Some of my fondest memories of growing up in northwestern Oklahoma are from June catfishing outings.
I didn't have a boat and was too young to drive. But I could find places to catch catfish just by walking to the nearest creek or pond or to a municipal lake not too far from home.
That's the thing about catfishing in Oklahoma: there are lots of places to catch them.
You can drift or anchor or fish from shore on our dozens of large reservoirs and catch limits of big blue cats. You can fish the creeks and rivers with rods and lines, set out trot lines, limb lines or jug lines and catch flatheads and channel cats and sometimes blues. You can even catch bullheads in small ponds and creeks.
I doubt that there's a county anywhere in the state where you can't find a few good places to catch some kind of catfish. And June is probably the best month to catch them.
In June, all three species — blues, channels and flatheads — are gathered around caves and crevices and rip-rapped shorelines to spawn, and so are easily accessible to shoreline anglers as well as boaters.
For a few weeks, from late May through early July, catfish are pretty predictable and that's when they can all be found in the same kinds of places.
All three species are cavity spawners. They like to find a sheltered spot like a cave or deep crevice between boulders, an undercut creek bank or some similar, sheltered spot where they can deposit and fertilize their eggs.
If you're into doing hand-to-hand combat with a catfish, June is a great month to "noodle" for flathead cats in Oklahoma streams and lakes. Noodling is probing caves and crevices by hand to locate, grab and wrestle flatheads out of their hiding places. And when the fish are spawning and nesting, it's often easier to locate them in areas with appropriate cover.
Click the video link above to get great catfishing tips for your future trip.
Noodling is fairly popular in Oklahoma. Repeat showings on cable TV channels of a documentary film about an Oklahoma noodling tournament have given the technique a burst of popularity in recent years. Even television news and weather personalities in Tulsa have aired segments showing their noodling prowess.
Sticking your hands as far back as you can reach in underwater caves and holes, and sometimes getting bitten by frightened or angry flatheads, isn't every angler's cup of tea, but it can be fun and can yield a lot of tasty catfish meat as well.
Many Oklahoma waters are open to noodling, but it is also prohibited in many areas. Noodlers should check the current fishing regulations, either online at wildlifedepartment.com, or in the current regulations booklets, to see what is allowed in the areas they plan to fish.
Early summer is great for trot-liners and limb-liners too, because setting their lines near spawning areas almost guarantees that catfish will be swimming near their baits each day or night.
Later in the summer, after the spawn is completed, it may be more productive to drift mid-lake flats or anchor near submerged channel edges, or to cast jug lines out.
But for the next few weeks, those shorelines where there is lots of coarse rock or boulders, undercut banks and crevices and caves are most likely the best choices for finding pre-spawn or nesting catfish.
On many of our lakes, especially those which have bridges and road crossings, shorelines are covered by rip-rap to prevent erosion. Rip-rapped shorelines are excellent spots for finding both channel cats and flatheads, as well as blue cats.
I don't believe I ever caught a blue cat in Oklahoma until I was in my 30s. We had blues in some of our rivers, but they weren't all that common in lakes back then.
Channels and flatheads were the popular species in most of our big lakes when the lakes were fairly new. But as our lakes that were built in the 1950s and '60s and '70s started to mature, blue cats replaced channel cats as the most common species in many of the lakes.
I remember fishing Eufaula, Grand and Keystone, and a few times at Texoma, for catfish back in the early to mid '70s. We caught some flatheads, but channel cats were what we were usually going for. By the mid to late '80s, though, we were catching far more blues than channel cats.
Blue cats confuse some anglers, especially when caught from murky waters where they are a pale gray color. Some anglers called them "white" catfish or "Mississippi whites." Fisheries biologists had a hard time convincing some fishermen that what they were catching were blue cats. There is no such species as a "Mississippi white," although whitish, albino-like cats can occur in any of the species.
I like the fact that blues became much more numerous in Oklahoma waters, because I think blues are easier to catch than channel cats.
As most channel cat fishermen know, channel cats often nibble and play with baits, but don't take the whole bait in their mouths. That can result in a frustrating series of bites during which it is difficult to get a good, firm hook set.
Blue cats, by contrast, tend to grab a bait aggressively and give the person holding the fishing pole a good chance to set the hook securely.
Even when drifting with baited lines, with the baits moving steadily downwind, one might get numerous little nibbles from channel cats that make the rod tip twitch and bend for a second, but the fish lets go before the hook can be set. When a blue cat hits a drifting bait, though, they're likely to jerk the whole pole out of the boat if it isn't secured in some fashion.
Before we talk more about drifting techniques, I should mention one technique for catching cats around spawning areas. The late Jack Frisbie, an Oklahoma wildlife commissioner, tackle shop owner and Lake Eufaula fishing guide, invited me to Eufaula one spring during the channel cat spawn. He had discovered a new twist on catching pre-spawners — flippin' for catfish.
We used 14-foot, whippy, telescoping poles meant for crappie fishing, and we flipped hooks baited with shrimp to the edge of the water along rip-rapped shorelines. Often the channel cats hit the bait the split-second it touched the water's surface. Other times it took only a second or two for a strike.
That first day I flipped for cats, we boated a limit of fish ranging from a pound or so up to about 9 or 10 pounds.
Flippin' sticks used by bass anglers could be used for the same thing, but the longer, limber poles worked well. We don't even use reels on those long crappie poles. We just tie on line that is about the same length as the pole, or maybe a foot or two longer, which makes a pretty efficient rig.
The frozen shrimp worked well that first day, but other friends and I have since used fresh shad for flippin' with pretty good results also.
I like a 3/0 or 4/0 circle hook, or what some hook makers call a Kahle hook, but pretty much any hook meant for rigging a plastic worm would work also.
It still baffles me how quickly many of the strikes come. It's almost like the catfish are looking up and waiting for a snack to hit the water.
I've caught catfish by flippin' all along both sides of U.S. Highway 69, both north and south of the town of Eufaula, and along a stretch of I-40 on the Deep Fork arm of the lake. I've also used this technique at Keystone, Kaw and Kerr lakes with success. Just about any rip-rapped shoreline is worth a try during the pre-spawn and spawning periods.
Flippin' adds a whole new dimension to catching catfishing. Sitting and waiting for a bite can sometimes be boring, but flippin' during the spawn can be excitingAfter the spawn wanes, it will be time to head back out to open water to catch catfish. You'll probably still be able to catch some along shorelines, especially at night, because catfish do prowl the banks in search of food.
The flippin' technique works best when catfish are concentrated in spawning areas. As spring turns to summer, though, it may be more productive to fish further from shore, especially in daylight hours.
Drifting the flats is a very good technique on many lakes. My friends and I have caught literally tons of catfish drifting on Eufaula, Grand, Keystone, Texoma and Kaw.
Catfish tend to roam over the floors of lakes searching for food, and dragging baited lines through areas with relatively flat or smooth bottoms can often be very productive.
It's a good idea to hold one's rod, or make sure all rods are fastened in a rod holder or in some other way, especially if the lake you fish has blue cats. I've seen several rods jerked over the sides of boats when a big blue struck and a rod wasn't secured in some fashion.
One positions the boat on the upwind side of a flat area and drifts across it, dragging baited lines across it. I'd recommend using no more than two lines per angler, because more can lead to tangled lines and can be a problem if multiple fish strike around the same time.
There are many ways to rig a line for drifting, but one efficient rig is to tie a 3-way swivel to your line, then attach a 12- to 18-inch line with a sinker to the second eye of the swivel and a 2-foot leader with the hook to the third eye. You can use slightly weaker line for attaching the weight, so that if it gets caught in a snag you can break the rest of the rig free.
The size of the weigh should depend on how fast the wind is pushing your boat. Ideally, you want a weight that will scoot across the lake bottom, with the baited line drifting a little above and behind it. I've wondered before if the weight stirring up silt as it moves also helps attract catfish.
I like 3/0 and 4/0 hooks for catfish drifting, but any stout hook will work.
A variety of baits can be used, but I believe you can't beat fresh shad. You can use a cast net or a towed hoop net to catch shad before you begin fishing. Shad in the 2- to 3-inch range can be used whole. Bigger shad can be cut into strips or chunks to bait the hooks.
I've tried flesh from other fishes as bait, but the oily shad meat seems to work best.
As summer days grow hotter in July and August, a good way to beat the heat is to go catfishing at night. I haven't had as much luck drifting at night, but summertime is a great time to camp overnight on a lake shore or stream bank and put out multiple baited lines, set a few jug lines adrift, or stake out a trot line. It's good family fun and can fill your freezer with some tasty catfish fillets as well.
Lines baited with live minnows or small sunfish can catch flatheads, while lines baited with many other kinds of baits can catch channel cats. Many smaller streams that don't have a lot of blue cats hold quite a few flatheads and channel cats.