The Best Of Louisiana's Channel Cats
September 28, 2010
While giant flatheads and blues earn the most acclaim, channels easily deserve the title of the state's most popular catfish. Let's look at our finest channel cat waters.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Associated with each section of the country are characteristic landscapes, pastimes and forms of expression. For example, the thought of New England carries with it details like lobsters and clam chowder, and terms like "down East" and "wicked good." Similarly, it's hard to envision a state in the West without conjuring up vivid pictures of mountains, plains, cowboys and ski slopes. And to imagine our nation's coasts -- thousands of miles in extent -- is to bring to mind images of surf and sea and sandy beaches.
So what presents itself to the mind's eye when someone says "the South"? Magnolia trees and mint juleps? Cotton fields and live oaks? Pine trees and red clay hills? Barbecue? Certainly, all of these fit -- but one representation that I often recall probably lodged itself in my brain the first time I read Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
I see a couple of barefoot, freckled boys in ragged overalls, mongrel dog in tow, heading out with cane poles resting across their shoulders to fish at the nearest creek or pond. There's a chance that they might be out after goggle-eyes or stump perch, but I clearly picture these boys as being on a quest for catfish -- because, more decades ago than I care to recall, I was one of them, ambling down to the water, unfettered by shoes and shirts, with the sole goal of trying to entice a catfish into biting.
For me and those I grew up with, it was necessary to learn to crawl before we could walk, especially when it came to catching catfish. We started out at the bottom of the catfish barrel by fishing for bullheads -- "mudcats" to us. We loved them, because neither trickery nor skill was needed to get them to accept our offerings.
Later we'd graduate to more-respectable species of catfish, like flatheads, which grew big and mean in the bayous near our home. Setting out limblines baited with live goggle-eyes -- sometimes even small mudcats -- occasionally resulted in unparalleled excitement when we'd paddle up to one of our setlines and see the cypress limb violently lashing the water. The fish on the line could weigh 5 pounds -- or 50.
But if one species of catfish defines the South, it'd have to be the channel cat. When you visit a catfish eatery in the South (there's one on nearly every corner nowadays), what'll be served to you on that platter garnished with sides of fries, onion, pickles and hush puppies is likely to be a heaping helping of channel catfish. Granted, these crunchy, sweet, tasty morsels came from a fish reared in a pond at a commercial farm somewhere; a kid with a cane pole and a gob of red wigglers caught the ones flouncing on the bank of my memory.
Jeff Samsel, author of Catfishing in the South, put it succinctly when he wrote, "While overgrown blue and flathead catfish attract most of the catfishing headlines, channel cats are the whiskered fish that most Southern anglers know and love." Indeed so.
Channel cats are easily identified by a silver sheen accented by small black spots on their backs and sides; additionally, their tails are deeply forked. They're generally streamlined in appearance.
Smaller blue catfish exhibit some of the same markings and characteristics seen in channels; they too are somewhat of a bluish-silver hue, and sport a forked tail. But the two fish are entirely different in nearly all other ways -- particularly size: Blue cats attain weights well in excess of 100 pounds.
The channel cat is no slouch, however. Aside from being great table fare, it's a formidable adversary, fighting hard once hooked. Perhaps most important, it's quite plentiful. Hardly a lake or river in the state is devoid of channel catfish.
We're blessed here in Louisiana with millions of acres of water in which swim innumerable whiskerfish awaiting the juicy gobs of worms they'll have dangled in their faces. Here are the best spots for targeting Bayou State channel cats this month.
Carving a watery slice through northeast Louisiana, the Ouachita River is a beautiful stream hugely popular among anglers who chase channel catfish. While these fish can be caught at just about any point in the year, the most favored time comes soon after heavy spring rains inundate the upper portion of the state, causing the Ouachita to overflow its banks. As the waters reach their peak and then slowly recede, anglers head in droves to the Ouachita to take advantage of nature's bounty.
Catfishing on the Ouachita can be a laid-back experience. I recall several episodes of sitting with friends in a boat anchored in one of the river's deeper holes as we lazily watched rod tips for the telltale sign of a catfish taking the bait, night crawlers or catalpa worms usually. While many anglers go after the bass, bluegills and crappie for which the river is also known, seasoned catfishermen have no problem sitting and watching other anglers haul in other species: They're after sleek and slippery catfish, and the more others focus on other fish, the less competition they face in the search for whiskerfish.
One of the areas of the river in which catfish tend to congregate most heavily is the place known locally as "river south" -- that stretch of the Ouachita lying south of Monroe between Prairieon and Riverton. Another fruitful site is the stretch of water north of Monroe from Sterlington to the Arkansas state line.
A predominant feature of the latter area is the numerous steep cutbanks beneath which catfish hide and nest. Anglers fishing these banks with night crawlers, cut bait, catalpa worms or stink baits have a virtual lock on enjoying a tasty catfish fry at the culmination of a day's trip. When floodwaters that have spilled over into adjacent farmlands and woodlands begin to drain back into the riverbed, Ouachita catfishing is at its peak. Rods and reels, yo-yos, trotlines and even slat traps all produce hefty catches of river channel cats.
Another splendid river system for catching channel catfish is the Red River, the long ribbon of water winding through northwest and central Louisiana. Owing to the completion of five locks and dams in 1994 --which created five pools between Shreveport and Marksville south of Alexandria -- the river is far less turbid. Now, instead of a rapidly moving stream, there are pools that more resemble lakes along the margin of the river.
Biologists working the Red River routinely take electrofishing samples. Ronnie Christ, one of the biologists taking part in the sampling, reports that the number of channel catfish turning up has been stunning.
"The first time we tried it for catfish on the Red River, quite frankly, I was amazed," he said. "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."
Numerous sites on the Red River hold lots of promise for channel cat fans this month. Among these high-percentage locations are the areas near each of the dams. Channels are prone to suspend or hug bottom near these hard structures, so try freelining cut bait or night crawlers. And in addition to working the many laydowns and other wood cover along the river, try concentrating your efforts along areas with hard clay bottoms near the shore. Lots of channel cats will be spawning this month, and thus can be found in just a few feet of water. Use night crawlers or cut bait on a Carolina rig for these fish.
The deep, mysterious Atchafalaya River -- up to 120 feet in depth in places -- boasts a wealth of areas in which the channel cat action is of noteworthy quality, according to Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologist Don Lee.
"One of the more popular areas on the Atchafalaya is around the locks near Simmesport, where water is diverted from the Mississippi," he said. "There is a lot of current in that portion of the river below the locks, and catfishermen enjoy plenty of success in this area."
Lee notes that cat activity along the Atchafalaya peaks shortly after periods of high water; when the water retreats, catfish really begin feeding heavily. A variety of methods can be used to catch cats at this time.
Good as the river proper is for catching catfish, the Atchafalaya Basin -- branching out into the lowlands of south Louisiana -- is a hotbed of catfishing activity. One reason for the Basin's fantastic catfishing opportunities is the topography of the area. As spring rains come and river levels rise, water spreads out over the low-lying swampland, inundating stumps, logs and other structure that catfish use for spawning.
Because of the fertility of the area, nutrient levels are high, and the water quality is outstanding. The Basin is also celebrated for its abundance of crawfish. Since mudbugs are a favorite menu item for catfish, it's hardly surprising that crawfish are the top bait, hands down, for drawing in the feisty fighters in the Basin.
Now that we've toured some of the river systems best for Bayou State channel cat fishing, let's take a look at some of the lakes whose prospects for 2005 are good. We'll start with a couple of south Louisiana lakes, which are in proximity to each other, that have long been known for their copious catfish production, especially for channels.
LAC DES ALLEMANDS
Relatively shallow and covering 12,200 acres 40 miles west of New Orleans, Lac des Allemands sees heavy fishing pressure from Crescent City anglers, but hangs in gamely as a notable venue for catching channel cats, says LDWF biologist Tim Morrison. "This is a very fertile lake," he observed, "with cane fields draining into the lake on the north end. This lake has heavy populations of channels, blues and flatheads."
Morrison reports that the majority of anglers going after Lac des Allemands' channel catfish will work the brushtops all along the edges of the lake, with the area of the lake near Vacherie being especially popular. "Channel catfish will bite virtually anything, but channel cats here prefer something like earthworms or blood bait," he noted.
Yet another south Louisiana catfish hotspot, Verrett, which in Assumption Parish, some 15 miles west of Thibodeaux, is almost a mirror image of Lac des Allemands, according to Morrison. "Verrett is a little larger -- 14,080 acres -- but it is also a shallow lake with lots of good catfish-holding structure such as sunken brush and trees," he said. "Verrett has all three popular species of catfish, with channel cats creating the most interest."
The lake was restocked after the devastation caused by Hurricane Andrew in the early 1990s, Morrison notes, and the lake has responded with hefty growth rates among both blues and flatheads. "Bayou Magazille, at the south end of the lake, is one of the better spots on the lake for catfish," he offered. "There are some deeper holes with current."
Another much-liked spot is Crackerhead Canal; several other oil-field canals on the east side of the lake also meet with approval. "Catfishermen know about these areas," Morrison added, "and you can just about always find anglers trying for cats in these areas."
At this lake in northwest Louisiana, channel cats have been king for eons. Sitting on the edge of Shreveport, one of the state's largest cities, Cross has provided fun and food, in the form of channel cats, for generations.
A typical method of filling a limit of channel catfish on this 8,000-acre lake involves making for open water on a breezy day, hanging several poles off the side of the boat and letting the breeze do the fishing. Once the bites begin, anglers will note the area in which the channel cats are concentrated. After a drift through the area, the best method is to motor upwind of the hotspot, kill the engine and drift the area again and again. It may seem boring, but when several poles begin dancing at once, drift-fishing Cross Lake for channel cats can offer all the excitement that you can handle. This is fishing reduced to its simplest form. Bait up with night crawlers or catalpa worms, and let the breeze do all the work.
This lake carries the distinction of being the newest in the state. But it also deserves mention for being a dynamite spot in terms of fostering channel catfish of the sort that make for hefty stringers. Located near Delhi in northeast Louisiana, Poverty Point is also yielding not only lots of catfish but also some of the largest channels to be caught in the state. "We're having anglers catching channels that weigh in the neighborhood of 10 pounds already coming out of Poverty Point," said fisheries biologist Mike Wood.
If there's a sure-thing catfish lake in the state, this is it. If you can hold a pole in your hand and detect a bite, you can for sure catch channels on D'Arbonne -- no doubt about it.
The area most reputed for its channel cats on the lake is known locally as "the meadow." A flat stretch of lake bottom lying between Bear Creek and the dam, it's a hotspot throughout the year; anglers here dangle Canadian night crawlers, (popularly known as "cold worms") in the depths to catch weighty stringers of channel catfish.
If catching channel catfish is your bag, there are no better places on the good earth for filling a cooler's worth of these tasty fighters than the spots we've told you about. All you have to do is hook up the boat and go.