Oklahoma's Top Catfish Waters

At this time of year, Ol' Whiskers is a popular fish in the Sooner State. No wonder: Oklahoma has more great catfish waters than most anglers can get around to in a month!

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Mike Lambeth

Norman Miller and I stared in awe as the fatigued 30-inch channel cat rolled into the net. Netting the big cat was easy compared to the previous tug-of-war. The 10-pound channel cat was added to our limit of mixed blues and channels. With a stringer full of squirming catfish flopping in the boat, we motored toward the boat ramp to fillet our catch for the evening's fish fry.

I must admit that prior to my outing with Miller, I was not much of a "dead-bait" fisherman. I reasoned that any outdoorsman with rod and reel could catch fish with live or dead bait. Besides, "real" fishermen use artificial baits. But now, having my line stretched and even broken twice by the chunky blue and channel catfish has made a believer out of me. Although I'm a bass angler at heart, I pursue catfish at every opportunity.

Catfish inhabit almost every body of water in Oklahoma, from rivers and streams to ponds and lakes. Fishing methods vary depending on locales. Any way you do it, Oklahoma catfishing can be productive when the mercury rises and the other fish become sluggish.

Some of the most common methods of catfishing are juglining, trotlining, limblining, drift-fishing, slip-corking, tightlining, and noodling. These methods are widely used, and their practitioners consistently take catfish.

This article should give novice anglers as well as diehard veterans the lowdown on where, when and how to catch their limits statewide.

CATFISH BIOLOGY 101

"May through August are good months for catfishing," said Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation fisheries expert Gene Gilliland. "Depending on weather and water temperatures, the action can be fast and furious."

Catfish are tolerant of warmer temperatures, and their metabolisms actually speed up when waters warm, making them more-active feeders. Catfish spawn during those months also, and bank-anglers can find hot fishing action near rocky areas like along dams and other riprap areas. The rocky areas draw sunlight and naturally warm up first, providing an almost magnetic attraction for spawning catfish.

Catfish are generally found around structure. Cavity-nesters, they seek out spots such as hollow logs, rocks, holes, or undercut clay banks to have their offspring. Most catfish prefer to spawn in shallow water. Blue cats normally spawn when water temperatures reach 75 degrees. Next come the channel catfish, and then flatheads, which spawn at 80 degrees.

Though catfish can be caught year 'round, the months of May through July are best. I've had my best success fishing from 7 a.m. until the early afternoon hours, with temperatures hovering near 100 degrees. Night-fishing under such daytime conditions can be very productive.

Gilliland termed channel cats as being the most non-selective feeders in the catfish family. "Channel cats will eat virtually anything," he noted. Most of the larger channel catfish over 6 or 7 pounds prefer to eat fish. Blue cats and flatheads are classified as preferring fish as their dietary staple. The main fish in their diets are shad, minnows and sunfish.

Catfishing has become an extremely popular fishing activity in Oklahoma. "If you lump together all three species of catfish in Oklahoma, they rate as the most popular choices by angler preference," Gilliland related.

TOP SPOTS FOR CATS

Since catfish are found statewide in most creeks, rivers, lakes, and ponds, Sooner anglers generally don't have to travel far to find them. However, some waters in the state have a reputation for producing larger fish, while some yield larger numbers of catfish of a smaller variety.

Below are the best spots for catching catfish in the state.

Northwest Hotspots

According to ODWC Northwest Region supervisor John Stahl, Salt Plains Reservoir near Jet is one of the best catfishing lakes in the northwest part of our state. In fact, Stahl says, the fishing at Salt Plains is "incredible." Anglers can expect to catch primarily channel catfish in the 3- to 5-pound range, but Stahl emphasizes, catching 7- to 12-pounders is not uncommon. The bait of choice for catching Salt Plains catfish is cut shad.

Fort Supply Reservoir near Woodward is another good place to catch a big catfish, according to Stahl. "The catfish are not as densely populated in Fort Supply," he said, "but the lake holds some monstrous flathead catfish." He recommends that anglers drift cut shad, live bluegills, or sunfish in the area between Coors Island and the boat ramp nearest the dam.

Stahl is puzzled as to why the bowl-shaped lake produces such large catfish. "There is not much structure, but something in the middle of the lake attracts big catfish." Stahl said. A 75-pound flathead is the largest catfish that he's aware of that's been caught on rod and reel in Fort Supply.

The ODWC supervisor also named Canton Reservoir, located near the town of the same name, as a great fishing spot for a family outing. In fact, the state-record channel catfish was taken there during the Canton Walleye Rodeo in 2002. The big cat weighed 34 pounds, 11 ounces.

Stahl recommends drift-fishing with earthworms, cut shad, or big shiners to catch Canton's channel cats. The drift-fishing method is accomplished by tightlining dead or live bait and then floating across the lake over likely catfish habitat. This extremely relaxing method consistently produces catfish.

Canton commonly yields channel catfish in excess of 20 pounds and blue cats in the 30- to 40-pound range, Stahl says. Jug-fishing in the upper end of the lake using live sunfish can be very productive.

Southwest Hotspots

The southwest part of Oklahoma is one of the most overlooked areas for catfish and is home to several lakes that are real gems. Larry Cofer, the ODWC's southwest fisheries supervisor, said, "Waurika Lake is one of the best up-and-coming catfish lakes in southwest Oklahoma. It is also one of the most fertile lakes due to the runoff it receives from area agricultural operations. Combine that with a good shad forage base, and all you need are anglers willing to make the long drive to get their rods bent."

As might be expected, the lake is located near the town Waurika, and it's a real sleeper. The only fishing pressure i

t receives is during the spring, when the lake's trophy hybrid bass spawn.

Most fishing at Waurika is done from a boat, because, according to Cofer, there's not much bank access. Though most anglers target channel cats and flatheads, catches of the lake's blue catfish are starting to turn some heads.

Cofer recommends that anglers fish windy points. He says the average-sized channel cats weigh 2 to 5 pounds, in contrast to the blue cats, which vary from 3 to 30 pounds.

Another option in the southwest is Lake Ellsworth located near Apache. Sadly, Ellsworth is experiencing the results of a long-term drought, and the lake is at its lowest level in 25 years. Consequently, there's only one boat ramp open, and that one is in danger of being closed if the lake level drops further.

On a bright note, the lake offers some tremendous bank-fishing opportunities for both channel catfish and blues in the 3- to 5-pound range. Cofer says that anglers should target the windy points and use cut shad for those fish.

Another option is Fort Cobb Reservoir, near Binger. The lake produces some good stringers, the best fishing being found toward the south end of the dam near the rocks. This area, according to Cofer, is a major spawning area, and anglers can expect to catch catfish in the 2- to 5-pound range. Best tactics are drifting crickets and worms near the riprap area and fishing the dropoffs and points near depths of 15 feet.

Central Hotspots

Perhaps the best lake in the state for catching a huge catfish is Lake Texoma, which lies on the southern border of Oklahoma with Texas. It's Oklahoma's largest lake.

Texoma enjoyed a reputation in the 1970s as being one of the nation's top lakes for sand bass fishing, and from the 1980s to the present, it's been one of the nation's top striper lakes. Nevertheless, in the past several years, catches of monster catfish have placed Texoma on the map as one of the top catfish lakes. In fact, a Texas angler recently caught a giant blue catfish there on rod and reel. Weighing in at 121 1/2 pounds, it established a new world record for the species.

As a teenager, I fished Texoma where my late uncle Pete Reid taught me the fine art of trotlining and juglining. His favorite spot was near the oil derricks in Johnson Creek. My Uncle Pete took several big blue cats there, as well as baskets full of channel catfish and, occasionally, a big flathead.

Fishing guide David Mitchell has found that people enjoy fishing for catfish on Texoma, especially when it is easy to catch a limit of cats. On one of his most memorable trips, Mitchell and a client caught two monster blue cats weighing 60 and 76 pounds.

Oklahoma City lawyer Chris Box can testify to the awesome catfishing available at Texoma. Box fishes for cats from the boat docks where, he says, they naturally attract catfish. "Since striper and crappie guides clean their catch there daily," Box explained, "big catfish lurk nearby, waiting to consume the scraps."

Does fishing boat docks really pay off? Box caught two 40-pound blue cats one morning in a half-hour, and another time had the 70-pound-test line snapped on his catfish rig.

The state-record blue cats in both the rod-and-line and unrestricted divisions were caught at Texoma. Those fish weighed 87 pounds, 4 ounces, and 118 pounds, 8 ounces.

Carl Jones and Henry Wilson believe Lake Hefner, located in the northwest edge of Oklahoma City, is an overlooked lake for catfishing. The two regularly take limits of channel catfish there in the 1 1/2- to 3-pound range, and occasionally catch some large blue cats.

Jones and Wilson, regulars at Hefner, fish the long rocky riprap area around the dam. Their bait of choice is a stink bait concoction made by Jones and sold at his nearby bait shop, Hefner Bait and Tackle.

Like Hefner, Arcadia Lake is another central Oklahoma hotspot. Located between the towns of Edmond and Arcadia, and it's an up-and-coming catfish lake. I've fished the turbid impoundment many times and never failed to catch catfish there.

I fished from a boat, but bank anglers do equally well. Generally, my fishing buddy and I launch at a boat ramp on the north side and then proceed across the lake to a cove near the 15th Street boat dock to cast a net for shad. When we have an adequate amount, we cut the shad in half and rig them on a hook suspended 20 inches beneath a 1-ounce egg sinker. We then drift across the deepest parts of the lake and generally don't have to wait long before one of the whiskered critters has a hold on the end of our lines.

Last but not least in the list of central Oklahoma lakes is Kaw Reservoir, near Ponca City. Like the other lakes, fishing is best near the riprap areas and off windy points. The typical catch generally will be blues and channels in the 2- to 4-pound range.

Northeast Hotspots

Though Oologah, Keystone, and Robert S. Kerr reservoirs are good spots for catfishing in the northeast, the best bet in the region is Grand Lake, near Grove. While Grand holds good populations of channel cats and flatheads, fishing for blue cats is the main event there.

Guide Jeff Williams verified that fact, adding, "Although I do catch some channel cat and flatheads, 95 percent of my catch is blue cats."

Williams, who has guided on Grand for the past 10 years, believes that many guides and anglers statewide are overharvesting our trophy blue cats. He photographs and releases all blues caught on his boat that weigh over 10 pounds.

Williams says that May and June are good months for Grand Lake catfish, and recommends that anglers fish the shallow mud flats near Sailboat Bridge and the area around Twin Bridges State Park. Bank-anglers, Williams suggests, should try the fishing platform at Bernice State Park.

Williams' clients regularly catch blue catfish in the 3- to 10-pound range - occasionally, much larger fish. His best is a 47-pounder.

Fellow fishing guide Jim Wagner says that his 21 years of guiding experience on Grand Lake have taught him that the areas of Sweetwater Cove, Duck Creek and Drowning Creek are two of the better spots for blue catfish. He thinks that anglers could fish the lower end of the lake for channels and flatheads. Wagner's three best catfish weighed 49, 50 and 51 pounds.

Talking about the potential of Grand Lake, Wagner said, "I believe this next year we will catch some catfish in the 50- to 60-pound range."

Southeast Hotspots

ODWC fisheries expert Garland Wright believes that Lake Eufaula is a good choice for catfish anglers. The lake is just outside the town of Eufaula, and has produced flatheads weighing up to 80 pounds and blue catfish weighing 50 pounds.

Wright suggests that anglers fish the rocky riprap areas around the lake's numerous bridges; he says that the average channel catfish caught in May and June weighs between 1 and 3 pounds.

"Trotlining is real popular," he said, "and the action picks up in the summer months. Anglers who wish to drift-fish should try the South Canadian arm of the lake and Gaines Creek."

Wright also named Konawa - a warmwater hydroelectric power-plant lake located near the town of Konawa - as loaded with small catfish. He said that what the catfish lack in size they make up for with incredible numbers

FINAL CAST

Statewide creel limits on channel and blue catfish are 15 daily, individually or combined, and 10 flatheads.

Now that you have the insight on the best places to fish, grab your gear and go catch a fish of the whiskered variety. Later, when you fry up the tasty filets, you'll be glad you went.

My wife offered this last piece of advice: Don't bring your stink bait into the house!

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

Call these numbers for information on booking a fishing trip with these guides: David Mitchell of Mitch's Guide Service, (405) 720-2494; Jeff Williams of Osage Guide Service, 1-866-HOOKSET; Jim Wagner of Jim's Guide service, (918) 786-2076



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