September 28, 2010
Anglers plying the state's rivers and lakes have a good chance of wrestling with big cats and lots of them. Here are several of 2005's best waters for whiskerfish.
By Glynn Harris
It's very telling that Louisiana's catfish are so abundant that anglers like Donnie Prince of Claiborne Parish can catch them with bare hands. Probing sunken logs, caverns beneath boat ramps and sunken barrels, the lifelong resident of the Bayou State frequently comes away with large catfish, some in excess of 50 pounds.
But anglers don't have to take up "noodling" (as the practice is known) to catch cats in our state. Louisiana's loaded with catfish from one end of the state to the other. Whether you fish the areas near the coast or the northernmost reaches near Shreveport and Monroe, cats are plentiful, and not at all hard to find or to catch.
It surely won't be a surprise to most anglers that some Louisiana's best areas for catching catfish lie along the state's most prominent rivers, specifically the Ouachita, the Atchafalaya and the Red. But the whiskered creatures are just as prevalent in some of the state lakes as well, including D'Arbonne, Salvador, Poverty Point and Cataouatche.
Though different tactics are required to catch cats at each location, each is worth a try, according to both anglers and fisheries biologists.
A special boyhood memory of mine from decades ago is of catching catfish along the Red River near Campti. It was exciting when my dad gave instructions to my brother and me to dig a bucket of earthworms from behind the cow barn for use on the fishing trip.
Armed with rods and reels, we set up camp on the sandy banks of the "Big Red" (as we called it). We lobbed earthworms impaled on stout hooks into the current, using heavy sinkers to keep the bait at rest; the rods were propped onto forked sticks. Our job was to watch the rod tips for bites. Once the rod tip dipped and pulsed, and the hook was set, it was anybody's guess as to what was on the end of the line. It could be a freshwater drum or a paddlefish. But more than likely we'd find ourselves doing battle with either a blue or channel catfish.
The Red River has undergone drastic changes in the years since my boyhood excursions. Once known for its swift current and the rusty color from which its name derives, it has been tamed, and its waters are now far less turbid than they were formerly. In fact, movement of the water is barely noticeable except during flooding.
These changes came about when the last of five locks and dams were completed in December 1994, creating five pools between Shreveport and Marksville, south of Alexandria. Instead of a rapidly moving stream, there are now pools that more closely resemble lakes along the margin of the river.
Ronnie Christ, a fisheries biologist for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries who works out of the District One office in Minden, oversees the Red River for the agency and is accordingly well acquainted with the astounding catfish resource that the Red River offers today. Periodic electroshock sampling reveals that the numbers of catfish showing up in the samples has been impressive indeed.
"Our equipment has settings that allow us to key in on what species of fish we're trying to stun for samples," Christ said. "The first time we tried it for catfish on the Red River? Quite frankly, I was amazed. The water was covered with catfish. They were all around us. This didn't just happen once. We found fish of such high numbers each time we did the electroshock samples."
Once, his team arrived at the river early in the afternoon, the plan being to take samples that night. While they waited for sundown, they used rods and reels for catfish, catching only a few. However, when the group took the electroshock samples that night in the same area, catfish came up everywhere.
"They just happened to not be biting for us that afternoon," Christ remarked.
To fish for Red River catfish, Christ suggests, anglers should use rods and reels to fish cutbait or night crawlers. Use a 1/2- to 3/4-ounce egg sinker to keep the bait firmly planted on the bottom. The most promising locations for catching a mess of cats are the deeper holes along the river. To find these, look for areas where the river makes a sharp bend; then, fish the outside bend. Look for the presence of any wood cover, such as a blowdown, and place the worms or other bait on the upstream side of the cover, where channel cats or blues are likely to be present.
For flatheads, fish the scour holes or indentations on the downstream side of the wood cover. The skulking predators are notorious for getting out of the current and waiting to ambush prey.
For more information on Red River catfish, contact the LDWF District One office in Minden at (318) 371-3050.
Running parallel to the Red River on the northeast side of the state, the beautiful Ouachita River flows out of Arkansas. The meandering river, notable for the large, gleaming sandbars dotting its shores, is prime water for catfish, according to Ryan Daniel, fisheries biologist with the Monroe District Two office.
"The Ouachita is always good," he stated, "one of the most reliable spots to fish for catfish in this part of the state."
One reason that the river is such a notable catfish haven is that it's such a large system, flowing through the city of Monroe and on down south of Columbia, says Daniel. He notes that even with water levels fluctuating throughout the year as a result of rainfall and run-off, the Ouachita is full of fine habitat for cats.
"One of the most popular methods of fishing for channel catfish on the river is tightlining such baits as cut shad, night crawlers or stink bait," Daniel offered. "You'll see fishermen anchored out in the river with several rods and reels, and if you watch long enough, you'll see rods bend and catfish being caught regularly."
Daniel says that while there are catfish to be caught in the stretch of the river that runs through Monroe, the best fishing is downriver of the locks and above Monroe -- from the Alabama Landing to the Felsenthal locks. "These areas both below and above Monroe are not fished as heavily as the river around Monroe from Sterlington to Bawcomville," he reported, "and as a result, I'd recommend the upper and lower stretches of the river where catfish are not nearly as likely to have seen a bait."
The Ouachita is subject to overflow during extended rainy periods, and when this occurs, some of the most
worthwhile fishing areas are in the flooded areas adjacent the river, notes Daniel. Catfish love to move out onto newly flooded areas both to spawn and to feed.
"In the river, fishermen should concentrate on steeper banks where trees have fallen in and where there is brush," Daniel remarked. "Catfish are a lot like crappie -- they like to hang around places with lots of cover."
Some big flatheads are taken each year by trotliners using live bait like bream or goldfish. According to Daniel, not many anglers actually go after plus-sized flatheads by means of rod and reel -- although, he added, they could undoubtedly be caught that way.
While there are plenty of big flatheads in the channels of Lake D'Arbonne, near Farmerville in Union Parish, this lake is noted more for teeming with channel catfish.
For several years I've done weekly fishing reports for area newspapers, and when I call Cooter Anderson, owner of Anderson's Sport Center in Farmerville, I can just about go ahead and jot down the catfish report from the prior week before he answers the phone. I already know what Cooter's going to tell me: The catfishing's good.
The LDWF's Daniel thinks that the reason behind the high likelihood of success with catching D'Arbonne's channel catfish is straightforward: The lake's full of whiskerfish. "You won't catch many over 5 pounds, but there are an awful lot of smaller channel catfish in this lake," he said. "With all the fallen logs and stumps in the lake, channel cats find ideal conditions for spawning."
Louisiana's loaded with catfish from one end of the state to the other. Whether you fish the areas near the coast or the northernmost reaches near Shreveport and Monroe, cats are plentiful, and not at all hard to find or to catch.
One of the more popular areas for fishing for channels is the area known as "the flats" near Bear Creek and Terral Island. This region features water averaging 8 to 10 feet in depth, and it's a simple matter for anglers to drift several rods baited with worms over the flats. Unless weather and water conditions interfere, this technique is one of the easiest ways to ensure a good mess of catfish for supper.
One of the state's newest lakes -- it opened in the spring of 2002 -- Poverty Point is the place to go to catch large channel catfish, Daniel says. "The channel catfish we stocked here when the lake was new have grown to impressive sizes," he remarked, "with some up to 10 pounds and larger being caught fairly regularly."
In Daniel's opinion, the best way to catch channel catfish here involves identifying the deeper creek and bayou channels inundated when the lake first filled. One of the most promising sites lies on the north end of the lake. The Bayou Macon channel and the old oxbow lakes on the east side of the lake are also great for catching cats. Most successful anglers here use night crawlers or stink baits.
"The flathead and blue cat fisheries are virtually nonexistent here," Daniel noted. "I'm sure there are some that were in Bayou Macon when the lake filled, but if you're interested in catching catfish on Poverty Point, you're talking about channel cats."
For more information on fishing for catfish along the Ouachita River, Lake D'Arbonne or Lake Poverty Point, contact the Monroe District LDWF office at (318) 362-3160.
LAKE SALVADOR/LAKE CATAOUATCHE
These two south Louisiana lakes, while two distinct bodies of water, are connected by a bayou. Lake Salvador covers some 20,000 acres, while Lake Cataouatche is approximately 8,000 acres in size. According to fisheries biologist Mack Lawson, the two offer prime catfish angling. He adds that the action would be even better if the full complement of water diverted from the Mississippi River at Davis Pond was allowed to flow into the lakes.
"Water from the Mississippi River is coming into these lakes at a restricted level because of so many other interests in the area besides those of freshwater sportfishermen," he said. "Commercial fishermen, crabbers, shrimpers and duck hunters all have differing interests in this area, and until the problems are solved €¦ the fishing won't be as good as it can be."
Even so, Lawson offers, a lot of catfish swim these two lakes just southwest of metropolitan New Orleans. You can catch flatheads, blue catfish and channel cats in these waters. While rods and reels are used here with a variety of baits, most catfish anglers opt for trotlines baited with live bait for flatheads or cutbait for blues and channels.
"This place has so much potential for catfish," he said. "And once all the kinks have been worked out and the water allowed to be diverted in the capacity for which the diversion canal is designed, these two lakes are going to be fantastic for catfish."
For more information, contact the LDWF at (225) 765-2333.
The Atchafalaya River is actually too deep -- up to 120 feet in some places -- for anglers to expect to catch fish in the deeper holes. However, other portions of this south-central Louisiana river offer some extremely good catfishing, reports Martin Plonsky, LDWF fisheries biologist.
"Among the more popular areas on the Atchafalaya for catfish is the water around the locks at Simmesport, where water is diverted from the Mississippi," said Plonsky. "There is plenty of current in that portion of the river below the locks, and this particular area is popular with catfish anglers."
The Atchafalaya is best fished right after periods of high water, when the levels are dropping; this typically takes place in late spring. At such times, catfish begin feeding heavily. In addition to trotlines, rods and reels and limblines, fishermen also use hoop nets and slat traps, notes Plonsky.
Probably the best bait here for flatheads is a small carp, which are fished live. "Locals call them 'mirror carp,'" Plonsky said. "They're hardy, and will live a long time on a hook.
Several locations along the river are reputed to be catfish hotspots. These include the areas around Simmesport, Melville and Butte La Rose. The confluence of the Little Atchalafaya River with the main river is also a great spot to hit.
"Look for good channel catfishing near the pumping station at Melville," Plonsky suggested. "During corn and soybean harvest season, barges loaded with grain come here, and some of the grain being transferred is inadvertently spilled into the water. This grain attracts the fish, and anglers can really have a ball fishing around this area."
As good as the river is for catching cats, the Atchafalaya Basin, branching out into the lowlands of south Louisiana from the river, is a hotbed of catfishing activity. One reason for the basin's fantastic a
ction is the topography of the area. As spring rains fall and river levels rise, water spreads out over the low-lying swampland, inundating stumps, logs and other structure that catfish frequently use for spawning.
Because of the fertility of the area, nutrient levels are high, and the water quality is unusually good. The abundant catfish found in the basin are the best baits to use for these bayou catfish.
For more information regarding catching catfish along the Atchalafaya River, call the Opelousas LDWF office at (337) 948-0255.