Crankin' Out Texas Catfish

Crankin' Out Texas Catfish

The Lone Star State is full of great places for catching catfish. Of those many hotspots, these 10 just might be the very best to fish in the coming months.

Photo by Michael Skinner

Texas is catfish country.

Freshwater anglers here have all sorts of excellent opportunities for getting into largemouth bass, crappie and stripers, certainly. But the Lone Star State probably delivers more topnotch angling for cats than for any other game fish. With three fishable species, two of which are capable of growing to mammoth proportions, Texas' anglers have many options for exhilarating catfish action.

The following is a run-down of locales whose catfish outlook is expected to be the best overall this year. The good news: The hardest part of writing this story was narrowing down the hotspots. Fabulous catfish prospects are present virtually everywhere in our state!

TEXOMA

We might as well start with Texoma, since -- thanks to the blue cat state record broken there in 2004 by Cody Mullenix's 121 1/2-pound monster -- it's been getting lots of press lately.

With a population both strong in numbers and impressive in average size, this big border reservoir is tops for blues. Anglers there report catching taking quite a few larger-than-average sized blues over the last couple of years, and the lake promises great things in 2005.

The key to much of this lies in the abundance of forage, as Texoma is home to an incredible number of shad -- which are exactly what anglers should use for bait. Some of the best fishing is below the spillway, where anglers using large surf rods rigged with big shad or balls of shad cast their offerings into the river channel to reach some of the mammoth blues that dwell there.

Open-water fishing for Texoma's blues is likewise worthwhile. Most anglers target the old Red River channel and creek channels; in these, steep dropoffs provide plentiful forage and cover for massive open-water blues. Drifting over these areas with shad and cut perch works well during the late-spring/early-summer period. Anchoring over the deepest of these spots is a smart move in winter.

The lake is also home to a large population of flatheads (sometimes called "yellow" or "Opelousas" cats), which inhabit many of the same areas frequented by blues. However, some of the most rewarding fishing is found along shallow creeks at night during summer months.

Flatheads, more predatory than blues and channels, come to feed on the perch and other baitfish that hit the shallows in the creeks at night. Fishing live perch on the bottom or under a cork is a killer way to draw a strike from one of these massive catfish.

CHOKE CANYON

At Choke Canyon, one of the top venues for bagging significant numbers of channel cats and plus-sized blues in the state, the outlook for this year is positive.

Channels and blues reliably prowl under Choke Canyon's cormorant roosts. The droppings of the fish-eating birds are a natural chum that draws in droves of catfish.

"There's nothing like catching these cats under the cormorant roosts," said Elroy Krueger, a veteran catfishing guide on Choke Canyon. "It's fun, and it can be fast-paced -- and produce some really big cats."

While most anglers opt to use rods and reels on the whiskerfish, some use floating juglines rigged with circle hooks and baited with cut shad or perch. Those who've never used juglines will be interested to know that this kind of fishing is highly exciting. When a big cat hits, the jug starts to bob up and down, and occasionally totally disappears.

Something to keep in mind while using this technique is that some very large cats lurk in these areas -- so be prepared for anything!

These spots are also great for setting trotlines. If there's a tree to tie off to, a good setup can be a line that comes off from the tree and goes down to heavy weights on the bottom. Shad, of course, are an effective bait, but they tend, unfortunately, to be effective for the large numbers of garfish that you'll find at Choke during the summer. A workable substitute would be live sun perch -- easy to catch and irresistible to both big blues and some of the larger channels.

LAKE LIVINGSTON

Lake Livingston is most likely the preeminent catfishing destination in East Texas, if not the entire state. And the records show that preference to be based on more than just hearsay. The lake's all-tackle record for flatheads is held by a 114-pounder, and for that for blues by a 78-pound specimen; both fell to trotliners. The quality of the cats here is such that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department gathers the state's blue cat broodstock from this lake.

Not only does Livingston boast a huge population of shad, sunfish, carp and other tasty, catfish-tempting morsels, but it's also full of structure and extremely deep holes, and contains water that's just a little off-color for much of the year -- perfect conditions for catfish. Fishing below the tailrace with surf rods and reels can be phenomenal; anglers using those long surf rods baited with live or cut perch regularly bag huge blue cats and flatheads.

The Trinity River below Lake Livingston ranks among the top spots for shorebound anglers looking to get into a tussle with trophy blues and flatheads. The area around Liberty in particular produces massive cats of both species, and is a generally recognized hotspot for those fishing from the bank with live shad, carp and perch.

Craig Stephens of Cleveland has fished this area of the Trinity heavily for the last 10 years. According to him, many big blues and flatheads are out there. "I've caught some real monsters there in the past and that area has many more huge cats to give up yet," he said. "For blues I do really well when the river is up. And for flatheads, I do better when it's down by keying on dropoffs and log snags, which there are plenty of in this mighty river."

LAKE AMISTAD

This deep South Texas lake is tops for channel cats -- and they can grow quite large there.

The most profitable time for catching them is during the late spring and throughout the summer. During the hottest days of summer, shad begin to stack up on the main lake humps and ridges, often suspending in 25 feet of water over humps in 40 feet of water and sometimes as deep as 45 feet in areas that are 60 feet deep. While running sonar over these spots, you'll often notice large fish showing up on the graph. These typically are blue cats.

One of the most

effective ways of catching these cats involves drifting a chunk of cut bait or prepared cheese bait on a free line -- which simply consists of a hook and a bait -- over the humps. But if that rig's not getting down far enough, don't be afraid to modify it by pinching on a split shot weight. The best place to rig it is a foot above the hook.

You can really score on the cats by anchoring on top of the hump and pitching the free-lined bait into the deep water. If your boat's equipped with a trolling motor, just set it on low and slowly troll through these spots; if not, just drift with the breeze.

LAKE CONROE

Thanks to the activity of Houston's numerous water-sports enthusiasts, Lake Conroe is a busy, bustling reservoir. It's also a locale known for its big complement of eating-sized channel cats.

Longtime Conroe fishing guide Tex Bonin says that anglers can catch dozens of channels there by fishing over baited holes. "Conroe is full of brushpiles and various structures that catfish like to inhabit," he explained. "Once you get on a reliable pattern, it's fairly easy to produce limits of fish."

Bonin has identified around 50 brushpiles, which range in depth from shallow to deep. For the better part of the year, though, the catfish hang out in the deeper brush -- that resting in 18 to 25 feet of water. Bonin advises anglers wanting to intercept Conroe's brush-loving catfish to employ a sonar unit, as most of the brushpiles are around main-lake structure like creeks, humps, roadbeds and points. In other words, the brushpiles are hard to find.

Another method -- namely, "flipping" -- might sound wacky, but it can be worth your while to give it a try at Conroe and other reservoirs. This isn't flipping in the sense used with reference to bass anglers and jigs, but the basic premise is the same, as catfish are like bass in tending to hold tight to the brush that runs along the shoreline and along riprap.

For the best outcomes, flip for cats at brush positioned on a ledge at the end of a point near a creek channel. This works particularly well at night, when catfish often move from the deep holes to the shallows to feed. Shad stack up in these areas, which in turn draw in the catfish. By flipping a piece of cut shad or a live crawfish rigged on a 1/2-ounce jighead, it's you can very possibly catch yourself quite a few cats.

LAKE TRAVIS

Travis doesn't get much play as a catfish destination, but anglers in the Austin area are well aware that this lake can serve up plenty of high-end cats -- eatin'-sized channel catfish especially.

The really dedicated catfishermen of Travis bait their holes with soured milo, corn or cottonseed cake. The general practice is to bait several locations with these substances and to plot a fishing route targeting each of them. But even those who don't regularly bait multiple sites at these reservoirs can go out, bait a single favored hole and return a few hours later to fish; catfish move in on such spots quickly.

Setting up near these spots and fishing a hunk of cheese bait or cut shad under a cork can work quite well on channel catfish. The channels that hang around these spots typically run between 1 and 2 pounds -- perfect for the frying pan.

Spring and summer are the peak times here. The areas most likely to prove fruitful will be found in the river channel and creeks feeding into the main lake.

SAM RAYBURN

Most anglers know Rayburn as one of the chief spots in Texas for catching a lunker largemouth, and it's attracted some publicity recently for its magnificent crappie fishing. However, few realize is that this lake harbors significant numbers of channel catfish, a lot of which hang out over brushpiles set out for crappie.

The guys from work might think you're crazy when you pull up to a big brushpile in open water and tell them that this is where you're going to fish for cats. But when they start catching big fish, their attitudes will change!

People know that brushpiles provide structure and draw in baitfish, and so attract for crappie. But catfish too like structure, and naturally prey on baitfish. Brushpiles are accordingly a magnet for hungry cats of all species.

Rayburn's brushpile fishing sees a peak in late spring, but it turns on in the fall as well. Anglers unfamiliar with brushpile locations should cruise the lake with a good pair of polarized sunglasses and look for submerged marker buoys set out by hardcore crappie anglers; these usually contain a bunch of fish. Anglers typically bait them with cottonseed cake, which draws not only panfish but plenty of cats as well.

To ensure a successful brushpile catfishing trip, you can do no better than to stay on top of all aspects of the fishing process. Pay special attention to your electronics: When you run around some of the markers, you'll probably come across a smallish brushpile right off, but there are usually bigger ones around it, and those will be the ones with most of the fish.

Last year was a banner catfish year for Rayburn -- and 2005 looks to be even better!

FAYETTE COUNTY RESERVOIR

This 3,000-acre power-plant reservoir near La Grange is loaded with opportunities for blues and flatheads.

The top spot to catch them lies at the outfall canal; the top times are at night and early in the morning during the early spring and late fall, when cool water temperatures push baitfish into the warm water and in turn lure in the catfish.

Fish with large balls of night crawlers or earthworms, or use cut carp for the best results. Float these on a slip-cork; feel free to pop the cork frequently to get the attention of local cats.

Most bait camps in the area sell waterdogs, a larval form of the tiger salamander. Anglers ordinarily use them to bag large largemouths -- but they also do good service with the cats. Rig them on a medium- to heavy-action rod fitted with a dependable casting reel spooled with braided or fusion line and finished off with a Kahle hook. Rig the waterdog through both lips and put a small split shot weight about a foot above it. Drift it over grassbeds, or target the spillway or riprap along the dam.

It was in 1996 that my father and I were fishing along the riprap at the dam right after dark. Fayette's cats seem to bite best at that hour -- we caught four cats up to 10 pounds on waterdogs.

Don't let the small size of this lake fool you; its whiskerfish can be quite big. The rod-and-reel record for flatheads there is 79 1/4 pounds; for blue cats, 65 pounds. World-class catfish by any standard!

GUADALUPE RIVER

Winding through Central Texas, the Guadalupe River is a stream celebrated for flatheads. In some of the clearer waters of the region, the fish are almost solid yellow, earning them the name "yellow cat." Coloration notwithstanding, they're certainly the same hard-fighting, good-tasting flathead catfish caught everywhere else in t

he Lone Star State.

Some of the prime spots for taking the cats on the river lie along the rapids and faster-moving waters near New Braunfels, and near Kerrville, where the river looks more like a resort area. But don't be fooled -- it's still got a load of flatheads.

For optimal results, consider fishing at night, during which these flatheads like to feed along shallow, brushy shorelines. Bait up with large live shiners or perch and fish them under a popping cork.

FORT PHANTOM HILL

Though this overlooked fishery near Abilene has had problems with fluctuating levels in recent years, it's an excellent place to score on blues and channel cats. Its water is usually stained to muddy, which works admirably for channels and blues, and is an advantage to anglers who favor those stinky prepared and cut baits. Look for the cats below the spillway, in Sailboat Slough, Johnson Park and at the west humps.

When the water's low, access to some of the best structure is limited, so chumming to bring the catfish to you assumes great importance.

BIGGER AND BETTER

In Texas, you can't go wrong with seeking catfish at just about any reservoir or river. But the destinations listed here are some of the ones that will give you the best shot at getting into serious action with some possibly mammoth-sized cats.

So is everything bigger and better in the Lone Star State? When it comes to catfish, you can bet your life it is!

A general observation: One of the best things about cats is that fishing for them doesn't cost much money. You can get away with sub-par tackle, and the cheapskate in me likes that. However, I refuse to skimp on two things when seeking catfish: line and hooks.

My all-around favorite is Berkley Big Game line. I use the 50-pound-test on my big rod and 17-pound on the smaller rig.

Being singularly effective for fishing in heavy cover, braided or fusion lines can also aid in catching big catfish. Fireline, a type of fusion line, is one that I've had positive experiences with. Spider Wire is another popular brand that's catching on among catfishermen. Both hold up well to abrasion, and their no-stretch qualities are a bonus when you're making a hookset on a big fish.

When catching pan-sized fish is the object, the brand of hook doesn't matter much to me. I personally like the Kahle-style hooks, because the bite-to-hookup ratio's better. But when I'm after big cats, I spend the extra money and use the 5/0 Daiichi Catfish Wide hooks.

Good advice to the wise catfisherman!

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