Summertime is fish-frying time in Oklahoma. It's also a great time to load the freezer with tasty catfish filets to cook at those traditional summer gatherings.
Catfishing is actually good pretty much year 'round at many Oklahoma lakes, if not just about all of them. But in the coming weeks when the three most popular species of catfish — channels, blues and flatheads — are spawning, it can be easy to find concentrations of catfish by zeroing in on their spawning areas.
After the spawn, there will be plenty of opportunities to catch catfish by drifting, fishing submerged structure, or by using other techniques. Nevertheless, during May and June the spawning areas often are the most productive fishing spots.
Channel cats, blues and flatheads are fairly predictable in their spawning habits. And they typically spawn in similar places. They are cavity spawners. They find a small cave, a deep crevice between rocks, an undercut creek or river bank, or something similar in which to deposit and fertilize their eggs.
Spawning time is noodling time as well. Noodlers can find flatheads holed up in caves and cracks, and beneath shaded overhangs, or beneath logjams in creeks and rivers.
Summer also ranks as a great time for setting trotlines or limblines because the fish are concentrated in spawning areas and will be swimming around the baited lines as they move toward or along the shorelines where they spawn.
As summer progresses and spawning activity wanes, drifting the flats in a boat or anchoring along submerged channel edges can be more productive than actively fishing shoreline areas. Juglines also can be set adrift to move across the flats.
But in May and June, shoreline areas with lots of nooks and crannies may be the best spots to target spawning cats.
On many of our manmade lakes, long expanses of shoreline near bridges and along roads are protected with riprap. Those rocky shorelines are networks of cracks and crevices and small caverns in which catfish like to nest.
When the channel cats move in to spawn, it is sometimes possible to catch them by flippin' or pitchin' baited hooks along the riprapped shores. I learned that technique from the late Jack Frisbie, a Lake Eufaula fishing guide, and tackle shop owner, and state wildlife commissioner.
Frisbie and I would use those long, limber poles that crappie anglers use to probe shoreline brush for spawning crappie. But we used them to dip our hooks, baited with shrimp, around shoreline rocks. Often the channel cats would strike just like a bass hitting a topwater plug, taking it the instant it touched the water.
Battling a 5-pound channel cat on one of those long, limber crappie poles can be fun! And when a bigger one bites, it might take awhile to wear it down. But we landed lots of big channel cats with that fishing method.
Just about any hook of the appropriate size will work, but we seemed to get more solid hooksets using circular hooks that had little or no straight shank. I don't know why but we missed fewer strikes with that style of hook in 3/0 or 4/0 sizes.
At Eufaula there are many stretches of riprapped shoreline, along U.S. 69 north and south of the town of Eufaula, along Interstate 40 on the Deep Fork River arm of the lake, and along Highway 9 in the southern part of the lake, as well as at other spots. Most such locations hold spawning cats at this time of the year. I have caught channel cats that way at Lake Keystone and at Kaw Lake. The technique should work on just about any lake that has expanses of riprapped shoreline.
When spawning season ends in Oklahoma, it is time to return to open water to catch catfish. You can still catch them along shorelines, especially at night when they prowl the shallows for food, but during the later summer months, both blues and channels roam the open water of a lake much of the time.
When many of our large reservoirs were first impounded, channel cats and flatheads living in the dammed-up creeks and rivers, supplemented with stockings from the Oklahoma Wildlife Department, were the most common catfish in the lakes. But as our lakes matured, blue cats became more abundant than either channels or flatheads.
I saw very few blue cats in Oklahoma until the 1970s, even though they existed in some drainages, but now blues are abundant. On big lakes such as Eufaula, Grand, Texoma and others, we used to catch mostly channel cats. Now, though, if you drift the flats on those same lakes you likely will catch far more blue catfish than any other species.
When blues first began to take over the lakes, some anglers insisted they were catching a new species they called "Mississippi White" catfish. Blues are often grayish and pale in color, but they are blue catfish. There have been some white, albino-like channel cats caught at times, but they are just channel cats. There is a species of white catfish, Ameiurus catus, that is native to some East Coast streams that flow to the Atlantic, but there has been no known stocking of that species in Oklahoma waters.
For boat owners, drifting for catfish is an excellent way to catch blues in the summertime. And while a variety of baits may work, I've found through the years that fresh shad is one of the most effective baits. Anglers can use towed nets or traps to catch shad, but using a cast net generally is the quickest way to catch enough for a few hours of fishing.
I like to use 2- or 3-inch shad and I use them whole. If I catch larger shad I cut them into chunks or strips big enough to cover the throat of the hook. It isn't necessary to keep the shad alive, but having a small bait bucket or an ice chest with a little ice to keep the shad fresh for a few hours comes in handy.
For drifting, it is good to use fairly heavy line — 17- to 20-pound-test — for the main line, with slightly smaller line for a dropper. That way, if your hook hangs on rocks or submerged logs, you can break the dropper line without losing the whole rig.
I like to use a 3-way swivel with a weight on one dropper line and the hook tied on a second dropper line. An alternative method is to tie a weight on the end of the line and the hook on a dropper line 12 to 18 inches above the weight. Depending on the speed of the wind and the depth of the water in which you drift, the size of the weight may have to be adjusted so that the weight drags the bottom and the bait drifts just above bottom as the boat moves with the wind.
Sometimes you can locate catfish with sonar, but I've caught many blues at Eufaula, Keystone and Grand lakes in areas where I was seeing very few fish signals on the sonar screen. I think because catfish tend to hug the bottom, it is not always easy to see them on the sonar display.
Place the boat on the upwind side of a broad flat, put out baited lines and drift across the flat. Depending on our Oklahoma wind, you may need to drag a small anchor or use the trolling motor to make corrections and keep the boat drifting in the right direction.
Texoma, Eufaula, Grand and Keystone are among my favorite catfishing lakes, but Green Country anglers can find lots of catfish at Hudson, Fort Gibson, Robert S. Kerr, Webbers Falls and other lakes.
Western Oklahoma is not known for its abundance of water, but it still has several good catfishing spots. Altus-Lugert, Waurika and Lake Lawtonka are lakes where I've enjoyed some good catfishing action, primarily for channel cats. In my youth I hauled a lot of catfish out of the spillway area at Great Salt Plains Lake northwest of Enid.
Having a boat to roam the big lakes can be helpful, but there is plenty of summertime catfish action available to those who don't have boats or who use small johnboats, canoes, kayaks and other small craft.
Many smaller reservoirs, and many Oklahoma creeks and rivers, hold abundant catfish populations and can be fished with trotlines, banklines, juglines and limblines. Camping overnight on a creek or river bank and running lines can be the making of a great summer outing for families or just for the anglers.
A variety of baits — prepared or stinkbaits, live crawfish, small sunfish, minnows or cut shad — all can work for both blues and channels. And the live baits may attract some big flatheads, which rarely are caught on prepared baits.
Summertime is great for noodling — catching catfish by hand by probing crevices, caves and dark spaces in logjams, etc. Noodling is a popular summertime sport for Oklahomans bent on catching big flatheads.
You can catch catfish at any time of day, but they are more active at night and so nighttime angling typically can be more productive. Several years ago a friend and I spent many days snorkeling in a clearwater creek in Eastern Oklahoma. We were watching the smallmouth bass for the most part, but we noticed that we rarely saw catfish out in the open in the daytime. We'd see only the occasional catfish barely visible in submerged caves or dark overhangs. But at dusk, when the sun quit shining down into the water, we would see more catfish, chiefly channel cats, come out to search for food and swim about in open water.
I should also mention a technique that I've seen work well on some of Southeastern Oklahoma's coolwater streams like the Mountain Fork, Glover and Kiamichi rivers. That is using live grasshoppers fished with only a split shot or two to hold them beneath the surface. Those are drifted into the shadowy areas around mid-stream boulders or beneath undercut banks. The people who showed me the technique used cane poles and fly rods and fished from float tubes or sometimes just by wading. They often caught dozens of catfish daily with that method.
Stream fishing for catfish seems to get better as summer gets hotter. In some of our drier summers, a few streams quit flowing, at least on the surface, and the fish become trapped in pools and seem to become even more willing to bite.
I have talked only about fishing with bait, but it's not unusual to catch catfish on lures as well. I've caught many on crankbaits at Lake Keystone and Grand Lake, and a few on other lakes. I've also had channel cats take jigs, spinnerbaits and crankbaits at numerous lakes and in several streams.
The current state-record channel catfish (at this writing) was caught on a lure. Angler Gary Doak of Muskogee was fishing for bass with a 2-inch plastic sunfish on a jig in Taft Lake, a 46-acre lake west of Muskogee, when he hooked a 35-pound, 15-ounce channel cat that captured the state's record slot.
Bait, rather than lures, is best if you're looking to fill your stringer with catfish, but don't be surprised to find a catfish twisting on the end of your line when you're fishing with lures.
Oklahoma has lots of venues for catching catfish, and summertime is a great time of year to catch them.