Summertime catfishing on these Oklahoma rivers and creeks can turn out some of the season's best fishing. Here's why.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
I frequently see articles in outdoor magazines about catching catfish in big reservoirs. I've even written a story or two in this magazine about drifting the flats to catch big blue cats at Texoma, Eufaula, Grand and other big Oklahoma lakes.
But I see less written about fishing our streams for catfish. And streams offer excellent catfishing opportunities throughout Oklahoma. Channel, blue and flathead catfish, all stream-dwellers by nature, swam North America's rivers long before we began damming them and creating reservoirs.
Heck, virtually no lakes existed in Oklahoma back before statehood. A few old oxbow lakes, none greater than a few acres in size, could be found along some rivers, and ephemeral playa lakes -- lakes that filled during wet seasons and disappeared in the hot, dry summer months -- were present out in the Panhandle. But until big earth-moving equipment came into use after the state's admission to the Union, still-water impoundments were few and far between in the Sooner State.
Catfish were here, though. They lived in the creeks and rivers that drained the high prairies of the west, the tallgrass prairies and cross-timbers of central Oklahoma and the Ozark and Ouachita highlands in the east. Numerous accounts from pioneer days tell of catching catfish from local streams to provide meals for travelers and settlers. Channel cats, blues and flatheads have all been transplanted far from their original ranges, but all have been in our major drainages for longer than Oklahoma has been a state.
Catfishing is a versatile sport. It lacks "glamour," and thus doesn't get the attention that fishing for largemouth bass or walleyes gets, but it can be more complex and varied than either of those pursuits.
And it's not just anglers who look down their noses at catfishing; many fishing writers do the same. I know of only one outdoor writer -- Keith Sutton, over in our neighboring state of Arkansas -- who really gives catfish their due. Sutton writes extensively about catfishing for a variety of publications, not only about our homegrown species, but also about exotic catfishes in South America, Europe and elsewhere.
And throughout the world, most of the best catfishing waters are rivers rather than lakes or reservoirs. Catfish adapt well to still-water environments, but most species are stream-dwellers by nature.
I grew up in northwestern Oklahoma, catching bullheads in the small creeks around Enid and channel and flathead catfish in some bigger creeks farther from town, and even noodling for flatheads in the Salt Fork River, which ran through the prairies a few miles north.
We caught the occasional black bass, crappie and sunfish, but I'll wager that three-quarters of the fish caught by my friends and I were catfish. And most of them were taken from streams.
Trotlining was a summer pastime for many. One of my uncles and an older neighbor were both dedicated trotliners. My neighbor paid us neighborhood kids to seine the local creeks and mudholes for the crawfish and shiners with which he'd bait his trotlines. It wasn't exactly gainful employment: Two or three of us would set off with a washtub and a seine, and we'd come back three or four hours later, wet, muddy and stinking like creek-bottom muck, taking turns lugging the water-filled washtub between us. In the water would be as many crawdads and shiners as we thought we could keep alive. For this we would get a quarter each.
He'd empty our catch into a couple of large bathtub-like contraptions made of sheet metal -- mortar-mixing troughs -- that he kept, filled with water and covered with dampened burlap, in a shaded spot on the north side of his garage.
The real reward for our labor came on those rare occasions when he'd invite one or two of us to accompany him as he ran his trotlines. There'd be the mad dash home to ask permission, and then the mad dash back to his house to make sure we weren't left behind.
He had a small johnboat that he slid into the back of his pickup along with a bucket of bait and a paddle. He'd drive to whatever creek he'd set his trotlines in, and we would pile in the boat and run the lines.
He usually issued gruff orders to keep our hands away from the line and all the hooks as he pulled the boat along the line to collect his catch and rebait his hooks. But we watched eagerly as each dropper line emerged from the water, hoping each time that a trophy-sized catfish would be swirling at the end of it.
Watching this process was about as exciting as opening Christmas presents -- we couldn't wait to see what would come out of the water next. Usually there were channel cats: half-pounders, 2-pounders, 3-pounders; lots of good fish for eating. But once in a while, a big 10- or 15-pound flathead would be thrashing on the line. He once caught a flathead that weighed probably 25 or 26 pounds. Of course, we all estimated it at about 40 pounds.
When we got home, he put that one in one of the bait troughs to keep it alive while we ran and dragged every kid in the neighborhood over to his back yard to see the monster catfish in all its glory.
I tell that story only because it's typical of what many Oklahoma youngsters experienced then, and can still experience now. There are creeks and rivers in probably every county in Oklahoma that offer worthwhile summertime catfishing action. All you need is access to a stream. I don't care if you fish with rod and reel, a cane pole, limblines, juglines, trotlines, whatever -- there are catfish to be caught!
Oklahoma has creeks whose water runs as clear as that from your kitchen tap. It has other streams with moderately clear water. Then there are those turbid streams that flow through colloidal clay soils and are usually about the color of, and almost as opaque as, tomato soup. All of those streams can hold catfish. And sometimes you'd be amazed at how plentiful, and how large, the catfish in small streams can be.
I once got trapped overnight by floodwaters on a ranch on which I hunted deer. The 7,000-acre property had several stock tanks, and I'd gotten the owner's permission to come back in the spring and fish the ponds. We camped overnight on a pond bank. In the middle of the night, a downpour began. Little hollows that we'd driven through on the way into the ranch filled with rushing water as the rain continued after daylight. We forded a couple and then came to the crossing on a small, intermittent stream that was only a short distance from the road. But the water was too high and swift to
I walked upstream and found a place to wade across, walked to the ranch house and told the rancher where we were and that we were going to wait it out until we could drive across the creek. Then I hiked back to where my friends waited with our two trucks. We had plenty of food and drink, so we settled in to wait.
As we waited and watched the stream, I saw what looked like a fish swirling in a little pocket on the far side. I found an earthworm crawling in the mud, impaled it on a hook and lobbed it over to where I had seen the swirl.
BAM! A nice channel cat about 16 inches long grabbed the bait. I reeled it in, placed it in a puddle of water at my feet, and, finding another worm, threw back to the same spot. Once again, a channel cat grabbed my bait as soon as it hit the water.
We hadn't brought any live bait with us, because we'd only planned to fish for bass in the ponds. But we were soon scrambling for grasshoppers, crickets, worms, grubs or whatever we could find. And we caught eight or nine good-sized channel cats from that little creek that most of the time wouldn't hold enough water to keep a fish alive.
Whether the cats came downstream -- washed out of a pond somewhere -- or upstream, I have no idea. I just know there were quite a few of them in a very little stream that was temporarily swollen with run-off.
I've also seen channel cats taken from tiny prairie streams in Osage County -- streams so small that you could jump across them at just about any point. I wouldn't expect to catch large numbers of large fish from such diminutive streams, but I wouldn't ignore a stream merely because it didn't seem big enough. There might be a surprise lying in wait there.
Streams of a size appropriate for floating a canoe or johnboat probably promise some of the most rewarding fishing opportunities. The smallmouth bass streams of Eastern Oklahoma also hold channel and flathead catfish in their deeper pools. When I used to snorkel in Spring Creek, Saline Creek and a couple of other clear-water streams east of the Neosho River, I saw several catfish lying beneath logjams or root wads or peering out from the darkness of caves or the murk beneath rock overhangs. The channel cats were sometimes pretty close to the sunlight; the flatheads were always buried in obscurity, and were hard to spot during daylight hours.
I know anglers who fish Southeastern Oklahoma mountain streams with a fly rod or a long "doodlesockin'" pole, using it to drift night crawlers or grasshoppers with the current into holes beneath boulders or underneath cutbanks. They wade or fish from float tubes, only rarely using a johnboat. They often catch limits of channel catfish during the daytime; later, they may set banklines or trotlines at night, baiting them with small sunfish to catch the flatheads that come out after sundown to prowl the shorelines for food.
I met a group of men in Tulsa several years ago who liked to fish the Neosho River below Grand Lake's Pensacola Dam, in the upper reaches of Lake Hudson. They too fished from float tubes and used night crawlers. They fished their baits beneath bobbers to probe the shorelines of the river around the small state park campground that lies a short distance downstream from the dam.
I have another acquaintance that fishes creeks north of Tulsa -- Hominy Creek, Bird Creek and a couple of others farther north -- with trotlines. He places his trotlines in a unique manner: First he locates an obstruction -- a low-water dam, a rock ledge stretching across the stream that forms a small waterfall; anything that halts upstream navigation by the fish -- and then stretches his trotline across the stream there, just below the obstruction.
His theory is that lots of fish of all species swim upstream looking for food, and that many of them will eventually encounter the dam or rock "wall" and turn and swim across the stream just below it. I've never run his lines with him -- but I know he brings home quite a few catfish.
Rod-and-reel anglers catch some pretty impressive stringers of catfish -- blues, channels and flatheads -- below the Zink Lake low-water dam in Tulsa at times, so I guess the upstream-movement idea works. There are low-water or reregulation dams on several rivers in the state: the Neosho River at the upper end of Fort Gibson Lake and on the Mountain Fork a few miles below Broken Bow Lake, just to name a couple.
And there are rock ledges that form "dams" on many small creeks throughout the state. Often, the roads you use to reach the creeks have low-water crossings that spontaneously create such "dams," and so may be decent spots to fish. Beneath most are culverts that let normal flows pass through, but they still represent an apt place to fish or set a trotline.
Although I've run trotlines with several friends though the years, I don't believe I've actually set out a trotline of my own in more than three decades. I have, though, set limblines on quite a few occasions -- either lines tied to springy tree branches that overhang the water, or lines tied to limber poles secured along the shore.
I've used both cane and bamboo -- the ornamental cane that grows 12 to 15 feet or so and is planted in many suburban properties as a screening plant for street noise -- and poles cut from young tree saplings. The poles are placed at an angle over the water. The difficult part is securing them in the soil, sand, rock or gravel along the bank. Riprapped shorelines are useful for placing these lines. You can usually find places right at the water's edge where the poles can be jammed securely down into a crevice.
The important thing in this is to see that the bait hangs just beneath the surface of the water, and that the pole is placed so that its natural springy action works to tire out any fish that gets hooked. I saw a 20-pound-plus flathead caught on a bank pole that you could just lift up out of its resting place in the riprap. But the catfish, for all its strength, could only pull downward and outward, fighting against the pole's stored energy.
Back in the early 1980s, I met some Grand Lake limbliners who declared leeches -- which they were getting someplace in Kansas -- to be their most effective baits. I found a dealer in Claremore selling them and tried them out on limblines in a creek that flows into Lake Keystone. They worked brilliantly there, too.
But I caught only channel cats on the leeches -- not a single flathead. An indication that leeches aren't good baits for flatheads? I don't know. I do know that they're one of the liveliest live baits I've ever seen, twisting and turning and writhing on the hook for hours. And flatheads do like live baits. From my own experience, however, I can only attest that they catch channel cats.
I haven't seen or heard of leeches in a bait shop around here in quite a few years, so I'm uncertain as to whether they can still be purchased in Oklahoma. I do know of several creeks in Eastern Oklahoma -- Spring Creek and Saline Creek, to cite two -- in which you can trap your own leeches in the warm pools at the edges of the streams.
As you can see, there are lots of ways to catch Oklahoma catfish, and lots of baits that'll get results. As a general rule, the stinky, strong-flavored prepared baits are for catching channel cats. Cut baits and live baits are good for blue cats. And lively live baits, especially shiners, shad and sunfish, are best for catching flatheads. Bullhead catfish, a favorite species of many Western Oklahoma youngsters, are a lot like channel cats -- which is to say that anything that smells like meat, blood or cheese will catch bullheads, as will worms, grubs and other kinds of natural baits.
Running trotlines or limblines is a great way to spend a summer weekend. I have fond memories of camping at streamside, listening to the adults tell stories around a campfire, while periodically running banklines or shoving a johnboat into the water to run trotlines at daybreak.
And the end result makes for some awfully tasty catfish dinners.