A Look at our Best Trophy Cat Waters
September 28, 2010
Follow the suggestions of these experts to locate and catch some of the biggest catfish in Louisiana.
By Glynn Harris
When talking about lunker catfish swimming in Louisiana's lakes and streams, "big" becomes a relative term. A 30-pound cat is a genuine whopper if it's a channel catfish, but it will take a blue catfish weighing 75 pounds or so to begin turning heads. A 60-pound flathead would do the same.
According to records maintained by the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, the largest channel catfish ever certified from Louisiana waters was a 30.31-pounder caught in a canal in 1977. The Louisiana record for flathead catfish was a 66.0-pound fish caught on the Red River near Shreveport in 1998 by Harley Rakes. The state's record for blue catfish, weighing 105.0 pounds, was pulled from the Mississippi River in 1997 by Joseph Wiggins.
Let's start with a crash course in catfish identification. While all three of these fish - channels, blues and flatheads (along with diminutive bullheads, which won't be covered in this article) - swim in Louisiana's waters, they're each a different breed of cat. Just so you'll know what you caught, here are some basic identifying characteristics of the three species of catfish in Louisiana, as described by author Keith Sutton in his book, Fishing for Catfish.
The smaller of the three, the channel catfish, are called by a variety of names - blue-channel, speckled cat, and chucklehead, to name a few.
Channel cats are much sleeker and more attractive than flatheads or blues. Most are silvery gray to coppery brown with a white belly. They have a deep-forked tail and a prominent upper jaw that extends well beyond the lower. Juvenile fish are distinguished by a number of small black spots that fade in adulthood.
Channel catfish are often confused with blue catfish. The best way to distinguish between the two is to check the anal fin. On a channel cat, the anal fin has 24 to 29 rays and is rounded. The anal fin on a blue catfish has a straight outer edge and consists of at least 30 rays. The principle difference between channel catfish and blue cats is the size. Catch a 50-pounder and you can be pretty sure it's not a channel.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Channel catfish provide the filets that serve as the entrée at your favorite catfish restaurant, most of which are farm-raised.
Blue catfish vary in color from slate blue to grayish brown on their back and sides, fading to a whitish belly. While both blues and channels have forked tails and similar coloration, blues lack the small black spots punctuating the sides of young channels.
The largest specimen of blue catfish recorded this century weighed 128 pounds. However, this fish, which was caught in Louisiana's Atchafalaya Basin in 1978, is not entered in rod-and-reel records because it was caught commercially.
The flathead catfish, featuring markedly different looks than channels or blues, is a brute of a fish, muscular and streamlined. In Louisiana, the flathead is commonly known as the spotted cat, Opelousas cat, or simply Op.
Flatheads are brown to yellowish with varying degrees of mottling on their sides. The head is broad and flattened, hence its name. The tail is squarish and the lower jaw protrudes past the upper.
BLUES AND CHANNELS
In general, the best place to catch big catfish is in big waters. In Louisiana, it doesn't take a degree in rocket science to realize that there is no bigger body of water in the state than the Mississippi River.
In checking state blue catfish records, the top three fish entered in the records were all caught from the Mississippi River, the largest weighing 105 pounds. However, that is not the largest blue catfish caught by rod and reel in Louisiana, according to Tim Morrison, Program Manager and Sport Fish Coordinator for the Fisheries Section of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
"I saw and personally weighed a blue catfish caught a few years ago from the Mississippi River near Donaldsonville that weighed 120 pounds. I aged the fish, using sections of backbone that show rings much like aging a tree. From best accounts, this big old blue was about 40 years old. The guy who caught it never bothered to enter it into the records," said Morrison.
Granted, catching a 120-pound blue catfish is not an everyday occurrence on the Mighty Mississippi. However, those who have figured out a pattern of catching blue cats in the Big Muddy catch big cats regularly, according to Morrison.
"All up and down the Mississippi are grain elevators filled with corn. When grain is transferred from the elevators to barges, there is significant spillage, and the big blue cats have figured this out, as have the fishermen.
"You'll see fishermen in boats or fishing off the banks with heavy duty rods and reels using shad or cut bait. These guys fish all day for a bite or two, knowing that when they hook up with a fish, it might take an hour or more to land 'em," Morrison added.
There are a number of grain elevators south of Baton Rouge along the Mississippi where anglers can try their hand at outlasting a mighty Mississippi blue catfish. However, fishermen are cautioned to be sure they have permission to fish from the banks on private lands since some of the area along the river is posted.
"There is also good catfishing further south around Lake Maurepas and Lake Pontchartrain. These waters have varying levels of saline, depending on water levels. Blue catfish seem to be better able to tolerate higher saline levels than other species of catfish," said Morrison.
WHERE FLATHEADS RULE
In the northern portion of the state, another species of catfish is king. The flathead catfish has been at home for eons in some of the older lakes of north Louisiana. One of the more popular flathead fishing lakes is Lake Bistineau southeast of Shreveport. While anglers on the Mississippi might utilize rods and reels to haul out oversized blue catfish, the profusion of trees and brush makes it practically impossible to consider using the same type of equipment on Lake Bistineau. Thus, Bistineau catfishermen generally set out limb lines baited with live bream to entice bites from Bistineau's big Ops.
Flathead catfish are generally nocturnal creatures, lying sedate beneath submerged logs or in hollow stumps during the day. At night, they move up in the water column to feed on sunfish, shad, or
other catfish they find around stumps and beneath overhanging branches of trees.
With this habit of the fish in mind, successful flathead anglers on Bistineau usually go after their quarry by the use of limblines.
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to fish for flatheads on Bistineau with two of that area's most noted catfishermen, Don Hoenke and Bobby Joe King.
As we motored down the lake to check the limblines set the day before, I couldn't help but notice some arm-sized lower limbs on cypresses growing along the channel were gnarled and twisted - some torn completely off.
When I questioned the cause of such damage to these limbs, Hoenke chuckled and said, "Big catfish did it." With some old bruisers approaching 100 pounds in weight, the cypresses along the channel wore their scars with pride of battles lost with the big fish.
Hoenke offered some tips for limblining these behemoths: "In a moving stream, most fish are caught with the bait fished just off the bottom, and the best time to go after them is when the stream is on the rise in spring," said Hoenke.
However, Hoenke pointed out some subtle differences in fishing for flatheads in a stream and in a lake. "I've learned that it's not necessary to fish near the bottom in a lake. Fishing is best when the water level is stable and water temperature is relatively warm.
"Fishing with Bobby Joe (King) has taught me a lot. He has proven time and again that you can catch flatheads in a lake fishing only a few feet deep. The fish move up at night and they like to feed around old stumps where bream go for cover. They'll search the stump all the way to the top of the water looking for bream," said Hoenke.
Flatheads are not scavengers, unlike other species of catfish. Studies have shown that while smaller flatheads feed primarily on crawfish, larger specimens feed almost exclusively on live fish, such as sunfish, gizzard shad and other catfish.
Obviously, when you're dealing with an adversary the size and weight of a big flathead on his turf, heavyweight gear is required.
"We use 10/0 hooks, and even with one this size, we've had lots of them straightened by big cats. We use a #60 nylon line with a strength test of over 500 pounds. We weight it with a seven-ounce sinker. This magnum rig is tied to a limb, and when a big flathead takes the bait, it becomes a matter of who wears out first - the fish or the limb."
Lake Bistineau is dotted with green cypress trees, and these are favorite sets as the limbs are tough and springy. Even so, as my trip along the channel bore out, some limbs cannot withstand the sheer power of 60 pounds of flathead fury attempting to gain its freedom.
"We usually double-tie the line to more than one limb to insure against the loss of a fish should one limb break," Hoenke explained.
The day we ran the lines proved to be an interesting one indeed. First, we moved to the shallows armed with poles and crickets, catching a basket of plump bluegills and redears to be used for bait for the night of catfishing.
Some of the lines we checked that had been baited the afternoon before showed signs that something was amiss. Instead of dangling straight down in the water from the weight of the sinker, a line may be pulled back against the trunk of the cypress from which it hung.
Hoenke carefully reached for the line on one particular tree, nodded and grinned. "We got one here," he said as he carefully hauled in the line with a gloved hand. Momentarily, the water erupted next to the boat as the fish surfaced and then bore for the depths. An unprotected hand may well have been deeply cut by the zinging line, but Hoenke eventually eased the fish boatside, grasping the lower jaw and hoisting the 20-pounder aboard.
"As you can see, they put up quite a fight - sort of like having a bull yearling at the end of a rope. Once you get him played down, the best way to land him is to stick your hand in his mouth and grasp the lower jaw," said Hoenke. "A flathead catfish doesn't bite, but his teeth are like sandpaper and you can lose some skin if he twists and turns while you hang on."
I missed a golden opportunity to see a battle with a really big flathead because the following morning, Hoenke and King drove up to my home with several catfish they had caught the night after I left the lake. Included in the catch was a 64-pounder.
THAT ARE WORTH A TRY
Although the Mississippi River and Lake Bistineau are two of the most popular water bodies to catch big catfish, there are other prime spots from one end of the state to the other. Here are a few other prime areas our research has revealed.
Several south Louisiana lakes are known for excellent catfishing with the ever-present possibility of tying into a real bruiser. We talked with fisheries biologist Mark McElroy about catfishing in south Louisiana, and he highlighted two areas in particular where catfishing is excellent.
"The Verrett system includes Lake Verrett, Grassy Lake and Lake Palourde - lakes that are all connected and inundating some 20,000 total acres. This area, just north of Morgan City, features water highly enriched with nutrients and plenty of forage. Channels, blues and flatheads are all present in these waters, and catfishing here is a popular sport," said McElroy.
"Another lake in south Louisiana is as good as it gets for catfish. Lake des Allemands is one of the best for all species of catfish. Run-off from nearby farms provides a great nutrient base, and there is excellent breeding habitat with stumps, logs and cans placed in the lake by fishermen," McElroy added.
Southwest Louisiana also has its super catfishing waters, especially the Calcasieu River near Lake Charles. According to information furnished by the Lake Charles District LDWF office, the Calcasieu features flatheads, blues and channel catfish.
Salinity levels rise and fall on the river, and when levels of salt water rise, only blue catfish can be caught. This river features some really big blue catfish that will respond to a variety of baits, from cut bait to chicken liver to blood bait. One interesting feature of catfishing on a river connected to the Gulf of Mexico is that you might also tie into a redfish, flounder or speckled trout while fishing for cats.
In northeast Louisiana, there are numerous bodies of water where catfishing is popular. Mike Woods, fisheries biologist with the Monroe LDWF office, taps Lake D'Arbonne as one of the best.
"This lake has a tremendous population of channel and flathead catfish. To catch a big flathead, anglers usually utilize trotlines or stump hooks baited with live bream or goldfish. They'll set their lines along the edge of the channels, waiting for a catfish to go on a feeding spree. Best fishing is at night wh
en flatheads begin moving around the base of trees and stumps in search of food, usually bluegills or redears. Some real big ones come out of this lake every year," said Wood.
Another great spot to catch a big catfish is the Red River, especially now that a system of locks and dams are in place. James Seales, fisheries biologist for the Minden LDWF office, believes that the Red River is one of the area's better catfishing holes.
"The Red River had some huge catfish before the locks and dams were put in place. There have been some really big flatheads and blue catfish caught out of the Red River. In fact," said Seales, "the state record flathead caught by rod and reel, and weighing 66 pounds, was caught near Shreveport on the Red River.
"Fishing for catfish is good all up and down the river, especially just above the locks. Deeper water in this area is probably the reason," Seales added.
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Want to try your hand at wrestling down one of the biggest and baddest freshwater fish to be found in Louisiana? You might try one of these catfishing spots we've highlighted. Who knows, you just might put your name in the record book.