If you only had one month to fish for catfish in Oklahoma, you couldn't pick a better one than June. Here's why. (June 2009)
June should be the official "Catfish Month" in Oklahoma.
And I don't mean a promotional campaign from the commercial catfish growers associations.
I mean that in June, all three popular species of whiskered cats are hugging the shorelines of lakes, ponds and streams with spawning in mind. And that makes them easy to catch.
The channel cats move in first. They are usually prowling the shorelines and looking for spawning sites as early as May.
The blues usually move in next, often mixed with the channel cats.
And the flatheads typically spawn last and may spawn well into the warmer summer months.
Now, before someone challenges me on that succession, I will tell you that I have a shelf full of fish taxonomy books that describe the physiology, distribution, habitat, feeding habits and spawning habits of North American freshwater fishes. Hardly any two agree on the same temperature ranges for preferred spawning temperatures for these three species of fish. They are all in the same general range -- from about 66 to 85 degrees, but one biologist's observations are sometimes contradicted by the observations of another.
My description of the process comes from more than 40 years of fishing in Oklahoma with rod and reel, trotline, jugline, and limbline.
In our next-door state, Arkansas, outdoor writer Keith Sutton, who is widely known for his expertise in catching catfish in North America and elsewhere, often writes that catching catfish during the spawning season is difficult. But I've found for many years that, because the spawning season finds catfish hugging shorelines and cavity-strewn areas, it is one of the easiest times of the year to find them. That's especially true for boatless anglers who fish primarily from the banks of lakes and streams.
Channel and blue cats do like to spawn in flowing waters, but they also spawn very successfully in reservoirs.
All three species are cavity nesters. Their preferred spawning habitats are undercut banks, rocky, bluff-like shorelines and similar places where they can find darkened hollows in which to deposit their eggs and protect them from predators.
Many Oklahoma reservoirs have steep and rocky shorelines that provide the kind of nesting habitat that these whiskered creatures seek. And the miles of riprapped shorelines along highways, near bridges and other shoreline areas provide even more nesting habitat and can be good places to find catfish during the spawning season.
I have not found that catfish are any more reluctant to bite a baited line when they're in the spawning areas. In fact, my experience is just the opposite. May, June and early July are good times to prowl the shorelines and catch catfish.
I am not a natural or live-bait fisherman most of the time. I prefer fishing with lures instead of sitting and waiting for a tight line to twitch or a bobber to be pulled under. But when fishing for catfish, of course, since catfish feed more with the aid of their taste and "smell" sensors than by sight, bait-fishing is the preferred technique.
When channel catfish are spawning in area lakes, I try one of my favorite techniques that combine the action of lure fishing with the success of bait-fishing. That is flipping or doodle-socking for channel cats.
The late Jack Frisbie, a former Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commissioner, fishing guide and tackle shop owner, showed me this technique more than 25 years ago at Lake Eufaula.
I've tried a variety of baits for doodle-socking catfish, but the one that Frisbie preferred -- frozen bait shrimp from the grocery store -- is the one with which I've had the most success.
I use one of those 12-foot, telescoping, crappie-fishing poles without a reel. I put enough line on the pole that I can have about 12 feet of line hanging from the tip.
On the line I tie a 4/0 Kahle hook -- one of those semi-circular bait hooks -- and a few inches above the hook I pinch on just enough small split shot to make the bait sink slowly. Then I impale a piece of peeled shrimp on the hook.
I position my boat 15 or 20 feet from the water's edge on a riprapped shoreline, and then using a technique that is very similar to pitching or flipping a bass jig, I swing the baited hook out and dip it gently into the water. You can make a lot of presentations quickly in that way, dropping your bait into every little crevice and hole in the shallow water among the riprap boulders.
The catfish often strike the shrimp aggressively as soon as it hits the water. Sometimes I swear they are watching the bait descend toward the surface because the strike comes so quickly after the bait hits the water.
The long, limber pole allows you to fight even large catfish without a lot of line or a reel. I usually use 8- or 10-pound-test line, but I have caught catfish weighing far more than that with it.
It helps to steer the fish toward open water when you hook it. Then you can take your time, wearing the fish out with the pressure from the whippy rod, before landing it.
I've used this technique at Eufaula many times, and at Keystone, Grand, Fort Gibson and a couple of smaller northeastern Oklahoma lakes.
These days at most large Oklahoma reservoirs blue cats have become the most prolific species of catfish. At some lakes, local anglers refer to blues as "Mississippi white" catfish, probably because many blues have a pale, grayish color. But they actually are blue catfish.
Whatever you call them, though, blue cats have been a welcome addition to our lakes. Blues tend to be more aggressive than channel cats. Anyone who has fished for channels with a rod and line knows that they have a maddening tendency to "nibble" at a bait and can be difficult to hook. Blues, by contrast, tend to grab a bait firmly and take off with it, making it easier to drive the hook home when you snap the rod back to set it.
When I started fishing Lake Eufaula regularly in the 1970s, I rarely caught a blue cat. If I caught a dozen catfish by drifting over the flats, all of them would be channel cats. But by the late 1980s, blues were making up 75 or 80 percent of my catches, unless I concentrated my fishing along the shorelines where channels were more abunda
nt. In recent years, I rarely catch anything but blues while drifting open water at Eufaula.
At this writing, the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Commission is considering a recommendation from the fisheries management to add a restriction to the creel limit for blue cats in Oklahoma.
Currently the limit is 15 fish per day of blue and channel cats combined. The proposal, which, if enacted, would probably take effect at the beginning of next year, would allow anglers to keep only one blue catfish of 30 inches or longer per day as a part of their limit.
The Wildlife Department says its research shows that "only about 1 percent of the population of blue catfish in Oklahoma lakes falls above 30 inches in length."
"We want this proposal to benefit anglers and blue catfish by bringing stability to that highly sought-after population," said Jeff Boxrucker, assistant fisheries chief. "This would ensure good fishing for trophy blues for years to come."
The growth of blue catfish populations in many Oklahoma lakes has made catfishing more popular.
Twenty years ago in Oklahoma, there were very few guides doing catfish trips and many fewer people drifting the flats at Grand, Oologah, Keystone, Eufaula, Texoma and other lakes for catfish. Now that kind of fishing is very popular and, winter, spring, summer or fall, you can see boats on all of those lakes drifting or trolling with cut shad or other baits to catch blue cats. Anglers also anchor and fish structure for blues -- especially submerged creek and river channel edges. And there are guides on several major reservoirs specializing in catfishing as well.
Lake-area tourism associations, local tackle shops and sporting goods stores can recommend local guides. Some of them advertise in this magazine and in Tulsa and Oklahoma City newspaper classified ads.
The lakes mentioned here are all very productive catfish fisheries. Eufaula and Texoma have been excellent blue catfish fisheries for two decades or more. And most of the larger reservoirs, at least those in Eastern Oklahoma, have followed suit. There are still many smaller lakes where there are very few or no blue catfish.
Channel and flathead catfish are found in most Oklahoma rivers and creeks, as well as in reservoirs large and small. And there are thousands of farm ponds throughout the state that have been stocked with channel cats.
Nighttime catfishing on creeks and rivers is a summertime tradition in many Oklahoma families.
Some run trotlines. Some use juglines, some use bank-poles or limblines. And others just fish with rods and reels.
Whichever methods you may employ, it can be a fun way to spend a summer weekend, seining bait or catching small sunfish during the daytime, and running your lines throughout the night. A small canoe or johnboat can be handy for checking and re-baiting lines, if you set trotlines away from shore or use floating juglines.
The bait you use can affect which species of catfish you catch. Flatheads tend to take live swimming baits, such as minnows, small sunfish or live shad. Channels and blues, especially channels, tend to be more willing to take cut baits, stink baits, dough baits and other bloody or smelly concoctions. Live crawfish also can be good baits.
When I was a youth growing up in northwestern Oklahoma, I had an elderly neighbor who was an avid trotliner. He used nothing but crawfish to bait his lines. He would even pay some of us neighborhood kids to catch bait for him and occasionally take us with him to run his lines, which he usually set in local creeks.
Eufaula and Texoma have been excellent blue catfish fisheries for two decades or more. And most of the larger reservoirs, at least those in Eastern Oklahoma, have followed suit.
I recall catching mostly channel cats when I went along to check his lines. But occasionally there would be a hefty 15- or 20-pound flathead thrashing on one of his trotline hooks.
You might be surprised at the size of some of the flathead catfish that live in comparatively small streams. I have caught flatheads over 25 pounds in small streams in Osage County.
Little prairie creeks can sometimes be productive fisheries for catfish, even though they are not managed for fishing. They sometimes get "stocked" during heavy rainfall periods when farm ponds stocked with channel catfish overflow and catfish of all sizes are washed into the streams.
Oklahoma's major rivers can also be great places to find catfish. Of course, most of the larger rivers are dammed to make large lakes. But above and below those lakes, and in the tailrace areas below dams, catfishing can be good.
Tailrace fishing can call for specialized tackle and equipment. If you fish from the shore, you may want to use a long rod -- 12-footers or longer -- so that you can make the long casts required to deliver a baited hook to the productive areas below the spillway gates or in the stilling basin areas immediately below the dams.
Or you can use small radio-controlled boats with electric motors to deliver baited lines to those areas.
Some anglers also use balloons -- going to the upwind side of the spillway and allowing winds to blow their balloon-floated lines across the water to the desired spot.
Sometimes catfish are found in big concentrations below the dams. Although I don't fish those areas often, I've had days when my friends and I caught our limits of catfish in only a couple of hours when fishing below Eufaula Dam.
Some of the most productive tailrace catfish fisheries include Oologah, Grand, Fort Gibson, Eufaula, Hudson, Kaw, Robert S. Kerr, Texoma, Keystone and Webbers Falls. Hugo Lake, down near the Texas border, is good too. And most of the navigation lock dams on the Verdigris and Arkansas rivers can also be very good.
Anglers should not ignore small bodies of water when seeking catfish. Of course, not every pond or small lake has abundant populations of cats, but some are very good.
Two of the three Oklahoma state records for these three species are from small lakes. The 72 1/2-pound flathead record came from 170-acre El Reno Lake. And the 35-pound, 15-ounce state-record channel cat came from the 46-acre Taft Lake, a small impoundment managed by the ODWC a short distance west of Muskogee on Oklahoma Highway 16.
Small towns throughout Oklahoma have municipal water supply lakes of a couple hundred acres or less. I'd say most of those lakes are stocked with channel cats and many also have flatheads -- the progeny of flatheads living in the little creeks that were dammed to create the lakes.
Even small urban park ponds can produce surprising catches. I once caught a 12-pound f
lathead on a crankbait in a tiny little pond in a Tulsa suburb that was created merely to hold runoff water from an array of athletic fields. It had no stream feeding it, only runoff water from the surrounding few acres. Most likely some local angler released the flathead into that little pond.
I had released a few largemouths in it myself, so that neighborhood kids could catch fish. I was trying to catch one of those bass when the hefty flathead nailed my crankbait instead.
No matter where you live in Oklahoma, even in the most arid areas of the southwestern counties, there are creeks, ponds and small impoundments that can offer up good catfish action and provide tasty fodder for a fish fry or a Sunday dinner.
Catfish are versatile and adaptive. They can live in relatively oxygen-poor water, withstand hot summertime water temperatures, and can eat a variety of foods. I once wrote a magazine story about the strange catfish baits I've used or known others to use with success.
Everyone knows the standards -- minnows and worms and shad, and sunfish and stink bait. And don't forget chicken livers. But I've caught channel cats on ripe persimmons -- and I met a Kansas angler on a Missouri Lake who baits his trotlines all summer with persimmons. He gathers them in the fall and freezes them in quart-sized containers for baiting his lines in coming months. I've also caught them on canned hominy.
I met a guy in Arkansas toting a stringer of bass and catfish that he swore he caught on grapes and pieces of apples. He worked at a winery there, and said they sometimes dumped moldy or tainted fruit into a couple of ponds. The fish, he said, eat some of the fruit, and so he started using it for bait and often caught enough fish for dinner in a short time that way.
There is no lack of opportunity to catch catfish in Oklahoma. All you have to decide is when, where and what technique you prefer to use to stock your freezer with tasty catfish fillets. Do it soon.