The Coosa River
It was the last day of my holiday to Alabama and Tennessee and the chance to try something new, fishing a large river from a drifting boat for big catfish. The river we were going to fish, the Coosa rises in North West Georgia and flows 255 miles south west to its confluence with the Tallapoosa to form the Alabama River . Along the way the river has been dammed several times and it was below the most southerly of these dams at Lake Jordan that we were going to try our luck. At this point the river is between fifty and seventy yards wide and unusually for this area has good water clarity, other large rivers being a dirty brown colour.
Like all rivers managed by hydroelectric schemes, water levels rise and fall dramatically depending on when the turbines run, add to this huge jagged rock formations, some just below the water surface and you can see it is no place for the faint hearted or novice. I was therefore relieved to hear that my guide for the day Tommy Helton had lived all his life close to the river and knew every stone, pool and eddy. On top of this Tommy was also a master catfish angler who had caught many large fish, in fact the week previous to our trip had landed one weighing forty two pounds.
Sunrise, the perfect time to be on the river
A 5 a.m. start, a short trip back to the house to pick up the bait which I had forgot, well it was 5 a.m. and we were of on the half hour journey to the Coosa . It didn't take Tommy long to launch the boat, the gear was packed and in what seemed like minutes we were off haring downstream, the fifty horse Suzuki propelling the light aluminium craft effortlessly across the rivers surface. With the first set of rapids approaching I was scanning the water ahead desperately looking for a gap in the rocks, but without easing the throttle we were through what looked like an impossible opening, a couple of bumps in the rougher water and the boat was back in a wide slower section to my great relief. It was here Tommy gave me an insight on how to catch fish for the pot.
We were going to put out a couple of `jugs' in the hope of contacting a big blue catfish, the best tasting of them all. Jug fishing consists of a strong line connected to a Gatorade bottle or section of pipe insulation with a number two hook baited with pieces of fish. This is dropped out of the boat in the slower deeper sections of river and can be observed from great distances with binoculars. Sort of long distance float fishing or taking `bung' fishing to extremes. With these lines in the water it was off again through another set of rapids and the chance to land my first fish.
Prime catfish water, Coosa rapids
The set up consisted of a seven foot spinning rod, fixed spool reel loaded with twelve pound nylon and a number two hook. On the business end went chicken livers, Wal-Mart's finest no less, upstream dry fly this ain't. Once the boat was in position a short upstream cast was made and the bait aloud to sink slowly in the current. To avoid snagging as much as possible no weight was added to the line and as the bait swung round, every stone could be felt as it bounced along the bottom. It was very close to free lining a worm for trout or salmon. When the first bite came there was no mistaking it, strong and aggressive, yes and I missed it completely. The next tap on the line was struck instantly and my first Alabama cat was on. Although not very big he put a bend in the rod, so much so that as I was removing the hook I noticed the top six inches of rod had snapped off and my two piece was now three. Meanwhile I was still trying to recover my hook and I had been warned to handle these fish with great care. Along the pectorals are large sharp spines and with another on the dorsal serious damage can be inflicted on unsuspecting hands if the fish is picked up the wrong way. There was nothing else for it but to fish on without the top two eyes on the rod which was now about six and a half foot.
Tommy with one for the pot
Tommy seemed to have a strike a cast and he asked if I was going to give him a hand to fill the live well, he was certainly making it look easy as I struggled to find fish. Just off the fast water in the rapids he would bump the boat onto large rocks that hid inches below the surface allowing us to trot our baits into the most likely spots. When I asked him how long it had taken him to learn where all the rocks were his answer was “Many years and many propellers.” Going by the one that was currently attached to the outboard with what looked like large bites out of it I think he was still learning.
The slow part of the Coosa looking upstream to the dam at Lake Jordan
As we had made our way a couple of miles downstream it was now time to return upriver and check the jugs. Running rapids upstream at full pelt was just as scary as the downstream journey, let's call it exhilarating. From over a hundred yards away Tommy could tell there was a good fish on one of the jugs and sure enough when he managed to grab hold of it a nice blue of about eight pounds broke the surface, the new fish fryer would be working tonight. It was in this slower part of the river that I finally managed to redeem myself and land a couple of decent blues, two in two casts in fact with the best in the seven to eight pound range and the other not far behind. When a good cat is hooked it makes an explosive dive for freedom but when you manage to turn them they quickly come to the boat. That said I would love to have had the chance to contact one over twenty pounds, I think it would take some turning.
A nice blue catfish
The Alabama sun now had the temperatures in the nineties and the benefit of an early start was all too obvious and we tried to seek some shade under the bank side canopy. At this point we were joined by Stuart who had been at work and Jim who had politely declined the shooting the rapids part. We continued to catch fish although as the temperature rose the bites tailed off and even the very productive looking tail waters below the dam failed to produce. All too soon it was time to pack up but not before the fish in the live well were prepared for the evenings fry up and Stuart and Tommy gave a master class on how to skin and fillet catfish with a blunt penknife.
Part of Lake Jordan Dam
Later that evening everyone headed to Stuart's to enjoy the fruits of our labour and although I was slightly apprehensive when it came to tasting the fish we had caught I was pleasantly surprised to discover that deep fried catfish tastes exactly like the haddock served in a Scottish chip shop. All in all an excellent way to end an enjoyable day that will live long in the memory.
Stuart and Tommy at the boat ramp
Thanks Stuart for a tremendous holiday and thanks Tommy for keeping the boat the right way up.