Southern Texas catfish, that is! And what better place is there to search for the makings of an early fish fry?
Zapata angler and fishing guide Robert Amaya swings a fat Falcon Lake catfish on board while his son Robert Jr. waits patiently for that tap-tap-tap signaling a bite on his own line. Photo by Bob Hood
Something about the pungent odor of catfish punch bait and soured grain reminds me of the sweet smell of golden-brown catfish fillets sizzling in a skillet after a day on the lake catching them.
Forget for the moment, if you will, catch-and-release. In Texas, catfishing, especially catfishing for pan-sized channel cats, is second in popularity only to fishing for largemouth bass. And you can give the credit for that fact directly to the wonderful taste of a freshly cooked fillet or the whole catfish itself. Then factor in the fun of fishing as an exclamation point!
Texas is rich in great places for catching catfish. Lakes Texoma and Tawakoni, for example, offer some of the best action imaginable, but when Old Man Winter waves in one cold front after another each fall and winter, you'd be wise to head to one of the great catfishing fisheries in South Texas. Lakes like Falcon, Amistad, Choke Canyon, Braunig, Calaveras and others south of Interstate 10 rarely feel the effects of winter cold fronts that keep many anglers in the northern areas of our state confined to the warmth of their homes.
I like them all, but to be perfectly honest, my favorite lake at this time of the year is Falcon Reservoir. For one thing, I love the lake's remote setting in one of my favorite Lone Star State ecological regions: the Southwest Texas Brush Country. And I can't remember ever having had a "bad" fishing trip to the big Texas-Mexico border lake.
Sprawling across 83,000 inundated acres of thorny vegetation along the Rio Grande near Zapata, about 40 miles south of Laredo, Falcon boasts channel catfishing that can be as good as it gets. That's especially true in January and February, when the cold fronts that do pass that deep into South Texas are short-lived, and much milder than the ones farther north.
Robert Amaya, owner of Robert's Fish N' Tackle in Zapata and a good friend of mine, considers Falcon to be the place for anglers seeking large numbers of eating-sized channel cats. "If you bait out a hole, you are almost certain to catch a lot of channel cats," he said. "It's usually pretty easy, and a lot of fun, too."
Amaya is a second-generation fishing guide as well as the proprietor of a great tackle store. He credits much of his fishing prowess to his late father, Tommy Gray, who owned Redwood Lodge in Zapata for several decades. Although several blue and yellow cats have been caught at Falcon over the years, the lake is best known for its superb channel cat fishery.
Setting up to catch channel catfish is no different at Falcon than it is at just about on any other lake. Pre-baiting a small area with soured grain is a big key to catching large numbers of catfish. Channel catfish, being the scavengers they are, will eat just about anything and so a wide variety of baits can be used to catch them. However, as with many other methods of fishing, one particular bait will often produce faster action than any others. And when it comes to channel catfish, Amaya's preferred bait -- which is my and numerous other catfishermen's top choice, too -- is punch bait.
Many varieties beckon from tackle-store shelves, but one of the most important things to consider when purchasing a particular one is its consistency. My favorite is Magic Bait's Stick-It, because it has enough fiber to keep the bait on a treble hook. Fiber (derived from things like shredded cattails) is an important ingredient that helps to bring about more bites on a one-time baited-hook basis. (That means that your hook's in the water more times than out of the water being rebaited.)
The last time I went catfishing at Falcon, Amaya and his son Robert and I caught 75 eating-sized cats within about three hours. Amaya tied his boat to a tree in about 16 feet of water, tossed out a few measuring cups full of soured maize, and we were in action within about 10 minutes. That's about as simple as it gets at a great catfishing fishery like Falcon.
"If they aren't biting at one place, I go to another, maybe deeper, and try again," Amaya said. "I fished this place with my father for a lot of years. There is an old corral and some rocks right over there under the water, and the river channel is just behind us. This lake has a lot of good structure for catfish."
Falcon is indeed a prime destination for catfishing, but several other South Texas reservoirs can satisfy any catfish angler's appetite. Let's take a look at what else South Texas has to offer those of us who love doing battle with Ol' Whiskers.
This impoundment is on the Rio Grande about 15 miles north of Del Rio and far above Falcon. The two lakes are not at all similar: For instance, Falcon's waters are generally off-color, and its feeder creeks are relatively shallower than those on Amistad (the Spanish word for "friendship").
Amistad covers 64,900 acres of extremely deep canyons, draws, creeks and river structure and its often gin-clear waters are many times intimidating to visiting anglers. The extremely rocky habitat combines with large beds of hydrilla and flooded natural vegetation to present an awesome spectacle to anyone staring down into its sheer, deep dropoffs.
Many might not perceive this as ideal water for catfishing -- but they should think again. Catfish, like you and me, can learn to adapt to almost any habitat, and those at Amistad simply live in and prowl around terrain different from that haunted by their relatives at Falcon and elsewhere.
Baiting with soured whole kernel corn, maize and/or wheat works on channel cats and small blue cats at Amistad, too, and the best areas to bait are the flat, rocky ledges in the draws and creeks. Sonar depthfinders make it easy to find these ledges and keeping them baited over a period of several days is the key to catching larger numbers of fish.
Amistad is no different from many other Texas lakes at this time of the year in producing large blue catfish. The best bait is cut shad on a circle hook and 1- to 2-ounce sinker Carolina-rigged and fished either by drifting atop underwater ledges 30 to 40 yards from the bank or by anchoring over a ledge and fishing vertically.
Any old-timer who's spent time catching catfish on Choke Canyon south of San Antonio and near Three Rivers knows the name Bob Fincher -- and for a good reason: He passed away several years ago, but he left behind a wealth of catfishi
ng information and techniques with the many people fortunate enough to have spent some time in a boat with him.
I went on my first Choke Canyon catfishing trip just after the lake opened, and I was lucky enough to have Fincher as my angling partner for the day. He impressed me right off the bat: After launching his boat at daybreak, we were 100 yards from the launch ramp when he stopped to scoop up a floating beer can with his landing net (something all of us should practice). Minutes later, we were tied to a tree in about 18 feet of water and using his famed blood bait to catch channel cats that had accepted his invitation to his "dinner table" of soured maize scattered in a 20-foot circle around the boat.
I asked Fincher about his choice of that particular spot on the lake for baiting out for channel cats. His answer was simple, and one that made me wonder what in earth was I thinking when I asked the question. "It's those birds over there," he said, pointing to a tree full of roosting "water turkeys."
Indeed, any roosting birds -- such as cormorants, egrets and herons -- that dispense their droppings into the lake will attract catfish. I knew that; I just wasn't being aware of my surroundings at that hour of the morning. Just another useful thing to be reminded of!
Choke Canyon occasionally gets some solid rainfall in January, and that can be a bonus for catfish anglers. Any good run-off will spur the catfish into a feeding frenzy. If the rains come, take advantage of them. Set up at the mouths of the creeks where they enter the lake and use punch bait, blood bait or highly cheese-flavored stink bait for channel cats. Just remember: Channel catfish are always on the lookout for an easy meal, and they often travel in large numbers.
Any roosting birds -- such as cormorants, egrets and herons -- that dispense their droppings into Choke Canyon will attract catfish.
Like a raiding party of scavengers, they'll move through an area and devour what they can and, if spooked by something such as fish being caught next to them or a larger predator fish moving through the area, may leave the area only to return 10 to 15 minutes later and begin feeding again.
If you're after only large blue cats, drift the flats near the deeper dropoffs in the main lake with cut gizzard shad or perch.
LAKES BRAUNIG AND CALAVERAS
You just can't beat heated water during the cold months even in South Texas, where the winters generally are mild. Braunig is a 1,350-acre power-plant lake loaded with channel catfish, but methods of catching them can depart from the norm for some anglers. Overall, it appears, cut bait or cheese and liver concoctions prevail over Braunig's catfish. That may be because anglers simply have not spent much time fishing with punch baits, crawfish, earthworms, and other catfish favorites.
Nevertheless, Braunig has a solid population of channel catfish, many of them caught during the winter months from the banks owing to the lake's overall warm temperatures, which keep the fish on the prowl for food sources close to shore.
Like its neighbor Braunig, Calaveras is a power-plant lake -- and it's just waiting to be discovered by many catfish anglers. Covering 3,624 surface-acres, it offers its best channel catfish fishing from March to May, but January and February action can be great, too, if you follow the general rule of power-plant lake fishing: Concentrate on the warmer waters.
Hybrid striped bass and redfish have dominated the fisheries at both Braunig and Calaveras, so the catfish fishery at both lakes is worked comparatively lightly. Local anglers know what's going on with catfishing at these lakes, but many others have yet to discover the great fisheries for Ol' Whiskers.
Finding the heated waters at any power-plant lake is key to good wintertime catfish action. Find areas into which heated water flows to meet cold water, and you're likely get some action. Many times the best of that action will accompany the coldest weather. In South Texas, of course, "cold" isn't anywhere near as cold as it is northward, but the main thing is to observe and plan ahead for any expected temperature dip from a front (no matter how mild it may be) and to be on the lake when the change occurs -- and don't fall for the old chestnut about cold fronts turning off the fish in a power-plant lake.
LAKE CASA BLANCA
Talk about a sleeper catfish lake! Many anglers are likely to have never heard the name Lake Casa Blanca. After all, this 1,640-acre reservoir nestled in a region normally sparse in rainfall lies literally on the outskirts of Laredo and, thus, between the two giant Rio Grande border impoundments Falcon and Amistad.
Nevertheless, count Casa Blanca in as the real deal, especially when the area isn't suffering from drought conditions. Channel catfish populations are high on this shallow-water lake and your best bets to catch them at this time of the year is to fish the cattails and the rocky riprap at the dam with punch bait, earthworms, frozen shrimp and blood baits.
Most anglers who use punch baits use a No. 4 treble hook, a 1/4- to 1/2-ounce sinker on a Carolina-rig setup, and fish vertically with their bait just off the bottom. If the action slows, raise the bait 3 or 4 feet off the bottom because some fish may begin to feed on pieces of punch bait that break away from the hook and become chum. In windy conditions, a heavier sinker may be required to keep the bait more vertically off the bottom.
Several grains can be used to attract channel catfish. The most popular are maize, wheat and corn -- in that order. As an alternative, and a good one, some anglers combine maize, corn or a combination into a 5-gallon bucket to about three-fourths full, covering with water and putting a lid on the bucket. The grain-water mixture is allowed to stand in direct sun for two to three weeks or more, with water added occasionally to keep its level above the grain.
To bait a hole, broadcast or pour approximately 2 pounds of grain over a 20-by-20-foot area to be fished. Using a large measuring cup or similar container with a handle on it will help keep your hands free of the smelly grain.
While fishing during lulls in the action, broadcast four to six cattle range cubes into the area you're fishing as an extra fish attractant.
Extra equipment might include a pair of needlenose pliers -- handy for removing treble hooks from a fish's mouth. A hand towel for cleaning up fish slime and bait will also be a handy item to have aboard, as will a first-aid kit in case someone gets stuck by the fin of a fish, or even a fishhook.