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Cattin' The Lone Star State

Cattin' The Lone Star State

When it comes to good spots for catching catfish, Texas has no shortage. However, these may be some of the best waters in our state for 2008. (May 2008)

The fork-tailed channel cat, the meat-and-potatoes fish of many Texas anglers, is typically caught by an angler wielding rod and reel and using some sort of seriously smelly bait.
Photo by Russell Tinsley.

The kids and their adult leaders picked their way down the steep, rocky trail. More experienced, the grownups used sturdy walking sticks to keep their balance; the youngsters -- excited and, to their minds, indestructible -- navigated the trail as gracefully and confidently as mountain goats.

Finally at the bottom of the West Texas canyon, the group spread out along a gray limestone ledge facing a massive, curving limestone overhang known as Painted Cave. Beneath the rock trickled a clear spring-fed creek lined with river cane and fern. A spontaneous chorus of oohs and aahs rose from the 7th and 8th graders as they took in the scene.

Arrayed to left and right as far as the party could see was a series of prehistoric paintings in red monochrome that commanded everyone's rapt attention. Anthropomorphic figures armed with bows and arrows mixed with realistic drawings of the creatures necessary for the artists' survival in this arid climate: deer, turkeys -- and catfish.

Yes, thousands of years ago, early Texans had a taste for whiskerfish. And just like all other self-respecting anglers, they felt an urge to record for posterity the big ones that hadn't gotten away.

The big cats that added much-needed protein to the diet of those long-vanished people came from the nearby Pecos River. And many centuries later, Texans are still pulling big blues and ample channel cats out of that snake-like tributary of the Rio Grande. In fact, the whole state amounts to whiskerfish heaven.

Following: a regional breakdown of what's hot this year.

Though Lake Amistad is known as one of the best bass lakes in the United States, this international lake with nearly 65,000 surface-acres and 540 miles of Texas coastline also has plenty of catfish.

Skillet-sized channel cats and grab-your-camera-sized blues abound in this lake, which has some holes deeper than much of the Gulf of Mexico. Cats are found almost anywhere in the lake, with stink bait good for channels and cut natural bait the hot ticket for blues.

The lake's catfishing is particularly good when the weather's hot -- and on the border, warm stretches take up a good percentage of the calendar. Shad go deep to play it cool, and so do the slick-skinned set. Anglers looking for big blues use their sonar to find where and how deep they're hanging out.

Farther down the Rio Grande from Amistad is 83,654-acre Lake Falcon, also an excellent catfish lake. "Falcon used to get a lot of pressure from commercial fishermen," said game warden Mike Bradshaw, who sometimes works the lake. "Commercial fishing still happens on the Mexican side, but Falcon's got a lot of catfish."

Being so far south, it, like Amistad, is practically a year-round fishing hole.

For more information on Lake Amistad, visit fishboat/fish/recreational/lakes/ amistad or contact the National Park Service at (830) 775-7491; for more on the area and a list of fishing guides, check out the Del Rio Chamber of Commerce Web site at ; for Lake Falcon information, go to www.tpwd.tx. us/fishboat/fish/recreational/lake/ falcon ; for area information and guides, see .

Only 20 miles northwest of Corpus Christi, the 18,256-acre lake named for that city serves as a water supply and is rated as an excellent catfish lake.

Covering a portion of the Nueces River and its watershed, this lake offers thegrand slam of Texas cats: channels, blues and flatheads.

The best catfishing at Lake Corpus Christi is in the shallows: water less than 8 feet deep, with plenty of vegetation. Meat anglers take channel cats on dough baits while the blues and flatheads in the river and creek channels are best taken on live baits, especially shad and bluegills.

Choke Canyon, a 25,670-acre reservoir in Live Oak and McMullen counties, remains the heavyweight champion of South Texas, catfish-wise. But catfishing in this lake has an interesting twist.

The relatively new lake (1982) is popular with cormorants, a migratory shore bird that likes to roost in trees over water. That sets up one of those fascinating cause-and-effect cycles of nature. Cormorants eat fish and the end product of that, their droppings, attracts more fish.

The spoke in the wheel of this symbiotic relationship is the knowledgeable catfisherman who with trotlines or jugs transforms a rookery into a hookery for anglers. To hurry the process along, some veteran cat-catchers make an artificial catfish bait that resembles cormorant feces.

For more information on Lake Corpus Christi, visit www.tpwd.state. corpus-christi or; for more on Choke Canyon, see recreational/lake/choke_canyon ; contact the Three Rivers Chamber of Commerce at 1-888-600-3115, or visit their Web site, the address for which is .

Considering that the late, very appropriately named "Splash" -- Texas' 121.5-pound record blue catfish and for a time the U.S. record blue -- came from Lake Texoma, that giant impoundment between Texas and Soonerland attracts more catfish anglers than a sour grain-baited boat dock. While unquestionably an excellent catfish lake, it's not the only catfish hotspot in North Texas.

If you want some fine catfishing on a smaller lake, here's a little secret: In the opinion of a man who makes his living by what he knows about fish, Lake Lavon is as good

as Texoma.

Off state Highway 78 northeast of Dallas in Collin County (the community of Wylie is four miles from the lake), this U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake covers 21,400 acres.

"They're spawning like crazy at Lavon," said Texas Parks and Wildlife Department fisheries biologist John Moczygemba, based in Pottsboro. "The lake had been low last year, but thanks to all the rain we got in the spring of 2007, it blew up with water. We did a survey last year and found an excellent population, with up to 60- to 70-pound blues."

In fact, all the good lakes had been very low, some down 14 or 15 feet, and that hurt the spawn. On the upside, the low water level concentrated the fish and forage fish, making for easier fishing. "The predators were having a feast for a while," Moczygemba said.

Now that most Texas lakes are full, the TPWD biologist noted, "a lot of them are like new lakes -- real hot. They've been refertilized. Vegetation that had grown up is now covered with water, making for good cover. Oxygen's plentiful top to bottom." According to Moczygemba, the big blues are being taken in the channels mostly on juglines, with channel cats excellent on shad or cut bait.

Lake Ray Roberts too is a good catfish lake, he said. The 25,600-acre impoundment covers parts of Denton, Cook and Grayson counties, starting 10 miles north of Denton off Farm-to-Market Road 455.

"They catch 'em on jugs and trotlines, but some striper guides will put out longlines with big shad and dangle it right in front of a 30-pound-plus blue," he said. "It's pretty awesome."

For more information on Lake Lavon, contact the Wylie Chamber of Commerce at (972) 442-2804, the Corps of Engineers at (972) 442-3141 and visit fishboat/fish/recreational/lakes/lavon ; for Ray Roberts Lake, see www. recreational/lakes/ray_roberts .

Downstate, anglers living along the thickly populated midsection of Interstate 35 don't have far to drive for some excellent catfishing this year.

"Lake Waco is pretty hot," said TPWD's John Tibbs, the Waco-based district supervisor for Inland Fisheries. "Someone's going to be breaking the lake record for blue cat in the next few months. We've come close already. The lake's all-tackle record for blues is 49 pounds; 35.5 for rod and reel."

If you want some fine catfishing on a smaller lake, here's a little secret: In the opinion of a man who makes his living by what he knows about fish, Lake Lavon is as good as Texoma.

And in the Waco area, it's never been easier to get a potential record officially weighed. "The new Academy store here has worked with us to set up a weigh-in station at the store," Tibbs said. "They're trying it out, and so far it's been working great. They're weighing fish left and right."

As for 7,194-acre Lake Waco, which has been around since 1965, a rise in the pool led to a productive catfish spawn. "We've got some real good fish in there," the biologist said. Too, not being known as one of the state's prime catfishing destinations, you won't be facing as much competition at Lake Waco, which lies inside the Waco city limits off state Highway 6.

Trotliners like the North and South Bosque River channels, while flats and submerged structure are good for channel cats on stink bait, blood bait or shrimp.

Tibbs also is high on Lake Belton, a 12,385-acre impoundment on the Leon River five miles northwest of the Bell County town of Belton. "It's another popular lake, real pretty, with a surprising amount of use," he said. "It got stocked with blue cats a few years back, and they've been catching a lot of them. It's also real good for hybrids."

Tibbs said that in cool weather, savvy anglers fish deep for blues with cut shad or ghost minnows. Blues love a real cold spell, which will kill off shad, leaving the scavengers a veritable buffet. Add your shad-on-a-hook to the menu and you'll get a fish.

Spring and fall are the best seasons for channel cats, which respond to various kinds of offerings ranging from dead bait to stink bait.

"A lot of fishermen bait certain holes for channel cats," Tibbs said, "and they'll keep coming back to the same hole." But, he added, if you don't get a bite in 15 minutes, move to another spot.

For more on Lake Waco, see recreational/lakes/waco and the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau at; for Lake Belton, see fish/recreational/lakes/belton and the Belton Chamber of Commerce at .

Now 71 years old, the granddaddy of Hill Country impoundments is Lake Buchanan, in Burnet and Llano counties. This 22,211-acre lake, which has water as deep as 132 feet, has three things going for it: (1.) Though "Buck" is best known for its striped bass, it's an excellent catfish lake as well. (2.) It's an easy drive from the booming Austin metropolitan area. (3.) Even though it's close to the capital, it gets fewer visitors than do the closer-in Highland Lakes.

Channel cats, blues and flatheads occur all over the big lake, but Buchanan has more blues than it does the other two varieties.

For information on Lake Buchanan see fish/recreational/lakes/buchanan , , and the Burnet Chamber of Commerce, .

Sure, sprawling 181,600-acre-feet Toledo Bend Reservoir -- 65 miles long with 10 times that many miles of shoreline -- is a good catfish lake, especially if you're interested in a trophy blue.

The lake record is 40.75 pounds for blues, and anglers should have no trouble finding a place to fill an ice chest with good eating-sized channel cats.

"The trophy opportunities for blues on Toledo are good, with the vast majority of the fishing in the upper third of the reservoir, along the Sabine River delta," said Todd Driscoll, fisheries superintendent based in Jasper

. "Williams Camp and Bill's Landing are known for the sheer number of pounds of catfish caught, mostly by passive means" -- which is to say trotlines or jugs.

But Toledo's a lot of lake, and the state's biggest impoundment holds plenty of channel cats, although very few seem to grow longer than 18 inches.

On the other hand, there's Martin Creek Reservoir in Rusk County, three miles southwest of Tatum off state Highway 43. Impounded in 1974, it's a cooling lake for a Texas Electric power plant.

"It's unique in East Texas," Driscoll said. "It used to be known as a good bass lake. But it had a lot of hydrilla, and that was eradicated. That turned the dynamics around. It's shifted to channel cats, and it's absolutely loaded with them."

How loaded? Enough that in a recent creel survey, wardens and biologists found that more than 50 percent of anglers fished from the bank of this 4,981-acre impoundment. For a Texas lake, that's an extraordinary level of non-boat fishing activity. And those shorebound fishermen are out for catfish, not bass.

"A 10 percent total for bank-fishing is high on most lakes," he said.

Bank-fishing is unusually prominent at Martin Creek because it gets results: Folks are on average pulling in 1.2 catfish per hour. Too, as Driscoll points out, creel surveys only reflect the success of rod-and-reel anglers. Passive gear also pulls in a lot of poundage, but data's hard to come by.

Rod-and-reel aficionados are using a little of everything in bringing those channel cats in, Driscoll said. "Stink bait, earthworms, some are baiting holes, some are just setting up next to a stump and throwing a line in. You really can't go wrong on this lake."

To make good news even better, three or so years ago the TPWD stocked the lake with blue cats. "In time, we'll be seeing some big blues coming out of there," he said.

The neat thing about East Texas lakes is that nearly three out of four anglers go after bass. As Driscoll put it: "The catfish population is relatively unexploited, which means you have a pretty good chance of catching fish."

For more information on fishing the lake, see :// martincreek , or call Martin Creek State Park at (903) 836-4336. For Toledo Bend information, contact the Jasper Chamber of Commerce at (409) 384-2762, or visit www.tpwd. lakes/toledo_bend .

The vast left side of our state has plenty of wide-open spaces and often a scarcity of water, but this part of the state still offers some fine catfishing opportunities.

Though remote, 2,212-acre Millers Creek Reservoir is listed by the TPWD as an excellent catfish hole. In fact, for all other species it's listed as "good," with catfish being the only game fish in the "excellent" box. The lake, impounded in 1974, is 77 miles south of Wichita Falls near Munday.

Catfish are best in the top half of the lake.

In the middle of West Texas, just outside of San Angelo, is Lake Nasworthy. Impounded in 1930, this lake covers only 1,380 acres. But catfish are good on live or prepared baits almost anywhere in the lake.

For more information on Millers Creek, see www.tpwd.state.tx. us/fishboat/fish/recreational/lakes/ millers_creek ; for more on Nasworthy, see fishboat/fish/recreational/lakes/nasworthy and .

Finally, keep in mind that the limit for channel and blue catfish is 25 in any combination. Either fish has to be at least 12 inches long to be a keeper. The limit for flatheads is five; the minimum length for keepers is 18-inches.

Channel catfishing is good pretty much year 'round; the very best blue catfishing is in winter. Though flatheads are good eating and get pretty big, the TPWD reports that yellow cats make up only about 1 percent of the state's catfish population.

No matter where you fish, the TPWD encourages the release of any blues weighing more than 10 pounds. (The big blues don't taste that good anyway.)

"Anything over 10 is well on the way to trophy size," biologist Tibbs said. "Small blues are just as tasty as channel cats, by the way." One reason that Texas is such a good state for big blues, he added, is that a lot of fishermen do release the big boys. "Once they are good-sized, they are able to eat big shad and they go rapidly." In other words, the bigger they get, the bigger they get.

So don't hog the big blues. Get someone to take a picture of you and that trophy and then put it back where you found it. If you keep doing that, sooner or later someone's going to catch another national record blue cat in Texas waters.

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