- Keith Sutton
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Catfish, crappie, trout, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass — if these fish are among those you love to catch, listen up. Before you kick the bucket and go to that great fishing hole in the sky, you'll want to plan a trip to these extraordinary Southern hotspots where you can get a real taste of heaven on earth. On these waters, the catching is as good as the fishing.
If the fish of your dreams sports long whiskers and baby-smooth skin, then the Mighty Mississippi, which produced a 200-pound catfish for Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, surely must be on your "go-before-you-die" list. No body of water in North America has this river's potential for producing supersize catfish, and Twain's books aren't the only source of evidence. For example, a 103-pound blue cat weighed in on Day 1 of a recent Memphis, Tennessee, tournament was not heavy enough to take big-fish honors. A 108-pounder caught during Day 2 claimed that title. And even these giants don't truly exemplify possibilities here.
More than a dozen blues over the century mark have been hoisted from the Father of Waters' muddy depths during the past decade, including two all-tackle world records, a 116.75-pounder caught in West Memphis, Arkansas and a 124-pound Alton, Illi., cat. Huge flatheads and channel cats swim here, too, and there are tons of them. Catching 150 to 300 pounds of catfish daily (or nightly) isn't unusual.
There's plenty of great fishing water on this 2,300-mile-long river, but the best of the best for trophy whiskerfish is from Alton to points south, with the Memphis area topping the list of hawg producers. For info, contact Mississippi River Guide Service (901-383-8674, www.bigcatfish.com) or the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce (901-543-3500, www.memphischamber.com).
The Crappie Capital
Alabama has two capitals: one in Montgomery, where politicians hang out, and another near the town of Centre, where anglers come to dangle minnows or jigs for America's favorite panfish — Weiss Lake, a fertile Alabama Power reservoir on the Coosa River. Widely hailed as the "Crappie Capital of the World," Weiss has been a hotbed for slabs since impoundment in 1961, luring anglers from throughout the country who pump tens of millions of dollars into local economies each year. At full pool, the lake covers 30,200 acres, and those acres of water cover stump flats, timber, creek channels and other cover and structure bristling with white crappie and black crappie often weighing 2 pounds or more, just what the doctor ordered for some of the best panfishing you can ever hope to experience.
Like crappie lakes everywhere, Weiss gets the most attention from anglers during spring's spawn. To ignore the the lake's papermouths the rest of the year is to commit an error in judgment, though. Crappie bite year-round, and thanks to intensified management efforts in recent years, crappie enthusiasts often catch limits. Contact Cherokee County Chamber of Commerce (256-927-8455, www.cherokee-chamber.org) or the Pittstop in Gaylesville (256-422-3787) for more information.
Trout Angler's Paradise
Paradise in the Ozarks. That's how many describe Arkansas' upper White River, a crystal-clear stream coursing through some of the world's most scenic trout-fishing country. Some say it's America's best trout river by number and size of fish it produces, and there's no lack of variety either. Millions of rainbows are stocked annually, and at times, nearly every cast garners a 9- to 16-inch fish. Brook trout reach almost unheard-of sizes, and there's no better brown-trout fishing anywhere. Three- to 5-pounders are common, and several world records have been caught here, some pushing 40 pounds. Beautiful cutthroats also add to the diversity.
Two popular sections are the 8-mile-long Beaver Dam tailwater near Eureka Springs and the Bull Shoals tailwater, a 100-mile stretch from Bull Shoals Dam to near Mountain View. Some stretches are ideal for wading and fly fishing. But for a real taste of local flavor, try a float-fishing excursion in one of the long, lean johnboats for which the river is famous. Resorts are everywhere, each staffed by knowledgeable guides. The Arkansas Dept. of Parks and Tourism (800-NATURAL, www.arkansas.com) has everything for planning your visit.
Write this down, smallmouth-bass anglers. Before you die, you must visit the famed waters of Dale Hollow Lake at least twice. Go first in winter and sample a local specialty known as float-and-fly fishing, a hair-jig and bobber angling method made famous by Dale Hollow regulars. You probably won't catch huge numbers of bronzebacks, but on good days, the quality is mind-blowing. Imagine snow in your face and smallmouths over 6 pounds on back-to-back casts. It happens often here.
Go next in summer and experience the nighttime action that maintains this Tennessee/Kentucky lake's reputation as "The Smallmouth Capital of the World." Chunking a jig-and-pig over coontail grass points after dark could get your arm dislocated. And it certainly will awaken you to the potential of this 27,200-acre Corps of Engineers reservoir that produced the 11-pound, 15-ounce, world-record smallmouth in 1955. Over the years, Dale Hollow has churned out more record-class smallmouths than any other lake or stream in the world. Contact the Clay County, Tennessee, Chamber of Commerce (931-243-3338, www.dalehollowlake.org) for info.
No other public bass lake on the planet has generated more positive ink over the past two years than 67,000-acre Lake Amistad on the Texas/Mexico border near Del Rio, Texas. Two words explain it: big bass. Scads of them. This is not a body of water known for producing largemouths over 10 pounds every day, although it does so with impressive regularity. (The lake record caught December 28, 2005 weighed 15.68 pounds.) What put Amistad on the map is a bountiful population of 4- to 7-pound bruisers so easy to fool a monkey could probably catch one. One visit here and you'll find yourself thinking there's no reason to travel to Mexico to experience fish-a-minute bass action.
Amistad is chock-full of prime bass habitat that includes abundant hydrilla, hundreds of points, coves, flooded brush, timber, rocky shorelines, inlets, submerged ledges, boulders and dropoffs. And because the weather is warm here nine months of the year, this clear, blue lake can be fished when other prime waters have little to offer. If you're among the millions of bass lovers in the U.S., this "Lake of Friendship" should definitely be on your list of must-visit hotspots. For more information, contact the Del Rio Chamber of Commerce (800-889-8149, www.drchamber.com).