COUNCE, Tennessee — When 82-year-old angler Rheuben McGee boarded Phil King’s 24-foot SeaArk below Pickwick Landing Dam on Tuesday afternoon, he told King the biggest catfish he’d ever caught weighed a modest 12 pounds.
King, a longtime catfish guide and winner of numerous major tournaments, took that as a challenge.
He set out trying to put McGee on the catfish of a lifetime — and by the time they left the water around 9 p.m., they had boated one cat that weighed 12.5 pounds and two that weighed more than 20.
“I’ve spent a lot of time out here bumping bottom for catfish, and I’ve caught a lot of them,” McGee said. “But I never caught any really big fish. That’s what we were hoping to get on today.”
McGee and his son, Jimmy, who both live near King in Corinth, Miss., came to fish with the famed catfish guru because of his reputation for catching big fish. He rarely goes without catching at least one big cat, and he knows how to find them during any season.
Right now, he’s targeting catfish in the post-spawn phase.
“A lot of the catfish have just finished spawning, and you’re catching fish that are just coming off the beds,” King said. “The fish that I’m catching from deep water right now are all scratched up with scars that are scabbing over. That tells me they’re just now coming off the beds, and there’s a certain way you have to fish for post-spawn catfish that are just getting back into their regular feeding habits.”
A DELICATE APPROACH
After a harsh winter that saw the surface water temperatures on Pickwick dip into the 30s for the first time since 1988, King expected the blue cat spawn to happen a little later than it has in years past. But when he went out looking for blues in deep water during April and early May, he found they had already moved shallow to spawn much earlier than usual.
While that threw a kink into King’s typical springtime routine, it’s made for some excellent fishing during this valuable portion of the year when school has just let out and daytime temperatures are still relatively mild. But a delicate approach has been necessary for catching catfish that are still a little ragged after the rigors of the spawn.
“The females we caught Tuesday night were still slick and in pretty good condition except for the weight loss and egg loss,” King said. “But the male fish are really beat up, and they’ve lost about a third of their body weight. Their tails are all beat up and cut up, and they look pretty rough.”
Since post-spawn fish have usually gone long periods without eating, King said it’s important to downsize your bait.
“In a normal situation, we use some really big baits because we’re trying to catch really big fish,” King said. “But in a post-spawn situation, the catfish don’t always feel like eating a whole lot. If you use too big a bait, they might just grab the end of it and then let go as soon as you pick up the rod to set the hook.”
One of the 20-pounders King and the McGees caught on a recent Tuesday bit a one-inch piece of cut bait.
“Think of a person who just lost 50 pounds in a short time,” King said. “That person is likely to be a little weak and probably won’t feel like eating a whole lot. It’s the same way with catfish.”
LOCATING POST-SPAWN FISH
Unlike crappie and bass — two species that move slowly back toward deep water after spawning in the shallows — King said catfish don’t waste any time making their way back to the deep-water structure they call home for most of the year.
He uses a Humminbird 1199 depth finder with a 10-inch screen to identify big fish — and there’s no water on local fisheries he considers too deep.
“In a smaller river, ‘deep water’ might mean 20, 25 or 30 feet,” King said. “But on the Mississippi River, it might mean 60, 70, 80 or up to 100 feet. The Tennessee River has some 70-80 feet water, and all of it holds big catfish.”
Besides searching for deep water, he also looks for dramatic structural elements along the bottom.
“The bigger the structure, the better for big cats,” King said. “Instead of a slow, sloping drop-off that tapers from 40 feet to 70 feet over a half a mile, I prefer one that goes immediately from 40 to 70 feet.”
King looks for all types of structure — ledges, drop-offs, boulders, sunken brush, standing timber, etc. — and he uses the side-scan and down-scan features of his Humminbird unit to actually distinguish between “good” fish in the 20-pound range and “really good” fish in the 40- to 60-pound range.
“The electronics we have available today really are amazing,” King said. “If I’ve got my unit on 4X or 6X zoom and I lay my hand next to the screen and see an arc the size of my little finger, that’s a good indication there’s a 40- to 50-pound fish I just rolled over.
“That takes a whole lot of the guess work out of searching for big fish.”
PHIL KING’S CAREER
Besides building a reputation as one of the top catfishing guides in the country, Corinth, Mississippi, resident Phil King has won a long list of major tournaments, including the 2007 and 2009 Bass Pro Shops Big Cat Quest events on the Memphis portions of the Mississippi River. During that 2007 event, King and his partners became the first anglers to land a 100 pound-plus catfish in an organized event with a blue that weighed 103.10 pounds.
His website at h2ow.com/catfish/ features tips and tricks to help anglers catch more and bigger catfish.