Go Shallow At Night For Arkansas Flatheads

Anglers love to talk about taking big flatheads from deep holes. But at night, there's no need to go deep -- those plus-sized shovelheads will probably be in less than a foot of water.

The White River is a natural spot for tangling with a large flathead like the one seen here. Bring stout rods, strong line and plenty of moxie.
Photo by Keith Sutton

It's always a bit disconcerting when you're fishing at night and see fins the size of your hand cutting through the water. That may have accounted for my fishing companion's anxiety one dark summer night while we were anchored upstream from a sandbar on the Mississippi River.

Clouds obscured the moon, but we had been out long enough for our eyes to adjust to the darkness. Now and then, as we gazed at the river's rippled surface, we'd see an enormous swirl and a gigantic fin slicing through the water.

"I know they're just catfish," my friend said. "But if I accidentally fell in, I think you'd see me walk across the water trying to get back out. Those big things are spooky."

Nevertheless, my buddy and I were intent on catching one of the brutes cruising over the sandbar. Toward that end, we were drifting big goldfish beneath bobbers the size of oranges. The bait dangled just inches below the float, because the flathead cats were in water barely deep enough to cover themselves as they fed on shad that were schooling on the bars.

"Uh-oh," said my friend. "Something's going on. I felt one tap my line."

Suddenly, his bobber shot out of sight, and the fish that had taken his bait surged away, putting a stiff bend in his rod. The catfish spun in the water as my friend grimaced and cranked, but after a brief, exciting tussle, the fish was subdued. It was a nice flathead, 21 pounds of muscle and mouth. And before we left the river, we caught six more of its whiskered brethren.

Bigger specimens eluded us, although from the size of the fins we saw, we were pretty certain there were some exceeding 50 pounds feeding over the bar. That's the way it is with heavyweight flatheads, though: Sometimes you get the best of them; sometimes they get the best of you.

One thing's for sure: If you want to land a big Arkansas flathead, now's the time to try. During the heat of summer, big flatheads move shallow at night to feed, making them much easier to target than during daylight hours when they're likely to be hidden away in heavy timber or other cover in deeper water. If you can handle the spooky nature of fishing for these fascinating catfish, you have a good chance of boating the biggest fish you've ever caught. In Arkansas, only alligator gars grow larger.

Arkansas encompasses scores of lakes and rivers offering excellent fishing for flatheads. Coming up with a list of the best is like trying to pick the state's best restaurants. Lots of excellent establishments are bound to get left out. Nevertheless, the following are short reviews of some top waters renowned for great flathead fishing. Some are best known for their trophy potential. Others have well-deserved reputations for fast action -- lots of cats caught in a day's fishing, with an occasional lunker in the harvest to keep you on your toes. All of them offer excellent fishing for the savvy catter.

ARKANSAS RIVER

The Arkansas River is the undisputed queen of Arkansas flathead waters. No other body of water in the Natural State has produced as many record-book flatheads. Fishing is excellent through the warm months on the entire length of the river from Ft. Smith to its mouth near Yancopin.

Some of the best hotspots along the river's length include the tailwater of Ozark-Jeta Taylor Lock & Dam south of Ozark where an 80-pound flathead, the current state record, was caught in 1989; the tailwater below Dardanelle Lock & Dam near Russellville which has given up two state records and numerous 50-pound-plus flatheads; and the tailwater below Dam No. 2 on the Arkansas River's lower end below Tichnor, which produces astounding numbers of big flatheads year after year. A sleeper honeyhole is the stretch immediately below David D. Terry Lock & Dam, where Bruce and Mackey Sayre caught the biggest flathead ever recorded -- a fish that weighed almost 140 pounds -- in May 1982. In all of these tailwaters, the best spots for nighttime flatheads are shallow edges where baitfish are likely to be found. Fish with live baitfish exclusively (small sunfish, goldfish and carp are good enticements) and use heavy tackle.

A simple rig that works fine in most situations is the egg-sinker rig. Run an appropriately sized egg sinker up on your main line, and tie a sturdy barrel swivel below it. To the other eye of the swivel, tie a 24-inch leader to which you've tied a hook. Impale a baitfish on the hook, leaving the point of the hook exposed.

MILLWOOD LAKE

This southwest Arkansas impoundment hosts an astounding population of flathead catfish. Many in the 50- to 75-pound class are taken each year. Several factors enhance Millwood's productivity. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built this 29,200-acre impoundment on the Little River in 1966, they flooded over 24,000 acres of timber and underbrush and inundated many oxbow lakes, sloughs and creeks. These features provide ideal habitat for feeding, resting and spawning flatheads.

Baitfish like shad and bream abound as well, so there's no lack of food, and Millwood's extreme southerly location and shallow water keep temperatures on the mild side, promoting year-round growth of catfish. Top it off with water that's highly fertile and constantly flowing and you have a perfect situation for growing big flatheads and lots of them.

Shallow flats bordering the numerous creek and river channels crisscrossing Millwood's bottom are topnotch flathead fishing spots, as are the shallow edges of old lakebeds --Horseshoe, Mud, Bee, Yarborough, Clear and Beard -- inundated as Millwood filled. With a good bottom contour map and sonar fish-finder, pinpointing these areas is a cinch.

LAKE CONWAY

Few bodies of water in the United States churn out the number of monster flatheads produced by central Arkansas' Lake Conway. This 6,700-acre Arkansas Game and Fish Commission lake off Interstate 40, just west of Little Rock, is the largest ever constructed by a state wildlife agency. Its waters are shallow, heavily timbered throughout, rich in shad and sunfish, and full of huge logjams and deep holes -- in other words, prime habitat for producing giant flatheads.

Scores of 30- to 60-pound Conway flatheads are taken every year, some by anglers fishing for other species, some on trotlines, a few by rod-and-reel anglers who enjoy the challenge of battling big cats in heavy timber. Serious local catmen belie

ve that 100-pounders swim here, but the dense timber makes it almost impossible to land one. Small live sunfish are the leading bait choice.

Because most Conway flathead aficionados are secretive about the location of their favored honeyholes, it can be hard for a first-timer to locate an area harboring big flatheads. The best way to do this is to obtain a map of the lake from one of the local docks showing the location of old lakes inundated when the Conway was filled. During the day, flatheads will take advantage of the sanctuary these deep areas offer; at night, they'll move to the shallow edges to feed. Adams Lake, Greens Lake, Cub Pond, Round Pond, Gold Lake, Goose Pond and Holt's Lake are all excellent locations for placing a trotline or baitfishing with rod and reel.

MISSISSIPPI RIVER

The Mississippi River has always been a mother lode of giant flatheads. Yet anglers, with the exception of a few hard-core commercial fishermen, have only skimmed a few specimens from Ol' Muddy's flathead population. The river is big and dangerous, so few catters are willing to tackle it.

Several 50- to 70-pounders are taken every year, but so far, no angler has managed to bring in a fish in the 100-pound class. They're out there, though, and sooner or later some knowledgeable catter will show one to the world.

Trotlines provide the best means for tackling giant Mississippi flatheads. Most local liners set several short lines (10 to 15 hooks) perpendicular to the bank near prominent structure (outside river bends, river-bottom scour holes, logpiles, etc.). Goldfish are the bait of choice, because they remain lively for a long time and are highly attractive to big flats. Large (6-inch-plus) shiner minnows are also common baits.

The trotline stagings (short lines to which the hooks are tied) should be attached to the main line with swivels to prevent big cats from rolling the rig and tangling it. It's also imperative to carry a big sturdy landing net. If you choose to fish with rod and reel, carry sturdy tackle. Record-class flatheads are always a possibility, so most savvy catters spool their reels with 100-pound-test line at least. Long fiberglass rods (8-foot-plus) provide the leverage needed to subdue a big cat, and sturdy level-wind reels with a low retrieve ratio (5:1 or less) make fighting trophies less wearisome. Live fish baits again rate high, especially goldfish, shiners and gizzard shad.

Among the best fishing areas are the edges of shallow sandbars and cover-filled flats adjacent big-river tributaries that flow into the Mississippi. Junctures offering good possibilities include the White/Mississippi juncture, the Arkansas/ Mississippi juncture and the St. Francis/Mississippi juncture.

ST. FRANCIS RIVER

This broad bottomland river forms the border between Arkansas and the west side of Missouri's Bootheel. Continuing south through east Arkansas' Delta, the St. Francis passes Lake City, Trumann, Marked Tree, Parkin, Forrest City and Marianna before spilling into the Mississippi River just north of Helena. Two public recreation areas on the river -- St. Francis Sunken Lands and St. Francis National Forest wildlife management areas -- offer access for a first-rate flathead fishing junket.

The Sunken Lands are scattered along 30 miles of river from Monette to Marked Tree. A flat-bottomed boat with a small outboard is the primary mode of travel for catfishermen here. Boats can be launched at three concrete ramps -- one at Stevens Landing east of Trumann, one at Oak Donnick south of Tulot and one at Siphons north of Marked Tree. Signs on U.S. Highway 63 mark turnoffs for each access.

St. Francis National Forest WMA lies 80 miles south of the Sunken Lands. The area's eastern edge is in the low, flat land along the St. Francis, L'Anguille and Mississippi rivers. Catfish on this end of the river tend to run a bit larger, and it's not unusual to catch 30- to 40-pounders. There's likely to be more action, too, because the Mississippi River, a mother lode of giant flatheads, is just a skip and a hop downstream. The two river junctions -- St. Francis/Mississippi and St. Francis/ L'Anguille -- tend to offer exceptionally good flathead fishing.

Look for St. Francis River flatheads at night near breaklines in river bottom structure. Shallow waters bordering deep holes, outside channel bends, and areas above and below sandbars are good places to fish. The portion of the river traversing the Sunken Lands also has numerous logjams where flatheads dwell. Live bream (less than 4 inches) are the preferred bait.

WHITE RIVER

The White is another of Arkansas' premier flathead rivers. It has its narrow beginnings in the Boston Mountains of northwest Arkansas and flows on a zigzag course for 690 miles to its junction with the Mississippi. However, owing to the cold-water discharges of lakes Bull Shoals and Norfork, the really superb White River flathead fishing doesn't begin until you reach Clarendon in Monroe County. Boat access is available in White River National Wildlife Refuge, at St. Charles and other locations along the river.

Outside bends of the river are among the most productive hotspots, especially where trees have toppled into the water and the river has gouged deeply into the bank, forming undercuts. Use sonar to pinpoint potholes or depressions in the river bottom, and then fish the shallower ends of these holes. Live green sunfish, goldfish, shiners and small carp top the list of bait offerings

Rod-and-reelers will find the best White River catfishing along the lower 10 miles from the Corps of Engineers barge canal to the Mississippi River. There's good access for bank and boat fishermen alike at Norrell Lock & Dam, eight miles south of Tichnor. This section of the White contains lots of shallow structure and cover near dropoffs, holes and bends, and a limit of outsize cats is common for many anglers.

LAKE HINKLE

Lake Hinkle, 12 miles west of Waldron, typifies a superb flathead catfish lake. Flooded timber will be found in about 70 percent of this 960-acre lake. Dead snags, stumps and submerged treetops provide an abundance of the protective cover the flathead instinctively prefers.

Creek channels, several small ponds, inundated roadways and flooded fencerows are among the bottom features of this west Arkansas lake. All of these features are used by structure-oriented flatheads, with the shallower edges producing more fish at night. Hinkle also provides a dense population of prime flathead forage-shad, small minnows, crawdads and small sunfish-allowing the cats to reach extraordinary sizes. Thirty- to 40-pound flatheads are fairly common, but the possibility of hooking a much larger fish is excellent.

Many catters concentrate on the shallow edges of deep water near the dam. This area is preferred for two primary reasons: Its more-open, snag-free water provides a better chance of landing a heavyweight fish, and its caged fish-rearing operation, adjacent the dam creates a zone of extremely fertile, forage-filled water attractive to giant flatheads. Preferred baits include live crawdads for smaller flatheads and small live bream (bluegills, longears or green sunfish) for trophy-class fish.

L'ANGUILLE RIVER

The L'Anguille River, a tributary of the St. Francis, is a relatively unknown hotspot for flathead catfish, but this small farm-country stream gives up some real monsters. Seventy- to 80-pounders are caught here almost every year. Unfortunately, thick, hard-to-fish cover makes it darned near impossible to land the river's giants on rod and reel.

Fishing is best downstream from the U.S. Highway 70 bridge near Forrest City, but the entire river from the Cross-Poinsett County line to Marianna is alive with "small" 5- to 20-pound flatheads. It's difficult to travel more than a few hundred yards at any point on the river because of the extensive logjams, but these barriers are favorite hideouts for big flats. Trotlines baited with goldfish or bream account for most of the catch.

Access is limited to a few county road and highway crossings. Almost all the land bordering the L'Anguille is in private ownership so beware of trespass problems.

For more on all the waters mentioned here, purchase a copy of the Arkansas Outdoor Atlas, available from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission by phoning 1-800-364-GAME or visiting

www.agfc.com. Regulations information and current fishing reports are also available on the commission's Web site.

(Editor's Note: Keith Sutton is the author of Catfishing: Beyond the Basics. To order an autographed copy, send a check or money order for $22.45 -- Arkansas residents should add sales tax -- to C&C Outdoors, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002.)

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