Fire Cracker Cats

Fire Cracker Cats

You'll find that the catfishing at these Oklahoma lakes is hot as a firecracker this month!

Ron Cantrell has his hands full with this 51 1/4-inch flathead that he caught at El Reno Lake last summer. The 72 1/2-pound monster cat set a new state record for the species.
Photo courtesy of Ron Cantrell

As a small boy, I learned to fish by tagging along with my dad while he fished a golf course pond a short walk from where we lived. I observed his prowess, and learned to emulate his tactics, and soon became addicted to the hobby that my father loved so much. When I was old enough to fish by myself, I found that the waterhole had a solid population of bass -- and incredible numbers of catfish.

I soon figured out that when I wanted to catch a lot of fish in any type of weather, I could go after the catfish. In the process, I found I could get my hook bit all day long by using either liver or the red wigglers I could dig out of my mother's flowerbeds.

Determinedly honing my youthful catfishing skills, I worked up to catching and releasing nearly 100 "yellow cats" (the name we used for the lake's flatheads) on most days. The diminutive venue wasn't a source of world-class specimens -- nothing I caught ever exceeded 5 pounds -- but nevertheless, I have fond memories of that little catfish hole.

Now, some 30 years later, that golf course pond is off limits to anglers, but I still try to make time each summer to go catch myself a mess of catfish. Happily, Oklahoma's catfish anglers are blessed with a wealth of lakes, rivers, creeks and ponds plenteously populated with catfish, and when conditions are right, these waters can fill creels with generous catches of the best-eating fish around.

"According to surveys," said the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation biologist Gene Gilliland, "if you lump all three catfish species together, they rate as the most popular choices for Sooner anglers."

However, since tactics and baits vary around the state, Sooner catfish chasers can score big by picking up on the following expert tips on the best spots statewide for taking home the makings of a feast of catfish filets.

CATFISH CHARACTERISTICS

Three species of catfish -- blues, channels and flatheads -- predominate in Oklahoma; spoonbill catfish and bullheads are present as well.

The blue catfish is easily identified. Colored a slate blue fading to white on the lower body, it has a semi-forked tail and a long anal fin. These catfish spawn when water temperatures reach 75 degrees and nest under logs, drift piles, or in large cavity-type structures. The blues' hearty diet consists solely of fish; their preference is for shad, minnows and sunfish. In some lakes, blues have grown to legendary proportions, some well over 100 pounds.

The channel catfish's colors vary from greenish brown to slate blue, fading to silver-white on the lower body, sometimes exhibiting a purple iridescence, sometimes randomly marked with dark speckles. Its tail is deeply forked, and, like a blue, it has a long, rounded anal fin. Channel cats spawn in rocky riprap areas when water temperatures reach 80 degrees.

According to Gilliland, channel catfish will eat almost anything. "Channel cats are very nonselective feeders and will eat a variety of food. However, most channel catfish over 6 or 7 pounds prefer live fish as their main diet."

Flathead catfish have a slender body with a wide, flat head -- hence their common name. They are yellowish-brown in color with a mottling on the upper body; their bellies range from white to yellow. Their tails do not fork, and their anal fin is short, lacking the elongation seen in that of the blue and the channel. Like channel catfish, flatheads prefer to spawn when waters warm to 80 degrees.

Catfish in general are tolerant of higher temperatures; their metabolisms speed up and they feed more actively when the water warms up. And the lips of all cats sport barbels, the slender, fleshy processes (as fish anatomists call them) that have garnered them the affectionate nickname "whiskerfish." These tentacle-like sensory organs serve to augment the senses of touch, taste and smell (especially the latter two) and aid in both food location and navigation.

BEST WATERS FOR BLUES

Blue catfish have achieved considerable popularity as sportfish in Oklahoma, not least because they're flourishing in most of the state's lakes and rivers, in some cases growing to monstrous proportions. This popularity is the mainstay of several catfish guiding businesses.

Lake Texoma, in the south-central part of the state, is celebrated for its stripers and sand bass, but in the last few years, the huge blue cats that have been taken there have gotten the attention of a lot of anglers. Our current rod-and-reel state-record blue -- Billy Nabors' 98-pounder -- was caught at Texoma recently. The big border lake also yielded the unrestricted class state-record blue catfish; caught on a trotline by Dan Grider, it weighed 118 pounds, 8 ounces. Lake Texoma is also home to the world-record blue cat -- though it was caught on the Texas side of the lake. The leviathan, weighing 121 pounds, 8 ounces, was brought in on a rod-and-reel rig by Cody Mullenix.

According to ODWC lake biologist Paul Mauck, Texoma's blue catfish are more sought after every year. "Anglers recognize that Texoma is an old lake that has some big catfish in it," he said. "However, most people do not realize that it takes 12 years for a blue cat to reach 10 pounds, on average; they grow very slowly. It takes a long time to produce a really big blue cat, so I try to advocate releasing the big blue catfish and eating the smaller ones under 10 pounds."

Mauck says that the best baits for Texoma's blue catfish are cut shad and live sunfish. He believes that in August, catfish anglers should target those of the lake's upper regions that are fed by arms or rivers, as blue cats dependably frequent such spots.

Another hotspot loaded with plus-sized blue catfish is Grand Lake, which is in the northeast part of the state. Catfish guide Jeff Williams catches some huge blues at Grand. He's of the opinion that this lake plays host to incredible numbers of larger-than-average blues. Like Mauck, he's is a believer in releasing all blue cats over 10 pounds.

River anglers will be pleased to hear that the Arkansas River system is full of all sizes of blue catfish. According to fishing guide Delmer Shoults -- (918) 773-5213 -- enormous cats swim its length. He speaks from experience, having hooked catfish on both rod and reel and on juglines that were too big to land, finally breaking his line when trying to boat them.

The veteran guide's favorite blue catfish bait: cut shad. Shoults says that the point at which the Arkansas River forms Kerr Reservoir is a terrific spot for catching a mess of blue cats.

FAVORITE SPOTS FOR CHANNEL CATFISH

Channel catfish are found statewide -- little wonder, then, that they're a favorite of many bait-fishermen.

I grew up in Oklahoma City, so I've always held Lake Hefner, nestled in the north-central part of the city, in high esteem. It offers some outstanding channel cat fishing; the average catch weighs between 1 1/2 and 3 pounds.

The long, rocky riprap areas on the north and east sides of the lake are promising sites. Most anglers there will tightline their favorite catfish baits -- more or less noisome offerings like cut shad, liver, shrimp, dead minnows, stink baits, and their own homemade aromatic concoctions.

Carl Jones is a catfish expert at Hefner and a fixture there nearly year 'round. He regularly catches a basketful of channel cats by using a slip-cork and his own catfish punch bait. He markets the stuff at several tackle shops in Oklahoma as well as at his own nearby bait shop, Hefner Bait & Tackle. Like many another creator of catfish bait, Jones claims that his version incorporates "secret ingredients" that'll call in the catfish when other enticements fail.

Jones fishes off the long, rocky dam area; there, he normally finds the catfish in 6 to 8 feet of water. He says that in August, the lake's catfish start the transition into their fall patterns, and so can sometimes be tough to catch during the hot daytime hours. For this reason, he prefers to fish early in the morning or late in the evening.

"If anglers will stop in or call me at my bait shop" -- (405) 720-9922 -- "I will gladly tell them where the best spots to fish are, and give them up-to-the-minute fishing reports," Jones offered.

August finds Larry Sikes, another Oklahoma City catfish guru, night-fishing Hefner, which affords him some nice catches. Sikes' favorite spots are the points located on the west and southwest parts of the lake. He uses gourmet shrimp that he buys at his local grocery store, because he believes that catfish prefer it to bait-grade shrimp. "I have tried bait shrimp, and the catfish don't bite it as well as the more expensive store-bought variety," he explained. He'll occasionally use earthworms, but primarily goes with the shrimp.

By preference, Sikes hurls his bait to the weedline located nearly 100 yards offshore by means of a long pole with 50-pound-test braided line. His catfish tactics earn big dividends: He usually catches enough catfish to provide him and his wife with several good meals.


I too was once a pious bass angler -- that is, until I learned that catfish will actually bite more readily year 'round than bass will.

 

Another great spot for channel cats is Salt Plains Reservoir, near Jet in the north-central part of the state. A catfish angler himself, ODWC biologist John Stahl oversees the lake. He reports that the catfish in Salt Plains will average 3 to 5 pounds, with some weighing 7 to 12 pounds. The most effective bait for Salt Plains channel cats is cut shad, he feels.

Canton Reservoir, near the town of the same name, is another venue whose channel cat prospects are outstanding. It gave up the state record caught by Barry Bond a few years back -- a massy cat weighing an amazing 34 pounds, 11 ounces!

According to Stahl, the baits that work on Canton's channel cats are earthworms, cut shad, and large shiner minnows. The preferred fishing method involves drifting baits over the suspended catfish habitat found throughout the lake. The average-sized channel cat will weigh 3 to 7 pounds, but catches in excess of 20 pounds are not uncommon.

Waurika Lake, lying near the town of the same name in the southwest part of the state, has a lot going for it when it comes to channel catfish.

"Waurika's channel catfish will average from 2 to 5 pounds," offered ODWC biologist Larry Cofer. "Most fishing is done by boat, since there is little bank-fishing access. Best spots to fish are off windy points using cut shad."

Want to catch serious numbers of channel catfish? Konawa Lake's the place for you. An hour's drive southeast of Oklahoma City, it plays host to myriad catfish. The average-sized channel cat there will be relatively small, but catching a limit there won't generally prove to be especially difficult.

Arcadia Lake, near Edmond, is a smart choice for the channel cat enthusiast, as it's normally easy to catch a mess of the tasty fish there on a summer's day. I fish Arcadia during the hot months, because the catfish bite there is fantastic. I've met with the most success by drifting cut shad over several of the ODWC's submerged fish attractors, which are marked with buoys; the whiskered fish find these structures very welcoming.

The average channel cat at Arcadia will weigh from 2 to 5 pounds. On my last trip there, I hooked an 8-pound channel cat on light tackle and had a tough time boating the scrappy fighter.

FANTASTIC FLATHEAD FISHERIES

Flathead catfish are no doubt the ugly ducklings of the catfish family. But according to Carl Jones, flatheads are tops when it comes to tasty table fare. They inhabit most of the state's rivers, creeks, lakes, and ponds and can be caught on a variety of baits.

The current state-record flathead was caught May 20, 2004, by Ron "Barefoot" Cantrell at El Reno Lake; the beast weighed 72 pounds, 8 ounces. Cantrell fishes El Reno Lake often, owing to its proximity to his home. Barefoot's luck is at its peak in the late evening and at night.

Cantrell catches flatheads in water 3 to 4 feet deep when the big cats come into the shallows to feed. He primarily uses cut shad for bait, but he sometimes catches flatheads on live bait, like perch and shad, that he keeps lively in an aerated bait tank.

The ODWC's John Stahl cites Fort Supply near Woodward as a savvy pick for those out for large flathead catfish. He says that boat anglers can drift-fish with cut shad, live bluegills, or other sunfish and get respectable results. The most profitable spots to fish on the lake are the areas between Coors Island and the dam. Although the lake doesn't hold a notable quantity of flatheads, the ones that are caught are generally of considerable size.

Lake Eufaula, the state's largest lake, is a truly great flathead venue. I hooked a monster flathead one hot summer night at an indoor fishing marina; the yellowish-green creature broke my line as I managed to get the fish only partially out of the water.

The North and South Canadian rivers as well as the Washita and Cimarron rivers contain loads of big flatheads, as well as significant complements

of blues and channels. A significant plus: These vast river systems enable relatively easy access.

Lake Hefner hosts plenty of channels and blues, but, according to Cantrell, there are some huge flatheads that can be caught near the boat slips on the west side of the lake. (Be aware that the boat slips themselves are private property, and that no fishing is allowed without permission.

Lake Overholser in the northwestern part of Oklahoma City is a real sleeper lake when it comes to catfish, being a home for the big three species. The inlet canals flowing into the small city reservoir are recommended for those looking to tangle with a large flathead.

CLOSING THOUGHTS ON OKIE CATFISH

The waters named here are merely some of the candidates for the category of the Sooner State's best catfish waters. The list's certainly not exhaustive, and it's sure to have omitted several waters that other catfishermen consider hotspots -- but it's a good starting point. Creek or lake, boat or bank: Wherever, whenever, however, catching a catfish is always a real treat, and a great way to spend some quality time in God's great outdoors.

You dyed-in-the-wool artificial-bait anglers who think that fishing for the lowly catfish is beneath your dignity don't know what you're missing. I too was once a pious bass angler -- that is, until I learned that catfish will actually bite more readily year 'round than bass will.

So the logical question is: Should I take my bass tackle or my catfish tackle when I go fishing? The answer's simple: both!

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