Photo by Patrick Meiten.
Catfish angling comes in many versions. It can be as serious, or as leisurely as you want it to be. Some anglers search for the biggest fish that swims in local waters. Some guys look for a large haul to fill a freezer with succulent filets. I think most of us simply want to get away from it all for a couple of hours with some hope of a tight line in the end.
Catfish fishing in New Mexico provides you with all of these possibilities, and the fishing here is better than you might expect. For those in search of trophies, waters such as Elephant Butte and the Rio Grande or the lower Gila River are where you’ll find behemoth flatheads.
Looking for numbers? In any number of large lakes and reservoirs, the laid-back whiskerfish angler can string a trotline and find a thrashing channel cat come morning. From the largest reservoir to the smallest drainage ditch — if wet and permanent — chances are that a finned cat of some variety is waiting below for a proffered worm, cluster of canned corn or a dab of special-recipe stinkbait.
In public waters, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish stocks more catfish than any other species. That makes them widely available and normally abundant enough to assure at least a few exciting bites.
Certain spots get more hatchery fish than others, and less pressure. That assures success and often, heavy stringers.
Here are the top picks for 2007 from Rocky Mountain Game & Fish:
As New Mexico’s largest reservoir, it’s no surprise that Elephant Butte is also the state’s most dependable catfish water for trophies and sheer numbers. The state dumps more cats in this lake than in any other in the state.
Normally fingerlings are stocked to mature in the Butte’s fertile waters. This is easily seen while fishing near any of the lake’s boat landings — the only spots where the cumbersome hatchery trucks can safely reach the sandy lakeshores. Around here, big numbers of thumb-sized whiskerfish can drive you to distraction with their persistent, bait-stealing bites.
My girlfriend loves to fish evenings. No zipping lures or swishing fly line for her. She prefers sitting in a lawn chair while enjoying a frosty beverage, with a line tossed out and rod propped on the cooler.
When we started these frequent evening trips, we employed the typical garden-variety tackle. We caught plenty of catfish — say 30 in a three-hour foray. But 27 of these would have served well as bait. They were too small to even consider cleaning.
One evening, one of the guys at Pat’s Convenience Store in Elephant Butte suggested that we try using frozen raw shrimp. We caught far fewer nibblers and many more keepers. Some of these channel cats weighed 5 pounds.
Shortly after, I tried live crayfish. The size of our catfish increased once more. Fresh whole shad likewise proved productive. Perhaps it’s the predominance of natural foods in Elephant Butte, but these cats don’t seem to care a bit for stinkbaits of any kind or canned corn or hotdogs, as do catfish in other New Mexico waters.
Another thing that quickly became evident was that evenings following thundershowers proved most productive. The more mud washed into the water, the better fishing seemed to be. Those evenings often resulted in limits of nice catfish. We actually got our best results while huddled under a tarp against the pelting rain!
Bright, hot, sunny evenings proved least productive. But on those evenings, you can always catch a few by finding areas where the water drops off quickly from shore.
Another trick of catfish experts in the area is to pre-bait a fishing hole. Normally, this is best accomplished from a boat. First, ferment a 5-gallon bucket of feed-store wheat or milo for several days under the hot sun. Dump about half of this in water 20 to 30 feet deep to get a hole started. Return every few days to add more. After a week or so you can anchor up, dump a gallon of bait, wait an hour, and began catching fish. Under these circumstances, stinkbaits and such normally work best.
If you want to catch the lake’s notorious flatheads, fish with fresh live bait during daylight hours. I say “notorious” because as a kid I heard tales of man-sized flatheads run rampant.
Someone’s father always knew someone who knew a state police scuba diver in training for deep-water body retrieval. A common version of the story was that the guy came across a monster catfish so big that he nearly died of fright. No man-sized flatheads have yet materialized. But enough 50- to 60-pound fish are caught via hook and line to make the prospect tantalizing.
Some anglers specialize in these big flatheads, typically using fish finders and big tackle. For bait they use live shad, sunfish or baby carp that average about a pound. You won’t catch numbers in this game, but one single 50-pound flathead equates to a large mess of channels or blues.
While in the area, don’t discount Caballo Lake, a 15-minute drive downstream. It’s often less crowded, especially on weekends when the Butte’s personal watercraft and water-skiers conspire to dissolve the peace and quiet. Due to a featureless bottom with little structure, this water especially asks for a “baited hole.”
For your bait needs, and to get an up-to-date fishing report at Elephant Butte, contact J’s Bait Shak at (505) 744-5413, Marina Del Sur at (505) 744-5567, and Rock Canyon at (505) 744-5462. Lil’ Abner’s, at (505) 743-0153, is a good spot to call if you are fishing Caballo Lake.
LOWER GILA RIVER
I first discovered the incongruous catfish waters of the Lower Gila while pack-stringing aboard one of outfitter Billy Lee’s sturdy mules in search of wilderness turkey hunting.
We didn’t find much in the way of turkey, but we sure did have a blast catching catfish. I even caught several feisty channel cats up to 7 pounds while stripping streamers and Woolly Buggers for the river’s smallmouth bass. Subsequent trips have shown us that realistic crayfish patterns, heavily weighted, can be deadly on the river’s cats, a unique opportunity to catch catfish on flies, on purpose.
Someone’s father alway
s knew someone who knew a state police scuba diver in training for deep-water body retrieval.
A common version of the story was that the guy came acrossa monster catfish so bigthat he nearly died of fright.
I said “incongruous” because these cats often live side by side with rainbow trout in clear, cold waters that make their flesh firm and delicious.
Lee always brings along a package of worms and enjoys even better success. Flipping over rocks near the water’s edge and catching pinky-finger-sized hellgrammites also paid off, since the river’s big flatheads seem especially vulnerable to these mean-looking aquatic insects. Just watch out for their nasty pincers.
The river also holds a healthy population of crawdads, so a small dip net would be worth packing.
Catfish are typically found in the very deepest pools. Hike along and give each pool a dozen good drifts before moving on to another. When water’s clear, often you can sneak up on a pool and actually see the big cats hanging on the bottom.
Keep a sharp eye out between pools, though. I have actually discovered big flatheads feeding aggressively, hanging in the shallow water at the head of a deeper pool. With a careful approach and a gentle upstream cast that drifts bait into their feeding lane, these fish are sure to hit, since they are actively seeking food.
No matter where you fish in the Gila River, the best fishing is found as far away from the beaten path as possible. This means hiking, or riding. The wilderness section of the Gila, between Grapevine Campground (downstream of the Gila Cliff Dwellings) and Turkey Creek approximately 15 miles downstream, is accessed from either end via Forest Service trail.
You can also use Forest Service Road 282 off State Highway 15, which brings you to a winding trail at Sheep Corral Canyon that drops into the middle of this long section at Sapillo Creek. Strap on a backpack, or give Lee a call at (505) 536-9685.
The Middle Gila Box, below the villages of Cliff and Gila, is likewise a great catfish destination. Again, the best waters require some hiking, but it’s not normally necessary to do an overnight expedition, as with the wilderness area upstream. This area is accessed via public roads stemming from Bill Evans Lake, FSR 809.
Navajo is another productive catfish water where cold-water species such as trout and even kokanee salmon live side by side, making for some of the firmest, most delicious catfish filets you’ll ever taste. The possibilities are limitless because the structure found throughout the lake — including a plethora of cliffy drop-offs, benches, ledges and submerged river channels — make for prime catfish habitat.
I’ve had especially good luck trotlining at the two heads, or arms, of the lake, where the San Juan and Florida rivers create the large still water. As on other big New Mexico lakes, areas surrounding boat ramps are always a good bet for concentrated channel and blue catfish stockers released by Game and Fish.
Cut bait of any kind — shad, carp or sunfish — is highly productive in Navajo waters, in addition to traditional whiskerfish attractants such as liver. Friends who live in the area swear by fishing live waterdogs along ledges for the lake’s biggest cats. Hook them through the lips with a 1/0 hook, weighed with a slip-sinker so they can swim freely.
Of course, you’re likely to catch the lake’s monster smallmouths. The state’s former record, a 6-plus-pounder, came from here.
Get the scoop on current fishing conditions and what the big ones are biting today at Handy Bait & Tackle, (505) 334-9114) in nearby Aztec.
Droughts have kept Ute’s water levels in constant flux, but a couple of years in a row of decent precipitation have brought the lake back as a prime angling destination. In fact, the state-record smallmouth of 7 pounds, 3 ounces, just caught here, testifies the lake has remained productive.
As Ute’s water levels rose, New Mexico Game and Fish was quick to toss in plenty of stocker catfish, and limits are common again. This makes standard-issue catfish baits the way to go. Canned corn, commercial stinkbaits, dough baits, garlic cheese and the like all work well. Of course, worms and cut bait seem to work in any catfish water, and that also holds true here.
Not that long ago, I was fishing with a buddy on the north end of Ute. Swallows had built nests in the cliffs above the water’s edge, and we saw that a couple of dozen unfortunate nestlings had toppled from their nests and met their end in the water below.
We quickly scooped up several, threaded them onto catfish hooks, and sent them to the bottom with sinkers. It was as if the catfish were waiting down there for just such an event. I soon had an 8-pound channel cat in hand. We caught a mess of big cats that day.
Live shad, minnows and waterdogs have likewise proven highly productive in this prime lake.
Some of the many bait and tackle dealers in the Ute Lake/Logan region include Ute Junction at (505) 487-2330, Minnow Ranch at (505) 487-2286, Ruf-Nec Tackle at (505) 487-2406 and Ute Lake Marina at (505) 487-2349.
Last year, I would have directed you to Lake McMillian/Branley State Park, on the Pecos River between Artesia and Carlsbad, as a sure-thing catfish hotspot. It’s a relatively new still water, constructed within the past 15 years. This makes the lake especially fertile, with plenty of shad and crayfish to fatten catfish quickly. But high levels of DDT have been found in several fish, and the lake has now become essentially catch-and-release.
This has transformed Lake Van into the southeastern New Mexico’s new catfish hotspot. Also, being just down the road from New Mexico Game and Fish’s Dexter fish hatchery, it receives additional influxes of fresh stockers that were formerly headed to Branley. In fact, Lake Van receives the heaviest stocking of all species in the southeast region.
The potential for big channel cats is fair. Stockers are suckers for any of the typical aromatic baits offered commercially. But once a cat has established itself in the lake, shad in any form is more likely to produce results. Live shad, dead shad, cut shad, are all good bets on this water.
Live crayfish should also be productive. The lake has a healthy population of largemouth bass, so using live bait for cats increases your likelihood of hooking a potential trophy bucketmouth as well.
Fishing from shore is good on this relatively small impoundment, but a small rowboat or canoe gives you more access to lightly fished holes in the middle of the lake.
ALBUQUERQUE AREA DRAINS
Just because you live in the big city doesn’t mean you have to drive far to catch a catf
ish dinner. The Albuquerque metro area is not far from a number of large drainage ditches and city ponds that Game and Fish stocks heavily for the enjoyment of Duke City anglers.
These waters can be located easily from Bernalillo to the north, down to Belen to the south. Tingley Beach Lake is found right in the middle of town and stocked heavily. Other possibilities include, from north to south, Bernalillo, Corrales Riverside, Albuquerque Riverside, Peralta and Belen Riverside drains.
These waters get regular angling pressure, so are essentially put-and-take waters. Baits with a strong odor normally attract the most attention from uneducated hatchery cats. This makes sure bets of garlic cheese, stinkbaits and dough, PowerBait, salmon eggs and canned corn.
We all fish for different reasons, but our most common denominator is that we want to feel that tug that means we’ve caught a fish. Catfish can certainly provide that thrill. With their deeply forked tails and tenacious attitudes, they will fight harder, pound-for-pound, than even the renowned largemouth bass.
More to the point, landing a catfish is normally much easier than catching nearly any other species. They live in any type of water, and always seem to be hungry and ready to bite. And, of course, they taste pretty darn good from the skillet as well.
Try these hotspots this summer to find your thrills, and perhaps bring home some succulent filets for a summertime catfish fry.