Catchin' Louisiana Cats
September 28, 2010
Looking for the best places to find Mr. Whiskers in this summer? You're in luck. We'll give you the scoop on the best catfishing in the state. (May 2007)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Except in areas recovering from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Louisiana anglers should find abundant catfish in their favorite honeyholes this year.
Katrina smashed through southeastern Louisiana in August 2005, followed three weeks later by Rita blasting southwestern Louisiana. Salty surges from both storms killed many fish, but catfish probably fared better than did other freshwater species. More tolerant of brackish water than are other species, blue cats thrive in intermediate to brackish waters and can temporarily withstand very salty water. Flathead and channel catfish, preferring sweeter water, moved farther inland in major river channels or deeper bayous to escape the salty surge.
"We probably had about a 50 percent loss in the catfish population east of the Mississippi River," said Howard Rogillio, a biologist for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in Lacombe. "The Pearl River area was especially hard hit. The Venice area was also hit heavily. Both areas look bad in terms of catfish populations. The Lake Pontchartrain, Manchac and Maurepas areas were also affected by salt water."
Historically, the western Lake Pontchartrain Basin — which includes Lake Maurepas, the Manchac Swamp and a number of rivers that flow through the region — offers some of the best catfish action in the state. In the past, Lake Maurepas produced some exceptional flatheads. Big blues roam the Tickfaw, Tchefuncte, Tangipahoa, Amite, Blind and other rivers.
Rita caused massive fish kills in southwest Louisiana. As the area recovers from the storm, anglers in southwest Louisiana might consider fishing at Lake Vernon, Anacoco Lake or Bundick Lake. Many people fish at the Bundick spillway, where the lake empties into Bundick Creek. Bundick Creek flows into the Calcasieu River near Kinder.
"All freshwater fish in this area took a severe hit from Hurricane Rita," said Bobby Reed, an LDWF biologist in Lake Charles. "The coastal marshes were hit particularly hard. The Sabine, Calcasieu and Mermentau rivers took hits from 30 to 50 miles upstream. In November 2005, we sampled, and it was zeros across the page. In the spring of 2006, we sampled again and found a few fish. During the summer of 2006, we sampled the upper reaches of the Sabine toward Starks and the Calcasieu around Kinder and Oakdale and found most kinds of fish, but numbers were greatly reduced from normal."
Some salt water also penetrated as far north as the Lac des Allemands system near Thibodaux, but that part of the state remains healthy. An intricate network of bayous and canals dominated by the Intracoastal Waterway connects Lac des Allemands to lakes Salvador and Cataouatche. A wet, fertile labyrinth of cypress swamps, canals and bayous loaded with stumps, brushtops, fallen trees and grassmats offers catfish everything that they need to grow big and fat. David Michel caught a 69-pound blue cat at Lac des Allemands in October 1992.
Anglers commonly catch 30- to 60-pound blues and flatheads on trotlines or limblines in the swamps southwest of New Orleans, and Harold W. Clubb landed the state-record channel catfish there in August 1977. While bass fishing in the Miner's Canal, near Lake Theriot southwest of Houma, Clubb landed a 30.31-pound whiskered lunker that gulped a homemade spinnerbait with a curly plastic tail. He fought the giant fish for more than 30 minutes, thinking that it might break his 10-pound line at any moment.
In Louisiana, people still need to fish the major rivers for monster catfish. The Red River flows down from the Great Plains between Texas and Oklahoma, across Louisiana and into the Mississippi River through a series of managed channels and control structures near Simmesport. Taking 30 percent of the flow from the Mississippi, the Atchafalaya actually breaks off from the Red at the Lower Old River channel and heads toward the Gulf of Mexico at Morgan City.
The Mississippi, Red and Atchafalaya rivers can each produce many blue cats in the 40- to 80-pound range, with some exceeding 100 pounds. In April 2005, Keith Day topped the Louisiana blue cat charts with a 110.19-pound fish he landed in the Mississippi River near St. Francisville.
The Mississippi produced four of the top five blue cats landed in the state with the Red River, Atchafalaya and West Pearl each contributing one monster to the Top 10. The Red River produced the top two flathead catfish. Harley Rakes holds the flathead record with a 66-pounder that he pulled from the Red River near Shreveport in July 1998, but people sometimes catch larger fish without reporting them.
For fishing the big rivers, many people look for concentrations of shad or skipjack, especially in slack waters behind rock or concrete jetties. Once people find potentially good areas for fishing, they often park their boats on a sandbar and fish from the bank rather than fight the awesome, dangerous currents. Some people sit on the jetty rocks.
"The Mississippi, Black and Ouachita rivers produce a lot of big blues and flathead catfish," said David Hickman, an LDWF biologist in Ferriday. "The Mississippi River and its backwater lakes are great places to catch huge flatheads, blues and channels. We catch 40- to 50-pound cats each year in our net sampling. The Old River Control Structure and the locks by Simmesport produce a lot of big fish. Some people fish off the banks fairly close to the structures."
People fish near the Old River Lock and the Old River Control Structures near Simmesport with deep-sea rods and heavy sinkers. They place huge baits in the eddies and backwaters. They regularly catch 30- to 40-pound blues, but sometimes land 70- to 80-pounders. Tommy P. Soileau landed an 84-pound blue cat near the Old River Control Structure in January 1981.
For numbers, Hickman recommended Lake St. John, an old oxbow off the Mississippi River. It produces many channel catfish in the 1- to 3-pound range. People might also fish Lake Concordia, another ancient oxbow. Although some of these oxbows no longer connect directly to the Mississippi River, they still hold good populations of catfish surviving from when the river flowed through these channels.
"Catfishing has been good on Lake St. John," Hickman said. "In the spring, St. John is always good for smaller channel catfish, but it does have some big flatheads in it. Lake Concordia also has some good channel cats and flatheads. Lake Bruin has some bigger catfish, but for numbers, St. John is hard to beat in this part of the state."
Looking to get away from the crowds? Try L
ake Louis, a 1,000-acre lake near Sicily Island. Lake Louis connects with the Ouachita River through Bayou Louis. It contains healthy populations of channels and blues, but it also produces some flatheads exceeding 30 pounds.
Anglers in northeast Louisiana might also visit Poverty Point Reservoir near Epps. Named for an archaeological dig on the banks of Bayou Macon to study a culture dating back 34 centuries, the 2,700-acre lake offers excellent channel catfish opportunities. The state stocked channel cats soon after creating the lake in 2001. Now, some of those cats weigh 15 pounds or more.
"Poverty Point Reservoir should produce a lot of catfish this spring," said Mike Wood, an LDWF biologist in Monroe. "It's a shad-based impoundment. When an impoundment has a good shad population, it has a good crappie population and a good catfish population. It doesn't have any blues or flatheads, but many channel catfish are exceptional in size. The lake has many 4- to 6-pound fish, but it also has a lot of 10- to 15-pound fish."
Anglers might also fish Lake D'Arbonne. About 13 1/2 miles long and a mile and a half wide, the 13,600-acre lake contains abundant catfish cover. Flooded timber dominates some parts of the lake. Grassy flats also provide good hiding places for big whiskerfish.
"Lake D'Arbonne is also a great channel catfish lake," Wood said. "It has many 3- to 4-pound fish. It also has an excellent population of flatheads up to 50 pounds. It doesn't have many blue cats."
The central Louisiana coast largely escaped damage from either hurricane, so catfish still thrive in the myriad swamps, bayous and canals of the lower Atchafalaya Basin.
"The storms didn't affect catfish in this area very much," said Mike Walker, an LDWF biologist in New Iberia. "We have a big, healthy population of blue cats. Blue cats tend to live in brackish waters. We also have a good population of flatheads in the lakes and rivers around here. We didn't see any big kills of catfish after either Rita or Katrina. I've never seen anywhere that has the population of catfish that we have at the lower end of the Atchafalaya Basin."
Near Morgan City are several lakes offering some of the best undamaged catfish habitat in Louisiana. Lake Verret, a shallow natural lake covering 14,000 acres, connects to Lake Palourde and Grassy Lake through a labyrinth of canals and bayous. Lake Palourde contains 11,500 acres, with Grassy Lake holding 1,024 acres. Catfish can find abundant cover and food anywhere in that swampy system.
"People can go anywhere in the lower Atchafalaya Basin and catch catfish," Walker said. "Lake Verret is a highly productive, extremely fertile lake. In our samples, I've collected some flatheads and blue catfish as large as 60 pounds in Lake Verret and Lake Palourde. Grassy Lake and Lake Fausse Pointe are all awesome for catfish. Many canals along the Intracoastal Waterway have excellent catfish populations. The northern end of Vermilion Bay and the Wax Lake Outlet have tremendous catfish populations."
Hurricane Rita devastated fish in Henderson Lake and other backwater areas of the northern Atchafalaya Basin near Breaux Bridge. However, the catfish population of the nearby Atchafalaya River remains healthy. When the river overflows, it restocks empty habitat.
"We lost quite a few fish in Henderson Lake from Hurricane Rita," said Jody David, an LDWF biologist in Opelousas. "That area was also hit pretty hard by the drought. North of U.S. 190 was very heavily affected, but it's slowly coming back. Fortunately, the river can naturally restock the area fairly quickly."
David recommended that anglers visit Spring Bayou for their catfish this spring. He also suggested that people fish the Red River or the Atchafalaya River. Oxbows that connect to these rivers should produce the best fishing. The state also stocked several small city ponds, especially Moore Park in Lafayette, with channel catfish to give urban anglers something to catch when they can't visit other waters.
All along the Red River, central and northern Louisiana anglers find good catfish action. Depending upon the river level and the season, anglers can find fish either in the backwaters and oxbows or in the main river channel. In the spring, people tend to catch more fish in the backwaters. As the river level drops and the water temperature rises during the summer, anglers fish the rocky wing dams on the main river channel.
"We have no shortage of catfish in central Louisiana," said Ricky Moses, an LDWF biologist in Pineville. "The Red River is probably one of the better areas of the state to catch catfish. People can catch a few catfish in just about any lake in this area. Sibley Lake has tremendous numbers of small channel cats, but not many big ones. Indian Creek is not bad. Cotile Lake is good. It has some tremendous flatheads and nice blues and channels. It's one of the better lakes in Rapides Parish."
Once a part of the Red River, Cane River Lake near Natchitoches produced two Top 10 flathead catfish. In April 1998, Ricky Gauthier caught a 50.44-pounder. In June 1994, Bill Dickinson landed a 38-pounder. In the 19th century, the Red River changed course, leaving a 35-mile long oxbow at Natchitoches.
Moses also recommended Lake Rodemacher (also called "CLECO Lake" after the power company that owns it). The 3,200-acre lake near Boyce offers excellent action for channel cats, but also contains blues and flatheads. Anglers probably won't catch many monsters, but they might fill an ice chest with tasty fillets.
Most lakes in central Louisiana contain all three species, but some excel for one species or the other. Although Black Lake contains all three species, it produces impressive flatheads and blues.
"Black Lake in Campti is an excellent catfish lake," Moses said. "It has some really big flatheads and blues. People catch 50- to 60-pounders regularly. Cats migrate from the Red River through Saline Bayou into Black Lake."
Northwest Louisiana anglers can find good numbers of catfish in Cross Lake, Lake Bistineau and Caddo Lake. Cross Lake, which covers about 8,850 acres, provides water for Shreveport. Looking more like a flooded swamp than a lake, Bistineau covers about 15,550 acres. Straddling the Louisiana-Texas line, Caddo Lake sprawls over roughly 26,560 acres. Anglers might also find good action at Lake Claiborne, a 5,760-acre lake near Homer, or Kepler Lake, a 1,730-acre lake near Castor.
"Cross Lake has an excellent channel catfish population," said Jeff Sibley, an LDWF biologist in Minden. "It can produce some good numbers. Lake Claiborne and Kepler are popular for flathead cats. Kepler had a drawdown in the fall of 2006, but it should be good this spring. Lake Bistineau and Caddo Lake have good flathead populations."
On the Louisiana-Texas line, gigantic Toledo Bend Reservoir — its area a whopping 186,000 acres — can produce huge catfish. Many people string trotlines, but few people intentionally fish for cats with rod-and-reel tackle. Anglers can catch good quantities of all thre
e species of cats just about anywhere in the sprawling reservoir. Many people fish the wooded coves or grassy flats.
"Toledo Bend has a tremendous catfish population, but it's underutilized," said Ricky Yeldell, a LDWF biologist. "It's not uncommon to catch 40- to 50-pound blue cats. It's possible to catch a catfish over 100 pounds in Toledo Bend. The bigger catfish are usually flatheads, but we have some pretty impressive blue cats."
The official lake-record flathead, which Otis Pleasant of Texas caught by running a trotline on May 24, 1991, stands at 97.5 pounds. Another Texan, Pamela Gray, landed a 68.5-pound blue cat on June 12, 1999, also by trotline. Doug Skinner landed a 67.65-pound blue cat on April 12, 1995.
Fortunately for parts of south Louisiana, nature can replenish empty waters quickly. Anglers in the rest of the state should find exceptional catfish action just about anywhere they wish to fish this spring.
Find more about Louisiana fishing and hunting at: LAgameandfish.com