Big or small, famous guide James “Big Cat” Patterson never met a catfish he didn’t like. (Photo: Richard Simms)
James “Big Cat” Patterson: Where Is He Now?
by Richard Simms
Before every guide trip I am routinely nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof. But on this trip, my anxiety level was through the roof. My client for the day may well have been one of the most famous catfishermen to ever hold a fishing rod.
He left the professional guiding business about five years ago. But there are few, if any, hardcore catfish anglers who haven’t heard of James “Big Cat” Patterson. He and Phil King were the first to ever recognize the potential of guiding clients for trophy catfish.
I had only met Patterson once, in 2012, when I was his client along with my friend, Ed McCoy.
On this day, 10 years later, the tables were turned, and I wasn’t sure I could handle the pressure. Richard Kee, a regular client and good friends with Patterson, brought the famous guide to come “slumming” with me for a change of scenery.
The catfish weren’t overly cooperative, but Capt. Patterson enjoyed learning about my favorite light tackle catfishing technique, a style of fishing he never gets to use on the massive Mississippi River. And thankfully, the Tennessee River smallmouths also kept our rods bent regularly.
What a pleasure it was to hang out with the man who paved the way for me and many other catfish guides.
Patterson said, “It was in the early 1990s when outdoor writer Larry Rea first suggested I start guiding. I said, ‘Larry, I don’t believe people are gonna pay money to take ‘em catfishing.’ Larry said, ‘Oh, yeah, they will. They definitely will.’”
Rea was obviously correct as guiding ultimately became Patterson’s full-time job. He said Phil King had started guiding maybe a year before, and, for many more years, he and King were the only professional catfish guides in Tennessee, maybe in the Southeast. Patterson said he had no idea how it would grow.
He started catfishing on the Tennessee River when he was 13 years old. After moving to Memphis for work, he said he continued driving back and forth to the river to fish.
“But after a while I thought, ‘I got this big old (Mississippi) river here. I think I’ll try fishing it,” Patterson said. “It didn’t work out real good to begin with. I couldn’t figure that thing out.”
But Patterson never gave up and finally figured out where the catfish lived and, more importantly, what it took to catch them in the mighty Mississippi. He pioneered the now-favored Mississippi River technique, bumping.
“My uncle was a believer in moving the boat,” said Patterson. “But my first knowledge of a true controlled drift, using a trolling motor in a pretty good current, was listening and watching to Phil (King). But I was probably the first to do it in the Mississippi River.”
A long time ago, Patterson’s huge trophy catfish catches attracted the attention of the world-famous Bill Dance. The two became good friends, but Patterson said in the beginning, Dance wasn’t so good at catfishing.
“He LOVES catfishing,” said Patterson. “But he had trouble learning to bump. You’d think somebody that can feel a 1/8-ounce jig touch a twig wouldn’t have trouble feeling the bottom (bumping for catfish). But once he got it, it was off to the races.”
Of course, Patterson enjoyed appearances on Dance’s TV show.
“It was actually Bill who gave me the nickname Big Cat, and it just stuck,” said Patterson.
Now 75, Patterson said arthritis took the fun out of guiding professionally. But he says he’ll always be fishing. He marvels as how incredibly popular catfishing has become and is glad people have discovered that catfish are fairly easy to catch, once you gain a little knowledge.
“And when you get into the big ones, they’re going to be one of the better freshwater battles that you’re ever going to find,” he said with a smile. “You drift down a river bumping the bottom and then one of those rascals 50, 60 pounds runs up there and grabs it and tries to pull the rod out of your hands. There’s just nothing like it.”
He says in spite of the tremendous growth in catfishing, he believes there is more to come.
“No, it hasn’t peaked out,” he exclaimed. “It hasn’t even half peaked. Would you have ever guessed, 30 or 40 years ago, that people would be paying up to $60,000 or even $100,000 for a catfish boat!”
Just like bass fishing, he knows catfishing tournaments have a lot to do with the growth.
“I have mixed feeling about the tournaments,” he said. “It takes a long time for one of these fish to get to 100 pounds. But as long as they’ll take care of these fish and not kill ‘em, I’m OK with them.”
Our interview was rudely interrupted when another smallmouth decided to inhale Big Cat’s shiner. The healthy brown bass did not seem overly impressed to have been caught by a famous catfish guide. It was surely happy, however, when Patterson released it to be caught again another day.
(Capt. Richard Simms is the editor of our sister magazine, CrappieNOW. He is also a “semi-retired” fishing guide on the Tennessee River and owner of Scenic City Fishing Charters. Formerly, he was a game warden for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency before becoming a photographer and PR guy for TWRA. That lead to a 30-year career as a broadcast journalist and freelance outdoor writer. Check out his book, “An Outdoor State of Mind.”)