2008 Natural State Catfish Forecast

On rod and reel or trotline, by jug-fishing or snagging, the promise of plenty of line-pulling action awaits Arkansas catfish anglers of all persuasions. Following: our selection of the best waters for each technique. (May 2008)

A small johnboat can be used to access remote U.S. Forest Service lakes such as Little Bear Creek, Dry Fork and Cove Creek lakes, all of which hold healthy populations of nice channel cats.
Photo by Keith Sutton.

If you are one of this nation's 7 million or so catfish fans, you are fortunate, indeed, if you reside in Arkansas, one of the country's true catfishing paradises. Few states can boast, as can Arkansas, that catfish are found in practically every body of water in the state, from the smallest ponds and creeks to the largest lakes and rivers. Among public fishing waters, only the coldest tailwater trout streams are entirely devoid of these whiskered polebenders.

Natural State cats reach gargantuan proportions, too. Current state-record listings show channel cats up to 38 pounds, flatheads up to 80 and a blue cat surpassing the 116-pound mark. And these are just the record-book fish. Cats larger than these have been taken in Arkansas waters, but for various reasons didn't qualify for record-book status. One such monster was a 139-pound flathead that is probably the largest individual of this species caught in the U.S. in modern times.

Yes, Arkansas catfish fans are a fortunate group. We have lots of big catfish in lots of places producing lots of quality catfishing opportunities. Of course, you probably knew that already, right? What you need are some specifics -- in-depth information on some prime catfishing hotspots where you have a better than average chance of catching some trophy cats or a mess of fish for the dinner table.

Well, here it is, folks: a select list of some of Arkansas' best bets for catfishing this year, including top picks for trotliners, snaggers, jug-fishermen, rod-and-reelers and more. I won't guarantee that you'll catch cats every time out on these waters, but with an in-depth knowledge of proper catfishing techniques and a good dose of luck, you should be able to string up some right sizable messes of jumbo cats.

Trotlining rivals rod-and-reel fishing for the title of "Most Popular Catfishing Method" in Arkansas. It's a first-rate way to put loads of cats in the boat, and, despite popular misconceptions, it's super-fun. When you lay a hand on a trotline and feel that surge of energy that signals a cat on the line, you can't help but feel a rush of excitement.

Picking the best trotlining hotspot is tough, because there are so many blue-ribbon areas from which to choose. After some thought, my first inclination was to give top honors to the Mississippi River. But while this huge body of water offers superb opportunities for catching amazing numbers of outsized cats, it is also a dangerous area for novice anglers to pursue this sport. Powerful currents and excessive barge traffic would prevent many catters from getting full enjoyment out of a trotlining trip here. That being the case, I decided to elevate Lake Conway to Arkansas' number one trotlining honeyhole.

Why? First of all, this 6,700-acre Arkansas Game and Fish Commission lake is home to all four types of catfish found in Arkansas: channels, blues, flatheads and bullheads. Second, these fish reach exceptional sizes in this fertile lake. Trotliners catch 50-pound-plus flatheads with astounding regularity, and blues and channels up to 15 pounds are common. Third, Lake Conway provides an ideal setting for a relaxing trotlining excursion. There are no barge wakes, heavy currents or speedboats to worry about, so cat anglers can relax and enjoy some peace and quiet while running their lines. And last but not least, Conway offers near-perfect physical conditions for trotlining. There are literally hundreds of thousands of snags, stumps, trees and bushes between which you can rig your lines, and this big lake offers an incomparable variety of catfish-holding structure.

When setting your lines in Conway, use a depth-sounder if possible to help you place them near the juncture of deep and shallow water -- along a flat near an underwater creek channel, across the end of an inundated pond (there are several here) or maybe near a long, sloping point. Big cats of all types travel through these zones when moving between resting and feeding areas.

Small bluegills and big shiner minnows are top-choice baits because they are tempting morsels for all kinds of cats. Baitfish are the primary forage of both blue and flathead catfish, and while others baits may be effective at times, baiting with live fish is the only logical choice for anglers hoping to catch truly big cats.

Lake Conway is served by a dozen or so bait shops providing fishing supplies, boat and motor rentals, picnic grounds, camping areas and restaurants. There are numerous boat ramps around the lake where anglers can launch for no charge or for a small fee. Motels and restaurants are available in Conway, three miles to the north. For a map and additional information, visit the AGFC Web site, www.agfc.com .

When many think of catfishing, they conjure up visions of a barefoot angler in overalls asleep under a shade tree with a line tied to his toe. The image may not be entirely accurate, but many people still prefer to fish for cats from a cool, comfortable spot on shore. Bank-fishing opportunities have expanded tremendously during recent years as the AGFC has constructed numerous fishing piers on Arkansas' public fishing waters. These long wooden piers provide great places for catfishing, and because many are wheelchair accessible, they are among the best places for handicapped people to try their hand at the sport.

Most people still prefer a shade-tree fishing spot, though, and my choice for the top bank-fishing hotspot reflects this preference. Robe Bayou at Dagmar Wildlife Management Area is shaded by a cuff of huge cypress trees. It is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful bodies of water in the state, and there are numerous clearings along its length where an angler can perch in a lawn chair on shore and cast for channel and flathead cats.

Robe Bayou ("Robe Lake" as it's known locally) is impounded with a small dam and covers approximately 150 acres in the portion of the WMA north of Interstate 40. A gravel road runs right alongside the bayou, permitting easy access, but it does make things a bit dusty when traffic is heavy. The best time to fish is at night, when traffic tapers off to a minimum and the lake's numerous channel cats start feeding. You can set a tent up right at lakeside in eight primitive campsites and sit by the campfire while you wait for a hefty cat to take your offerings. If you can tolerat

e the mosquitoes and don't mind the absence of modern facilities, it's a great place for a getaway.

To reach Robe Bayou, enter Dagmar WMA from U.S. Route 70, about six miles west of Brinkley. A WMA sign marks the turn onto a gravel road that forks a short distance off the highway. The left fork leads under I-40 to Robe Bayou. There is a concrete boat ramp for boating access, with fishing supplies, motels and restaurants in Brinkley. A map and additional information are available from the AGFC.

Snagging is perhaps the most difficult and tiring form of catfishing. Using a long, heavy saltwater rod-and-reel combo, the angler yanks a large bare treble hook through the water time and time again, hoping against hope that he'll somehow, miraculously, plant the hook in the hide of a big catfish lurking below.

Many people have tried to have the sport condemned because, they say, it offers an unfair advantage to the angler, thus posing a threat to the resource. Snaggers do, indeed, catch some enormous cats, and at times, lots of them. But studies have shown that the ratio of landed fish to retrieves is approximately 1,000:1, making this one of the most difficult forms of fishing there is. Fortunately, for those who enjoy it, snagging is still legal in many Arkansas dam tailwaters, and snagging fans have a variety of areas where they pursue their sport.

The most popular snagging waters are below the dams on the Arkansas River, and one of these areas, the Ozark Dam tailwaters, is my pick for top snagging honors. The roiling waters below Ozark-Jeta Taylor Lock and Dam have always provided excellent catfishing. But this area really hit the limelight on Oct. 28, 1989, when an 80-pound state-record flathead catfish was caught here. Wesley White of Hartford and Walter Bennett of Hackett were snagging for catfish below the dam using a 12-foot tuna rod, a Penn 309 reel and 75-pound-test Trilene line. Fortunately their tackle was heavy -- for around 10:30 p.m., White snagged an enormous fish. After no little effort, they finally landed the fish.

"It was the biggest catfish I've ever seen," said Franklin County wildlife officer Charles Bonner, who certified the fish's weight. "First we weighed it on a set of deer check station scales just to get some indication of its weight, and then we took it to a set of certified scales. It weighed 80 pounds both times."

The old record, a 67-pound flathead, was caught in May 1980 by Ernie Merrill of Wilton in the Little River below Millwood Dam. It, too, was taken by legal snagging.

Ozark Dam straddles the Arkansas River in east-central Franklin County off U.S. Route 64. The Aux Arc Public Use Area adjacent the dam provides boat launching, picnic grounds, modern campgrounds and other facilities. Fishing supplies are available in the vicinity. For more information, contact the Russellville Project Office, 1598 Lock and Dam Rd., Russellville, AR 72801, (479) 968-5008.

Jug-fishing qualifies as one of the most fun methods for catching catfish. Plastic jugs serve as floats, with a baited hook, line and weight tied to each handle. The jugger sets the rigs afloat and waits in a boat, watching for bobbing jugs indicating a fish has taken the bait. Then the chase is on as the jugger tries to get close enough to the diving jug to snag the line and land the fish.

Jug-fishing can be done in both lakes and streams, but many anglers prefer stream jugging because the current is constantly carrying the jugs through new catfish territory. One blue-ribbon stream I'd highly recommend is the lower White River, a prime honeyhole for inestimable numbers of jumbo cats. The best jugging starts near Clarendon and gets progressively better as one travels downstream. There are several reasons for this. First, because the lower river is farther from population centers, there's less pressure on the fish from anglers. Also, the river itself widens as it nears the Mississippi from which many of the catfish migrate. Most importantly, the lower reaches of the White have warmer summer water temperatures, which catfish instinctively prefer. Good numbers of flatheads, blue cats and channel cats all can be found here.

One of the best reaches for jugging is the stretch of river passing through the White River National Wildlife Refuge. Access roads through the refuge lead to several launch areas, including those at St. Charles, Hudson's Landing, Floodgate and Jack's Bay. For more information, obtain a refuge map and fishing regulations by contacting White River NWR, P.O. Box 205, St. Charles, AR 72140, (870) 282-8200, or visit www.fws. gov/whiteriver .

Many, many prime Arkansas catfishing waters are largely overlooked by whiskerfish fans. Among the most neglected of these, however, are three small U.S. Forest Service lakes near the town of Hollis in Perry County. Cove Creek Lake covers 40 acres, six miles northeast of Hollis. Dry Fork Lake, a 90-acre reservoir, is 16 miles west of Hollis, and 30-acre Little Bear Creek Lake is two miles south of Hollis. All three lakes are within the Ouachita National Forest, and all support thriving populations of channel catfish.

The U.S. Forest Service constructed these diminutive lakes primarily for flood control, but each has also been amply stocked not only with channel cats, but largemouth bass, bluegills and crappie as well. Fishing opportunities are superb, but relatively few anglers know about these hotspots because of their small size and relative remoteness. Those who do know have apparently been secretive about their honeyholes.

Catfishing on this trio is either a bank-fishing or a small-boat proposition. None of the lakes offers a launch ramp suitable for large boats, so if you do plan to use a boat, a lightweight johnboat or canoe that can be carried to the water is preferable. If you have a portable depth-sounder, bring that along, too. Little Bear, Dry Fork and Cove Creek all have inundated creek channels in deep water where catfish often hold. If you're fishing from the bank, try casting to deep water near the dams during the day, and fish the edges of shallow flats at night. Almost any bait will work for channel cats, but crawdads, catalpa worms, minnows and night crawlers rank among the best.

Little Bear Creek Lake and Cove Creek Lake are on county roads branching off state Route 7. Dry Fork Lake is off state Route 314. For more detailed directions, contact the Ouachita National Forest, P.O. Box 1270, Hot Springs, AR 71902, (501) 321-5202, or visit www.fs.fed.us/ r8/ouachita .

The fact of the matter is that a properly presented bait will entice catfish just about anywhere you give it a try in Arkansas. And because this season is prime time for big Natural State cats, get out there and give it whirl today. Big, brawling, eager to hit and great to eat -- what more could you ask from a game fish? Let the other guys fish for bass; make mine catfish.

(Editor's Note: Keith "Catfish" Sutton's third and latest catfishing book, Pro Tactics: Catfish, is now av

ailable. Order autographed copies by visiting www.catfishsutton.com .)

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