Skip to main content

Cypress Cats: The Ins and Outs of Catching Oxbow Catfish

Blue, flathead and channel catfish are abundant in cypress lakes, but catching them requires oxbow know-how.

Cypress Cats: The Ins and Outs of Catching Oxbow Catfish

Catfish dining options in river-connected oxbows are enhanced by terrestrial crayfish during years of high water. (Photo by Keith Sutton)

Last week, one of your friends boasted about all the catfish he caught in a nearby oxbow lake. He brought home a dozen channel cats to eat and showed you pictures of three whoppers—a 25-pound flathead, a 12-pound channel cat and a 31-pound blue—he caught and released. This week you fished the lake, but to say your luck was different than your friend’s would be an understatement. You didn’t get a nibble despite using the same bait and tactics that worked so well for your buddy.

Have you ever experienced a situation like this? If so, you aren’t alone. Many anglers find oxbow lakes perplexing, as consistent success on them can be challenging. Fishing is hot some days, cold others and there doesn’t seem to be rhyme or reason for the differences. Veteran anglers, however, know oxbow fishing success swings from very good to very bad because of ever-changing conditions. As we will see, any number of environmental changes can affect the way catfish in an oxbow react—or don’t react—to your offerings.

Two fishermen in boat
Floodplain oxbows that receive regular infusions of nutrient-rich water often harbor big catfish. Oxbows outside their parent river’s floodplain typically have high numbers of smaller cats. (Photo by Keith Sutton)

OXBOW ORIGINS

Big lowland rivers follow the path of least resistance, eroding the outside shores of their broad bends. In time, some bends become isolated from the main river as it changes course. These bends are called oxbow lakes because they resemble the U-shaped piece of wood on an ox yoke. Oxbow lakes also are known as "cut-offs" or "river lakes." In the South, many people call them "cypress lakes" because big stands of bald cypress trees usually line their shallow waters.

When an oxbow becomes entirely or partially separated from its parent stream, it undergoes numerous changes. The lack of continually flowing water allows sediment carried in by seasonal flooding to build up on the bottom, and the oxbow becomes shallower and relatively flat-bottomed. Water-loving plants like cypress, tupelo and willows grow along the lake’s edges.

Some oxbows dry up during drought periods, allowing these plants to encroach still farther into offshore portions of the lake. That’s why you’ll often find cypress trees growing in the middle of the lake, or a border of living trees and shrubs growing in the water 100 feet or more from shore.

Mastering cypress-lake catfishing requires knowledge of the types of oxbows. Some of these lakes remain connected to the parent river; some are not. Some lie within the floodplain of major rivers while others lie entirely outside the floodplain. Differing conditions dictate the manner of planning necessary to enjoy a productive catfishing trip.

Flathead catfish in weeds
Oxbow flatheads like to lurk in dense, woody cover. Such places provide ideal spots for the big predators to lie in wait and ambush prey. (Photo by Keith Sutton)

FLOODPLAIN OXBOWS

Oxbows connected to the parent river or lying within the river floodplain normally provide the best fishing for catfish. When the river rises and overflows into the oxbow, inflowing nutrients enrich the water and feed bountiful populations of catfish forage species such as shad and sunfish. This yearly overflow cycle also provides temporary but important feeding habitat for catfish, as terrestrial crayfish, usually abundant in overflow woods surrounding bottomland oxbows, become part of the seasonal food chain.

Unfortunately, severe water level fluctuations also make floodplain oxbows the trickiest to fish. When the river rises, the lake rises. When the river falls, the lake falls. Changing conditions dramatically affect fishing, and anglers must monitor water levels closely to pick productive days.

A fast rise scatters catfish. They constantly roam, usually at mid-depths, and can be very difficult to find and catch. When the water level stabilizes, catfish stop moving around and can be found feeding hungrily near cover or structure. A slow rise or slow fall has fewer negative effects on the catfish’s eating behavior, so fishing success picks up.




To track these changes, anglers need to know the river-gauge level at which the parent river overflows into each floodplain oxbow. When gauge numbers are higher than this number, you know the river and oxbow are connected, and you must ascertain the intensity of water level fluctuations—fast rise, slow fall, etc.—to determine the best catfishing days.

When gauge numbers are lower than the magic number, the river level is so low that it doesn’t flow into the lake. Consequently, fishing conditions are more stable and predictable. To determine the gauge number, inquire at bait shops, ask area anglers and fisheries biologists or conduct an internet search.

Cypress trees
Catfish thrive in waters where hollows in bald cypress trees offer the ideal habitat for spawning. (Photo by Keith Sutton)

ISOLATED OXBOWS

In some places, flood-control levees or dams totally separate oxbows from the river floodplain. These isolated lakes offer more predictable fishing opportunities because water fluctuations are relatively unnoticeable except after extended rainfall. If water-level conditions are unfavorable elsewhere, visiting one of these lakes may save the day. But if you want to catch trophy-class catfish, you may be disappointed.

Recommended


The absence of an annual overflow cycle leads to decreased fertility, and quality catfish seldom are found. Nevertheless, some of these waters produce astounding numbers of smaller catfish, making them good places to visit if your aim is catching a lot of fish.

These are just general guidelines. Don’t neglect doing additional homework before fishing. Some isolated oxbows offer astounding fishing for trophy-class catfish, and some river-connected lakes may produce few, if any, cats. Prepare yourself by contacting bait shop owners or fisheries biologists and asking a few basic questions. Is this a good catfish lake during this time of year? What type of cats, and what size, are likely to be caught? Can you offer pointers on picking the best fishing days? Can you suggest where I might call for an up-to-date report on fishing conditions? The more you know about a lake before you visit, the better your chances for success.

Catfish caught at pontoon boat
Tracking flow changes is key to determining how oxbow catfish react to the fluctuations and whether they will bite or go into lockdown. (Photo by Keith Sutton)

FINDING OXBOW CATS

Locating catfish in an oxbow lake isn’t unusually complicated. When blue cats are present, they usually follow schools of shad and other forage fish typical of these ecosystems. Use a fish-finder to locate these baitfish schools, then present baits to any large targets seen beneath the forage. When sonar is unavailable, drift-fishing or trolling can put you onto actively feeding blues.

Oxbow flatheads tend to hole up in dense, woody cover. During spawning season, they’re particularly fond of the dark cavities at the bases of huge, hollow cypress trees. Oxbows often have big log jams in them, too, particularly near run-out chutes. Here, drifting a live sunfish beneath these structures is a good way to entice them.

Smaller flatheads often feed in the clusters of knees erupting from the water around cypresses and in willow thickets in shallow waters. Shores lined with rock riprap, often seen on big oxbows, are flathead magnets, too.

Although blues and flatheads frequently inhabit oxbows, channel cats are the bread-and-butter fish of cypress lakes in most regions. Extremely dense populations may be present, particularly in older oxbows where lots of hollow trees create prime spawning areas. Look for channel cats anywhere there is a combination of cover, structure and food. These include around fallen trees, beaver lodges, sunken Christmas tree shelters, weedbeds, shoreline riprap, stump fields, docks, duck hunting blinds, river channels and outside bends.

Even though most oxbows are relatively flat and of uniform depth, the outside bend of the lake is almost always deeper than the inside bend. During summer and winter, cats tend to concentrate on the deeper side of the lakes where the temperature and water conditions are more to their liking. In most oxbows, the amount of deep water is very limited, so you shouldn’t have to look far to find fish.

When considering which oxbow lake to visit, don’t limit your search to larger waters. Although some oxbows cover several thousand acres, the real jewels are much smaller. It’s not uncommon to fish for a day, or even a week, on a little backcountry oxbow and never see another boat. The splendid bottomland scenery will take you back to a time when our nation was still wild and uncharted, and you’ll experience a feeling of wonderment and tranquility no man-made impoundment can impart. And when the oxbow catfish are biting, it’s heaven on earth.

BEST OXBOWS

  • These three rivers offer some of the best oxbow fishing in the U.S.
Overview of cypress lake
An aerial view of this oxbow lake shows big cypress trees beginning to encroach in offshore waters as the lake silts-in and becomes shallower. (Photo by Keith Sutton)

In North America, the largest concentration of oxbow lakes is along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, particularly the portion of the Mississippi in Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana. Here, one can find roughly 1,500 oxbows, most of which offer great catfishing, including 5,300-acre Lake Chicot in Arkansas, the largest oxbow lake in North America; 2,965-acre Lake Washington in Mississippi; and 3,000-acre Lake Bruin in Louisiana.

Another river that has spawned hundreds of oxbows is the lower White River in Arkansas. Many of these lakes are on public lands, including more than 300 within White River National Wildlife Refuge near St. Charles and 11 within Henry Gray Hurricane Lake Wildlife Management Area near Bald Knob. Healthy catfish populations inhabit all these waters.

Southern catfish fans willing to travel north a bit can find excellent fishing in oxbow lakes along the Missouri River, including 640-acre Big Lake in Holt County, Mo., the biggest oxbow in the Show-Me State; 400-acre Bean Lake near Marshall, Mo.; and 365-acre Lewis and Clark Lake near Rushville, Mo.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

Recent Videos

Building on the success of the .350 Legend, Winchester releases a new straight-wall rifle cartridge for deer hunters loo...
Learn

Bass Crash Course: Shallow-Water Power Lures

Building on the success of the .350 Legend, Winchester releases a new straight-wall rifle cartridge for deer hunters loo...
Destinations

Minnesota Double Down: First Visit to New Farm Goes Perfectly

Building on the success of the .350 Legend, Winchester releases a new straight-wall rifle cartridge for deer hunters loo...
Fishing

Bass Crash Course: Bass Fishing in the Wind

Building on the success of the .350 Legend, Winchester releases a new straight-wall rifle cartridge for deer hunters loo...
Hunting

She Kills The Biggest Bird of the Year

Building on the success of the .350 Legend, Winchester releases a new straight-wall rifle cartridge for deer hunters loo...
Fishing

Bass Crash Course: Unlock the Patterns Squarebill Crankbaits

Building on the success of the .350 Legend, Winchester releases a new straight-wall rifle cartridge for deer hunters loo...
Learn

Tips for Cooking Over an Open Fire

Building on the success of the .350 Legend, Winchester releases a new straight-wall rifle cartridge for deer hunters loo...
Videos

How to Build the Perfect Campfire

Building on the success of the .350 Legend, Winchester releases a new straight-wall rifle cartridge for deer hunters loo...
Hunting

First Morning: Father/Son Iowa Turkey Double

Building on the success of the .350 Legend, Winchester releases a new straight-wall rifle cartridge for deer hunters loo...
Destinations

Shot the Same Bird! UP of Michigan Double Down

Building on the success of the .350 Legend, Winchester releases a new straight-wall rifle cartridge for deer hunters loo...
Hunting

Work and Play: Merriam's Turkeys in Wyoming

Building on the success of the .350 Legend, Winchester releases a new straight-wall rifle cartridge for deer hunters loo...
Gear

Winchester Waterfowl Loads

Building on the success of the .350 Legend, Winchester releases a new straight-wall rifle cartridge for deer hunters loo...
Gear

Winchester .400 Legend

Game & Fish Magazine Covers Print and Tablet Versions

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

Buy Digital Single Issues

Magazine App Logo

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Game & Fish App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Game & Fish subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Enjoying What You're Reading?

Get a Full Year
of Guns & Ammo
& Digital Access.

Offer only for new subscribers.

Subscribe Now