Photo by Keith Sutton
Trying to predict what catfishing will be like in the Natural State this year is a simple task: Arkansas catfishing is great and will continue to get better.
Our state has produced more 100-pound-plus blue cats in the past decade than any other. Flatheads from 50 to 80 pounds surface with astounding regularity. Fishing for channel cats continues to improve as the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission maintains and improves populations with continual stockings. The only bad news as far as catfishing goes is the discovery of mercury in catfish from some south Arkansas waters such as Felsenthal Reservoir. And even that won’t stop the growing cadre of catfish fanatics who are practicing catch-and-release fishing.
Here’s my forecast for catfishing prospects in a variety of waters scattered throughout the state. Although catfish swim in all waters of the state except the cold trout tailwaters, the lakes and rivers listed below deserve close attention. Some rate better than others because of their potential for producing lots of “eating-sized” cats, but also in the mix are several waters that have the potential to produce a new state-record, or perhaps even world-record, catfish. You could be the lucky angler who catches that record fish.
The big bottomland rivers of the state continue to be the best waters for numbers and size of catfish. At the top of the list is the Mississippi River, perhaps the No. 1 body of water in the U.S. in terms of trophy potential for blue cats. Several 100-pound-plus blues have been taken in recent years, including the 116-pound, 12-ounce former world record caught at West Memphis by Charles Ashley Jr. in August 2001. In my humble opinion, it’s only a matter of time before someone catches another world record here, one that will top the 121.5-pound fish from Lake Texoma, Texas.
Giant flatheads also inhabit the Mississippi, throughout its length along the Arkansas border. And if catching loads of channel cats is your idea of fun, there’s no better place.
Local anglers say the St. Francis River between Lake City and Marianna has been making a comeback in recent years, and I’ve spoken to anglers who’ve been nabbing some extraordinary flatheads from deep holes in the Cross County portion of the river. Keep an eye on this spot. The two river junctions — St. Francis/Mississippi and St. Francis/L’Anguille — tend to offer exceptional catfishing, especially in late fall, winter and early spring.
The Arkansas River is the undisputed queen of Arkansas catfishing waters. No other body of water in the Natural State has produced as many record-book cats, and catfishing continues to be excellent year-round throughout the entire length of the river from Ft. Smith to the river’s mouth near Yancopin.
The best bets continue to be the tailwater stretches below the dams, especially the tailwater of Ozark-Jeta Taylor Lock & Dam south of Ozark, the tailwater below Dardanelle Lock & Dam near Russellville, the tailwater below Murray Lock & Dam and the North Little Rock Hydroelectric Plant at Little Rock.
The tailwater below Wilbur Mills Dam (Dam 2) on the Arkansas’ lower end below Tichnor is also ideal. When the gates are open, especially during high-water periods in spring, all these areas have the potential for producing a new state- or world-record flathead or blue, and each of these areas produces astounding numbers of small catfish year after year.
A sleeper honey hole is the stretch immediately below David D. Terry Lock & Dam, where Bruce and Mackey Sayre caught the biggest flathead ever recorded, a 139-pound, 14-ounce fish taken in May 1982.
The best big river in southwest Arkansas is the Red River, an outstanding catfish stream overlooked by many Arkansas cat fans. This murky, sand-laden river is no raging beauty, but plenty of nice channel and flathead catfish lurk in its depths. Channel catfish from 2 to 5 pounds are abundant. Flatheads average around 4 to 5 pounds, but trotliners often take larger ones. Two good catfishing spots are the area just upstream of the U.S. Highway 71 bridge about 10 miles north of Texarkana, and upstream of the point where the Red and Little Rivers join, about 12 miles downstream from the U.S. Highway 71 bridge.
All of the state’s other big bottomland rivers rank high for catting as well. Some you should try include the L’Anguille below Cherry Valley, and the lower Ouachita and Saline, two dark horses in the south-central portion of the state.
At 6,700 acres, Conway is the largest Arkansas Game and Fish Commission lake, serving up the best catfishing in this classification. This stump-filled body of water ranks high on the list of the nation’s best flathead catfish waters, producing numerous 40-pound-plus fish annually, and you’ll look long and hard to find a lake in Arkansas that harbors such a healthy population of giant channel cats. Blues are here, too, albeit in smaller numbers and sizes.
Lake Poinsett near Harrisburg is a sleeper for channel cats. Numerous 20-pound-plus fish have been taken here, and because catfishing pressure remains relatively light and stocking levels relatively high, there’s no reason to believe the action will taper off. Center your catfishing efforts close to the old Dismal Creek channel and deep water near the dam early and late in the day and at night.
White Oak Lake near Camden is another trophy channel cat hotspot, and although it’s been decades since this body of water produced a 22-pound-plus former state record, channel cats that size and bigger have surfaced here in recent years, increasing speculation that some savvy angler may land a fish bigger than the current 38-pound record from Lake Ouachita. Fishing near water-control structures adjacent the spillway that separates upper and lower lakes is the ticket to success, say locals.
CORPS OF ENGINEERS IMPOUNDMENTS
Because of their large sizes, the state’s 16 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundments all have the potential to produce giant catfish, and most of them do so fairly regularly.
Millwood Lake near Ashdown in the state’s southwest corner is among the most consistent producers of big flatheads, which thrive in this shallow, timber-filled environment. And several years back, the Little River below the lake produced a 100-pound-plus blue cat.
Lake Ouachita gave up the current 38-pound record channel cat,
and there’s little doubt it could harbor even larger fish. This 40,000-acre reservoir also may be the most overlooked body of water in the state for trophy-class blue cats, which frequently exceed 50 pounds.
Lakes Ozark and Dardanelle, two Arkansas River impoundments, both have produced record blues and flatheads, and the trophy potential of these waters is highly underrated. There’s little doubt that enormous fish of both species swim these waters, and sooner or later some savvy cat man is going to put a 100-pound-class fish, maybe even a new world record, on the dry side of a boat. As mentioned earlier, the tailwater areas of these lakes offer the best chances for trophy cats.
The deep Ozark lakes such as Bull Shoals, Beaver and Norfork haven’t garnered a lot of attention from Arkansas catfishing aficionados, because they’re difficult to fish. But it’s for that same reason that their trophy potential is high.
There are good populations of forage fish in all these waters, and because the blues, channels and flatheads living here feed well and live to ripe old ages, they can reach tremendous sizes. None of the other Corps impoundments should be discounted either, as lots of big cats swim in all.
Nimrod Lake in particular demands watching. Though relatively small compared to other Corps impoundments (3,550 acres), the shallow timber-filled waters of this Yell/Perry county reservoir are fertile breeding grounds for big flatheads and channel cats. Target this lake with the right tactics and you could be astonished at your catch.
Oxbow lakes don’t typically produce many big catfish, but Horseshoe Lake near Hughes in northeast Arkansas is an exception to the rule. “The ‘Shoe” offers blue-ribbon angling for two kinds of catfish-blue cats and channels. And while a new state record isn’t likely to be caught here, blues over 30 pounds are possible, and 10- to 15-pounders are common. Channel cats run only slightly smaller, with numerous fish in the 5- to 12-pound range. Occasionally, an angler comes ashore with a nice flathead, but “shovelheads” (as they are known locally) account for only a small percentage of the total catfish harvest.
Catfishing pressure is light, but the fact that other anglers are passing up Horseshoe’s whiskered polebenders shouldn’t inhibit you. Less competition means, quite simply, that there are more cats out there to be caught — if you use the right tactics.
In our largest oxbow, 5,300-acre Lake Chicot in the state’s southeast corner, action for channel cats and flatheads is red-hot, particularly in summer. Like Horseshoe, this isn’t a lake likely to produce many trophy-class cats, but the number of smaller catfish you’ll catch on a good day is at times astounding.
Island 40 Chute, inside the Mississippi River levee just north of West Memphis, is another old river oxbow that provides outstanding catfishing, especially for channel catfish. The best catfishing here comes when the Mississippi River has almost dropped out of the lake following a period of high water. This usually occurs when the river is at 15 to 17 feet on the Memphis gauge.
The key to fishing the run-out successfully is watching water level fluctuations closely to determine the best fishing times. A slow, steady fall produces the best fishing as it draws fish into the chute from the river. Impressive numbers of catfish — mostly blues and channels — will concentrate in the run-out from the lake into the river to get an easy meal of bait being pulled out of the chute. The action usually continues at a frantic pace until the Mississippi backs completely out of the lake. Most of your catch will be eating-sized cats weighing 1 to 5 pounds, but there are usually a few hawgs sprinkled in for good measure.
STATE PARK LAKES
Most folks probably wouldn’t include the small state park lakes in a listing of Arkansas’ best catfish waters. Yet because these waters are frequently and heavily stocked with catfish, they often produce fish-a-minute action for catters in the know.
At the top of the list are lakes Dunn and Austell in Village Creek State Park near Wynne. These lakes are well known among bass and bluegill fans, but their names are hardly spoken by catfishing enthusiasts.
Channel cats and blue cats ranging between 1 and 2 pounds are abundant, and though both lakes are less than 70 acres, their deep, timbered coves and channels harbor some amazingly large blues. Some over 40 pounds have been landed, but larger ones are difficult to pull from the maze of underwater timber. It’s possible that an angler could take a true giant with the right tackle and knowhow. I’ve seen some huge channel cats come from Dunn, including five fish taken by a single angler one night that weighed 17, 15, 9, 8 and 5 pounds.
Other state-park catfishing hotspots include 31-acre Lake Walcott in Crowley’s Ridge State Park (Greene County), the 8-acre lake in Devil’s Den State Park (Washington County), a 3-acre lake in Logoly State Park (Columbia County) and an 11-acre lake in Old Davidsonville State Park (Randolph County).
If fishing for abundant 1- to 2-pound channel cats sounds like fun, try one of the dozens small city-owned impoundments scattered from border to border. Channel catfish are stocked regularly in most of these waters, and though often overlooked by the bulk of Arkansas’ fishing populace, catfishing on these neglected waters is, at times, nothing less than superb. In recent years the AGFC also has stocked some trophy blue cats in these waters, including fish up to 70 pounds, thus increasing the trophy potential of each body of water.
Among the best are MacArthur Park Lake and Otter Creek Park Lake in Little Rock, Lake Atalanta in Rogers (60 acres), Bald Knob Lake (200 acres) and Siloam Springs City Lake (35 acres). Small catfish-filled city lakes also are found in or near the cities of Benton, Booneville, Camden, Charleston, Clarksville, Dierks, Eureka Springs, Fayetteville, Fort Smith, Mena, Nashville, Newark, Newport, Ola, Paris, Pottsville, Prairie Grove, Van Buren, Waldron and many others.
COOL MOUNTAIN STREAMS
Many catters don’t realize that Arkansas also has many cool, clear mountain streams offering outstanding opportunities for catching catfish. A look at the out-of-print AGFC brochure Fish Arkansas supports this contention.
Fish Arkansas lists the types of fish found in 24 coldwater and coolwater streams. The streams listed are Big Piney Creek, Buffalo River, Caddo River, Cadron Creek, Cossatot River, Crooked Creek, Current River, Eleven Point River, Illinois Bayou, Illinois River, Kings River, Lee Creek, Lower Little Missouri River, Lower Little Red River, Middle White River, Mulberry River, North Fork River, Spring River, Strawberry River, Upper Little Missouri River, Upper Ouachita River, Upper Saline River, Upper White River and War Eagle Creek.
All but one of these — the North Fork River — were identified as having healthy populations of channel catfish. All but two — the North Fork River and Crooked Creek — were shown to have good numbers of flathead catfish. Blue catfish were listed as residents in the Big Pi
ney, Illinois Bayou, Illinois River, Kings River, Lee Creek, the Middle, Upper White, the Mulberry River and War Eagle Creek.
According to Fish Arkansas, no other type of fish, not even trout or the spotted bass or smallmouth, inhabits more of Arkansas’ mountain streams than catfish. And because these waters garner so little attention from catfishing enthusiasts, their fishing potential is extraordinary. If you live near one of these streams, I suggest you fish it often and learn the holes most likely to harbor catfish. You may find some of the year’s best catfishing not in a big Corps of Engineers impoundment or a broad bottomland river, but in a small stream right in your back yard.
(Editor’s Note: An autographed copy of Keith Sutton’s latest book, Catfishing: Beyond the Basics, can be ordered by sending a check or money order for $24.05 — which includes shipping and Arkansas sales tax — to C&C Outdoors, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002. To place credit card orders, log on to