2009 Natural State Catfish Forecast

Summertime doesn't get much better than fooling a wily whiskerfish on the banks of an Arkansas river or lake. Fortunately for you, the options are abundant in 2009! (May 2009)

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.

THE RIVERS

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.

Mississippi River

The mighty Mississippi River has been big-fish water since the time of Mark Twain. It still is today and likely always will be. Anglers here will find an abundance of catfish of all sizes and major species (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 this river, which runs along Arkansas' eastern border, has been producing monster blues in recent years, along with outsized flatheads and channel cats.

Proof positive came in 2007 at the Bass Pro Shops Big Cat Quest, when two 100-pound-plus blue cats were caught. Phil King, Tim Haynie and Leland Harris took the first -- a 103-pounder that was the first fish that topped the century mark to be taken in a tournament. The next day, Harold Dodd and Cary Winchester took a 108-pound blue that remains the largest caught during a competitive event.

While good fishing exists about anywhere along the Mississippi's length, two spots that stand out are where the Arkansas and White rivers empty into it. At both spots, there are deep, cover-laden holes with lots of water turbulence -- prime cat attractors. This is river fishing at its best, with heavy current and plenty of underwater structure, so heavy gear is required. Cut shad, liver and herring are the best dinner bets for blues and flatheads. If you like fishing for channel cats, ease back into one of the many oxbow lakes that empty into the main channel.

In short, the Mississippi River, just like the Arkansas, is a true catfisherman's paradise.

Lower White River

The Lower White River below Clarendon is another hard-to-beat area, with the best fishing lying along the 10 miles below the barge canal built by the Corps of Engineers. Large blues, flatheads and channels all frequent this section, which is much like the last 20 miles of the Arkansas, at least for the time being. Numerous dropoffs, sandbars, logjams and other such structure are attractive to large channel cats. Another top area is the stretch 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. The outside bends of the river are perhaps 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.

Plenty of big flathead, blue and channel cats swim in the St. Francis River, but aside from locals, few anglers ever sample the river's bounty. Those same locals report that in recent years catfishing has improved here, and huge flatheads in particular seem to be more abundant than ever. The river itself forms the border between Arkansas and Missouri's bootheel, running south past such towns as Lake City, Trumann, Marked Tree, Parkin, Forrest City and Marianna before spilling into the Mississippi.

Particularly good locations include the 10-mile stretch upstream from the Route 64 boat ramp east of Wynne; and the Sunken Lands area, which covers 30 miles of river between Monette and Marked Tree. 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 livers.

THE LAKES

As with its rivers, Arkansas has so many good lakes that it is almost impossible to pinpoint the best catfishing action. But no one will go wrong trying the following.

Lake Conway

Lake Conway is located just off Interstate 40 east of Conway. While large fish occur occasionally, you are more likely to find messes of 5- to 15-pounders about anywhere you want to wet a line. The AGFC drew down the 6,700-acre lake in 2006, and as it refills, the bigger cats tend to lie near the mouths of the inundated creeks and within old water-covered lakebeds. Ask dock owners about places like Palarm Creek, Cub Pond and Holts Lake. These are all good places for either trotlines or bank-fishing. Use medium to heavy tackle with live shad and sunfish for bigger blues and flatheads. Most of the locals use commercial baits and even catalpa worms when fishing for channel cats.

Lake Ouachita

Lake Ouachita, which lies just west of Hot Springs, holds some big catfish and is also under-fished. The resident giants -- all three varieties -- get big because of the variety of cover and structure available in this 40,000-acre impoundment. There are numerous deep holes and sharp ledges, mid-lake reaches in open water, dense piles of deep, woody cover and subtle, hard-to-find structures along creek and river channels.

Locals fish mostly at night because of the clarity of the water, which prompts cats to feed during hours of darkness. The current state-record channel cat, a 38-pounder caught in June 1989 by Joe Holliman, came from Lake Ouachita, and a photo floated around the Internet of a 100-pound blue taken there in 2005. While the lake doesn't provide prime habitat for flatheads, fish weighing more than 50 pounds are taken from time to time.

Lake Millwood

Channel cats up to 20 pounds are so abundant in Lake Millwood, a shallow, 29,200-acre Corps impoundment located near Ashdown in southwest Arkansas, that anglers are allowed to keep 20 per day, twice the regular statewide limit. Big blues and flatheads -- 50 pounds and above -- thrive here too. Fish the areas along the two rivers that empty into the lake -- Little River and the Saline River -- for the best action.

Lake Erling

Lake Erling, owned by International Paper, lies within Lafayette WMA down in Lafayette County. Best access to the 7,000-acre facility lies off state Route 160 east from Bradley. This is a relatively shallow lake, with the deeper spots along the old Bodcau Bayou channel providing the best opportunity for both size and numbers. Light tackle with shiners, goldfish, stink baits and catalpa worms are best. While good catfish numbers make for some intense action, this is not a spot for taking real monsters.

White Oak Lake

White Oak Lake is located along state Route 387 southeast of Bluff City in Ouachita County. The lake is known for its bass fishing, which serves to take the pressure off the fine catfish found there. White Oak is actually two lakes in one, with 1,600 acres lying north of Route 387 and 1,000 or so acres lying south.

A regular lake fertilization program makes for increased big-fish possibilities. Probably the best spot to try is below the

spillway between the upper and lower lake. The cats are attracted by water turbulence, which increases their foraging opportunities. Other prime spots are along the creek channels and near the fish shelters (Christmas trees). Catalpa worms, night crawlers, minnows and commercial baits, either fished with a bobber at the deeper spots or tight-lined along the bottom, are popular.

It would be easier to find bad catfishing spots than to highlight all the good ones. The absolute best time for targeting these whiskered giants is also close at hand. While you can catch catfish at virtually any time of year, summertime and early fall are the right ones. Catfish tend to move more and eat more during warm weather, while becoming somewhat dormant when the water temperature drops.

So, take along a comfortable chair, some beverages and maybe even marshmallows and hot dogs if the kids go along. Build a warm fire to ward off the evening chill and the occasional mosquito. Throw out your line, stick the rod handle into the soft sand and then lean back and enjoy a little bit of heaven on earth. That's all part of summertime catfishing in the Natural State!

(Editor's Note: The AGFC has a helpful publication that can be a boon to all anglers -- catfishermen and otherwise. The Arkansas Outdoor Atlas contains individual county maps highlighting access to innumerable fishing and hunting locations. It is available from AGFC Publication Sales, 2 Natural Resources Drive, Little Rock, AR 72205; (501) 223-6351.)

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