June 25, 2019
By Keith Sutton
With summer here, I’d like to make a suggestion.
Take some vacation time. Go to a river or lake. Invite a friend or family members. Take some fishing poles, a tackle box and plenty of catfish bait. Ice down your favorite drinks. Pack some salt, pepper, cornmeal, cooking oil, a few potatoes and onions, a big cast-iron skillet and your Coleman stove.
Set up camp. Find a good bank-fishing spot. Bait your hook and cast it out. Sit a while and take in nature’s beauty. Enjoy some small talk with your companions. When a catfish bites, hook it. Play it slow. Savor the moment. Keep some small cats for supper and let the big ones go to catch another day. Sit and relax. Let birds serenade and frogs sing.
That is catfishing at its finest. What more could a person ask? A place to go maybe? Consider it done. Here are some Arkansas honey holes for unforgettable catfishing foray.
GAME AND FISH COMMISSION LAKES
I like small waters when fishing for catfish up to 5 pounds. The fish are easier to find and there’s no hassle with launching a boat. That’s why my list of the best waters for 2019 includes Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) lakes covering just a few acres.
For example, at only 10 acres, Lake Bentonville is the size of a large farm pond. It’s tailor-made for bank fishing, with easy shoreline access. Small channel cats are abundant, and there’s a good chance you’ll catch bigger fish, too. Centerton Fish Hatchery is just four miles away, and when brood catfish grow too large to fit in the hatchery’s 25-gallon spawning barrels, they’re often stocked here. The lake is just south of Highway 102 in Bentonville.
Crystal Lake, another Benton County AGFC lake, is a clear, spring-fed impoundment covering only 60 acres. But its sterling catfishing opportunities make this diminutive treasure a favorite with northwest Arkansas anglers.
The lake supports a healthy population of channel catfish, along with a smaller population of blue cats up to 20 pounds. Signs mark the two turn-offs to the lake, one on Highway 59, 1 mile north of Decatur; another on Highway 102, 1 mile east of Decatur. A parking and picnic area are accessible from Highway 59 near the dam on the lake’s northeast end. The Highway 102 access on the southeast end leads to bankfishing areas and a fishing pier.
Lake Hindsville is a pool of serenity beside a hurry-scurry sea. At 30,000 acres, nearby Beaver Lake provides most everything a visitor could want: great fishing, skiing, tourist attractions and more. But Beaver doesn’t offer the same type of relaxed atmosphere that prevails on 20-acre Hindsville, a little lake full of fighting channel cats, plus a few blues. Hindsville is in Madison County, 3 miles west of its city namesake, off Highway 68.
Truman Baker Lake, 3 miles south of Waldron in Scott County, was built by the Arkansas Transportation Department during excavation for the U.S. 71 bypass around Waldron. Fill dirt remaining from the construction project was used to impound the 15-acre lake in a low-lying spot adjacent a highway rest area, providing a great place to take kids fishing for channel catfish. Visitors can park at the rest area and carry their gear a short distance to bankfishing areas around the lake. The adjacent rest area has covered picnic tables and parking.
Other small AGFC lakes offering excellent bank-fishing for catfish include 50-acre Gurdon Lake (Clark County), 100-acre Horsehead Lake (Johnson County) and 12-acre Gator Pond in Dagmar Wildlife Management Area (WMA) west of Brinkley. And don’t overlook the great catfishing available in bigger AGFC lakes, too. Lake Conway (6,700 acres) in Faulkner County is especially noteworthy, producing tons of big flatheads and channel cats each year. Whether you fish it by boat or from a public pier, there is a good chance to catch and release some trophies and take home a cooler full of good-eating cats up to 5 pounds.
STATE PARK LAKES
At least seven of our state parks (SPs) provide outstanding catfishing on small lakes. As an added bonus, the parks with fishing lakes also have picnic areas, campsites and other recreational facilities, making them ideal destinations for a family getaway.
Lakes Dunn and Austell, 68 and 64 acres respectively, are encompassed by the 7,000-acre Village Creek SP near Wynne. Both are best known for producing lunker largemouths, but catfishing in these waters isn’t shabby either. Channel cats are abundant, running to over 5 pounds, and the lakes hold blue cats up to 40 pounds as well. Excellent bank-fishing is available, especially along the dams.
Sixty-four-acre Lake Bailey is a favorite with folks camping in Petit Jean SP in Conway County. The lake lies adjacent the camping area, with excellent bankfishing access around its perimeter. Regular stockings of channel cats maintain good fishing.
Other state-park catfishing hotspots include 31-acre Lake Walcott in Crowley’s Ridge SP (Greene County), the 8-acre lake in Devil’s Den SP (Washington County), a 3-acre lake in Logoly SP (Columbia County) and an 11-acre lake in Old Davidsonville SP (Randolph County).
CORPS OF ENGINEERS IMPOUNDMENTS
Because of their large sizes, the state’s 16 Corps of Engineers impoundments all have the potential to produce giant catfish and most of them do on a regular basis. They’re also hotspots for eating-size cats with plenty of shade-tree fishing spots available at recreation areas around each lake.
Millwood Lake near Ashdown in the state’s southwest corner is among the most consistent producers of big flatheads, which thrive in this shallow, timber-filled environment covering almost 30,000 acres.
The deep, clear Ozark lakes such as Bull Shoals, Beaver and Norfork haven’t garnered a lot of attention from catfish fans because they’re tough to fish, but it’s for that reason that their trophy potential is high. There are good populations of forage fish in all these waters, and because the blues, channels and flatheads living here feed well and live to ripe old ages, they can reach tremendous sizes. Eating-size cats are abundant, too.
Lakes Ozark and Dardanelle, two Arkansas River impoundments, both have produced record blues and flatheads, and the trophy potential of these waters is highly underrated. There’s little doubt that enormous fish of both species swim these waters and, sooner or later, some savvy catfish angler is going to catch a 100-pound-class fish.
Other Corps impoundments should not be discounted either. Big cats – and lots of them – swim in all. Nimrod Lake in particular demands watching. Though relatively small compared to other Corps impoundments (3,550 acres), the shallow timber-filled waters of this Yell/Perry county reservoir are fertile breeding grounds for big flatheads and channel cats. Target this lake with the right tactics and the results could be astonishing.
Don’t overlook Arkansas’ big, bottomland rivers when talking about the Natural State’s catfish hotspots. It’s in these waters that catfish reach their greatest abundance and sitting by a campfire on a big river is one of the best ways to enjoy catfishing. Any trip could produce a blue or flathead catfish exceeding 50 pounds, and channel cats topping 10 are common.
West Arkansas anglers may want to try the Arkansas River below Dardanelle Dam downstream for about a mile to the Highway 7 bridge linking Russellville and Dardanelle. Lots of huge cats have been caught there including some former state records. The river bank is lined with boulders that make great seats for bank-fishing and anglers can drive to the water’s edge at recreation areas on each shore. Summer catfishing is generally best when several dam gates are open, allowing a steady flow of water. The best bait is whole or cut shad.
White River is another of Arkansas’ premier catfish streams. I recommend trying that stretch bordering Henry Gray/Hurricane Lake WMA in White County. Launch a boat at the landing in Augusta and fish down to Georgetown landing on the WMA’s southern end or find access to several big sandbar bank-fishing spots from the WMA’s interior roads. Catfish gather in huge numbers in the river’s deep pools and are easily caught using nightcrawlers, crawfish or live sunfish baits.
Other big rivers to consider include the Mississippi River along the state’s eastern border, one of the country’s top trophy catfish producers; the Red River in the state’s southwest corner; the Black and St. Francis rivers in northeast Arkansas; the Cache River between Clarendon and Grubbs; the Little River above Lake Millwood and the Petit Jean River in central Arkansas’ Yell County.
For additional information on all these waters, including fishing regulations, visit www.agfc.com.
When you’re hoping to catch the biggest cat you’ve ever hooked, plying the waters where Arkansas’ state records were landed is a good plan. All these waters harbor healthy populations of whiskerfish sure to bend your pole.
Channel catfish: 38 pounds. Caught in Lake Ouachita by Joe Holleman of Waldron on June 3, 1989. Ouachita continues churning out whopper channel cats, along with blues and flatheads that frequently top 50 pounds. Blue cats exceeding 100 pounds are rumored to have been caught in Ouachita in recent years.
Blue catfish: 116 3/4 pounds. Caught in the Mississippi River at West Memphis by Charles Ashley Jr. of Marion on August 3, 2001. Monster blues are the hallmark of the Mississippi, with several 100-pound-plus specimens landed near Memphis in recent years. Enormous flatheads and channel cats swim there, too.
Flathead catfish: 80 pounds. Caught in the Arkansas River below Ozark Dam by Wesley White of Hartford on October 28, 1989. Any pool on the Arkansas, from upstream reaches near Ft. Smith to the river’s lower end near Tichnor, could produce another giant. Flatheads, blues and channel cats all are abundant.