Arkansas Grand-Slam Cats

To rack up a catfish grand slam in the Natural State, you've got to know the whereabouts of the best spots for channels, blues, flatheads and bullheads -- and we can help you out with that! (July 2006)

PHOTO BY ANTHONY GARITTA

"Grand slam" is a general sports term applied when achieving something special. Generally a grand slam is associated with achieving at least four feats simultaneously or in succession.

Hunters can achieve a grand slam by bagging all four types of North America's wild sheep (Dall, Stone, Rocky Mountain bighorn and desert bighorn) or the continent's four wild turkey subspecies (Osceola, eastern, Merriam's and Rio Grande). In saltwater fishing, a grand slam is when a single angler catches three different types of billfish in one day, and a super grand slam occurs when four species have been landed.

A grand slam is a singular feat regardless of how long it takes to achieve. It involves careful planning, considerable time and travel, at least a modest degree of good fortune, and even when done by the most budget-conscious of sportsmen, considerable cost.

But not all grand slams require a huge investment of money and travel to exotic destinations. For example, if you enjoy catfishing, it is possible to achieve a grand slam this summer right here in Arkansas. To do this you must land the state's four types of catfish: channel cat, blue cat, flathead and bullhead. You can achieve this simple, but fun, feat by visiting the following four whiskerfish hotspots and applying your knowledge of cat-catching.

CHANNEL CATS: WHITE OAK LAKE

A premier producer of giant channel cats is White Oak Lake in south-central Arkansas. White Oak is actually two lakes in one because a dam crosses the middle of the lake to form two separate bodies of water. The north end contains 1,645 acres; the south end 1,031 acres.

Proof of White Oak's potential for producing gargantuan channel cats came to light in 1985. Until March 28 of that year, the state-record channel cat was a 19-pound, 12-ounce fish taken from a nearby farm pond. But Maxine Bryant of Chidester changed all that.

Bryant wasn't fishing especially for cats. Rather, as she explained it, she was fishing for "just whatever was biting." She was fishing a worm on a No. 4 hook when she hooked a big one that managed to break loose. But not to be outdone, she continued fishing, and an hour later, she managed to hook and land a whopping 22-pound, 14-ounce channel cat, breaking the old record by 3 pounds, 2 ounces.

Ironically, just a few days later, Eddie Allen of Bluff City landed a 22-pound channel cat from the same area near the dam and spillway that separates the upper and lower lakes.

Relatively light catfishing pressure allows the lake's channel cats to reach extraordinary sizes, and the angler who knows how to catch them can still bring in some record-class fish. A regular lake fertilization program simply adds to the big fish possibilities.

The area on the lake where the two big cats were taken is especially productive because of water-control structures built there. Water flows from the upper lake into an outflow channel, through an overflow tower and out a pipe. Water churns up in that area between two jetties. Channel cats are attracted to the spot because water flushes out a lot of nutrients, and there's a great deal of forage running with the current. And they grow larger and smarter with each season that rolls by. Other hotspots include bottom creek channels, Christmas tree shelters, riprapped banks and timbered reaches.

How should you go about catching one of these monstrous White Oak channel cats? Try small pieces of cut bait such as shad or skipjack herring threaded five or six at a time on a big hook, or a dozen or so night crawlers done likewise. Fish with a tight line or beneath a bobber, using tackle to match the fish you're after.

White Oak is in Ouachita and Nevada counties, 18 miles northwest of Camden. Four of the lake's six boat ramps are accessible from Arkansas Highway 387, a few miles southeast of Bluff City. The remaining two ramps are accessible from Arkansas Highway 24 east of Bluff City.

FLATHEADS: L'ANGUILLE RIVER

Frederick Gerstaecker, a German adventurer, resided in what is now Cross County during a portion of his visit to Arkansas, which began in 1837 and ended in 1842.

"The river L'Anguille flowed to close in to the rear of the house," Gerstaecker wrote in Wild Sports in the Far West, the book that chronicles his trip. He described the river as a place of "swamps and thorns, creepers, wild vines, fallen trees, half or entirely rotted, deep and muddy water-courses, bushes so thick that you could hardly stick a knife into them, and, to complete the enjoyment, clouds of mosquitoes and gnats, not to mention snakes lying about on the edges of the water-courses."

Today's L'Anguille River differs little from the description Gerstaecker wrote almost two centuries ago. The stream course is choked with dense timber, and the angler who dares to venture there for a summer fishing excursion would be well advised to carry plenty of insect repellent and to watch where he steps. Catfishing enthusiasts know, however, that bottomland rivers of this sort provide ideal habitat for flathead catfish. Such is the case with the L'Anguille, a river that often gives up flatheads the size of young steers.

From its headwaters on Crowley's Ridge in Craighead County to its confluence with the St. Francis River in Lee County, the L'Anguille runs approximately 110 miles through some of Arkansas' most fertile agricultural country, passing near the towns of Harrisburg, Cherry Valley, Wynne, Forrest City and Marianna along the way. One might say this is a river with two faces. The L'Anguille's lower 80 miles, from its mouth to the Cross-Poinsett County line continue to flow on a natural, meandering course. Prior to 1945, however, the upper river was channelized. From a point just west of the community of Whitehall north to the its juncture with the famous Claypool Reservoir east of Greenfield, a distance of almost 30 miles, the river has been converted to a long, straight, muddy ditch bearing little resemblance to a river. Here, it begins picking up sediments running off adjacent farmlands, sediments that have choked off the lifeblood of this once healthy artery. The best catfishing, needless to say, is in the lower 80 miles of the river, from Whitehall to Marianna. Access is limited to a few county road and bridge crossings because all the land bordering the river is in private ownership.

It's difficult to travel more than a few hundred yards at any point on the L'Anguille because of the extensive logjams, but these barriers are favorite hideouts for big flatheads. Fifty-pound-p

lus flats are caught here every year. Smaller specimens of anywhere from 5 to 20 pounds in size are abundant.

Not every patch of thick cover in the L'Anguille will hold cats. The best provide easy movement between shallow and deep water. Look for brushpiles, fallen trees, inundated willows and buckbrush, flooded timber and other dense woody cover along channel dropoffs, underwater humps and holes, the edges of shallow flats and other fast-breaking structure.

One hotspot to investigate is where several trees have washed out and toppled into the water on an outside stream bend. Outside bends usually have deep pockets of water adjacent to a channel break. Add the thick cover provided by branchy underwater treetops and you have an ideal catfish hideout.

Heavy line and tackle are a must for this type of fishing. Use at least 20- to 25-pound-test line and a long, stout rod. Strong line is a necessity when horsing big battle-tested cats out of these hideaways. You don't want to let a hooked fish fiddle around in the cover. Get it out of there, if you can, and let it do its fighting closer to the boat or shore. The long rod gives you a fighting advantage and allows you to better fish dense thickets where casting is virtually impossible.

I use a bobber rig in this situation because there's less chance of getting snagged beneath the surface. A slip-bobber is best, because it allows you to reel your entire rig right up to the rod tip. This allows more freedom to work the rig back into cover. Live goldfish and carp make ideal baits. Get within rod's reach of the cover, and move your rig over, under, through, or around the cover until you can ease it down in an opening. You may catch a few nice cats along the edge of the cover, but most will be buried in it, striking only when you put the bait right on their nose.

When you do get a strike, react immediately, setting the hook hard and reeling like crazy. You must get a good hookset and pull the fish out of cover before it has time to tie you up. That's why heavy tackle is so important. This battle requires brawn, not finesse.

BLUE CATS: LITTLE ROCK LAKES

Some very large blue catfish are stocked each summer in several small Little Rock-area lakes that are among the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's Family and Community Fishing Program locations. The program is focused on getting more people in urban areas of the state involved in fishing. The lakes include those in Boyle Park, MacArthur Park, Kiwanis Park, Otter Creek Park, Ottenheimer Park, Hindman Park and War Memorial Park. Each body of water usually receives half a dozen or so of these trophy-sized fish, which are hand-delivered because they are too large to fit through the stocking tube.

These catfish, ranging in size up to 75 pounds or more, are trapped near the Game and Fish Commission's net-pen facilities on Lake Ouachita and Bull Shoals Reservoir where they congregate to eat food that escapes from the pens where trout and catfish are raised.

"Trapping and relocating these fish to urban settings presents a win-win solution to a problem," said AGFC urban fisheries biologist Clifton Jackson. "Our partnership with the Little Rock Parks and Recreation Department helps the AGFC's Fisheries Division by offering inner-city residents the unusual opportunity to fish for trophy catfish in a metropolitan area."

It is almost impossible for catfish in any pond in a city park to attain the huge sizes of these cats, because fishing pressure and harvest is significantly higher in city parks. Blue cats require 10 to 30 years of natural growth to reach 20 to 40 pounds.

"These catfish are really not difficult to hook up with, and they will bite baits similar to other stocked catfish," Jackson said. But while they may be easy to hook, they still can be extremely difficult to land. Many are so big they escape anglers time and time again and remain in the ponds to be targeted by others. Use heavy rods, reels and line when tangling with these tackle-busters.

Be sure to read the current state fishing regulations guide before fishing these city-park ponds. Specific rules often apply to each water body. The pond at War Memorial Park, for example, is limited to fishermen 15 and younger or 65 and older.

BULLHEADS: LAKES DUNN AND AUSTELL

Because bullheads rarely weigh more than a pound or so, there probably aren't many Arkansans who target them specifically. Nevertheless, you'll need to catch one to complete your catfish grand slam.

Three species -- yellow, black and brown -- swim in Arkansas waters. The largest of these, the black bullhead, is a common resident of ponds, lakes, streams and bayous statewide. The yellow bullhead is the most widely distributed catfish in Arkansas. It tends to inhabit smaller, weedier bodies of water than its cousins, and is common statewide in the dense vegetation of shallow, clear bays in lakes, ponds and slow-moving streams. There are only a few records of brown bullheads in the state; they are very uncommon here.

Lakes Dunn and Austell in Village Creek State Park near Wynne are among the best bullhead lakes in the state. I've sat on the fishing docks of each lake and caught 20 bullheads in a single hour on chicken liver baits. Some of those fish weighed more than 2 pounds, which is exceptional for bullheads. Your fishing strategy can be as unencumbered as using a cane pole and small hook to dunk a worm or piece of liver in late evening. Fish on the bottom, using a split shot or a small slip-sinker to carry your bait down. Or use a bobber to float the bait just slightly above the bottom. You need not fish deep or far from shore.

Lakes Dunn and Austell are relatively small -- 68 and 64 acres, respectively. You'll find plenty of nice bank-fishing areas on both lakes, especially along the levees and near the boat docks. Bullheads usually hold in deep haunts during the day, but move shallow at night to feed, making them readily accessible to shore-bound anglers. If you have a boat, Dunn bullheads can be found in the small, heavily timbered fingers jutting into the eastern shore, across the lake from the swimming beach. Look for Austell bullheads hiding around stumps, beaver lodges and fallen timber in the lake arm running north from the swimming beach and around logs and brush adjacent the riprapped dam.

Village Creek State Park, Arkansas' largest, is tailor-made for families who love the outdoors. Five hiking trails lead through the beautiful hardwood forests atop Crowley's Ridge. There are sandy swimming beaches, shaded picnic areas, playgrounds, baseball and multi-use fields, and a 2,000-acre wilderness area. Park interpreters are on hand year 'round to guide you on nature hikes and present a variety of outdoors-oriented programs. The park is six miles south of Wynne off Arkansas Highway 284.

Both lakes in the park are restricted to electric motors only, and there's a daily limit of five catfish per angler. Only registered campers can fish after 10 p.m. The park offers 10 modern housekeeping cabins and 104 fully equipped campsites. For additional information, phone (870) 238-9406.

(Editor's Note: An autographed copy of Keith Sutton's la

test 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.)

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