Louisiana's Best Bets for a Catfish Dinner

No, we're not talking about good restaurants here. We're talking about putting the odds in your favor when you've got home-cooked catfish in mind. These waters should do the trick.

By John McQueen

Ask most Louisiana anglers their favorite time to fish for catfish, and June is not likely to be the answer. They're apt to say April or May, when the whiskered predators roam the shallow flats, instead of the year's sixth month, when summer finds its rhythm and kids revel in uninterrupted hours of free time to wet a line. June generally doesn't include super-active, easy-to-catch fish in fantastic numbers, but it can provide solid action for one of the state's most popular species, and a top choice when it comes time to dropping cornmeal-dusted meat into the peanut oil.

Summer catfishing patterns are not unlike those of more-popular species that share state waters. June usually signals the absolute end of the cool night breezes that aid in keeping water temperatures at an agreeable level. Not unlike crappie, largemouth bass and stripers, catfish move deep in the daylight hours, leaving the shallows and their soaring temperatures.

Though much of the state's summer catfishing is done with trotlines or juglines, there are plenty of fish to be caught by rod-and-reel anglers. The techniques cited above are certainly efficient - trotlining covers the active night feed, while juglines provide a sort of saturation-bombing approach - but simple rod-and-reel fishing can accomplish a lot when it's gone about in the right way.

In the southeastern part of the state lies one of the most acclaimed bodies of water for catfish in the country. Bayou des Allemands holds huge numbers of small fish, which just happens to be the target of most area anglers. Surrounding restaurants pay commercial anglers premium prices for the young fish; these offer succulent meat to its patrons, who order it up either in thin filets or "on the hoof" (whole), which provides the additional treat of eating the crispy-fried fins.

Des Allemands catfishing tactics are similar to those found in other locales with one slight exception. This area is close enough to the salty waters of the Gulf of Mexico that it is affected by tidal movement.

Like the feeding habits of all fish in this environment, those of catfish are affected greatly by these currents. Again, general behavior is strikingly similar to other species. A general rule to follow when taking tides into consideration is this: On a weak tide (8/10 foot or lower), it is best to seek out the times of the strongest current. On days of higher-range tide, fish will feed best when the tide is beginning to change. A strong current generally makes the fish work too hard for their meals, so they'll wait until the current dies down in order to feed actively.

Brad Norsleet has been fishing the winding stretch of water bordering on the brackish marsh for many years, gaining the knowledge of many much older than he is. Bass, crappie and various saltwater species populating the waters surrounding the town bearing the same name as the body of water take up a good bit of his time, but the catfish is a passion for the young angler.

"In June, we concentrate on deep holes around stumps for the majority of our fish," said Norsleet. "From des Allemands to the lake (Salvador), there are seven or eight holes that we fish. Some are always better than others, but there seems to always be fish to some degree in most of them."

For those not privy to local knowledge of these hotspots, putting in some face time staring at the depth finder a little ways off of the bank can aid greatly in finding the type structure consistent in holding good numbers of mainly blue catfish along with a few of the commercially prized channel cats.

"If you really want to catch the smaller ones - and most people think that they're the better eating ones - you can use a smaller piece of bait," said Norsleet. "The bigger ones tend to hang around structure more than the little ones. They're not as active as the little ones, and you've got present it closer to where they hang out."

Earthworms are the best bait for these fish, though the variety of commercial catfish baits on the market has its place when action is fast and live bait supplies run low.

While not the best schedule for anglers used to the early-morning routine, summertime fish tend to bite best in the late afternoon and night, trumping even the early morning for optimal chances, as the fish are generally coming off a heavy nocturnal feed.

Moving to the northeast, one must think a little bigger when it comes to how best to fill a string of catfish. The Ouachita River (pronounced wash-i-tah) has a well-deserved reputation for its backwater duck hunting. The high water that makes the backwaters so attractive to migrating waterfowl makes it tough for any kind of angling, but by June, waters have receded, and concentrations of tasty cats can be caught.

Bobby Phillips of Honey Hole Bait Shop in West Monroe repeats a common theme when it comes to landing a mess of early-summer catfish. Going deep in the river generally means 30 feet or more, and tackle a bit heavier is used for the preponderance of big fish roaming those depths. Of course, the main channel of the Ouachita River reaches 120 feet, so depth is certainly a relative thing.

"The locks in between here (West Monroe) and Columbia - what we call the Columbia Locks and Dam - have a lot of back cuts and back eddies from the current. That's always a good place to start," says Phillips. "There's plenty of really big fish that people catch on cut bait, shad, big shiners. You've got to be able to stop those big ones in all that current."

A not-so-common theme in this in catching the smaller, better-eating fish in that area is the curious choice of bait. The large night crawlers, nicknamed "cold worms" and imported from Canada, have quite a following in the northeastern part of the state.

"It's funny -with all the night crawlers we've got in Louisiana, we bring them in from Canada," said Phillips with a laugh. "But it's hard to argue with their success.

"Really, anything that stinks is a good bait for catfish. People do real well on any number of the prepared catfish baits as well, especially in the 'blood' scent."

June typically means low water in the Ouachita River, which lends itself not only to easier boat positioning, but also to less oppressive currents, which in turn lend themselves to more effective use of what Phillips considers one of the better - and curiously overlooked - baits for catfish: live crawfish. Not having near the scented draw of cut baits or stink baits, a crawfish's aesthetic appeal is what is going to attract predators to him. Phillips says that these baits are right up there in attracting blue and channel cats of 5 pounds and up.

A major tributary to the Ouachita is Bayou D'Arbonne. Fishing here is similar to that on most smal

ler bodies of water in June: deep. Tying up to stumps located along the edge of the channel and throwing baits into the deeper water can result in good action when anglers set up on likely spots such as turns in the bayou or other structure that makes the area different to the fish.

The Red River has become one of the most well-known bass fisheries in the south, but the waterway, with its series of locks has long been known as a superior catfish fishery. Unique in its makeup among the waters we've featured, the Red gives Shreveport area anglers good action on catfish even when the sun is at its most severe.

"A lot of people go through Lock 5, and where the barge traffic goes and where the water runs over the spillway, where those two meet together, there is a big eddy area that has carved out a deep hole," says Dennis Clark, part-owner of Clark's Red River Marina in Elm Grove. "This has been a good area for post-spawn fish."

Deep holes aren't the only way to go when going after the tasty bottom feeders according to Clark. Above Lock 5 are numerous rock points providing enough depth and structure to make them a good bet for boxing enough cats - mainly blues - for a good fish fry.

"The best thing to do if you want a mess of good eating-size fish is to fish one of the points off of one of those rock jetties - and there are plenty of them - and just move until you hit on a good school," said Clark. "The river is just full of 10- to 15-inch catfish."

The main two baits used in the Red River are fresh shad caught in a throw net (cast net) and the ever-popular night crawler. Night crawlers will normally secure the smaller fish, while fresh shad works best in taking fish up to 90 pounds. Shad are extremely plentiful in the summer months and can also take smaller fish when cut into pieces. Of course, cut bait releases more foul odors, aiding in the drawing-in of the target species. Just to prove that there are no absolutes in determining size of fish to bait, Clark spoke of a 60-pound blue caught on a night crawler.

Successful catfishing in the Red River Locks area is certainly not limited to boat fishermen. Clark says that tremendous amounts of catfish are taken by anglers fishing (and snagging) just below the locks. There is plenty of access to this area, but anglers do fish it at their own risk, as the water-level situation is highly volatile when the locks are in use.

The southwestern part of the state is probably less known for its freshwater catfishing than any region we've highlighted today, but Eric Shanks, a biologist for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries says that the series of three waterways made up of Bundick, Anacoco and Vernon take a backseat to nothing when it comes to producing numbers of catfish. Anglers who can tear themselves away from the outstanding early summer run of speckled trout in the lakes below Lake Charles will be pleased by the numbers of fish in any one of the region's chain of freshwater lakes.

"All three of these lakes have a tremendous population of catfish. I wouldn't have a problem recommending any one of these lakes for hook-and-line fishing - no question about it," said Shanks.

Shanks adds that Anacoco and Bundick boast a tremendous amount of large flathead catfish. Though most of these fish are caught not caught on rod and reel, Shanks says, it would be quite a feat there are some angler who might take up the challenge of wrestling these brutes.

The earthen dams supported by riprap is what keeps the lakes filled and also provides some of the best and easiest to find cover for catfish, particularly for large numbers of an outstanding grade of channel catfish in the 3- to 5-pound range.

"Our samples consistently show a heck of a lot of catfish along the edge of that riprap," said Shanks. "I'd fish about 20 or 30 feet off the riprap, even right on the rock itself. It's a place that attracts fish because of all the things it offers: nesting cavities, plenty of food, thermal refuges - you name it."

For bait, Shanks says, it is pretty much a tossup between earthworms and prepared catfish bait. For the flatheads, nothing beats a live bluegill or shad, the bigger the better. Anyone who has seen the mouth of one of these fish - which frankly have the look of something that might come out of the Amazon - will realize that they can handle a large meal with no problem, and probably prefer one.

Tactics for tangling with these tasty fish are relatively simple; several principles can aid in maximizing opportunities. Bottom-fishing for catfish is about as basic an angling technique as there is, but small details can make a difference in just dirtying the box and actually coming anywhere close to achieving Louisiana's incredibly liberal daily limits (100 fish per person per day).

Catfish feed mainly by smell, necessitating bait that ... well - stinks. Commercially prepared stink bait, dead shad and night crawlers all have their place in the smelly genre, but what many anglers fail to do is allow the bait to do its job. Patience is needed to allow the fish to find the source of the teasing little morsels it has located. Pulling up to a likely location and soaking bait for five minutes will put you on fish if everything is right, but hooking fish on most days requires a bit of time. Water movement does a wonderful job in ringing the dinner bell, but must be given time to work.

Another way to maximize success when bottom-fishing - or at least keep your bait in the water - is to use enough weight to get it to the bottom. As well, the kind of weight that will dig in to the bottom and not roll on the bottom is important. Leaving the rig on the bottom accomplishes a few things. It allows the bait to do its thing, and gives the fish a definitive food source to relate to. It also keeps you from hanging on whatever structure is present in the path of the supposed drift. Allowing your rig to "walk" along the bottom is good in theory, but unnecessary in the interest of locating fish, and it creates many more hassles.

Precious vacation time doesn't have to simply include bedding panfish for those wishing to get in some angling while the kids are out of school. Veteran catfishermen wouldn't choose June among their top three months, but the relatively low maintenance species can provide fun (and tasty) summertime memories for all if these tips are put to use.

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