Summer is the time to target old Mr. Whiskers in the Sunshine State. In the northern half of Florida, these destinations are hard to beat. (June 2006)
They may not be pretty, but hefty catfish put up a good fight and make great dinner guests!
Photo by Bud Reiter.
It's not always easy being a freshwater angler during the midsummer heat. Sunshine bass, largemouths and stripers can get pretty finicky as waters warm. And while the various bream species are more reliable, they don't pack much weight. That's likely why many savvy anglers turn their attention to catfish during the summer's heat. And they have plenty of targets.
Two of the most common species are the yellow bullheads (often called buttercats) and the brown bullheads. Widely distributed in lakes, rivers and ponds, they seldom exceed 3 pounds, but are willing biters and excellent on the table.
Although not as common, the white catfish inhabits most of Florida's river systems north of Lake Okeechobee. Often mistaken for small channel cats, most fall into the 1- to 4-pound range, though the current world record is over 18 pounds.
One of the most available whisker fish is the channel cat. They occur naturally in just about every watershed in the state and are also easy to raise in hatcheries, making them a popular fish to stock in ponds. They can get pretty hefty: Fish in the 10- to 20-pound range are not uncommon, and 40-pound fish have been recorded in Florida. That's a handful on a rod and reel, but there are even larger cats available. The current world record is almost 60 pounds!
The flathead and the blue catfish were originally native to the Mississippi and Rio Grande river drainages, but they have found their way to the Panhandle area of Florida. It's debatable which of the two is the largest North American catfish -- the world record for both is in the 120-pound range -- but at that size, who cares? Either one, even at half that size, will give any angler a real workout. Fish of that size range have tangled with Sunshine State anglers!
That's a broad array of catfish. And regardless of where you live in Florida, one or more of these species is as close as your nearest pond, lake or river.
Gearing up for cats isn't complicated. Just match the tackle to the potential size of the critter you're targeting. Bullheads, small whites and channel cats can easily be handled on spin-cast, spinning or baitcasting gear with lines in the 10- to 12-pound range. Many anglers fishing bullheads in creeks don't even get that fancy and opt for a cane pole. Sproat-type hooks in the No. 2 to 1/0 size are adequate, though some anglers using commercially prepared catfish baits prefer treble hooks in the No. 4 size because they tend to hold the bait better. Add enough spilt-shot to keep the bait on the bottom and you're in business.
The big cats require heavier gear. If you're targeting the 20- to 60-pound fish, you need the same type of stout gear that veteran guides choose for chasing trophy bass with live shiners. Lines in the 25- to 40-pound range are advised. Hooks should be solid forged bait-holder styles in the 5/0 to 8/0 range. Most trophy cat experts favor a sliding sinker on the main line above a barrel swivel connecting to the leader, and use monofilament leaders in the 50- to 60-pound range to facilitate handling a big fish at boatside.
When it comes to baits, bullheads and smaller cats respond well to wigglers, night crawlers, cut baitfish, clams, mussels, chicken liver, shrimp, cheese, small dead minnows, or an array of commercially prepared catfish baits. Discerning diners they're not!
If the trophy-class channels, blues and flatheads are your target, you can forget the above. Top baits for the bruisers include blue crab quarters, live shiners, eels, or bream, or any of the latter three in a freshly dead state. For flatheads, few things beat a live redbreast sunfish.
Once you're geared up, here are some of the Sunshine State's best waters on which to put them to use.
ST. JOHNS RIVER BASIN
For anglers along the state's east coast, the St. Johns River is one of the biggest and best catfish factories in Florida. Both bullhead species are present just about anywhere, while channel cats prowl the open waters. White cats, although not as abundant as the others, also show up in angler creels.
Catfish do well in rivers, and at over 300 miles in length, the St. Johns is a big one that hosts cats along its entire length. Targeting the best portion, however, requires moving to the section between Lake George and the Buckman Bridge on Interstate 295 at Orange Park.
Based upon creel surveys, this is the top section of the stream. The reasons aren't hard to figure out -- it offers not only the deepest holes, but the best spawning sites. Combine the two and "Catfish Heaven" results. Here's how to tap into it.
The top cat fishing starts in Lake George itself. Although it lacks any significant depths below 13 to 14 feet, it boasts a good population of bullheads and channel cats. The former can be scattered around the edges of the lake's extensive grass beds, but the channel cats -- at least during June and July -- are far easier to target. Just concentrate your efforts on any stand of offshore pilings in 5 to 8 feet of water. Mature channel cats spawn this time of year and seek out a cluttered, wood-laden bottom at a comfortable depth in which to nest.
That's in short supply on this lake, except for the old pilings. The posts draw big channel catfish, and this writer has been surprised on many occasions when a diving crankbait banged through the pilings for bass or stripers resulted in an 8- to 12-pound channel cat -- even during the middle of the day.
The smaller catfish rank high among those who enjoy them on the table as much as on the end of their line. They usually skin them, fry them whole, and eat them like ears of corn. If those are your targets, move northward in the river and concentrate your efforts on mid-river shell bars. There are a number of such structures between Hogg Island at the northern end of Lake George and the Buckman Bridge. Most hold channel cats in the 8- to 14-inch range, along with white cats. Bouncing wigglers or commercial baits along the bottom on an outgoing tide will attract them.
Interspersed throughout the area are a number of deeper 20-foot-plus holes, where the larger channels and whites in the area spend the day. But for big channels, a better bet is to move to the major tributaries. For spawning catfish, a quiet back creek with a wealth of fallen timber is a premier bedding site, and they migrate to them.
One of t
he best sites is the Oklawaha River below Rodman Dam, but anglers in the Middleburg area shouldn't overlook Black Creek. Both are winding, timber-laden streams with numerous deeper holes on the outside bends and a maze of intersecting tide creeks. They hold a resident population of all the local catfish species throughout the year, but see an influx of big spawning channel cats from the main river during the early to mid-summer months.
During daylight hours, one of the most productive techniques is to anchor on the up-current side of one of the deeper outside-bend holes. The best ones are those with fallen wood on the bottom. Drop your bait relatively close to the boat. Let it sit for a few minutes, then strip out some line to let it drift 15 or 20 feet further down the hole. Repeat this procedure until the entire hole has been covered.
At the same time, chumming won't hurt. A few handfuls of cut baitfish dropped over the side can help wake the fish up.
Most common catfish baits work, but when pursuing the bigger channel cats, local experts favor a quarter of a cut blue crab, a live shiner, or a hand-sized live bream.
Another top spot is the hole at the mouth of any feeder creek. The creeks are where many cats spawn, and a few of them can often be stacked up at the mouth waiting for Mother Nature's call to send them in.
For the truly adventurous, another option is sight-fishing bedding cats in the shallow back creeks themselves. If rainfall has been scanty, those back creeks can be surprisingly clear. With a quality set of polarized sunglasses, anglers can actually spot spawning cats sticking their noses out from their beds in submerged fallen timber. Once a cat is spotted, it calls for sight-casting with the same weedless soft-plastic baits you'd use to fish for bass. Even a 20-pound cat can get ticked off, and the resulting battle in a narrow creek can be something to remember!
Six-mile long Dunns Creek, connecting Crescent Lake to the St. Johns River, is another excellent option -- and for the same reason as the rivers. The biggest difference is that this creek is subjected to tidal influence; and some holes produce better on one tide or the other. The same tactics are effective here, but don't overlook the dropoff at the mouth of any of the canals that intersect the stream -- cats spawn in these. Although Dunns Creek isn't very big, it consistently ranks as one of the top summer fishing spots in the state because it draws channel cats from both Crescent Lake and the St. Johns.
For those whose idea of a pleasant catfish trip is to plunk down on a bank and stick a rod in a holder, none of the above areas is very inviting -- there's precious little suitable bank!
A better bet is Hanna Park in Jacksonville. This is part of the Urban Pond Program and receives continual stockings of channel cats. Not many of those fish evade anglers' hooks long enough to top 8 to 10 pounds, but there are plenty of 1- to 4-pound fish -- and in a friendly park-like setting that makes this an appealing fishery.
Moving westward, the next catfish hotspot is Rodman Reservoir and the Oklawaha River upstream that feeds it. Although best known for bass and crappie, the reservoir boasts some monster channel cats. During the periodic drawdowns, I've seen fish that would likely exceed 35 pounds finning their way through what deeper holes remained. This is an overlooked spot, but a productive one for anglers who approach it the same way as the Oklawaha River below the dam -- find the deeper holes in the original river channel, especially those with timber on the bottom, and fish them patiently.
That does require a boat. But a boatless angler can find some solid catfish action by stopping in at the Rodman Recreation Area just below the dam. The dam's tailrace is a top spot for big and small channel cats. It can be accessed comfortably from either the bank, or from the state-maintained fishing pier.
River systems tend to produce the largest cats, but lakes can often provide plenty of action on smaller fish. If you're feeling catfish-hungry in Gainesville, Newnans Lake can supply the ingredients for a serious fish fry. Both bullhead species are present in large numbers and can be found around the offshore fish attractors, in the deeper waters near Palm Point, and at the mouth of Prairie Creek when rainfall makes the water run hard. Wigglers and night crawlers are top baits, but anglers also do well on chicken livers, clams, and commercially prepared baits.
All of the Big Bend tidal rivers host respectable populations of bullheads, channel cats, and some white cats in their upper reaches, but none of them really rank as hotspots -- except for the lower Suwannee River. Even that river only offers good action under the right conditions.
Those conditions aren't hard to identify. Suwannee cats turn on when the water runs high and dirty, when not much else will bite. The lower four miles of the river make up the key spot, and the offshore holes and limestone ledges are where you want to be. Channel cats, white cats and bullheads predominate. But blue cats have also been documented, and it is now accepted by biologists that they have arrived in the Suwannee.
Big rivers are ideal catfish habitat, and the Panhandle area has more than a few big rivers that boast big cats. Flathead and blue cats are well established, giving anglers a shot at some true heavyweights, while channel cats, white cats, and the ubiquitous bullheads are well represented. In terms of the numbers of catfish caught, the Panhandle equals the St. Johns river basin, and beats it in terms of the size of the cats. If you want a real summer brawl, this is the place to be. And here are four top spots to pick a fight.
Flowing from Lake Talquin, the Ochlocknee River is one of the most eastward Panhandle rivers that can produce big. Look for bullheads, channel cats, white cats, and flatheads. All are present throughout the river. One of the top places to fish is the tailrace area below Lake Talquin. While you're in that area, don't neglect Lake Talquin itself. Like Rodman Reservoir, this is a man-made reservoir with a major, flooded mid-lake channel and numerous intersecting creek channels. All can produce.
Anglers on the Apalachicola River find bullheads, channel cats, flatheads, and an occasional blue cat. A top spot is the tailrace below the Jim Woodruff Dam at Lake Seminole, but the lower reaches of the river produce plenty of fish for those anglers targeting deeper holes, or the mouths of tributary creeks.
Further to the west, the Choctawahatchee River provides channel cats, bullheads, and flatheads on a regular basis. Blue cats have also been reported. Standard river tactics are the best bet, and the most productive area has been from the Alabama line south to West Bay, as well as around the mouth of any significant tributary, with Holmes Creek being one of the better hotspots.
If you want to pick the biggest fight available, check out the Escambia River. Blue cats, flatheads, and channel cats are well established in this river. If one had to pick the best spot in Florida
to beat the 50-pound mark on a whisker fish, this likely is it. The best section -- according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission creel surveys -- is from the Alabama line to the I-10 bridge. This is one area where you definitely want to have gear on the heavy side, since a flathead or blue cat better than 50 pounds is a distinct possibility!
While these are some of the best spots to really get your string stretched, don't overlook any bodies of fresh water that can be fished either by boat or from the bank. Summertime is catfish time, and while more glamorous game fish may get finicky in the hottest weather, Mr. Whiskers is ready to bite!