Great catfish waters abound throughout our state, but some do stand out from the crowd. These just might be the best for 2004.
By Mike Innis
The Lone Star State has a lot to offer the outdoor enthusiast. Just about anything you'd like to do, besides snow boarding and ice-fishing, can be done within the confines of Texas' borders. Anglers can fish in salt water as well as in freshwater lakes, creeks and rivers. And almost every body of water in the state holds some species of catfish.
In this guide we'll provide hints to help you find the types of habitat the whiskerfish prefer, and then tell you all about the three most-popular freshwater catfish. Finally, we'll go into some detail on specific bodies of water that should be on your short list of catfishing hotspots for this year.
If the nearest water to you is a river or a creek, you should seek out the holes and the places around those holes where the fast water slows down to form a pool. Use your boat's depthfinder to locate the deepest part of the pool and cast your bait right into that deep hole.
Brushpiles, trees, rocks, manmade riprap: All are spots that catfish love to lurk around, waiting for something edible to swim or drift past. In a lot of these areas, the current will break up, and in the backwater formed, baitfish will school. Explore the undercuts in banks where creeks and rivers turn, since many a large catfish has been pulled from this type of hideout. Look for feeder creeks and changes in bottom depths that catfish may follow. Any places where two waters meet are almost sure bets.
For channel cats, fish shallow water during the spring. As the days heat up in the summer, remember that the cats will move to deeper water during the heat of the day and return shallow at night.
Is your favorite and most convenient body of water a lake? Then some of the same trends noted above will hold true for it, too. When fishing lakes, look for shallow waters that have access to deeper waters. Shallow waters with structures such as trees, brushpiles and rocks, and where there are changes in bottom depth, will all hold fish. When the lake was originally impounded, manmade structures were often covered over, and a good map will show you approximately where these are located; they can be excellent places to fish. And creeks and sloughs feeding into the lake that have a lot of submerged trees and brushpiles are particularly attractive to cats during the cooler parts of the year.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
Tailraces below dams are very promising catfishing locations, especially when the dams are releasing water. These days, access to some dam tailraces is severely limited because of security concerns, so you may not be able to get right up next to the discharge areas. But fishing a few hundred yards from the dam is still productive. This is where many of the people who fish for the monster flatheads cast their baits and set their jugs and trotlines. Below dams, you can use a large slip-rig or a three-way rig with a heavy sinker and cast between the gates where the water is not as swift. Or you can use a bobber-style rig and let your bait drift.
Drift-fishing is the lazy man's way of finding out where the cats are hiding. If nothing else is working for you, just let the current or the wind blow your offering across the surface of the water in areas that you've identified as potential hangouts for cats. When you're drifting, you obviously need to keep your bait off the bottom - you'll get hung up quite often, anyway - by using a bottom-bouncing rig.
You can increase your odds of catching a bunch of cats by chumming. Either a burlap bag full of tasty morsels or a big block of ice that contains cut up portions of shad and shrimp can be weighted and lowered into position. Give it about an hour to "work," and then drift right over the chum. Drift-fishing works very well in deep waters, especially around dams or rocky areas.
The channel catfish, which in Texas ranks behind only the largemouth and the crappie as the fish that most anglers prefer to catch, is easily distinguished from the flathead; telling it apart from the blue cat is another matter. A channel's deeply forked tail fin is one marker, and its upper jaw projects beyond the lower jaw, unlike that of the flathead catfish. Its coloration is olive-brown to slate blue on the back and sides, shading to silvery-white on the belly; typically, numerous small black spots are present in young fish but may be obscured in large adults. The channel's anal fin has 24 to 29 soft rays - from six to 11 fewer that dos the blue catfish's. A wide variety of baits - liver, grasshoppers, shrimp, worms, chicken parts, cheese and stink baits among them - can fool the channel cat.
Blue catfish also have a forked tail, and so (as suggested above) are not infrequently confused with channel cats. However, only the Rio Grande population has dark spots on the back and sides. Also, the number of rays in its anal fin is typically 30 to 35, and its coloration usually slate blue on the back, shading to white on the belly. The blue is the largest freshwater sportfish in Texas, 50-pounders being not at all uncommon. Trotliners have brought in specimens weighing more than 100 pounds; rod-and-reel anglers catch ones that sometimes break the 80-pound mark.
Flathead catfish are typically pale yellow to light brown on the back and sides, and highly mottled with black and/or brown (hence the name "yellow cat"). The belly is usually pale yellow or cream-colored. The head is broadly flattened, with a projecting lower jaw. The tail fin is only slightly notched, not deeply forked as is the case with blue and channel catfish. Young fish may be very dark in appearance - almost black. Like the blue cat, the flathead can grow to some pretty impressive sizes, with 50-pounders being pulled from waters in which mature populations are present.
Now let's look at catfishing around the state.
CENTRAL TEXAS Lake Limestone in the Waco area covers 14,000 acres along the Navasota River 15 miles southeast of Groesbeck on FM 3371 in Leon, Robertson, and Limestone counties. All three catfish species can be caught year 'round, but fishing is best in May and June, when the cats are spawning. Most spawning occurs in shallow coves or along cut banks in submerged timber or sparse, large rock, with adjacent deep water.
Channels and blues can be caught during warmer weather by drift-fishing across shallow main-lake flats with cut shad, shrimp, worms, or commercial dough or dip baits. Flatheads generally prefer live bait, but very fresh cut bait can be used. Flathead anglers should target areas with timber and brushpiles along cut banks at night. Trotlining is a popular and effective method for catching all three species, and is generally more productive in the upper parts of the lake. Gently sloping b
anks, flooded timber, and an abundance of a variety of aquatic vegetation offer anglers plenty of diverse cover to fish. Numerous boathouses and docks offer additional cover.
Lake Whitney is on the Brazos and Nolan rivers, off Texas Highway 22 about 30 miles northwest of Waco. This long, winding lake offers a variety of shoreline cover - everything from gently sloping blackland banks with abundant cedar and hardwood timber to majestic limestone bluffs and rock points.
Blue, channel, and flathead catfish are present in Lake Whitney. All three species can be caught year 'round, but the catfishing's best during the April-June spawning period. Most spawning occurs in shallow coves or along cut banks in submerged timber or sparse, large rock, with adjacent deep water. Channels and blues can be caught in warmer weather by drift-fishing across shallow main-lake flats with cut shad, shrimp, worms or commercial dough or dip baits. Anglers can improve their success by chumming likely spots with grain that's been soaked in water for a week or two. Many anglers fish for trophy blues from December through March. The best areas are near channels and submerged brush or rock. Fish over 40 pounds are possible, and are often caught on live shad. Flatheads also generally prefer live bait, but very fresh cut bait can be used. Flathead anglers should target areas with timber and brushpiles along cutbanks at night. Trotlining, a popular and effective method for catching all three species, is generally more productive in the upper parts of the lake. For local information, call Lake Whitney State Park at (254) 694-3793.
The Highland Lakes - Buchanan, LBJ and Travis - are three beautiful lakes formed by damming up portions of the Colorado River. Gill-net surveys conducted in 2002 (they're done every three years) on these lakes tallied a catch rate for Lake Buchanan of 3.33 channel catfish per net, 72 percent of which exceeded the minimum-length limit, which is currently 12 inches. Channel catfish were collected at a rate of 3.2 per net in Lake LBJ, and 88 percent of those were longer than 12 inches. Lake Travis had a catch of 2.13 channel catfish per net, with 97 percent exceeding 12 inches.
Catters can find channel, blue, and flathead catfish throughout the reservoirs, with blues dominating the fishery. Stink baits and cut baits work best for the blues and channel cats, while live bait is preferred for large flathead catfish.
Recently the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department wrapped up a survey of the Colorado River below Austin in the vicinity of Little Weberville Park. As gill-netting is generally ineffective in rivers with swift current such as is seen in this portion of the Colorado. Therefore, an electrofishing boat was pressed into service to do daytime sampling. Thirty channel catfish were collected in an hour of electrofishing, of which 87 percent were larger than 12 inches.
Upriver, beyond the Highland Lakes Chain at Colorado Bend State Park, the trotline angler can catch a lot of blues and channels with live perch, shrimp and stink bait.
NORTHEAST TEXAS Wright Patman Reservoir (formerly known as Lake Texarkana) is on the Sulphur River in Bowie and Cass counties, 10 miles southwest of Texarkana. Covering 20,300 acres and featuring 170 miles of shoreline, it has a large watershed that contributes to water-level fluctuations. This reservoir has one of the best catfish fisheries in Texas. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has two campgrounds on the lake; there are public, commercial, and state boat ramps. Atlanta State Park on the south side of the lake has camping sites, as well as day-use facilities. There are boat ramps, picnic tables, a swimming area, hiking trails, and restrooms with showers.
Structural habitat consists of inundated timber, brush, creek channels, and riprap. Submerged aquatic vegetation coverage is low; however, high densities of emergent and floating plants are present. All three of the freshwater catfishes abound in excellent numbers in W/P. The blues and channels prefer stink bait, shrimp and liver that's worked slowly around creek entrances and over natural humps. Big yellows, fished for primarily with juglines baited with live perch, are regularly pulled from the lake at this time of the year.
Lake Texoma, sitting on the Texas-Oklahoma border, is a magnificent impoundment for all types of angling - and the action for really big whiskerfish is superb. Many of the world and state records for catfish are held by Lake Texoma anglers. Home of enormous blue cats (116 pounds!), it's also home to channel and flathead cat populations that will make the Texoma angler very happy indeed. The big blues in the lake prefer large live baits, so if you're jugging for them around the dam, be sure to use the largest perch or shad you can catch; use live perch and shad for the yellow cats, too. Throw almost anything you want at the channels: shrimp, punch bait, liver, chicken parts - whatever you can find that smells the worst!
EAST TEXAS One of the better choices for catfish anglers in East Texas is 44,000-acre Richland-Chambers, which has developed into a fine fishing lake since its impoundment in 1987. The records for the lake are indicative of what a magnificent catfish fishery it has become. Those records include a 16.69-pound channel, 66-pound blue, and an 80-pound flathead. The locals say that all three species are likely to consume any bait - from shrimp to punch bait to stink bait to liver to cut shad to perch - thrown their way.
The catfish in Lake Richland-Chambers may be easy to please, but over in Cedar Creek they're a bit more particular. In this 34,000-acre lake, you'll find submerged vegetation in the backs of coves in the lower end of the reservoir. Some vegetation is present in the upper end of the lake, but the water there is very shallow. When the cats come into the shallows at night, this is a good place to be rigged up with cut shad and perch. You should also look for submerged islands located across the lake from the confluence of Clear and Caney creeks. Work them with the same bait or try a gob of night crawlers to see if you can generate some interest.
SOUTH TEXAS Down in the lower latitudes of the Lone Star State, there are several lakes worth investigating if you're a hardcore whiskercatter. Braunig Lake, located just 17 miles south of San Antonio, is tiny compared to some good catfish lakes, but don't let its 1,500-acre size scare you off. It is an excellent channel cat fishery. One of the favorite places to find the cats is in the areas where the cormorants roost. You'll be able to identify these areas quite easily, as the trees will be covered with the birds' "whitewash" droppings. Shrimp, liver and blood bait are top producers for channels, while the blues prefer stink bait. And if the roosts aren't working, try the rocky riprap along the dam and peninsulas.
Nearby Calaveras Lake, only 20 miles south of San Antonio, is an even better fishery for Mr. Whiskers than Braunig is. It's a small impoundment, just 3,500 acres, and similar in structure and habitat to Braunig. But the channel cat fishing in Calaveras is considerably better than it is in Braunig. The baits of choice are stink bait, chicken liver, shad and tilapia. Work the riprap and cormorant roosts in this lake too, and if you do
n't have any luck, fish along the edges of the lake wherever you can locate submerged structure in 10 to 15 feet of water.
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These fishing locations are but a tiny sample of what's available to you in the Lone Star State. Just about any body of water that's larger than a puddle and that stays wet all year long will probably support at least a modest catfish population. If you're a native Texan, you shouldn't have to drive too far to find excellent fishing near you!
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