The Natural State Of Catfish

Catfish and Arkansas go together like -- well -- catfish and cornmeal! We'll show you the best spots around the state to get a fillet for your skillet. (May 2007)

Alex Hinson shows off a big blue cat just below the Benzal bridge on the lower White River.
Photo by Keith Sutton.

If you watched the weather forecast last night, watch it again tonight: Chances are good that the meteorologist has changed the prediction. Weathermen are as fickle as the weather itself.

When you read the following catfish forecast for Arkansas, however, you won't find me waffling on my predictions: There's no doubt that the waters I'm about to describe are sure bets for hot catfishing action in 2007. Anglers visiting these whiskerfish hotspots will have the opportunity to catch lots of "eating-size" cats and some trophy heavyweights as well. As a friend of mine likes to say, "Be there or be square."

ST. FRANCIS RIVER

Extraordinary populations of big flathead, blue and channel cats swim in this broad bottomland river, but besides local catfishing fanatics, few anglers ever sample the St. Francis River's bounty. Those fanatics report, however, that in recent years catfishing has improved here, and huge flatheads in particular seem to be more abundant than ever.

The river forms the border between Arkansas and Missouri's bootheel, continuing south past Lake City, Trumann, Marked Tree, Parkin, Forrest City and Marianna before spilling into the Mississippi River. Particularly good locations include the 10-mile stretch upstream from the Highway 64 boat ramp east of Wynne; the Sunken Lands area, which covers 30 miles of river between Monette and Marked Tree; and the portion skirting St. Francis National Forest near Marianna. Deep holes, outside channel bends, and areas above and below sandbars are good places to fish with favored local baits such as night crawlers, small sunfish and chicken liver.

LAKE CONWAY

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission drew down the waters of 6,700-acre Lake Conway during 2006, but that's good news for catfishermen. When the lake refills during 2007, visiting anglers will be able to target the lake's numerous blue, channel and flathead catfish, which will have grown fat on the bounty of smaller fish they were crowded with when the lake was drawn down. One local angler showed me photos of several 30- to 60-pound flatheads he landed on trotlines and limblines last summer, proof of the potential of this lake to produce big cats. Conway also turns out some hefty blue cats (some over 40 pounds) and 2- to 10-pound channel cats are as common as bluegills. I heard numerous reports last year of Conway regulars taking 300 to 400 pounds of catfish a week in the deep pools (mostly old inundated lakes) that remained after AGFC pulled the plug.

This stump-filled lake two miles east of Conway can baffle the first-time visitor. Everything looks pretty much alike, so it's hard to decide where to fish. A sonar fishfinder will help you pinpoint the best areas, particularly inundated lakes and creek channels like Adams Lake, Greens Lake and Palarm Creek. These are excellent locations for baitfishing with a rod and reel, and none is that difficult to find if you inquire at local bait shops about their whereabouts. When you're in the general vicinity, you can run sonar to pinpoint each structure's exact location, and watch for signals indicating big fish holding near edges and on drops.

Chances are some state-record class fish inhabit Lake Conway, but they won't be caught by slouchy anglers. Be prepared with heavy tackle suited for landing behemoths.

LAKE OUACHITA

Lake Ouachita, just west of Hot Springs, holds some of the biggest catfish now swimming in Arkansas waters, and sooner or later, despite the fact that relatively few people target catfish on this huge impoundment, I believe someone is going to pull from the lake's depths a catfish of astounding proportions, one that will make this 40,000-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundment the focal point of catfishing attention for weeks, months, even years to come. Giant cats -- blues, flatheads and channel -- get to be giants here because they spend their active hours in places most anglers wouldn't consider fishing -- extremely deep holes and ledges, midlake reaches in open water, dense piles of down-deep woody cover and subtle, hard-to-find structures along creek and river channels. But if you learn to fish locales of this type, and fish mostly at night (in crystal-clear Ouachita most cats feed during hours of darkness), chances are good you might land the fish of a lifetime here.

The current state-record channel cat, a 38-pounder caught in June 1989, came from Lake Ouachita, and heavier ones probably lurk in the depths. I've seen numerous photos of 60- to 80-pound blues landed here by savvy local catmen who would prefer I didn't tell you that, including one almost 100-pound blue cat caught in 2005. And while the lake doesn't provide prime habitat for flatheads, the comparative rarity of this species is overshadowed by the size of those present. Flatheads over 50 pounds are taken here more often than most folks realize.

LAKE WILHELMINA

This 300-acre AGFC lake in Polk County once gave up a near-world-record channel catfish that weighed a reputed 51 pounds. While fish that size are as rare as 20-pound largemouths, this out-of-the-way honeyhole near Queen Wilhelmina State Park could produce another channel cat of gargantuan proportions. Wilhelmina doesn't get much catfishing pressure, and this lake is much more fertile than many Ouachita Mountain reservoirs, thanks to a caged fish rearing operation near the dam. Fish food and wastes from the operation enhance growth and reproduction of the lake's catfish population. This also is a deep lake for its size, averaging around 9 feet, and dropping to 45 in places. And deep lakes tend to produce bigger catfish. Shad, minnows and sunfish provide an abundant food source for gluttonous catfish, keeping them fat and healthy year 'round. A day spent fishing here is likely to produce lots of smaller channel cats as well.

The open shores around much of the lake are made to order for bank fishermen. Boaters have access to timber-laden waters offshore and to good fishing areas along the old Powell Creek channel which divides the standing timber on the northeast end.

The lake is six miles west of Mena off Arkansas Highway 8.

LOWER WHITE RIVER

The best fishing on this legendary catfish stream begins near Clarendon and gets progressively better as one travels downstream. Trophy-class blues, flatheads and channels are possible anywhere in the lower river, but the best stretch, perhaps, is the lower 10 miles from the Corps barge canal to the Mississippi. Another top area is that portion bordering Henry Gray/Hurricane Lake Wildlife Management Area in White County. You can launch a boat at the landing in Augusta and

fish down to Georgetown landing on the southern tip of the WMA.

From dusk to 2 or 3 a.m. is prime time for big White River cats -- the darker the night the better. The outside bends of rivers are among the most productive hotspots, especially where trees have toppled in and the river has gouged deeply into the bank forming undercuts. Potholes or slight depressions in the river bottom also tend to concentrate catfish, as do the upstream sides of underwater humps, and shallow flats and drops near tributary mouths. Live fish are the best baits, with sunfish, goldfish, shiners and small carp topping the list.

POOL 6, ARKANSAS RIVER

You can catch lots of nice catfish throughout the Arkansas River in the Natural State, from the upper end near Ft. Smith to the river's confluence with the Mississippi in Desha County. Some locales are better than others, however, including Pool 6 at Little Rock. This body of water has for years been one of the Arkansas River's hottest pools for consistency and numbers. Trophy blues, channels and flatheads always are possible. There's excellent access for bank fishing in the first mile below Murray Lock & Dam and the North Little Rock hydroelectric plant on the north bank, and at Little Rock's Murray Park on the south bank.

I often bottom-bounce 1- to 2-ounce jigs tipped with cut shad or herring along the channels for numbers. Cast whole baitfish into grooves of slow-moving water immediately below the dam for a shot at a bigger catfish. Live bluegills fished on three-way rigs account for many trophy-class blues and flatheads taken here.

In the reaches of the pool above and below the lock and dam, a boat can provide access for blue-ribbon fishing. Smaller catfish gather in scour holes and along downstream edges of wing dams and bridge piers. Cast cut bait, chicken liver or big balls of night crawlers for action in these areas. Bigger cats roam the pool at night, often feeding in shallower 5- to 10-foot backwaters. Try drift-fishing with chunks of skipjack herring or shad. Hot spots include riprapped banks in the tailwater and beneath the Little Rock/North Little Rock bridges, and the first mile of the Fourche Creek tributary just above Interstate 440.

COVE CREEK, DRY FORK AND LITTLE BEAR CREEK LAKES

For a real backcountry getaway, consider one of the three small U.S. Forest Service lakes near the town of Hollis in Perry County. Cove Creek Lake covers 40 acres, six miles northeast of Hollis. Dry Fork Lake, a 90-acre reservoir, is 16 miles west of Hollis, and Little Bear Creek Lake (30 acres) is two miles south of Hollis. All three lakes are within the Ouachita National Forest, and all support thriving populations of channel catfish.

The U.S. Forest Service constructed these lakes for flood control, but each has also been stocked with channel cats. Fishing opportunities are superb, but relatively few anglers know about these hotspots because of their size and remoteness. Primitive camping is allowed, but be sure to practice good campfire safety.

Catfishing on this trio is either a bank-fishing or small-boat proposition. None offers a launch ramp suitable for large boats, so a lightweight johnboat or canoe that can be carried to the water is preferable. If you have a portable depth-sounder, bring that along, too. Little Bear, Dry Fork and Cove Creek have inundated creek channels in deep water where catfish often hold. If you're bank-fishing, try casting to deep water near the dams during the day, and fish the edges of shallow flats at night.

Little Bear Creek Lake and Cove Creek Lake are on county roads branching off Arkansas Highway 7. Dry Fork Lake is off Arkansas Highway 314. For more detailed info, look at the Perry County map in the Arkansas Outdoor Atlas available from the AGFC (see below).

LAKE MILLWOOD

AND TRIBUTARIES

Channel cats up to 20 pounds are so abundant in this shallow 29,200-acre Corps impoundment that anglers are allowed to keep 20 per day, twice the regular statewide limit. Trophy-class blues and flatheads thrive here, too, with many in the 50- to 75-pound class. Hundred-pounders are possible -- perhaps even a world-record-class fish.

It's the two rivers that feed the lake, however -- the Little River and the Saline River -- and the Little River tailwater below Millwood, that have the most potential for producing trophy-class cats. A 100-pound-plus blue cat fell to a trotliner in the Little River tailwater in 1994. Huge flatheads and channel cats also thrive here.

Expert catfish angler Kay Emmons (known as "Catfish Kay" to her friends) frequently fishes the Little and Saline rivers above Lake Millwood. One of these streams, she believes, could produce the next world record flathead or blue. Emmons, who has hooked some that straightened 7/0 hooks, reported that shad gizzards are preferred to all other baits. She fishes with a slip-bobber rig, anchoring above deep holes and still-fishing with long, heavy-action rods, big baitcasting reels and 75- to 120-pound-test braided line. Wise anglers should follow the lead of this genteel lady who fishes these rivers day and night year 'round. Her biggest cat to date was an 82-pound blue.

ADDITIONAL HOTSPOTS

In the few words allotted here, I could never discuss all the great catfishing waters in the Natural State, but in summary, I'd like to offer brief notes on several additional lakes and streams you should consider fishing this year.

Certainly we can't leave out the Mississippi River, perhaps the best catfishing water in all of North America. Anglers here will find an abundance of catfish of all sizes and sport types (blue, channel and flathead). The West Memphis area, where Charles Ashley Jr. of Marion caught a world-record 116-pound, 12-ounce blue cat, gets the most publicity, but the entire length of the river on Arkansas' eastern border has been producing near 100-pound blues in recent years, plus many trophy flatheads and channel cats.

Other big-river reaches to consider include the lower Ouachita River from Calion Lock & Dam to the Louisiana, which has a good population of blue catfish that commonly reach 20-30 pounds; the L'Anguille River off Highway 70 east of Palestine, where giant flatheads await visiting anglers; and the middle White River from Jack's Resort at Allison downstream to Batesville and Oil Trough. There are a lot of big cats here, and hardly anyone fishes for them.

Bull Shoals and Norfork lakes in the Ozarks near Mountain Home have been turning out some huge catfish in recent years, including blues pushing 100 pounds. Both these Corps impoundments are worth visiting if you're serious about catching trophy cats. At only 2,910 acres, Blue Mountain Lake in western Yell County is much smaller than its sister Corps lakes, but district fisheries biologist Bob Limbird calls it the best catfishing lake in the region, with good numbers of all three major species.

Other waters rated high by district biologists include Felsenthal Reservoir in Union County, Lake Erling in Lafayette County, Lake Hogue in Poinsett County, Lake Frierson in Greene County, Lake Columbia in Columbia County, Lake Overcup in Conway County and two large oxbow lakes, Grand and Chicot, both in Chicot County.

The best guide for finding access areas on all the lakes and streams discussed in this article is the Arkansas Outdoor Atlas, available from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission at 1-800-364-GAME or www. agfc.com. The commission or your local sporting goods dealer can provide a fishing regulations guide that outlines the rules for catfishing on each body of water.

Good luck! Here's hoping that in 2007 you catch a cat with whiskers 3 feet long!

(Editor's Note: An autographed copy of Keith Sutton's latest book, Catfishing: Beyond the Basics, can be ordered by sending a check or money order for $24.05 -- includes shipping and Ark. sales tax -- to C&C Outdoors, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002. For credit card orders, log on to CatfishSutton.com)

Find more about Arkansas fishing and hunting at: ArkansasSportsmanMag.com

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.