Road Trip: Wilson Lake, Colbert County, Alabama

11/30/2015 1:07 PM | Ron Presley (Administrator)

Music Cats and Blue Cats 

Colbert County, Alabama is a special place. A place that is especially attractive to anglers, but also to tourists in general. Anglers are attracted to the great fishing and tourists are attracted to the area’s beauty and a rich history in the music culture. 

Brian Barton is a fishing guide in Colbert County. Just talking to Barton will get you excited about fishing there. Barton specializes in catfish, smallmouth bass and stripers. I travelled to Colbert County to sample the catfish possibilities. 

One of Barton’s specialtie is half-day catfish trips. Although any trip can be influenced by weather and the bite can change, Barton has an expectation based on his experience. “On an average trip, say 7:00 am to lunch, I would expect 15 to 18 catfish with a 50/50 chance of a 40 pound-plus fish and almost always one fish in the 20- to 30-pound range. Half of those fish are going to be perfect eaters in the 3- to 10-pound class.” 

Alabama Music Hall of Fame

The Alabama Music Hall of Fame is a treasure trove of music history.

Barton lives in Muscle Shoals, AL, an area referred to as “The Shoals.” Muscle Shoals, Tuscumbia, Sheffield and Florence make up this area that has a long history in the music industry. It was, in fact, the birthplace of the famous Muscle Shoals Sound. “There was a sound here called the Muscle Shoals Sound,” explained Barton. “You know that song, ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ by Lynyrd Skynyrd? There is a line in the song that says ‘Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers’.” 

“The Swampers were a group of five men and they had a unique sound that couldn’t be reproduce anywhere else,” continued Barton. “That sound brought all these musical cats in here to do their recording. People like Aretha Franklin, Wilson Picket Little Richard and a whole lot more came here to record.” 

Now, visitors to “The Shoals” have the opportunity to investigate some of that music history by visiting such places as the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, the W.C. Handy Home and Museum, the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio Museum and the famous FAME Recording Studios. 

Net Catfish

Barton nets a nice "eater."

With music history as a backdrop Barton is making music of his own. He regularly hooks up willing clients to drag-screaming catfish on Wilson Lake, the smallest of the TVA lakes. “There is 17 miles of water, dam to dam,” reported Barton. “These Wilson fish are different than Guntersville and Pickwick fish. Wilson is a bathtub lake and a little hard to fish.” 

Barton went on to explain that Guntersville and Pickwick have more off shore structure to fish. “Wilson doesn’t have as many Islands, ditches, mounds and humps and because Wilson is much deeper it also has slower current flows. That’s OK though, because I am often the only one on the lake. I don’t see many other boats unless it is a weekend or holiday.” 

Catfish are so plentiful in Alabama there is no limit on the numbered of fish anglers can keep, however they can only keep one fish over 34 inches. Barton is a conservationist at heart. ”I release all fish over 10 pounds and prefer to release everything over five pounds,” announced Barton. His clients can keep 10 fish each under the 10 pound weight to take home for the dinner table. 

Catfish 2

The author gets one for the dinner table.

Barton says the best time to make those meat fishing trips are April, May and June and then later in September and October. “Meat trips are high demand,” commented Barton. “I think people look at catfishing in two different ways. The first is recreational because they get to have fun catching them. The other is to put some good food on the table. They are likely to carry 75 or 100 pounds of dressed fish home for the freezer. They view taking the fish home as a trade off for paying the guide and having the fun of catching them.” 

Anglers don’t have to bring a thing as far as equipment is concerned, Barton has some of the best already on board and ready to go. “When I gear up for a meat trip I use B’n’M Silver Cat spinning rods. I spool the ABU Garcia Reels with 30-pound test Vicious Braid. Anglers are welcome to bring their own gear if they want, but it’s not necessary.” 

CatfishBarton with a pair of nice "eaters."

Targeting eaters is primarily a shallow water thing. “We will be fishing 15- to 20-feet deep as opposed to open lake fishing for big cats which would be in 50- to 70-foot water,” explained Barton. That is the difference between catching the eaters and the trophy fish.” 

“We are going to be casting, using split shot for weight and smaller hooks on spinning gear. I like Tru-Turn hooks, either a 1/0 or 2/0 standard crappie hook. Our targets for meat fishing are 2 to 5 pound fish. We will catch an occasional 8 to12 pounder, but with a good drag you can handle those bigger fish on the light tackle. It is more fun too.”  Catfish 3

The primary baits for eater catfish is shad guts, chicken livers and cut shad minnows. “Shad guts work really well if you get it fresh,” said Barton. “They can be a problem if you buy them at the bait shop and they have been frozen and thawed a couple times. Then they can be hard to keep on a hook. Fresh is best for casting.” 

“You can just go to the store and buy some good old fashion chicken livers,” advised Barton. “They are a great bait for the eater catfish on the Tennessee River. If I had to choose between store-bought frozen shad guts and chicken livers, I’d take the livers.” 

“If you can get small 2 to 3 inch gizzard or threadfin shad you can use them whole,” explained Barton. “For eaters though, I would cut larger shad down to about the size of a silver dollar. If my “no catch no pay” was on the line I would downsize even further with smaller hooks and smaller baits. My all-round favorite bait is small pieces of cut shad.” 

Barton described our day’s fishing hole as a series of locks and canals that had been build to aid navigation on the Tennessee River. “They are like locks that you see today,” explained Barton. They are made out of concrete, just a smaller version. They flooded all that structure and man you can catch some cats around it. You talk about a catfish honey hole.” 

“It is a hangy jungle down there,” warned Barton. “The catfish get suspended on top of all that structure. If you can keep your bait up above the jungle you can catch some fish and get them out. I don’t know what it is, maybe old trotlines over the years, but that old lock structure is full of hangs and it is full of fish.” 

Barton likes to use the Spot-lock feature on his Minn Kota trolling motor or anchor right in the middle of a lock. “I have never caught any big catfish here. I use light tackle and target the eaters. Just cast out over the lock, which is about 20 feet deep, and pull it off the ledge where it drops to deeper water. It requires a little skill, but it is fun and productive fishing.” 

Barton recalls many memories of great fishing days over the locks. One included his son and a need for some catfish for a fish fry. “It was on April 19on lock 5,” revealed Barton. “We documented it. Me and my son bought a 2 quart container of fresh shad guts, normally enough to fish for two days. It was a Saturday morning and we got on the water above the lock at 7:00 am. We were out to catch some catfish for a fish fry. We ran out of shad guts at 9:30 am and had 89 catfish.” 

“We had fish laying in the floor. We had fish everywhere and every one of them was a perfect one- to three-pound fish. Those locks are stacked up with them. That’s why I like to guide on them for meat trips.” 

SmalliesTwo nice smallies that came from Pickwick Lake. 

Barton also guides for stripers. 

Barton also guides for smallmouth bass, stripers and trophy catfish. Each species is a little different. Fishing for smallies and stripers is mostly on nearby Pickwick Lake. 


Chasing catfish, however, be they eaters or trophy cats, will find Barton on his home waters of Wilson Lake. 

Visit Barton’s website at Brian Barton Outdoors or he can be reached by email at

For more information on Colbert County visit their website at

Epilogue: On a personal note, there are plenty of fine eateries in the Shoals area. One I liked in particular was a place called Champy’s. It is one of those places that is so good you want to tell everyone about it. They are known for their chicken, but everything we had, including the onion rings and believe it or not the tamales we had as starters. Just mosey on in when you got a little time to wait on your order. The chicken is prepared fresh while you wait and it is worth the wait! Don’t miss it if you are in the area.

The other place that came out on top was a little Mexican diner that Brian Barton told us about. It is a family run place and the food is outstanding. If you need a Mexican food fix, Casa Mexicana is the place to get it. I guess I should confess, we went to Casa Mexicana twice during our short stay in the Shoals. It was that good.

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