Louisiana's Other Catfish Rivers
September 28, 2010
Everyone knows about the awesome catfish surrendered annually by the Mississippi River. Yet, some of the state's other streams also host stellar populations of large whiskerfish.
Don Caldwell of Moss Bluff holds a large blue catfish that he wrested from a Cameron Parish canal.
Photo by John Felsher
Louisiana's rivers contain some of the nation's best catfish populations. Early settlers along the Mississippi told of pulling blue catfish weighing more than 300 pounds from the big river. Today, "the Father of Waters" produces many 40- to 80-pound blues, and some topping 100 pounds.
Joseph Wiggins leads the list with a 105-pounder caught in June 1997. Arthur Pierre's second with a 98-pounder he caught in August 1987. In July 2002, Jon Michael Fortenberry pulled an 87-pound blue from the Mississippi near Transylvania in extreme northeast Louisiana. Horace D. Gibson landed a 60-pound Mississippi blue cat in November 1992.
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 in the Three Rivers area near Simmesport. The Atchafalaya actually breaks off from the Red at the Lower Old River channel. The Mississippi wants to change course to flow down the Atchafalaya to the Gulf of Mexico.
A series of water-control structures and canals keeps the three rivers, all of which hold huge catfish populations, in their respective beds. Near the Old River Control Structure, Tommy P. Soileau landed an 84-pound blue cat in January 1981. In August 1980, Ed Deshotels landed a 78-pounder in the Atchafalaya River.
"Louisiana has some of the best catfishing in the world," said Mike Walker, a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologist from New Iberia. "I've seen a 100-pound flathead come out of the Atchafalaya River. When we sampled in the Atchafalaya River, we saw hundreds of blue catfish up to 15 pounds everywhere. I've collected blue catfish as large as 60 pounds in Lake Verret and Lake Palourde."
In the 1990s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a project that added five water-control structures to the Red River between Shreveport and Simmesport, creating impoundment-like pools where catfish thrive. In July 1998, Harley Rakes landed the record flathead, a 66-pounder, near Shreveport. Michael L. Guimbellot landed a 52.04-pound flathead near Poland on the Red River in February 2000.
"On a good day, an angler on the Red River might catch 30 or more catfish provided he or she knows where to go," said James Seales, a LDWF biologist in Minden. "They might catch a 40-pound flathead. The average would be much less than that on other water bodies."
Wing dams redirect the channel to maintain the Red River at a minimum of 9 feet. These jetties also create eddies and scour holes that attract fish. Big cats wait near these rocks to grab baits drifting downstream.
"Blues congregate at the end of wing jetties where current creates an eddy and digs a deep hole," said Gary Hood of Red River Catfish Guide Service in Bossier City. "Around that hole, I fish three to five rods with different types of bait. I put two baits in front of the hole. Feeding catfish find a comfortable spot and face upstream looking for food to come to them. Inactive fish rest in the bottom of the hole. I put another bait in the bottom of the hole and one or two behind the hole. Sometimes, I won't get a bite in the bottom of the hole, but I can't keep them off on the upstream side."
The Cane River near Natchitoches produced two Top 10 flathead catfish. In April 1998, Ricky Gauthier caught the third-largest flathead ever seen in Louisiana, a 50.44-pounder. In June 1994, Bill Dickinson landed a 38-pounder for sixth place. Now just a long oxbow lake off the Red River, the Cane once formed the main channel of the Red River before that river changed course in the 19th century.
Smaller rivers can also provide outstanding catfish action throughout the state. Catfish thrive in nearly every suitable body of water in Louisiana. They can live in anything from a small drainage ditch to the Mississippi River. Most bayous, canals and lakes hold good populations of blues, flatheads and channel catfish.
As a youngster, my friends and I bicycled to several fishing holes around Slidell and caught cats in ditches that didn't exceed 2 feet in depth. Once, someone caught a 10-pounder from a ditch that we could jump across, but a 2- or 3-pounder usually took bragging rights at most places. Some of these drainage ditches eventually connected to West Pearl River or Lake Pontchartrain.
Sloping gradually southward through pine and upland hardwood forests to cypress swamps, freshwater marshes and finally brackish estuaries, the Pearl River forms the boundary between Louisiana and Mississippi. North of Slidell, the Pearl splits into the West Pearl and the East Pearl, with former taking the majority of the water. Between the Pearls, several other rivers and interconnected bayous form Honey Island Swamp.
Most of these waterways contain excellent catfish populations. In September 1992, Christie Carpenter landed a 72.50-pound blue catfish from West Pearl. Unlike most other waterways in Honey Island Swamp, West Pearl carries quite a strong current. Instead of fighting the current, catfish hide behind logjams and other obstructions looking upstream waiting to grab anything that washes downstream to them.
For catching catfish in streams with swift currents and sandy bottoms like the West Pearl, use a bottom-float drift rig. On a conventional sinker or drift sinker and leader rig, add a small plastic bobber such as one that bream fishermen might use just above the bait. The bobber suspends bait off bottom and keeps hooks out of snags. In turbid water, catfish see a suspended bait chunk more easily than one resting on bottom.
Besides the Pearl, several rivers that flow into the Lake Pontchartrain Basin hold strong catfish populations. Pass Manchac and North Pass connect Lake Pontchartrain to Lake Maurepas near Ponchatoula. Some holes in these deep tidal passes offer drop more than 50 feet in places. Every summer, blue cats up to 50 pounds congregate under the Interstate 55 and U.S. Highway 51 bridges spanning these passes.
The Amite, Tickfaw and Blind rivers flow into Lake Maurepas. Several tributaries enter these rivers. The Tangipahoa and Tchefuncte rivers flow into Lake Pontchartrain. All of these rivers hold good populations of flatheads, blue cats and channel catfish. Big cats here forage in the tangled logjams, under lily pads or in fallen treetops.
"Lake Maurepas is an excellent catfish lake," said Howard Rogillio, LDWF biologi
st in Lacombe. "It has a lot of blues, channels and flatheads on the north end by the cypress trees. They get in the bayous and rivers that feed the lake. Lake Maurepas is noted for big catfish, mostly flatheads."
Near the Blind and Amite rivers, fish the Diversion Canal, Bayou Conway, Petite Amite and dead-end canals off the rivers. Also, try where the rivers hit Lake Maurepas. Fish at the confluence of the Tickfaw and Blood rivers. Several canals connect the Tangipahoa River and Bedico Creek to the Tchefuncte River. These swarm with catfish.
On the other side of Louisiana, the Sabine River forms the Louisiana-Texas boundary and creates Toledo Bend Reservoir. The reservoir holds huge populations of gigantic catfish. The official lake-record flathead stands at 97.50 pounds, which Otis Pleasant of Texas caught, landed a 68.50-pound blue cat on June 12, 1999, also with a trotline. Doug Skinner landed a 67.65-pound blue cat on April 12, 1995.
"Toledo Bend has a tremendous catfish population, but it's underutilized," said LDWF biologist Ricky Yeldell. "It's not uncommon to catch 40- to 48-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."
Below the Toledo Bend Dam, the Sabine River runs down to Sabine Lake, an estuary that connects with the Gulf of Mexico. When the Sabine River Authority releases water into the river, a tremendous current flow agitates fish into feeding. Big blues and hungry channel cats gather in the tailrace below the dam to feed.
Between Toledo Bend and Sabine Lake, the Sabine River flows through upland forests and cypress swamps. The lower Sabine River holds plenty of catfish, mostly channels in the 1- to 5-pound range and some impressive blues and flatheads. Near the tidal marshes, anglers catch more blue. Most blues range up to 10 pounds, but anglers occasionally catch a 30-pounder.
East of the Sabine River, the Calcasieu River near Lake Charles holds good catfish populations. Bundick Creek enters the Calcasieu River near Kinder. Many people fish at a spillway where Bundick Lake empties into Bundick Creek.
"Catfish are one of the most underutilized species in our state waters," said Bobby Reed, LDWF district biologist in Lake Charles. "At Bundick Lake, people fish the pool below the spillway and catch more blue cats. Blue cats are coming upstream from the Calcasieu River, which has an excellent population of blue cats. It's not a very large spillway -- only about 200 feet wide."
Water sometimes washes over the spillway, oxygenating the pool below Bundick Dam, about five miles from Dry Creek. Baitfish, especially threadfin shad, congregate here because of the oxygen. Also, fish moving upstream find their way blocked and stack up at these structures. Often, catfish lurk beneath baitfish, feasting on targets of opportunity.
Fishing from the bank beneath the Bundick Lake Dam, anglers drift live shiners suspended from bobbers. Anglers usually catch blue cats. Reed reported one blue cat tipping the scales at 76 pounds. However, the creek also holds large flatheads exceeding 30 pounds and good channel catfish populations.
"We found populations in our sampling that were outstanding," Reed said. "There are so many catfish in there, you can't help but get them. People either tightline or cast a bobber near where water coming down out of the spillway hits the pool. Large baitfish concentrations, primarily threadfin shad, swim around that bubble line. Catfish wait under them and eat them. People either cut up shad or use them alive for blue cats and channel cats."
Farther south, bank-anglers fish along the Calcasieu River at Sam Houston Jones State Park in Moss Bluff. The Calcasieu holds lots of all three major catfish species.
South of Lake Charles, the Intracoastal Waterway crosses the Calcasieu Ship Channel, a straightened, widened version of the old Calcasieu River. Running through the marshes of south Louisiana, the waterway connects the Sabine, Calcasieu and Mermentau rivers with other honeyholes. Near the Mermentau, the waterway runs through several canals and large, shallow lakes such as Lake Misere in Cameron Parish. All of these waters can produce excellent catches of catfish.
"Louisiana has some of the best catfishing in the United States and I've fished in many places in the South," said avid catfish catcher Don Caldwell of Moss Bluff. "On the Mermentau River, my brother and I caught 83 catfish on juglines in two days one time. They averaged about 4 pounds, but we had a 20-pounder and a couple 12s. We probably released an equal number of smaller catfish."
The Bell City Canal empties into the Intracoastal Waterway near Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge at Gibbstown and creates an outstanding fishery. In addition, the waterway provides boat access to many once-isolated natural lakes. Most of these canals and lakes hold many blue and channel cats with some big flatheads. Most cats run in the 1- to 3-pound range, but some top 20 pounds.
With its waters flowing through fertile wetlands and numerous tributaries, the Intracoastal Waterway offers catfish a smorgasbord of food. Along the waterway, anglers often find brackish water. Here, they may catch more blue cats, which can better tolerate higher salinity.
"The Intracoastal Waterway has good catfishing and there are hundreds of bayous and canals leading off it," Caldwell said. "Catfish tend to get off the main waterway and lay their eggs in tributaries. The mouths of bayous and canals are really good places to fish."
With uniform banks and scoured bottoms, canals often lack structure. Consequently, catfish congregate wherever they can find structure. Fish along banks, or where small streams feed larger canals. Bridges, pilings and rock riprap also make excellent places in which to seek catfish.
Eastward, the Intracoastal Waterway passes near Lake Salvador southwest of New Orleans. Lake Salvador connects with Lac des Allemands and Lake Cataouatche at the upper end of the Lafourche and Barataria estuaries in Lafourche, St. Charles and St. John the Baptist parishes. This maze of canals and bayous teems with whiskerfish. Freshwater river diversions into the brackish estuary could improve catfishing.
"Lakes Cataouatche and Salvador were historically freshwater environments with extremely high catfish populations," said Mark McElroy, a LDWF biologist. "Due to coastal erosion, saltwater intrusion and other factors, the salinity levels became higher and higher. Consequently, we lost the freshwater environment in that system, especially after the three-year drought a few ago. In my opinion, Lac des Allemands is probably the best catfish lake in the whole United States."
Scarcely 10 feet deep and wildly fertile, 12,000-acre Lac des Allemands and surrounding bayous and canals offer cats all they want. The labyrinth of cypress tangles, bayous, stumps, brushtops, fallen trees and grassy flats fosters the forage base cats need to grow big and fat. Anglers commonly catch 30- to
60-pound blues and flatheads here. Abundant channels nip on lines as well.
"Catfish start spawning in Lac des Allemands in May and continue through September," McElroy said. "Not many lakes in the country have the spawning structure that is in Lac des Allemands. Reproduction potential is superior to any lake in the country. The freshening of that system from the Mississippi River diversion will keep the salinity ranges at a lower level and increase catfish habitat. It has more of each of the three species of catfish per acre than any other lake in Louisiana."
In northeast Louisiana, the Ouachita Rivers flows down from Arkansas through Monroe. One of the most beautiful and overlooked rivers in Louisiana, the Ouachita, offers excellent fishing. Anglers can also find exceptional fishing in the Tensas River and the Boeuf River.
On upland rivers, many anglers find a large sandbar and park their boats. They fish on the downstream side of the sandbar, where water flows a little less swiftly. To attract catfish into the area, they chum with pieces of cut fish, canned pet food, old ground meat or other oily, smelly baits. Like sharks, catfish use their extraordinary sensory powers to home in on morsels from long distances.