Catching the whiskered fish of fresh water is a summer tradition in our state. These waters may harbor the best candidates for your fish fry! (May 2006)
Texas is blessed with some of the best catfish waters in the country. From renowned catfish hotspots such as Texoma, Cedar Creek and Tawakoni in the northern part of the state to Choke Canyon and Amistad way down south, whiskerfish aficionados don't have far to travel to get their line stretched. Considering all the rivers that provide good catfishing, there's really no excuse for purchasing "farm-raised" catfish for your next big fish fry!
I am a self-confessed catfish nut. I spent my younger years growing up on a poultry farm in northeast Texas, and every couple of months, when the chickens were sold, my dad declared a holiday. We packed up the old pickup, loaded the camping gear including trotlines, rods and reels, cane poles, iron skillets and plenty of cooking oil and headed out to spend a few days catching and eating catfish. (Looking back, I realize that my dad was a bit ahead of his time when it came to creating innovative camping gear. That 1950 International had more foldout canvas tents and cooking tables than today's state-of-the-art popup camper!)
I spent the day before each trip jerking perch out of our small farm pond. They were destined to be turned into cut bait for the trotlines. Our goal was getting to the lake in time to set up camp, get the lines out and catch a mess of channel catfish in time for supper.
I honestly don't remember ever not catching plenty of fish for our meals, but it's the time spent with family in the outdoors that I remember best. Catfishing truly is a sport that can be enjoyed by the entire family. At the right time of year and in the right waters, whiskerfish can be easily caught from the bank by even the youngest of fishermen.
There are so many great places for catfishing within the borders of the king-size state that is Texas that it's impossible to mention them all. With that limitation in mind, let's take a look at some of the Lone Star State's popular catfish holes. And just for the record: The tips and tactics used to catch fish on these lakes will work equally well on your favorite (if much less publicized) waters.
NORTH TEXAS HOTSPOTS
Catfish pro and bait maker Danny King fishes many of the lakes throughout the state during the course of a year as he competes in the American Catfish Anglers Tournament Series tournament trail. When asked to choose his favorite catfish waters in north and northeast Texas, King was, possibly for the first time in his life, at a loss for words.
"I can't choose one as the best on a year-round basis," he declared. "They all have their peak periods, and they are all good. Lake Tawakoni, though, is about as good as it gets for catching lots and lots of good-eating channel catfish during the summer over baited holes. It's also a great place for catching trophy blues."
The lake record as of this writing is 69 1/2 pounds -- but considering all the interest that trophy blues have generated there, I don't expect that record to stand much longer.
One of King's favorite spots for catching a mixture of blues and channels during early summer is the standing timber on the north end of the lake. But the isolated humps out from the mouth of Wolf Cove in the lower lake can provide hot action during the summer months as well.
"I look for water 12 to 20 feet deep when baiting holes," said King. "Keep in mind when fishing baited holes that the boat is usually positioned right over the baited area; it's easy to spook fish in water less than about 12 feet. At times, we do bait holes off to the side of a tree we use to tie our boat and cast to the baited areas using floaters. This is a good way to fish baited holes in shallow water."
Another less-publicized lake that King favors is little Lake Bonham, a few miles north of its namesake. About this time last year, I joined King and guide Tinker Toney for some fast-paced blue and channel catfish action over baited holes. We were using Danny King's Punch bait, of course, in water 6 to 12 feet deep and within 30 yards of the shore in the back of coves, close to creek channels.
Cedar Creek Lake is another well-know hotspot for catching blues. I fish here with guide Chris Watson regularly and always return home with plenty of fillets. Watson uses fresh shad exclusively and begins his day by catching his bait with a cast net.
"It's the blood and oils in shad that attract catfish and it's important to use fresh bait," Watson offered by way of a tip. "When it's warm, I always ice my bait down in the morning and keep it fresh. Catfish will hit fresh shad 10 to 1 over shad that has been frozen."
Watson says that windy shorelines can be especially productive during early summer. "Big schools of shad are attracted to the plankton on vegetation that is pushed shallow during periods of high winds," he explained, "and where there's bait, you can bet the catfish will be nearby to enjoy the easy pickings."
Chris often slices his shad through the middle, using the head and tail sections for bait. When the fishing slows, he instructs his client to "flash the bait" by quickly jerking the rod a few inches in order to move the bait along bottom. I've noticed that strikes often occur the instant the bait pauses.
Lake Limestone, about 15 miles southeast of Groesbeck, is chock-full of blue and channel catfish. Guide Keith Ginsel, who's been fishing the lake for years, finds the deep flats within a half-mile of the dam and adjacent to the Navasota River channel to be good for drift-fishing during the summer. Ginsel prefers what he calls a "Santee Cooper rig" -- a basic Carolina rig with a 3- or 4-foot leader and a small floater positioned about 10 inches above the hook. This little float keeps the bait suspended up off bottom, making it easier for the catfish to grab as the bait drifts by.
Standing timber in the midlake section around the power line is a good spot to bait a few holes with soured maize or wheat to attract hungry catfish.
The water averages 12 to 20 feet here. The channel catfish like to hang out around the heavy wood cover, where they feed on shad. With all the underwater obstructions there, Ginsel suggests tying the boat up and fishing vertically for the catfish, or possibly using a slip-cork and casting to the edge of the heavy cover. Either way, just be ready to set the hook and get the catfish's head coming your way as soon as possible.
Richland-Chambers is another of my personal favorites when it's time to put more catfish fillets in the freezer. The 309 Flats down by the dam is a great spot for drift-fishing for the lake's plentiful blu
e catfish. White bass and hybrid stripers will begin pushing the big schools of shad into the area, and catfish move in to feed on injured baits that fall to bottom. Guide Bob Holmes concentrates more on the lake's finfish, but often sets juglines on the big flats for catfish while he and his clients chase the schools of white bass.
I remember my first trip with Holmes, which took place a few years ago. We strung about 10 juglines baited with fresh shad along a submerged ridge on the edge of the big flat, and then proceeded to use topwater lures to catch a couple of limits of the white bass churning the water's surface. After the whites were filleted, we returned to check the juglines. Several of them were way out of line, obviously being towed by large catfish. We took five blue cats from the jugs that weighed between 12 and 22 pounds -- an average catch for early summer, Holmes noted.
"Blues in the 30-pound range and larger are regularly caught by juglines set in the lower end of the lake," he said.
The area on either side of the railroad trestle a bit farther up lake is another good early-summer catfishing spot. Post-spawn white bass will be chasing shad in the flats around the trestle; the catfish will be under them.
This is a good spot to anchor and fish water 4 to 6 feet for spawning catfish. Long casts to position the baits away from the boat will avoid spooking the fish in shallow water. Floats that keep the baits a foot or so up from bottom will help indicate strikes.
For years, guide Chris Watson has been running catfish trips on the Trinity River, which is just downstream from R-C. He keys on eddy water around bends in the channel, noting that the ramp at Highway 287 just below the lake is a good spot to launch. The stretch of river a couple of miles on either side of the confluence with the discharge channel from R-C is a great spot for catching big blues. Fresh shad fished on a No. 6 to No. 8 Kahle hook is the ticket.
Lake Texoma is a super destination for anglers wanting to do battle with trophy-class blue catfish. The state record and one-time world record blue (121 1/2 pounds) was landed there by Cody Mullenix just a couple of years ago.
In a recent interview, Cody said that the past couple of years had provided plenty of big catfish action, but nothing came close to his catching that record fish. "Fishermen should do very well this time of year on spawning catfish over baited holes or fishing shallow flats close to creek channels," he opined. "Look for baitfish first, and in a lake like Texoma, you can bet catfish will be nearby."
Roger Hill guides for the lake's plentiful stripers, but also has a passion for catching catfish, especially big blues. He keeps the waters around his boathouse baited with range cubes, and the chum from his fish-cleaning station attracts plenty of blue catfish to the area.
"Just about anywhere on the lake that you have flats close to a deep channel you will have catfish," he explained. "The water around my dock is about 18 feet, but 30 yards out into the cove is a 40-foot creek channel. We catch channel and blue cats here off the dock throughout the year.
"Out on the lake, I target creek channels leading back off the main lake. Catfish run these channels as they follow shad and the action can be fast-paced."
SOUTH TEXAS HOTSPOTS
Choke Canyon guide Carroll Atkinson predicts that there'll be lots of blue and channel catfish action over baited holes this summer. "Catfish here begin spawning as early as April," he said, "and by May the spawn is going strong. We enjoy good catfishing here year 'round, but it would be tough to pick a month for catching lots of good-eating blues and channels better than May and June. Soured grain will pull in big schools of both species, and limiting out is the norm this time of year."
Atkinson uses punch bait on a No. 8 treble hook under a slip-float and keys on water 5 to 15 feet deep. "A basic Carolina rig with a 12- to 14-inch leader works best when fishing water 12 feet or more," he observed, but using a floater makes the often-subtle bite of the channel cats easier to detect." said Atkinson. But a big blue is another matter. "When a blue grabs your bait, he will head to the opposite shore with it."
Channel catfish average 3 to 6 pounds here, and blues up to 12 pounds are pretty common. Most of Atkinson's trips produce a few of the larger fish with an occasional blue in the 20-pound range.
Atkinson likes to fish long points with gravel onto which the catfish move to feed on small freshwater mussels. "When we clean the fish we catch around these mussel beds, they will be full of little mussels about the size of nickels," he noted.
Some of the guide's favorite spots to fish include the mouth of Possum Creek, Elm Creek, and the Frio River arm above the FM 99 bridge. "The shallow flats adjacent to the creek channel usually get covered in hydrilla from mid to late summer," he offered. "Use your sonar and look along the channels and you can find plenty of open water to fish."
According to Atkinson, little Lake Corpus Christi, a few miles out of Mathis, is full of channel and blue catfish, as well as big flatheads. Trotlines and juglines set along the creek channels and baited with small live perch produce some big-fish action with flatheads and blues. "Just look for open water along the channels and set the baits 8 to 10 feet deep," he advised.
Big, clear and deep, Lake Amistad on the Texas-Mexico border near Del Rio provides catfish anglers with some of the most beautiful scenery in the state -- as well as plenty of channel and flathead catfish to tug on their lines! Charlie Rumfield, who's guided there for many years, reports that early summer will usually find the channel catfish in water 2 to 12 feet deep.
"The water here is gin-clear, and long casts are necessary to avoid spooking fish," said Rumfield. "I like to locate a windy bank with plenty of brush where the water is off-color and target channel catfish in shallow water this time of year. A slip-cork works best. We cast up close to the brush and allow the wave action to position the bait on the edge of the heavy cover. It's important to set the hook and begin reeling as soon as your floater indicates a bite."
Trotlines and juglines baited with live perch produce some jumbo flatheads. Fish in the 30- to 40-pound range are fairly common. The trick to jug-fishing is using a weight light enough to allow the wave and wind action to move the jugs along.
Rumfield is of the opinion that fishing should be equally good in the three rivers that form the lake, but he prefers fishing the Pecos arm, probably more out of habit than any other reason. The Devils River Arm and Rio Grande also provide good summer catfish action.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
A.C.A.T.S. has several catfish tournaments scheduled for Texas. Here's a lineup of their summer tournaments: Toledo Bend, June 17; Whitney, August 12.
For more information, contact tournament director Dennis Rice at (918) 693-8519, or register online at www.catfishangler.com.
Amistad: Charlie Rumfield, (830) 774-3484; Choke Canyon: Carroll Atkinson, (361) 215-0766; Texoma: Roger Hill, (903) 818-FISH; Cedar Creek: Chris Watson, (903) 654-1765; Richland-Chambers: Bob Holmes, (214) 728-3310; Limestone: Keith Ginsel, (903) 529-3107.