Cats Near The Capital
October 04, 2010
Central Texas is full of great catfishing, but metro Austin shines in particular when it comes to whiskerfish. These spots in the area are sure to produce August action.
The first really "big" fish that I can remember catching when I was a youngster was a 5-pound channel catfish. At the time -- I can't remember if I was 5 or 6 -- my whiskered quarry seemed almost magical in its fierce monstrosity.
Ever since I managed to haul that fish out of a private lake near Bryan, I've had an affinity for that slimy face that only a mother could love, and for everything else associated with angling for catfish.
Overall, the catfish ranks second among the game fish most sought after in Texas, following close behind the largemouth bass. While flatheads prey almost exclusively on live fish, the catfish is known mainly as an opportunistic scavenger that lurks in turbid water and will eat just about anything that catches its fancy. Blue and channel catfish share a wide-ranging appetite for all things smelly, making them excellent targets for any angler with a little bit of time -- and a strong stomach!
Thanks to their ability to thrive in a variety of habitats, catfish can be found in almost every body of water in the state. However, some angling opportunities in Central Texas are just too good for anglers living in the Austin metro area to pass up. Here's a closer look at some of the best of those lakes.
In this part of the state, the Highland Chain of lakes on the Colorado River -- Buchanan, Inks, LBJ, Marble Falls, Travis, Austin and Lady Bird -- and the Colorado itself offer some topnotch catfish fisheries. Each is notable for fine catfishing opportunities, though some stand out above the others.
At about 22,000 acres, the largest of the Highland Chain, Lake Buchanan is rated by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department as excellent for its catfishing. Just west of the town of Burnet, it contains a variety of structure types, with the eastern portion up to the dam primarily rocky. The western portion of the lake features a number of coves that have no shortage of flooded vegetation when water levels are stable.
Marcos De Jesus, a TPWD natural resources specialist in San Marcos, noted that Buchanan features some superb blue catfish habitat. "Blue cats thrive in bigger, deeper bodies of water like Buchanan where there is good habitat," he said. "There are also flatheads and channel cats in there, but the blue cats tend to dominate the overall fishery."
The next-largest link in the Highland Chain is Travis, northwest of Austin. The 18,000-acre lake, rated as good in TPWD reports, shares some similarities with Buchanan. Because it's a larger lake, De Jesus explained, Travis has a much more dominant blue catfish population.
"Travis is another of the lakes that has much higher blue cat populations, but it also is one of the better lakes in the area for flatheads," he said. "Based on gill-netting surveys, Buchanan and Travis have the best overall numbers of both blues and flatheads, but they also have channel cats, too. Travis and Buchanan were stocked with blues, and they've taken to the habitat, so that's where they're the best."
The third-largest of the Highland Lakes is LBJ, which features a strong flathead fishery. Also rated as good by the TPWD, the 6,000-acre lake west of Marble Falls features a heavily developed shoreline with no shortage of houses, bulkheads and other artificial structures. The area near the lake's dam tends to be rockier and clearer, while the area to the upper end is normally more stained. LBJ features a number of small creeks that branch off the main lake and have a small variety of vegetative cover.
One often-overlooked area lake, Granger, is more usually thought of as an outstandingly productive crappie lake, but the catfish rating that it's garnered from the TPWD puts it in the "excellent" column. The structure in this 4,000-acre lake northeast of Austin near the town of Granger consists mostly of flooded timber and laydowns; the best cover can be located along humps and ridges and in creek channels. Though that flooded cover is prime real estate for large clumps of crappie, it also can harbor big numbers of catfish looking to hide out and to find the occasional meal.
Two smaller lakes in the area that offer up worthy catfishing opportunities are Inks and Bastrop, each smaller than 1,000 acres in area, each with eminently fishable populations of cats. Inks and Bastrop offer very serviceable channel catfishing, and are often less crowded than are other lakes.
Some plus-size catfish lurk also in the depths of another of the area's well-known largemouth hotspots. Lying just east of LaGrange, 2,400-acre Fayette County Lake boasts an impressive record flathead, its weight just over 79 pounds. According to De Jesus, stocking efforts there have fostered a solid population of channel cats as well.
To the southwest of Austin and north of New Braunfels lies 8,000-acre Canyon Lake, which can be an excellent fishery for blues, flatheads and channel cats. The lake features a wide variety of superb habitat, including rockpiles, flooded timber, dropoffs and ledges for fish to skulk near. TPWD reports show that the most consistent catches come in the upper third of the lake.
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The TPWD's De Jesus remarked that, in general, the Highland Lakes mean different angling opportunities for different people. "All these lakes have different reputations," he said. "In other words, they are valued differently by anglers. For example, anglers spend the most time fishing for striped bass in Buchanan while in Travis, as well as many other lakes, most angling efforts are directed toward largemouth bass. However, catfish fisherman effort consistently ranks second or third behind the most popular species in reservoirs known for catfish.
"Even though catfish are available throughout the chain, catfish anglers tend to concentrate their efforts in waters that are known for quality catfish fishing."
According to De Jesus, many people in the area still use gear that they can set out and leave to do its work, coming back later to inspect the results. And most of the anglers are looking to find bigger fish. "A lot of catfish fishing is done with passive gear such as trotlines and juglines where it is legal," he said. "These anglers tend to stay under our radar, since they are rarely intercepted during creel surveys due to their absence while their gear is set."
While anglers fishing from boats have access to many more catfish haunts, the fish can be caught just as easily from dry land. De Jesus pointed to some good bank-fishing opportunities in the Highland Lakes Chain, noting that a list of public access points is available on the TPWD Web site.
"As for bank-angling opportunities, some of the chain's lakes are better than others," he offered. "Travis and Inks offer several parks with excellent bank-fishing opportunities for catfish. Meanwhile, Buchanan and LBJ offer less opportunity, as most of their banks are privately owned. Public boat ramp areas may offer the best bank opportunities in such cases."
While the Highland Chain has great lake fishing opportunities, De Jesus said, the Colorado River offers some of the top river fishing in the state. "The Colorado River offers great catfish opportunities, especially around the Bastrop area," he reported. "The city of Bastrop's Fisherman's Park offers a long stretch of bank designed for bank-fishing; this stretch is good for channel catfish fishing. The LCRA (Lower Colorado River Authority) offers bank-fishing opportunities on their park piers at Lake Bastrop and Fayette County Reservoir. Those lakes also offer good channel catfish opportunities."
Community lakes also can be likely places in which to find catfish, stated De Jesus, adding that some of the lakes will maintain solid numbers all year. "TPWD stocks thousands of channel catfish in many community fishing lakes around the state," he said. "There are several in the Austin area that offer channel catfish opportunities from the bank. These get stocked once a year in fall. Many will hold catfish yearlong. A list of these is also available through our Web site. State parks like Inks, Bastrop and Buescher offer license-exempt fishing opportunities as a promotional effort to get families to fish in Texas."
Declaring summer to be a fantastic time for anglers -- because catfish become active and tend to move around more than they do at other times of the year -- De Jesus offered some tips on locating and catching those fish at this time of year. "Summertime is the best time to catch catfish," he said, "as they become active during warm temperatures. They also move up shallow in the summer to spawn and feed. Riprap areas attract spawning catfish like channels and flatheads in summer. Rocky lake points off of creek channels are also a good place to target blues and flatheads.
"Channel cats will move into creeks and rivers to spawn in secluded areas or cavities under logs or undercut banks. The males protect the nests and become aggressive during this time. This makes them vulnerable to angling.
"Flathead catfish can be caught in the Colorado River in deep holes with logjams. They prefer live bait like sunfish or shad. Blues will bite on cut bait or live bait mostly, and channel cats are easiest to catch, as they bite on a variety of baits. The best are chicken livers, stink bait, night crawlers, hot dogs and dough bait. However, they will pick up artificial baits and other alternatives if they have the opportunity.
"For channel cats, I recommend using small terminal tackle (No. 6 hook) weighted with a split shot and medium-test line (8- to 14-pound) off the bottom. For blues and flatheads, I would up the gear significantly."
WHAT THE GUIDES SAY
Clancy Terrill, who runs Clancy's Fishing Guide Service, works Central Texas lakes all year. The action for a couple of different species has led him to enjoy fishing Lake Buchanan especially.
"It's a great lake for blue and flathead catfish almost all year," he said. "The spring and early summer are normally high times of the year for trips, but there's good fishing to be had later in the summer."
Terrill was guiding Destinee Love last March when the 11-year-old took a 65.2-pound monster of a blue catfish, setting both the Buchanan lake record and the junior state record for the species and earned several more awards as well. The big fish hit at about 7 p.m.; after a 15-minute battle, Terrill netted the tired fish and hauled it aboard. After getting the beast weighed and having a few photos taken, Destinee requested that the huge fish be returned to the lake.
Destinee's big catch capped off a solid week for Terrill, for whom the youngster's big blue was the fourth catfish weighing 30 pounds or more that his service had been instrumental in taking that week. Terrill personally guided Destinee's father Bobby to the lake-record flathead, which weighed in at more than 17 pounds.
Lying just east of LaGrange, 2,400-acre Fayette County Lake boasts an impressive record flathead, its weight just over 79 pounds. According to the TPWD's Marcos De Jesus, stocking efforts there have fostered a solid population of channel cats as well.
In more than two decades of fishing the Highland Lakes Chain, Terrill has found cats to be creatures of habit, and has different ways of finding fish depending on the time of day. "The catfish will go into the shallows in the early morning and late evening," he said. "And when I say 'shallow,' I mean 20 feet or less. However, in the heat of the day, they'll usually head out to about 50 feet or deeper. If I'm fishing in the shallows, 99.9 percent of the time I'll use a double anchor. If I'm fishing deeper, I'll just use one anchor."
Terrill alters his bait selection to appeal to the species that he thinks he has the best chances of finding and catching. "If I'm going after blue cats, I'll use cut baits like cut shad," he explained. "But if we're chasing flatheads, I use mostly live bait. That's not to say you won't catch flatheads on cut bait or blues on live bait -- it's just a matter of what they're in the mood for. And, usually, it doesn't take much to get them to gulp down a bait."
Though an early spawn brings fish into shallower water and changes their feeding habits, Terrill asserted, August can be a truly promising month for finding above-average fish. "You're still likely to catch a good fish here and there that time of year," he said. "If you're just looking to find good quantity, Buchanan has no shortage of solid fish."
When it comes to tackle, Terrill uses 7-foot rods with medium-to-heavy action mated with 6000 or 6500 Abu Garcia reels spooled with 20-pound line.
Fishing guide Mark Malfa, who has plenty of experience on a number of lakes in the Highland Chain, noted that those bodies of water often don't garner as much attention as do other locales when it comes to finding catfish both in good quantities and of high quality. "Lots of people just enjoy the clear water on those lakes," he said. "All of those lakes -- Buchanan, Granger, LBJ, Travis -- are really underfished when you compare them to other places to the south or north. There's good flatheads and blues on Buchanan, LBJ and Travis. We never caught any monster fish, but we've had flatheads up to 50 pounds or so and a lot of blues up to 25 pounds."
In the view of Malfa, most anglers can find fish with a common approach that works just about anywhere. "We would usually be using cut bait of all kinds," he said. "Live bait can work, but a lot of people just don't want to hassle with it. The best thing you can do is just weight it down to the bottom and just pop it up and down about 6 inches every so often. It's really n
othing special, but it catches the fish, whatever you may be angling for."
Overall, the Colorado River system has some of the best catfish waters in the state, and you don't have to be an expert to find fish in lakes or the river itself. The catfish is likely the perfect game fish: relatively easy to catch, and offering some of the best eating of any aquatic dweller. This makes it a great quarry to angle for if you're looking to introduce someone to fishing or just want to bring home some fillets for a fish fry.
Thanks to its hefty appetite for just about anything you put in front of its whiskers, the catfish can be caught by means of a variety of tactics and techniques -- and there's no shortage of them in the central portion of the Lone Star State. For anglers from the Austin area, the catfish can provide an enjoyable day of summer angling -- and you don't have to burn through a whole tank of gas to get to and from some great fishing locale!
Just try to remember this: Stink bait gets its name for a reason -- so you don't want to leave it by accident in a hot vehicle for all of an August day!