Those Louisiana Blues
September 28, 2010
They ain't just tunes at the juke joint on Friday night. Fun to catch and tasty to eat, blue catfish are everywhere. (July 2007)
Photo by Greg Keefer.
Louisiana is blue cat country.
From the Mississippi River in the East to the Sabine along the Texas border, there are plenty of places for anglers to catch blue cats ranging from pan-sized to monstrous.
For truly big blues, the larger river systems are the best, with the Mississippi, Pearl and Sabine producing the most impressive specimens.
"Big water equals big catfish," said veteran angler Greg Stephens of Vinton. "A lot of times, people just sort of go out fishing for cats in any old place -- but if you really start looking at the structure under the water you will have a much better chance of catching really big blues."
In my experience of looking for catfish in deep rivers, I've found that plenty of signs underwater point to possible catfish "holds" -- areas that whiskerfish congregate in. The ideal hold is a small spot or shelf on the edge of a steep dropoff. This hold might be a 20-square-foot area in 15 feet of water that borders a 30-foot dropoff. In most situations, the 15-foot zone would gradually get shallower as you move toward the bank, but then drop off suddenly into the main channel.
Such places provide a zone where catfish can feed on baitfish that also come to this spot, and it provides them with a place to trade between the deeper main channel and the shallower shoreline.
Big-river (or even ship-channel) catfish tend to feed in stages, just as those in the cuts and bayous on a lake system do. They move up closer to shore to feed, and then back toward deeper water, and back again. We'll talk about the deep spots, and then concentrate on hitting them in the shallows.
After locating such a spot, fishing it is the second challenge. Position the boat where the anchor is right on the edge of the hold so you can fish straight up and down. For tackle, I recommend a stout casting rod and reel spooled with a braided or fusion line.
The terminal rig is simple, consisting only of a drop shot rig on a 1- or 2-ounce weight. On this rig I'd use a medium-sized live perch, half of a large perch or a chunk of carp. We're talking about the pursuit of big catfish here, so don't be afraid to use big bait.
Once you've baited the rig, simply lower it down over the spot, sink it to the bottom and start jigging it up and down. If the catfish are there, they usually hit pretty fast, so if you don't get a bite within 10 minutes, move elsewhere. It's that simple.
If you're having a hard time finding holds, you can achieve positive results by positioning the boat on the edge of the dropoff and using the same technique. If you have a trolling motor, set it on low and let the bait drag the bottom; if you don't, make long casts parallel to the dropoff so you can cover more ground. There are shallows along big river channels, and catfish certainly move to these spots to feed. I've found that many of the big ones simply stay deep, but you can certainly catch some big fish in the shallows as well.
The key is figuring out which spots are best. Once you start looking for holds, that's quite easy, but narrowing down shallow banks in the ship channel can be tough. It might seem as easy as moving toward the shallows from the deep hold, you are fishing but that is not always the case. Look for little points coming off the shoreline.
I'm talking about even tiny fingers of soil that extend out toward the deep and concentrate on them. These big-river catfish tend to congregate around structure even more so than those in reservoirs do, so any structure in the channel is good.
Also, look for any exchange of water, whether it is a cut, pipe or space between islands. Water exchanges are places catfish can easily intercept baitfish -- and no matter where they are, catfish like it easy.
Another important feature to consider: eddies, areas of slack water that form at breaks in the flow such as a hump or a log. Eddies are important for catfish because a lot of baitfish end up there. Small baitfish like Nile shad can't negotiate stiff currents well, so they often end up in the sanctuary of an eddy.
I discovered that the eddy, a crucial element in saltwater fishing, also affects freshwater catfish, because I once found myself catching a couple of catfish per trip on artificial lures in an eddy in brackish water in the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge. One day, I pulled up to the spot and found someone was already there, fishing bait on the bottom for catfish. The gentleman told me that he routinely caught brackish blues in these areas of slack water.
"You can't overlook the eddies," said Greg Stephens. "This is especially true the farther you move south in the river, where you get a lot of tiny shad. They get thick in the eddies, and the big cats move in to feed on them."
For anglers who prefer fishing lakes, Louisiana also has plenty of choices, top spots including Toledo Bend, Lake Claiborne, Indian Creek and Caney Creek.
For consistent action at these reservoirs, target the mussel beds covering much of the bottom on these lakes. Catfish fishing here involves a very different method than that used for any other area. Since many mussel beds have pretty much the same depth throughout, drifting while fishing a bait on the bottom is the prime way to locate catfish here.
Mark Davis of Shakespeare Fishing Tackle, who has fished for catfish all over, including in world-famous Santee Cooper Reservoir, agrees that mussel beds are the ticket for big reservoir blues.
"Mussel beds are key structure that absolutely should not be overlooked," he said. "The mussels themselves are a prime food source, and they are essentially structure that draw in other food sources. So for catfish, it's the best of both worlds."
Many of Louisiana's mussel beds cover maybe a third of an acre and are broken up by other structures. Finding the breakline between the mussels and sand, for example, or a hump leading from bed to bed is important for consistent action. Live crawfish are a good bait, as well as live perch or cut carp. Make sure and drift slow enough so that the bait gets exposed to the fish on the structure and make several passes at each bed for the best results.
Along coastal areas, blue cats congregate around shell middens left long ago by Native Americans. Studies conducted by Sabine National Wildlife Refuge biol
ogists have shown that blues have a high tolerance for salt water, and areas like the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, Blacks Bayou, the Cameron Prairie Refuge, and much of the coastal marsh north of the Intracoastal holds lots of blue cats.
Shell middens are key spots for finding these fish, which respond best by far to cut mullet. I grew up fishing for catfish this way around Black's Bayou and Burton's Ditch in Cameron and Calcasieu Parishes and my father, Chester Moore, Sr. taught me to fish these spots for 15 minutes and move to another if the fish are not biting. Any of these middens can be good for blues but the best are those near the mouth of a major drainage or near the juncture of several smaller drainages.
Tides come into play here and the best tide is an outgoing tide where the marsh is draining its contents, which the blues feed on. Hit the middens 1/2 mile into a bayou during the first hour of a falling tide and move toward the mouth after that.
Finally, a sort of oddball but highly effective way of catching big blue cats is wading in on them. I am talking about wade fishing as anglers do along the coast for redfish and speckled trout.
You see, catfish have a very intricate "hearing" system that, if it were better understood, might cause more anglers to don waders to enter the catfish's environment.
In an article issued by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, it was explained that catfish hear with the inner ears, much as humans do. According to the piece, "The sounds are projected through a series of fluid filled sacs lined with hair-like projections. Each sac contains a bone called an otolith. To understand the fish's hearing, picture a sound wave. These waves, moving through the water, pass through the fish's body like it wasn't even there.
"The density of the water and the fish are almost the same. When the sound waves reach the otoliths, they vibrate. The vibrations bend the hair-like projections, and nerves carry the message to the brain. Literally, the fish hears through its side. Catfish hear better than most other fish. The inner ear is connected to the fish's air bladder. The air bladder amplifies the sound, improving sensitivity and hearing range, a kind of built in stereo system. Catfish can detect very high frequency sounds."
Catfish, the article continued, "detect low frequency sounds with their lateral line. Some of the sensory cells in the inner ear and lateral line are turned in different directions. It helps the fish detect the source of the sound, similar to sonar."
For anglers, that means that the aluminum boats that many of us use to pursue catfish might actually inhibit us from catching more and bigger catfish on rod and reels. Getting in the water on the level of the fish and slowly wading along key areas could produce some truly exciting catches. Wading allows anglers to be stealthy and that might be more significant in catching catfish on rod and reel than we realize.
Any spot that has a bottom conducive to wading and a good catfish population is good to wade. My wading has been limited to Toledo Bend reservoir, the Sabine River, the north end of Sabine Lake in the winter and on private waters, however I have learned a few things that I believe would work in all waters.
The first is to focus on areas with shallow flats (3 feet or less) that drop off into creek channels and main lake ledges. These areas are always a good standby for rod and reel action for catfish. I believe that catfish roam around a lot more than some anglers think and that an unobtrusive, quite angler floating a chunk of cut bait under a cork or drifting a ball of earthworms on a free-line can find fish that most anglers never contact.
Most of the time we think of fishing for catfish as being a stationary act. We sit on the bank and cast a rod, or anchor and drop one over. However, the advent of drifting for catfish should give you faith that wading and being mobile with bait can work in areas that drifting with a boat can be impractical.
I once waded for cats in a huge private lake where we were not allowed to bring in motor boats and at the time, I did not have one I could paddle. There was one spot that was too far to cast to but I knew would be killer for cats, so I waded towards it and scored on a 25-pound blue. The lake was loaded with cats that size, but still catching one in its element was truly exciting.
The first thing to keep in mind is that you're not going to get as many bites as you do over a chummed hole or a deep spot where the fish suspend in the river so don't expect it. The idea is to catch some of the bigger, more reclusive catfish that are prowling around. I would wade for 20 minutes and move. If you do not get a bite by then, hit another area.
I like to fish a chunk of cut shad or dead shrimp on a cork in breaks in the current. Since the currents are weaker in these breaks, which are typically caused by structure, you can fish a cork without much problem and draw the attention of the fish by popping it a lot. I use the Texas Rattlin' Rig, a unique popping cork system that has some neat attributes. Each package is rigged with quality popping cork, a very loud rattle system, including beads and a tube stuffed with rattling components and covered with a very effective reflective tape.
The reflective properties of this rig are reminiscent of many products used in the North for walleye. Catfish are not known as hugely visual feeders but there have been some studies to suggest they use their eyes more than once previously thought.
For those anglers just looking for a spot to catch pan-sized blues, the many bayou systems in the state are great places to begin, particularly after a good rain. Rain is well known to get channels feeding, but the blues get hungry, too.
A good spot to start on rainy days is a riffle, which is an area where a stump or some other object does not stop but slows down the tidal flow just a bit. These spots, which are usually found just downstream from brushpiles and in the bends of creeks, are great spots to find channel cats. Fish cut perch or shad in these spots.
Rainy-day catfish feeding is most productive on -- but not limited to -- small canals and creeks as it can be just as good on big reservoirs, particularly around large feeder creeks and mudflats adjacent to deep water along shorelines. In hilly areas, immediate run-off from forests can congregate catfish to certain spots, especially in the spring, when many bugs and other favorite catfish foods are washed downstream.
It is important to remember that catfish are both predators and scavengers, and are creatures of convenience. The areas with a large concentration of food that's easiest to get at will usually produce the most fish and in Louisiana, there are many such places.
Learning the subtleties of your favorite fishing holes will be what makes the difference between catching blues and having the blues.