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Oklahoma's 2007 Catfish Outlook

Oklahoma's 2007 Catfish Outlook

When it comes to good catfishing waters, the Sooner State is blessed with hotspots aplenty. Here are just a few that you should be fishing this year. (June 2007)

Photo by Bruce Ingram.

William Shakespeare may have written A Midsummer Night's Dream, but I've lived the angling version.

I've lived it while fishing for summertime whiskerfish on Lake Texoma, that is. I've done it with the aid of a couple of wily catfishing veterans, Charlie Coder and Kelwyn Ellis, who regularly visit the 89,000-acre reservoir that straddles the Oklahoma-Texas state line.

A few years ago the three of us, riding on Coder's striper fishing rig, waited until darkness fell before venturing out onto sprawling Lake Texoma. Hours later, we returned to the dock to filet our limits of channel cats, weary from whiskerfishing that was almost too good to be true.

Which, come to think about it, is a pretty good way to describe catfishing all over the Sooner State -- this year included.

"It's one of the staples of Oklahoma fishing," said Kim Erickson, fisheries chief for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. "The catfish is one of the three most sought-after fish in the state."

Why is that? Well, for at least four primary reasons.


First, the catfish -- channel cats, blue cats, and flatheads -- are found from virtually one end of Oklahoma to the other.

"Catfishing is pretty good statewide," Erickson agreed. "Now in some places, you won't find big numbers of blue cats, but channel cats and flatheads are pretty spread out all over the state."

A second reason for the immense popularity of catfish angling in Oklahoma is the sheer simplicity of fishing for them. Forget the $50,000 bass rigs, big sonar units, and high-dollar rods, reels, and tackle.

For catfish, simple equipment and some bait -- all the way from earthworms to shad to the stinky concoctions filling angling shops all over the state -- are all that is needed to catch a mess of catfish from the bank.

A third reason for the popularity of catfishing is that the fish often serves as the angling genesis for many fishermen. Who among us didn't experience the thrill of watching a big whiskerfish take a bobber under as a kid?

"Absolutely," Erickson said. "That hasn't changed since I was a kid; it was the way that I got started. In fact, it's the way we try to start kids now with our Aquatic Education Program. Give a kid a rod, a reel, a bobber, some line, a hook, and a worm and he's ready to go catfishing. I don't think that's ever changed much."

A final reason for the popularity of catfishing in Oklahoma is that the species can absolutely shine on the dinner table. And when fixed properly, it is indeed healthy fare to eat.

With the popularity of catfishing across Oklahoma, what can Sooner State residents expect in this Centennial Year?

More of the same -- good catfishing!

In fact, as he would grade most years, ODWC biologist Gene Gilliland rates the state's 2007 whiskerfish prospects at an "A" level.

And that's even with drought conditions plaguing much of the state over the last year or two.

"Most of these catfish populations, at least for this year, will be pretty good," said Gilliland, who went on to note that the number of catchable-sized catfish is more influenced by what may have happened three or four years ago than by what's happened during the last year or two of drought, whose effects on the population may not show up for a few years.

The reason? Catfish are cavity spawners, finding natural holes in riprap, rocky banks, or along clay banks. "If those are high and dry and reproduction is reduced to some smaller percentage of normal, we don't see the results for two or three years," Gilliland said. "It takes that long for a channel cat to get up to 14 inches. The same sort of thing applies to blues and flatheads, too, since they are all a cavity nest spawning species."

Since water conditions have been at least fair in portions of the state -- especially in northeastern Oklahoma -- Gilliland is giving thumbs up for whiskerfish prospects this year.

"As far as catfishing goes, with the exception of some of our western lakes like Salt Plains, I don't know that we'll see much difference this year," he said. "Things should continue on pretty much as they have been."

Take Lake Texoma, for instance, home to perhaps the state's most famous catfish fishery.

Such a reputation is due, of course, to the gigantic blue cats roaming the depths of the massive reservoir, none of those beasts being more famous than the late, great former world-record "Splash," the 121.5-pound blue caught by Texas angler Cody Mullenix in January 2004.

While Splash is gone now -- she died in December 2005 while on display in an aquarium at the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center -- her progeny live on in the waters of 89,000-acre Lake Texoma.

"Texoma has the potential for world-record-sized fish in there," Gilliland said. "That's obviously true since we've had a world-record fish come out of there."

When coupled with a number of other big blues -- most notably, B.J. Nabor's November 2004 Oklahoma state-record blue cat weighing 98 pounds -- Texoma in some ways may have helped give birth to the genesis of a new wave of whiskerfish angling popularity in Oklahoma.

"We have been reading and hearing for the last year or two on blue catfishing that the fish seem to be gaining quite a good following," Gilliland said. "We have a number of lakes in Oklahoma that have blues, both in terms of size and quantity."

Behind Texoma, the ODWC biologist ranks the state's strong blue cat fisheries as Grand Lake near Grove; Keystone Lake west of Tulsa; Oologah Lake northeast of Tulsa; and the lakes of the Arkansas River system including Kaw Lake near Ponca City, Webber Falls Reservoir near Muskogee, and Robert S. Kerr Lake near Sallisaw.

One reason for the abundant blue cat populations in each of these water bodies is that the species is prolific.

"In terms of blue catfish, when we're trying to get them to exist in a lake where they haven't before, we have gone

to stocking adults and we let nature take care of it," Gilliland said. "They seem to do fairly well."

Another reason blue cats do well in Oklahoma waters is that the species is able to make use of more open water habitat that comes as reservoirs age.

"While channels and flatheads are bottom-dwellers, blues will often suspend in the middle of the water column," Gilliland said. "In the summertime, they may be in 30, 40, or 50 feet of water 20 feet down. Anglers that use electronics can find these schools in open water and can catch them, typically drifting cut bait at the right depth."

Or even while using a Clouser minnow with an 8-weight fly rod in hand.

Last summer, while fishing with Lake Texoma fly-fishing guide Steve Hollensed of Fly Water Angling Adventures, I was fishing a full sinking line and a shad-imitating fly pattern in about 30 feet of water when a monstrous fish struck my fly, sounded for the bottom, and eventually broke me off in the depths below.

What was the fish? Steve and I quickly concluded that it was no striper, but instead a very large blue catfish, probably 30 pounds or better.

Of course, anglers who fish more-conventional tackle are learning to target blue catfish across the state in the wintertime when the fish will group together near tight balls of shad, or in the summertime when the fish are more spread out as shad disperse through a lake.

Keep in mind that blues can be and often are caught on the bottom of a lakebed, as well as higher up in the water column.

That's because the fish are prolific fish eaters, pigging out on threadfin or gizzard shad, even those attracted to a particular dining spot in a most unusual way.

"On Lake Texoma, a lot of times, they'll be caught around the fish cleaning docks where the striper guides are cleaning their catch and throwing the carcasses and rib cages over," Gilliland said. "It's almost like a baited hole."

While blue catfish may be the Sooner State's glamour species in terms of whiskerfish, the channel cat wins the vote as the state's most numerous and widely available catfish species.

"The channel cat is probably found in just about every water body in the state," Gilliland said. "If they are not native, then they have been stocked."

That's particularly true in small lakes where ODWC biologists try to manage the water for a single species or in urban fisheries, park lakes, or places where kid's fishing events are held.

"We typically stock them at 6 to 8 inches and in a year or two, they've grown to an attractive size," Gilliland said. "People will take them out and we'll come back and stock some more."

Part of the prolific nature of channel cats in Oklahoma waters is due to the fact that the fish are very adaptable to finding something to eat.

"They'll eat just about anything, including artificial food," Gilliland said. "In fact, on many smaller bodies of water, there are often fish-feeders set up to feed the catfish."

Where are the top spots in our state to fish for channel cats? Probably at an urban lake, a park lake, or a farm pond near you.

But for bigger bodies of water, Gilliland says that a number of spots come to mind.

"The channel cat population in Oklahoma seems to be universally good," he said. "Canton Lake has a good channel cat population. Some of our western lakes . . . have good numbers. One is Fort Cobb Lake, which has a good channel cat population along with Lake Lawtonka.

"Texoma has good channel catfish numbers in it and Eufaula is a good channel catfish lake. Lake Thunderbird, right outside of Norman, is also good for channel cats, and even fair for blue cats."

One good thing about channel catfishing is that the period from late spring on into midsummer is a great time for catching these whiskerfish. "That's spawning time," said Gilliland. "They're up in the shallows, the rocks, around blowdown logs, and undercut banks. Channel cats are no different than bass fishing in the springtime; they are more available (in shallow water) and vulnerable like bass in the springtime. At other times of the year, they may be deeper and their habitat selection may be such that it doesn't put fish and fishermen together."

How do anglers go about fishing for channel cats right now?

illiland suggests fishing shallow around laydown logs, riprap, and rocky areas on the bank. "I tell them to use a slip-bobber and some sort of prepared bait -- there are a zillion of them on the market," he said.

Channel cats will also hit worms under regular bobbers, cut bait, minnows, various bass fishing baits, and even flies as they defend their cavity nesting sites.

As for tackle, the ODWC biologist has a few ideas. "Tackle is pretty much a personal preference," Gilliland said. "There have been millions of catfish caught on Zebco 33s, the old pushbutton reels."

Because flatheads aren't classified as game fish, they can be hand-fished. Channels and blues have to be released if they're caught while you're noodling.

From Zebcos to spinning rod-and-reel setups or stout baitcasting rigs, just about anything will work, according to the biologist. But, he noted, the longer the setup, the better.

"The guys that are really into the drift-fishing for blues or the slip-bobber technique for channels do use really long rods," Gilliland said. "To set the hook on a catfish, you've got to move a lot of line. On a 5-, 6-, or 7-foot long rod, the line stretches out that much. Most serious catfish anglers seem to be going to 8-, 9-, or 10-foot rods."

Not to mention the use of circle hooks for their catfish baits. "I'm hearing more and more about circle hooks," Gilliland said. "When anglers use them, they're not gut-hooking a fish as much while bait-fishing. Circle hooks may have a slightly lower hooking percentage, but the injury prospects to the fish are hugely different. They are so much better for the fish -- if you catch one that you want to release, 9 out of 10 times, they are hooked right in the corner of their mouths and you can let them go."

Another reason that Gilliland is big on the use of circle hooks is that their use actually makes setting the hook an easier proposition for a novice catfisherman.

"I have really tried to steer novice anglers toward the use of circle hooks," he said. "When using them, it's not as critical to know when to jerk the bait. When a catfish picks it up, you just start reeling and hang on because a good circle hook will hook the fish for you."

Oklahoma's final catfish species -- the flathead -- doesn't even require the use of a hook to catch them.

"Obviously, when you get into flatheads, it's not just a rod-and-reel proposition," Gilliland said. "They're often caught on trotlines and they're also caught when noodling."

Because flatheads aren't classified as game fish, they can be hand-fished. Channels and blues have to be released if they're caught while you're noodling.

Like the state's blue cats and channel cats, there are a number of good spots to give flatheads a try, whatever method of catching you prefer.

"Waurika Lake is one of our premier flathead lakes," Gilliland said, noting that the lake near the town of Waurika is a prime spot for trophy-sized flatheads.

"Eufaula is another really good one," he added. "Last year, the flathead fishing there was down because the lake was so low and it was just simply hard to find the fish. But right now (as of press time), the lake is actually up to above normal."

A final reason for the popularity of catfishing in Oklahoma is that the species can absolutely shine on the dinner table.

Other good flathead spots, according to Gilliland, include Hugo Lake in southern Oklahoma and just about any of the lakes up and down the Arkansas River Navigation System.

"Just about any of those lakes can be good," said the ODWC biologist. "The channelized areas are not as good, but the backwaters have lots of good catfish including blues, channels, and flatheads.

A final flathead possibility is found in the state's far southeastern corner at Broken Bow Reservoir.

"I'm sure it does have decent flathead fishing, it's just that I don't hear a lot about it being hot from fishing reports," Gilliland said. "But as big as it is and with enough timber in it, I'm sure that it has got a decent flathead population."

This is basically true statewide -- there are decent to even world-class populations of blue, channel, and flathead whiskerfish available to nearly all of Oklahoma's piscatorial enthusiasts.

Why not get out in 2007 and give the Sooner State's seriously good whiskerfishing a try?

You won't regret it, for many reasons: from the big pull on the end of the line to the scrumptious filets coming out of a fish fryer filled with peanut oil!

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