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Southern Cats
Southern Texas catfish, that is! And what better place is there to search for the makings of an early fish fry?

Zapata angler and fishing guide Robert Amaya swings a fat Falcon Lake catfish on board while his son Robert Jr. waits patiently for that tap-tap-tap signaling a bite on his own line. Photo by Bob Hood

Something about the pungent odor of catfish punch bait and soured grain reminds me of the sweet smell of golden-brown catfish fillets sizzling in a skillet after a day on the lake catching them.

Forget for the moment, if you will, catch-and-release. In Texas, catfishing, especially catfishing for pan-sized channel cats, is second in popularity only to fishing for largemouth bass. And you can give the credit for that fact directly to the wonderful taste of a freshly cooked fillet or the whole catfish itself. Then factor in the fun of fishing as an exclamation point!

Texas is rich in great places for catching catfish. Lakes Texoma and Tawakoni, for example, offer some of the best action imaginable, but when Old Man Winter waves in one cold front after another each fall and winter, you'd be wise to head to one of the great catfishing fisheries in South Texas. Lakes like Falcon, Amistad, Choke Canyon, Braunig, Calaveras and others south of Interstate 10 rarely feel the effects of winter cold fronts that keep many anglers in the northern areas of our state confined to the warmth of their homes.

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I like them all, but to be perfectly honest, my favorite lake at this time of the year is Falcon Reservoir. For one thing, I love the lake's remote setting in one of my favorite Lone Star State ecological regions: the Southwest Texas Brush Country. And I can't remember ever having had a "bad" fishing trip to the big Texas-Mexico border lake.

Sprawling across 83,000 inundated acres of thorny vegetation along the Rio Grande near Zapata, about 40 miles south of Laredo, Falcon boasts channel catfishing that can be as good as it gets. That's especially true in January and February, when the cold fronts that do pass that deep into South Texas are short-lived, and much milder than the ones farther north.

Robert Amaya, owner of Robert's Fish N' Tackle in Zapata and a good friend of mine, considers Falcon to be the place for anglers seeking large numbers of eating-sized channel cats. "If you bait out a hole, you are almost certain to catch a lot of channel cats," he said. "It's usually pretty easy, and a lot of fun, too."

Amaya is a second-generation fishing guide as well as the proprietor of a great tackle store. He credits much of his fishing prowess to his late father, Tommy Gray, who owned Redwood Lodge in Zapata for several decades. Although several blue and yellow cats have been caught at Falcon over the years, the lake is best known for its superb channel cat fishery.

Setting up to catch channel catfish is no different at Falcon than it is at just about on any other lake. Pre-baiting a small area with soured grain is a big key to catching large numbers of catfish. Channel catfish, being the scavengers they are, will eat just about anything and so a wide variety of baits can be used to catch them. However, as with many other methods of fishing, one particular bait will often produce faster action than any others. And when it comes to channel catfish, Amaya's preferred bait -- which is my and numerous other catfishermen's top choice, too -- is punch bait.

Many varieties beckon from tackle-store shelves, but one of the most important things to consider when purchasing a particular one is its consistency. My favorite is Magic Bait's Stick-It, because it has enough fiber to keep the bait on a treble hook. Fiber (derived from things like shredded cattails) is an important ingredient that helps to bring about more bites on a one-time baited-hook basis. (That means that your hook's in the water more times than out of the water being rebaited.)

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