The State Of Sooner State Catfishin'

There's really no such thing as "bad" catfish waters in Oklahoma -- provided that you know where and how to fish them. We've got tips on taking blues, flatheads, channels and even bullheads statewide.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

I have Okie bass-fishing friends who would go apoplectic if you tried to step into their boats with a package of chicken livers or a jar of stink bait. Catfish, they feel, are inferior fish that just happen to share an environment with their revered black bass.

They're snobs. And their punishment is that they miss out on the fun, and the tasty rewards, that so many know to be part and parcel of catfishing.

Catfishing, like any other kind of fishing, can be as much of a science or an art as you make it. A mountain-stream purist who delicately drifts a dry fly over feeding trout is no more accomplished an angler than a dedicated catfisherman who knows just what kind of bait to use and how and where to present it to catch various species of catfish at any given time and place.

OK -- I'll admit that it can be a little messier than fishing with artificials. But it's still fun. And no one looks at you like you're a child molester if you say you filleted a few catfish for the table.

It's been my pleasure, in what is now nearly 30 years of writing about the Oklahoma outdoors, to have fished with and learned from some of the best catfishermen in the state. And I've spent some amazing days on the water with them, catching big blue cats, even bigger flatheads, lots of channel cats and more than a few of the lowly bullheads commonly resident in many Oklahoma creeks and ponds.

I've lost rods and reels to strong, aggressive catfish that pulled them into the water. Scarier, I once nearly lost my 6-year-old son to the water as he battled a 12-pound channel cat that pulled him steadily closer to the end of the dock. I held onto his belt from the back while he fought the fish; at first he screamed for me to take the rod from him and catch the fish myself, but after he felt my hand holding his belt, he renewed his efforts and wore the fish out in a battle that lasted a good 10 minutes. Then he had to drag the fish onto the beach, because it was too big to lift onto the high dock.

I've dined on many a plate of tasty catfish filets and worn out a couple of electric knives filleting cats of all sizes from Oklahoma waters. And I've watched the water turn to froth as fisheries biologists on sampling expeditions jolted resting catfish with electricity, causing them to thrash and splash and turn a half-acre of water into what looked like a storm-tossed sea.

Catfishing is fun. No matter whether you get down in the trenches and wrestle flatheads by hand as a noodler in a Western Oklahoma flatland creek or drift grasshoppers with the current on a fly rod in a cool Ouachita Mountain stream, Oklahoma offers a lot of varied catfishing opportunities. Let's look at a few venues at which you might fill your stringer with catfish this summer.

I was talking recently with a bass-fishing friend -- an enthusiast with a glittery fiberglass boat and a dozen bait-casting rods and reels tipped with shiny lures of many styles -- whose wife is the "catfisherman" in the family. Parked next to his bass boat is his spouse's small, drab johnboat.

We were talking about blues replacing channel cats as the dominant species at one lake after another, such that blue catfish are now probably the most-caught cat species at every large Oklahoma reservoir. I personally like that change. It's not that I have anything against channel cats; it's just that I've always found blue cats to be much more willing to get caught.

Channel cats both big and small will often nibble a bait to pieces, without ever taking the whole thing into their mouths and getting hooked. I wish I had a dollar for every time I've jerked back on a fishing pole while a channel cat was nibbling, only to pull the bait away from the fish. Blue cats, on the other hand, tend to try to jerk the rod right out of your hand.

Yes, I've had channel cats do the same. I once made a dive and caught a rod in midair, just as it was falling toward the water, when a channel cat tried to jerk the rod into a pond. But blue cats will attack aggressively most of the time, while channel cats more often peck sneakily away.

Accordingly, the increase in blue catfish populations has just made catfishing easier at most of Oklahoma's large reservoirs. It's not uncommon for a couple of anglers to go to the lake these days and come home with 100 pounds of catfish after only a few hours of effort.

I can't tell you that the change has occurred in every large reservoir, but I know that numbers of blues have surpassed numbers of channel cats in many of the lakes that my friends and/or I fish, among them Texoma, Eufaula, Grand, Hudson and Fort Gibson, plus Webbers Falls and Robert S. Kerr. Keystone and Kaw, as well as Hugo, have all undergone the transition. There are probably others as well. All of those lakes have a lot to offer in terms of summertime catfishing.

In the month of June, spawning cats may be the easiest targets. Blue cats will actually be nearing the end of their spawning season by June; they may start spawning as early as mid-April, but they're typically through with it at about the time that the channel cat spawn gets rolling. Channels spawn in May and June, while flatheads tend to spawn slightly later, occasionally starting in May, but usually going from mid-June through early July.

All three species tend to be cavity nesters, preferring nests in protected places for depositing and fertilizing their eggs -- in caves or crevices around rocks, under overhanging ledges or cutbanks, or even within human-provided shelters such as barrels lying on their sides.

At many Oklahoma lakes, riprapped shorelines provide welcoming spawning habitat for all three species. Many of our large lakes feature miles of riprap along highway or railroad beds, on the faces of dams, around bridges or, sometimes, on erosion-prone shorelines. All such sites hold promise for anglers on the prowl for spawning blue, channel and flathead catfish.

Many of our lakes also have rock bluff shorelines, or shorelines covered with large boulders. These too serve as spawning habitat for cats.

Evidence that rewarding catfishing is to be had at this time of the year can be found in the rod-and-line fishing records: Three of the four state records for catfish were set in the second half of May.

The record channel cat, a 34-pound, 11-ounce whopper that replaced a longstanding record-holder, was caught three years ag

o -- May 16, 2002 -- at Canton Lake. El Reno Lake surrendered the 72 1/2-pounder that is the current record flathead on May 20, 2004.

And I would be remiss in my duty as a comprehensive catfisherman were I not to mention the record set by the 6-pound, 13-ounce bullhead catfish (black bullhead, if you want to be precise) taken 21 years ago, on May 24, 1984, from the waters of a Jackson County farm pond. (Often disregarded, if not disdained, in Eastern Oklahoma, bullheads are a valued fishery resource in the ponds and stock tanks of Western Oklahoma.)

Only the blue cat record -- just broken again, on Veterans' Day, Nov. 11, of last year, by a 98-pound specimen from Lake Texoma -- was established outside of spawning seasons. (For more information on that great catch, see "Big Ones From Texoma" starting on page 17 of this issue.)

One reason behind this tendency for records to be set during the pawning season is a fairly unsurprising one: Spawning females are laden with eggs and are thus markedly heavier than is usual. Another reason: As most catfish spawn near shorelines, they're more accessible to more anglers; many cats are caught by people fishing from shore.

Earlier, I listed several lakes whose blue cat complements have grown in the past couple of decades, eclipsing to some degree the formerly more numerous channel cats swimming their waters. During the spawning season, both of those fish can be caught around nesting areas by drifting baits beneath bobbers or by tightlining. I've caught spawning channels and blues at Lake Eufaula by hanging a hook baited with shrimp only 3 or 4 inches beneath a bobber and then letting the wind push the bait along a riprapped shoreline within a couple of feet of the water's edge.

I don't know if catfish will actually leave their nests to take a bait or not. I've always believed that some of the fish I catch aren't actually on the nest yet but are prowling the spawning areas looking for mates, or in preparation for spawning.

You can also catch flathead catfish by drifting a bait near spawning areas, but with flatheads you pretty much have to use live bait. Big, lively minnows or small sunfish will do nicely as enticements for flatheads.


It's not uncommon for a couple of anglers to go to the lake these days and come home with 100 pounds of catfish after only a few hours of effort.
 

You can also set trotlines along shorelines along which catfish are likely to spawn. However, if you set trotlines, please check them daily. Not only is it required by law, but it's also just common courtesy. A trotline set parallel to shore a few yards out from the water's edge can be very effective, but it's also seriously in the way for bass fishermen casting their spinnerbaits, crankbaits and other lures to the shoreline. Most bassers don't mind fishing around a trotline that's being run and maintained properly, but many resent getting their lines, trolling motors and outboards tangled in derelict trotlines from whose rusty hooks hang long-dead fish.

Another very profitable way of catching spawning cats along shorelines is the use of limblines or bank poles. Poles that allow baits to hang in the water along rocky shorelines can get some very satisfactory results. Make sure to anchor poles well, though, and to set them at an angle that makes the fish fight against the pole and wear itself out.

I've used poles cut from a variety of sources: the decorative, bamboo-like cane that people grow in their yards; river cane stalks cut along southeastern Oklahoma creeks; skinny, green saplings cut from a woodlot. On riprapped shores it's often possible to wedge the poles into the rocks at the proper angle; on some rocky shorelines you can do the same.

After the spawning period dwindles away, drift-fishing is perhaps the optimal technique throughout the hottest summer months. For drift-fishing on large lakes, there is no bait as appealing as fresh shad. I always start a day of drifting with my cast net, catching a dozen or two small shad to bait my hooks. I prefer shad 2 to 4 inches long; if all I can catch are larger shad, I'll cut them into smaller pieces. I keep the shad on ice in a small ice chest, which is sufficient to keep it fresh for several hours.

Once you have the bait, it's time to find the fish. I prefer to drift over flats on which are as few snags as possible. There are flats in many of our lakes on which silt has settled, covering much of the original vegetation that grew there before the lake was filled, leaving relatively smooth lake bottoms over which baited hooks can be dragged without too many hangups.

I use sonar to locate fish near the bottom; then, I position my boat upwind and drift across the flats. I usually tie a bell sinker on the end of my line. My baited hook -- usually a 3/0 or 4/0 size -- is tied on a dropper about 12 to 18 inches above a sinker whose size will depend on wind speed. It needs to be heavy enough to keep the bait near the bottom, but no heavier.

My boat has removable rod holders on the gunwales. Drifting for cats is the only time I use the rod holders, as that's just about the only time I ever use bait. If you plan to do much drift-fishing, I'd recommend installing rod holders. If you don't have them, then make sure your rods are secured in some way to keep them from being pulled out of the boat when a 10-pound blue cat slams your bait.

Another form of summertime catfishing that I love is wading or floating creeks and rivers. I've caught some nice stringers of channel cats by drifting grasshoppers or night crawlers into logjams and into the shade of midstream boulders, or into the dark beneath undercut creek banks.

Catfish are primarily nocturnal creatures, although they do venture out in daylight at times. More often, they spend the daylight hours lying in the shade or in small caves or crevices. They'll grab whatever food drifts by, even though they may not move far to get it.

BULLY FOR BULLHEADS!

I grew up in Enid, in northwestern Oklahoma, where there were few impoundments larger than a farm pond. We had Canton and Salt Plains lakes back then, and Enid had a couple of small park lakes.

Mostly we fished ponds and small, sluggish prairie streams. The fish we caught more often than anything else were bullheads. They were very cooperative. They'd eat anything from store-bought shrimp and stink baits to hand-dug worms, grubs, or even bits of cheese or wieners or balled-up bread. Maybe that's what I liked about 'em.

I caught hundreds of them, and when I caught one that weighed an honest pound, I thought I had a trophy. I've only seen two or three bullheads that weighed more than 2 pounds in my life. I can't imagine catching one as big as our almost-7-pound state record.

They're good to eat, easy to catch and they're found in

lots of places. What's not to like about a fish like that? -- Bob Bledsoe

 

A great way to spend a hot summer afternoon is to wade a small creek or use a float tube to drift baits into catfish hideouts. The biggest problem with this kind of fishing is that you'll often catch more black bass and big sunfish than you will catfish. Largemouth, spotted and smallmouth bass, as well as the big green sunfish that inhabit most Oklahoma creeks and rivers, will grab a grasshopper or night crawler just as readily as a catfish will. I usually release all non-catfish immediately, although I've been known to put a few of the bigger green sunfish on the stringer, too.

I've waded creeks in many counties from Interstate 35 east, from up near the Kansas border clear down to the counties bordering Texas, catching summertime catfish. I prefer the rocky, cool streams of the Ouachita Mountains for this kind of fishing, but the fishing is actually more productive most of the time in the prairie and woodland streams in Osage, Pawnee, Payne, Creek, Seminole, Pottawatomie, Pontotoc, Hughes and Johnson counties.

We Oklahomans have some wonderful catfishing resources scattered throughout our state. You can catch the whiskered fish year 'round, but the coming weeks bring some of the best times of the year to fill your freezer with tasty catfish filets. Think about that when it comes time to plan your next fishing trip!

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