If you watched the weather forecast last night and then watch it again tonight, chances are good that you'll find the meteorologist has changed his prediction. Weathermen are as fickle as the weather itself.
When you read the following catfish forecast for Arkansas, however, written by yours truly, you won't find me waffling on my predictions. There's no doubt the waters I'm about to describe are sure bets for hot catfishing action in 2015. Anglers visiting these Arkansas whiskerfish hotspots will have the opportunity to catch lots of eating-sized cats and some heavyweights as well. As a friend of mine likes to say, "Be there or be square."
The big bottomland rivers of the state continue to be the best waters for taking numbers and size of catfish. At the top of the list is the Mississippi River, perhaps the No. 1 body of water in the U.S. in terms of trophy potential for blue cats. Several 100-pound-plus blues have been taken in the past two decades, including the 116-pound, 12-ounce former world record caught at West Memphis by Charles Ashley Jr. in August 2001. It's probably only a matter of time before someone catches another world record there. Giant flatheads also inhabit the Mississippi throughout its length along the Arkansas border, and if catching loads of channel cats is your idea of fun, there's no better place to do it.
Local anglers say the St. Francis River between Lake City and Marianna has been making a comeback in recent years, and I've spoken to anglers who've been nabbing some extraordinary flatheads from deep holes in the Cross County portion of the river. Keep an eye on this one. The two river junctions — St. Francis/Mississippi and St. Francis/L'Anguille — tend to offer exceptionally good catfishing, especially in fall, winter and spring.
The Arkansas River is the undisputed queen of Arkansas catfishing waters. No other body of water in the Natural State has produced as many record-book cats, and catfishing continues to be excellent year 'round throughout the entire length of the river from Ft. Smith to the river's mouth near Yancopin. The best bets continue to be the tailwater stretches below the dams, especially of Ozark-Jeta Taylor Lock and Dam south of Ozark, the tailwater below Dardanelle Lock and Dam near Russellville, the tailwater below Murray Lock and Dam and the North Little Rock Hydroelectric Plant at Little Rock, and below Wilbur Mills Dam (Dam 2) on the Arkansas' lower end below Tichnor.
When the gates are open, especially during high-water periods, all those areas have the potential for producing a new state- or world-record flathead or blue, and each of those areas produces astounding numbers of small catfish each year. A sleeper honeyhole is the stretch immediately below David D. Terry Lock and Dam where Bruce and Mackey Sayre caught the biggest flathead ever recorded, a 139-pound, 14-ounce fish taken in May, 1982.
The best big river in southwest Arkansas is the Red, an outstanding catfish stream overlooked by many Arkansas cat fans. The murky, sand-laden river is no raging beauty, but plenty of nice channel and flathead catfish lurk in its depths. Channel catfish from 2 to 5 pounds are abundant. Flatheads average around 4 to 5 pounds, but trotliners do take larger ones. Two good catfishing spots are the area just upstream of the U.S. Highway 71 bridge about 10 miles north of Texarkana, and upstream of the point where the Red and Little rivers join, about 12 miles downstream from the U.S. Highway 71 bridge.
All of the state's other big bottomland rivers rank high for catfishing as well. Some you should try out include the L'Anguille below Cherry Valley, and the lower Ouachita and Saline, two dark horses in the south-central part of our state.
Lake Conway, the largest Arkansas Game and Fish Commission lake at 6,700 acres, serves up the best catfishing in this classification. The huge stump-filled body of water ranks high on the list of the nation's best flathead waters, producing numerous 40-pound-plus fish annually, and you'll look long and hard to find a lake that harbors such a healthy population of giant channel cats. Blues are there, too, albeit in smaller numbers and sizes.
Lake Poinsett near Harrisburg is a sleeper honeyhole for channel cats. Numerous 20-pound-plus fish have been taken, and because catfishing pressure remains relatively light and stocking levels relatively high, there's no reason to believe the action will taper off. Center your catfishing efforts close to the old Dismal Creek channel and deep water near the dam early and late in the day and at night.
White Oak Lake near Camden is another trophy channel cat hotspot, and although it's been decades since the lake produced a 22-pound-plus former state record, channel cats that size and bigger have surfaced there in recent years, increasing speculation that someone might land a fish besting the current 38-pound record from Lake Ouachita. Local anglers say fishing near water-control structures adjacent the spillway that separates upper and lower lakes is the ticket to success.
U.S. ARMY 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 it on a fairly regular basis. Millwood Lake near Ashdown in our southwest corner is among the most consistent producers of big flatheads, which thrive in the shallow, timber-filled environment. Several years ago, the Little River below the lake produced a 100-pound-plus blue cat.
Lake Ouachita yielded the current 38-pound record channel cat, and there's little doubt it could harbor even bigger ones. This 40,000-acre reservoir also may be the most overlooked body of water in the state for trophy-class blue cats, which frequently exceed 50 pounds. Lakes Ozark and Dardanelle, two Arkansas River impoundments, have produced record blues and flatheads, and the trophy potential of those waters is highly underrated.
There's little doubt that enormous fish of both species swim those lakes, and sooner or later some savvy cat man is going to put a 100-pound-class fish, maybe even a new world record, on the dry side of a boat. As mentioned earlier, the tailwater areas of these lakes offer the best chances for taking trophy cats.
The deep Ozark lakes such as Bull Shoals, Beaver and Norfork haven't garnered a lot of attention from Arkansas' catfishing aficionados because they're difficult to fish, but that's the reason the trophy potential is high. There are good populations of forage fish in all those waters, and because the blues, channels and flatheads living there feed well and live to ripe old ages, they can reach tremendous sizes.
None of the other Corps impoundments should 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 the lake with the right tactics and you might be astonished at your catch.
Oxbow lakes don't typically produce many big catfish, but Horseshoe Lake near Hughes in northeast Arkansas is an exception to the rule. "The Shoe" offers blue-ribbon angling for two kinds of catfish — blue cats and channels. And while a new state record isn't likely to be caught there, blues weighing more than 30 pounds are possible, and 10- to 15-pounders are fairly common. Channel cats run only slightly smaller, with numerous fish in the 5- to 12-pound range. Occasionally an angler comes in with a nice flathead, but "shovelheads," as they are known locally, only account for a small percentage of the total catfish harvest.
Catfishing pressure is light, but the fact that other anglers are passing up Horseshoe's whiskered pole benders shouldn't deter you. Less competition means, quite simply, there are more cats out there to be caught — if you use the right tactics.
In our largest oxbow, 5,300-acre Lake Chicot in the state's southeast corner, action for channel cats and flatheads is red-hot, particularly in summer. Like Horseshoe, this isn't a lake likely to produce many trophy-class cats, but the number of smaller catfish you'll catch on a good day is, at times, astounding.
If fishing for our abundant 1- to 2-pound channel cats sounds like fun, try any of the dozens of small city-owned impoundments scattered from border to border. Channel catfish are stocked regularly in most of these waters, and though often overlooked by the bulk of Arkansas' fishing populace, catfishing on these neglected waters is, at times, nothing less than superb. In recent years, the AGFC also has stocked some trophy blue cats in these waters — including fish up to 70 pounds!
Among the best are MacArthur Park Lake and Otter Creek Park Lake in Little Rock, Lake Atalanta in Rogers (60 acres), Bald Knob Lake (200 acres) and Siloam Springs City Lake (35 acres). Small catfish-filled city lakes also are found in or near the cities of Benton, Booneville, Camden, Charleston, Clarksville, Dierks, Eureka Springs, Fayetteville, Fort Smith, Mena, Nashville, Newark, Newport, Ola, Paris, Pottsville, Prairie Grove, Van Buren, Waldron and others.
COOL MOUNTAIN STREAMS
Many catters don't realize that Arkansas also has numerous cool, clear mountain streams offering outstanding opportunities for catching catfish. A look at the out-of-print AGFC brochure "Fish Arkansas" supports this contention. "Fish Arkansas" lists the types of fish found in 24 cold- and cool-water streams.
The streams listed are too numerous to mention here, but Big Piney Creek, Buffalo River, Caddo River, Cadron Creek, Cossatot River, Crooked Creek, Current River, Eleven Point River, Illinois Bayou, Illinois River, Kings River, Lee Creek are included. All but one of them — the North Fork River — are identified as having healthy populations of channel catfish. All but two — the North Fork River and Crooked Creek — are shown to have good numbers of flathead catfish.
Blue catfish were listed as residents in the Big Piney, Illinois Bayou, Illinois River, Kings River, Lee Creek, the Middle and Upper White, the Mulberry River and War Eagle Creek. According to that brochure, no other type of fish — not the trout or the spotted bass or even the smallmouth — inhabits more of Arkansas' cool mountain streams than do catfish. And because these waters garner so little attention from catfishing enthusiasts, their fishing potential is, in many cases, nothing less than extraordinary.
If you live near one of those streams, I suggest you fish it often and learn the holes most likely to harbor catfish. You may find some of the year's best catfishing not in a big impoundment or a broad bottomland river, but in a small stream right in your back yard.
And finally, if you want to enjoy the simplest form of catfishing, head for the nearest farm pond, plop yourself down under a tree, bait a hook with some chicken liver or a fat worm, cast your rig into the water and then wait for a catfish to bite. One probably will as nearly all of Arkansas' 100,000-plus ponds are heavily stocked with channel catfish.
This is one of the best of all ways to catch a big mess of eating-sized cats to serve family and friends at your next fish fry. Be sure to gain permission ahead of time, and if possible, take a youngster (or several) along with you. Sharing the joys of catfishing with kids is an Arkansas tradition we all need to perpetuate. Good fishing!