Arkansas' Laid-Back Summer Cats

Ready to do some laid-back summer catfishin'? Well, we've got just the spots for that very thing! (August 2009)

Live baits fished on Arkansas' top rivers at night are likely to produce big flatheads like this one caught by the author's son, Josh.
Photo by Keith Sutton.

Summer is here, and I'd like to make a suggestion.

Take some time off from work. Go to a river or lake. Invite a friend or some family members. Take some fishing poles, your tackle box and plenty of catfish bait. Ice down your favorite drinks. Pack some salt, pepper, cornmeal, peanut oil, a few potatoes and onions, a big cast-iron skillet and your Coleman stove.

Set up camp. Find a good fishing spot on the bank. Bait your hook and cast it out. Sit a while and enjoy nature's beauty. Breathe the fresh air. Enjoy some small talk with your companions.

When a catfish bites, hook it if you can. Play it slowly to shore. Savor the moment. Keep the eating-sized cats and let the big ones go to catch another day. Keep just enough for supper.

Head back to camp. Dress your catch. Slice the potatoes, dice an onion and slide both into some oil you've heated in the skillet. Season with salt and pepper. Cook till tender.

When the taters finish cooking, season the catfish pieces, then dredge in cornmeal. Slide the fillets or steaks, one at a time, into the hot oil. Listen to them sizzle. Smell the mouth-watering aroma. Don't drool in the skillet.

The fish is soon done. It's time to dig in. Fill your plate. Pop the top on a cold drink. Find a comfortable spot for your lawn chair. Kick back. Relax. Bow your head and say grace.

The dinner theater now begins. Birds serenade you. Fish splash in the shallows. Frogs sing. Enjoy the meal as you take in the show.

That, my friend, is catfishing at its finest. Good friends. Good fishing. Good food. Good scenery. What more could a person ask?

A place to go, you say? A place where you can do exactly what I've just described. Consider it done. Here are a few of my favorite spots for enjoying a summer catfishing foray. They're some of the best bets in the state this season.

ARKANSAS RIVER
This big ol' catfish-infested river runs past some of Arkansas' biggest cities -- Fort Smith, Russellville, Little Rock, Pine Bluff -- but there still are plenty of places where you can enjoy relaxing catfishing.

When most folks ask me where to go, I recommend setting up camp at one of the dozens of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds adjacent the river. A phone call to the Corps' Little Rock office (501-324-5551) will garner you all the info you need to find one near you.

Each area has amenities for a comfortable campout -- electric and water hookups for recreational vehicles, tent pads, restrooms, and so forth -- and most feature clean bank-fishing areas perfect for the catfish angler who wants to share some time with family and friends without having to rough it too much. Arrive on a weekday, and chances are you'll find a campsite right by the river where you can bank-fish from your "back yard" or tie up a boat to use for more in-depth exploration.

One of my favorite Corps areas is Murray Park just west of Little Rock off Highway 10. You can catch channel, blue and flathead catfish from the well-groomed riverside campsites, or launch at the ramp and fish some of the best stretches of water on the whole river for trophy-class fish. It's a great area to escape to for a weekend family getaway.

The Dam Site West and Dam Site East areas at David D. Terry Dam (off Highway 165 just southeast of Little Rock) also provide riverside campsites and good catfishing close to the city, but far enough away to make it seem like you're really "out there."

Down in Jefferson County, not far from Pine Bluff, you can pick from nine Corps areas, all of which offer good catfishing -- Tar Camp, Dam Site 5, Ste. Marie, Sheppard Island, Trulock, Rising Star, Huffs Island, Little Bayou Meto and Big Bayou Meto. Nice mixed catches of blues, channels and flatheads are likely to be taken no matter where you set up along the river in Arkansas.

My favorite stretch of the Arkansas, and probably the best stretch in terms of good catfishing, is the lower 40 miles below Dam 2 in Arkansas and Desha counties. This is the only stretch where barge traffic is absent, and when the water level is right, there are plenty of big white sandbars where you can pitch a tent and camp. Be warned, though, that the water level can fluctuate wildly from hour to hour, as much as 8 to 10 feet, so camp only on the high ground if you plan to stay overnight. Mosquitoes are rough in these bottoms, too; so carry plenty of insect repellent.

That stretch is full of huge blue catfish, channel cats and flatheads. The water and cover are ideal for trotlining, limblining, yo-yo fishing and jug-fishing. I've taken my sons on three weeklong excursions there, and during each trip, we caught scores of eating-sized cats.

There are boat ramps and campsites on both sides of the river at Dam 2, just south of Tichnor, for those who prefer a motor home campout or more developed tent camping. These areas provide a starting point for any catfish trips, and you should plan to motor back to these ramps for takeout unless you're prepared to travel 40 miles down the Arkansas and then another 20 down the Mississippi to the first takeout downstream.

Whatever you do, don't attempt this trip unprepared. The river in that area rages at times, rising and then falling, and the hapless angler can get stranded in the mosquito-infested bottoms if he's careless. There are lots of black bears there, too, so if you camp, keep your food and waste where the bruins can't get to them.

HENRY GRAY/HURRICANE LAKE WMA
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's wildlife management areas offer excellent possibilities for a summer catfishing/camping excursion. This is primitive camping to be sure -- no electric or water hookups, no paved roads, no amenities of any sort other than a cleared piece of ground where you can pitch a tent or park a camper. But there are dozens of WMAs statewide where you can camp and go after big whiskerfish.

One of my favorites is Henry Gray/Hurricane Lake WMA, just east of Bald Knob in White County. Nestled in the overflow bottoms at the juncture of the White and Little Red rivers, this 16,808-acre area encompasses an enchanting world of oxbow lakes, rivers and meandering sloughs.

Within the WMA are eight oxbows accessible from roads during dry weather. Big Hurricane Lake is the largest at 60 acres, followed by Whirl Lake (30 acres), Mallard Pond (18 acres), Big Bell Lake (16 acres), Honey Lake (16 acres), and then Bollie Pond, Three Sisters Lake and Little Green Tom, each between 5 and 10 acres in size. All harbor healthy populations of channel cats, and visiting anglers catch plenty using rod and reel, limblines, trotlines and juglines. Best of all, there are campsites close to several lakes so you can have easy access to fishing.

Hurricane's catfishing doesn't end on the oxbows. Glaise Creek runs nine miles through the area, and stop-log structures form a lake covering about 100 acres during summer. Arkansas anglers find good numbers of channel and flathead catfish there. The creek is fairly deep, 10 feet on average, and has plenty of catfish cover in the form of fallen timber, undercut banks and inundated logs.

The White and Little Red rivers also traverse the WMA. Both streams offer good fishing for channel catfish, blues and flatheads. Channels run 5 to 10 pounds, blues over 20 and flatheads up to 50 pounds and more. The White River offers the best fishing for trophy-class cats, but Glaise Creek and the Little Red also have potential for producing some giants.

Catfishing is good at many points along the WMA streams, but during the dog days of summer, most catfish hold along breaklines in bottom structure -- areas such as deep holes, outside channel bends, undercut banks, and washouts above and below sandbars.

One really fun way to fish is to build a fire on one of the river sandbars and kick back in a lawn chair while you wait for something to bite. Most sandbars can only be reached by boat, but there are primitive roads leading to a few such spots. I've caught many big channel cats in the White River fishing this way, using blood bait, night crawlers, crawfish and catalpa worms for bait. A small live sunfish is sure to attract one of the big flatheads that live there, too.

Additional information, including a free map of Henry Gray/Hurricane Lake WMA that shows all the lakes and streams, is available on the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's Web site, which can be found at www.agfc.com. Go first to the "Hunting Section," then "Wildlife Management Areas" to find it.

Want to speak to an AGFC staff person who can help? Phone toll-free 1-877-734-4581.

LAKES DUNN AND AUSTELL
I've spent many nights and days fishing from the shores of these lakes in Village Creek State Park, just south of Wynne in Cross and St. Francis counties. I lived and worked in the park five years and discovered then the superb catfishing to be enjoyed there.

There are first-rate bank-fishing sites on both lakes, and launch ramps if you want to bring a boat and trolling motor. Gas motors aren't allowed. The park also has more than 160 campsites, so there are plenty of places to pitch a tent or park an RV for an overnight stay.

Dunn covers 68 acres, Austell 64 acres. In Dunn, look for catfish around brushy points and in coves with dense stands of dead timber. The arm of the lake running north from the boat dock is productive at times, but most anglers do best fishing the small, heavily timbered fingers jutting into the eastern shore, across the lake from the swimming beach. When it's breezy, concentrate your efforts around the numerous points in this area, where shad and other baitfish stack up and attract feeding cats.

Look for Austell lunkers hiding around stumps, beaver lodges and fallen timber in the lake arm running north from the swimming beach. This arm has produced several of the lake's largest catfish. Also productive are shallow timbered flats adjacent to the creek channel running through Austell's southwest arm, two deep wooded coves on the lake's south side, and around logs and brush adjacent to the riprapped dam.

Many anglers find summer catfish suspended over a deep inundated hole where dirt was dug for the Austell dam. To locate the hole, look for a vertical, 10- to 15-foot-high gravel bank about 100 feet long on the south shore almost directly across the lake from the boat ramp. A depthsounder run across the water parallel to the cut bank will indicate a sharp drop from 20 to 30 feet of water down to 50 to 55 feet. When conditions are right, it's not unusual to find a dozen or more big catfish suspended along the dropoff in summer.

Big cats on Dunn and Austell don't come easy. The real leviathans hold in the most impenetrable mazes of snags and treetops available. That's when it's time to get in there with them, flipping short backhand, sidearm, underhand and bow-and-arrow casts under, over, around and through these obstructions into every available pocket.

My first experience with timber catfishing was a lesson in humility. Heading for my honeyhole on Dunn one summer night, I chuckled at a lady tightlining with chicken liver amidst a huge snarl of tree branches. I was certain she'd never pull a cat out of the tangle even if she hooked one. She proved me wrong.

In just two hours, she landed five channel catfish weighing 17, 15, 9, 8 and 5 pounds. Her secret? Use 30-pound-test line or heavier, bring plenty of hooks, and when you've made your cast, don't move the bait until a catfish is on. Fishing this way can lead to good catches of jumbo cats for anyone who fishes on Dunn or Austell.

To reach Village Creek, take Exit 242 off I-40 at Forrest City and go 13 miles north on Ark. 284. Or take Highway 64B east from Wynne to Highway 284, turn right and drive until you see the park entrance on your left. Get more information at www.arkansasstateparks.com/village creek or by calling (870) 238-9406.

CANE CREEK LAKE
A superb south-central Arkansas hotspot for a catfishing/camping trip is 1,675-acre Cane Creek Lake. Cane Creek State Park on the southwest side of the lake has 29 campsites with electrical hookups and picnic tables. There's a fully-equipped RV for rent that sleeps six comfortably, two fishing piers offer great fishing without a boat, and you can get everything you need for fishing right in the park, including bait and rental boats.

Cane Creek Lake sits on the line separating Lincoln County's rolling hill country and flat delta. The western/southern shoreline skirts the bottom of a ridge and slopes quickly into fairly deep water. Across the lake, flat terrain required building a long levee in conjunction with the dam. All but a small portion of the lake is heavily timbered and laced with boat lanes.

There's standout fishing for channel cats in many portions of the lake, but especially in cover along the inundated creek channel and the sloping southwest shoreline. These cats grow big. Lucky anglers sometimes take rod-bending channel cats topping 18 pounds, especially when using crawfish and cut bait (chunks of shad or skipjack herring) to entice them.

The 4.8-mile-long levee, covered with riprap, attracts spawning catfish, making it another very good summer hotspot. Work live crawfish or night crawlers beneath a bobber, targeting cover and any unusual structu

re you see as you move along the levee.

To reach Cane Creek State Park from Star City, travel five miles east on Arkansas Highway 293 to the park. Additional information is available at www.arkansasstateparks.com/ canecreek, or by calling (870) 628-4714.Do a little homework and you'll find dozens of other good spots scattered around the Natural State that are great for a catfishing/camping trip this season. That's one good thing about being an Arkansawyer. Good catfishing is just around the corner, no matter where you live. And when summer rolls around, some time spent catfishing is the best of all ways to relax and enjoy the beauty of the Natural State.

Note: Keith Sutton is the author of Fishing Arkansas and four books on catfishing. Order your copy at www.catfishsutton.com.

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