When Jake Smith and Chris Lindsey are asked why they donʼt pursue the electric and acrobatic smallmouth bass that abide in many southern Tennessee and northern Alabama waterways, Smith matter-of-factly says: “A bass has a dickens of a time reaching five pounds, but blue catfish often exceed 50 pounds.” To the cognoscenti in the catfishing ranks, Smithʼs logic is flawless.
Both anglers became afflicted with blue cat fever at Santee-Cooper Reservoir, South Carolina, during the last half of the 1990s. During that spell Smith made four forays in quest of Santee-Cooper blue cats and Lindsey made eight. On their first trek, they hired a guide and fared poorly. But on subsequent outings, they used their own boat and ingenuity and caught blue cats weighing up to 42 pounds. After tangling with that 42-pounder, their passion percolated at a feverish pitch.
Although they were, and in fact still are, infatuated with the ambience of Santee-Cooper and its great catfishing tradition, Smith and Lindsey eventually came to the sober-minded conclusion that they had to find a reservoir closer to home where they could develop and hone methods for catching big blue cats. Ultimately, they selected Wheeler as the best spot in their area.
According to Smith, they chose Wheeler because its blue cats are not heavily pursued by fishmongers and trotliners, and even the pressure from the rod-and-reel brigade isn’t intense. What’s more, some of Wheeler’s blue cats grow to humongous proportions. In fact, Wheeler’s biggest blue cat weighed 111 pounds, and for a spell, that brute held the world record.
For the past two years, Smith and Lindsey have fished twice a week year-round in pursuit of monster-sized cats. On average, they hoist eight blue cats that weigh more than 15 pounds across gunwales of their pontoon boats on each outing. During 2002, the bulk of the cats they caught weighed from 20 to 50 pounds, 14 of them weighed between 50 and 60 pounds, and their seven biggest weighed 60, 62, 63, 67, 73, 78, and 80 pounds. And after snapping a photograph to document their catch, Smith and Lindsey carefully release every fish in hopes that it will be caught again.
Drift Fishing Mechanics
Before launching their boat, the boys drive to the tailrace below Wheeler Dam. At the tailrace, they wield a 4-foot cast net, and without fail they quickly procure a five-gallon bucketful of 7- to 13-inch gizzard shad.
When the weather is warm, Smith and Lindsey keep the shad on ice, but they never allow the shad to touch the ice. To accomplish this task, the shad and the ice are kept in separate plastic bags. Smith and Lindsey fear that the water from the melting ice will dilute or even remove the amino acids and oils that the shad secrete. During the winter, though, Lindsey says that it’s not necessary to ice the bait.
After Smith and Lindsey store the shad, they drive to the boat ramp. At the ramp, they ready their 14 Shakespeare Ugly Stik Big Cat 7-foot casting rods. The rods are fitted with Ambssadeur 7000, 6500, or 6000 reels, each adorned with a clicker mechanism and spooled with 30-pound-test clear Stren High Impact monofilament.
Their terminal tackle includes a 1-ounce Bass Pro Shops Snake Weight, which Lindsey says works well in depths of 30 to 40 feet when the wind isn’t howling. But when the wind becomes too brisk or the blue cats are in 50 to 60 feet of water, Smith and Lindsey add a half-ounce egg sinker above the Snake Weight.
The Snake Weight is slipped onto the main line above a 2/0 barrel swivel. To the bottom eye of the swivel, a palomar knot affixes a 6-foot 50-pound-test leader, also made from clear mono. Smith and Lindsey’s favorite hook is a 6/0 Kahle model, joined to the leader by a palomar knot.
Smith and Lindsey use only the head of the shad for bait. The hook point is worked through the eye socket toward the nose and then out a nostril. According to Lindsey, if the hook is wormed through the left eye of the shad, it should eventually come out of the shad’s left nostril. He adds that a large segment of the hook should be exposed to aid the hook-setting process.
An integral element of their bait scheme, Lindsey says, is not to discard the shad carcasses until the end of the last drift of the outing. They fear that the incidental chumming of big shad carcasses will satiate their quarry’s hunger rather than stimulate it.
In addition, Smith and Lindsey rebait every rig with a fresh shad head at the beginning of each drift. The used heads are then deposited in the container that holds the shad carcasses. Lindsey says the heads are marinated in the juices and carcasses and reabsorb some of the chemicals that were dissipated in the water. Whenever Smith and Lindsey run out of fresh shad heads, they use these reconstituted heads.
Top Drift Locations
Before Smith and Lindsey worm the first shad heads onto their hooks, however, they navigate their pontoon boat to a major bend in the submerged Tennessee River channel. At this locale, the river channel lies 125 yards from the shoreline. A slough, where many blue cats go to spawn, embellishes that shoreline, and a small creek channel meanders out of that slough and across a large flat before ultimately joining the river channel.
Smith says that they spend the bulk of their nights, from dusk to dawn, drifting across this segment of the reservoir. They attempt to probe it from a variety of angles, working the basin of the river channel, the vertical ledges of the channel, the top edge of the channel, and across portions of the flat adjacent to the channel. They drift parallel to the lake’s contours and across the contours at 90- and 45-degree angles. They sashay down one side of the river channel and up the other side. They drift down the basin of the submerged channel. Lindsey notes that the depth of the channel’s basin at their favorite spot is 40 feet deep and the nearby flat is 30 feet deep.
They place seven rods in rod holders on the upwind side and one on the downwind side. On the downwind side of the boat, the baited rig bounces on the bottom below the boat. On the windward side, the terminal tackle and shad heads pound the bottom about 70 feet behind the boat.
The duo prefer fishing on nights when a mild wind angles from the south or southwest. Nevertheless, Smith and Lindsey caught an 80-pounder on November 10, 2002, when the wind howled and sent ranks of 4-foot waves down the length of the lake. According to Smith, that brute came out of 50 feet of water in a harbor area where barges regularly dock; the harbor was slightly sheltered from the brunt of the biggest waves.
For the past two years, the pair have worked on mastering the intricacies of boat control. Currently, they’re experimenting with drift socks. They also have begun pondering the benefits of a 36-volt electric trolling motor to control the direction and velocity of the drift. As for anchors, Smith says they use one about once a year, and only when there’s not enough wind to properly propel the boat.
Simplicity is this young duo’s mantra, a unique attribute in the paraphernalia-crazed world that most anglers fish in. In fact, Lindsey says he and Smith are such unmitigated drifts that they can find no earthly or piscatorial use for a sonar unit at Wheeler, where they know nearly every nook and cranny of the reservoir’s topography. That knowledge, Lindsey says, comes from bouncing a 1-ounce sinker across the lake’s floor twice a week for two years.
Another of their aims is to make fishing an inexpensive endeavor. And since the blue cat population is so bountiful at Wheeler, Smith and Lindsey can maintain their Spartan ways and still waylay an array of big cats. The average size of each blue cat Smith and Lindsey catch weighs about 30 pounds. And about once a week for the past 24 months, they have enjoyed a donnybrook with a brute weighing 40 pounds or more.
Smith says they have spent a lot of time pondering and searching for the whereabouts of a Wheeler blue cat that tops 116 pounds. Except during the spawn, they normally drift the deep-water confines of the river channel or nearby flats, spending an inordinate amount of time in the general vicinity of the confluence of a submerged feeder creek at a major bend in the Tennessee River. During the spawn, however, they drift the mouths of sloughs or feeder creeks, probing water as shallow as 12 feet.
During the rest of the year, the shallowest spot to yield a big cat was 18 feet deep. The bulk of their big cats are extracted from 30 to 40 feet of water. Smith and Lindsey’s logs reveal that the most fruitful months are July and August.
Both anglers hope that a new world-record blue cat abides somewhere around the major bend in the Tennessee River that they’ve been drifting for the past two years. But even if that Goliath evades them, Smith says there are enough 50- to 80-pounders to entertain him and his partner two nights a week for many years to come.