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Lower Chattahoochee Catfish Action
Downstream of the Walter F. George Lock and Dam at Eufaula, the “Hooch” offers excellent summer catfishing. Here’s how to join in the fun.
By Eileen Davis
Like many anglers, veteran Chattahoochee catfisherman Robert Garrett has lost fish due to straightened hooks. But neither he, nor anyone else fully realized the size of fish now swimming in the waters below the Walter F. George Lock and Dam.
“I had caught several blue cats from the river weighing more than 20 pounds,” he said, “with the largest weighing 27 pounds. Even though I had fished there for years, and had my hooks straightened, it wasn’t until I met a commercial fisherman at the Franklin Landing that I understood why. He had just caught a blue catfish on a rod and reel weighing 66-pounds.”
While not exceptionally large for the species, as the current world record is a 143-pound blue caught on June 18, 2011 in Virginia, the 66-pounder shows how well blue catfish have adapted to the fertile Chattahoochee River. According to fisheries biologists, blues found their way into the drainage when heavy rains burst farm ponds dams in the spring of 1990. Seven years later, biologists began to see large numbers of blues in the lower river.
As the blues worked their way downstream, flatheads worked upstream from Lake Seminole. The latter species was introduced into the Flint River in the 1950s and until recent years had not entered the Chattahoochee. On Garrett’s last trip for flatheads, which was below the Andrews Lock and Dam, he caught 40 flatheads with an average weight of three pounds. His biggest weighed 17 pounds.
Now that blues and flatheads overlap, the lower river offers excellent fishing for these species as well as channel and white catfish. On a good day, skilled anglers can expect to catch a mixed bag of whiskered fish weighing 100 pounds.
Picking the Best Time
Stretching for approximately 52 miles from the Walter F. George Lock and Dam to the tri-border of Alabama, Florida and Georgia, the lower Chattahoochee is actually two pools with their elevations controlled by the dams at Fort Gaines and Columbia. The former generates electrical power; the latter maintains the water level for navigation. The dams are separated by distance of 29 miles. Daily fluctuations range from a maximum of about 16 feet below the Walter F. George Dam and up to eight feet below the Andrews Dam.
Obviously, this tremendous change in water flow affects fishing. According to Sebrune Greene, who is known by fellow anglers as “C”, the strong current is key to catching big stringers.
“If they are not generating,” says the long-time catman, “don’t even go fishing. If they are, the fish will feed anytime of the day or night. Fishing is great whenever the water is flowing. But the best times occur during the first hour as the water rises and the last hour as the water is receding.
“The flowing water causes the fish to move into current breaks, and it moves the forage around,” Greene added. “This situation causes a feeding frenzy. And when the generators stop, the fish realize that it’s going to end, so they gorge themselves again.”
Garrett has a slightly different approach to fishing current that is focused on the type of fishing he’s planning.
“Because the water level fluctuates so much,” he said, “wait a couple of hours until the water level has stabilized. If you put your gear out before they start generating, it may be underwater after the water rises. But if you plan to fish with jugs, wait until they stop generating. The current slows, but there’s still enough to move the jugs. I like them to move, not wash away.
“Also the longer they run the generators, the better the fishing. It’s not worth your time if the generators only run for a few hours. Look for at least eight hours on the schedule.”
The generating schedule is available by calling the Corps, but a schedule for releasing water is not available for the Andrews Dam. According to the Corps, Andrews begins releasing water 30 to 45 minutes before the generators spool up at George.
While the current affects feeding along the entire length of the river, its greatest force occurs in the first couple of miles below the dams. Additionally, the opening of the gates is like ringing a dinner bell, as they funnel shad, rough fish, and other critters to the waiting catfish below. The fish swept through the dam are disorientated, so they are easy pickings.
Furthermore, the dam is an obstacle to both catfish and forage moving upstream, and the cool deep water with current is ideal habitat for large catfish. The biologists responsible for the Chattahoochee report that more angling occurs per acre in the tailrace areas than anywhere else along the river.
“In my opinion,” Greene said, “the most important factor in catfishing is fresh bait.”
According to Garrett and Greene, the best bait for catching blue, channel and white catfish is shad. Both prefer gizzard shad for its tough and oily flesh.
Greene uses a cast net to catch as many shad as possible when he arrives. He says the best places to find shad below the George Dam are at the Franklin Landing where it forms an eddy; the sandbar upstream from the Highway 10 bridge; the mouth of Hog Creek on the Georgia side, which is about a half mile below the dam; and the lock wall.
“If you cannot catch shad,” Greene offered, “try catching a dozen bream with a rod from shallow eddies and areas of slack water tight against the bank.”
Once he’s collected enough bait, Greene first prepares the bream and large gizzard shad by removing their scales, as they interfere with the hook set.
“For gizzard shad,” Greene explained, “fillet one side and leave the backbone on the other. Then cut the fillets into chunks 1½-inch square. If you cut them any larger, the increase in drag will cause the bait to spin in the current.
“Then there’s the head – it’s a prize piece,” he continued. You want to fish the head where you expect to catch a big fish.”
Like Greene, Garrett cuts his bait into small pieces – only smaller – ¾-inch squares.
“You will catch more fish,” Garrett advised, “even though they may be smaller. However, the biggest fish I ever caught was on a small piece of bait.”
When shad are scarce, Garrett usually stops at a fish house on the way to the lake to buy mullet. Alternatively, he will use rabbit.
“The meat is tough,” he said, “and it has a good odor. It also turns white after being in the water for a few minutes. Since catfish feed using both odor and sight, rabbit makes exceptionally good bait.”
On the other hand, Greene’s fall back bait is more conventional. He buys shrimp from the grocery store.
“Use shrimp if you cannot get anything else,” Greene said. “Shrimp is a good bait that will at times compete head to head with fresh shad — but not always. Fresh shad is the best bait year ‘round, no question.”
When targeting flathead catfish, Garrett uses live bait exclusively, favoring bream or crawfish. Both are common in the river and far out-produce fresh-cut bait.
“On my last fishing trip below Columbia,” says Garrett, “we caught 40 flatheads in seven hours. When I cleaned them, I was surprised that every fish had crawfish in its stomachs.”
Garrett catches both bream and crawfish before going fishing. He uses minnow traps to catch crawfish from swampy roadside ditches. If you are going to keep them for a short time, clip their claws; they are fished without them anyway. Otherwise, make sure they have plenty to eat or they will kill each other.
Due to the strong current, Garrett and Green use set poles, limb lines and casting rods for the pinpoint placement of their baits. According to our veteran catmen, nothing can compare to using limb lines and set poles. Their gear is simple, yet it consistently produces catch rates of ten pounds per hour on the lower Chattahoochee.
These rates are possible because limb lines and set poles allow them to place bait where catfish feed in the current breaks – not just the spot, but also the correct depth. Furthermore, they can position the bait so hooked fish rarely become tangled. Skilled anglers can duplicate bait position with a casting rod, but cannot fish as many hooks simultaneously in high percentage areas.
Garrett and Greene usually fish 20 to 30 set poles. The number of limb lines is determined by the availability of suitable limbs growing over current breaks. Often, they fish more set poles than limb lines.
When these catmen need set poles, they harvest them from the nearest canebrake. Greene’s poles run 12 to 14 feet, but Garrett uses different lengths.
“I have 60 to 70 poles ready to fish,” Garrett said. “They range in length from 8 to 12 feet, so I can match the length of the pole and its line to where I plan to fish.”
Both limb lines and set poles consist of strong No. 18 nylon line, threaded through a five- to eight-ounce egg sinker and tied to a brass swivel, which is followed by a short leader and a strong hook.
“Remember that current will cause your bait to tumble,” Greene cautioned, “so keep the length of your leaders to four or five inches. The further the hook is from your weight, the greater the tumbling motion, and the harder it is for the fish to take the bait. Short leaders produce more fish.”
While Greene prefers the traditional Limerick hook in size 7/0 with its big eye for tying to nylon line and the long shank for deep penetration, Garrett has switched to circle hooks in size 3/0.
“Circle hooks catch more fish,” Garrett argued. “When the fish takes the bait, it’s nearly always hooked in the corner of the mouth. It holds the fish better, and the fish is also much easier to unhook.”
For their casting rods, these anglers use the same style rig, except the line is 20-pound-test monofilament and the weight of their sinkers is commensurate with the current. This requires a variety of sinkers weighing up to 8 ounces.
For jug fishing, Garrett downsizes to a 1-ounce sinker and a No. 2 hook that he fishes at a depth of 2 to 5 feet. He says the heavy sinker helps control drift caused by the wind.
With so many catfish forced into current breaks by the flowing water, finding fish is not difficult. Every outside bend, point and logjam holds great potential. Look for deep washout holes in bends, and eddies below every point and logjam. Other productive breaks are not as easy to spot, as a small cut in the bank will often hold fish.
“Since it’s so important to find any kind of break, look for stumps, either individually or in rows” Greene added. “There are a lot of stumps 10 to 15 feet off the bank near Abby Creek. When they are not generating, the stumps are exposed, otherwise, the stumps are a couple of feet below the surface.
“Fish the stumps by sticking a set pole in a crack on top of the stump at a 45-degree angle. It’s important that your bait is behind the stump where the water is slack. You will wear them out!
“For other current beaks, use a limb line if there’s a green limb overhanging the eddy,” Greene continued. “If not, jab a set pole in the bank. Approach the limb or bank with your gear ready. It makes it easier for your partner, who must maneuver the boat in the strong current.”
Garrett and Greene set their gear so their baits hold just inside the current break where the water slows. The former fishes his bait two to five feet below the surface, while the latter keeps his baits a few inches above the bottom. However, when Garrett’s target species are the flatheads below the Andrews Lock and Dam, he fishes his live bait on the bottom.
Greene, who only fishes the upper pool, says his technique produces a mixed bag made up of 80 percent channel, 15 percent blue and 5 percent yellow (flathead) cats.
“Yellows hold tight to the bottom and structure,” he said, “while blues and channels hold behind the structure, but not as tight.
“If you put out 25 poles and a dozen limb lines,” Greene said, “you will stay busy. With the generators running and with good fresh bait, by the time you get them set out – it may take a couple of hours – it’s time to run them. You will pick up a number of fish on the first trip.”
Between runs, the catmen fish with their casting rods in current breaks not occupied with limb lines and set poles. These are the areas where it’s difficult to set their gear. If the fish are actively feeding, they may fish with their rods for less than 30 minutes before making another run.
For a relaxing time on the lower Hooch when the water is not flowing, Garrett switches gear to drift cut bait below 30 to 40 floats. His technique works throughout the year, but is most productive in the summer, when catfish are nearer to the surface where the water is well oxygenated.
“If it’s a calm night,” Garrett said, “spread your floats out over a distance of two or three miles. When the wind is blowing, drift them in a group so you can watch over them. You may also want to align the floats before they drift over a point or flat.
“If the fish are biting, I’ll let my floats drift for five or six hours. If not, I’ll pick them up and move after two hours. I have gone, planning to only fish for two hours, and the fishing was so good that it would be daylight before I stopped.”
For Your Information
In Alabama, public access to the river below the Walter F. George Lock and Dam is available at the Franklin Landing off State Highway 10, midway down to Columbia at Abbie Creek, which is east of Haleburg off County Road 97, and south of Columbia at Omussee Creek Park off State Highway 95. Below the Andrews Lock and Dam, access is available near the town of Gordon off State Highway 95.
On the Georgia side, public access is available at Odum Creek Road off County Road 80, just upstream from the Columbia Lock and Dam at Coheelee Creek and downstream from the dam off County Road 81.
Alabama and Georgia recognize the licenses of each state for anglers fishing below Lake Eufaula; however, the agreement does not cover the creeks flowing into the Chattahoochee River.
For generating times, call the Corps at 1-866-772-9542 or visit their website.