The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission reported in its July 5th weekly fishing report that the catfish bite is on. Good things are certainly in store for fishermen working these Arkansas catfish waters.
By Keith Sutton
Few Arkansas sportfish grow larger than catfish. Flatheads are known to grow up to 140 pounds here, blue cats sometimes exceed 116, and at least one channel cat caught in the Natural State topped the 50-pound mark.
If you want an opportunity to hook a whiskerfish bigger than any you’ve ever caught, it would be hard to beat the great fishing for trophy-class cats available in many of our state’s waters.
Of course, not all catfish anglers are interested in pursuing giant fish. Many Arkansans are just as happy when they can sit under a shade tree on a small lake and catch a few pan-sized catfish for dinner. For them, catfishing is a way to relax or to enjoy a few hours fishing with the kids. If a big cat is caught now and then, so much the better. But catching big fish is secondary to enjoying the outdoors and tussling with a decent fish now and them.
Nice thing is, regardless of what you’re fishing for — heavyweight trophies or smaller, more abundant fish — Arkansas’ many lakes and rivers serve up endless opportunities for success. All three major catfish species — blues, flatheads and channel cats — swim in our waters statewide. But, naturally, some fishing holes are better than others, including the waters described in the following paragraphs. When it’s whiskered warriors you want to tussle with, set your sights on these locales where healthy populations of cats both big and small await the savvy angler.
TROPHY CHANNEL CATS: LAKE WILHELMINA
When I tell my catfishing buddies that 300-acre Lake Wilhelmina in western Arkansas produced a 51-pound channel cat a few years ago, most don’t believe me. It’s true, though. An Arkansas Game and Fish Commission biologist identified the fish and weighed it on certified scales. That monster was just 7 pounds shy of the world record caught in South Carolina’s Lake Moultrie in 1964, and one of very few channel cats weighing more than 50 pounds ever documented. Arkansas is one of only four states ever to produce one of that size.
After the unnamed angler had his hog weighed, he released it back into Lake Wilhelmina, not wishing to bring increased fishing pressure to his favorite fishing hole. It’s highly unlikely that catfish is still alive, but chances are good this AGFC lake near Queen Wilhelmina State Park could produce another channel cat of gargantuan proportions.
Wilhelmina doesn’t get much catfishing pressure. Another plus is the fact that this lake is much more fertile than many Ouachita Mountain reservoirs, thanks to a caged fish-rearing operation near the dam. Fish food and wastes from the operation enhance growth and reproduction of the lake’s catfish population.
This also is a deep lake for its size, averaging around 9 feet and dropping to 45 in places. And deep lakes tend to produce bigger catfish. Shad, minnows and sunfish provide an abundant food source, keeping catfish fat and healthy year ’round.
The open shores around much of the lake are made to order for bank fishermen. Boaters have access to timber-laden waters offshore and to good fishing areas along the old Powell Creek channel. Cats can be caught wherever you fish.
The lake is 6 miles west of Mena off Highway 8. Signs mark the turnoff leading to the dam, boat ramp and other facilities.
OVERLOOKED HOTSPOT: LITTLE RIVER
In the southwest quadrant of the state, the Little River is one of the state’s best, yet least-known, catfishing hotspots. This medium-sized stream, now divided by the impounded waters of Millwood Lake, has been churning out big channel, blue and flathead catfish for decades.
The stretch below Millwood Dam has produced several true trophy catfish, including a 100-pound-plus blue cat and a former state-record flathead that weighed 67 pounds. You might fish there on a weekday and not see another angler, but don’t come ill-prepared. Enormous cats swim there, and you’ll never land one unless you’re using heavy line, big terminal tackle and a super-tough rod and reel. Access is good from Highway 32 a few miles east of Ashdown.
The Little River above Millwood harbors monster cats as well. Expert catfish angler Kay Emmons of Ashdown frequently fishes there and says she’s had 7/0 hooks straightened by big cats. She put an 82-pound Little River blue in the boat and believes the river could someday produce a world-record flathead or blue. Shad gizzards are the best baits, she says, and drift-fishing and still-fishing both are productive. Try what suits you and get ready for action.
Two accesses in Little River County provide access to the upper stretch of river: the Wilton Landing/Highway 71 access on the upper end of Millwood north of Wilton, and the Patterson Shoals access north of Highway 234 west of Wilton.
BEST BAITS FOR SUMMER CATFISHING
To enjoy successful fishing for hot-weather catfish, Arkansas anglers should always use the best baits.
For trophy blue cats, nothing beats chunks of fresh skipjack herring. Baits of shad run a close second. “Fresh” is the key word. Often it takes anglers as long to get the right bait as it does to coax a big cat to eat it.
For flatheads, live baits outshine all others. Try live silver carp, big goldfish, or big sunfish.
Channel cats are like barnyard hogs. They’ll eat almost anything. Good enticements include nightcrawlers, minnows, commercial stinkbaits, fresh chicken liver, and chunks of cheap hotdogs. —Keith Sutton
NO. 1 FOR GIANT FLATHEADS: LAKE CONWAY
Every few years, the AGFC draws down the waters of central Arkansas’ 6,700-acre Lake Conway — good news for catfish anglers. Each time the lake refills, visiting anglers can target the lake’s numerous blue, channel and flathead catfish, which grow fat on the bounty of smaller fish crowded into the shallower body of water.
Flatheads in particular reach jumbo sizes gorging on the lake’s plentiful sunfish. One local angler showed me photos of several 30- to 60-pound flatheads he landed on trotlines and limblines last summer, proof of the potential of this lake to produce big cats. Some believe a flathead exceeding 100 pounds could be caught there someday.
Conway also turns out some hefty blue cats (some more than 40 pounds) and 2- to 10-pound channel cats are as common as bluegills. I heard numerous reports last year of Conway regulars taking 300 to 400 pounds of catfish a week in the deeper pools (mostly old inundated lakes) scattered throughout the lake.
This stump-filled lake two miles east of Conway can baffle the first-time visitor. Everything looks pretty much alike, so it’s hard to decide where to fish. A sonar fishfinder will help you pinpoint the best areas, particularly inundated lakes and creek channels like Adams Lake, Greens Lake and Palarm Creek. These are excellent locations for bait-fishing with a rod and reel, and none is that difficult to find if you inquire at local bait shops as to their whereabouts. When you’re in the general vicinity, you can run sonar to pinpoint each structure’s exact location, and watch for signals indicating big fish holding near edges and on drops.
Chances are some state-record-class fish inhabit Lake Conway, but they won’t be caught by slouchy anglers. Be prepared with heavy tackle suited for landing behemoths.
HONEYHOLES FOR EATERS:
CITY WATER RESERVOIRS & FARM PONDS
There are dozens of small manmade impoundments supplying water to cities from border to border, each of which provides superb fishing for eating-sized channel cats. Among the best are Lake Atalanta in Rogers (60 acres), Bald Knob Lake (200 acres) and Siloam Springs City Lake (35 acres). Small city-owned lakes bristling with catfish also are found in or near the cities of Benton, Booneville, Camden, Charleston, Clarksville, Dierks, Eureka Springs, Fayetteville, Fort Smith, Little Rock, Mena, Nashville, Newark, Newport, Ola, Paris, Pottsville, Prairie Grove, Van Buren, Waldron and many others.
Some of these lakes were built primarily to provide a reliable water source, but recreation possibilities also figured highly in city planners’ development strategies. Most of the lakes have excellent bank fishing areas and public fishing piers. Channel catfish are stocked regularly. Although often overlooked by the bulk of Arkansas’ fishing populace, summer catfishing on these neglected waters is, at times, nothing less than superb.
Don’t overlook the excellent catfishing potential of the state’s thousands of farm ponds, either. Despite their diminutive sizes, most are well-stocked with channel cats. It’s not unusual to catch a dozen or so weighing 1 to 5 pounds apiece on a good day of fishing. Target deeper portions of the ponds during daylight hours, but for the best near-shore action, visit at night when channel cats move to the shallows to gorge on frogs, baitfish and other forage animals. Of course, be sure to ask permission from the pond owner before fishing. Most will allow guests who are courteous, especially if you offer to release the fish you catch or share those you keep after they’re prepared for cooking. And take your kids whenever you can, as ponds are ideal places for fun times on the water with your family.
BEST OVERALL: MISSISSIPPI RIVER
It sounds like a tall tale. A friend of mine reported that while fishing on the Mississippi at Memphis, he saw a 10-pound-plus catfish race across the river’s surface. This was unusual, but what happened next was even stranger. As the man watched, the first catfish was swallowed whole by a second.
Days later, on August 3, 2001, while fishing across the river in Arkansas, Charles Ashley Jr. of Marion landed a 116-pound, 12-ounce blue cat, a new all-tackle world record. When news of Ashley’s catch hit the streets, the veracity of the first story no longer was in question. Without doubt, a catfish that size could eat 10-pounders for appetizers.
Fact is, my friend’s “catfish-eats-catfish” story never was doubted by local anglers. The Mississippi River along Arkansas’ eastern border has churned out giant catfish since settlement, including several monster blue cats besides Ashley’s fish caught during recent years. Recent rod-and-reel catches include a 116-pounder caught on the river at Helena, plus 103- and 108-pounders caught in the river near Memphis/West Memphis.
Television fishing personality Bill Dance, who lives in nearby Collierville, Tenn., often fishes for the Mississippi’s trophy blue cats.
“In the summer of 2012, fishing upstream from Memphis, I caught three of my biggest ever: a 75-pounder, an 83-pounder, and a 110-pounder!” he told me.
All three of those giants were released alive and healthy, making it possible they could be caught again at even larger sizes. Dance and other aficionados believe it’s only a matter of time before a world-record blue weighing 150 pounds or more is caught in the Arkansas portion of the big river.
The Mississippi harbors giant flatheads, too. Twenty- to 40-pounders are as common as costume jewelry at a flea market. Cats weighing 50 to 70 pounds are caught daily in summer.
Channel cats also are abundant. Anglers often catch dozens up to 15 pounds in one night.
Fishing anywhere on the river from Blytheville to Eudora could produce the catch of a lifetime. Giant cats hold near structure such as channel dropoffs, humps, holes, outside bends and logjams. Proven hotspots include the Memphis/West Memphis stretch — the site of Ashley’s catch — and downstream confluences with large tributaries such as the St. Francis, White and Arkansas rivers.
Local anglers typically fish several miles and then return to their launch site. Arkansas landings include Sans Souci near Osceola, Eighth Street in West Memphis, Peters Island in Lee County, St. Francis north of Helena, and Panther Forest north of Lake City. If you’d like to hire a guide for catfishing there, contact James Patterson with Mississippi River Guide Service. He has years of experience fishing for the river’s trophy catfish. Call 901-383-8674 or visit bigcatfishing.com.
Rigging Tips for Channel Cats