Five Best Spots For Prize Catfishing

Anglers out to tackle a trophy whiskerfish are in luck, as several of Arkansas' lakes and rivers have the potential to offer them up. Read on for a few of this month's most promising venues.

You haven't felt power until you've held a rod being pulled downward by a surging flathead catfish. And one of Arkansas' rivers or lakes is just the place to experience that power.
Photo by Keith Sutton

Looking for a place where you might set a hook in the jaw of a giant catfish this season? Chances are good that you won't have to go far. The following five bodies of water provide superb possibilities for trophy cat aficionados throughout the Natural State.

MISSISSIPPI RIVER

Most catfish fans agree that the best trophy cat water in Arkansas is the Mississippi River, a mother lode of heavyweight blues, flatheads and channel cats. James Patterson of Mississippi River Guide Service -- (901) 383-8674, www.bigcatfishing.com -- is one of those folks. He's on the "Father of Waters" 100-plus days each year. And when it's big whiskerfish he's targeting, he as often as not fishes around eddies near the ends of the river's many wing dikes.

"I fish the current along the edges of these eddies, or whirlpools, of water," Patterson said. "I find that catfish in the middle of the eddy water are not active. Active cats are along the edges, so that's where I anchor and fish."

Patterson relies on two primary baits to entice his quarry. "I use live shad a lot, even though they're hard to find," he said. "Cut skipjack herrings also are good bait."

A simple three-way-swivel rig is Patterson's standard. The 2-foot hook leader is tipped with a 3/0 to 7/0 Eagle Claw Kahle hook. The 8-inch weight leader is tied to a 3-ounce sinker.

"I anchor above the hole I intend to fish," Patterson said, "then cast to the spot and let the reel free-spool until the weight hits bottom. Sometimes I'll have out 200 feet of line. Big cats usually hit hard and quick, so rod holders are necessary if you fish more rods than you can hold."

It would seem that bait tossed to the edge of one of these huge suck holes would swirl round and round. But when it's done properly, the bait will sink quickly to the bottom and remain stationary. Reposition your rig if necessary to achieve this end, and then prepare for the rod-jarring strike that will soon follow if a giant cat is nearby. Often, big cats cruise slowly through a hole, waiting for something to jolt their taste buds before they rush in to strike. Allow the bait to sit up to 10 minutes; if there's no bite by then, move and try another eddy hole.

LITTLE RIVER ABOVE LAKE MILLWOOD

Several topnotch catfish anglers I've spoken to believe that the Little River, one of the tributaries feeding Lake Millwood in southwest Arkansas, has the potential to produce a new world-record blue or flathead catfish. One of those anglers is "Catfish" Kay Emmons of Ashdown, one of the state's best trophy cat anglers. She's hooked some enormous Little River cats.

"I hooked one using a heavy surf rod with a Penn reel and 120-pound-test braid," she told me. "My tackle held up fine, but that fish -- a flathead, I'm sure -- straightened out a 7/0 hook. It was huge."

Kay usually fishes bait beneath a bobber, saying that she'd rather let her rig float than put it on the bottom.

"I use an 8-inch-long weighted float above a 6/0 octopus hook or an 8/0 Kahle. About 15, 20 feet above the hook I have a bobber stopper. I put two or three split shot right above my hook, but no other weight is used."

After anchoring her boat well above the hole she intends to fish, Kay sets the rig adrift. "I keep an eye on my float and let my line go free," she noted. "When it gets 100, 150 yards down the river, I stop it and just let it ride there. That way I'm not on top of my hole spooking fish."

Kay usually fishes with five outfits -- two heavy-action 7-foot surf rods paired with Penn baitcasting reels and 120-pound braid, and three 7-foot medium-heavy graphite rods paired with Shimano baitcasters and 75-pound braid. The rods are placed in holders on her boat -- two for trophy-class cats, three for smaller fish.

"I use shad gizzards to bait the biggies," she said. "They're natural forage, and because you can smell them two miles down the river, they draw catfish in."

Patience, says Kay, is the virtue that will help her catch a new world record.

"Catfishing is not instantaneous catching," she said. "Patience is the key to catching big fish, and I have the patience of Job. So many people, if they get a bite, they're ready to go. Not me. I'm one of these people who can sit all day and never get a bite, and still enjoy it."

LOWER WHITE RIVER

The White River below Newport offers exceptional trophy-cat-hooking opportunities as well, and one of the best cat men I ever fished with there is Bill Peace of Jonesboro.

"You can come down here and expect to catch a 20- to 30-pound catfish almost any time during the summer, and now and then you latch into one even bigger," he said. "I have no doubt you could probably catch a world record if you wanted to work at it hard enough."

Peace usually fishes with trotlines when he's targeting trophy cats, and these usually are set near the mouths of small tributaries running into the White. He stretches each line from an anchor point on shore into deeper water and then secures the line's other end to a burlap bag weighted with rocks. The lines are baited with small carp or big goldfish purchased from baitfish dealers.

"The mouths of these streams are ideal places for catching big cats," Bill told me. "Cats move from the main river into smaller streams when feeding, and if a line is placed along their travel route, I'm likely to catch some dandy fish."

ARKANSAS RIVER

You can't talk about trophy catfishing in Arkansas without mentioning the Arkansas River. This huge waterway provides superb angling for big channel, blue and flathead cats from Ft. Smith on the west to the river's junction with the Mississippi far to the southeast.

It's hard to say, however, where exactly the best fishing opportunities can be found along the river's 300-plus miles in the Natural State. Time of day, time of year, current volume and rate of flow are all variables that influence where the catfish are and where fishing is likely to be best. Personal preference is another consideration. Some anglers prefer fishing the quiet eddies. Others prefer the swiftest of

waters.

There really isn't a best spot, just as there is no best technique or best bait. But in general terms, the closer you get to the Mississippi River, a mother lode of catfish, the more cats you're likely to encounter. Dams No. 2 through 5 tend to produce more and bigger cats than do those further upstream.

If I were wagering on 12 anglers fishing for trophy cats -- one below each of the 12 dams on the river in Arkansas -- I'd put my money on the guy fishing below Wilbur Mills Dam (Dam No. 2) at the river's lower end near Tichnor. This is big cat water that's hard to beat.

LAKE CONWAY

The catfishing at this 6,700-acre AGFC lake just keeps getting better. The AGFC has been working for several years to improve sediment problems, stabilize shorelines and keep the water at optimum levels. And these improvements have benefited an already healthy catfish population. Every year Conway gives up numerous blues and flatheads in the 50-pound-plus class. And 2- to 10-pound channel cats are as common as bluegills by a boat dock. I've heard numerous reports in recent years of Conway regulars taking 300 to 400 pounds of catfish a week.

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 rod and reel, and none are 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 good that some state-record class fish inhabit Lake Conway, but slouchy anglers won't catch them. Be prepared with heavy tackle suited for landing behemoths.

(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 s&h and Ark. sales tax -- to C&C Outdoors, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002. For online credit card orders, log on to

www.stoegerpublications.com/books.)

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