They're called the "dog days" — those hot, sticky days in July and August when the dog star, Sirius, rises with the sun. For many Arkansas anglers, "cat days" also is an appropriate name for the days, and nights, of summer that form the traditional season for pursuing catfish.
Most catfish anglers want to catch a meal when they fish; eating-sized cats on the line make them happy. But today, many aficionados have another goal: catching a monster blue or flathead exceeding 50 pounds, and preferably one pushing 100. Cats that size are out there, and our anglers have good reasons to pursue them.
Big cats are unpredictable, muscle-bound brutes that brawl with unparalleled ferocity and stamina. When one takes your bait, you may think you've snagged a log. Set the hook, and it will turn into a bulldog of a fighter. The unprepared angler may see his rod snapped like a strand of dry spaghetti, or stand in amazement after his favorite fishing combo has been yanked from his hands. No fish are more thrilling to catch.
I strongly believe that, sooner or later, an Arkansas fisherman with the proper tackle will hook and land a blue or flathead bigger than the world records. To be that angler, you need heavy measures of luck, persistence, fortitude and preparation. I can help you with the preparation.
The following contains information on several monster Arkansas catfish honeyholes — lakes and rivers with high potential for producing a catfish over the century mark. All are worth visiting if you hope to catch giants this season.
THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER
"The Father of Waters" upstream and down from Memphis/West Memphis has produced some of the biggest blue catfish ever caught in North America, many of which have surfaced in the last decade and a half.
One extraordinary pair surfaced at a 2007 Bass Pro Shops' Big Cat Quest Tournament when competitors weighed in a 103-pounder on one day and a 108-pounder the next. In August 2008, Brad Stout of Rosie caught and released a 116-pounder on the river near Helena. And in 2004, Matt Bingham of Memphis caught and released a blue just upstream from Memphis that was 56 inches long with a 36-inch girth. That fish, which undoubtedly exceeded 100 pounds, may still be swimming the river and growing larger every day.
The biggest cat caught in the Memphis stretch so far was a former world-record blue caught by Charles Ashley Jr. of Marion in August 2001. That monster weighed 116 pounds, 12 ounces. But many anglers believe much larger blues lurks here, perhaps even a 150-pounder.
The Mississippi is a mother lode of giant flatheads, too. Fifteen- to 30-pounders are common, and 50- to 70-pounders probably are caught somewhere along the river's length every day during summer.
One of the best anglers fishing for the Mississippi's giant cats is James Patterson of Mississippi River Guide Service who can be reached at (901) 383-8674, www.bigcatfishing.com. He's on the river 100-plus days each year. And when it's big whiskerfish he's targeting, often as not he fishes around eddies near the ends of the river's many wing dikes.
"I fish the current along the edges of these eddies, or whirlpools, of water," Patterson says. "I find that catfish in the middle of the eddy water are not active. Active cats are along the edges, so that's where I anchor and fish."
Patterson relies on two primary baits. "I use live shad a lot, even though they're hard to find," he says. "Cut skipjack herrings also are good bait."
A simple three-way-swivel rig is Patterson's standard. The 2-foot hook leader is tipped with a 3/0 to 7/0 Eagle Claw Kahle hook. The 8-inch weight leader is tied to a 3-ounce sinker.
"I anchor above the hole I intend to fish," Patterson says, "then cast to the spot and let the reel free-spool until the weight hits bottom. Sometimes I'll have out 200 feet of line. Big cats usually hit hard and quick, so rod holders are necessary if you fish more rods than you can hold."
It would seem that a bait tossed to the edge of one of these huge suckholes would swirl round and round. But when done properly, the bait will sink quickly to the bottom and remain stationary. Reposition your rig if necessary to achieve this end, then prepare for the rod-jarring strike that will soon follow if a giant cat is nearby. Often, big cats cruise slowly through a hole, waiting for something to jolt their taste buds before they rush in to strike. Allow the bait to sit up to 10 minutes, but if there's no bite by then, move and try another eddy hole.
LOWER WHITE RIVER
The White River below Newport offers exceptional trophy-cat-hooking opportunities as well, and one of the best cat men I ever fished with there is Bill Peace of Jonesboro.
"You can visit the White and expect to catch a 20- to 30-pound catfish almost any time during the summer, and often you latch into one even bigger," he says. "I have no doubt you could probably catch a world record if you wanted to work at it hard enough."
Peace usually fishes with trotlines when targeting trophy cats. Those he usually sets near the mouths of small tributaries running into the White. He stretches each line from an anchor point on shore into deeper water, and then secures the line's other end to a burlap bag weighted with rocks. The lines are baited with small carp or big goldfish purchased from bait dealers.
"The mouths of these streams are ideal places for catching big cats," Peace told me. "Cats move from the main river into smaller streams when feeding, and if a line is placed along their travel route, I'm likely to catch some dandy fish."
From dusk until 2 or 3 a.m. is prime time for big summer cats — the darker the night the better. The outside bends of the river are among the most productive hotspots, especially where trees have toppled in and the river has gouged into the bank forming undercuts. Potholes or slight depressions in the river bottom also tend to concentrate catfish, as do the upstream sides of underwater humps.
No doubt you've heard about the great catfishing in the Arkansas River. You've read about it at least a dozen times in Arkansas Sportsman magazine. And you'll read about it a dozen more times if you read about catfishing at all, because few bodies of water in this state, indeed in the entire country, produce monster cats so consistently.
Consider this: With the exception of the most recent one, which came from the Mississippi River, every state-record blue catfish ever taken in Arkansas has come from the Arkansas River, even though blues are common in other bodies of water. All but one of those seven record blues weighed over 40 pounds. The largest was an 86-pound, 15-ounce giant taken at Dardanelle Dam. That's reason enough to keep crowing about this river's outstanding fishing for jumbo cats. But there's more.
Three state-record flathead catfish also came from the Arkansas. And there's no telling how many more mammoth Arkansas River cats have been landed but never considered for the record book. For instance, in 1982, a 139-pound, 14-ounce flathead was caught on a snagline below Terry Lock and Dam downstream from Little Rock. That's the biggest flathead ever recorded — anywhere. The only reason it's not in the record book is because only pole catches were considered at the time it was caught.
Nevertheless, that's another good example of the class of catfish found here. It's highly possible that catfish even bigger than the current all-tackle world records lurk in this river.
There's good fishing throughout the river's length in Arkansas, especially below the lower numbered dams closer to the Mississippi River. But some of the biggest cats are taken below Murray Dam at Little Rock (and the adjacent North Little Rock hydroelectric plant), Toad Suck Dam near Conway and Dardanelle Dam at Russellville.
To catch one of those big fish, key in on specific proven tactics — fishing cut or live shad if you're after blue cats, and fishing live sunfish or shad if you're after big flatheads. Match your tackle to the fish you're after, and take along an extra large landing net. Some big cats are taken from the bank, but you increase your chances of landing a giant by fishing from a boat.
To prepare one excellent river rig, tie a 4- to 8-ounce sinker on the end of your line, using heavier weights when current is excessive. Then tie a 6/0 to 9/0 hook on a 1-foot leader about 2 feet above the sinker. Bait up, and then cast into fast-running water just below the dam. If you go by the record books, your best chances for success are early July through early August.
It's tough finding a lake where giant flatheads are the No.1 bill of fare for catters, but Lake Conway fills the bill. The number of monster flatheads produced by this central Arkansas impoundment is nothing short of astounding.
Catfishing in this 6,700-acre Arkansas Game and Fish Commission lake just keeps getting better. The Game and Fish Commission has been working for several years to improve sediment problems, stabilize shorelines and keep the water at optimum levels. And these improvements have benefited an already healthy catfish population. Every year Conway gives up numerous blues and flatheads in the 50-pound-plus class.
This stump-filled lake two miles east of Conway can baffle the first-time visitor. Everything looks pretty much alike, so it's hard to decide where to fish. A sonar fishfinder will help you pinpoint the best areas, particularly inundated lakes and creek channels like Adams Lake, Greens Lake and Palarm Creek. These are excellent locations for fishing with a rod and reel, and none is that difficult to find if you inquire about their whereabouts at local bait shops. When you're in the general vicinity, you can run sonar to pinpoint each structure's exact location, and watch for signals indicating big fish holding near edges and on drops.
Lake Ouachita, which stretches from Mt. Ida on the west to Hot Springs on the east, holds some of the biggest catfish swimming in Arkansas waters. Relatively few people target catfish on this huge impoundment, but several anglers have taken giant cats from Ouachita's waters in recent years, including several blue cats pushing the 100-pound mark. For several years now, the Game and Fish Commission has been removing 70-pound-plus blues from around its net-pen fish-rearing operation there and stocking them in smaller lakes around the state.
You might think the production of such monsters would make this 40,000-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundment the focal point of lots of catfishing attention. But Ouachita doesn't rate high with many catfish anglers because it's super-tough to fish. This lake is clear, deep and enormous. Giant cats there got to be giants because they spend their active hours in places most anglers wouldn't consider fishing: extremely deep holes and ledges, mid-lake reaches in open water, dense piles of down-deep woody cover and subtle, hard-to-find structures along creek and river channels.
Despite the difficulties an angler faces, however, big cats can be caught there. I've seen numerous photos of 60- to 98-pound blues landed by savvy local cat men who would prefer I didn't tell you that. And while the lake doesn't provide prime habitat for flatheads, the comparative rarity of this species is overshadowed by the size of those present. Flatheads weighing more than 50 pounds are taken more often than most folks realize.
Fishing during limited light periods is the key to success in Ouachita's clear water. In early morning and late afternoon, light penetration is minimal, and fish may move into forage-filled shallows to feed. Cloudy days can be good for many hours of successful catfishing, and during the heat of summer, many catfish fans enjoy fishing at night.
Another way successful Ouachita catfish anglers cope with ultra-clear water is fishing deep structure and cover. No matter how clear the water may seem, it still cuts light penetration, and at a depth of 20 feet or more, light may be sufficiently reduced so that it doesn't disturb catfish. Fish deepwater areas by casting heavily weighted baits from a distance. Or position your boat so that you can work a bait using a vertical "lift-drop" presentation.
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Will you catch a 100-pound catfish this year? Probably not. But if you apply your knowledge of catfishing to the task, in all likelihood you will catch a cat, and possibly several, that will exceed 50 pounds.
May luck be with you!