When it comes to outdoor pursuits, the options in the Natural State are virtually limitless.
At the top of the list for many anglers today is catfishing. But while the sport of “cattin” is as Southern as grits and stock car racing, the methods employed to land whiskerfish are about as diverse as those who think them up. Many anglers choose to take catfish with rod and reel, a method that a stubborn cat can turn into a battle of major proportions. Others choose “trotlining,” utilizing a series of baited hooks tied between two points along the edges of the rivers. Still others try “jug-fishing,” a method far more popular when the Arkansas River ran free.
It calls for a stout cord and hooks tied to plastic gallon jugs and baited with various attractants. The jugs are dropped into the water and allowed to float free, with the fisherman following along behind in a boat. You can imagine the excitement when a big cat takes a jug under! There’s “limblining” — tying line and bait to a tree limb overhanging murky water — and there’s “noodling,” which is not a method designed for the faint of heart. It requires the angler to wade along sloughs and creeks, running his or her hands back into any hole in the bank or under a log, hoping that a catfish is resting within.
All of these are accepted methods of taking cats, and there are likely others of which I’m not aware. The best news is that, whichever method you choose, the result of your efforts will be table fare fit for a king!Forecasting the best spots to target for cats is also fairly easy. I once surmised in the deer hunting forecast for Arkansas Sportsman that the way to find good deer hunting in Arkansas is to take a dart and throw it at a map of the state. Wherever it lands, there likely is good hunting there. The same is true with catfishing, because these fish live anywhere from small ponds to major rivers and reservoirs and virtually all points in between.
Biologists tell me that there are more than 50 different species of catfish in the United States, and more than 1,000 worldwide. These range in size from mere tadpoles to monsters weighing 300 to 400 pounds. I’ve read historical records of the first explorers in what would become Arkansas that told of “fish with tentacles protruding from their mouths,” some of which were “many times the size of men.”
Are these tales more than legend? Larry Griffin, the street supervisor here in Clarksville, worked on the dam at Dardanelle when it was being built.
“One day they brought up divers from Little Rock to work on the footings,” Larry recalled. “They went down and came right back up, saying that there were huge catfish down there, some large enough to swallow a man whole, and they were extremely aggressive. They all quit on the spot!”
The three primary species here in Arkansas, at least from a fisherman’s viewpoint, are flatheads, blues and channels.
The flathead is a chunky, heavy-bodied fish, somewhat mottled in color with a rounded tail. The current state-record fish taken by rod and reel was caught by Wesley White and Bruce Bennett below the Ozark dam in 1989 and weighed 89 pounds. According to legend, a 139-pounder, the largest on record, was snagged below Terry Lock and Dam near Little Rock in 1982, but snagged fish do not go into the record book.
Blues are more solid in color, their bodies shades of gray-blue. Their most distinguishing feature, aside from their coloration, is a forked tail. The largest recorded was a 116-pound, 12-ounce specimen taken out of the Mississippi River in 2001 by Charles Ashley near West Memphis.
Channel cats are probably the most common species here in the South. Their color ranges from slate to dark blue, and their bellies are off-white. They are longer and more slender than their cousins, thus weights run lower. The current state record was taken out of Lake Ouachita in 1989 by Joe Holliman and weighed in at 38 pounds.
While a popular conception is that cats are “dirty-water” species, that’s not really true. Many are caught in clear lakes and streams as anywhere else. They do have poor eyesight, which dictates that they rely on smell and feel to find food. The long “whiskers” act as external taste buds and allow the fish to taste objects without actually taking them into their mouths.
Fishing for cats — and particularly big ones — has evolved into a science. But most of that is overkill, because in reality everything a catfish does is governed by two basic desires: food and safety. Where you find the most of both is where the fish are going to be.
No discussion of prime Arkansas catfish waters could begin anywhere other than the Arkansas River, simply because there are few waterways in this country that produce bigger fish more consistently. The areas below the 13 lock and dams — known as tailwaters — hold a variety of baitfish that tend to school along the concrete walls and riprapped shorelines. Release of water through the dam breaks up these schools and carries them to the waiting cats. In the case of hydroelectric dams, fish may also be shredded as they come through the whirling blades of the turbines, driving the hungry cats into a feeding frenzy.
Fishing below these dams is mostly done by casting either from the bank or from boats. Most serious “catters” use large saltwater gear with at least 30-pound-test line. Beef livers, chicken entrails, live and cut shad, along with various commercial blood baits, all work at times. During the summer, night-fishing is usually better than the daytime variety, because as day ends, water temperatures cool slightly and the larger catfish leave their deep-water haunts to prowl the shallows for food.Arkansas River, Pool 6
There are plenty of good spots along the Arkansas, but Pool 6 near Little Rock remains among the very best. There’s excellent bank-fishing below Murray Lock and Dam on the south side and below the North Little Rock hydroelectric plant on the north. Other good spots include below the Little Rock-North Little Rock bridges and the mouth of Fourche Creek above Interstate 440. Drift-fishing with skipjack or shad in shallower water provides the most action.
One of my favorite spots lies at the very eastern end of the Arkansas River, along the last 20 miles before the waterway empties into the Mississippi. The area below Dam 2 was not part of the river’s navigational program and thus remains as it always has been, wild and free. Boats are necessary here because of a lack of bank access and can be put in at a ramp near the dam. There are no channel markers along this section of the river, and there are numerous snags and sandbars. Tying up and cas
ting into these eddies created by downed treetops and logjams can yield fantastic results if your timing is right. Live bream, cut shad and night crawlers are preferred baits.
While these two spots stand out, in truth, any of the tailwater areas below the dams are prime spots. Contact the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for maps and a list of the various facilities available at each site.
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