Tuning in to Arkansas' Channel Cats

Channel cats are the kings of the Arkansas catfishing world. Here are some small waters and out-of-the-way places at which to maximize your catch this summer.

Catfish are among the largest of Arkansas' game fish. Flatheads grow up to 140 pounds here, blues over 116 and channel cats over 50. If trophy-class whiskerfish are your quarry, the Natural State is a great place to be.

Of course, not all catfish anglers are interested in pursuing giants. Many Arkansans are just as happy when they can sit under a shade tree on a lake and catch some small channel cats for dinner. For them, catfishing is a way to relax or to enjoy a few hours fishing with the kids. If a big cat is caught now and then, so much the better. But catching big fish is secondary: Just being there, enjoying the outdoors and occasionally tussling with a decent one, is what it's really all about.

Channel cats are tailor-made for this kind of fishing. Found in nearly every pond, lake and stream in the state, they're easily accessible to all anglers. They're abundant, easy to catch and excellent to eat. More important, you don't need a megabucks bass boat, expensive rods and reels and a suitcase-sized tackle box full of pretty lures to catch them. A cane pole or cut-rate fishing combo will work just fine, and the only hardware required is a few hooks and sinkers, a stringer, and maybe a lawn chair to sit in. Make a short drive to that little lake down the road, and you can be kicked back and catfishing in no time at all.

Target channel cats on your next summer outing; Take your children along, or maybe some kids from the neighborhood. It's fun, it's relaxing, it's enjoyable - and the fish you'll catch offer fine dining.

Here are some places to try.

I like small waters when I fish for channel cats. The fish are easier to find, and in most cases you won't have to hassle with launching a boat. That's why my list of the best waters, including the following Arkansas Game and Fish Commission lakes, is composed primarily of lakes that cover just a few acres.

For example, at only 10 acres, Lake Bentonville is about the size of a large farm pond. It's perfect for bank-fishing, with easy access to the shoreline around the entire lake. Small channel cats are abundant, and you could catch a big cat, too. The Centerton State Fish Hatchery is just four miles away, and when brood catfish grow too large to fit in the hatchery's 25-gallon spawning barrels, they're often stocked here.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Bentonville is in central Benton County, just south of Arkansas Highway 102 within the city limits of Bentonville. The entrance is clearly marked by signs on Arkansas Highway 102, a half-mile west of the intersection of U.S. Highway 71 and Arkansas Highway 102.

Crystal Lake, one mile east of Decatur, is another Benton County AGFC lake that exemplifies the old saying about good things often coming in small packages." This clear, spring-fed impoundment covers only 60 acres, but its sterling catfishing opportunities - the lake supports a healthy population of channel cats -make this diminutive treasure a favorite with northwest Arkansas anglers.

Crystal is chock-full of fish-holding structure; the lake bottom is a hodgepodge of inundated points and valleys, and extensive stumpfields are found in many tiny inlets. One worthwhile fishing area is the stumpfield on an underwater point just out from the Decatur airport hangar on the west bank.

Signs mark the two turnoffs to the lake - one on Arkansas Highway 59 one mile north of Decatur, and one on Arkansas Highway 102 one mile east of Decatur. A parking area and picnic area accessible from Highway 59 are near the dam on the lake's northeast end. The Highway 102 access on the southeast end leads to parking and bank-fishing areas and a fishing pier.

Lake Hindsville is a pool of serenity beside a hurry-scurry sea. At 30,000 acres, nearby Beaver Lake provides most everything a visitor could want - great fishing, skiing, tourist attractions and more. But Beaver doesn't offer the same type of relaxed, get-away-from-it-all atmosphere prevailing at twenty-acre Hindsville, which makes available a welcome respite from the crowds in this heavily populated region.

Hindsville is one of the oldest and smallest lakes built by the AGFC. But the lake's age and size haven't diminished its popularity with local anglers. The rippling waters of this elfin treasure embrace lots of fighting channel cats, plus a few blues, and Hindsville remains a favorite with shadetree fishermen.

Hindsville is in northwest Madison County, three miles west of its municipal namesake. Signs on Arkansas Highway 68 northwest of Hindsville direct traffic onto the gravel access road circling the lake.

Truman Baker Lake, three miles south of Waldron in Scott County, was built by the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department during excavation for the U.S. Highway 71 bypass around Waldron. Fill dirt from construction was used to impound the 15-acre lake in a low-lying spot adjacent a highway rest area.

This is an ideal spot to take the kids fishing for channel catfish. No drive-in access is available, but visitors can park at the rest area and carry their gear to bank-fishing areas around the lake. The adjacent rest area has restrooms, water fountains, covered picnic tables and parking.

Other small AGFC lakes offering excellent bank-fishing for channel cats include 50-acre Gurdon Lake (Clark County), 100-acre Horsehead Lake (Johnson County) and 12-acre Gator Pond in Dagmar Wildlife Management Area just west of Brinkley.

If you live in Little Rock or North Little Rock, there are at least six small lakes within a few minutes' drive that offer some nice bank-fishing for cats. The AGFC stocks catchable-size channel cats in all of these waters. At times, the fishing is extraordinary.

MacArthur Park Lake lies in the corner formed by Interstate 30 and 630; take the 9th Street exit off I-30 for access. River Mountain Park Lake is just off Highway 10 west of I-430; access is from Southridge Dr.

Three of these lakes are in southwest Little Rock. Hindman Park Lake is off West 65th Street near the south end of University Avenue; watch for the signs. Holt Street Lake, in the Southwest Kiwanis Park, is accessible from the Colonel Glenn Road exit on Interstate 430; drive about mile and a half east on Colonel Glenn to Holt Street, turn left and you'll wind up at the park. Ottenheimer Park Lake is in Cloverdale; turn onto Azalea Dr. just north of the intersection of Chicot and Baseline roads and watch for the signs.

The Burns Park Golf Course lakes are in North Little Rock. Take the Burns Park exit off Interstate 40 just east of I-430.

Little Rock isn't the only Arkansas city with public catfishing lakes: Dozens of these small manmade impoundments are scattered from border to border. Among the best are Lake Atalanta in Rogers (60 acres), Bald Knob Lake (200 acres) and Siloam Springs City Lake (35 acres). You'll also find plenty of channel cats in small city-owned lakes in or near Benton, Booneville, Camden, Charleston, Clarksville, Dierks, Eureka Springs, Fayetteville, Fort Smith, Mena, Nashville, Newark, Newport, Ola, Paris, Pottsville, Prairie Grove, Van Buren and Waldron.

Some of these lakes were built primarily to provide a reliable water source, but in each and every case, recreation possibilities figured highly in city planners' development strategies. Most have excellent bank-fishing areas and park facilities like picnic tables. Channel catfish are stocked regularly, and though often overlooked by the bulk of Arkansas' fishing populace, these neglected waters' summer catfishing is at times not less than superb.

At least seven of our state parks provide outstanding channel catfishing on small lakes within park boundaries. As an added bonus, the parks with fishing lakes also have picnic areas, campsites and other outdoor recreational facilities, making them ideal destinations for a weekend or weeklong family getaway.

Lakes Dunn and Austell, 68 and 64 acres respectively, are encompassed by 7,000-acre Village Creek State Park near Wynne. Both are better known for producing lunker largemouths, but catfishing in these waters isn't shabby either. Channel cats are abundant, running to over 5 pounds. Excellent bank-fishing is available, especially along the dams.

Sixty-four-acre Lake Bailey is a favorite with folks camping in Petit Jean State Park in southwest Conway County. The lake lies adjacent the camping area, with very satisfactory bank-fishing access around its entire perimeter. Regular stockings of channel cats maintain the quality of the fishing.

In Woolly Hollow State Park near Greenbrier, Lake Bennett attracts a bit of notice from cat fans. It covers only 33 acres, but channel cats are common, and the bank-fishing is not at all bad.

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).

You can catch channel cats anywhere along the main channel of the Arkansas River from Ft. Smith to the river's juncture with the Mississippi. One of the best honeyholes, however, is the one-mile stretch from Dardanelle Dam to the Arkansas Highway 7 bridge linking Russellville and Dardanelle; several state-record cats have come from this area. The riverbank is lined with giant boulders that make great seats for bank-fishing, and you can drive to the water's edge at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recreation areas on each riverbank. Summer catfishing is generally best when several dam gates are open, allowing a steady flow of water. The best bait is shad, whole or cut (catch them in a cast net thrown near shore), or night crawlers you catch yourself or buy at a bait shop. This stretch of water is one of the best in the state for extraordinary numbers of channel cats, with some big ones to be expected during any daylong visit.

Rod-and-reelers will find the very best of White River catfishing along the lower 10 miles from the Corps of Engineers barge canal to the Mississippi River. There is good access for bank-fishermen and boaters alike at Norrell Lock and Dam, 8 miles south of Tichnor. This section of the White contains dropoffs, holes, sandbars, brush, bends, logjams and other structure attractive to channel cats and a limit of 5-pound-plusers is common for many anglers.

Another top catfishing area is that portion of the White that borders Henry Gray/Hurricane Lake Wildlife Management Area in White County. You can launch a boat at the landing in Augusta and fish down to Georgetown landing on the WMA's southern tip. Or, if you prefer, you can find access to several big river sandbars from the WMA's interior roads. For the optimal enjoyment of summer sandbar fishing, take a lawn chair, some sand-spike rod holders and a cooler full of cold drinks.

This northeast Arkansas river is best known for the giant flatheads it produces, but it's a superb channel cat river as well. The fishing is best downstream from the Highway 70 bridge near Forrest City, but the entire river from Whitehall to Marianna is alive with "fiddlers" - 1- to 3-pound channel catfish that are considered the ultimate in table fare.

Owing to extensive logjams, it's difficult to travel more than a few hundred yards at any point on the L'Anguille, but these barriers are favorite hideouts for big channel cats. Trotlining is particularly popular here, and lines set around dead timber and baited with sunfish or scent baits produce lots of heavyweight channels. Access is limited to a few county road and bridge crossings, as all the land bordering the river is in private ownership.

Arkansas' cool mountain streams too offer notable fishing for jumbo channels. One such stream, the Strawberry River, flows out of the Ozark foothills and into the northeast Arkansas Delta. The upper third, from Arkansas Highway 354 near Oxford to U.S. Highway 167 north of Evening Shade, is generally too low for float-fishing to be worthwhile, but wade-fishing is often good in this section's short summer pools. The remaining section of river offers fishing for channel cats on three relaxing floats - Highway 167 to the low-water bridge between Evening Shade and Poughkeepsie (10 miles); from this low-water bridge to the next one just west of Arkansas 58 (9 miles); and from this bridge to the Arkansas 58 crossing north of Poughkeepsie (2.5 miles).

Drift-fishing live bait usually works well on the Strawberry, but if this method doesn't produce, try a still presentation with live crawfish, chicken liver or stink baits. Fish the deepest pools of the river, using a canoe for easy floating.

Another outstanding channel cat stream, and one that's overlooked by many Arkansas cat fans, is the Red River. Located at the Texas-Arkansas border in the southwest corner of the state, this murky, sand-laden river is no raging beauty, but plenty of nice channel cats lurk in its depths. Channels from 2 to 5 pounds are abundant, but much larger ones are often taken.

The huge night crawlers known locally as "cane worms" are the favorite bait of many veteran Red River catters. Dug from the gumbo bottoms with a pitchfork, they're gobbed on 1/0 hooks and tightlined on the river bottom us

ing heavy sinkers. Bait shop night crawlers work equally well.

Two of the best fishing holes on the Red are the area just upstream from 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. 71 bridge. Concentrate your fishing efforts on the steep banks with forceful current; work near treetops and snags in the channel.

Other first-rate channel catfish rivers include the Black and St. Francis rivers in northeast Arkansas, the Cache River between Clarendon and Grubbs, Champagnolle Creek in south-central Arkansas' Calhoun County, the Little River above Lake Millwood near Texarkana, and the Petit Jean River in central Arkansas' Yell County. As long as the water isn't too cold, practically any stream you can wet a hook in will be home for channel catfish, and usually a lot of them.

(Editor's Note: Keith Sutton is the author of Fishing for Catfish, $22, and Fishing Arkansas: A Year-round Guide to Angling Adventures in the Natural State, $28.25. To order autographed copies, send a check or money order to C&C Outdoors, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002. For credit card orders and more information, log on to www.ccoutdoors.com.)

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