Atchafalaya catfish

Ernie Roe (right) with a 33.35-pound flathead catfish that won the 2023 Morgan City Oilfield Fishing Rodeo.

Flatheads and big old blues await river catfishermen

When I first met Ernie Roe, he had just pulled up to the weigh station in front of the Morgan City Auditorium where I was the weigh master for the Morgan City Oilfield Fishing Rodeo. Roe had entered the catfish division of the tournament, where only one catfish was allowed to be weighed in.

Roe, 65, was fishing with his nephew, and the two catfish anglers had quite a day on the water. Roe claimed to have lost three catfish, a couple right at the boat that were bigger than the flathead catfish he was about to weigh in.

Roe’s big goujon weighed a whopping 33.35 pounds; good enough to take home a check for $720. 

In talking with Roe, he said he always targets and catches big catfish. He wasn’t bragging either. He also happened to mention that anytime I wanted to go just to let him know. 

Live bait

The first thing I picked up on when we fished earlier this summer, was Roe, a retired boat engineer, likes to use live bait. Making our way across Berwick Bay, Roe jokingly said, “I sure hope we can find some bait this morning, because I forgot the frozen cut bait and left it on the counter.”

Pulling up close to the bank along the north side of Bayou Shaffer near the Avoca Island Ferry, Roe pulled out his cast net and began tossing it toward a little drain. In short order, we had plenty of mullet that ranged 7 to 10 inches in length. 

“My favorite baits are mullet, shad, and slicks,” he said. “There’s a couple of reasons I like to use live bait. One, a live bait is always better than a frozen bait. And two, a live bait is going to have a good oily scent on it. Once they’re frozen, they lose a lot of the oil scent. It’s also better to have the size and fresh quality of bait you want.”

Ernie Roe prefers live bait. Here he makes a cast along the Intracoastal Waterway.

Both blue catfish and flathead catfish spawn from mid-May through June when the water temperature reaches 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. And though you can catch big catfish in the spring, they’re more active later in the summer, particularly July and August after the spawn.

Roe said he goes from using a lighter bait in the spring that ranges ¼ to a ½ pound to a much heavier bait in hot summer months.

“In the spring the fish really haven’t quite turned on yet,” he said. “The bigger males are making and protecting nests, but come summer, I want the biggest baits I can find. A two-pound mullet is perfect.”

Go Deep

The thing that really stands out when fishing big cats with Roe is the depth of the water he fishes in. We were fishing in the Atchafalaya River in 50 feet of water. What’s more, he told me as summer advances, he fishes 70 to 90 feet depths and quite often 100 feet. Essentially, big catfish look for cooler temperatures in the thermocline that’s more to their liking.

The other thing that stood out was how he took into consideration what the river current was doing. He pointed out that big catfish are inherently lazy and prefer staying out of the current to feed. 

When fishing deep water, Roe looks for old loading docks along the bank where the concrete has collapsed and fallen in the river or where concrete has been piled up where erosion took place. Roe said places like these provide catfish with holes in the ground and tunnels to lay eggs in during the spawn. 

Roe uses large mullets for bait to catch big catfish.

Pointing to his electronics that showed a side scan of the bottom, Roe said, “You can’t always fish catfish in the jumble because you’ll get hung up, but you can fish close to it, where they’re probably going to come out occasionally to feed. Those catfish don’t like to fight the current. They’re a big bulky fish. A heavy current works against them, where they have to exert more physical energy.”  

Roe said they’ll get behind a hill on the bottom where the current will take the bait up over the hill.

“Behind a hill, the bait gets pulled down, where he’ll have an easy meal without fighting the current,” Roe said. “I look for those little valleys and get on the downside of those valleys with my bait.”

Go Big

There seemed to be a constant theme fishing big catfish with Roe. Everything was big. He used big baits, big weights, big hooks and big stiff poles loaded with heavy line.

Roe prefers 6/0 J-hooks, circle hooks, and octopus hooks when fishing big catfish. His weights range anywhere from 8 to 14 ounces and there have been times when he said he even used a 26-ounce weight.

The current speed in the Atchafalaya River can be so strong, anything short of these heavy weights will cause your bait to lift upwards in the current out of the strike zone. 

“What you want to do is fish down current, let it hit the bottom, and lock it in as quickly as possible,” Roe said. “Your weight will carry on and get snagged in a tree branch or something if you don’t lock it as soon as it hits the bottom.”

Roe has his Tracker aluminum boat set up with rod holders where he can fish up to four rods at the same time. The two rods set up on the stern of his boat are heavy stiff rods. The two rods he sets up on the gunnels of the port and starboard sides are not as heavy and more flexible. 

The stern rods are loaded with 50-pound test braided line and the stern and port slightly more flexible rods are filled with 25-pound test monofilament line. The biggest difference Roe mentioned is because of the depth, current speed, and weight, the more flexible mono filled rods are a little more difficult to set the hook, while the braided filled stiff rods are more immediate.

On our trip, we seemed to catch more fish on the flexible rods. I noticed on one occasion one of these rods was starting to twitch. When I said to Roe, “We got a bite,” he replied, “Just let him eat it.”

The author with a blue cat caught while fishing on the Atchafalaya River.

While I anxiously watched the rod twitch, Roe began to tell me how one time he let a fish play with it for 30 minutes before setting the hook. 

“Sometimes, they’re just holding the bait in their mouth and aren’t hooked,” Roe said. “If you try to set the hook too soon, you’ll sometimes pull the bait right out of their mouth. You just have to wait for that rod to double over, then you know you got him.”

Set the hook

Suddenly, that’s just what happened. The rod bowed over, and Roe said, “Now set the hook.”

Trying to get the fish up from over 50 feet down with well over 100 feet of line out, not to mention the stiff Atchafalaya current, it took me a while to get the blue catfish in the boat. It wasn’t one of the huge lunkers we were looking for, but no less than 10 pounds. In short, a big blue cat that went in the ice chest.

Our next fish was a flathead catfish that got released because it didn’t make the weight cut for our outing. 

We had a couple line break offs that caused Roe to start lamenting, “I don’t mind them breaking off, but please let me at least see what you looked like.” 

After the second break off, I helped Roe restring the pole with fresh line.

Roe also likes to fish at night. He said catfish bite better at night. He also said they’ll feed in shallower water at night. 

 “I catch a lot of big catfish in Lake Palourde in 8 feet of water,” he said. “The reason I catch them there is because I use big baits in shallow water at night when the surface water is cooler. Plus, big catfish tend to feed a lot at night.”

Roe, like most coastal anglers, pays close attention to the tides, particularly a falling tide when fishing is best. Even though there is a constant southerly river flow, on an up tide the river flow slows, where on a down tide the river current flow increases tremendously. 

Go Now

There were three periods that Roe suggested we try on the day we fished together, 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m., 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., all of them based on tidal conditions. With the flat to irregular tide, Roe was hoping to catch little windows, where the tide wouldn’t necessarily be boiling in or out but instead give us some slower current periods where we’d have a better chance of catching fish.

Roe uses his fish finder and electronics to help guide him to hills, humps and valleys on the bottom.

I chose the worst period – 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. But, during our outing we had to go catch bait and run to the location Roe had in mind. 

We still managed to land three nice, good size catfish in just over an hour with two break offs that took time to re-hook, re-bait and re-set. Clearly, Roe is a man of his word when it comes to catching big catfish. In fact, he offered me another trip later this summer, when the spawn would be over and the big cats would be even more active.

With numerous boat launches in the Tri-City area of Morgan City, Berwick, and Patterson, there’s plenty of access to the Atchafalaya River, Berwick Bay, the Intracoastal Waterway, and Bayou Shaffer where big blue and flathead catfish can be caught in deep water. Fried big blue and flathead catfish make excellent table fare. Sometimes a big catfish can be hard to skin, but when cleaned properly, with blood lines and silver fatty tissue removed, you’ll be coming back for seconds. 

Go Help those in need

Roe is a board member of the Bayou Outdoors Foundation, a 501C3 not for profit organization that provides free fishing, hunting and outdoor related trips for children 8 to 16 with special needs and illnesses. 

The organization receives donations and sells raffle tickets and dinners to raise money for the foundation to complete its mission of treating these kids to a trip of their lifetime. 

“It’s not the price of the ticket, it’s the life you’ve changed,” Roe said.

For more information on Bayou Outdoors, go to www.bayououtdoorsfoundation.org or call Ernie Roe personally at (985) 759-1363.

About John Flores 156 Articles
John Flores was enticed in 1984 to leave his western digs in New Mexico for the Sportsman’s Paradise by his wife Christine. Never looking back, the author spends much of his free time writing about and photographing the state’s natural resources.