Photo by Bruce Ingram.
Amid the recent trail camera documentation of at least one cougar prowling Louisiana’s woodlands, it’s easy to lose focus on our state’s most popular — and most populous — wild “cats.”
Practically all of Louisiana’s waterways, lakes and ponds teem with catfish that continue to attract attention of anglers because they are fun to catch and mouth-wateringly good on the dinner table.
Louisiana catfishermen employ a variety of techniques to bring catfish to the boat — methods as widely divergent as noodling, snagging, slat-trapping, jug-fishing and trotlining — in addition to the traditional rod and reel method.
Let’s examine these more popular methods of putting catfish in the boat, and perhaps catch a glimpse of the best areas of the state this year for catching catfish.
Noodling is a catfishing technique that is not for the weak and squeamish. Hardy souls with a taste for adventure and excitement — tempered with a touch of insanity — probe with their hands the murky interiors of hollow logs and stumps and holes beneath boat ramps until they feel a catfish lurking there. Slipping fingers inside the fish’s mouth to secure a handhold on the lower jaw, the noodler wrestles the fish out of its hideout and into the boat.
When all goes according to plan, the noodler wins the match. However, other creatures like to hang out in underwater lairs. More than one noodler has lost a digit or two to the powerful jaws of a snapping turtle or found himself having to deal with an angry cottonmouth.
In spring, another method is employed by catfishermen who are more interested in putting fish in the freezer than in enticing a catfish to bite. Snagging is a legal method of taking catfish (no other species of fish may be taken by snagging) and usually takes place in the state’s rivers around locks and dams. During this time of year, catfish move upstream on spawning runs and congregate at locks, where anglers use outsized treble hooks to snare them.
Other anglers use slat traps to take advantage of fish moving upstream in spring. These simple but effective tools, baited with an attractant such as cottonseed meal, allow a catfish to enter — but not exit — the trap.
As the weather warms in spring, anglers and boaters unfamiliar with jug-fishing, are likely to think that “litter bugs” are on the loose in the area, as empty milk jugs and large plastic cola bottles bob about on the lake’s surface. However, these jugs are bobbing with a purpose. Stout fishing line is tied to the jugs with catfish bait skewered onto the hooks. Getting a catfish to bite using this method is simple. Chasing it down is another matter entirely.
Trotlining for catfish is one of the more popular methods of taking these tasty whiskerfish in Louisiana. Suspending lines far enough beneath floats to keep from becoming entangled in motorboat propellers and baiting with a variety of enticements is a proven method of taking catfish.
Roy Dupree, a retired educator who lives on Black Lake in Natchitoches Parish, employs a different, albeit highly successful, method of trotlining for channel catfish on the lake. Instead of suspending his baited hooks, Dupree allows the entire trotline, from the staging line to the hooks, to rest in the mud on the lake bottom, with only a couple of floats on the surface giving away the location of the trotline.
This highly successful method works because catfish are bottom feeders and have no problem locating the bait in the mud. Dupree abandons this method during summer months because oxygen levels are low in deeper water this time of year and hooked catfish can’t ascend to oxygen-rich water quickly enough to avoid death.
For rod-and-reel catfishermen sitting on the bank, nothing is simpler than to bait a hook with cold worms, minnows, cut bait or chicken livers, cast it off the banks and wait for a bite, which usually won’t be long in coming.
We visited with professional fisheries biologists with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries to get a better handle on where the fish will be biting this year, no matter what method an angler chooses to pursue his quarry. For purposes of identification, we’ve divided the state into three sections, North, Central and South Louisiana.
Jeff Sibley is a fisheries biologist with the LDWF’s District One office in Minden, and his area of responsibility covers most of northwest Louisiana. This portion of Louisiana features the Red River, one of most productive catfishing waters in the state.
“There is a very high catfish population in the Red River, with all three popular species — channels, blues and flatheads — living there,” said Sibley. “The Red has a very high population of blue catfish.
“Just about every legal method you can think of is used here on the river to catch catfish. In April and May, when the spawning run takes place, lots of catfish are taken by fishermen using snag hooks at the locks and dams.
“Some anglers set out trotlines and jugs back in the oxbows, and they can catch plenty of catfish.
“Bank-fishing using rods and reels is quite popular (here), and the area known as Lock and Dam No. 5, located off U.S. Route 71 north of Coushatta, is a good spot for bank-fishermen to take a seat, cast out several rods and watch for a bite. These fishermen use a variety of baits, from commercial blood and cheese baits to earthworms to cut bait.”
As productive as is the Red River, there are other water bodies around northwest Louisiana where catfishing is outstanding. One such area, Cross Lake, is on the outskirts of the city of Shreveport.
“Cross Lake is one of the best lakes I know of where you can sit in a boat on a day with a slight breeze, bait several rods with your choice of baits, sit back and let the breeze drift you along. There is no better place to catch lots of channel catfish (by) drift-fishing than Cross Lake,” said Sibley.
Another northwest Louisiana lake with good catfish numbers is Caddo Lake on the Louisiana-Texas border, where giant flathead catfish are taken annually on set lines baited with live bait.
Lake Bistineau, southeast of Shreveport, also features outstanding flathead fishing during warm weather, according to Sibley.
“The lake is currently undergoing a drawdown to try to control the spread of giant Salvinia, a weed that threatens to choke off much of the lake,” said Sibley. “However, water levels should be approaching normal by May 2009, and fishing should be great.
“Some really big flathead catfish can be caught by tying stout line to the tough cypress limbs along the deeper channels, securing a big hook and baiting with a live bream or goldfish,” Sibley said. “If you observe closely as you motor up and down the channel, you’ll see arm-sized limbs twisted off by a monster catfish.”
On the opposite side of north Louisiana from the Red River, the Ouachita River flows out of Arkansas through northeast Louisiana. This river is also a prime spot to catch catfish in warmer months, said Ryan Daniel, an LDWF fisheries biologist with the Monroe District.