September 28, 2010
Whether it's quantity or quality you're after, Louisiana offers a range of waters on which whiskerfish are ready to tangle. The question is: Are you? (May 2008)
Billy Blakly admires a stringer of Louisiana cats caught around cypress trees.
Photo by John Felsher.
Many people start out catching catfish because the whiskered critters rank among Louisiana's biggest, easiest to catch and most widespread and plentiful freshwater species. However, most anglers graduate to other species that typically require more skill -- and involve more expenditure.
"We consider catfish an underutilized species," said Bobby Reed, a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologist in Lake Charles. "We wish people would fish more for them, but we can't make people fish for catfish. In fresh water, most people prefer to fish for bass or crappie."
Each Louisiana angler can keep up to 100 catfish per day in any combination of flatheads, blues and channel cats. Channel cats must measure at least 11 inches long, and blue catfish must measure at least 12 inches long; flatheads must top 14 inches. However, recreational anglers can possess 25 undersized catfish in any species combination per day except at Toledo Bend Reservoir, where anglers may keep up to 50 undersized cats per day.
Channel cats and blues look almost alike, both sporting deeply forked tails, both predominantly silver to grayish-blue in color. Channel cats are marked with loose black or gray spots on their sides, and have thicker and fleshier barbels; by comparison, blues' barbels are thin and light. Also, the anal fin of a channel cat is shorter and more rounded than that of a blue cat.
Channel cats can grow larger than 58 pounds but seldom exceed 15 pounds. Any fork-tailed cat weighing more than 15 pounds is likely a blue cat. However, Harold W. Clubb landed the state record channel catfish near Lake Theriot southwest of Houma in August 1977. The 30.31-pound whiskerfish grabbed a homemade spinnerbait.
Blues in the 30- to 60-pound range are commonly caught, but the freshwater behemoths can exceed 120 pounds. In May 2005, Tim Pruitt hauled a 124-pound blue cat from the Mississippi River near Alton, Ill., setting the official world record. One month earlier, Keith Day set the Louisiana standard with a 110.19-pound blue cat he pulled from the Mississippi River near St. Francisville.
With squared tails, mottled brown and yellow skin, large foreheads, cavernous mouths and prominent underbites, flatheads don't resemble either blue or channel cats, but they too can weigh more than 100 pounds. Also known as "Opelousas cats," "ops" and "spotted cats," flatheads seldom fall to hook-and-line tackle. Voracious predators, they devour bream at night and hide in logjams or other thick cover during daylight.
"With their wide mouths, flatheads are eating machines," said Mark McElroy, an LDWF biologist. "Flatheads do almost all their preying at night. Fishing for flatheads in the daytime is almost a waste of time. Flatheads do quite well in lakes and reservoirs, but also live in rivers. Channel cats do better in lakes than rivers. Blues prefer rivers."
The Louisiana flathead record came from the Red River. Harley Rakes caught the 66-pounder near Shreveport in July 1998. Indeed, Louisiana's major rivers typically offer the best catfish waters in the state. The three major systems -- the Mississippi, Red and Atchafalaya -- provide some of the best catfish action in North America. Each of these rivers can harbor many blue cats in the 40- to 80-pound range, with some exceeding 100 pounds.
The Mississippi River produced four of the top five blue cats, including the top three landed in Louisiana. The Red, Atchafalaya and West Pearl rivers each contributed one monster blue to the top 10. The Red River produced the top two flathead catfish.
"The Mississippi River and its backwater lakes are great places to catch huge flatheads, blues and channel cats," said David Hickman, an LDWF biologist in Ferriday. "We catch 40- to 50-pound cats each year in our net sampling. The Black and Ouachita rivers also produce a lot of big blues and flatheads."
Some of the best trophy catfishing is to be had at the convergence near Simmesport of the three major river systems. Bearing the silt that inspired its name, the Red River flows down from the Great Plains between Texas and Oklahoma, across Louisiana and into the Mississippi River through a series of managed channels and control structures. Taking 30 percent of the flow from the Mississippi, the Atchafalaya actually breaks off from the Red at the Lower Old River channel and heads toward the Gulf of Mexico at Morgan City. Near the Old River Control Structure, Tommy P. Soileau landed an 84-pound blue cat in January 1981.
Some oxbow lakes off the Mississippi River also harbor abundant catfish. Lake St. John, Lake Concordia and Lake Bruin produce many channel cats in the 1- to 3-pound range. Anglers might also consider Lake Louis, a 1,000-acre lake near Sicily Island. Connecting with the Ouachita River through Bayou Louis, Lake Louis contains good populations of channels and blues, with some flatheads reaching 30 pounds.
Upstream on the Mississippi River, the swirling currents hold as many or more catfish, but anglers find little access to the Father of Waters there. In northeast Louisiana, anglers typically fish the Ouachita River or impoundments such as Poverty Point Reservoir and Lake D'Arbonne.
The state stocked channel cats -- but not blues or flatheads -- in the 2,700-acre Poverty Point Reservoir near Epps soon after creating the lake in 2001. The lake now produces outstanding catches for the few people who actually target catfish, among those being many channel cats in the 4- to 6-pound range and some exceeding 15 pounds.
"Poverty Point is excellent for channel catfish," said Mike Wood, an LDWF biologist in Monroe. "People catch a lot of channel cats over 10 pounds. We stocked it, but catfish are spawning as well. It has a very heavy shad population and excellent habitat for catfish. At Poverty Point, catfish are almost ignored. People focus on crappie and don't fool with catfish that much, but it has some great fishing."
About 13 1/2 miles long and 1 1/2 miles wide, Lake D'Arbonne drains a watershed more than 75 times its own 13,600 acres. Full of grassy flats, channels and flooded timbers, the lake contains exceptional catfish habitat, often yielding channel cats in the 2- to 5-pound range and some flatheads breaking 50 pounds.
"On any flat, people can expect to find catfish at Lake D'Arbo
nne," Wood said. "D'Arbonne also has a large population of flatheads, but few blue cats. In September 2008, we'll draw down Lake D'Arbonne by about 5 feet. It's not targeted specifically to catfish, but the drawdown mimics the natural fall fluctuations and dries out some areas. It concentrates the fish and forage in a confined area, benefiting predacious fish."
RED RIVER CATS
Across the state, the Red River offers some of the best catfish waters in northwest or central Louisiana. Water-control structures divided the once raging river into five pools between Shreveport and Simmesport. Each pool can produce excellent blue and flathead action. In 2004, Dwight Hendrickson landed a 93-pound blue near Lock 5 on the Red River.
"The Red River probably has the best catfishing in northwest Louisiana," said James Seales, an LDWF biologist in Minden. "Both pools 4 and 5 are good. The Red River can produce some flatheads and blues in the 40-pound range and some bigger ones. On a good day, a river fisherman may catch 15 to 20 catfish."
Besides what the river offers, anglers can find good catfishing at 8,850-acre Cross Lake, which provides water to Shreveport. Looking more like a flooded swamp than an impoundment, Lake Bistineau contains about 15,550 acres of good flathead habitat, with some fish exceeding 40 pounds. Straddling the Louisiana-Texas line, Caddo Lake contains about 26,560 acres. Anglers might also find action at Lake Claiborne, Kepler Lake, Cypress Lake or Black Bayou Reservoir.
While the Red River is the focus of catfish anglers across central Louisiana, some smaller waters also offer good places to tempt whiskerfish. Lake Rodemacher (also called "CLECO Lake" after the power company that owns it), can produce good blues and flatheads. Sibley Lake, Cotile Lake, Nantachie and Black Lake also offer good fishing. Connected to the Red River through Saline Bayou, the 13,800-acre Black Lake regularly produces blues and flatheads in the 50- to 60-pound range and some good catches of channel cats.
"We have quite a few small lakes in this district that have good catfishing," said Ricky Moses, an LDWF biologist in Pineville. "Black Lake is probably the best catfish lake in central Louisiana. Flatheads in the 40- to 60-pound range are not uncommon. It's a very old lake along the Red River. It has a lot of shad and other forage in it. Sibley Lake has tremendous numbers of small channel cats, but not many big ones. Cotile Lake has some tremendous flatheads, nice blues and channels."
In the 19th century, the Red River changed course, creating a 35-mile-long oxbow near Natchitoches called Cane River Lake. It has surrendered two top 10 flathead catfish -- Ricky Gauthier's 50.44-pound specimen from April 1998 and Bill Dickinson's 38-pounder from June 1994 -- and produces excellent channel cats.
Breaking off the Red, the Atchafalaya River feeds the Atchafalaya Basin, the longest riverbottom swamp in North America. The "second delta of the Mississippi" flows for about 150 miles from Simmesport to the Gulf of Mexico south of Morgan City. Roughly pyramid shaped and about 25 miles across its widest point, the Atchafalaya Basin offers anglers boundless catfish action.
At the northern end of the Atchafalaya Basin, Lake Henderson took a major hit from Hurricane Rita in 2005, but should produce some fish this summer, as the population in the river itself remained healthy, and overflow from the river into the Henderson Swamp has restocked the 5,000-acre system near Breaux Bridge.
"In central Louisiana, the Atchafalaya River is the best place to catch catfish," said Martin Plonsky, an LDWF biologist in Opelousas. "It has a lot of big flatheads and blue cats. I've heard of blues coming out of the river that approached 100 pounds. Lake Martin and Lake Dubuisson are getting better. We've been steadily stocking cats in Lake Martin, so people can probably expect to catch about 20 catfish a day."
The lower Atchafalaya Basin contains some of the best catfish habitat in the nation. The river feeds several major bayous, canals and lakes that offer high-end action. Near Morgan City, 14,000-acre Lake Verret connects to 11,500-acre Lake Palourde and 1,024-acre Grassy Lake through a labyrinth of canals and bayous.
"We have some of the best catfish waters in the country," said Mike Walker, an LDWF biologist in New Iberia. "People can go anywhere in the lower Atchafalaya Basin and catch catfish. In our samples, we routinely collect flatheads and blue catfish in the 40- to 60-pound range in Lake Verret and Lake Palourde. I've seen commercial fishermen bring in some 100-pounders. Grassy Lake and Lake Fausse Pointe are all awesome for catfish. The coastal marshes are very good for blue cats, which can tolerate more salinity than other species."
The marshes between the Atchafalaya River and the Mississippi River largely escaped damage from hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. Historically, Lac des Allemands, near Houma, produces incredible catfish action. The Intracoastal Waterway connects Lac des Allemands to Lake Salvador and Lake Cataouatche, feeding the system. David Michel took a 69-pound blue cat from Lac des Allemands in October 1992.
"With the exception of commercial fishing, catfish are an underutilized species in our area," said LDWF biologist Karl Mapes. "One could expect to catch as many as 50 catfish per day in some areas. Most will be in the 3- to 5-pound range, but people catch some bigger ones."
The Lake Salvador area doesn't produce as many cats as it once did. Salt water penetrates up the Barataria estuary, turning the lake into a salty system more suitable for redfish and speckled trout. In some backwaters and canals off the Intracoastal, though, anglers can still find some blue cats.
The Lake Pontchartrain Basin, including the Manchac area and Lake Maurepas, took a severe hit from Hurricane Katrina. The rivers of the Florida parishes also suffered extensive damage, especially Pearl River, but the state restocked many of those waters. The surviving fish in unaffected waters also moved into unoccupied territory.
"The Florida parishes were hit really hard by Katrina, but we've put some fish in there," said Ralph Allemand, an LDWF biologist in Baton Rouge. "Some catfish naturally restocked the area from Lake Maurepas and other areas. Manchac was hit pretty hard, but some fish survived. Catfish came back very quickly -- better than what just restocking would have done. In the summer and fall of 2007, people started to catch some good catfish again near where the Tickfaw River hits Lake Maurepas."
Rita caused extensive damage to the fisheries of southwestern Louisiana, but the lakes and rivers again produce fish. Anglers may hope to catch cats in the Sabine, Calcasieu or Mermentau rivers or Lake Vernon and Anacoco Lake.
"Lake Vernon and Anacoco Lake are the best catfish lakes in this district," Reed said. "Hurricane Rita knocked down the population in the coastal rivers, but those populations are starting to come back. I know of at least
one 60-pound-plus flathead that came out of Lake Vernon since the storm."
Fortunately for anglers in southwestern Louisiana, Toledo Bend offers some of the best catfish action in the state, perhaps the country, although very few people fish for them there. Its 186,000 acres stretching along 65 miles of the Louisiana-Texas line, Toledo Bend holds an enormous amount of catfish, including some monsters.
The official lake-record flathead stands at 97.5 pounds. Otis Pleasant of Texas caught it on May 24, 1991, while running a trotline. Another Texan, Pamela Gray, landed a 68.5-pound blue cat on June 12, 1999, also with a trotline. Doug Skinner landed a 67.65-pound blue cat in April 1995.
Not everyone can venture onto big waters such as Toledo Bend, but bank-anglers can also find plenty places in which to fish. The state stocks fish in many small ponds and lakes in populated areas so people can catch good fish. In 2007, the LDWF stocked more than 745,000 channel catfish and 6.7 million bluegills in 36 urban lakes across Louisiana.
"I like to call them 'backyard lakes,'" Wood said. "We like to stock channel catfish annually in urban areas because we want a lot of kids and beginning anglers to catch fish. We have to get these kids fishing."
Some smaller waters that offer good catfish action, especially for bank-anglers, include Turner's Pond in Minden, Lincoln Parish Park Lake near Ruston, Cheniere Lake in Monroe, Buhlow Lake in Pineville, the Red River Barrow Pits within the Red River Wildlife Management Area, Alligator Lake near Lake Charles, Jennings City Lake, ponds in Moore Park, Veteran's Park, Girard Park and Beaver Park in Lafayette, University Lake in Baton Rouge and City Park in New Orleans. Many other waters, big or small, across the Sportsman's Paradise can also provide awesome line-pulling action this summer.