on the bottom. We set up and fished the structure with good cut bait and waited for the fish to come to us. We try to get the bait as close to them as we can. If they’re actively feeding, they’ll come get the bait. If not, you move to the next spot.
“Blue cats tolerate current well. So when I’m in heavy current like up there, I’m looking for structure for them to use as a current break. In the catfishing world, this lake is known for big blue catfish.”
Williams also gave a big thumbs up to Alabama’s limit on big catfish.
“It takes them a long time to get that big and they can be depleted,” he said. “It takes a long time to replace a 60- or 70-pounder. I’m really glad they put the 34-inch rule in here to protect these fish, because this fishery is fantastic.”
PHOTOS (first photo by David Rainer, Jason Bridges photo by T.J. Stallings) Jeff Williams and 12-year-old Nathaniel Samsel show off the big blue catfish, estimated at 60 pounds, that Nathaniel landed the day before the Big Cat Quest started on Wheeler Lake. Jason Bridges of Arab wrestles with a big catfish that led to a sixth-place finish in the championship.