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Lone Star Catfish Outlook
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.
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.
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 banks, 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.
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