Monday, May 17, 2010

Monster catfish in the old river bottom

A monster catch in the 40's

"too heavy to hold" Fessie said
They weighed 15 & 16 pounds

Fessie Pennington knew the Tombigbee River bottom like the back of his hand. He knew the best fishing holes and where the biggest catfish resided. He knew that the best fishing was when the river was low, generally in early summer or early fall.

Many types of catfish could be found in the Tombigbee River, but Fessie was always after the flatheads because they were the monsters of the river and the goal of every fisherman. They have a mouth as big as a mop bucket and can be easily identified because flatheads are the only catfish whose lower jaw is longer than its upper jaw. In the early years, Fessie also fished for food for his family's table and would come home with channel cats as well, which didn't get as large as flatheads but were more abundant and thus easily caught. Since the Tombigbee River at Peaceful Valley was muddy, blue cats weren't usually found, with their preference being for clearer water. Since the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway was built, and as farming practices have changed (or gone away completely), the water of the old Tombigbee River has become clearer and blue cats have become more numerous.

But Fessie was always after the flatheads, the bigger the better. See, whoever caught the biggest fish had bragging rights in Peaceful Valley until bested by somebody else.

Fessie had a long pole with an iron hook on end of it. In his boat, Fessie would cross the river at various points until he found gravel at the bottom using his pole and hook. The river had seams of gravel along its bottom, and this is where the flatheads liked to spawn. Fessie would run his trotlines along these gravel shoals.

A trotline, for the uninitiated, consists of a heavy fishing line with baited hooks attached at intervals along the line. These Fessie made his own trotlines, but these days you can buy them at Wal-Mart. As my husband Mike remembers, from his many fishing trips with Fessie, Fessie used #3 hooks (about the size of your finger) for his trotlines, about every eighteen inches, and he added old timey drapery weights to the line as his sinkers. The trotline would stretch across the river, tied off on each end onto a strong sapling or perhaps the roots of a tree, and would lie on the bottom of the river bed without interfering with any river traffic.

Fessie wanted his trotline to rest on the bottom of the riverbed because that is where the flatheads could be found. The only bait he used were live pool perch caught in a nearby pond. Fessie preferred his perch to be about 3 fingers high with a topfin belly, and he would hook that belly on the trotline just enough to keep the perch alive and trying to swim upstream. Flatheads love that live bait.

Fessie liked to check his lines right at sunrise when the mist was coming off the river. It would be just a big foggy as he pulled his boat across the river, a small paddle in one hand and the trotline in the other as he checked his line. If he pulled up the trotline and saw it jerking, maybe moving upstream, he knew he had a fish hooked.

Sometimes there would be a jack fish on the line, or maybe even a gar. A jack fish had scissor sharp, little bitty teeth and a jaw about 18 inches long, and they would tear up line. Mike said that sometimes on his fishing trips with Fessie, they would catch a catfish that weighed 15-20 lbs that had been swallowed by another fish. The bigger fish would have chewed up the smaller one but couldn't get it unhooked and would have to let it go.

After getting home with their catch, Mike said Fessie would take a hammer to the head of a catfish, killing it, before skinning and gutting it. Then he would take a dry towel to rub the inside of the fish to get rid of a thin, gray inner skin. This, he said, would take the wild taste out of the fish.

The big fish are still in the ole river bottom at Peaceful Valley except these days there is a new generation learning the secrets of the big hole. Just look at the catch from this past weekend, fish caught by Fessie's great-grandson Chip Mills and his friends. Chip took the picture below of the "monster catch" of the weekend, a 20 pound flathead. The bottom picture includes the head of the monster flathead on a table with the rest of the weekend's catch. You can spot some channel cat along with a few blues and another big flathead. Now that's a mess of fish.


Anonymous said...

When we lived in NOrthern Indiana, Ron loved to fish up on Long Lake near Dowagiac, MI where he caught a much smaller sized fish than that ugly flat head, but they called them "mudcat" - they had to be skinned rather than de-scaling. So, are "mudcat" and flathead the same family except for size?

Our "trashy" fish caught in the lakes and the Trinity or Brazos Rivers around here are called Carp. I don't think anyone eats those fish although they usually quite large. Blue Gills and perch are the typical fish caught locally - takes a lot of fishing for a family to eat a fresh caught "mess o' fish". bettye

Mona Robinson Mills said...

Bettye, the fish you describe sounds like a catfish. They don't have scales and have to be skinned. Years ago, catfish were considered a "trash" fish because they are bottom feeders. Nowadays, you find them in many fine restaurants.
Different areas call catfish by various names. I've heard them called mudcats too but around here, they're flatheads, channel cat, blues and yellowcat. I think yellowcat and flathead are the same.