There aren’t a whole lot of things better in this world than the smell of catfish sizzling in a pot of hot grease and a group of good friends waiting to devour them. I can already taste the tarter sauce on a fat catfish fillet, and I haven’t even wet a line yet.
I could go out with a rod and reel and spend the whole afternoon trying to catch a few channel catfish, but this Georgia boy knows there’s a faster way to a fatter cat, and it doesn’t involve watching a rod tip all afternoon when I could be doing something productive — like watching the Outdoor Channel between naps.
I could catch 20 channel catfish and still go home with only enough to feed a few folks. It seems like a waste of time in my book, because I know there’s a bigger, better-tasting catfish that inhabits the murky bottoms of Georgia rivers, and it doesn’t take much effort or know-how to literally load a boat with these Georgia giants.
The appaloosa — or flathead catfish — isn’t native to Georgia waters and hasn’t been a friend to the native fish either. Since its introduction in the mid 1900s, its population continues to rise, and some panfish species have almost completely disappeared where it resides.
Thomaston native Michael Anthony has flathead trotlining, or “fishing for apps,” as he called it, down to a science. What began as a weekend hobby has become an obsession, and now he spends every spare weekend from the beginning of April until the end of summer along the banks of the Flint River in Baconton pulling some of the biggest catfish you’ve ever seen out of the river.
While catching one on a rod and reel is surely a lot of fun, Michael said he goes for the numbers, and rods and reels don’t produce numbers. In as little time as two nights on the Flint, Michael and his fishing buddies have caught more than 600 pounds of catfish.
“It would take six guys from noon until after midnight to clean all of those fish,” said Michael. “We take them all back to Thomaston alive in a tank in the back of a truck, and then we clean them all as soon as we get back. We’ll split up all the apps and usually give the channel cats away.”
Appaloosa catfish have the same pleasant taste no matter how large they grow, while channel catfish seem to taste fishier the larger they get.
“It’s not hard to give away a catfish; there’s always somebody who wants some,” he said.
Many seasons of catfishing has taught Michael a few things about flatheads. One of those things is don’t expect a cheap trotline you buy at Wal-Mart to be there in the morning if you’re rigging it with live bait for flatheads. The trotlines you can buy at the store are made of twisted nylon that’s not designed to withstand the violent rolls a 40-lb. catfish is going to put on it after it gets tired of sitting in one spot too long.
For that reason, Michael makes his own trotlines out of two separate types of braided lines. For a main line, he’ll use a braided cord that’s about the same size as a clothesline. It needs to be that thick to make it easy to handle without cutting your hands to pieces, and also to stand up to the often brutal punishment a few dozen highly ticked-off catfish are going to put it through.
“When I’m making the main line, I make a loop in the rope every arm’s length apart,” said Michael. “It’s a simple measurement, and it keeps them far enough apart to make it easy when you’re baiting and checking the lines.”
Tied to every loop knot in the main line is a smaller braided line with an 8/0 Eagle Claw hook tied on with a simple loop knot and another loop tied in the opposite end. When baiting the lines, Michael puts a baitfish on the hook then slides the hook through the loop around the main-line loop and then drops it in the water and slides down the main line to the next loop.
He makes it easy by tying both ends of the main line to sturdy trees before starting to bait the hooks. He might place the line all the way across the river in places where the river narrows, or he could have it paralleling the bank on an outside bend.
“I like to put them in narrow spots in the river, because it bottlenecks the fish and forces them to come in close. It’s hard for them to turn down that many baits across the bottom when they pass through here,” said Michael. “I’ll also put it on the outside bend sometimes, because the current will pull all of the trees and structure into the outside bends. It will also cut under the bank and produce cuts in the river walls the catfish like to get in.”
But, if Michael baited every loop with a hook then the line would just stay at the top of the river, and he’d end up with nothing but turtles and channel cats. That’s not what he’s looking for. So, every few loops he’ll place a 2-lb. window weight from an old house on the loop to take his line to the bottom where the big boys hang out.
“I use window weights because I get them for free, and they are easy to find. But you can use whatever you want that’s heavy. Just make sure it’s not something you want to get back, because sometimes they get stuck and you just have to break the line,” he said.
The main lines Michael uses aren’t cut to any certain length. He normally has a long roll of several hundred yards and cuts them to the length he needs for certain areas as he uses it up. At the end of a weekend of fishing, he’ll tie them all back together again, and they’ll be like brand new, ready to be measured and cut the next trip.
Keeping up with several hundred yards of line and another hundred or so hooks on separate lines might seem challenging, but Michael’s got the whole thing figured out with a simple 5-gallon bucket. Just place the hooks over the top of the bucket and droop the lines down in the inside. Putting the main line in a separate bucket or on the boat bottom would be the best idea so the hooks don’t get caught in the main line as you’re pulling it out.
But, before you start doing all the rigging and baiting of the hooks, you’re going to need some bait. For flathead catfish you’ve gotta have live bait. That isn’t to say you won’t catch one every now and then on a chicken liver, but the big ones like something moving.
If you went to the store and bought enough bait for a hundred or so hooks twice in a weekend, you probably wouldn’t have enough money for gas to drive to the river. But, if you do have a couple hundred bucks you’re raring to spend, you can go to the bait store and buy goldfish by the pound. Michael says they are the toughest bait you can buy, and they are guaranteed to catch a fish or die trying.
“If we don’t catch an app on a hook for some reason or another, you can bet that goldfish will be just as alive as it was when I put it on the hook on Sunday morning when I take it off,” he said.
The only problem with buying goldfish, other than the monetary reasons, is it’s illegal to release non-sterile, non-native fish into any Georgia public water system. So, make sure any baits you buy are hybrid goldfish, and not the goldfish you win at the fair. You could potentially create an invasive-species problems greater than what the flatheads are now.
A cheaper and obviously more fun way to bait hooks would be with bream. But, you don’t want to use your everyday country-club, bread-fed, sissy bream. Michael said ordinary bluegills aren’t very tough, and you have to baby them to keep them alive.
He likes to catch warmouth bream, which some folks call stumpknockers. These tough “creek bream,” as Michael called them, are just as tough as the store-bought goldfish, but don’t cost nearly as much.
“I like to take my kids to catch the bream the week beforehand. It’s fun for them and me, and it doesn’t cost as much,” he said. “I’ll keep them alive in a cooler I’ve rigged with a circulating bilge pump to keep the oxygen levels up until I get them to my house. I have a pond on my property with a fish barrel with holes in it designed for keeping fish alive. They’ll stay alive forever in there, then I just get them out and put them in the cooler for transport.
“In Baconton we have an old dryer drum with holes in it we tie to the bank and put in the river to keep them alive.”
Another method to catch bream is a fish basket. But, remember you can’t use one on public waters because bream are only legal to catch using a hook and line, not a cast net, trap or any other net.
In swamps, ponds and other private waters, a fish basket is a simple, fast way to catch some bait with little effort. Michael likes to use the Texas loop basket designed to catch bream in four different corrals. A middle portion of screen is filled with dog food or some other fish attractant, and four open cylinders surround it allowing the bream to swim in, but they usually can’t find their way out.
“I can catch 20 to 30 bream in one day with this thing. It’ll flat catch the heck out of them,” he said. “They are a little expensive to buy, but making one yourself can cut your hands all to pieces with that wire.”
Probably the most original way to catch a mess of bream for bait, or for eating, is to find a road-killed animal carcass and hang it in a tree above a slow spot or slough in the river. Come back in a week or so with a can full of wax worms as bait. The maggots and worms will be falling off the rotting carcass, and the bream will be literally waiting underneath for the free meals.
“Make sure you position your boat upwind from the stinking thing, and then get ready to catch them on every cast,” he said. “It’s nasty, and it stinks, but it works. A butcher told me that trick, and I never would’ve believed it if I hadn’t tried it for myself.”
Whichever way you want to get your bait, you can be sure you’ll be pulling in fish Capt. Ahab himself wouldn’t be ashamed of. The end of March and the beginning of April are the best times of the year to do it, and the closer to the new moon, and the darker the sky, the better the fishing is going to be. You might even have to check the hooks more than once during the night if they really start biting.
“When they are on, they are on!” said Michael. “I’ve been baiting hooks and already feel fish on the line that I just dropped in the water. Sometimes you can’t hardly get away to another line because you’re busy pulling fish off the one you’re baiting.”
If you’d like to give it a try, but you’re not sure you can do it alone, Michael takes guided trips for a whole lot less than you can buy 600 pounds of catfish at the store. And, they’ll taste a whole lot better, too, because you can’t buy flatheads at the store.
A weekend of primitive camping high above the swift banks of the Flint is about as relaxing as anything you’ll ever find in the whole Peach State. And while you’re not checking or baiting lines, Michael knows all the islands well and will gladly show you how to find a few million-year-old sharks’ teeth or a Native American artifact that has been lying on the river bottom for a few thousand years. Just don’t think you can take those home with you, because that’s against the law as well.
Remember, in order for a trotline to be considered a legal “sport trotline” instead of a “commercial” trotline, which you’d need a permit for, it must have fewer than 51 hooks. To book a guided weekend for groups of two or more with Michael, give him a call at (706) 566-7068 or (706) 648-6252.