Small Arkansas Rivers, Big Arkansas Catfish
September 24, 2010
During the dog days of summer, excellent catfishing opportunities abound in the Natural State's smaller flowing waters.
Brush-choked rivers like the L'Anguille may be difficult to float, but the rewards can be terrific. Photo by Keith Sutton
By Keith Sutton
Thriving populations of catfish can be found in many types of waters. Big fertile rivers, bayous, large man-made impoundments, oxbow lakes, creeks, city water-supply lakes, sloughs, irrigation canals, ponds, smallmouth streams, state wildlife agency lakes, river backwaters, clear water, muddy water, hot water, cold water and everything in between - if it's not too polluted, catfish of one form or another are likely to call it home.
Those of us who love catfishing often zero in on the larger of these waters when pursuing our quarry, believing that our chances of catching a trophy-class cat are better in bodies of water that are substantial in size. One could certainly make a good argument for that point - bigger water equals bigger cats - but in catfishing, bigger isn't always better. It can be more difficult to pinpoint good catfishing spots in rivers and lakes that cover many acres or many miles. And smaller bodies of water that aren't overpressured by commercial fishing or heavy recreational angling may produce cats equal in size to those found in much larger streams or lakes. Besides that, we're not always out to catch a trophy cat. For some of us, the goal is catching a mess of smaller cats for the dinner table, or enjoying the fun that can be experienced catching lots of smaller whiskerfish.
That said, I suggest you consider some of the following "small" Arkansas rivers when looking for a place to fish this summer. Compared to the Mississippi or St. Francis or Red, they aren't very big. But when it comes to superb catfishing opportunities, all are the equals of much larger waters.
L'ANGUILLE RIVER AND OTHER BOTTOMLAND STREAMS 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 170 years 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 flatheads and other cats. Such is the case with the L'Anguille, a river that often gives up flats the size of young steers, and plenty of channel and blue cats as well.
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 common border of Cross and Poinsett counties - 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.
Extensive logjams make it difficult to travel more than a few hundred yards at any point on the L'Anguille, but these barriers are favorite hideouts for big cats, especially flatheads. Fifty-pound-plus flatheads are caught here every year. Smaller specimens - 5 to 20 pounds in size - are as common as costume jewelry at a flea market.
Channel cats are the L'Anguille angler's bread-and-butter fish. Those in the 1- to 5-pound range are extremely abundant, with some topping 15 pounds. Blues aren't very common until you reach the section downstream from the U.S. Highway 70 bridge near Forrest City. Here, near the junction of the river with the St. Francis River, they find habitat more to their liking, and it's not uncommon to catch one that tops 25 pounds.
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 for horsing big battle-wise 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.
Any standard catfish bait can be used, but on the L'Anguille, cut shad or carp are hard to beat. Thread a chunk about 2 inches square on a 6/0 hook, and use just enough weight to pull your bait down in the water column. 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.
Several other "small" bottomland streams also serve up blue-ribbon dog-day catfishing, and those I'm about to mention all can be fished successfully using the same tactics outlined for the L'Anguille.
Bayou Bartholomew, from Pine Bluff to the Arkansas-Louisiana border, gets hit hard by locals in some areas, but the river harbors so many nice channel cats and flatheads (a few blue cats, too) that this fishing pressure hardly puts a dent in the population. Some say it's among the most underrated of the Natural State's top catfishing waters, and for that reason alone it's worth a visit.
The Little River in southwest Arkansas' Sevier County flows into Lake Millwood, bringing with it a mother lode of nice blue, channel and flathead cats. There are several good access points in Pond Creek National Wildlife Refuge not far from Ashdown.
Bayou Meto from Highway 13 south of Carlisle in Lonoke County to points downstream also rates high with many in-the-know cat men, particularly the lower reaches from just east of Humphrey in Arkansas County to the stream's juncture with the Arkansas River southwest of Gillett.
Within the "lower unit" of White River National Wildlife Refuge south of St. Charles (Arkansas County) you'll find several small streams also worthy of your attention. These include LaGrue Bayou, Big Island Chute, Essex Bayou, Scrubgrass Bayou and others. Most of your catch will be channel cats, with an occasional flathead or blue in the mix, but the numbers of fish are high, and you might catch 50 or more on rod and reel during a good day of fishing. Best of all, these waters offer an adventurous sense of isolation that's hard to find these days on most waters.
STRAWBERRY RIVER AND OTHER UPLAND WATERS Arkansas' cool mountain streams also offer excellent fishing for jumbo channel cats, flatheads and the occasional blue, yet outside a small cadre of local anglers, you're not likely to encounter many fellow catfishing enthusiasts. Smallmouth bass anglers, yes; catfish anglers, no.
One such stream, the Strawberry River, flows out of the Ozark foothills and into the northeast Arkansas Delta. The upper third, from Arkansas Highway 354 near Oxford to U.S. Highway 167 north of Evening Shade, is generally too low for good float-fishing, but wade-fishing is often good in this section's short summer pools. The remaining section of river offers fishing for cats (channel cats, in particular) on three relaxing floats - Highway 167 to the low-water bridge between Evening Shade and Poughkeepsie (10 miles); from this low-water bridge to the next one just west of Arkansas 58 (nine miles); and from this bridge to the Arkansas 58 crossing north of Poughkeepsie (two and a half miles).
For west Arkansas catters, the Ouachita River above Lake Ouachita offers plenty of long, deep pools harboring big channel and flathead catfish. The upper stretches, from Cherry Hill to Oden, are generally too low for a relaxing summer float, so most catters opt to fish the section from Oden to Lake Ouachita. Several put-in and take-out points are located on this part of the river. The float from the Arkansas Highway 379 bridge south of Oden to the U.S. Highway 270 crossing covers 10 miles with deep pools, short rapids and shady banks. It's four miles from U.S. 270 to the Sims Campground access, then three miles more to Fulton Branch Campground. Each of these camping/launching areas is a good starting point for trips down to the last two public take-outs at Dragover and River Bluff. It's two miles from Fulton Branch to Dragover, and three miles from Dragover to River Bluff. Several other take-outs are available near Lake Ouachita around the Arkansas Highway 27 crossing.
For anglers in northwest Arkansas, Big Piney Creek is one of the best cool-stream catfishing hotspots. The Ozark National Forest offers nearby campgrounds, and the stream's series of short pools holds plenty of jumbo blue, channel and flathead cats.
Like the Ouachita, Big Piney Creek's best summer catfishing is in its lower reaches. The five-mile stretch from Long Pool to Arkansas Highway 164 has deep pools and easy rapids. The final stretch below Highway 164 is fed by a mother lode of catfish from Lake Dardanelle. Flatheads and blues up to 20 pounds and more are always a possibility, and channel cats up to 5 pounds are common.
North Cadron Creek is an overlooked catfishing stream that crosses U.S. Highway 65 between Conway and Damascus in central Arkansas. Here anglers can find good numbers of flathead and channel catfish. There are several access points between Arkansas 124 and Arkansas 285, and catters will enjoy fishing the stretches from Highway 124 to "Iron Bridge" northeast of Guy (four and a half miles), Iron Bridge to Pinnacle Springs (10 miles), Pinnacle Springs to U.S. 65 (three and a half miles) and U.S. 65 to Arkansas 285 (10 miles). Check the gauge under the U.S. 65 bridge for water levels. Readings of 2.00 to 5.00 feet are desirable for safe, easy floating.
During summer, these upland streams fall to their lowest annual levels, and traveling by boat for more than a short distance can be difficult because of long stretches of shallow water. In these areas, wade-fishing is one of the best methods for catching catfish. Wearing polarized glasses helps you better see underwater cover and structure.
Bait choices run the gamut from night crawlers and minnows to chicken liver and home-made stink bait. I generally start out using live baits, trying to match the natural forage available in the stream I'm fishing. Crawdads are found in most mountain streams, so that is my bait of preference when they're available. Few bait shops carry them, but it's generally easy to catch your own by turning rocks and leaves in shallow feeder creeks and dipping up fleeing crawdads in a small dip-net.
Detailed maps showing access points for all the rivers mentioned in this article are found in the Arkansas Outdoor Atlas available from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, I&E Division, 2 Natural Resources Dr., Little Rock, AR 72205. 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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