Fishing the Alabama River
by Keith “Catfish” Sutton
From Montgomery to Mobile, this beautiful stream provides a lot of water for catfishing in the Cotton State.
On May 20 this year, at a writers’ camp sponsored by Catfish Now, I had my first opportunity to fish for catfish in the Alabama River. I was surprised I hadn’t heard much about this stream before. I’ve fished in Alabama numerous times but somehow missed opportunities to wet a hook in this blue-ribbon hotspot for flatheads, blues and channel cats.
On this day, I teamed up with Rodney Crimm and Michael Haney, a pair of pro anglers with extensive experience fishing the Alabama and other southern waters.
“Michael and I are half brothers,” said Rodney. “We both live near Pontotoc, Mississippi now but grew up near Eupora. I’ve been catfishing for more than 45 years. I started fishing below Grenada Lake Dam with my dad when I was five. I caught my first flathead, a 13-pounder, when I just seven and have been hooked ever since. Michael fished for catfish in farm ponds and the Big Black River when he was younger, but he’s been fishing bigger rivers and lakes for around 20 years now. My dad was well known for catching big catfish below Grenada. He taught us a lot. I remember days when we caught nearly 200 pounds of catfish fishing off the bank there.”
On the day we fished, Rodney, Michael and I launched at Swift Creek Park 30 minutes west of Montgomery near Autaugaville. The Alabama River there is broad and swift, lined with tall trees and occasional homes. Severe storms, including a tornado, had recently come through the area, dropping several inches of rain. Considering that, however, the water quality looked good, and we were hopeful the whiskerfish would bite. We anchored above some timber as Michael explained their game plan.
“No matter what kind of cats we’re fishing for—blues, flatheads or channel cats—we like to target areas with wood structure and put our baits in close to that structure,” he said. “If we don’t get any bites with 30 minutes, we move to another location. We use cut and live bait, depending on what we’re targeting, but our go-to bait is cut skipjack. We usually put out baits of various sizes and let the fish tell us what they prefer on a given day.”
“We always look first for wood structure—either visible structure like trees that have fallen into the river or structure we find on sonar below the surface,” said Rodney. “The next option would be looking for fish along underwater river-channel ledges or in deep drops below shallower water. Catfish here can range in size from a pound upward to 60 pounds. Depending on current, catfish on the river ledges can be caught either anchored, dragging baits or while suspended drifting. When targeting wood structure and deep drop-offs, we fish anchored or spot locked above the location and cast to it.”
On this day, we anchored near shore at a spot the brothers had scouted earlier. Then we prepped some skipjack cut-baits, baited several bottom rigs, cast toward a big toppled tree about 75 yards downstream and placed the fishing combos in holders along the back of the boat. The bite was slow—not unexpected considering all the recent rain. But sometime during the first hour, one rod slowly bent toward the water. When the tip suddenly plunged, Michael grabbed the pole and set the hook in something that was clearly sizeable.
The battle that ensued certainly got our adrenaline going. The big cat wasn’t about to give up easily, and Michael wasn’t about to let it get away. The two struggled several minutes before Rodney could net the fish and swing it aboard. It was a monster flathead, 40 pounds of muscle and mouth, and Michael’s personal best.
“Just goes to show you, the Alabama River is full of surprises,” Michael said as he hoisted the big cat for a photo. “I expected us to do well, but I didn’t expect to catch a flathead this size.”
“I have regularly fished the Alabama River near Montgomery the last few years,” Rodney added. “The fishing can be really good for both trophy and eating-size catfish—blues, channels and flatheads. The area has great boat ramps at numerous locations with easy access. Anyone looking for great scenery and fun fishing should try this river.”
Although our May fishing trip took place during daylight hours, Crimm and Haney often fish the river at night.
“In summer, we night fish due to high daytime temperatures and increased pleasure boat traffic,” Rodney noted. “Also, catfish will often feed more at night. We still target the same types of wood structure but may put some baits in shallower water, targeting big catfish cruising for baitfish there.
“There is also the peacefulness of being in one of the few boats on the river,” he continued. “Just be sure to run your navigation lights and some type of light on the front of the boat to see obstructions in the water. We also have lights rigged on the back of the boat to help see our rods when getting a bite. Always wear a life jacket while operating your boat in case you hit anything in the water.”
The Alabama River meanders 318 miles through the heart of its namesake state, from just north of Montgomery to the stream’s juncture with the Tombigbee River above Mobile Bay. All of the river downstream from Montgomery is commercially navigable, with dams dividing it into three impoundments: Jones Bluff or R. E. “Bob” Woodruff Reservoir, Millers Ferry or William “Bill” Dannelly Reservoir, and Claiborne Lake. The lower Alabama River begins at Claiborne Lock and Dam and runs south 72.5 miles through Monroe, Clarke and Baldwin counties where it joins the Tombigbee River.
Whether you’re fishing Jones Bluff, Millers Ferry, Claiborne or the remaining river, nearly every mile has the potential to produce a trophy or a heavy stringer of cats. Anglers often catch blue catfish over 30 pounds, flatheads over 40 and channel cats up to 10. The 80-pound state record flathead was caught in the river near Selma.
For more information, visit outdooralabama.com.