Coosa River Catfish

Some divers went down to work on the dam and came right back to the surface. They said there were catfish down there as big as Volkswagens and would not go back.

I heard that tale about Clarks Hill in my teens, and I’ve heard it about every other lake I have been around all my life. The only thing that changes is the car. It keeps up with the times, going from VWs to Gremlins to Mini-Coopers.

But nobody ever caught one of these catfish the size of a car.

“May is the best month to catch a big catfish on the Coosa River,” Alan Short said.

But how big is big? The Coosa River record channel cat is 19 1/2 pounds, the flathead cat record is 46 pounds, and the blue cat record is 61-lbs., 7.8-ozs.

Those are big, but not the size of a small car like all the legendary stories.

In Georgia, the Coosa River runs from the junction of the Oostanuaula and Etowah rivers in Rome over to the state line on the upper end of Lake Weiss. The river’s flow is influenced by release of reservoir water at both the Allatoona and Carters dams. There are several good ramps on the river, including one in Rome.

Alan Short has lived in Calhoun all his life and fished since he was a child, learning from his father on local ponds and smaller rivers and creeks. Although he got started fishing bass tournaments at 14 and fished them for eight or nine years, he loved fishing river banks.

That got him started fishing the bigger northwest Georgia rivers, including the Coosa. Meeting and fishing with Jason Harrison got him into big cats, and they still fish together. He now guides part-time on the Coosa and other area rivers for cats, stripers and crappie.

“Ninety percent of the fish are in 10 percent of the water,” Alan said.

Knowledge of the rivers and spending most of his adult life fishing them had taught Alan the keys to finding and catching Coosa cats, his specialty. He knows the places they live, the places they feed, how to set up to catch them, and the best baits to use. He agreed to share that information for folks wanting to fish the Coosa in May.

Coosa River guide Alan Short with a flathead catfish. The river also produces big blue cats (below.

Tackle is critical for big river cats. You can catch smaller fish, under 10 pounds mostly, on heavy bass or light saltwater tackle, but if you want to land a big cat, use the correct tackle. Alan rigs six rods to fish at a time. They will include Shimano Tekota baitcasting reels on 7-foot, 6-inch Big Cat Fever medium-heavy or heavy-action rods, and he spools them with 50-lb. Slim Line. Alan likes mono like Slime Line when using circle hooks since the stretch helps with a good hook-up.

Terminal tackle is a 6- to 8-oz. no-roll sinker above a heavy swivel. Alan rigs soft beads between the sinker and swivel to stop line abrasion. It is critical to check your line often and retie if you want to land a big cat! A 50-lb. Slime Line leader between 18 inches to 3 feet long is tied on, the length depending on the kind of place the bait will be fished. A 9/0 to 12/0 hook is attached, depending on the size bait and size cat he expects to catch.

“I want to use a bait from the water I am fishing,” Alan said.

He does not catch bait in one river or lake and take it to a different place. And catching bream in a pond then taking them to the river just does not work as well as catching river bream. Alan thinks they just smell different to the cats.

A variety of baits is important. On a typical trip, Alan will have gizzard shad, threadfin shad, bluegill, small drum and carp in his bait tank. The shad and other rough fish can be caught in a net, but Georgia law requires game fish like bluegill to be caught in a sporting manner, on line and hook.

“In the river, 80% of the blue cats will live out in the middle of the river in holes during the day, while 80% of the flatheads spend daylight near the bank in log jams and undercut banks,” Alan said.

Holes may be 20 feet deep, but the important thing is they are deeper than the surrounding bottom. And Alan says don’t hesitate to fish water as shallow as 5 feet in May.

He seeks out both kinds of places to set up before dark to be ready for the fish to start moving and feeding. Creek and ditch mouths also offer good places to fish. Rising water will push Alan to fish closer to the bank, dropping water moves him to the middle of the river.

Sunrise and sunset are natural feeding periods, but Alan also consults a fishing times app for Solunar feeding tables. During a typical night, that gives you three times when the bite will be more active than at other times. He wants to be set up and ready on his best places at those times.

Log jams on the bank are obvious, and Alan marks them when the river is low, noting the way the logs and limbs set up and extend out. For the deeper holes in the river, he uses a Navionics GPS map. He also rides those deep holes marking fish with his sonar. Alan is an expert at seeing fish and estimating their size.

Rocks and a hard bottom in a river hole mean it is more likely to hold big blue cats, he said. Big blues—and about 20% of the big flatheads—like to sit right behind a rock in a current break, Alan has found. He can tell how hard the bottom is and if rocks are present with his sonar when scouting.

Natasha Short with a 10-lb. striped bass.

Having and knowing how to use a good anchor to set your boat up right is also critical for catching big cats. When Alan marks a big cat in a hole, he motors upstream and puts his anchor out, using twice the amount of anchor rope as depth of water, and lets the boat drift back to stop the boat a long cast to the upstream edge of the hole.

He does the same if fishing a log jam—move upstream, put the anchor out, and stop the boat where he can cast his bait so it sits on the bottom a few feet upstream of the logs. He wants to be set up on both kinds of places about 20 minutes before an expected feeding period. And he will fish a hole about 45 minutes, giving the fish time to find the bait, before moving to another spot.

Cats will come out of their daylight holes and feed upstream, especially if they smell something good to eat nearby. Alan cautions to be quiet—do not bump around in the boat, don’t let bait tank lids slam shut, don’t scrape feet or chairs on the bottom of the boat. The big cats you are after got that way by being cautious, so do nothing to alert them.

Alan’s six-rod spread will include a choice of baits. A 7-inch gizzard shad is about the perfect size, so he rigs one rod with one of them live, hooking them through the bottom lip and out the top. He also stabs a small hole on either side of the tail to make it bleed.

Alan said a live 7-inch gizzard shad is a good-sized bait. He hooks it through the bottom lip and out the top, and he also sticks a small hole on either side of the tail to make it bleed.

Bluegill, small carp and drum that size can be rigged the same way, but a second rod usually has a cut head or tail of a bigger one of two of those baits, or a big gizzard shad. Alan will also rig a rod with a filet—a side filet of one of the above or a bigger gizzard shad.

A whole bait can be cut from tail to head but with the filet still attached to release a lot of blood in the water. A whole threadfin shad will catch all sized cats but is more likely to be bit by smaller cats. When Alan talks about smaller cats, he is talking about those under 20 pounds… big to most of us!

Alan has a bar across the back of his boat with the six rod holders he uses when anchoring. Since you will be anchoring to fish with the bow of your boat upstream, you will be fishing from the stern straight back.

Set your boat up at the head of a deeper hole or log jam, put out your baits and sit back and watch. Smaller catch and flatheads will sometimes “peck” at the baits, making your rod tip jiggle some but not go down. Wait until a cat gets the bait in its mouth and the rod pulls down.

Alan’s tried-and-true method to hook a fish is to turn the reel handle fast five times before moving the rod. That gets the circle hook stuck in the fish’s mouth. If you jerk a circle hook, you will usually pull it out of the fish’s mouth without hooking up.

After the five reel turns, pull the rod out of the holder and raise the tip up at a sharp angle. Alan says it is important to keep your rod tip up while fighting the fish. If you hook one at the head of a hole, you can fight it without horsing it, but if you hook a big flathead at the head of a log jam, you must pull and reel hard to move it away from the wood.

You can find good places to fish anywhere from the junction of the Oostanaula and Etowah rivers in Rome where the Coosa starts all the way down to Brushy Branch on the upper end of Lake Weiss. A Georgia fishing license is good to the state line downstream of Brushy Branch, where you will need an Alabama license.

Alan likes to put in at Brushy Branch, catch bait then motor about 15 minutes up the river to the island. There are good holes with hard bottoms, log jams and creek mouths to fish here.

Another good area is around the Lock and Dam where there is a good campground if you want to stay several days. There are holes, log jams and creek mouths to fish in that area. Fishing in town is good too—you can put in at the Heritage Park Ramp in Rome and find many good places within a few miles downstream.

Alan carries a huge net for big cats. For smaller cats he tries to get them beside the boat without the net and unhooks them quickly to release them unhurt. Big cats are landed, pictures taken, and fish released as fast as possible. Although Alan will keep a few small cats, under 10 pounds, to eat, he emphasizes releasing almost everything you catch.

“The most important reason to release almost all your catch is conservation,” Alan said.

He pointed out that it takes years for a catfish to grow to trophy size, and as more and more fishermen learn how to catch them and spend more time fishing for them, catch and release is critical for the future of the fishery.

There is an advisory on eating catfish, especially bigger ones, on the Coosa due to chemical contamination. That is another reason to release your catch. Bigger cats have higher concentrations of the chemicals you do not want in your body.

I met Alan at Brushy Creek on a Friday afternoon in early April, and we caught bait from 7 pm to an hour before dark. We then ran about 15 minutes upstream and fished several different holes until 3 am Before dark, Alan pointed out the trash line indicating the current flow, which helps show where to set up. During that trip we caught a half-dozen flatheads and blue cats from 8 to about 12 pounds, but not the big one we were after.

Saturday afternoon I met Alan and his wife Natasha at 4 pm, and we caught bait for a couple of hours in Brushy Creek. We then took out and went to Heritage Park to launch an hour before dark. Alan quickly set us up at the head of a log jam and put his rods out.

Within 10 minutes the rod with a bait sitting in the middle of the river went down. Natasha grabbed it and fought a 10-lb. striper to the boat. Alan had said they were starting to run. During the night we caught two more, the biggest about 25 pounds.

We fished until an hour after sunrise and caught several blue cats, the biggest a little over 20 pounds. Alan was surprised we did not catch any flatheads. He said that area was usually better for them.

Catfish are prespawn in the Coosa River this month, and that means big baits for big fish. Follow Alan’s methods and hook and release a cat to brag about this month. It may not be as big as a car, but you can catch a catfish of a lifetime.

You can call Alan at 770.608.8812 for a trip to see first-hand how to catch big Coosa cats.

The author Ronnie Garrison with a big Coosa River striped bass. The 25-pounder was one of three caught during a night of fishing for catfish with Alan and his wife.

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