Arkansas has numerous waters for taking catfish all around the state. Here's a closer look at some that should be especially productive this year. (May 2010)
Most Arkansas anglers would consider flatheads the size of the ones caught in the Saline River by Mt. Ida residents Chris Elder, left, and Jimmy Abernathy to be trophy fish.
Photo by Keith Sutton.
I'm starting to get the itch -- the catfishing itch, that is. And I'm betting a lot of you are, too.
Popularity polls show catfish are the second most popular sport fish in the Natural State (only largemouth bass rank higher), with hundreds of thousands of anglers pursuing them throughout the year. With the warm weather of spring now upon us, those of us who love catching cats will be looking for some honeyholes where we can hook some of these sporty, good-eating whiskerfish.
Fortunately, there are scores of phenomenal fisheries from which to choose in Arkansas. Except for our cold tailrace trout streams, nearly every body of water in the state has healthy populations of blue cats, channel cats and/or flatheads. The question is, which of these many waters are most worthy of our attention?
I'm certainly no Nostradamus, but I can tell you for sure that catfishing in Arkansas will be great this year, and it will continue to get better. Our state has produced more 100-pound-plus blue cats in the past decade than any other. Flatheads from 50 to 80 pounds surface with astounding regularity. Fishing for channel cats continues to improve as the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission maintains and improves populations with continued stockings.
If you're savvy to the ways of cat catching, if you visit during the right conditions and employ the proper tactics, I'd bet my next paycheck the lakes and rivers I'm about to describe will produce excellent fishing for you this year.
These are the places I plan to fish; I'll be looking for you there.
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 so on a fairly regular basis. Millwood Lake near Ashdown in the state's southwest corner is among the most consistent producer of big flatheads, which thrive in this shallow, timber-filled environment. Several years back, the Little River below the lake produced a 100-pound-plus blue cat. Lake Ouachita gave up our 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, 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 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 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 it's for that reason that their trophy potential is high. There are good populations of forage fish in all of these 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. At 3,550 acres, relatively small compared to other Corps impoundments, 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 you could be astonished at your catch.
GAME AND FISH COMMISSION LAKES
Lake Conway, the largest Game and Fish lake at 6,700 acres, serves up the best catfishing in this classification. This huge stump-filled body of water ranks high on the list of the nation's best flathead catfish waters, producing numerous 40-pound-plus fish annually. You'll look long and hard to find a lake in Arkansas 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 spot for channel cats. Numerous 20-pound-plus fish have been taken there, 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. Although it's been decades since this body of water produced a 22-pound-plus former state record, channel cats that size and bigger have surfaced in recent years, increasing speculation that some savvy angler may land a fish bigger than the current 38-pound record from Lake Ouachita. Fishing near water-control structures adjacent to the spillway that separates upper and lower lakes is the ticket to success, say locals.
Oxbow lakes don't typically produce many big catfish, but Horseshoe Lake near Hughes in northeast Arkansas is an exception to that 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 over 30 pounds are possible, with 10- to 15-pounders common. Channel cats run only slightly smaller, with numerous fish in the 5- to 12-pound range. Occasionally, an angler comes ashore 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 inhibit you. Less competition means, quite simply, there are more cats out there to be caught -- if you use the right tactics.
At 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.
Island 40 Chute, inside the Mississippi River levee just north of West Memphis, is another old river oxbow that provides outstanding catfishing,
especially for channel catfish. The best catfishing there comes when the Mississippi River has almost dropped out of the lake following a period of high water. That usually occurs when the river is at 15 to 17 feet on the Memphis gauge. The key to successfully fishing the run-out is watching water level fluctuations closely to determine the best fishing times.
A slow, steady fall produces the best fishing as it draws fish into the Chute from the river. Impressive numbers of catfish -- mostly blues and channels -- concentrate in the run-out from the lake into the river to get an easy meal being pulled out of the Chute. The action usually continues at a frantic pace until the Mississippi backs completely out of the lake. Most of your catch will be "eating-sized" cats -- nice scrappy fish weighing 1 to 5 pounds -- but there usually are a few hawgs sprinkled in for good measure.
STATE PARK LAKES
Most folks probably wouldn't include the small state park lakes in a listing of Arkansas' best catfish waters. However, because these waters are frequently and heavily stocked with catfish, they often produce fish-a-minute action for catters in the know. At the top of the list are lakes Dunn and Austell in Village Creek State Park near Wynne. These bodies of water are well known among bass and bluegill fans, but their names are hardly spoken by catfishing enthusiasts.
One- to 2-pound channel cats and blue cats are abundant, although both lakes are less than 70 acres in size, their deep, timbered coves and channels harbor some amazingly large blues. Some over 40 pounds have been landed, but larger ones are difficult to pull from the maze of underwater timber. It's possible that a true giant will be taken by an angler with the right tackle and know-how. I've seen some huge channel cats come from Dunn, including five fish taken by a single angler one night that weighed 17, 15, 9, 8 and 5 pounds.
Other state-park catfishing hotspots include 31-acre Lake Walcott in Crowley's Ridge State Park (Greene County), the 8-acre lake in Devil's Den State Park (Washington County), a 3-acre lake in Logoly State Park (Columbia County) and an 11-acre lake in Old Davidsonville State Park (Randolph County).
If fishing for abundant 1- to 2-pound channel cats sounds like fun, try any one of the dozens of small city-owned impoundments scattered from border to border. Channel catfish are stocked regularly in most of those waters. Although 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 Game and Fish Commission also has stocked some trophy blue cats in those waters, including fish up to 70 pounds, thus increasing the trophy potential of each body of water.
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 many other towns.
The big bottomland rivers of the state continue to be the best waters for 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 recent years, including the 116-pound, 12-ounce former world record caught at West Memphis by Charles Ashley Jr. in August 2001, and 108- and 103-pounders caught at a catfish tournament in Memphis in November 2007. In my humble opinion, it's only a matter of time before someone catches another world record in the Arkansas portion of the river, one that will top the 124-pound fish caught upstream in the Mississippi River at Alton, Illinois.
Giant flatheads 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 late fall, winter and early 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 the tailwater 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 in spring, all these areas have the potential for producing a new state- or world-record flathead or blue, and each of these areas produces astounding numbers of small catfish year after year. A sleeper honeyhole is the stretch immediately below David D. Terry Lock and Dam where Bruce and Mackey Sayre caught our biggest flathead ever recorded, a 139-pound, 14-ounce fish taken in May 1982.
The best big river in southwest Arkansas is the Red River, an outstanding catfish stream overlooked by many Arkansas cat fans. This murky, sand-laden river is no raging beauty, but plenty of nice channel and flathead catfish live there. Channel catfish from 2 to 5 pounds are abundant. Flatheads average around 4 to 5 pounds, but larger ones are taken by trotliners. 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 Highway 71 bridge.
All the state's other big bottomland rivers rank high for catting as well. Some you should try include the L'Anguille below Cherry Valley, and the lower Ouachita and Saline, two dark horses in the south-central portion of the state.