Feeding the Multitudes
A Catfisherman’s Story
By Darren Shell
As he extended his hand and gave me his usual contagious grin, my buddy, Ronnie Melton, offered a verse. “You know, the Good Lord fed the multitudes with two fish and five loaves of bread. Me and my buddies like to think we’re helping him out a little.” Those are the words that started my fishing trip with Ronnie on a warm late May morning. I’d asked him before how he and a friend or two managed to catch so many catfish for their annual fish fries at his local church. I never saw him set a trot line, so I knew that was out. He’d set some jug lines now and again, but mostly, these men caught these fish with a rod and reel.
I’d never been very productive trying to catch catfish on a pole on Dale Hollow. I’d caught a few by accident, but 99 percent of my catfish were all caught in the cold spring mornings on a trotline. So when Ronnie offered to show me… well, I jumped at the chance. I suspected we’d need some high tech gear for our outing, so my boat was rigged out and chock full of everything I thought we needed. When he showed up with only a pole and a few dozen night crawlers, I was surprised.
“What depth will we be fishing?” I asked. “Don’t matter. They’ll probably be about twenty feet deep, but we’ll catch ‘em where ever they are.” I glanced at my two graphs and handheld GPS, and then back at him. “We don’t need no fancy-shmancy gear. All we need is this map and a little help from the Good Lord above.” As you can tell, Ronnie is about half preacher and half outdoorsman … and sometimes the scale teeters one way or the other! Our day on the lake was made up with both factors. It was a good mix. As I learned that day, once catfish have finished the majority of their spawning in the muddy flats back in the hollows by the first of May, they make a move to a different location. For about a month, these healthy channel and flathead catfish move to the steep rock bluffs of the old river channels. A good Float-n-Fly bass fisherman will immediately understand why these fish are in these locations. If we study the following map section, we can easily see the reasoning in why these fish are here.
The old river channels seem to be pathways for bait fish. An ever-so-slight bit of current remains, helping push our schools of minnows along. That sharp bend in the river seems to slow them down a bit…makes them pause along the walls of the deep bluff. The sharp contour change from mud flat to river channel is a likely location for bait fish and hungry fish alike.
Our recently spawned-out catfish (easing away from their spawning ground mud flats) are hungry and looking for any type of food they can get. Minnows aren’t necessarily their food of choice, but they’ll take what they can get, when they can get it.
Dale Hollow has many of these target locations. All the river bluffs will house these types of fish and minnow populations, but some are just better than others. The steep bend in the old river on our map near the mud flat is ideal. A quick look at your map will locate you many places similar to the one here.
Ronnie offered another evaluation in determining a good bluff. I think it might be more spiritual than detailed, but his offering made sense. “Listen to the bluff,” he said. “What?” I’m sure I had a bewildered look on my face. “Hear that pop-pop-crackle of the waves slapping shore?” Yeah, I heard it. Even now, nine months later in the warmth of my office, I can hear that wonderful sound of water and stone. It’s half the reason I go fishing. As Ronnie says, “There’s a little bit of God out here…everywhere you look and listen.”
Once we idled in and dropped the trolling motor, I clicked on the depth finder and started giving water depths and temperatures out loud. Ronnie wrinkled his nose with another grin. “Shut that off and fish, why don’t cha?”
Our tackle was simple. We had fairly heavy rods with ten to fifteen pound test line, but that didn’t seem to matter as much as the bass type of fishing we’ve done over the years. This day, we used fairly heavy hooks, #1s or #2s. We strung our night crawlers on our hooks, leaving a good portion of the worm dangling behind for show. Since the wind wasn’t blowing this day, we used NO weight on the line. If the wind would have picked up, we’d have added a small amount. We’ve found that heavy weight drops the worm too fast and also tends to get our hooks hung-up in the jagged bluff crevices. No need to rush that worm anywhere. It’ll settle nice and slow.
As I said before, minnows aren’t necessarily the food of choice for a channel cat. The flat heads like them pretty well, but generally cats of all varieties like worms and other chunk and dough baits. Shrimp works well too, but worms are just so easy…shoot. We use worms. When those cats get full of the minnows swimming around them, that worm looks like a steaming hot fillet steak to them. They’ll take it Ka-pow!
Ronnie recommends some sort of spray attractant on his worms, also. There are many on the market, and probably some in your tackle box. Use what kind you like. Use it! Or stop by the dock…I’ll sell you some of my top-secret mega-cat lube. It only took a couple hours to catch several good fish that day. We eased in and filleted out our fish. As usual, half went to our table and half went to the freezer for the church fish fry. When I asked how many we saved out for the church, his playful grin said it all. “Two big ones, I believe. I’d better stop at the store for five loaves of bread!” Amen, Buddy. Amen.
Thanks again Darren for the stories. Happy Fishing!