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Tips for Taking East Texas Cats
If you'd like to put a little more spice into your catfishing this summer, why not try some of the tactics that these anglers employ at their favorite waters?
By Matt Williams
Pardon the pun - but there's more than one way to skin a cat. There's also more than one way to catch a cat ... a catfish, that is.
Outside of noodling (a tactic that involves reaching into a dark hole, feeling a big cat inside and then feeding it your fist), snagging and shooting them with arrows, just about anything goes on Texas waters.
Perhaps that's part of the reason that the whiskerfish has such a distinctive following in the Lone Star State. Texas folks like some variety when it comes to catching fish. They also enjoy a good fish fry from time to time, and catfish rank high on the hit list for filling orders when there are lots of hungry mouths to feed.
Ol' Whiskers is especially popular with anglers in the eastern half of the state. But after considering the region's all-star list of places to do business, that really should come as no surprise: Toledo Bend, Tawakoni, Richland-Chambers, Livingston, Palestine, Cedar Creek, Conroe and Sam Rayburn are the veterans among East Texas' bountiful list of primo catfish lakes.
But we mustn't forget Lake Fork, either. The 27,000-acre impoundment near Quitman has established itself in recent years as a strong contender for taking over the clean-up slot in a lineup laced with heavy hitters.
"Lake Fork is best known as a bass lake, but it's also making a name for itself as one heck of a catfish lake," said Martin Edwards, owner of Minnow Bucket Marina. "And what really makes it unique is that the fish don't get much pressure. More and more people are beginning to discover Fork's catfish fishery each year. But overall it's still pretty much an untapped resource."
Bob Sealy realizes the budding potential of Lake Fork as a catfish lake - which is why the founder of the McDonald's Big Bass tournament trail has his sights set on the Wood County impoundment as a launching pad for his latest business venture: the 1st Annual Big Catfish Splash.
Slated for July 24-25, the family-oriented open tournament will pay out $38,000 in guaranteed cash and prizes to anglers who bring fat cats to the scales. In addition to a grand-prize package including a fully rigged Triton aluminum boat, there will be four "big cat of the hour" cash prizes each hour, a bonus $2,500 prize to the angler who brings in the first 10 1/2-pound catfish, and an open drawing for a new Honda ATV.
Entry fee is $60 for one day or $100 for both days. All fish must be caught on rod and reel. However, all chumming must cease no later than 48 hours before tournament time.
Performed correctly, chumming almost always ignites a feeding frenzy in catfish. Drop a hook caked with cheese bait, shrimp or Catfish Charlie into a baited hole and the likelihood of getting bitten by a cat is usually much greater than what simply fishing blindly in open water will bring.
Just about any fermented grain will smell rank enough to be explosive. Most anglers prefer chumming with maize, chicken scratch or milo, but commercial cattle feed such as range cubes will also set the catfish dinner bell to ringing, drawing in cats from a considerable distance.
Souring grain is a relatively simple process. The first order of business is to come up with a suitable container to hold the smelly stuff - one that's easy to open, has a spacious opening on top and will seal back to an airtight fit.
Some catfishermen stockpile their soured grain in 30-gallon trash cans, transferring it to smaller containers as they need it. But it's not necessary to go that large unless you do a lot of fishing. Five-gallon plastic buckets work nicely as bait holders and will hold enough grain to last several trips. Stored properly and kept wet, soured grain will only get riper with time.
A 20-pound bag is a good match for a 5-gallon bucket. It's best to fill the bucket about three-quarters full of grain and then to add water until the waterline is an inch or two above the grain; add in a couple of cans of cheap beer and the grain will really get skunky. (Some catfishermen are of the opinion that the last step is a waste of good beer!)
The souring process begins when the bucket is sealed and placed in the sun. The grain will ferment quickly and is usually ready to be served up within a week. The smell will get even stronger in a couple of weeks. But you'll need to add more water as the grain swells and absorbs moisture.
During the summer months, Lake Conroe fishing guide Butch Terpe, (936) 856-7080, relies heavily on chumming to send his clients home with respectable limits of frying-sized channel catfish. The veteran guide will spend a high percentage of his time fishing in 20 to 27 feet of water at this time of year, usually trying his luck in relation to some sort of defined structure such as a creek channel, river channel, hump, point or bridge pilings.
"The banks of the San Jacinto River can be especially good," he said. "Straightaways in the channel can be good, but I really prefer the places where the river makes a sharp bend or where a point dumps into the channel."
Finding promising structure to fish around is just the first step involved in rod-and-reeling a few catfish for the frying pan. The next order of business: tempting them with chum.
In the more than 20 years that Charlie Shively, (936) 368-2542, has been fishing for catfish on the upper reaches of Toledo Bend Reservoir, he's learned from experience that it's important to use chum sparingly.
According to Shively, the object of baiting a hole is not to feed the fish, but rather to lure fish into a small area and induce a feeding frenzy. "You don't want the fish to get so full on the soured grain that they quit feeding," he explained. "You want to give them just enough that it creates some competition for what is available. About 1 or 2 pounds is all it takes."
Catfish usually pick up on the potent stench of soured grain pretty quickly, so you should see some activity within 10 minutes or so. Don't expect the action to be nonstop, however; if the bite begins to wane after you catch several fish, take it as a sign to move on to a different area.
Tommy Robison retired as a Toledo Bend fishing guide more than a decade ago, but he still goes gunning for catfish every chance he gets. He learned long ago that he can make better use of his early-morning fishing time by chumming several different spots before wetting the first hook.
"I might bait three different spots," he said. "Then I'll go back and fish them in the same order. The fish will usually be in the first spot by the time you get all the holes baited."
When baiting a hole, try to scatter the grain the length of the boat so as to give everyone a fair shot at catching fish. Another good idea: Secure both ends of the boat with anchors or tie ropes so that baits can be kept in the strike zone 100 percent of the time.
At Toledo Bend, Shively has rod-and-reeled blue cats weighing up to 20 pounds, most of which have come off main-lake ridges, points and humps in water ranging from 8 to 15 feet in depth. When targeting larger fish, he prefers standard bass tackle and 15- to 20-pound-test line. He also likes to use a Carolina rig with a piece of cut shad or perch for bait.
"I'll cast out and work the bait back to the boat real slow, just like you do when fishing for bass," he said. "The line will usually start moving off real slow when a fish takes the bait. But you'd better be holding tight when you set the hook. I've had fish on out there that I couldn't begin to turn."
Lake Fork fishing guide Gary Paris, (903) 878-2968, can relate to Shively's dilemma. Paris has rod-and-reeled blues weighing up to 25 pounds on his home lake, and has been outdone by fish that he knows were much larger.
He favors using magnum bass tackle to go after cats, but he rarely casts blindly. Instead, he targets the bases of large trees in which flocks of cormorants roost. These birds perch on overhanging limbs between feeding runs and relieve themselves repeatedly throughout the day. According to Paris, cats realize that the cormorant roosts represent a source of easy meals.
Paris casts around the roosts with chicken gizzards - bait tough as boot leather and heavy enough to cast accurately. He rigs the bait weightless, so it goes splat when it hits the surface and achieves an ultraslow fall. "The idea is to simulate what actually happens in nature," he explained. "It's good for the bait to make some noise when it strikes the surface, because the catfish have learned to associate that noise with food. When they hear it, they'll usually start looking around for the source immediately."
The guide says that the roosts are usually most productive during the fall and winter, when migrant flocks of these fish-eating birds number well into the thousands. However, he thinks it could work to some degree all summer long, since Fork maintains a fairly high population of resident birds on a year-round basis.
Executed in the proper manner, trotlining and juglining can be deadly medicine for channels, blues and the highly prized flatheads. But don't be misled here: The word "easy" isn't part of a serious linesman's vocabulary. Running trotlines or juglines and running them right is work - hard work. When you're not dumping perch traps or cutting bait, you're either cleaning fish or thinking about where to move or place another set.
The most obvious advantage of trotlining is that it allows you to have multiple hooks in the water at one time. A licensed angler can deploy up to 100 hooks at a time, but individual lines may contain no more than 50 hooks. According to Texas law, all lines must be rigged with a valid "gear tag" at each end.
Ask any hardcore trotliner about line sets, and he'll tell you that multiple short sets are much better than two or three long ones. More lines enable you to cover more water, which naturally boosts the odds of pinpointing productive areas. "I like to put 10 to 15 hooks to set as opposed to 40 to 50," Shively offered.
Not surprisingly, serious trotliners demand serious trotlines - ones built with tarred nylon twine, stainless steel hooks and heavy-duty nickel swivels. Shively builds his main lines from 400- to 600-pound-test (No. 72). He likes No. 18 hook stagings, which he spaces 5 to 8 feet apart.
The best hook? In the opinion of veteran Huntington trotliner Ed Snelson, that depends entirely on the bait being used.
Snelson, who guides trotline trips on Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend, prefers No. 4 or 5 Mustad circle hooks for thumbnail-sized cut bait. A No. 10 to No. 12 is the top choice for live perch.
Trotlining normally works best in spring and fall, but it also can be effective during the summer months, provided that sets are made at the proper depth and the proper baits are readily available.
During the summer months, according to Snelson, the most promising spots in which to make sets are shallow ridges and shelves in about 4 feet of water. "Shallow is always better than deep during the summer, mainly due to the availability of oxygen," he said. Any time your bait starts dying on the hook pretty quick, you know you're fishing too deep."
Juglining will work on just about any lake so long as the jugs are placed in fairly open water away from timber and other obstructions. During summer, it's best to bait up at dark and run the lines at first light, according to Larry Winters, owner of Midway Landing on Richland-Chambers Reservoir.
Winters, who knows a number of avid jugliners, reports that optimal results are usually gotten in water ranging from 10 to 15 feet deep. "The deep-water bite slows way down once it gets hot and the fish aren't near as active, either," he noted. "The trick is to move around until you find the fish, rather than waiting for them to come to you."
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