Catfish, Crawdads and Bottomland Rivers

Catfish, Crawdads and Bottomland Rivers
Many catfish caught in flooded woods are literally stuffed to the gills with crawfish. (Photo courtesy of Keith Sutton)

When I first saw “the crawfish run,” the sight astounded me. I’ve witnessed this incredible natural phenomenon several times in the intervening years, but memories of my first run will always be most vivid.

It was June, and floodwaters were receding along Arkansas’ lower White River. When the river fell to the right level, my friend Jim Spencer phoned.

“We need to go tomorrow,” he said, “or they’ll be gone. I’ll pick you up at 5 a.m.”

We met at the appointed time—Jim, me and my son Josh—and drove to the river. After motoring a few miles downstream in a johnboat, we tied the craft to some cypress steps on the river bank, then walked to a nearby oxbow lake. Some water still flowed through the runouts connecting the river and oxbow, but in a day or so, as the water continued falling, the connection between river and lake would be severed.


Only days before, the woods around the lake had been inundated beneath 12 to 18 inches of water. As the White River dropped, however, the water was pulled out, leaving behind wet, muddy, leaf-strewn ground. Even then, with the water gone, the ground was hard to see, for thousands upon thousands of crayfish covered the damp earth. You couldn’t step without mashing them beneath your feet—huge rusty-red crustaceans with pincers like Maine lobsters.


“Look, Dad!” Josh exclaimed. “They’re everywhere! There must be a million of them!”


Policy
When rivers flood, anglers often use limblines to catch catfish feeding in inundated woodlands. (Photo courtesy of Keith Sutton)

We had toted a 100-quart cooler to the lake’s edge, and each of us carried a wire fish basket in which to place our catch. Walking through the woods, we gathered crawfish, and when our basket was full, we returned to the cooler and dumped the catch in. Little yelps emanated from the collection crew whenever a crawfish found its mark with those big pincers, but in less than an hour, the cooler was overflowing.

“This is the best of two worlds,” Jim said. “We’ve got catfish bait and dinner, too, all in one cooler.”


The catfish liked the crawfish almost as much as we did. That night, fishing with crawfish tail baits, each of us caught a dozen cats, and before the sun rose, the three of us had polished off more than 5 pounds of spicy, fresh-boiled crawfish apiece. I decided then and there that catfish, crawdads and bottomland rivers form a minor trinity.

I had known for years that catfish migrate into flooded spring woods to eat crawfish. As a youngster, I often accompanied uncles on woods fishing junkets, tying yo-yos and limblines to green branches along the edges of inundated forests and baiting them with the tails of crawfish we caught ourselves. As we’d paddle through the woods making our sets, big cats would shoot this way and that, spooked by our approach. We’d see their wakes as they scurried away through shallow water. By that sign, we knew our timing was right. Cats were in the woods gorging on the annual banquet nature provided, and by morning, we’d be weary from catching and cleaning fish.

There was no doubt about the inspiration for this catfish celebration. The catfish we caught—blues, channels and flatheads—were literally stuffed to the gills with crawfish. Often, a fish would take our bait even though several crawfish could be seen protruding from its gullet. Their stomachs were distended like beer bellies with dozens and dozens of crawfish. Eating more was impossibility, but still they tried.


Policy
When big-river floodplains are inundated with high water, thousands upon thousands of terrestrial crawfish provide food for catfish … and fishermen. (Photo courtesy of Keith Sutton)

Woods fishing is one of the oldest yet most obscure forms of catfishing. Few cat fans are familiar with the tactic today, but earlier this century, it was widely practiced in the Mississippi River Valley. D.S. Jordan and B.W. Evermann wrote about this unique sport in their 1923 book, American Food and Game Fishes.

“During the spring rise in the Mississippi, hundreds of square miles of the adjacent country become flooded, and then the catfish leave the rivers, lakes and bayous, and ‘take to the woods,’” they said. “Here the fishermen follow them, and ‘woods’ or ‘swamp’ fishing is resorted to. Short ‘brush’ lines with single hooks are tied to limbs of trees here and there through the forest, in such a way as to allow the hook to hang about six inches under water. The trees selected are usually those along the edges of the ‘float’ roads, and, that he may readily find his lines again, the fisherman ties a white rag to each tree to which he has attached a line.”

Because the ground in a river floodplain is low and flat, a rise in river level of only a few inches can flood thousands of acres of land. As the water rises and woodlands become flooded, a new food source—terrestrial crayfish—becomes available to catfish.

Crayfish are abundant in most bottomland hardwood forests, but during most of the year, they live on land and are inaccessible to catfish. During overflow periods, however, the crayfish are forced to live in an aquatic environment, and catfish are drawn to them like kids to a candy store. Flatheads, blues and channel cats all join the feeding frenzy, moving from rivers, lakes, bayous and sloughs into the shallow water that now inundates acres of bottoms. They will feed here as long as the water is high enough to swim in, sometimes for several months.

Policy
The reward for a day spent slogging through damp river-bottom woods: spicy boiled crawfish for dinner. (Photo courtesy of Keith Sutton)

It would seem with so many actively feeding fish gathered in shallow water, it would be easy to catch them. But that is not the case. Fishing in flooded woods is difficult in the best of circumstances, and because the catfish are widely scattered and have an enormous supply of natural food, catching them on rod and reel is iffy.

Catching them with set-lines is another story. This is the limbliners’ season, and as soon as the bottoms are inundated, their period of fun begins. Set-lines hung from low branches produce extraordinary numbers of catfish.

The popularity of woods fishing has declined in recent decades, but this is still a topnotch tactic for catching lots of catfish, big and small. If you like to fish big bottomland rivers, you can probably give woods fishing a try right now while many streams are at spring flood stage.

Then, when the flood waters recede, return to the woods you fished for a different kind of fun. The catfish do their best to eat every crawfish in the bottoms, but they cannot. Millions remain, so the fishermen, too, can catch and eat them.

Golden fried catfish with a side of spicy boiled crawfish, cooked fresh over a campfire and served by a big beautiful river. Friends, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

Editor’s Note: Keith “Catfish” Sutton’s newest book, Hardcore Catfishing, was released in April 2015. To order a copy, visit his website: www.catfishsutton.com.

Recommended for You

Experts agree record channel cat caught in 1949 was actually a blue catfish. Records

Upon Further Review: 70-Year-Old Catfish Record Voided

G&F Online Staff - May 22, 2019

Experts agree record channel cat caught in 1949 was actually a blue catfish.

Adam Heggenstaller takes over after 14 years with NRA Publications. News

Game & Fish Magazine Names New Editorial Director

G&F Online Staff - May 23, 2019

Adam Heggenstaller takes over after 14 years with NRA Publications.

When all else fails, here's what these pros tie on. Bass

MLF Pros: What's Your Go-To Lure?

G&F Online Staff - May 20, 2019

When all else fails, here's what these pros tie on.

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

New 4-Liter Dry Creek Gear Pouch from Simms

New 4-Liter Dry Creek Gear Pouch from Simms

Outdoor Sportsman Group writer Lynn Burkhead gets new product details from Simms Fishing Product's John Frazier about the new waterproof 4-Liter Dry Creek Gear Pouch.

New Abu Garcia Baitcasting Reels

New Abu Garcia Baitcasting Reels

In the booth of one of fishing's all-time great reel makers, Outdoor Sportsman Group writer Lynn Burkhead and Andrew Wheeler of Pure Fishing discuss one of the brand new baitcasting reels from Abu Garcia being released at ICAST 2019.

MLF Pros: What

MLF Pros: What's Your Go-To Lure?

When all else fails, here's what these pros tie on.

See more Popular Videos

Trending Stories

Want to test the outer limits of your shooting skill? There's more to successful long-range Ammo

10 Best Long-Range Cartridges Ever Made

David Hart - January 14, 2015

Want to test the outer limits of your shooting skill? There's more to successful long-range

Celebrate with great food for your backyard BBQ or picnic with these outdoor recipes. Wild Game

10 Recipes for Your Outdoor BBQ

Game & Fish Online Staff

Celebrate with great food for your backyard BBQ or picnic with these outdoor recipes.

          From Monksville Reservoir to Union Lake, plus five other picks, here's where you'll find Bass

7 Best Bets For New Jersey Largemouth Bass

October 04, 2010

From Monksville Reservoir to Union Lake, plus five other picks, here's where you'll...

See More Stories

More Fishing

Catfish are on the move after baitfish in the early fall. Catfish

Strolling for Mobile Catfish

Dan Anderson - October 10, 2019

Catfish are on the move after baitfish in the early fall.

Not uncommon in Maryland waters, but the size of catch was. Records

First Md. Triple Tail Record is Huge Benchmark

G&F Online Staff - October 23, 2019

Not uncommon in Maryland waters, but the size of catch was.

Make these adjustments to catch fall trout when conditions get challenging. Trout & Salmon

Late-Season Trout: Hook Up in Low, Clear Water

Jimmy Jacobs - November 05, 2019

Make these adjustments to catch fall trout when conditions get challenging.

See More Fishing

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

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