Arkansas anglers bent on boating big flathead catfish can find what they're looking for on these 10 waters. (August 2008)
A growing number of Arkansas anglers are targeting big, hard-fighting flathead catfish.
Photo by Keith Sutton.
Interested in catching one of the hardest-fighting sportfish on the planet? Then you might want to go after one of the giant flathead catfish common in many waters throughout Arkansas. These brutes are known to reach weights up to 140 pounds in the Natural State, and 30- to 50-pounders are as common as costume jewelry at a flea market in many waters.
Anyone who's tried them also will tell you flatheads are among the best-eating fish in the world. Their sweet, flaky, white flesh fries up crisp and delicious, and while catching a trophy flathead may require extraordinary persistence on the part of the angler, catching small eating-size fish does not. One- to 5-pound flatheads are extraordinarily abundant and easy to catch in many of our lakes and rivers.
So no matter what you want -- a mess of small cats for a fish fry or a trophy-class fish that'll make your muscles ache when you try to reel it in -- Arkansas can produce. The waters discussed below serve up better-than-average angling for the cat fan.
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 throughout the warm months on the entire length of the river from Ft. Smith to the river's 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 in May 1982.
Heavy tackle is essential. Rods should be 8- to 15-foot, heavy-action models and reels -- whether level-wind or spinning -- should have drags in good working order. Hooks should be no smaller than 7/0 to 9/0 when fishing exclusively for large flats, and you'll need plenty of egg sinkers heavy enough to hold your bait on the bottom. Use top-quality, 50- to 150-pound-test line.
Small bluegills, live shad and live skipjack herring are the baits of choice. Most anglers catch their own using a hand-thrown cast net.
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.
This southwest Arkansas impoundment is home to 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 more than 24,000 acres of timber and underbrush. Many oxbow lakes, sloughs and creeks were also inundated. These features provide ideal habitat for feeding, resting and spawning flatheads. Baitfish such as shad and bream are abundant, so there's no lack of food, and Millwood's extreme southerly location and shallow water keep temperatures on the mild side, thus 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.
The numerous creek and river channels crisscrossing Millwood's bottom are topnotch flathead fishing spots, as are the old lake beds -- Horseshoe, Mud, Bee, Yarborough, Clear and Beard's -- that were inundated as Millwood filled. With a bottom contour map and fish-finder, pinpointing these areas is easy.
Another first-rate fishing area is the Little River just below the dam. This tailwater has produced numerous trophy flatheads, including a former state-record 67-pounder in 1980.
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 giant flatheads.
Scores of 30- to 60-pound Conway flatheads are taken every year, some by anglers fishing for other species, some on trotlines and a few by rod-and-reel anglers who enjoy the challenge of battling big cats in heavy timber. Serious local catmen believe 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 Conway was filled. Flatheads prefer the sanctuary these deep areas offer. Adams Lake, Greens Lake, Cub Pond, Round Pond, Gold Lake, Goose Pond and Holt's Lake are also excellent locations.
The Mississippi River has always been a mother lode of giant flatheads. Yet, with the exception of a few hard-core commercial fishermen, the river's flathead population has been virtually untouched by catfish anglers. 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 100-pound-class fish. They're out there, 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, log piles, etc.). Goldfish are the bait of choice, because they remain lively for a long time and are
highly attractive to big flats.
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 saltwater 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 (10-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.
Among the best fishing areas are where big-river tributaries join 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 boot heel. 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 flatbottom 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. Route 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 near breaklines in river bottom structure. 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 head. Live bream (less than 4 inches) are the preferred bait.
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, due to the cold-water discharges of lakes Bull Shoals and Norfork, the really superb White River catfishing 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. Potholes or slight depressions in the river bottom also tend to concentrate flatheads, as do the upstream sides of underwater humps, and shallow flats and drops near tributary mouths. Live fish like green sunfish, goldfish, shiners and carp are the best baits.
Rod-and-reelers will find the best White River catfishing along the lower 10 miles from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers barge canal to the Mississippi River. There's good access for bank and boat fishermen alike at Norrell Lock and Dam, eight miles south of Tichnor. This section of the White contains dropoffs, holes, brush, bends and other structure attractive to flatheads.
Lake Hinkle, 12 miles west of Waldron, typifies a superb flathead catfish lake. About 70 percent of this 960-acre lake is flooded timber. Dead snags, stumps and submerged treetops provide an abundance of the protective cover the flathead prefers.
Creek channels, several small ponds, inundated roadways and flooded fencerows are among the bottom features of this west Arkansas lake. All these features are used by structure-oriented flatheads. 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 their efforts in deeper water near the dam. This area is preferred for two primary reasons. First, it has more open, snag-free water, thus providing a better chance of landing a heavyweight fish; and second, a caged fish-rearing operation adjacent the dam creates a zone of extremely fertile, forage-filled water that attracts many giant flatheads. Preferred baits include live crawdads for smaller flatheads and small, live bream for trophy fish.
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 near impossible to land the river's giants on rod and reel.
Fishing is best downstream from the U.S. Route 70 bridge near Forrest City, but the entire river from the Cross-Poinsett county line to Marianna is alive with 5- to 20-pound flatheads. It's difficult to travel more than a few hundred yards at any point on the river owing to the extensive logjams, but these barriers are favorite hideouts for big flats. Trotlines baited with goldfish or bream account for most of the catch.
Almost all the land bordering the L'Anguille is in private ownership, so beware of trespassing problems.
All of Arkansas' Corps impoundments harbor healthy populations of flathead catfish, but DeGray Lake, near Arkadelphia, ranks among the best for heavyweight fish. Two hotspots on this 13,400-acre reservoir are the Point Cedar and Brushy Creek areas, but the whole lake provides a good catfishery.
While all the typical catfishing methods work well, it's interesting to note that DeGray flatheads may also be taken by spearfishing. The lake's deep, clear waters make it a popular spot with scuba enthusiasts. From July 15 until March 15, sunrise to sunset, divers may spearfish for enormous flatheads that may exceed 30 pounds. Only half a regular five-fish limit is allowed when spearfishing for cats. Also, fish taken by spearfishing must not be cleaned before leaving the body of water where the fish were taken.
The name "Grampus" comes from French explorers and is derived from a Fren
ch word meaning "fat fish." It might well refer to the jumbo flatheads native to this 350-acre lake. Five- to 15-pounders are common, and lucky anglers occasionally land specimens topping 40 pounds. Despite being a first-rate flathead lake, Grampus is largely overlooked by the generations of anglers raised in the tradition of man-made reservoirs.
Located 15 miles east of Hamburg in south Arkansas, Grampus is an oxbow of the Bayou Bartholomew. Flatheads cruise waters throughout the lake but usually are caught around cypress trees, buckbrush, brushpiles and underwater stump fields. Shad and small sunfish are the most fruitful enticements, but smaller flatheads frequently hit earthworms and crawfish as well. Summer fishing is excellent, especially at night.
For additional information on all the waters mentioned here, purchase a copy of the Arkansas Fishing Atlas, available by phoning 1-800-364-GAME or visiting www.agfc.com. The atlas has detailed access information on 75 county maps. For information on fishing licenses and regulations, check the 2007-2008 Arkansas Fishing Guidebook on the Web site or in the hardcopy version available from license dealers.
(Editor's Note: Keith Sutton is the author of several books on catfishing. His latest is Pro Tactics: Catfish, published by Lyons Press. To order autographed copies, visit his Web site at catfishsutton.com ).