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Coastal Cats Of The Bayou State

Coastal Cats Of The Bayou State

The marshes and estuaries running across Louisiana's coast provide some outstanding action in the way of often unexpected catfish. (July 2008)

The author shows off a heavy blue catfish caught in the coastal waters of Grand Pass south of Venice.
Photo courtesy of Pete Cooper Jr.

Louisiana's coastal anglers are well aware of the fact that catfish inhabit the waters that they probe for speckled trout, redfish, flounder and such. Not many of the folks who've fished here for very long have avoided at least a few punctures from the sea catfish; likewise, a large percentage of them will assuredly have been treated to a slimed-up line and leader courtesy of the "sail cat" -- the gafftopsail catfish. But not nearly so large a number of those folks are aware that both blue and channel catfish are also found in many of our state's marshes and estuaries.

And those cats too get pretty big there!

I was first made aware of these cats' presence in the early 1970s. A neighbor in Buras who'd grown a bit too rotund to continue duck hunting from his 10-foot airboat desperately needed something to occupy the time he'd once spent on waterfowling and soon discovered that he could conquer winter's low tides in that tiny craft and reach some deep tidal cuts in the marsh between Tante Phine and Tiger passes, where he set three trotlines, each with perhaps a dozen hooks baited them with thumb-sized pieces of common eel.

Early on, the fish he caught were respectable specimens -- 2- to 3-pounders. One morning, he returned home soaked to the bone, three fish in the bed of his truck, the smallest topping 30 pounds, the largest weighing 57. He was wet from unsuccessfully trying to wrestle a much larger one into his boat.

My first hands-on experiences with coastal cats took place not long thereafter in the Venice Dome oil field -- the celebrated "Wagon Wheel." Granted, those waters are directly influenced by the effluent from Red Pass and can become pretty fresh, but the field's canals commonly hold redfish and flounder and seasonally host speckled trout and even striped bass -- or at least they once did. A friend had taken a 17-pound blue catfish one morning while we were prospecting for reds, and that fish -- along with the smaller ones that we caught from time to time -- led to the thought of trotlining for them.

So one afternoon, another buddy and I set an 18-hook line in three canals, baiting the hooks with crawfish that we'd picked up alongside the Tidewater Road the night before. The next day, we discovered that we'd put a really serious dent in the local redfish population -- but nary a cat had we caught!


Greatly preferring to catch our reds on rods rather than trotlines, we moved the lines to some canals that appeared to be less appealing to the reds, baited them with chunks of rabbit meat and passed the night in eager anticipation of the morrow's supper of fresh fried catfish fillets and hush puppies.

And it was some mighty good eatin', too!

I relate that incident not as inspiration for you to start spending your time running trotlines for catfish rather than fishing for redfish, but to inform you that cats of the desirable types are present, often in good numbers, and in places not especially known for them.

In some areas, logic would suggest that these species should be present, but that slips your mind as you continue on with your primary objective. Then, occasionally, you receive a really sudden -- and quite forceful -- reminder.

I got one of those one day in Sawdust Bend -- a broad area of broken, rather deep marshy ponds east of South Pass. A friend and I were "practicing" for an upcoming bass tournament by chunking spinnerbaits along the edges of the emergent vegetation.

A tiny disturbance near the base of a small willow within the shoreline roseau cane got our attention. My companion, fishing from the bow and so nearest the target, made a slightly errant cast at it and fouled his lure in the canes. As we eased toward the bank to retrieve it, I made a short flip to the base of the willow, felt a thump and set the hook.

It didn't take long for us to realize that the perpetrator was a plus-sized blue catfish much too big for the net we had aboard. And as no gaff was present, my friend and I were eventually forced to depress one side of the bass boat to a point near the water level enabling us to slide the fish aboard -- not, by the way, a recommended practice, as a small error in judgment can result in a huge amount of water, as well as the fish, coming aboard!

Lesson: Anyone who fishes in areas offering even a remote chance of tangling with a big cat should always have a large net or gaff aboard. Even a small hand-gaff is much better than none at all. My fish weighed a bit over 24 pounds, and they get considerably larger than that. So be prepared!

That preparation includes understanding a few particulars about these fish that have chosen to live near the coast.

A lot of folks associate catfishing with nighttime, and, assuredly, that holds true in coastal waters. However, the fish eat during the daytime, too. Winter, for instance, is a very good time for supplementing with a few nice cats your limit of redfish, bass or whatever form of skillet-material you prefer.

Initially -- and throughout the years I spent "down the river" -- most of my cats were taken during winter in the canals of the Venice Dome. Again, these fish were incidental to redfish. With the exception of the trotline-caught fish, all the rest of those cats were taken on shrimp-tipped jigs suspended between 2 and 3 feet beneath a small weighted popping cork.

The significant difference, though, was that while the reds almost always struck when the offering was near the canals and shoreline dropoffs, the cats were invariably taken after the rig had been drawn some distance from it. On the other hand, my trotlines, which accounted for fish weighing up to 8 pounds, were set right along the dropoffs.

Therein can be seen a pattern: During summer, fish the shoreline dropoffs; keep your enticement well off the bottom to prevent crabs and other undesirable creatures from eating it.

During winter, the suspended enticement still appears to be the best bet, as shown by the success of my old apartment-neighbor's eel-baited trotlines and the number of cats that friends and I caught while redfishing on baited popping rigs. However, that's not the only way to do it -- as was plainly illustrated on a bright winter day in 2007, when my friend

Durel and I made a redfishing sortie onto Vermilion Bay.

Conditions were tailor-made for working spinnerbaits along the shorelines, but after a couple of hours on the north end of the bay, we were strikeless and had only blown out one fish. We made a run into nearby Weeks Bay, as Durel knew of some small tidal cuts there in which he'd caught reds and some nice-sized croakers in winters past. Upon entering one of them, the screen of the depthfinder lit up. Skillet material!

We nosed the boat onto the bank and replaced our spinnerbaits with bare jigheads, which we baited with dead shrimp of moderate size; these we tossed out into the 8-foot depths at midchannel, sat back and waited for a bite.

It wasn't long before I felt a series of rapid taps, set the hook, and shortly witnessed a catfish spinning on the surface as they're inclined to do. Thinking that it'd been awfully cold for any hardheads still to be around, and never giving the first thought to anything similar inhabiting those waters, I was completely blown away to discover that it was a channel cat -- the first of four that we caught there.

Once Durel and I determined that our saltwater efforts seemed doomed to futility, he suggested that we head over to the mouth of the Avery Canal and try our luck there for more catfish. We did -- and there I boated the largest of the day.I

The Weeks Bay fish were, at least in part, the result of the very low salinity of Vermilion Bay at the time. However, the Intracoastal Waterway runs between the bay and Weeks Island, and during winter, that waterway is relatively fresh in this area as well as west of the locks at Intracoastal City. It's therefore a good target area, and it feeds the bay with both its fresh water and its fish right through a breach in the bank at the base of the island.

On the other hand, the Avery Canal -- also known as the Delcambre Canal -- receives discharge from both the Intracoastal Waterway and points further inland. While its lower reaches do produce good action on such species as specks and redfish when the salinity of the bay is high -- typically in late summer and autumn -- cats are year-round residents. The stretch of the Avery Canal just below the Delcambre drawbridge is reputed to be a hotspot for reds in season and cats throughout the year.

While good catfishing is a definite probability in all of Louisiana's coastal rivers and the estuaries they create, and while the Atchafalaya River and its Wax Lake Outlet are creating some opportunities that are world-class, the Mississippi River delta is the clear frontrunner in terms of catfish productivity.

During late summer and autumn, many of our coastal rivers clear up marvelously well, thanks to the "dry season" up north and the corresponding decrease of run-off into the rivers, the combination of which brings about a decrease in current speed and prevents the suspension of sediments. They fall to the bottom, and clarity increases.

The decrease in current also allows salt water to enter the rivers, making its way upstream along the riverbeds for some distance and intermixing with the fresh water to varying degrees via upwellings and eddies. With the salt water will come a horde of popular species, which join the residents to create a mélange of opportunity: It's possible to catch upwards of seven species of both persuasions on one trip. Indeed, I've caught that many on flies.

But I wasn't fly-fishing on one particular day of infamy. John, a brother-in-law from Missouri, and I were fishing gold Johnson Sprite spoons for reds along the flats and their adjacent dropoff on the east bank of Grand Pass a mile or so below Venice. The water was a gorgeous green, the reds had been thick recently, and I'd even caught some nice specks on a surface lure a few days earlier.

The action was a bit slow until we came on a dark spot in the water that appeared to be a potential bass stump. I tossed my spoon a bit past the structure on its upcurrent side. As the spoon drew near, the "stump" turned and ate it! After that, the action sped up for a while.

I was glad that I'd learned my lesson about gaffs those years before: No way could my brother-in-law and I have suppressed my bay-boat's side far enough to slide that fish aboard. It weighed just over 28 pounds, and I've not caught a larger one.

Much more consistent producers are big fresh shrimp. Cut chunks of mullet and pogy also work, but they don't last very long after an undesirable creature starts gnawing on them; neither do chicken livers or canned stink baits. But as I mentioned earlier: If you can't catch any cats on a thumb-sized chunk of eel, change spots, not baits, because the catfish just aren't around.

Eels can often be caught on earthworms impaled on a hook about the size of that you'd use for bluegills worked deep alongside docking areas and slips in the same river systems you intend to fish for cats.

No matter how you intend to fish for them -- or if you choose not to -- just remember that many cats inhabit our coastal waters, and they can get a lot bigger than the redfish you usually catch. And I must reiterate: If you don't already have one, keep a small gaff in your boat. One day, you might need it more than you could ever have imagined!

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