Flashback. The mid 90s in Jeff Davis County, Ocmulgee River. A gangly 10-year-old kid is sitting at the front of an old yellow fiberglass boat, busily setting bush hooks. In the back, Uncle Buddy is maneuvering the Johnson 25 among the mazes of fallen tree tops and logjams, holding the boat in the swift current as the boy ties the line, then baits it for the night’s wait. Bait was caught earlier in the day from a surrounding area pond or creek and was a varied assortment, which would consist of, but not limited to, bluegill, warmouth, stumpknockers and butter cats.
Fishing for the bait was also a heap of fun.
When all the lines were tied out, the two returned to the landing to cook burgers, fries and beans on the tailgate. For the night, they slept in the back of the camper truck, with only a mattress laying in the bed.
The next morning the duo would go pick up the lines, haul the fish in and head home. Buddy Taylor, of Hazlehurst, and his nephew Steven, who he nicknamed “Catfish T,’’ hung and skinned many a catfish by the old grapevine that still stands today.
Around Jeff Davis County, Buddy Taylor was known as the Catfish Man. Reportedly once, Georgia Sportsman magazine came down for an interview after they saw a photo of him with a 46-lb. catfish. At that time, a tradition was also being passed down. A young boy was learning well from an experienced mentor, and a “monster’’ was being created. That local catfish monster is now a guru himself who knows nearly every twist, turn and deep hole in the lower Ocmulgee River.
In recent years, Steven McCumbers has won and placed in many Ocmulgee River catfish tournaments. Recently on April 28, participating in the Hazlehurst Church of God Catfish Tournament, Steven spent 14 hours straight in the boat seat on the Altamaha to take home the win with a five-fish limit of 107 pounds, anchored by a 40-pounder.
What really impresses me is this fellow always catches catfish when others can’t. Whether some say it’s the wrong time of year, the river’s too high, muddy, rising or falling fast, freezing water temps, then up comes a photo of Steven with a mess of catfish. With any of the above listed river conditions, Steven applies whatever setups he’ll need for his next trip. Experience has taught him how to read the water. He just doesn’t start running down a bank hanging lines willy-nilly. In fact, by only choosing the right spots for his set lines, Steven averages 9-mile runs.
Fast forward to May 2018. A GON freelance writer is sitting in the rear of a modern stick-steer river boat handing baitfish to the same 10-year-old kid I mentioned earlier, although he’s now grown. This writer (me) is wondering if the GON jinx has set in for the article’s trip. Most longtime readers are aware of this dilemma, similar to Murphy’s Law. The river had gone on a “horse,” meaning it was rising, high, muddy and was cresting the lower banks and spewing into the woods at every cut.
We shoved off from the Burkett’s Ferry ramp, pointed the boat downriver to begin our run that would last a few miles. For obvious reasons, Steven always sets his lines a good ways up and down from the ramp. Since this article comes out in June, I asked him what his methods and thoughts were for then.
“Pretty much the same,” said Steven. “Bush hooks (limb-lines) will be great in June and on through the summer. Flatheads will be heavier since the sows will be full of eggs. The big blues and whites are going to stay out in the middle of the river and the deeper runs of swift current. Channel cats can be anywhere from the bank to the current. The bigger channels prefer a sandy bottom in the swifter current. Big whites love the current next to mussel beds. They all like to hide in a little break behind a log or rock. At night, they’ll go to feed at sharp drop-offs near the banks and sandbars.”
Flatheads seem to be the most sought after catfish species, likely due to their larger size.
“For a big flathead, my No. 1 method is to place a bush hook at the upper end of a deep bank, always,” said Steven. “For bait, I’ll use any type of bream, but my favorite is a pumpkinseed or redbreast. You’ll have a good fish on them every time. When hooking the bait, come down from the rear of the top fin and insert the hook just above the backbone. They can still swim and stay alive longer. On occasion, I use goldfish, as they’re tough and last well on the hook. Not as good as the larger redbreast or pumpkinseed, but they won’t disappoint you.”
Steven’s setup is a stainless steel 7/0 Mustad hook (3407SS-DT) with a 6- to 8-oz. sinker 12 inches up from the hook. He uses size 48 green braided CMI Twine from Catahoula Manufacturing
“Before tying it off, I’ll lower the rig until it hits bottom, then pull it up a little bit,” said Steven. “Cause if a big one gets on, he’ll be more subject to rest on the bottom and less chance of him tearing off if he’s barely hooked. You want him to hug bottom, otherwise he’s gonna be constantly swimming and moving in the current a lot more, increasing your chances of losing him.”
Noticing the long bundle of bamboo poles in the boat, I nodded to them.
“If I have nowhere to tie a hook, I’ll set a bank pole, it’s kinda like making my own limb,” said Steven.
“I use native bamboo poles that I gather in the woods, cutting ’em off at 10- to 14-foot lengths. Just push it down in the mud at a 2 o’clock angle, wedging it between some roots. To get away, they’ll have to break the pole or straighten the hook. Besides baitfish, I’ll use cut shad or mullet cause they’re real oily and will really draw the cats. I’ll set the bank poles at varying depths, but with that strong smell, they’ll even come near the top and get it. On the poles, I use size 18 twine, a 4/0 Mustad hook (same style as above) and a 4-oz. sinker placed 12 inches above.’’
Steven employs trot lines, too.
“I use 150-foot trot lines, starting them at a bank behind a sandbar that has a sharp drop-off,” said Steven. “For bait, I also use cut shad or mullet to start with, but as the water warms, I will change to crawfish and catalpa worms. I tie one end at the bank, make a curve out into the middle of the river with just the main line, and drop that end with a set anchor attached. I use a flat 12-lb. plate, as they can be pulled up easily without snagging. You don’t want a straight line out from the bank, as the heavier fish will pull off a tight line.”
Steven then returns to the bank where he tied off his trot line and begins snapping on pre-baited drop lines.
“Along the way, I’ll space out four 1-lb. weights to help the line stay on the bottom,” said Steven. “I use Magic Bait’s Big Catch Trot Lines, as they come with the trot-line clips for the drop lines. I make my own drop lines with the same Mustad hooks but No. 4 size and No. 1 swivels. Being the drop lines can be separated from the main line, the night before at the house, I’ll pre-bait my hooks, then freeze them. I’ll be ahead of the game, especially in a tournament. I can pull up, clamp and go, never shutting off.’’
With sunset on the horizon, Steven began quickly tying lines with me behind in the middle seat, scooping up small bluegill from the livewell. I noticed he doesn’t line the banks like many limb-liners I’ve observed in the past. He may only hang two or three to a bank before moving across the bank or even getting back on plane for a half mile or more before he chooses another stretch.
“Why?” I asked
“Caught ’em here before,’’ Steven said.
“New moons are the best because it’s dark all night,” said Steven. “Any other moon, I get my hooks baited fast because when the moon comes up, the bite slows to a crawl until it goes back down again.’’
You’ll also want to know what the river is doing before you go.
“Rising water is the best if it’s coming from way up north,” said Steven. “It’s been filtered and not just fresh local rain water. The cats will go on a feeding frenzy. Always look for that rise, that’s when you can mop ’em up! On the other hand, during a fall, after the river has been high for a spell, the fishing can get tough. They will move out farther from the bank and be deeper. They’ll be full, having been eating everything and anything.’’
Our conversation throughout the day was full of tips and food for thought. I couldn’t get everything in one article, as this man is a walking Wikipedia for river catfishing. He added a few more tips before our trip was over.
“Learn to read the tree lines and logs, so you won’t lose your lines,” said Steven. “If a fish is on, I’ll switch the motor off and keep the light off before I get to ’em. They’ll go crazy and tear off if they’re not hooked good. Keep the net handy. For bait, I have the least luck with shellcrackers and white perch (crappie). I don’t use circle hooks, you’ll lose some big ones if they hit hard and fast. Soap lines are good, too. You can run lines all night, but it’s more enjoyable to bait that evening, then check at dawn. For folks not familiar with the river’s currents and obstacles, daylight would be a lot safer and more fun.”
The next morning it was time to check the lines. The view of the river at sunrise was breathtaking. There’s also a certain euphoria present you can’t describe. God painted a great portrait here, so get in the picture when y’all can. Okay, back to fishing.
Is the GON jinx on? I was thinking so as line No. 11 was picked up and still no fish. I heard Steven say more than once, “Should’ve been one there.’’
But as we neared line No. 12, we saw that a limb-shaker was on. Hand over hand with the taut line, a fat 8-lb. blue cat finally broke the water and with lightning speed, he was adeptly scooped up with in the net. Boy, I love that growing intensity as you peer into the murky depths, waiting to see what’s gonna pop up! Our adrenaline waned as the rest of the lines downriver only produced one more, a 5-lb. channel cat.
We got the Yamaha 70 back on plane and headed back upriver and on beyond the ramp to check the other lines. First two nothing, then BAM! Steven got engaged in a line-tinging arm wrestling match. Splish, Splosh, Splash, up and over, a nice 11 1/2-lb. blue cat plopped down in the boat.
Next line, a 5 1/2-lb. flathead. As we neared one of our four bamboo pole sets, we noticed the line was taut but not vibrating in the current. Steven gripped and began to pull slowly on the line. It pulled back. Then it was on, a tug of war! With one hand gripping the narrow end of the pole and his other arm getting jerked this and that way, I scrambled for the net. A 7-lb. brindle bulldog-colored Appaloosa became our next resident in the livewell, which after soaking, will change to the appearance of Old Yeller. Very neat to witness that catch on such a primitive method, my first “polecat’’ from the river. A great way to end the trip.
Tally: Five cats (two blues, two flatheads, one channel) for a total of 37 pounds. Even with less than favorable conditions and a low ratio of lines per fish, the overall weight makes for a great catch in my book. These will feed a lot of folks.
Catfish T beat the GON jinx! By the way, prayer works. Always do that before you leave the hill.