The June night was perfect for catfishing — warm, overcast and calm. I was listening to a great horned owl hooting in the distance when I felt the first tap, tap on my fishing line. In the golden light of our lantern, I could see the rod tip bend slightly and then straighten again.
“Here, son,” I said, handing the pole to 12-year-old Josh. “I feel a bite.”
Josh tensed with anticipation.
“Don’t get in a hurry,” I said. “Wait ’til he starts running.”
Suddenly, the fish surged away, putting a deep bend in the pole. There was no doubt now the fish was on. It twisted and turned in a bulldog run across the lake bottom as Josh grimaced and cranked.
After a brief but exciting tussle, the fish came in, resigned to its fate and croaking softly at the injustice of it all. It was a nice flathead catfish, 5 pounds of muscle and mouth, and before we left the lake, it would be joined by nine more of its whiskered brethren. For Josh, that night was a little like heaven.
I’ve been fishing for catfish since I was big enough to hold a cane pole. Now I have six sons who share my enjoyment of the sport. When possible, we make our catfishing forays at night. That’s when cats bite best, making night-fishing junkets far more memorable than daytime outings.
To me, catfishing conjures up memories of whippoorwills and starlight, of running trotlines in wooded coves, of bargain-basement rods and reels stuck between planks in wooden bridges over muddy rivers. Yes, and of mosquitoes, too, for of such elements is catfishing compounded. There’s something exciting and different about catfishing, especially at night in an undercurrent of mystery and expectation.
Be warned, however. When night-fishing for catfish, snakes drop in for a visit now and then. You’ll reek of fish slime and bait. The hummingbird drone of a million mosquitoes dive-bombing you for a blood meal will drive you bonkers.
Despite the these inconveniences, fishing after dark is the best way to hook my favorite catfish — the incomparable, ugly and good-eating flathead — whether you want a few fish to eat or a trophy-class monster that’ll give you bragging rights.
Fishing at night is a great way to enjoy the company of family and friends, as well. Load up your camping and fishing gear, and head for a lakeside beach or river sandbar. Let the kids run wild during the day — swimming, hiking, catching frogs — and then share with them the joys of catfishing when the sun goes down.
You can catch flatheads during daylight hours, especially during cloudy periods or when water is muddy. But the odds of success improve if you fish the hours between dusk and dawn. Most flatheads work the late shift.
Mosquitoes are night creatures, too, so insect repellent is a must (on you, but never get it on your bait). You’ll need a good lantern, maybe two or three, and if you’re bank fishing, some lawn chairs and some rod holders or forked sticks on which to prop your poles. Pick a body of water where catfish are abundant (Arkansas has dozens), and carry plenty of bait. Good choices for small eating-sized flatheads include baitfish (minnows, shad or small sunfish), nightcrawlers, crawfish, catalpa worms, chicken liver and commercial stinkbaits. If you’re going after a trophy, however, you should stick exclusively to live fish baits — small sunfish, big shiners, creek chubs, carp or goldfish.
To catch flatheads, which are the most difficult of Arkansas’ catfish to find and hook, remember these important facts.
Although found in both lakes and rivers, flatheads are generally considered river fish. They are most abundant in large, sluggish, deep river pools, usually over hard bottoms or where silt deposition is slow. They generally avoid heavy current, but sometimes feed in swift water at the ends of dikes and in tailraces below dams. Big specimens seldom are found in creeks, ponds and small lakes, but populations are substantial in many larger reservoirs and natural lakes within Arkansas.