Running the Rivers for Oklahoma Cats

To find our best fishing for Old Whiskers this month, it's the flowing streams of Oklahoma that you'll want to hit. (July 2006)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Most Sooner State catfishing is done in reservoirs these days.

Oklahoma is blessed with hundreds of thousands of surface-acres of water in dozens of large reservoirs, most of which have abundant populations of channel, blue, and flathead catfish.

But all of these are stream fish by nature. They've adapted well to reservoir environments, but they originally made their home mostly in moving streams. (Why do you think they call 'em "channel cats," anyway?)

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of camping on the banks of creeks and running trotlines under the light of a Coleman lantern. I remember watching eagerly as we pulled ourselves along the line, re-baiting hooks and watching for the telltale movement imparted to the set by a catfish thrashing on a dropper somewhere just ahead.

Catching catfish in streams is a family tradition for many Oklahoma families -- a tradition that predates the construction of most of those big dams and reservoirs. And while the big lakes have inundated many miles of streams, especially in Eastern Oklahoma, hundreds of miles of creeks and rivers whose catfishing can be downright excellent still thread the Sooner landscape.

It doesn't matter whether you fish the clear, rocky streams of the Eastern Oklahoma highlands or the turbid streams of the prairies: Catfish swim just about every flowing stream, and even haunt holes in some intermittent flows. Not one county east of Interstate 35, which roughly bisects the state, is without numerous streams in which catfish of one or more species can be caught.

To begin, let's talk about the larger rivers; there, all three species of larger catfish can be found.

First, of course, is the Arkansas River, which, entering the state north of Ponca City, is dammed in two places to form Kaw and Keystone lakes and gathers the waters of the Salt Fork, Chikaskia and Cimarron rivers before it reaches Tulsa. Below Tulsa, the Arkansas flows free for many miles, augmented along the way by the inflow from dozens of creeks, before swelling in size just above Muskogee, where it's joined by two other major rivers, the Verdigris and Neosho (Grand). Dammed again to form Webbers Falls and Robert S. Kerr reservoirs, it absorbs the Illinois and Canadian rivers. Downstream from Kerr Dam are more navigation pools -- long, narrow reservoirs with lots of moving water.

Catching catfish in streams can be quite different from fishing in reservoirs. Current is the key to finding fish and catching them. Black bass, striped bass, walleyes, catfish -- it doesn't matter: Understanding how the fish relate to current can make your time on the water much more worthwhile.

I believe that fish, like most creatures, are pretty adaptable. They don't always behave the same way in every environment, and they learn to respond to change both rapid and gradual.

Ask anyone who has raised channel cats in a small pond and provisioned the fish either with timer-actuated automatic feeders or by hand. Just prior to the devices' going off and scattering pellets of food over the water, fish will gather under the feeders in anticipation. And I've known people who beat on a metal pole in the water or on the planks of a wooden dock to signal that it's feeding time just before they'd toss out the food. In a short time, fish learn to respond to those signals; even before the first pellet of food hits the water's surface they may start to thrash on the surface of the water as soon as the banging begins.

Wild fish learn and respond also. I want to talk mostly about stream-fishing here -- but I'll tell one quick story about a pond just to illustrate how catfish can adapt to altered circumstances. I used to have access to a catfish/bass pond that was loaded with channel cats in the 8- to 12-pound range. Although I rarely kept more than a single fish to eat, it wasn't unusual to catch several 10-pounders in an hour or two of fishing.

I'd always start by throwing out a coffee can's worth of pellet food in the area that I was going to place my baited lines in. That drew the fish in from all over the acre-plus-sized pond. One day I took a couple of youngsters to the pond to fish. It had been raining throughout the night, and was still at it that morning. A small intermittent stream that flowed into the pond was running muddily that morning.

We fished in the usual places, but couldn't seem to buy a bite from a catfish. I had both night crawlers and bait shrimp, and we caught a nice 5-pound bass on one of the night crawlers, but even though I scattered a couple of cans of food on the water, I elicited no reaction from the cats.

In walking around the pond, I had to pass through the small stream that was flowing into it. As I did, I saw a small crawfish scoot away in the edge of the murky water, and it dawned on me that the stream might be washing crawfish or other foods into the pond. When I got back, the two boys and I gathered up our tackle and bait and moved around the pond to the point at which the stream entered.

As soon as we threw our baited lines into the water we started catching catfish. Sometimes the bait barely had time to sink below the surface before it was grabbed Most of the catfish had abandoned their usual hangouts to congregate right where water freighted with food was running into their home.

River catfish do the same: They learn -- places into which currents bring food, or in which they can hide from currents; the consequences of river flows increasing or decreasing around bottom and shoreline structure and around islands, wing dams, logjams and other objects.

When flows on the Arkansas River are medium to high, I've caught limits of blue cats by anchoring my boat immediately downstream from a mid-river island and placing my baited lines just at the edge of the calm water pocket below the island. Catfish seem to stage along that edge, waiting for the current to push something edible past them, or for food to swirl out of the current into the calmer water at the edge of the island's "current shadow."

In the Mountain Fork River down in McCurtain County, and in a couple of small clear-water creeks in northeastern Oklahoma, I've caught channel cats while wading or float-tubing and drifting night crawlers or grasshoppers directly into logjams or brushpiles with the current. When fishing in this manner, you have to be careful that you don't let your bait drift too far into the pile of tree trunks and branches, because you may not be able to get it back out. The good news is that channel cats lying in wait in the logjams often grab the bait in the first second or two after it ent

ers the cover, so you often don't have to drift the bait very far into the tangle.

In clear-water streams, you'll rarely find channel cats (or other catfish, for that matter) swimming about in the open during daylight hours. I used to snorkel in a couple of gin-clear Eastern Oklahoma creeks and observed and photographed fish with my Nikonos underwater camera. The numerous channel cats I encountered were always in caves, tucked back into the shadows beneath boulders, or hidden in the shadows beneath logs or logjams.

I experimented with catching them as I watched. I'd put a baited hook on a short line dangling from the end of one of those 14-foot telescoping crappie rods. I could catch catfish back in the shadows, but I couldn't tempt them to come out into the sunlight, even a few inches, to take a bait.

It seems to me that cats in murkier water do feed in the open during daylight hours, but in those shallow, ultra-clear creeks, they were pretty reclusive while the sun was up. So if you're fishing for catfish in clear water during the daytime, make sure your bait gets close to or penetrates the fish-holding cover.

Let's look at a few of the Eastern Oklahoma streams, large and small, that might afford you some worthwhile catfish action. I've already talked a little about the Arkansas River, so I won't dwell long on it. In its undimmed stretches, like the part of the river between Tulsa and Muskogee, catfish seem to congregate in the occasional deep hole, especially wherever shorelines are rocky. Access to most of that stretch is had through private land.

Also, the tailrace areas below Kaw, Keystone, Webbers Falls and Kerr Dams can all be very productive for catfish of all three species. You'll probably need live bait -- sunfish, lively shiners or live shad -- to catch flatheads; blues and channels will readily take cut shad or fresh dead shad fished in the tailrace areas. The fishing's usually better when a turbine gate is open and providing current, but I've seen some pretty impressive stringers of catfish caught below Keystone, especially at night, when there seemed to be almost no flow coming from the dam.

Enough about the Arkansas. Let's look at some other rivers.

Over around Grand Lake, enjoyable summertime catfishing is to be had in the Spring and Elk rivers that flow into Grand from Kansas and Missouri. The Neosho River itself can be quite serviceable also, as can the Pensacola (Grand) Dam tailrace. The river and backwater around the small state park several hundred yards downstream from the dam on the Langley side of the river is often a very productive channel cat fishery. There used to be several Tulsa fishermen who fished that area frequently from float tubes, filling their stringers with channel cats by drifting night crawlers beneath bobbers along the banks near that small park.

Below Grand, Big Cabin and a couple of other creeks flowing into Lake Hudson also yield lots of catfish both to trotliners and limbliners and to rod-and-line anglers.

The Neosho River below Hudson, and again below the reregulation dam near Locust Grove, is another stream with lots of access and lots of catfish.

The Neosho is dammed to form Fort Gibson Lake, but quite a few sizable creeks flow into that lake from both sides. Flat Rock Creek, Fourteen Mile creek and others are all likely places at which to try your luck for cats.

The Lower Illinois River, technically a part of Kerr Lake but with flowing water and lots of access, can also be a profitable place for catching all three popular catfish species. I've caught both flatheads and channel cats on lures and on various baits while I fished near the mouth of the Illinois and in the stump-filled slough that splits off just above the mouth of the river.

When you get south of the Arkansas and into the hilly and mountainous counties of Southeastern Oklahoma, the Poteau River is one of the region's prime catfish streams. The upper Kiamichi and upper Mountain Fork, as well as several of the creeks that flow into them, can hold promise for both channel and flathead catfish; on the other hand, I've never caught a blue cat from either of those places.

The Little River and the Red River at the south end of McCurtain County have long been solid catfish streams. As you travel west from there, the Kiamichi River above and below Hugo Lake can be good, especially for blues. And the Blue River and Washita and the other larger streams that flow into Lake Texoma have merit, too. Pennington Creek, around the city of Tishomingo, can also prove worthy of your attentions.

Farther north, the creeks that flow into Lake Eufaula from the south side can serve up fast catfish action, and the bigger rivers -- the North and South Canadian and Deep Fork -- are all solid catfish streams.

The streams I've mentioned are just some of the larger, more widely known streams that have fair amounts of public access. But hundreds of miles of medium-sized and small streams that can produce weighty stringers of catfish too offer very little public access. If you know a landowner whose property includes frontage on a free-flowing stream, it might be worth your while to fish there, or at least to look it over to see if there is any likely looking water.

Don't be put off just because a creek isn't large. I've caught stringers of nice-sized channel cats from little creeks that you could just about jump across. And I've caught some hefty flatheads in creeks that didn't appear large enough to hold big fish. Smaller creeks (and larger ones too) sometimes get "stocked" with adult channel cats when stocked ponds overflow during heavy rains, or when pond dams get eroded or cut.

During blackpowder season several years ago, we were hunting on a ranch on which was found a diminutive intermittent stream that flowed past our deer camp. As luck would have it, I had a spincast rod and reel and a pocket-sized box of jigs and hooks and sinkers tucked behind my pickup seat. Curious to see if anything swam the minuscule flow, I baited up with bits of hot dogs and caught six channel cats, all about 2 pounds apiece; the fish all looked like a matched set.

I was surprised to have caught so many nice catfish so quickly, but all was explained by the landowner, who told me that heavy rain had caused water to overtop the dam on one of his ponds -- a pond containing a couple of hundred channel cats about that same size -- only about three weeks earlier. (I'd have offered him his fish back -- but we'd already eaten them for supper at the camp!)

If you've never spent a weekend camped on the bank of a creek, running trotlines or limblines or just fishing with your usual rods and reels, you may find that it's a great way to spend a couple of summer evenings -- and it can fill your freezer with some tasty catfish filets!

Oklahoma doesn't offer as much in the way of public stream access as do some neighboring states, so getting to the hotspots at lots of streams will require you to be on pretty good terms with a landowner. But it can be worth the effort: Such private spots sometimes

feel almost no fishing pressure for months or years at a stretch.

And many streams are readily accessed by the public; even spots that get considerable fishing pressure can still be worthwhile. Stream fish tend to redistribute themselves up and down the streams as fishing pressure and other factors affect fish populations.

You can catch catfish all year long in Oklahoma, but summertime is one of the most enjoyable times for fishing in streams -- truly is a fishing activity in which the whole family can participate.

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