I was well into my 30s before I learned that catfish can be caught in the wintertime in Oklahoma. Prior to that, I thought wintertime was for crappie fishing and catfishing was a hot-weather sport.
Growing up in northwestern Oklahoma, summertime was my favorite season, partly because I was out of school, but also because those hot summer days and balmy summer nights offered plenty of opportunities for catching catfish with a cane pole, a rod and reel, or on trotlines or limblines.
Some of my fondest childhood memories are of daytime outings on creekbanks or nighttime campouts beside the spillways at Salt Plains and Canton lakes, catching channel cats and the occasional big flathead on whatever baits we could dig up from manure piles or seine from small streams or shallow ponds.
Catfishing is still a summertime passion for thousands of Oklahoma anglers. Blue cats have replaced channel cats as the dominant species in many of our large reservoirs and rivers, but there are still hundreds of lakes and streams, as well as thousands of ponds, where channels, blues, flatheads and bullheads await a baited hook.
Earlier in the summer — from late May to early July, blues and channels and flatheads spend a lot of time very close to shorelines where they nest and spawn in caves and crevices. By this time of the year, most are spending more time in open water, chasing roaming schools of shad or, in the case of channels and blues, searching for other food throughout the lake.
But they still prowl the shorelines, especially at night, searching for fish, crawfish, insects and other terrestrial foods. So catfishing remains good in most Oklahoma waters throughout the warmer months, even for anglers who don’t have a boat to carry them out into the mid-lake flats where schools of blues and channels roam.
And there are many streams, both large and small, that offer great late-summer action for catfish.
Tailrace areas also offer lots of catfish opportunities, and since late summer usually sees water frequently being released through the turbines at hydroelectric dams to generate power for all those air conditioners working overtime at homes and businesses, tailrace fishing can be very productive right about now.
These Oklahoma catfishing tips include insight on three types of places where Sooner anglers can sack up a stringerful of catfish in late summer.
Oklahoma is blessed with hundreds of thousands of acres of water backed up in lakes of all sizes. And virtually all of those lakes hold pretty good populations of one or more species of catfish.
Since the early 1980s, the catfish populations in many reservoirs have changed. Most all of them hold channel cats, which are native to the Oklahoma streams that were impounded when the lakes were built. Hatchery-produced channel cats were stocked as well in most reservoirs.
But over the past 30 years, blue cats have become more dominant and channel cats a little less abundant.
Several of the lakes where I have done quite a bit of catfishing, including Grand Lake, Lake Eufaula, Lake Texoma and Lake Keystone, have gone through this change. In the first decade or two after Lake Eufaula was built, catching channel cats was easy and blue cats were rare. But, year by year, the blues took over.
Some anglers prefer channel cats, but I kind of like the blues. That’s because I think they’re easier to catch. Anyone who has done much fishing for channel cats knows that channels will sometimes nibble and nibble and nibble at a bait without ever taking the whole thing in their mouths. It can be frustrating trying to catch a channel cat.
Blues, by contrast, typically attack a bait vigorously and when you set the hook, you’ve got the fish. For that reason, I like fishing for blues.
In the hottest months of summer, one very good way to catch both channels and blues on big lakes is to drift the open water, dragging baits across flats near river channels. Various rigs can be used, but I like to use a rig that has a 1-ounce or larger sinker tied to the end of the line. A foot or two above the sinker I use a three-way swivel with a dropper line about 2 feet long.
I’ve used a variety of baits, but year after year, the most consistently productive bait I’ve found is fresh shad. I catch shad using a cast net. If I catch 3-inch or 4-inch shad, I usually put one whole shad on the hook. If I catch larger shad, and sometimes our gizzard shad grow considerably larger, I’ll cut the bigger shad into 3- or 4-inch-long chunks or strips to bait the hooks.
Then I’ll place my boat upwind of a flat and put out one or two lines per person and drift across the flat. Usually it only takes one pass to determine whether there are cooperative catfish feeding on the flat. If I don’t catch a fish or two on the first drift, I may move and try another area.
You can often spot catfish on your sonar display, hugging the bottom on the flats. But you may not even need to rely on sonar, except to determine the boundaries of the flat areas for drifting.
When drifting, it’s usually best to avoid areas with lots of stumps or submerged brush. But sometimes such areas hold concentrations of catfish and it may be more productive to anchor and fish near the submerged structure or cover.
During the cold months of winter, catfish sometimes gather in big numbers around bends or edges of submerged river or creek channels, several feet beneath the surface. Sometimes that also happens in August and September when the water temperatures near the surface are at their hottest levels of the year.
I’ve had some great late-summer outings at Eufaula, especially late in the day or at night, anchoring along the channels near highway bridges and placing my baits close to the dropoffs. And at night, placing your lines near riprapped shorelines or shorelines with lots of boulders and crevices, or near lots of logjams or similar cover, can be a very productive technique.
RIVERS AND CREEKS
I love stream fishing for catfish in the summertime. No matter whether it is from a boat, from the shore or by wading or float-tubing, summertime catfishing can be fun and productive. Anglers can set trotlines or limblines, set out a flotilla of jugs or sit and watch an array of rods.
But I kind of like actually “fishing” for cats with a single rod, probing brushpiles or places where stream currents swirl around boulders or sweep beneath cutbanks, offering up worms or shrimp or stinkbaits for channel cats, minnows or shad for blues, or big shiners or small sunfish for flatheads.
I’ve caught plenty of flatheads in the daytime, but I think I’ve had more luck over the years catching them at night. Like many fishes, catfish are usually more active at night, and since they rely more than other fish on their olfactory senses, it must be easier for them to find baits without the aid of sunlight penetrating the water.
Channels and blues will readily come to cut or prepared baits. They are predators, but scavengers as well. Flatheads, by contrast, rarely take a smelly prepared bait. It seems they prefer to attack a live, swimming bait like a live shiner or sunfish or shad.
I’ve enjoyed numerous trips and campouts on Southeastern Oklahoma mountain streams, wading the shallows or using a float-tube in the deeper stretches, letting baits drift into brushpiles or beneath big boulders where channel cats lurk.
And, growing up in northwestern Oklahoma, I spent many a summer night running trotlines or banklines and sacking up channels and the occasional big flathead. Old-timers called flatheads “Opps” or “Oppaloosas.” I have never quite understood the origin of that name for flatheads. I know of the town named Opalousa in Louisiana and I know what an Appaloosa horse is. But how flatheads in Western Oklahoma came to be known as “Opps” has always escaped me.
Whatever you call ’em, though, they can put up a good battle and provide some tasty steaks or fillets for the table.
And, of course, if you’re really serious about catching flatheads in Oklahoma streams, you can get right down there amongst ’em and go noodling. Oklahoma has gained a worldwide reputation for its noodlers, thanks to a television program produced around a noodling tournament down in south-central Oklahoma. The program has been aired worldwide. I’ve seen it re-broadcast in Europe and Central America, and one of my fishing buddies who lives outside of London tells me it airs there several times a year.
Grabbing flatheads by hand isn’t a sport for sissies. But it may not be quite so dangerous as it appears to the uninitiated. I haven’t noodled in several years now, but I’ve had a lot of fun doing it in streams throughout Oklahoma. There’s something satisfying about grabbing and landing a 25-pound fish by hand. Of course there are sometimes those moments when you wonder just who has caught who, when a hefty flathead is scraping your forearm with those raspy jaws and trying to roll and twist free of your grasp.
Tailrace fishing is a specialty. It is possible to fish some tailrace waters, especially below the smaller dams like those on the Verdigris River navigation pool dams or at smaller reservoirs, with conventional tackle. But many tailrace anglers use longer rods — 9- to 15-footers — to make those ultra-long casts to deliver their baits up into the stilling basins at the bases of the dams.
Others use balloons tied on their lines, when the wind is in the right direction, to carry their baits out into the productive areas.
Still others use radio-controlled small boats to deliver their baits to the desired spots.
At some dams, being able to place a baited line 150 yards or more from the shoreline or from the cables stretched across the spillways where fishing boats tie up, is the key to consistent success in catching catfish, stripers and other fish in the tailrace waters.
When hydroelectric generators are not working, and the spillway basins are calm, fishing can be pretty slow. But when the turbines come on and water is flowing, game fish move up from the rivers below to feed in the spillway areas, dining on shad and other fish that are sucked through the turbines and are often stunned, injured or dead when they emerge into the tailrace area. In the tailrace areas, as in the lakes, blues have replaced channel cats as the most commonly caught catfish.
Blues, channels and flatheads are the most sought-after catfish in Oklahoma, but I might be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the catfish that has provided a lot of fun for thousands of Oklahoma youngsters and adults — bullheads.
When I was a lad in Enid, there weren’t many lakes nearby. But there were small creeks and farm ponds, many of which were populated with bullhead catfish that would readily attack hooks baited with worms, corn, bits of wieners, grasshoppers or whatever other baits we could gather. Bullheads seem to be omnivorous.
Bullheads don’t usually grow large. If you catch one that weighs an honest pound, it’s a good one in most waters. The state record black bullhead is a whopper that weighed 6 pounds, 13 ounces, caught from a Jackson County farm pond in 1984, but that was a very rare fish.
I’ve seen bullheads weighing 2 to 3 pounds in ponds where they were fed regularly with commercial catfish food. But in most waters such large ones are uncommon.
I’ve heard people say that bullheads aren’t good to eat, that their flesh tastes “muddy.” But I’ve cleaned and cooked and eaten many of them and they always tasted just fine to me.
No matter what species of catfish you pursue and no matter in what part of Oklahoma you live, there are many places where good summertime fishing opportunities await.
Catfish are always near the top of the “favorite species” list in Oklahoma angler surveys. In the most recent survey, channel and blue cats ranked third and fourth, behind crappie and largemouth bass, with flatheads coming in at No. 6.