May 29, 2012
The June night was perfect for catfishing — warm, overcast and calm. I was listening to a great horned owl hooting in the distance when I felt the first tap, tap on my fishing line. In the golden light of our lantern, I could see the rod tip bend slightly and then straighten again.
"Here, son," I said, handing the pole to 12-year-old Josh. "I feel a bite."
Josh tensed with anticipation.
"Don't get in a hurry," I said. "Wait 'til he starts running."
Suddenly, the fish surged away, putting a deep bend in the pole. There was no doubt now the fish was on. It twisted and turned in a bulldog run across the lake bottom as Josh grimaced and cranked.
After a brief but exciting tussle, the fish came in, resigned to its fate and croaking softly at the injustice of it all. It was a nice flathead catfish, 5 pounds of muscle and mouth, and before we left the lake, it would be joined by nine more of its whiskered brethren. For Josh, that night was a little like heaven.
I've been fishing for catfish since I was big enough to hold a cane pole. Now I have six sons who share my enjoyment of the sport. When possible, we make our catfishing forays at night. That's when cats bite best, making night-fishing junkets far more memorable than daytime outings.
To me, catfishing conjures up memories of whippoorwills and starlight, of running trotlines in wooded coves, of bargain-basement rods and reels stuck between planks in wooden bridges over muddy rivers. Yes, and of mosquitoes, too, for of such elements is catfishing compounded. There's something exciting and different about catfishing, especially at night in an undercurrent of mystery and expectation.
Be warned, however. When night-fishing for catfish, snakes drop in for a visit now and then. You'll reek of fish slime and bait. The hummingbird drone of a million mosquitoes dive-bombing you for a blood meal will drive you bonkers.
Despite the these inconveniences, fishing after dark is the best way to hook my favorite catfish — the incomparable, ugly and good-eating flathead — whether you want a few fish to eat or a trophy-class monster that'll give you bragging rights.
Fishing at night is a great way to enjoy the company of family and friends, as well. Load up your camping and fishing gear, and head for a lakeside beach or river sandbar. Let the kids run wild during the day — swimming, hiking, catching frogs — and then share with them the joys of catfishing when the sun goes down.
You can catch flatheads during daylight hours, especially during cloudy periods or when water is muddy. But the odds of success improve if you fish the hours between dusk and dawn. Most flatheads work the late shift.
Mosquitoes are night creatures, too, so insect repellent is a must (on you, but never get it on your bait). You'll need a good lantern, maybe two or three, and if you're bank fishing, some lawn chairs and some rod holders or forked sticks on which to prop your poles. Pick a body of water where catfish are abundant (Arkansas has dozens), and carry plenty of bait. Good choices for small eating-sized flatheads include baitfish (minnows, shad or small sunfish), nightcrawlers, crawfish, catalpa worms, chicken liver and commercial stinkbaits. If you're going after a trophy, however, you should stick exclusively to live fish baits — small sunfish, big shiners, creek chubs, carp or goldfish.
To catch flatheads, which are the most difficult of Arkansas' catfish to find and hook, remember these important facts.
Although found in both lakes and rivers, flatheads are generally considered river fish. They are most abundant in large, sluggish, deep river pools, usually over hard bottoms or where silt deposition is slow. They generally avoid heavy current, but sometimes feed in swift water at the ends of dikes and in tailraces below dams. Big specimens seldom are found in creeks, ponds and small lakes, but populations are substantial in many larger reservoirs and natural lakes within Arkansas.
Flatheads are cover lovers. During daylight hours, they usually seek shelter around or within submerged logs, piles of driftwood, toppled trees, snags and cavities in mid-depths. At night, they leave these sanctuaries and move into more open, shallower waters to feed. Adults tend to be solitary and often are aggressive toward others of their kind. Thus, a single spot of cover usually yields only one, or at most two or three, adult flatheads. If you catch one or two fish in a spot, it's probably time to move.
Flathead catfish are giants among Arkansas fish. Only alligator gar grow larger. A 139-pound, 14-ounce flathead caught in the Arkansas River below Terry Lock and Dam just downstream from Little Rock is the largest documented anywhere in the fish's range. It was caught on a snagline. Another Arkansas River specimen — an 80-pounder — is the state-record, rod-and-reel catch. If you're hoping to catch fish this size, or even one of Arkansas' plentiful 20- to 50-pounders, be sure you're using stout tackle. Bass-fishing tackle works great on smaller flatheads, but the heavyweights require more durable gear.
Arkansas encompasses scores of lakes and rivers offering excellent fishing for flatheads. Coming up with a Top 10 list is like trying to pick the state's 10 best restaurants. It's darn near impossible, and lots of excellent spots are bound to get left out.
Nevertheless, following are short reviews of four rivers and lakes renowned for great flathead fishing. Some are best known for their trophy potential. Others have well-deserved reputations for fast action — lots of cats caught in a day's fishing, with an occasional lunker in the harvest to keep you on your toes. All of them offer excellent fishing for the savvy cat angler.
The Arkansas River is the undisputed queen of Arkansas flathead waters. No other body of water in the Natural State has produced as many record-book flatheads. Fishing is excellent throughout the warm months on the entire length of the river from Ft. Smith to the river's mouth near Yancopin.
Some of the best hotspots along the river's length include the tailwater of Ozark-Jeta Taylor Lock & Dam south of Ozark where an 80-pound flathead, the current state record, was caught in 1989; the tailwater below Dardanelle Lock & Dam near Russellville, which has given up two state records and numerous 50-pound-plus flatheads; and the tailwater below Dam No. 2 on the Arkansas River's lower end below Tichnor, which produces astounding numbers of big flatheads year after year. A sleeper honeyhole is the stretch immediately below David D. Terry Lock and Dam where Bruce and Mackey Sayre of North Little Rock caught the biggest flathead ever recorded in May 1982.
Small bluegills, live shad and live skipjack herring are the baits of choice when fishing the Arkansas. Most anglers catch their own using a hand-thrown cast net.
A simple rig that works fine in most situations, here and on other water bodies, is the egg-sinker rig. Run an appropriately sized egg sinker up on your main line, and tie a sturdy barrel swivel below it. To the other eye of the swivel, tie a 24-inch leader to which you've tied a hook. Impale a baitfish on the hook, leaving the point of the hook exposed.
Don't set your fishing rod down while waiting on a bite. If you do, chances are it'll get deep-sixed by a big flathead.
No lake anywhere produces more monster flatheads than central Arkansas' Lake Conway. This 6,700-acre Arkansas Game and Fish Commission lake off Interstate 40 just east of Conway is shallow, heavily timbered throughout, rich in shad and sunfish, and full of huge logjams and deep holes. In other words, it is prime habitat for producing giant flatheads!
Scores of 30- to 60-pound Conway flatheads are taken every year, some by anglers fishing for other species, some on trotlines, a few by rod-and-reel anglers who enjoy the challenge of battling big cats in heavy timber. Serious local catmen believe 100-pounders swim there, but the dense timber makes it almost impossible to land one. Small live sunfish are the leading bait choice.
Because most Conway flathead aficionados are secretive about the location of their favored honeyholes, it can be hard for a first-timer to locate an area harboring big flatheads. The best way to do that is to obtain a map of the lake from one of the local docks, a map showing the location of old lakes inundated when the Conway was filled. Flatheads prefer the sanctuary these deep areas offer. Adams Lake, Greens Lake, Cub Pond, Round Pond, Gold Lake, Goose Pond and Holt's Lake are excellent locations for placing a trotline or for bait-fishing with a rod and reel.
The Mississippi River has always been a mother lode of giant flatheads. Yet, with the exception of a few hardcore commercial fishermen, the Mississippi's flathead population has been virtually untouched by catfish anglers. The river is big and dangerous, and so few catfish anglers are willing to tackle it.
Several 50- to 70-pounders are taken every year, but so far, no angler has managed to bring in a 100-pound-class fish. They're out there, though, and sooner or later some knowledgeable catter will show one to the world.
Trotlines provide the best means for tackling giant Mississippi flatheads. Most local 'liners set several short lines (10 to 15 hooks) perpendicular to the bank near prominent structure — outside river bends, river bottom scour holes, logpiles, etc. Goldfish are the bait of choice because they remain lively for a long time and are highly attractive to big flats. Large (6-inch-plus) shiner minnows are also common baits.
The trotline stagings (short lines to which the hooks are tied) should be attached to the main line with swivels to prevent big cats from rolling the rig and tangling it. It's also imperative to carry a big, sturdy landing net.
If you choose to fish with rod and reel, carry sturdy tackle. Record-class flatheads are always a possibility, and so most savvy catters spool their reels with 100-pound-test line at the least. Long fiberglass rods (10-feet-plus) provide the leverage needed to subdue a big cat, and sturdy level-wind reels with a low retrieve ratio (5:1 or less) make fighting trophies less wearisome. Live fish baits again rate highest, especially goldfish, shiners and gizzard shad.
Among the best fishing areas are where big-river tributaries join the Mississippi. Junctures offering good possibilities include the White/Mississippi juncture, the Arkansas/Mississippi juncture and the St. Francis/Mississippi juncture.
This southwest Arkansas impoundment is home to an astounding population of flathead catfish. Many of them in the 50- to 75-pound class are taken each year.
Several factors enhance Millwood's productivity. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built this 29,200-acre impoundment on the Little River in 1966, they flooded more than 24,000 acres of timber and underbrush. Many oxbow lakes, sloughs and creeks were also inundated. These features provide ideal habitat for feeding, resting and spawning flatheads. Baitfish such as shad and bream are abundant, so there's no lack of food. And Millwood's extreme southerly location and shallow water keep temperatures on the mild side, thus promoting year-round growth of catfish. Top it off with water that's highly fertile and constantly flowing and you have a perfect situation for growing big flatheads and lots of them.
The numerous creek and river channels crisscrossing Millwood's bottom are topnotch flathead fishing spots, as are the old lakebeds — Horseshoe, Mud, Bee, Yarborough, Clear and Beard's — inundated as Millwood filled. With a good bottom contour map and a fishfinder, pinpointing these areas is a cinch.
Another first-rate fishing area is the Little River just below the dam. This tailwater area has produced numerous trophy flatheads, including a former state-record 67-pounder.
OTHER BLUE-RIBBON FLATHEAD WATERS
The four bodies of water I've discussed certainly aren't the only topnotch flathead catfish destinations in Arkansas. Others you might want to try include the White River downstream from Batesville to the river's confluence with the mighty Mississippi; the St. Francis and L'Anguille rivers, which snake across the Delta of northeast Arkansas; the vastly underrated Red River along the Arkansas-Texas-Louisiana border in the state's southwest corner; Bayou Bartholomew, a dark-horse hotspot like the Red River, which winds through the Coastal Plain from Pine Bluff to the Arkansas-Louisiana border; Lake Grampus, an oxbow of Bayou Bartholomew 15 miles east of Hamburg; and timber-filled Lake Hinkle 12 miles west of Waldron in west-central Arkansas.
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Night-fishing for flatheads calls for a maximum of sitting and socializing and a minimum of the frenetic foolishness "fancier" fish demand. All who partake enjoy the thrills, the laughs, the delectable meals and, most of all, the companionship an after-hours catfishing junket provides. There may be prettier fish and more challenging catches, but flathead catfish remain a blue-ribbon choice for relaxing, good-times fishing this season.