Vernon Long, of Clarksville, Tennessee, cast the last of six lines out, then watched a side of smelly baitfish skip across the surface of Tennessee’s Cumberland River before sinking to the bottom. He stood back and looked at his rigging that stretched across the bow from four-o’clock to eight-o’clock.
Soon a light nibble one might associate from a bluegill-sized fish barely tipped the stiff rod, and then the line slowly stretched. Long patiently watched.
“I want him to swallow that entire bait before I set the hook,” he said.
The cue stick-sized rod jerked forward – hard. Long set the hook with a powerful move. The big blue catfish made several strong runs before giving in to exhaustion and a long-handled net.
Long tipped the net against his boat and reached in to unhook the cat. Leaning his net made it easier to unhook the fish that could not move. A flopping catfish and the Gamakatsu circle hook that tends to go deep and grab flesh made it even more difficult.
“Not exactly what I am after,” Long mumbled while unhooking the catfish. “But definitely a good start.”
I thought so, too, as the fish scale pushed down to 15 pounds.
“I caught a 70-pound blue out of the Cumberland River last year,” Long said. “That cat could have ate this one. Still, this is a good-eating-sized cat.”
The morning progressed as we managed to catch a 12-pound cat. We had other bites including two that literally broke his 40-pound test line – something most strong men could not do. Normally a 12- and 15-pound blue cat would make the angler happy. Long knew the fish could have been bigger.
“Hard to tell how big those cats we lost were,” Long said. “But they were big, really big.”
That afternoon I met Alex Errthum at the Bait and Tackle Shack, a successful bait business in Clarksville, where fishermen can purchase live bait, frozen cut baits and fishing tackle. She started the business with her husband several years ago.
“Catfishing is big down here on the Cumberland River,” Alex said. “There are many other species to fish for, but most of our business is the catfishing crowd. Many impressive cats have been caught and released back in the river to live and fight another day.”
Catfishing tournaments are held annually on the Cumberland. The rule is only live fish may be weighed in and released. This is accomplished in adequate live wells and a technique called burping. A small plastic tube is pushed into the cat’s stomach to release trapped air that quickly kills catfish.
Running down river, each bend provides colorful scenes of tree-filled bluffs and a picturesque waterway. This river is a good example of how all rivers should look. Many individual efforts have made this possible.
The Cumberland River, once an important supply route for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, stretches through the middle of Tennessee. Volunteers up and down the river make a point to pick up even the smallest amount of trash, creating a pristine waterway, a fine example for other states of how rivers throughout this nation should look.
Wads of baitfish do their best to escape from a variety of predators. Incredible amounts of threadfin minnows and other species occasionally break the surface while being chased by smallmouth or largemouth bass, stripers, walleye, big catfish and other species. In fact, it’s difficult to cast on any shoreline without busting up a school of baitfish. Good forage is the first key to a successful fishery.
“The Cumberland River is full of big catfish,” Long said. “I catch skipjack out of the river because it has red meat and is very oily, leaving a scent catfish can easily follow. The oil mixed in with blood slips down river to catfish who want an easy meal. Bait presentation is extremely important. They have eyes and whiskers that allow them to actually sense their food. Long claims that a catfish has 32,000 taste buds all over their body, not only in their whiskers.”
Long uses a Sabiki Rig to catch skipjack shad. This rigging has eight flies on one long line. He cuts it in half with a sinker on the end while searching out 6- to 8-inch skipjacks. He keeps the bait fish fresh by vacuum packing and then storing each bag of bait fish on ice.”
Long starts preparing his bait by scaling the bait fish before filleting sides. The scales are flipped in the water to float downstream and attract more cats. He leaves the gut sack intact for extra attraction. Often the gut sack will be gone and the sides undisturbed. Long claims they literally suck the gut sack out. But sometimes they make a mistake and end up in Long’s net.
“I like to fish structure,” Long said. “Some use depth finders to locate the fish. Then they try to throw bait to the fish. That fish might not be hungry. Catfish love structure and I look for these areas, maybe a drop-off. Then I cast out my baits so the scent will drift through or around structure and bring each fish to me. Drop-offs and ledges seem to be the best.”
EQUIPMENT: Long uses medium to medium-heavy Tiger Ugly Sticks when there is little current running. Abu Garcia 6000 reels with Berkley Big Game 40-pound test that glows in the dark under a black light. Bigger rods with an Abu Garcia 7000-I reel is used on the outside of his rod perimeter and when the current is heaviest. The bait is hooked on Gamakatsu circle hooks or Gamakatsu No. 10 Octopus hooks.
“I don’t even set the hook with a circle hook,” Long said. “I wait until the rod is bent over and then pull the pole up while keeping constant pressure on the fish. He will bite down even harder to fully set the hook. I do set the hook with Octopus hooks.”
Long releases any catfish more than 15 pounds because it takes a long time for them to grow that large and they are the ones having babies. A 20-pound cat produces about three pounds of eggs annually. Only seven percent will make it to three pounds or larger.
– Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.