Here are your Grand Canyon State hotspots for the biggest catfish of the year
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
It's the return of the big ugly. Sporting mugs that only a mother could love, channel and flathead catfish start making their presence known in Arizona with the arrival of warm temperatures and hit full stride once summer officially arrives.
These fish, perhaps not truly ugly but with admittedly distinctive facial features, are big brutes. Flatheads exceeding 70 pounds taken recently from Roosevelt Lake and Laguna Dam have broken state records.
Catfish, particularly of the channel variety, are found at most warm-water lakes throughout Arizona, even relatively small bodies of water. A 43-pound, 4-ounce channel (40 inches long, 40 inches in girth) came from 265-surface-acre Patagonia Lake in southern Arizona. "Fish like this are bruisers," says Will Hayes, former regional fisheries manager with Arizona Game and Fish. "This particular contest between angler and angled lasted nearly half an hour, and while it may sound like one of those traditional fish stories, truth be told the fish pulled the (angler's) jonboat nearly all the way around the lake before it could be landed."
In the central part of the state, Roosevelt Lake gives up lots of hot-weather whiskerfish from the Diversion Dam in the upper Salt River Arm all the way down to the lake itself. These hogs frequently range between 30 and 50 pounds for channel cats and several flatheads that tip the scales in the 60-pound range each year.
Resident guide Art Chamberlain is no stranger to setting the steel on one of these barbells as he takes clients out in search of bass and crappie. "Because I'm on the lake a lot over a year's time, I manage to encounter a few big ones while searching for other species," he says. One of his largest catches ever came late in the season.
Checking his logbook to ensure accuracy of memory (fishing guides aren't allowed to stretch the truth and embellish stories), Chamberlain related, "The first week of December 2001, two clients and I were tossing 1/8-ounce crappie spoons in the shoreline rocks between the marina and the dam. I actually thought for a second I was hung up on the rocks -- until my 6-pound Berkeley Fireline started moving. I fought him for several minutes, then gave him to the client in the middle of the boat, who conducted his share of the battle for several minutes before he finally relinquished the pole to his buddy in the back of the boat. I had to follow the fish the whole time with my electric motor because he wouldn't get anywhere close to a net. Finally one of the clients reached in with both hands inside the fish's mouth and hoisted him aboard. We weighed him at a bit over 30 pounds and measured him at 38 inches before we took his picture and sent him back home to grow some more."
"In Roosevelt, you'll find most flatheads in the main lake hanging off steep cliffs with boulders," says Ty Gray, a former G&F fish specialist who specialized in the central Arizona lake region and was one of the regular workers lucky enough to conduct fish sample surveys in the spring and fall of each year. One recent October the department conducted electro-fish and gillnet surveys at two-dozen locations, catching, measuring, weighing and releasing nearly 1,000 fish representative of 10 species.
"Channel cats made up nearly 8 percent of our sampling," Gray said, "with the average channel weighing a little over a pound, and the largest weighing in at 12 pounds." Flatheads were less prevalent, making up about 2 percent of the survey samples. The largest fish in the survey was a flattie that stretched the tape at 38 inches and pegged the scale at 40 pounds. Average flathead size was just over two feet long, and most ran in the 10-pound range.
HOTSPOTS FOR CATTING AROUND
While southern and central Arizona watering holes sporadically give up some larger than usual catches, if you're going to go catting around in Arizona, look toward the stretch of the lower Colorado River around Yuma for a mess of monsters. Ken Goodwin, once the resident guide at Martinez Lake Resort, told me that big cats -- especially flatties -- go crazy in July and August. "That's when anglers need to spool on heavy-test line," he said. He should know. In his 40 years of fishing here, his logbooks show catches in the 60- to 70-pound range; the largest weighed in his last season was 78 pounds.
"You boat less than half the fish you hook," he acknowledged. "Rods snap, lines break, reels fail and knots come undone. These fish are strong and unrelentingly tough. They never give up without a battle, and you always lose more than you land." Goodwin called the bigger, older flatheads "eating machines" that stay submerged in deep water current waiting for anglers to provide supper. "When they hit, it's like getting struck by an aquatic version of a freight train. Wham!"
While pre-fishing Martinez Lake sloughs for one of Arizona's many summertime bass tournaments, Joe Michaels, inventor and manufacturer of the Wired Worm, noted that the lake was perfect for big fish of several species. "Martinez is one of the larger backwaters created by the Imperial Dam on the Lower Colorado north of Yuma," he said. "It takes some doing to maneuver your boat and get through the reeds and into these backwaters, but the undertaking is worth it as these undisturbed pockets of cattails and submerged timber can hold lots of good-sized fish, bass and cats alike."
The Colorado River has always been a fertile fish farm when it comes to growing large cats -- record-size fish such as the 35-pound, 4-ounce channel taken from Topock Marsh, and a 57-pound, 4-ounce flathead pulled from the river near Yuma. Brad Jacobson, G&F Fisheries Program manager for this region, says,
"Catfishing on the lower Colorado has always been good to excellent. Fish with whiskers may not be high profile like tournament largemouth bass, but they're our bread-and-butter species. John Q. Public can generally throw out a bait and catch a fish, especially channel cats that are probably under-fished in these waters. These are fun fish to catch and tasty to eat. A good-sized channel here will run about 10 pounds, although a lot in the 3- and 4-pound range wind up going home on stringers."
Veteran Arizona outdoor scribe Bob Hirsch has been fishing for, catching or at least stretching the truth about his angling prowess for over half a century. "If there's ever a month when catfish is king, it's August," Hirsch says. "Many of the springtime glamour fish are now using smelling salts in the low, warm water, while cats enjoy triple-digit temperatures and sticky humidity. That's when catfish rule and live high on the hog."
Like most avid anglers, Hirsch is reluctant to divulge specific spots where the big ones live, although his personal best of 17 pounds was taken from Pa
rker Canyon Lake in southeastern Arizona. "I've seen catfish as long as the paddle I was using" (on the Verde River above Horseshoe Lake), he claims with a grin.
And don't overlook some of the lesser-known river spots, adds Heidi Blasius, another regional G&F fisheries biologist who conducts annual catfish surveys on the Gila River. The fisheries researchers cover an eight-mile run of the Gila from Dry Canyon down to the lower river reaches (but still very accessible fishing sites) near the towns of Safford and Thatcher.
"We've found some proverbial honey holes with a mixed bag of over 50 catfish all huddled together," she says. "And why not? They have main river access and there's ample forage there -- red shiners, fathead minnows, mosquito fish -- so these are healthy, well-fed fish. We got some that looked like little footballs." Many of the fish taken in G&F hoop nets to be weighed, tagged and released are in the 10- to 15-pound range, Blasius says.
TWO TYPES OF CATFISH
There are similarities and differences between channel and flathead catfish.
Flatheads (Pylodictis olivaris), one of the largest and toughest-fighting game fish in North America, are known to grow to nearly 5 feet long and reach 100 pounds. One reason they grow so large is their voracious appetite. These gluttonous critters can consume a quarter of their body weight in just one day of foraging.
They are olive brown in color, often with a mottled muddy-yellow sub-tone. They are quickly distinguished from channel cats by their large flattened forehead and round, rather than forked, tail. They are rated the finest eating of all catfish, probably because their diet is live, fresh food rather than the debris consumed by related bottom feeders. In contrast to channels, flatheads seek out minnows, sunfish, bullheads, carp, or drum, depending more on sight than smell when scouting for supper.
Early records indicate flatheads were introduced into the Gila River in the 1940s and later stocked in the lower Colorado River. They are also common catches in Bartlett, Alamo and San Carlos lakes, where Forest Service fisheries biologist Dewey Wesley says the record is a 65-pound flathead taken out of tribal waters in the late 1950s. You'll find flatheads in diverse waterways, lounging lazily in deep, sluggish river pools or actively feeding in rocky tailwaters below dams. Flatties generally spawn during the heat of summer, and adult fish are especially aggressive when guarding newborns on the nest. The best bites come shortly after sundown when flatheads begin to move into shallow waters to feed in earnest, although they continue to feed all night until shortly after dawn.
Many experienced anglers launch only at night, just before the moon comes up, or soon after it sets. They avoid both daytime temperatures and crowds and often catch more, and bigger, fish because they know that flatheads are light shy and can be spooked by even a bright moonlit night.
Since the flathead is an ambush-style feeder, it's not uncommon to catch one on a lure retrieved in a bottom-bouncing fashion. The yellow cat is individualistic and unpredictable, truly a fish that swims to a different drummer. But habitat is the one common denominator that helps anglers find these fish; once you find a productive spot, it generally remains productive year after year.
Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus), with small eyes adapted to forage in muddy waters, rely heavily on their sense of smell and taste to locate food. Hence, for channels, the stinkier the supper, the easier it is to get them to respond to the dinner bell. Catfish have as many as 175,000 external taste buds all over their bodies, with long, tapered whiskers providing the most abundant smelling apparatus. The barbells (all catfish have eight) and lips contain two to five times the number of taste buds found anywhere else on a catfish's body. The nose area works the water to detect dissolved substances. Once a potential food item is smelled, the catfish uses its taste buds to sample the item and relay menu information to the brain.
Channel cats can grow to nearly 4 feet. They've been called the most widespread and widely loved of America's catfish, and they do well in ponds, lakes, reservoirs and rivers of all sizes. During Arizona's extended summer season, they are popular targets for anglers at the 11 urban lakes around Phoenix and the four small urban waterways in the southern part of the state. A nearly-27-pound flathead from Alvord Lake holds urban lake honors, while a 6-pound, 12-ounce channel cat from Encanto Park claims bragging rights for these smaller bodies of water.
Channels have blue-gray backs with light blue to silvery sides and scattered dark olive to black spots. They tend to spend daytime hours in hidey-holes, sometimes under bank undercuts or tucked into snags. They move and feed most actively in low-light periods at dusk and dawn. Channel catfish are omnivorous, meaning they will eat almost anything, switching from one food to another and taking what is the handiest, including snails, crayfish and even aquatic plants.
Every angler worth his or her waders has their own secret bait and method of fishing, and Guy Sagi, author of Fishing Arizona, isn't any different -- although he's willing to share his secrets of success. "For bigger catfish, I use live bait (bluegills, sunfish or small carp) when regulations allow," he wrote in the 2003 edition of his book.
Most fishing writers maintain a good archival library, and there's a consistent theme in my files on catfish: Live bait bring in bigger fish. Fellow Arizona outdoor scribe Tony Mandile wrote an Outdoor Life piece on "Canyon State Cats" nearly 20 years ago with information still valid today.
"Many anglers consider catfish subspecies scavengers. In reality, however, they are efficient predators that regularly feed on live fish. A lot of guys still use traditional baits such as chicken livers, dead shrimp, night crawlers or commercial stink baits. These are fine if you want to simply catch some fish for dinner. But if you're interested in size rather than numbers, nothing works better than a big live bait."
Sagi's fishing book suggests the most attractive way to present such offerings: "A live bluegill rig starts with a 9/0 hook attached to one of two 24-inch leaders. Place a 2-ounce sliding sinker on the leader with the hook. This allows the baitfish to swim up, down and of course, sideways, to attract foraging catfish. On the other leader, at a distance proper for the depth you're fishing, place a bobber to indicate strikes. Your baitfish will stay alive close to forever if you hook it, gently but securely, just under the dorsal fin."
While no one bait is a panacea for all times, there are days when catfish only want to order a Blue Plate special of waterdogs. If nothing else seems to scare up any action, head for the nearest bait shop to see if any are available.
Another editorial friend, Doug Stange, has spent his adult life fishing for a living and writing about it for In-Fisherman magazine. He's heard all the stories and has told a few of his own, including his never-fail-catfish-catcher made from cow patties.
"An old friend taught me as a lad to gather cow pies, sack them, and weight the sack with rocks. The sack of moo pies is then placed in a watering hole during the early summer prespawn period. I was never given a full explanation of just why this method ensured success, other than this would draw migrating catfish to the hole, ensuring great mid-summer fishing. I've never found enough time to test this tactic to my complete satisfaction. And I haven't heard from many others who have tried such tactics. I suppose even the strangest among us hesitates to sack cow chips in broad daylight."