The temperature all week had been Africa-hot. By noon each day, the thermometer in "The Shoals" area of north Alabama was hovering around the century mark. We decided, therefore, to do our fishing early and get off the water before we melted.
The sun was just rising when we climbed into Mike Mitchell's boat and headed onto Wheeler Lake. I've wanted to fish Wheeler, a Tennessee River reservoir, ever since I heard about William McKinley catching a 111-pound, world-record blue catfish here in 1996. Now I'd have my chance.
My wife Theresa and I were vacationing in the Muscle Shoals area for a week in July, and Mitchell, who lives in Albertville, Alabama, invited us to join him for some catfishing. We were eager to go because Mitchell's reputation preceded him. He's well-known as one of the country's top catfish guides and tournament anglers.
He and partner Sammy Mitchell won first place at the Cabela's King Kat Tournament on nearby Pickwick and Wilson in May 2008 with an impressive weight of 163.95 pounds. Their team also won big fish of the event with a 64.95-pound catfish.
On top of that, this young man has helped many clients catch their biggest fish ever, including Toni Treadway, who caught a 98-pound blue while fishing with Mike on Wheeler Lake last January.
Mike sent me a photo of Treadway's fish the day it was caught, along with a note to "Come fish with me sometime."
Now, after months of anticipation, it was actually going to happen — Theresa and I fishing with one of the world's best cat men on one of the world's best catfish lakes. Little did we realize what a memorable day it would turn out to be.
As soon as the boat was anchored, Mike and I baited four hooks with chunks of skipjack herring and released the baits to a hump underwater. Less than five minutes after we placed the poles in rod holders, one of them went down hard.
Theresa, whose biggest fish before this day was a 23-pound redfish, was first up. And from the moment she started reeling, it was obvious this would be a new personal best.
The fish pulled. Theresa reeled. The fish pulled harder. Theresa reeled harder.
There was never any doubt about the outcome of this battle, however. My wife was gonna lay a smackdown on this whiskerfish for sure. The look in her eyes told me so.
I wanted some photos of Theresa battling her big cat, so I grabbed my camera. Before I could start shooting, however, another pole went down. I reeled fast so the circle hook would catch in the fish's jaw, and when the beast felt the hook's sting, he darn near yanked the rod from my hands.
Theresa now had her fish close to the surface, and we could see it was a dandy. She gave a big heave, pulled the cat close, and Mike slipped a net under it and swung it in the boat. It was a beautiful female blue cat, sleek and muscular and not at all happy about its predicament. Before she settled down, she almost beat the sides out of the boat with her tail.
Mike now turned his attention to my fish, which I had miraculously managed to wrestle to the surface. It was even bigger than Theresa's and not about to give up without a fight. The cat churned the water with its tail, drenching all of us as it thrashed about. Mike quickly netted it, however, and dragged it over the transom.
It was a big male catfish. His broad, swollen head — quite unlike the slender head of Theresa's female cat — was covered with fresh abrasions. He was quite skinny, too, a sign he'd been in a spawning hole for days or weeks, refusing to feed while he guarded his eggs. Had it been some other time of year, when the fish had been feeding normally, it might have weighed 60 pounds or more. But in his emaciated state, the old cat tipped the scales to an even 46 pounds. Theresa's fish, her biggest ever, weighed an even 30.
It was quite a double. Two fish, 76 pounds total. And the morning had just begun.
After snapping a few photos and carefully releasing both cats, we rebaited the two poles and settled down to wait. But waiting would have to wait. Another rod took a nosedive. And once again, Theresa was up against brawler.
This fish didn't make it through Round One before my wife KOed it, though. She brought it boatside almost as quick as you can say it, and Mike netted the beautiful 26-pounder.
Much to my surprise, and Mike's, Theresa grabbed the thrashing, still-green blue cat by the head and tail and held it high for a photo.
"It's the second biggest fish I ever caught," Theresa said smiling. "I want a good picture of me holding it so I can show everyone back home."
At mid-morning, we drove to the Wilson Dam tailwater at Sheffield where we caught two more fat blues — a 24-pounder for Theresa and a 26-pounder for me. We stopped fishing around 11 a.m., before it was blazing hot out. But in the few hours we'd been on the water, we'd caught five catfish anyone could be proud of.
"I'm glad we stopped when we did," Theresa said. "It means I beat you."
"How do you figure that?" I asked. "I caught the biggest fish."
"Yeah, but if we were fishing a tournament, I would have won," she snapped back. "My three fish weighed a total of 80 pounds. Your two only weighed 72. I beat you by 8 pounds."
I couldn't argue that fact. But catching a 46-pound catfish, one of my nicest blues ever, was reward enough for me.
Besides, I know better than to argue with Theresa. I weigh 100 pounds more than she does, but I've seen her put a smackdown on some pretty sizeable fish and know she could probably lay me out, too.
I settled for big fish honors and left well enough alone.
North Alabama Trip Tips
Lakes Wheeler, Wilson and Pickwick on the Tennessee River near Muscle Shoals, Alabama, are among the best trophy catfish lakes in the country. For guided catfishing in this area, contact Mike Mitchell of SouthernCats Guide Service (256-673-2250).
"The Shoals" area ranks high as a vacation spot, too, and the wonderful staff at the Colbert County Tourism and Convention Bureau (800-344-0783) will gladly assist you in planning visits to attractions such as Helen Keller's childhood home, the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, Key Underwood's Coondog Graveyard, the W.C. Handy Birthplace Museum, Tuscumbia's scenic Spring Park with its waterfalls and fountains, and great local eateries such as Claunch Café, George's Steakhouse and Frank's Italian Restaurant.