The lure of Lake Mary: in search of yellow cat

Harrell, left, and Rimes pose with catch.

Second in a series

“Fishing is a condition of mind wherein you cannot possibly have a bad time.” — Zane Grey,  “Tales of Southern Rivers”

LAKE MARY — We’d gone as far as we could go up the Old Homochitto River. Now it was time to head back downstream and check trotlines.

The Judge and the Mayor — Aubrey Rimes and Jamie Harrell — had baited nine trotlines the previous evening with live pond perch. We were especially hoping to catch yellow cats, which Rimes said is the best-eating catfish of them all.

Yellow cat is one of many names for flathead catfish. Other nicknames are spotted cat, tabby cat and Opelousas.

The fishermen had marked their lines with colored ribbons. The Judge eased up to the first, where a line was tied to a root. Since I was in the front, it fell to me to run it.

A trotline, for folks who don’t know, is a long line with numerous shorter ones attached to it. The shorter ones have hooks, and weights are attached to the long line here and there. You tie the line to a tree or root, stretch it across a deep hole of water and tie the other end to something on the other side.

Catfish feed best at night and gar steal the bait during the day, so the Judge and the Mayor bait the hooks in the late evening and run them first thing in the morning.

Running trotlines is an adventure, and with so many hooks in the water, it’s an effective way to catch fish.

Also: “It’s hard work!” the Mayor said. And he was right.

The Judge circled around and eased upstream to the root. Kneeling in the bow of his 15-foot aluminum boat, I reached out with a paddle and pulled the line up. The current was stiff here and the line hard to handle. Not only that, it was hung on the bottom.

I jerked it loose from whatever piece of driftwood had snagged it.

“This is the worst line we’ve got,” the Judge said. “We didn’t put it in a good place. The others are a lot easier to run.”

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“If I fished only to capture fish, my fishing trips would have ended long ago.” — Zane Grey, “Tales of Southern Rivers”

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Our first catch was a small gar. Everybody has their own method for dealing with gar, which has a long snout and sharp teeth. Some shoot them in the head with a .22. Some snap the lower jaw with pliers.

The Judge’s method, which proved very effective, is simply to raise the hook point-down with pliers and shake the fish off.  

Next came a mid-sized blue cat, maybe 10 pounds. Blue cat are good to eat but not as good as yellow, the Judge said.

I held the line tight and the fish thrashed, giving me a bath. The Mayor slipped a dip net under it, twisted the hook out with pliers and hoisted the fish into the boat. He flipped the net over into a big black tub of water.

The next line proved more lucrative: gar, blue cat, then the much-wanted yellow cat. The fish, maybe 15 pounds, lived up to its name and then some. It wasn’t just yellow, it was golden.

I’ve helped catch many flathead catfish but have never seen any as yellow as the ones we caught in the Old Homochitto. Flatheads come in a wide range of colors, from greenish to grayish to spotted.

Blue cat is the largest species of catfish in North America, with yellow cat a close second. Both can top five feet in length and weigh well over 100 pounds. Yellow catfish eat live prey, while blue cat will take it live or dead.

Other common catfish in these waters are channel cat and bullhead.

As we ran lines, we kept hauling in blue cats, yellow cats, and tossing out gar. Then we caught a small, mottled, blackish catfish that Aubrey called a Homochitto River yellow cat, as opposed to the Mississippi River yellow cat, which were golden.

Part of the adventure in running a trotline is never knowing what you might catch. In addition to the yellows, blues and gar, we caught an alligator gar about three feet long.

Gar are the barracuda of fresh water. Species include shortnose, spotted and longnose. Alligator gar are much bigger. I saw a photo of one that maxed out a set of 200-pound scales taken by a bowfisherman at Lake Mary recently.

We caught one mid-sized yellow cat that had been torn to pieces. The Judge figured it was by a bigger yellow cat. He caught a big one once and found a smaller one inside with hook in mouth.

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“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” — Norman Maclean, “A River Runs Through It”

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Back at the camp, the Mayor and I went ashore while the Judge tossed the fish onto the dock. He then loaded them into five-gallon buckets to carry up to his cleaning deck.

Carrying heavy buckets up wooden stairs — three flights from river to ground level, two more to the cleaning deck — would be hard on anybody. Not the Judge. He darted up and down the stairs with the energy of a 12-year-old boy. He’s 65.

“I’ve never had to take prescription medicines,” he said.

The Judge plowed behind a mule as a boy, worked offshore, then ran a plant nursery for 30 years. At first he grew all his own plants, but the demand grew until he had to order a truckload every week.

He also worked 20 years as a judge, a job he still holds.

As for the Mayor, he’s in good health but will turn 78 in September, so he’s not against taking a nap after running trotlines.

Finally all the fish were piled on the skinning deck, which had a large stainless steel sink, weighing scales and skinning hooks.

“Aubrey doesn’t like anybody to help him,” the Mayor said, settling back in a wooden chair overlooking the muddy river.

The Judge had his method down, for sure. First he pulled off his shoes and socks. Then he picked out a fish and rapped it hard on the head with a hammer.

“I can’t stand to skin them alive,” he said. “I know a lot of people do that, but it hurts my soul.”

He cut a slit in the lower lip and hung the fish on the scales, then jotted down the weight. He moved it to a skinning hook and made two cuts near the tail to bleed it.

Then he went to work skinning, deftly slicing the upper sides and pulling the skin down, and in short order had a perfectly skinned catfish.

He put the meat into an ice chest — he keeps an ice machine at his camp — and the offal into a bucket.

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“Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter.” — Izaak Walton, “The Compleat Angler”

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Meanwhile, neighboring camp owner Roger Campbell dropped by to visit. He sat near the Mayor swapping yarns while the Judge worked.

Asked how Lake Mary is doing these days, Roger said, “OK. Half the people can’t wait to get out here on Friday and the other half have their camps up for sale.”

Recent spates of high water have put a real hardship on camp owners. The Lake Mary area can be underwater half the year or more. That may mean power and water outages. At such times access is by boat only, and when the water subsides it may be a while before the road is passable.

The topic turned to accidents that have happened out here over the years. Roger remembered the family out for a boat ride that collided with a tree. Roger went to help and found the man with a smashed head and twisted back, one child with a broken leg and another with a broken collarbone, and a woman seven months pregnant.

He took them out by boat until a helicopter ambulance met them.

Roger ran into the family years later and all were well, including the baby.

The Judge paused in his skinning and peered over the railing.

“Where’d my boat go?” he asked.

Uh-oh. I was the one who had tied it to the dock. Now it was gone.

We went downstairs and found his boat a short distance away just offshore. The Judge, wearing denim shorts, stepped in and grabbed it.

“That’s not the first time that’s happened,” he said, graciously. “That’s happened plenty of times.”

“It happens to canoes, too,” I said.

I had forgotten how to tie a proper clove hitch to the dock cleat and just wrapped the line around several loops. Naturally, it came loose.

With canoes, even a supposedly seasoned veteran can haul his boat well up onshore at night, only to find it down the river the next day thanks to an unexpected rise.

The Judge finished his skinning. The tally was 12 blue cat weighing a total of 1081⁄2 pounds and seven yellow cat at 68 pounds — in all, 19 catfish weighing 1761⁄2.

The biggest blue cat was 221⁄2 pounds, the biggest yellow 17.

Not bad for a morning run. A couple weeks prior, the Judge and the Mayor caught 700 pounds of catfish in two days.

We went inside for sandwiches. Then it was time for a tour of the lake — hopefully before an approaching electrical storm arrived.

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Next week: Lake Mary from end to end.

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