Oklahoma's Best Catfishing

The Sooner State is blessed with plenty of great places for catching catfish, from the Panhandle to the Arkansas border.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Bob Bledsoe

In Oklahoma, bass fishing is tougher these days. Between the intensive fishing pressure at many reservoirs and the impact of largemouth bass virus, bass fishing can be quite challenging. Crappie fishing is tougher too. More and more lakes are getting length limits to control the harvest of crappie and allow more fish to reach spawning age.

But one kind of fishing that just seems to get better and better in the Sooner State is catfishing!

That's especially true for blue cat fishing. Blues, once almost unheard of in Oklahoma waters north of the Red River drainage, are now found throughout the state.

The proliferation of blue cats, which have replaced channel cats as the dominant species in creels at several large reservoirs, has been controversial at some lakes. Some diehard channel catfish enthusiasts claim the blue cats aren't as tasty as channel cats. On the other hand, there are those who claim just the opposite.

Personally, I welcome the abundant populations of blue cats. I think they're easier to catch.

Although I've caught hundreds of channel cats through the years, I was always frustrated by the tendency of the channels to nibble-nibble-nibble at a bait. Big ones and small ones, channel cats often "worry" a bait endlessly without a solid strike. I can handle about 30 minutes of such foolishness before I lose patience and go fish for something else.

Blue cats, by comparison, are more likely to strike aggressively and try to jerk your rod right out of your hand. In fact, if you don't use dependable rod holders, or hang on to your rod at all times, you're liable to lose it to a big blue cat.

Yes, I know: Channel cats have been known to jerk a rod into a lake or pond too. And sometimes blue cats also nibble instead of striking. But the trend is that blue cats usually hit much harder and faster than channels. That's why I like 'em.

As for the tastiness, I think blue cats taste every bit as good as channel catfish.

Last fall, I fished with a Grand Lake fishing guide who specializes in catching blue cats. My son and I drove over to Grove, on the heels of a cold front, with expectations of a slow fishing day.

But Jeff Williams, proprietor of his own Grand Guide Service (www.catfishrus.com), said we'd give it a shot. He launched his 22-foot deck boat and threw his cast net to catch three dozen or so shad for bait. Then we headed to the first fishing hole, a spot a mile or two above Sailboat Bridge in the Neosho River.

We quickly boated a couple of blue cats in the 2- to 5-pound range. Then one of the rods jerked violently toward the water, signaling that a bigger fish had taken the bait. My son grabbed the rod and pumped twice to set the hook, then wrestled a 27-pounder to the boat.

Over the next three or four hours we boated fish weighing 10, 12, 15 and 18 pounds, plus several more weighing up to about 8 pounds. For a post-cold-front trip, our fishing day turned out to be a doozy!

It was my first experience fishing for blues at Grand Lake, which I had not realized had developed such a huge population of blue cats. I had enjoyed some excellent channel catfishing trips at Grand in years past, and had noodled there for flatheads on a couple of occasions. Blue cats, though, have proliferated in the lake over recent seasons, and quite a few big fish are showing up in the creels.

Williams and his clients have caught 30-plus-pounders on several occasions. The guide says he expects 50-pound blues to start showing up there before long.

Anyone looking for a lesson in blue cat fishing in reservoirs or rivers, or for just a productive day of catfishing, can contact Williams at his toll-free number, 1-866-HOOKSET (466-5738). Williams also books combination channel cat/flathead trips in the summer months, taking his clients to the Neosho River above Miami.

Other excellent blue cat fisheries include Texoma, Eufaula, Waurika, Ellsworth, Fort Cobb, Foss, Canton and Robert S. Kerr lakes. All of the Neosho River and Arkansas River impoundments hold significant populations of blue cats these days.

Oklahoma's current state-record blue comes from 5,600-acre Lake Ellsworth, near Lawton. It is an 85-pound, 4-ounce whopper that was caught in 1999 by angler Dale Dennis. That's just the rod-and-line record. In the open class, which includes trotlines, juglines and other forms of fishing, the Sooner State's blue cat record is a 118-pound, 8-ounce giant that was caught at Lake Texoma back in 1988.

Of course, no discussion of Oklahoma catfishing would be complete without mention of bullheads.

Those of us who live and fish in Eastern Oklahoma are somewhat spoiled by the abundance of blue, channel and flathead catfish found in the water-rich counties east of I-35.

But out in the more arid counties in Western Oklahoma, where many streams are turbid and sluggish and many farm ponds tend to dry to mere mud holes in years of little rainfall, bullheads are the most widespread species of catfish.

I spent many a summer day during my youth in Enid catching bullheads from local ponds and creeks. It was a rare treat to travel the 40 or 50 miles to fish Salt Plains or Canton Lake, or the Salt Fork River or Eagle Chief Creek, where actual channel cats or flatheads could be caught. My friends and I viewed a 12-inch bullhead as a genuine trophy. Bullheads aren't picky. A bait of shrimp or beef liver, bacon or wieners all seem to work equally well. Earthworms, grasshoppers, grub worms and store-bought night crawlers work too. The bullhead is a very democratic fish, and widespread in Western Oklahoma.

Now, let's look at some of the places where fishing for catfish is likely to be good this year.

Tulsa-area anglers should be heading for Keystone right now. The big impoundment, which gathers the waters of the Arkansas and Cimarron rivers, has many miles of excellent catfish spawning habitat in its rocky shores and riprapped highway and bridge areas. It has great populations of all three species, so a boatless shoreline angler can usually enjoy several weeks of productive fishing for blues, channels and flatheads once he's found a spawning area.

Big ol' Lake Eufaula has long been my favorite catfishing lake. Throughout 12 or 14 years of fishing the lake with the late Jack Frisbie, who guided on the lake and owned an area tackle shop, I watched the lake change from being primarily a channel cat lake to being primarily a blue cat lake.

When I first started drifting at Eufaula, we'd catch maybe eight channels and one or two blues. Five or six years later we were catching eight or 10 blues and maybe one or two channel cats. These days, catching a channel cat while drifting is a rarity. Blues seem to rule the open water at Eufaula, although it is still possible to catch channel cats while anchored or while fishing near shorelines during the spawn.

I used to have most of my best luck near U.S. 69, both north and south of the town of Eufaula. In recent seasons, though, I've caught more and bigger fish closer to the dam.

Tenkiller's shorelines are almost entirely rocky. That means there are lots of good spawning areas for catfish. There are some good flats for drifting on both sides of the Illinois River channel in the midlake area, all the way from the Elk Creek Landing down to Cookson Bend. I haven't fished the lower basin, from Cookson Bend down to the dam, for catfish in some years. But back in the days when I scuba-dived at the lake, I found lots of flatheads and channel cats in shoreline caves in that portion of the lake.

Blue cat fishing is very good at many Oklahoma lakes these days, but I believe Texoma is the mother of all blue cat lakes. Texoma teems with blues of all sizes. Although known primarily for its awesome population of striped bass, Texoma may be the absolute best blue cat fishery in the region. I once fished with a guide at Toledo Bend Reservoir who told me he travels to Texoma to fish for blues whenever he gets the chance. He can catch them at Toledo Bend, he said, but he can catch them quicker and more easily at Texoma.

Some of the best fishing for all three species of catfish in Oklahoma is in the tailrace areas below dams. I don't know of a single tailrace fishery anywhere in the state where catfish aren't either the most sought-after fish or the second-most popular. There are tailraces where striper fishing is popular. But at most, catfish anglers dominate.

Even some of the small, uncontrolled spillway lakes, like Heyburn, in Creek County, or Salt Plains, in Alfalfa County, offer excellent fishing for channel cats. Some of the larger dams, where water is released through electrical generating turbines, spitting out thousands of stunned and injured shad and other small fish, draw dense schools of catfish to feed on the easy bounty.

I've caught some great stringers of catfish below Keystone, Pensacola (Grand Lake), Fort Gibson, Hugo, Canton and Webbers Falls dams. Anytime the water is flowing is a good time to try your luck.

Big rivers, small creeks and everything in between can also produce good catfishing at this time of year in Oklahoma. Some of Eastern Oklahoma's rocky highland streams, like the Illinois River and its tributaries, hold good populations of channel cats that can be caught around logjams. At night, lines baited with live shad, small sunfish or big shiners can produce excellent catches of flatheads.

The prairie streams of central Oklahoma also offer good channel and flathead action. Out west, both channel and bullhead cats are found in most flowing streams.

June is spawning season for all of Oklahoma's popular catfish species. Blues typically spawn from late May through late June, usually when water temperatures rise higher than 75 degrees. They spawn in the same kinds of places that flatheads and channel cats do: caves, cavities in riprap, undercut banks and similar sheltered places, usually along shorelines.

Channel cats typically begin spawning before the blues are finished. Biologists say they spawn when water temperatures reach about 80 degrees; that's typically in late May through early July.

Flatheads usually are the last of the three to spawn, with their spawning generally beginning in mid to late June and continuing through mid to late July.

During the spawning season, fishing can be excellent for all three species along rocky shorelines, in riprapped areas along bridges, near road grades or along dams. In lakes or streams where rocks or riprap are scarce, catfish may spawn in hollow logs, beneath roots, in discarded tires, in barrels or in other cavity-forming objects or simply in holes in mud shorelines.

The spawning habits of the three fish are similar, but they have distinct differences. Among blue cats, females typically select and prepare the nesting site. Among channel cats, the males exclusively select and prepare the nest. Among flatheads, both parent fish share in preparations.

Channel and blue cats are related and both belong to the same genus as the bullhead catfish. Flatheads are a unique genus and species. Flatheads also differ in their feeding habits.

It is possible to catch both blue and channel cats on prepared baits, blood baits, cut baits and live baits. Flatheads, by comparison, are seldom caught on anything but live baits, or on artificial lures that are worked to resemble live baits. The fork-tailed cousins, channels and blues, are both scavengers and predators. Flatheads are strictly predators.

During the spawn, fishing from shore can be highly productive in spawning areas. Baits can be set very close to the surface and drifted over the spawning areas beneath bobbers or fished with weights and allowed to settle to the bottom.

Fishing is good in the daytime, but it can be even better at night. Catfish are primarily nocturnal feeders and so go on the prowl more at night. But during the spawn, any bait presented close to a spawning nest might be taken, day or night.

After the spawn, as Oklahoma's typically hot summer progresses, I'd recommend drift-fishing for both channels and blues in large reservoirs, or fishing structure in streams. A variety of baits can work for either species, but I'll take fresh shad - whole or cut - most any time as my favorite drift-fishing bait.

There are a lot of different ways to drift-fish. Some catfish anglers use treble hooks and some use single hooks. Some control their boats with trolling motors; others use "drift socks" or drag small weights to control or slow their boats

For tackle, I'd recommend a rod and reel spooled with relatively heavy line - 17-pound-test or heavier - so that you can handle the bigger fish without babying them.

Jeff Williams, the guide I mentioned earlier in the story, prefers braided line. He says the braided line e

liminates the liberal line-stretch common in most monofilament, and so results in a better hookset.

A monofilament dropper line completes the three-way rig, on which is tied the baited hook, and a third line with the sinker. There are many kinds of sinkers, but one that passes through brush or rocks with minimal hangups is best. Attach enough weight to keep the bait near the bottom. When the wind is blowing stronger, more weight may be needed to keep the rig down in the pay zone.

Williams recommends drifting very slowly. He says his experience with blue cats is that he catches many more fish when barely moving than when drifting faster. He often uses two drift socks to slow his boat.

Sometimes, especially in the winter but at some times during other seasons as well, anchoring and fishing a river channel or a specific piece of underwater structure is more productive than drifting. And don't be afraid to fish deep. Williams says he catches lots of cats as deep as 60 feet.

* * *
Whether you're a trotliner, a jugliner, a limbliner or strictly a rod-and-reel man, catfishing opportunities abound in the Sooner State. And the upcoming peak of the spawning season is perhaps the easiest time of the year to catch all varieties of cats.

Watch out for those fins!

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