By Mason Dickson
Summer is a great time to head in search of catfish, so it is good that this Arkansas catfish forecast has so many locations where cats are prevalent and plentiful.
With a stiff wind howling through his upturned battery of fishing rods, Chris Fuller of Elkins prepared breakfast for the catfish of Lake Dardanelle.
Friday's entree was fresh skipjack herring sliced in bite-size chunks to attract big blue catfish. For any channel cats that might wander into this continental breakfast, Fuller also had two buckets of a putrid concoction he called "dip bait."
"They are cheese based, with a bunch of other ingredients," Fuller said. "It's got fibers mixed in with it to give it body so that it will stay on a hook."
Fuller, the band director at Elkins High School, played trombone in the famous University of Arkansas Hog Wild Band in 1985-89, booming the William Tell Overture while the great Jim Robken dashed through the stands at Barnhill Arena. His real passion is catfishing, though. He travels around the South to fish for trophy blue cats the way elk hunters travel around the Rockies in search of trophy antlers. He actually proposed to his wife Tina on bended knee in his custom SeaArk catfish boat, at this same bend in the Arkansas River.
He had to delay his proposal for several hours, though, because the fish were biting especially well that night.
We launched from Spadra Park near Clarksville at sunrise. At 6 a.m., the sauna was beginning to steam.
To deliver breakfast to the "river kitties," Fuller has about a dozen thick fiberglass rods standing vertically in holders that encircle his steering console. Half are stout Meat Hunter rods designed for big blue cats weighing more than 50 pounds. The others are Shakespeare Ugly Stix that are better suited for smaller channel cats. Each rod has a wide-spool Abu Garcia reel. He uses large Eagle Claw circle hooks and heavy lead weights attached to plastic swivels that slide up and down the line to form a modified Carolina rig.
Click the video link above to get great catfishing tips for your future trip.
Slip corks are on the leaders. They stop at the brass barrel swivels that connect the leader to the main line. The cork lifts the bait about 18 inches off the bottom.
Our first stop was on a wide, shallow flat near the mouth of Cabin Creek. It looked catfishy, but Fuller was skeptical.
"They were all over this place two weeks ago, but they clear out of here after the spawn," Fuller said, "but it looks too good. I won't rest unless we fish it."
With mighty heaves, he threw his skipjack-tipped hooks toward the bank. Before long, one rod started dancing.
"That's probably a small fish," Fuller said. "It's not really taking the bait. It's just sucking out the gut sac."
The rod stopped dancing, and Fuller reeled it in. Sure enough, the skipjack's body cavity was clean.
"This isn't like bass fishing where you can use different colors or vary your retrieve speed," Fuller said. "You get just one color — cut shad color. The only thing you can really do is adapt to the size of the fish by changing the size of your bait, or your hook size."
His curiosity satisfied, Fuller motored to the next spot, to a line of barges moored under a big rock quarry on the south side of the river. Our plan was to drift baits downstream past the barges. Fuller was optimistic because his Lowrance electronic graph showed fish thick near the bottom. Since there was no current, we had to troll the baits downstream at a speed of about a half a mile per hour, but fish wouldn't bite.
It made me wonder out loud why fish will attack a bait tumbling downstream in a heavy current, but they won't bite if you troll a bait at the same speed. I think it's because food going downstream in current looks natural. Something going that fast in slack water looks unnatural, and fish don't trust it.
Fuller got a couple of bites on the inboard side as we trolled, but I got none on the outboard side. We didn't hook any fish.
By then the air was still and the heat was stifling. I guzzled a cold soda, but it only seemed to gel in my throat.
Still, hot air made me logy and lethargic. The still, hot water did the same to the catfish.
LOWER ARKANSAS RIVER
When you add current, the plot flips. I learned how good the Arkansas River can be while fishing with Tim Griffis and some friends on the lower Arkansas River in June below Wilbur Mills Dam. It is the second dam on the McClellan-Kerr Navigation System and serves to maintain water levels in the 10-mile Arkansas Post Canal, which connects the Arkansas River to the White River before it enters the Mississippi at Montgomery Point.
The lower Arkansas River below Wilbur Mills Dam is wild, remote and teeming with catfish that migrate freely in and out of the Mississippi River. When there is no current moving through Wilbur Mills Dam, the fishing is as dead as a '64 Chevy with scorched points, but when there's current, it produces some of the best fishing you'll see.
Sometimes you'll catch channel cats and small blues, but it's always possible to hang into a big blue. In fact, the lower Arkansas and Lake Dardanelle are the two best sections of the Arkansas River to catch big blues.
The day starts with Griffis catching skipjack and gizzard shad off the riprap with a throw net. He puts them on ice and launches his wide-beam flat bottom boat on one of the two ramps below the dam.
River catting in heavy current is a two-man job. The motorman positions the bow in the current well above the spot where you want to stop. The anchorman drops the anchor from the bow, and the boat drifts downstream until the anchor catches. It is vital for the motor man to keep the bow pointed upstream so that when the anchor catches, the bow will cut the current.
If the anchor catches a cleat or something else that causes the stern to face the current, the water will flood over the transom and swamp a boat in just seconds.
With the boat in position, it's time to cut the skipjack into chunks on a cutting board. It's a messy job that's even grimier in the summer heat.
Using heavy weights on heavy-duty rigs similar to the ones that Fuller uses, Griffis pitches a modified Carolina rig into the current perpendicular to the boat and lets the current carry it downstream into known holes and seams where catfish await easy meals.
Sometimes bites are tentative as a catfish mouths the bait before taking it. Other times the strikes are violent.
When you are certain the fish has ingested the bait, resist the urge to set the hook with a yank because that will pull the bait from the fish's mouth. Just start reeling. The circle hook will jab the corner of a catfish's mouth every time.
In heavy current, even a middling size catfish gives considerable resistance, making every fish feel like a giant. You quickly learn the difference between resistance and mass, but either way, your arms get a good workout when the fish are biting.
When you get your fill, it's time to heat up the oil and drop in the fillets and hush puppies for a southern style feast.
While the focus of this article thus far is on the Arkansas River, these tactics work on any of the state's rivers and lakes. Regardless of which body of water you fish, current is the key.
Knowing your water is very important, too. Even on big clear water reservoirs like Lake Ouachita, Bull Shoals or even Lake Maumelle, catfish still relate to the original river channel. With a good side scan and down scan graph, you can find catfish stacked around main-lake points and secondary points in the feeder creeks when water moves through the dams and generates current.
The water moves slower in a lake than it does in a river, but fish react to it the same way. You can catch them the same way with the same methods.
To its great credit, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission is very aggressive in providing quality fishing opportunities at municipal lakes and ponds around the state. During the winter, the AGFC stocks rainbow trout in municipal waters, but it stocks catfish in the summer. Lots of catfish.
"By June, our community ponds have already been stocked three times with catfish," said Clint Coleman, assistant coordinator for the AGFC's Family and Community Fishing Program.
The Family and Community Fishing Program was originally structured to provide fishing opportunities for kids, but it has changed over time, Coleman said. It's more of an inter-generational thing now because parents and grandparents bring the kids, and they fish together.
"It's people from 3 to 93," Coleman said. "They can all fish together at the same time. It's all different ethnicities. Fishing made a really big surge this year due to the surge in the Hispanic populations in northwest and central Arkansas. We did some work last year with Univision where we actually targeted a specific group. We did it in Spanish. When you do it in their language, they're like, "'Hey, they're talking to me!'
"The AGFC stocks 500 catfish per acre at its Family and Community program locations, which are statewide. The fish are 13 to 15 inches. It stocks 2,000 fish at one event at Little Rock's MacArthur Park.
"The kids get out there with their cane poles, and the water's almost boiling with fish," Coleman said.
Many of the fish are caught and removed at the events, but not all. The fishing remains good after the events are finished. It's easy fishing, too. These are hatchery fish, and they'll bite just about anything you put in the water.
If you are interested in fishing but want to test the waters, so to speak, you can do so without buying a fishing license during Free Fishing Weekend, which occurs annually the second week of June.
For more information about the Family and Community Fishing Program and to find locations near you, go online to agfc.com. Open the drop-down menu for Fishing, and click the link for Where to Fish. A link to the Family and Community Fishing Program will appear.
The Natural State is loaded with catfish and places to catch them. Bait up a rod and get ready for a fight.