An Inside Look at Texas Catfishing


Texas is a great place to catch a BIG catfish. But it's also a great place to catch a lot of catfish.

Ashleigh Defee of Manville can tell you about big catfish, especially big flatheads. In June 2010 Ashleigh was fishing with her family on Lake Tawakoni when a fish nearly yanked her off the pier. After a 20-minute battle, Ashleigh landed a 70-pound monster that put her name in the record book a slew of times — Junior Angler water body, Junior Angler state, Junior Angler water body catch-and-release, state catch-and-release.


Yep, she put it back.


Blue cats grow big in Texas, too, and on a trip to Lake Waco with James Tucker of Fish Haulers Guide Service (254-495-6726), two companions and I reeled in and released blue cats weighing 28, 26, 23, 16 and 13 pounds. But we also put some keeper-sized blues and channels in the ice chest as well.

It was cold the day we fished, and Tucker did exactly the opposite of what conventional wisdom says to do on such days. "I target big blues in shallow water," he said. "That's where the shad will be because the water is warmer there, and there's only one reason for blue cats to be there: to eat."

And eat they did, gobbling up the hand-sized hunks of smallmouth buffalo on our circle hooks.

Eating was also on my mind on a recent trip to Lake Conroe. If there is better eating than a heaping mound of crispy corn-mealed channel catfish filets, I haven't found it. Lake Conroe is an excellent place to fill an ice chest with tasty filets.

Conroe's catfish population is chiefly the prolific, fast-growing (and delicious) channel cat. In TPWD surveys, more than 90 percent of the channel cats sampled were legal-sized fish, 12 inches or longer.

Guide Butch Terpe (Lake Conroe Guide Service, 936-856-7080) proved the accuracy of those reports on our trip. Anchoring up to a tree a few feet off the San Jacinto River channel, he chummed the area with range cubes and baited our hooks with Premo Super Sticky Catfish Bait. It took about 30 seconds for the first 2-pound channel cat to bend a rod, and from then on the action was steady both in our boat and in another 50 feet away on the other side of the channel.

GREAT FISHING BY DESIGN

Fishing like that doesn't happen by accident. Harvest regulations are the key to keeping fish populations at levels that can fill a lot of ice chests while still keeping populations strong enough to permit high catch rates. The statewide limit for channel and blue cats is 25 fish a day 12 inches or longer; for flathead cats, 5 a day 18 inches or longer. Possession limit is twice the daily bag limit.

Regulations on waters shared with other states, such as Oklahoma and Louisiana, are more complicated. In waters shared with Louisiana, for blue and channel catfish, there is no minimum length; daily bag and possession limit is 50 in combination, of which no more than 5 may be 20 inches or longer. For flathead catfish, minimum length is 18 inches; daily bag and possession limit is 10 fish. In waters shared with Oklahoma, for blue and channel catfish, minimum length is 12 inches and combined daily bag limit is 15 fish. Only one blue catfish 30 inches or greater may be retained each day. For flathead catfish, minimum length is 20 inches and daily bag is 5.

You can find out the limits for where you fish three ways. The game warden standing in your boat with his citation book in hand can tell you, or you can consult the Outdoor Annual or the TPWD Web site.

Catfish are managed as a sportfish and are the only freshwater sportfish that can be harvested by multiple gear types including trotlines and juglines. Some 21 percent of Texas anglers name catfish as their "preferred" species compared to 52 percent for bass. But since most catfishing is done for harvest, whereas most bass fishing is catch-and-release, fishing can have a greater impact on catfish populations. That's why trotlines and juglines are not allowed in the small community fishing lakes and some state park lakes, which are typically small and are fished so heavily that stocking is required to maintain populations.

THE STOCKING STORY

In case you didn't notice, 2010 and 2011 saw the worst drought in recorded Texas history, and as this was being written, things in some areas seemed likely to get worse. The first impact on anglers will likely be reduced access as lakes shrink and boat ramps come out of water. Your favorite catfish holes may become hog wallows. Long term, there may be serious impacts on TPWD's ability to raise and stock fish if hatcheries lose all or part of their water supply.

"If the drought situation doesn't improve, our priority is to preserve our ability to produce 12-inch catfish for the Neighborhood Fishin' program and special events," says Gerald Kurten, TPWD's hatchery program director for catfish. "What will likely get hurt most is our production and stocking of 9-inch catfish for city and state park ponds. We could also produce some 2-inch catfish for stocking reservoirs, if needed."

The good news is that while some reservoirs may go lower still, it's unlikely that most will dry up. When rains return and water covers the vegetation that grew up in the dry lake bed, spawns of all kinds of fish will be tremendous, and fishing will explode, though it will take two or three years for fish to reach legal size. However, TPWD's practice is to give priority to stocking lakes that have suffered extreme drawdowns and thus need supplemental stocking to help populations recover more rapidly.

MAKING THE BEST BETTER

Dave Terre is TPWD's Inland Fisheries director of research and management. It's his job to see that Texas fishing is as good as it can be.

"Texas has some of the best catfish fishing opportunities in the country," Terre says. "On the other hand, I think most of our larger reservoirs are under-exploited for catfish, especially channel catfish. TPWD biologists support more intensive management and promotion of catfish in their areas. They see management opportunities that could benefit anglers."

Terre and his staff of fisheries biologists hope to make the best catfishing even better. There are good reasons for doing so, one of which is that catfish are readily accessible to more people than bass.

"Changing water levels due to drought or increased water demands and degraded habitat are going to create challenges for managing bass in the future," Terre explains. "Catfish have a better chance of sustaining quality fisheries in these types of situations. We're not trying to convert bass anglers into catfish anglers, but we need to take better advantage of these resources. Catfish will be the key to producing quality fisheries in our urban areas through our Neighborhood Fishin' program and for stocking community fishing lakes."

TPWD is currently pursuing a number of avenues aimed at improving catfishing. One way is simply by listening to anglers.

"The information we obtain from them will provide us some guidance and direction for developing a catfish management plan," Terre says. "They are our customers, and we should be developing our catfish management plans based on what they would like to see in their fishing. We have used similar procedures for determining our management directions for largemouth bass, and that has been very successful."

TPWD biologists also conduct on-the-water creel surveys and electrofishing to assess both angler success rates and fish populations. "There is reason to believe that jugfishing for blue cats, in some areas, may be limiting the full development of trophy fishing opportunities for that species," Terre says. "Large blue cats are very susceptible to juglines fished in the wintertime. We've recently adopted some new, experimental slot limits for blue catfish in Texas and are trying them out on three reservoirs. We should have the results in five years or so."

John Tibbs is one of the TPWD fisheries biologists engaged in that study. "What we're doing is looking at whether we will be able to manage specifically for trophies in a reservoir," he says. "We picked three reservoirs that look to have the potential to produce trophies: Lake Lewisville, Lake Richland-Chambers and Lake Waco. The slot limit that we are looking at requires people to return 30- to 45-inch fish to the water. You can still catch and keep 25 fish smaller than 30 inches, which is about 10 pounds. You can keep one fish a day over 45 inches. This allows you to have a meat fishery as well as a trophy fishery."

Protecting the fish in the slot has another benefit as well. "Those are the fish that will be producing the most young," Tibbs says. "One of the hallmarks of our blue catfish introduction program over the past 20 years or 30 years has been a long delay between the stocking of the original fish and the production of small fish and an actual fishery. It may be 10 or 15 years in many cases. This indicates it takes a long time for those fish to get to the size they can reproduce and create and sustain a fishery."

A day on the water with Tibbs and his crew provides an interesting look into the Lake Waco blue cat fishery. Running a 25-jug line yields enough blue cats to fill a couple of large ice chests. Otoliths (ear bones) from the fish have growth rings that can be counted to determine the ages of the fish, allowing Tibbs to create a computer model of the catfish population in the lake and determine if the slot limit is workable.

"If it takes 20 years for a fish to get to be 30 inches long, and only 1 percent of the fish in the population get to be that long, maybe the slot limit is not appropriate," he says, "because we are not going to get large numbers of fish into that slot. However, if maybe 5 percent of the population makes it into that slot, that might be acceptable.

"We know a large proportion of the population is going to be vulnerable to harvest, and that's fine. Blue catfish fried in a pan are very tasty. We know that, and what we'd like to have is the best of both worlds, where anglers can catch all the smaller fish they can reasonably use, but still have some left over that get large, and trophy anglers can go out and catch them. We have a good precedent for that in bass fishing. We hope to mimic that success with blue catfish."

REAPING THE REWARDS

Whether you're talking blues, flatheads, or channels, Texas catfish anglers have a bounty to fish for and could have a real battle on their hands. The state-record flathead caught on rod and reel came from Lake Palestine and tipped the scales at 98.5 pounds. The state-record rod and reel blue, 121.5 pounds, came from Lake Texoma. And the state-record channel cat on rod and reel, 36.5 pounds, came from the Pedernales River.

Trotliners have done well, too. State records on trotline are a 37.07-pound channel cat from Cooper Reservoir, a 114-pound flathead from Lake Livingston, and a 116-pound blue from Lake Texoma.

But me, well, I count as my personal favorite and best eating-catfish trip a four-person 28-fish bag of channel cats from Lake Braunig that filled a 100-quart ice chest to the point that the lid would not close.

They were all trophies in my book: They fought hard and were delicious!

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