Atchafalaya River catfish

Whether for fun or profit, it’s “game on” catching catfish in the river

Back in July of 2020, Bannon Lightsey was out messing around doing a little bank fishing at the Jessie Fontenot Memorial Boat Landing in Berwick. The popular landing, used heavily by both recreational and commercial fishermen, has a nice grassy area that is kept mowed where folks can stand and toss a line into the Atchafalaya River.

Lightsey was actually hoping to catch a shark that day. During non-flood years, the river often gets quite low causing salinity levels to increase a bit. When this occurs both sharks and redfish have occasionally been caught, albeit by accident.

While fishing, Lightsey thought he got snagged and was hung up on a log. That is until he started reeling in and whatever he had on his line started fighting back.

Confident he had a big blue catfish on his line, Lightsey fought the fish for the next 15 minutes. When the huge catfish came up to the surface, it started rolling. That’s when Lightsey noticed it was barely caught above the whisker. What’s more, the hook appeared to be slipping out.

Berwick Bay rests between Morgan City and Berwick. Both towns have developed their city wharfs, where the general public can take advantage of fishing opportunities.

He jumped in!

Jumping in the water, the Patterson angler was able to get ahold of the big catfish and landed it. His blue catfish was 48 inches long and weighed a whopping 70 pounds.

For the sake of context, the state’s top 10 blue catfish range in weight from 84 pounds to 114 pounds, six of which were caught in the Mississippi River.

Though Lightsey’s catfish wasn’t close to being part of the state records, his Atchafalaya River blue catfish is exemplary of what regularly comes out of this region. From Berwick Bay southward, the Atchafalaya River and tributaries like Bayou Shaffer and Bayou Chene, produce some very nice catches of big catfish.

Lightsey, who has a boat but loves to bank fish, said, “What’s crazy is we caught fish like that all the way to Christmas. Every other time we went out we were catching 30 and 40 pound blue catfish — something big.”

Just two weeks later after Lightsey caught his 70 pounder, five Berwick middle school boys teamed up to land a 55-pound blue cat from the City of Berwick’s river front wharf. However, it’s not just the casual recreational anglers who fish for big catfish in this region. So do anglers who enter fishing tournaments that have a catfish category.

Catfish wanted

Whether it’s a company tournament for a few bucks and bragging rights, or a more serious competition like the Morgan City Oilfield Fishing Rodeo with a big payout, Logan Barrilleaux and his brother Gavin like to compete whenever there’s a catfish division.

During the 2022 MCOFR tournament, the two brothers landed a 32.98-pound blue catfish that Gavin hooked right in front of the Mr. Charlie Rig Museum in Berwick Bay, taking home the  first place prize in the Catfish Division.

Gavin Barrilleaux (left) and his brother Logan Barrilleaux with their 2022 Morgan City Oilfield Fishing Rodeo first place catfish.

Though the Barrilleaux brothers caught the winning fish in Berwick Bay, Logan Barrilleaux said it’s not necessarily his favorite spot.

“My number one spot would have been in the Shaffer, because there’s usually a set of barges along there,” Barrilleaux said. “The same with Bayou Chene. Both have barges that are typically placed there for a long time. I don’t know if it’s protection they feel or because there’s no sunlight and it’s cooler, but those catfish like those barges. Maybe it’s become natural habitat to them, so I’ll tie off or anchor close to the barges and fish.

“The only electronics I have is a depth finder. Where the barges are tied up it isn’t necessarily deep, maybe 20 feet, but the water usually falls from shallow to deep on an angle underneath them. We’ll toss our bait as close as we can and let it drift with the current and, if possible, underneath the barge.”

Barrilleaux has also taken inexperienced people fishing in the past. He said the number one problem with new anglers is checking their bait too often — mainly due to impatience.

“Sometimes it takes a while,” he said. “The most recent tournament we won, we fished all day. Nothing was happening, when all of a sudden in the last hour before weigh in we caught the one big fish that won.”

Preferred bait

Barrilleaux’s preferred bait is mullet and shad, with cut mullet being first choice. Since he’s trying to win tournaments, the bigger the bait, the bigger the fish he says.

It’s the same with his preferred tackle. Barrilleaux uses a 6’6” to 7’ medium heavy Ugly Stick rod loaded with heavy 40-pound braided line along with 3 to 5 ounce egg sinkers fixed to a circle hook.

“I use the analogy that I’m not out to feed a big catfish a French fry,” Barrilleaux said. “I’m giving him a hamburger. Big fish require big tackle and big baits. When I fish like that, I’m not out there to catch the little ones.”

Lightsey said he goes to a lot of different banks to fish around the Tri City area of Berwick, Morgan City and Patterson. Like Barrilleaux, Lightsey prefers cut mullet as his preferred bait.

When fishing for bigger catfish Lightsey, like Barrilleaux, also emphasized the use of heavier gear. Part of his rigging includes a sturdy leader.

“I make all of my leaders myself,” Lightsey said. “I’m fishing with cut mullet, and I use a steel leader that is one to two feet long. I kinda do a Carolina rig with an egg weight that runs on that steel leader with a number 7 circle hook attached to it. If something big or even a shark comes along, it can’t get to the braided line I’m using.”

Barrilleaux said he also looks for deep drop offs to fish. Those drop offs, he explains, go from 13 to 15 feet deep nearer to the bank outwards towards ledges that often drop off to 30 to 40 feet. Along the Atchafalaya River, Bayou Shaffer, and Bayou Chene are some of the deepest drop offs. What’s more, some drop offs may have oyster reef shelves that hold catfish. Locations like these regularly produce good catches of fish both large and small.

Speaking of small, don’t let the draw of big catfish be the only size that entices you to this region. The cities of Morgan City and Berwick have greatly enhanced their respective wharfs in an effort to provide townspeople greater access to fish the Atchafalaya River. In late spring and early summer, catfish make their annual runs down river.

Boats line up Berwick Bay from Conrad Shipyards along the eastern bank all the way to the Morgan City “Mr. Charlie” Rig Museum. Sitting on anchor under the bridges, catfish anglers leisurely tight line fish making a day of it on the water while catching perfect pan size one to three pound fish.

The MCOFR is just one fishing tournament in this region that happens to have a catfish division with a fairly decent payout. Other tournaments often toss catfish into their trash fish category. No matter. Whether you’re looking to fish a tournament or simply have the urge to catch a big catfish, give this Tri City area a try. It’s where Atchafalaya River Cat Champs are made.

Top Atchafalaya River catfish bait includes nutria liver and shrimp.

Try shrimp

Other popular baits catfish anglers use when fishing the Atchafalaya River is saltwater shrimp, freshwater river shrimp, and even bloody nutria liver bait when you can get ahold of the latter. When fastened to a single or double Gulf Rig, 1 to 4 ounce pyramid weight, and 1/0 Mustad bait hook, it’s a deadly combination for river running catfish.

Channel catfish, too

Though much of this conversation has been about Atchafalaya River blue catfish, there are also plenty of channel catfish to be caught in the smaller bayous that merge with bigger bayous. The marshes below Morgan City and Berwick are also teaming with channel catfish.

About John Flores 154 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.