Where can you enjoy the best catfishing in Arkansas in 2006? That’s a tough question to answer — tough, because our state encompasses scores of phenomenal catfish fisheries. Except for our cold tailrace trout streams, nearly every body of water in the state has healthy populations of blue, channel, flathead and/or bullhead catfish.
If you’re out to catch a mess of small cats to provide the makings for a fish fry, numerous lakes and streams will fill the bill. But if you’d rather tussle with a trophy-class catfish, we’ve got those, too, in more waters than you’ve ever imagined. Many lakes and rivers provide the best of both worlds — lots of catfish, with enough heavyweights thrown in to keep things exciting.
Let’s take a look at some of the waters most likely to produce for you this season.
BEST CORPS RESERVOIR
Lake Ouachita, which stretches from Mt. Ida on the west to Hot Springs on the east, holds some of the biggest catfish swimming in Arkansas waters. Relatively few people target catfish at this huge impoundment, but several anglers have taken giant cats from Ouachita’s waters in recent years, including several blue cats pushing the 100-pound mark.
You might think the production of such monsters would make this 40,000-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundment the focal point of lots of catfishing attention. But Ouachita doesn’t rate high with many catfish anglers because it’s super-tough to fish. This lake is clear, deep and enormous. Giant cats here got to be giants because they spend their active hours in places most anglers wouldn’t consider fishing — extremely deep holes and ledges, mid-lake reaches in open water, dense piles of deep woody cover and subtle, hard-to-find structures along creek and river channels.
Despite the difficulties one faces, however, big cats can be caught here. The current state-record channel cat, a 38-pounder caught in June 1989, came from Lake Ouachita, and heavier ones probably lurk in the depths.
I’ve seen numerous photos of 60- to 98-pound blues landed here by savvy local cat men who would prefer I didn’t tell you that. And while the lake doesn’t provide prime habitat for flatheads, the comparative rarity of this species is overshadowed by the size of those present. Flatheads over 50 pounds are taken here more often than most folks realize.
Fishing during limited light periods is the key to success in Ouachita’s clear water. In early morning and late afternoon, light penetration is minimal, and fish may move into forage-filled shallows to feed. Cloudy days can be good for many hours of successful catfishing, and during the heat of summer, many catfish fans enjoy night-fishing.
Another way successful Ouachita catfish anglers cope with ultraclear water is fishing deeper structure and cover. No matter how clear the water may seem, it still cuts light penetration, and at a depth of 20 feet or more, light may be sufficiently reduced that it doesn’t disturb catfish.
You can fish deep-water areas by casting well-weighted baits from a distance. Or position your boat so you can work a bait using a vertical lift-drop presentation. Top baits for trophy cats are fresh cut shad for blues and channel cats, and live sunfish for flatheads. Big crayfish also work well on all species here.
If deep-water angling isn’t your cup of tea, don’t fret. You can probably still catch catfish in shallow water haunts if you can locate shady cover. Virtually anything that casts a shadow is potentially productive, though objects that provide shade throughout the entire day are best. Boat docks are among the most productive clear-water catfishing hot spots, especially those built close to the water’s surface. Dense stands of flooded timber and logs are also good, as are man-made brush piles, underwater ledges and the back ends of wooded coves.
Lake Ouachita is accessible throughout its length from U.S. Highway 270 west of Hot Springs (south side) or Arkansas 298 between Blue Springs and Story (north side). For more info, call the Lake Ouachita field office in Royal at (501) 767-2101, or log on to www.mvk.usace.army.mil/Lakes/lakeouachita
BEST AGFC LAKE
Few bodies of water in the United States churn out the number of monster flatheads produced by central Arkansas’ Lake Conway. This 6,700-acre Arkansas Game and Fish Commission lake off Interstate 40 just west of Little Rock is the largest ever constructed by a state wildlife agency. Its waters are shallow, heavily timbered throughout, rich in shad and sunfish, and full of huge logjams and deep holes-in other words, prime habitat for producing giant flatheads.
Scores of 30- to 60-pound Conway flatheads are taken every year, some by anglers fishing for other species, some on trotlines, a few by rod-and-reel anglers who enjoy the challenge of battling big cats in heavy timber. Serious local catmen believe that 100-pounders swim here, but the dense timber makes it almost impossible to land one. Small live sunfish are the leading bait choice.
Because most Conway flathead aficionados are secretive about the location of their favored honeyholes, it can be hard for a first-timer to locate an area harboring big flatheads. The best way to do this is to obtain a lake map from one of the local docks that shows the old lakes inundated when the Conway was filled. Flatheads prefer the sanctuary these deep areas offer. Adams Lake, Greens Lake, Cub Pond, Round Pond, Gold Lake, Goose Pond and Holt’s Lake are all excellent locations for placing a trotline or baitfishing with rod and reel.
Blue cats and channel cats also thrive here, primarily from stockings by the AGFC. Trophy catches aren’t common, but there are plenty of eating-size cats that won’t turn a nose up at offerings ranging from commercial stink baits and night crawlers to cut shad and chicken liver.
Lake Conway lies just off Interstate I-40, three miles south of Conway in Faulkner County. Exit 135 (Mayflower) on Interstate 40 offers access by way of Arkansas Highway 365 to docks on the west side of the lake, or Arkansas Highway 89 and Clinton Road to docks on the east side. The upper lake can be reached by roads branching off Arkansas Highway 286. For additional information, call the AGFC’s District 10 office in Mayflower at 1-877-470-3309, or log on to www.agfc.com.
BEST STATE PARK LAKES
Dunn & Austell
Most folks probably wouldn’t include the small state park lakes in a listing of Arkansas’ best catfis
h waters, but 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, bodies of water well known among bass and bluegill fans, but whose names are hardly spoken by catfishing enthusiasts. One- to 2-pound channel cats and blue cats are abundant, and though both lakes are less than 70 acres in size, 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.
I’ve also 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. And Lake Dunn harbors some really nice bullhead catfish, a bonus for panfish enthusiasts.
There are first-rate bank-fishing sites on both lakes, and boat ramps if you want to bring a boat and trolling motor. (Gas motors aren’t allowed.) Dunn covers 68 acres, Austell 64.
At Dunn, look for catfish around brushy points and in coves with dense stands of dead timber. The arm of the lake running north from the boat dock is productive at times, but most anglers do best fishing the small, heavily timbered fingers jutting into the eastern shore, across the lake from the swimming beach. When it’s breezy, concentrate your efforts around the numerous points in this area, where shad and other baitfish stack up and attract feeding cats.
Look for Austell lunkers hiding around stumps, beaver lodges and fallen timber in the lake arm running north from the swimming beach. This arm has produced several of the lake’s largest catfish. Also productive are shallow timbered flats adjacent the creek channel running through Austell’s southwest arm, two deep wooded coves on the lake’s south side, and around logs and brush adjacent the riprapped dam.
Many anglers find summer catfish suspended over a deep inundated hole where dirt was dug for the Austell dam. To locate this hole, look for a vertical gravel bank, 10 to 15 feet high and about 100 feet long, on the south shore almost directly across the lake from the boat ramp. A depth sounder run across the water parallel to the cutbank will indicate a sharp drop from 20 to 30 feet of water down to 50 to 55 feet. When conditions are right, it’s not unusual to find a dozen or more big catfish suspended along the dropoff in summer.
For additional information, you can contact Village Creek State Park at (870) 238-9406 or visit www.arkansasstateparks.com.
BEST OXBOW LAKE
Lake Chicot covers a total of 5,300 acres in Arkansas’ far southeast corner, at the town of Lake Village. This huge oxbow, the world’s largest, is very beautiful, and it’s loaded with big channel and flathead catfish that can be caught using a variety of tactics. Blue cats are found here as well, but aren’t as common as their cousins.
Like most oxbows, Chicot isn’t blessed with much structure. There are no sharp variations in the bowl-shaped bottom, so the best fishing is generally around cypress trees, willows, buckbrush, dead timber and private docks along the shore. Inch-square chunks of cut shad are the best bait for big channel cats, if you have it, but you’ll also catch plenty of nice fish on crayfish, catalpa worms, night crawlers and chicken liver. For big flatheads, nothing beats a lively sunfish hooked just behind the dorsal fin so it wiggles enticingly.
Trotlining is popular here, and many visiting anglers also enjoy running limblines and following jug-fishing rigs. But when savoring the fight of the fish is as important as catching something to eat, rod-and-reel fishing outshines other tactics.
The lake is divided into two sections: upper and lower. The upper lake has an access at Lake Chicot State Park on Arkansas Highway 257 (just off Arkansas Highway 144). The lower lake can be reached from several points on U.S. highways 65 and 82 and Arkansas highways 144 and 159.
For additional information contact the AGFC office in Monticello by phoning 1-877-367-3559 or Lake Chicot State Park at (870) 265-5480.
BEST BIG RIVER
The Mississippi River along Arkansas’ eastern border has churned out giant catfish since settlement, including several monsters during the past decade. On August 3, 2001, while fishing the river at West Memphis, Charles Ashley Jr. of Marion boated a 116-pound, 12-ounce blue cat, a fish that for a time was the all-tackle world record. In addition, trotliners and netters have landed at least four 100-pound-plus blues — a 116.5-pounder in 1995, a 102-pounder in 1999, a 121-pounder in 2000 and a 127-pounder in 2001. Many hardcore catmen insist that 150-pounders inhabit the river.
The Mississippi harbors giant flatheads, too. Twenty- to 40-pounders are common as costume jewelry at a flea market, while 50- to 70-pounders 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 drop-offs, humps, holes, outside bends and logjams. Proven hotspots include the Memphis/West Memphis stretch and downstream confluences with large tributaries such as the St. Francis, White and Arkansas rivers.
Use extreme caution here. The Mississippi is dangerous and unpredictable. Barge traffic is heavy. Floating debris rips motors from transoms and capsizes the foolhardy. Show respect, or the river will eat you alive. Use a large boat and reliable motor. Wear a lifejacket and kill switch.
Access areas are scarce. Locals typically fish several miles then return to their launch site. Arkansas landings include Sans Souci near Osceola, 8th Street in West Memphis, Peters Island in Lee County, St. Francis north of Helena, and Panther Forest north of Lake City. The Arkansas Outdoor Atlas shows all of them. For guided catfishing, call Mississippi River Guide Service, (901) 383-8674, www.bigcatfishing.com.
BEST SMALL RIVER
In the southwest quadrant of the state, the Little River is one of the best catfishing waters. This stream, which now is divided by the impounded waters of Lake Millwood, 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 taken by a local angler, and a former state record flathead catfish that weighed 67 pounds. You might fish here on a weekday and not see another angler, but don’t come ill-prepared. There are some serious cats here, and you’ll never land one unless you’re using heavy line, big terminal tackle and a super-tough rod-and-reel rig. Access is good from Highway 32 a few miles east of Ashdown.
The Little Riv
er above Millwood harbors monster cats as well. Blue cats and flatheads often fall for shad gizzard baits. Channel cats prefer big night crawlers. Drift-fishing and still-fishing both are productive, so try what suits you and get ready for action.
Two accesses in Little River County will get you started: the Wilton Landing/Highway 71 access on the upper end of Millwood north of Wilton, and the Patterson Shoals access north of state Highway 234 west of Wilton.
(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 — includes shipping and Arkansas sales tax — to C&C Outdoors, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002.)