Triple-digit catfish

February 5, 2010, is a day Joe Ludtke, Jerry Cline and Josh Cline will never forget — especially Joe.

The father (Jerry) and his two sons wanted to try some cold-weather catfishing, so they hired catfishing guide Mike Mitchell to take them out on Alabama's Wheeler Lake, a Tennessee River reservoir well-known for producing giant blue cats this season.

Mitchell is well-known as one of the country's top catfish guides and tournament anglers. And he's especially adept at putting his clients on huge winter blues.

Hailing from Albertville, Ala., this young man has helped many clients catch their biggest fish ever, including Toni Treadway who caught a 98-pound blue while fishing with Mitchell on Wheeler Lake in January 2008.

Before this cold February morning ended, Joe, Jerry and Josh would each catch their personal-best fish as well.

"We anchored on our second spot around 9:00 a.m.," Joe Ludtke said, "and the fun began. The first rod dropped, and Dad landed a 30-pound blue. The second rod dropped, and I caught a 40-pounder. We had no more bites for 15 minutes, so we moved to our next spot. When the first rod dropped here, Josh caught his biggest fish ever, a whopping 66-pound blue cat. Amazingly, just a few minutes later, Dad fought and landed an even bigger fish, a 72-pound blue."

These guys are enjoying an extraordinary fishing trip already. But the best is yet to come.

When the bite slows, Mitchell moves the boat again, and it's Joe's turn to grab the next pole down. When he does, he immediately knows it's a monster.

"It felt like I had just hooked into a car," he said. "I have never felt something so big and so strong! I kept telling Mike, my dad and Josh, this is a giant."

The fish fights valiantly, but after a 15-minute battle, Joe got the upper hand. He brings the gigantic catfish alongside the boat and Mitchell nets it. Mitchell and Josh struggle to lift the heavyweight over the transom, but finally succeed.

"After several minutes of extreme excitement, it's time to weigh the fish," Joe said. "Mike pulls out his 100-pound scale, and the scale reads FULL! I can't believe I've just caught a 100-pound fish. Mike then brings out his 110-pound scale, and the big blue weighs in at 102.52 pounds! It was 54 inches long with a girth of 40 inches. We take several pictures and release the big catfish back into Wheeler. Our total for the day was eight blues for 420 pounds!"

"I really love fishing for trophy blue catfish in winter," said Mitchell. "These fish feed heavily on winter-kill shad, gorging themselves until spring when they start thinking more of spawning. Wheeler Lake has an abundant supply of food for these big blues, so they thrive here.

"Wheeler offers a lot of diversity — shallow flats, aquatic vegetation, lots of main lake structure such as rocks and logs," Mitchell continued. "All these characteristics and more are rolled up into a river situation with good current and oxygen supplies. Freshwater mussels, a big food source for catfish, thrive in these shallow, oxygen-rich environments, but the bigger cats feed primarily on shad and herring. Tennessee River impoundments like Wheeler are havens for these two types of baitfish."

In winter, big blues become somewhat lethargic, and anglers must slow their presentation to catch them. But this is the time of year when bigger fish are likely to be caught.

"Generally speaking, five to eight fish in 8 hours is a good day," said Mitchell, "but usually about 75 percent of the fish we catch exceed 40 pounds."

Joe Ludtke now belongs to an elite fraternity consisting of just a few dozen people who have caught 100-pound-plus catfish in U.S. waters. And Mike Mitchell is one of the only guides who has ever put a client on a cat of such size.

To contact, Mitchell, phone 256-673-2250 or visit his website, www.tnriveroutfitters.net.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net. His book, "Out There Fishing," is available at www.catfishsutton.com