The Big Black River, flowing southwest across Mississippi, is the site of a pivotal battle during the Vicksburg Campaign of the Civil War. After a decisive loss at Champion Hill, the Confederates reached the Big Black River on the night of May 16, 1863, under the command of Lt. Gen. John Pemberton, commander of the Confederate Army of Mississippi.
The Confederates constructed earthworks on the river’s east bank and placed 18 guns behind the works. Large sections of Pemberton’s line were protected by a bayou of waist-deep water. A planked-over railroad bridge and another makeshift bridge provided access to additional artillery overlooking the river on its west bank.
Union forces led by Maj. Gen. John McClernand encountered the Confederates early on the morning of May 17. It just so happened that the men led by Brig. Gen. Michael Lawler actually got to the Rebels first, wading through the bayou to overrun the Confederates on the east bank of the river. Inspired by Lawler’s attack, other Union formations surged forward.
Overwhelmed, the Confederates broke for the makeshift bridges to get to the west bank. Most of Pemberton’s men made it across, but Pemberton’s chief engineer set fire to both bridges to cut off any Union pursuit. Many of the Confederates tried to swim across the river and drowned. About 1,700 Rebels were stranded on the east bank and subsequently captured. It was the final battle before the Siege of Vicksburg.
After floods you can still sometimes find artifacts from the gunboat battles that took place on the Big Black River during the War. But most people on the river nowadays aren’t really interested in Civil War artifacts. The big payoff during springtime on the Big Black are flathead catfish – also called tabby cats, shovelhead cats, yellow cats, flatties, and who knows how many other names. The Big Black River will overflow her banks that time of year. As Cliff Covington tells it:
Foraging catfish move into the flooded timber in large numbers. Catfish anglers take advantage of this feeding frenzy by setting multiple trot-lines in likely spots along the main channel. Chicken livers, cut skipjack, live goldfish, and pond perch are the baits of choice when a boatload of catfish is the big objective.
Muddy and slow-flowing due to the large amount of sediment it carries, the Big Black River is renowned for yielding blue, channel, and flathead catfish of what Covington calls “mythical proportions.” It is one of the premier handgrabbing destinations in the South. A handgrabber catches fish by placing his hands directly into a catfish hole, and some anglers are very good at it. Covington refers to Woodie Reaves, who says there is no better place for handgrabbing catfish than the shallow waters of the Big Black.
While Reaves’ personal best is a 93-pound whale of a catfish that he wrestled from its underwater bed just a few years ago, his group routinely lands up to 25 big cats, averaging 50 pounds each, every time they venture out on this stream.
Sportsmen say that the Big Black River is also a good place for bowfishing. Bowfishers use highly specialized bows to catch fish, usually on a boat set up just for bowfishing. Hunting fish using a bow and arrow isn’t new at all and is a traditional way of fishing all over the world. Bert Turcotte of Vicksburg has been an avid bowfisher since high school and says that anyone with a regular bow can also fish this way. As he told Phillip Gentry:
All kinds of bows can be used for bowfishing. People who like traditional archery can easily equip a recurve bow for fishing. Any compound bow can also easily be set up, but the range of draw weight is the key. Forty pounds of draw weight or less will get the job done here in Mississippi.
Unlike hunting bows, fishing bows come with reels for retrieving your prey.
In Mississippi you can legally catch carp, buffalo, gar, shad, bowfin, and catfish with a bow. There are restrictions, however, on when and where you can catch catfish in this way.
Gentry says that nearly all bowfishing is done at night when carp, buffalo, and gar can be found hiding in extremely shallow water. Buffalo and carp feed on aquatic vegetation and are especially fond of newly planted areas that have recently flooded from spring rain. Gar are the most commonly sought daytime species, he says, and can be found “sunning” in shallow water or lurking near the surface in deeper water.
Sean Ford of Madison, Mississippi, uses a gas generator on his bowfishing boat to power either sodium or halogen lights for night fishing. He says:
The platform will allow two of us to fish at the same time from the front as we ease along in shallow water with the trolling motor, looking for fish to shoot.
An angler will use a trolling motor on his boat in order to move quietly through the water. You don’t want to spook the fish.