Arkansas' Offbeat Catfish Havens

A body of water doesn't need to have a big reputation to produce big catfish. Just check out some of these unusual cat hotspots.

By Keith Sutton

Big catfish often surface in places where you'd least expect them. Consider the world-record flathead, for example: When Ken Paulie landed this gargantuan 123-pounder in Kansas' Elk City Reservoir in May 1998, he astounded North America's catfishing fraternity. Many wanted to know how was it possible for a fish of that size to go undetected for decades - it was undoubtedly very old - in such a small body of water.

The answer is quite simple, really. Elk City Reservoir wasn't very popular with Kansas catfish fans. A few plied the lake for small channel cats, but big flathead baits rarely were used. Paulie's flathead grew undisturbed on the bounty of baitfish in the reservoir until it made the mistake of engulfing the angler's enticement right alongside the shore.

I was party to a similar situation in Arkansas back in 1993, when I was the state fishing records coordinator at the time. I received a frantic phone call from a bait shop proprietor whose business is near 300-acre Lake Wilhelmina in Polk County. A fisherman had just brought in a 51-pound channel catfish, he said. They had weighed the fish on certified scales at the bait shop, and he was certain it was a channel cat and not a blue cat. "Could you please have someone come look at the fish and verify that it's a new state record?" he asked.

I suspected this was just a case of misidentification, despite the man's certainty that the fish was a channel cat. The two lookalike species can be difficult to distinguish unless you know all the proper characteristics to look for. Nevertheless, I called one of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's fisheries biologists and asked him to drive over and have a look at the fish.

As it turned out, the bait shop proprietor was right: It was indeed a channel cat and, my research indicated, one of the largest ever reported - just 7 pounds shy of the world rod-and-reel record (caught in South Carolina's Lake Moultrie in 1964). The chances of catching a 50-pound-plus channel cat are about as good as the chance of catching a 6-pound crappie; only three states besides Arkansas have ever produced one that size.

Trophy cats often come from waters that don't feel heavy pressure, as author Keith Sutton (pictured here) knows. Photo by Theresa Sutton

Surprisingly, the angler who caught the monster cat didn't want to enter the fish for record-book consideration. No amount of persuasion would convince him otherwise. "If the world finds out I caught this fish in Wilhelmina," he said, "it won't be long before this pretty little fishing hole will be overrun with fishermen. I'd just as soon not see that happen."

And so, for more than 10 years now, the story has gone largely untold. I tell it now only to make a point: Sometime, somewhere - when you least expect it - you could catch a cat bigger than any fish you've landed in your lifetime.

Here are some places in Arkansas where it could happen.

LAKE WILHELMINA

According to my sources, after the unnamed angler had his big channel cat weighed, he released it back into Lake Wilhelmina. Could it still be alive after more than a decade? Could it be heavier than the current 58-pound world record?

The chances are slim, but stranger things have happened. Chances are good, however, that this AGFC lake near Queen Wilhelmina State Park could produce another channel cat of gargantuan proportions.

Like Elk City Reservoir in Kansas, Wilhelmina doesn't get much catfishing pressure. Another plus is the fact that this lake is much more fertile than are many Ouachita Mountain reservoirs, thanks to a caged fish-rearing operation near the dam. Fish food and wastes from the operation enhance growth and reproduction of the lake's catfish population.

This also is a deep lake for its size - averaging around 9 feet, dropping to 45 in places - and deep lakes tend to produce bigger catfish. Shad, minnows and sunfish provide an abundant food source for gluttonous catfish, keeping them fat and healthy year 'round.

The open shores around much of the lake are made to order for bank-fishermen. Boaters have access to timber-laden waters offshore and to good fishing areas along the old Powell Creek channel, which divides the standing timber on the northeast end.

The lake is six miles west of Mena off Arkansas Highway 8. Signs mark the turnoff leading to the dam, boat ramp and other facilities. No doubt, there are some big cats waiting to be caught here.

LITTLE RIVER

A year after the Wilhelmina giant surfaced, another record-class catfish - this time a blue cat - was caught in west Arkansas. Because the fish wasn't weighed on certified scales, we'll never know its true weight. Earnest Spray of Murfreesboro caught it on July 30, 1994, in the Little River below the dam on Lake Millwood. He says the fish was placed on cotton scales that indicated a weight of 105 pounds. Photos of the fish indicate it could certainly have weighed that much - maybe more. But Spray later transferred the fish to an acquaintance, and by the time he realized it had to be weighed on certified scales to qualify for the record books, the fish had been eaten.

This wasn't the first time a giant catfish was caught in this location. The Millwood tailwater area also produced a former state record flathead catfish in 1980. This, too, was a giant, weighing in at 67 pounds.

Local anglers often fish the Millwood tailwater for big cats, but catfishing pressure is relatively light compared to other big-cat honeyholes. You might fish here on a weekday and not see another angler. Don't come ill-prepared, though: There are some serious cats here, and you'll never land one unless you're using heavy line, big terminal tackle and a super-tough rod and reel. Access is good from Highway 32 a few miles east of Ashdown.

The Little River above Millwood harbors monster cats as well. In fact, my friend Catfish Kay Emmons, one of the world's top female catfish anglers, believes that a world record could be hiding here.

Kay, a resident of Ashdown, is an extraordinary woman with an extraordinary past. She became a fishing guide in 1966 at age 27 on the Allegheny River in New York and Pennsylvania. She moved to Tennessee in 1972 and guided catfishermen on the Cumberland River. From 1979 through 1997, she lived in Texas, guiding bass fishermen on Lake Fork and catfish and crappie anglers on Cooper Lake. She's been a writer, had her own radio show, fished the Bass'n Gal circuit, served in the Co

ast Guard, and worked as a part-time medical technologist.

Retired now to Lake Millwood, her goal is to catch a world-record catfish. "I'm always fishing for the big ones," she said. "There's a lot of potential in Lake Millwood and the rivers that feed it. I think this area could produce the next world record on rod and reel, and I'm hoping I'm the one that gets it."

Kay's biggest cat to date was an 82-pound Cumberland River blue, but she's hooked some bigger fish in the Little River. "I hooked a flathead last year 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 typically fishes with an 8-inch-long weighted float above a 6/0 octopus hook or an 8/0 Kahle. Between 15 and 20 feet above the hook she places a bobber stop. She puts two or three split shot right above the hook, but uses no other weight. After anchoring her boat or tying to a stump well above the hole she intends to fish, she 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. I catch shad below the dam, bring them home and take the gizzards out. I cut the rest up, put it in pint jars and freeze it for cut bait. But the gizzards are the gourmet meal. They don't work as good for channel cats, which prefer Canadian night crawlers. But the blues and flatheads love them."

My odds are on Catfish Kay to catch the next state-record blue or flathead here, perhaps even a world record. But with the information she's generously shared, you, too, have an opportunity to try the Little River for the fish of a lifetime. Two accesses in Little River County will get you started: the Wilton Landing/Highway 71 access on the upper end of Millwood north of Wilton, and the Patterson Shoals access north of State Highway 234 west of Wilton.

LAKE HINKLE

Another overlooked honeyhole for big cats is Lake Hinkle, an AGFC impoundment 12 miles west of Waldron. Blues and channel cats inhabit the lake, but flatheads offer the most potential for a trophy catch for those savvy to the ways of these sometimes-enormous predators.

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 instinctively prefers. Creek channels, several small ponds, inundated roadways and flooded fencerows are among the bottom features 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: (1.) It has more open, snag-free water, thus providing a better chance of landing a heavyweight fish, and (2.) a caged fish-rearing operation is adjacent the dam, creating a zone of extremely fertile, forage-filled water that attracts many giant flatheads. The best baits for trophy-class flatheads here are probably small live bream (bluegills, longears or green sunfish).

Hinkle is reached by traveling Arkansas Highway 248 west from its intersection with U.S. Highway 71 in Waldron. Follow Highway 248 to Winfield (a little over five miles). To reach the dam, turn left at the directional sign at this location. To reach northside boat ramps and facilities, continue on Highway 248 for seven miles; then turn left on the gravel road where the pavement ends.

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 contains 1,031 acres. Among AGFC lakes, only Lake Conway is larger.

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 was a 19-pound, 12-ounce cat 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. (Just a few days later, ironically, Eddie Allen of Bluff City landed a 22-pound channel cat from the same area near the dam and spillway separating the upper and lower lakes.)

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I wouldn't have included White Oak in a compilation of often-overlooked trophy waters. However, White Oak's been producing some enormous largemouth bass in recent years, and that seems to have taken a lot of pressure off the catfish here. Relatively light catfishing pressure allows the lake's channel cats to reach extraordinary sizes, and the angler who knows how to catch them can bring in some record-class fish. A regular lake fertilization program compounds 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 creek channels, Christmas tree shelters, riprapped banks and timbered reaches.

How should you go about catching one of these monstrous White Oak channel cats? I'd try small pieces of cut bait (shad or skipjack herring) threaded five or six at a time on a big hook, or a dozen or so night crawlers handled 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 Hig

hway 24 east of Bluff City. Signs mark the turnoffs.

OTHER DARK-HORSE WATERS

The bodies of water mentioned so far are just four of dozens that have the potential to produce record-class monsters. Others worth checking out include: Lake Grampus, a Bayou Bartholomew oxbow east of Hamburg that harbors some gigantic flatheads; Lake Greeson, a 2,500-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake near Murfreesboro that often gives up giant blues and flatheads; Lake Poinsett near Harrisburg, a honeyhole for 20-pound-plus channel cats; and DeGray Lake near Arkadelphia, a Corps impoundment where local catters have been catching big blues and flatheads for decades. Good luck in your efforts!

Detailed maps showing the bodies of water and access points mentioned in this article are found in the Arkansas Outdoor Atlas available from the AGFC. Phone 1-800-364-GAME or log-on to www.agfc.com.

(Editor's Note: Keith Sutton is the author of Fishing for Catfish, $22.00, and Fishing Arkansas: A Year-round Guide to Angling Adventures in the Natural State, $28.25. To order autographed copies, send a check or money order to C & C Outdoors, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002. For credit card orders and more information, log on to www. ccoutdoors.com.)



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