Popularly known as the Tenn-Tom, the 234-mile Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway links the Tennessee and Tombigbee rivers in parts of Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama for commercial traffic.
More than barges move through this waterway. Giant predators rule these waters. Legendary catfish waters, the Tennessee River runs 652 miles and connects with the Mississippi River by way of the Ohio River. The Tombigbee River flows 200 miles through northern Mississippi and Alabama, eventually merging with the Alabama River to flow into the Mobile-Tensas River Delta near Mobile, Ala. When the waterway opened in 1985, giant flatheads in those rivers moved into the Tenn-Tom system.
TEN LAKES, MORE WATER
Now, 10 lakes along the Tenn-Tom system combine for a total surface area of 44,000 acres. In addition, numerous tributaries, stumpy backwaters, oxbow lakes and swampy flats create some of the best flathead habitat in the nation. In November 2009, profession catfish angler Joey Pounders set the Mississippi state record for flathead when he caught a 77-pounder in the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterwaynear Columbus, Miss. He kept the whiskered brute alive for more than a day before officially weighing it. In the tank, it spit up 19 shad and possibly lost several pounds.
“That fish could have weighed more than 80 pounds when I first caught it,” Pounders estimated. “I was fishing a hole about 17 to 18 feet deep with a fallen tree on the bottom. I surrounded the tree with three rods and dropped a live shad on a fourth rod directly into the tree. It hit about 10 minutes later and I fought it for about 15 minutes.”
Flatheads may exceed 123 pounds and prefer to hunker down in woody cover during daylight where these voracious predators devour anything they can swallow. At night, they often prowl the shallows. Eating almost exclusively fish, flatheads relish shad, sunfish, small drum, other catfish and bullheads.
“When targeting flatheads, fresh bait is the key,” said Josh Pounders, Joey’s brother and a fellow professional catfish angler. “We normally use live shad about six to eight inches long. When catching bait, we might catch 1,000 shad, but only use 20. I like shad about six to nine inches long.”
GO TO THE FISH
When looking for flatheads, use a depth finder to scan for channels or drops with access to both deep and shallow water. Prowling flatheads like to enter washed out banks, submerged treetops along eroded shorelines, stump fields or other cover that might hold prey. Logjams along a river bend create excellent flathead habitat. Bracket a good spot with several rods, but always drop meat right down into the thickest cover.
“When fishing for big fish, we use baits that a 3-pound channel catfish can’t handle,” Joey advised. “A 5-pound flathead can eat a 9-inch shad. I caught the state record on a 7-inch shad. Fishing for big flatheads takes patience. It might take a while to get a bite. When it bites, wait to set the hook. A flathead typically takes the bait with three tugs. It won’t completely take it until about the third pull. That’s when we set the hook.”
For big cats, rig a three-way swivel on 80- to 100-pound test braided line. Tie 18 inches of 50- to 60-pound test monofilament to one eye and add a snelled 7/0 or 8/0 wide-gap circle hook. On the other swivel eye, tie 36 to 48 inches of 20-pound test monofilament for the sinker. With the hook leader shorter than the sinker line, the baitfish swims off the bottom.
“Many people think they should put the bait on the bottom, but a catfish’s eyeballs are on the top of its head,” Josh explained. “With the current running, holding the bait off the bottom makes the bait look more alive even if it’s nearly dead. We also use lighter line for the weight because flatheads run to cover when hooked. If they wrap the weight line, we can break it and still catch the fish.”
Contact Pounders through his website at http://teampounders.com.