Texas' 'Star' Catfish Waters
There are lots of great places where you can catch catfish in the Lone Star State, but these waters may top the list of the best places to fish in 2003.
By Lee Leschper
What's the second-most popular fish in Texas waters?
That's right - the lowly and slimy yet tasty catfish.
About a quarter of Texas freshwater anglers choose catfish - more specifically, channel catfish - as their primary target on the water. That's more than selected crappie, white bass, or even the lordly striper.
"Catfish is the fish we promote for people that want to eat fish," said Phil Durocher, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's inland fisheries director. "They're easy to get, they're everywhere, and we don't ever want to get to that point that people don't want to eat fish that they've caught. That's a big part of the experience of fishing."
The state stocks more than a million catfish a year, most of them channels that are added to urban lakes to provide more fishing for city folks.
Texas catfish limits are generous, with a daily bag limit of 25 channel and blue cats over 12 inches. Biologists say a 12-inch catfish will likely have already spawned at least once before it's harvested.
Fishing methods for the three popular species - channels, blues and flatheads - vary dramatically. Channel catfish generally require nothing more sophisticated than a wad of night crawlers or a ball of stink bait fished on the bottom. Blue cats are deep-water predators, concentrating on live baitfish. Hence, frisky big shad or fresh-cut shad make the best baits for them. Flatheads are a live-bait-only proposition. They're typically difficult to catch except on trotlines or juglines at night, mainly because that's when they feed.
Many of the state's best catfish lakes are in prime condition this year, thanks to heavy rainfall that filled them to the brim in 2002.
Regardless of whether you're looking for a freshwater monster or the key ingredient for your next fish fry, here are some of the best spots across the Lone Star State for starting a fight.
SOUTH TEXAS TPWD biologist Jimmy Dean supervises lakes in south and south-central Texas, from northwest of San Antonio to the border lakes of Amistad and Falcon.
He picks the two big border lakes, Falcon and Amistad, as top choices for catfish. But the best and most accessible angling may actually be found at two small power-plant lakes: Calaveras and Braunig, just south of San Antonio.
"Calaveras and Braunig have really turned on good for channel catfish," says Dean. "They're pretty good little lakes. That's one of our main (catfish) fisheries. And they're not getting pounded as hard as they used to. There's less pressure on them. The last time we did a creel survey, redfish and hybrid stripers had moved up on the list of what anglers are seeking."
Calaveras is a good place to find bigger blue cats, ones up to 20 pounds occasionally.
Dean says anglers should also consider a little-known lake in the Brush Country.
"Averhoff, a little lake out of Crystal City, is not very big, but it's got a good catfish population of good, healthy channel cats. It's a riverine lake that really fluctuates up and down."
Heavy rainfall in 2002 dramatically improved most South Texas lakes, but also made catfish a little harder to find, he said. "Our lakes have water in 'em now. And while they're a long way from full, they're in better shape than in the past few years.
"Catfish react just like bass (when a lake gains lots of water)," Dean said. "For a long time we were down at Falcon. Since we got all the new water down there, fishermen thought the fish were all gone. But it's a matter of getting them to bite. They spread out in all that fresh water."
Falcon and Amistad remain huge fisheries. Unfortunately, netting by commercial fishermen from across the border keeps the catfish in both lakes from getter larger.
"Netting is one of the reasons a lot of those people thought all the channels were gone," said Dean. Falcon especially gets lots of netting pressure.
Although there are at least some big flathead catfish in most South Texas lakes, Dean says Medina Lake, rejuvenated and refilled by rainfall, remains a superb lake for large flatheads.
SOUTHEAST TEXAS Mathis biologist John Findeisen says rainfall is put Coastal Plain catfish lakes in great shape. "We're sitting at 100 percent," he said. "Choke came up 23 feet in July (2002). And Lake Texana has started kicking out some big catfish again."
He added that anglers need to adapt to higher water levels. "What happens with that reservoir, which has been at 13,000 acres and is sitting at 26,000 acres now, is that the fish population is not cut in half, but is spread out. So there's half as many per acre as there was when the reservoir was low."
"With all the nutrients there, we're seeing a lot of new aquatic vegetation, some 5 to 6 feet deep. Our electrofishing this year showed a lot of small sunfish and shad. But they were hard to collect because they are so spread out. That's a good thing, because if we're not collecting them, the predators are not feeding on them as much either.
"I expect Texana to pick up this next spring - for catfish, bass, crappie, everything - because the prey base is really starting to explode. And you can say the same thing for Choke Canyon and Lake Corpus Christi.
"Corpus filled (in 2001) and is maybe a foot or two low. We've seen a huge explosion of the shad population, and expect this year to be good and the next two years to be really good - if we can maintain this water level.
"It is almost like a new lake. What you are getting is lots of new habitat. There's water covering 20-foot trees.
"Blue catfish are a big part of both Choke and Texana. On Texana in February or March, there was one group of anglers that caught quite a few 40- to 60-pound catfish. Those were mostly big blues, with an occasional flathead. Most of them were on trotlines and juglines, but they caught some 30-pound blues on rod and reel, too.
"Choke has only been full two times. But once it's full, it usually takes two to three years to get down again. Choke Canyon has channel cats, blue cats and flatheads," Findeisen said.
"All of these lakes have lot of timber. In fact, most of the timber in Choke is submerged now. I just cringe when I see bass boats run across there at 70 mph. Texana and Corpus have less standing timber, and it's rotted below water level, and it's all hard as rocks.
"Now in the wintertime, it seems crazy, but lot of anglers will move up into less than 10 feet of water and run short trotlines with 20 hooks at most, using dead bait or soap, and catch the heck out of 'em."
While you can catch catfish successfully here anytime, summer months can drive water temperatures high enough to put cats off their feed. Winter fishing is good on these lakes, because winter water temps only get down into the 50s or upper 40s, Findeisen said.
EAST TEXAS Richland-Chambers is probably the best lake in East Texas for big channel cats, because there's less fishing pressure per acre. The fish get bigger and older.
Tyler biologist Richard Ott says Cedar Creek and Palestine are also good catfish lakes, for both blues and channel cats, although fishing pressure is higher and so the average size catfish will be smaller.
"Palestine gets the highest pressure for catfish, but also has the highest catch rates. So anglers must release a higher percentage of what they catch.
Cedar Creek is the top flathead lake of the three, although all three lakes hold the big yellow cats.
Ott recommends anglers fishing Palestine and Cedar Creek might concentrate on blue cats, which average larger than channel cats. Northeast Texas Anglers are used to thinking about huge largemouth bass in this region of the state.
But Tyler biologist Randy Myers says they can look in some of the same places for hefty catfish too.
"Mostly our lakes are better for channel cats," Myers said. "Lake Fork, for example, is an awesome lake for channel cats. It's just very, very good and catfish are getting more popular with anglers there all the time.
"Fork is just a big, very productive lake for all sportfish species, not just bass."
Chumming several spots with soured maize is a popular tactic on Fork, but not the only one, he adds.
"I just go out and find some timber on a point, and then fish there in 15 to 30 feet of water," Myers said. "Then it's just a matter of getting in timber and finding the right depth."
"Lake Tawakoni, which is a bigger lake than Fork, toward Dallas, is recognized for catfish, both blues and channels. Tawakoni doesn't have the timber, but a lot of guys fish off the bank and catch catfish there. Fishing the riprap at the dam can be very effective; there is where we see high numbers of catfish."
Another lake that gets less attention than it should is Lake Pat Mayse, near Paris, he said. "It's a really good lake for big channel catfish."
NORTH-CENTRAL TEXAS John Moczygemba, an assistant biologist with the TPDW in Denison, says Texoma remains the kingpin of catfish lakes in this part of the state, especially for anglers pursuing huge blue cats.
"Texoma is known for its blue cats. It holds several line class world records for blues, the state all-tackle and state rod-and-reel records."
That all-tackle record, a hulking submarine of a 116-pounder, demonstrates just how big Lake Texoma's blue catfish really get.
"It's a productive, lake, a big riverine lake that is just right for blue cats. There's a big forage base of shad - a lot of big shad they chow down on. Everything seems to be right."
Winter is the prime time for big Texoma blues, he said. "Juglining near the dam is really effective. When it gets real cold you can graph these things on bottom. If you follow the channel on bottom in wintertime, and are using a paper graph, you can see big blues as big old elbows on the graph. You can lower a freelined 12-inch gizzard shad to 'em and catch some big old blue cats, fishing to individual fish."
Blues prefer big live baits, but will hit dead fish like shad, too, he said.
Not all the best catfish lakes here are quite as intimidating as Texoma. "Lake Mineral Wells has a good population, and Lake Nocona on the Oklahoma board has good populations of blues and channels.
"Moving east is Lake Moss, a little 1,100-acre lake north of Gainesville. It doesn't allow trotlining, and there's a good size distribution, including some 10- to 15-pound channel cats in there.
"Moving east, Coffee Mill is good. Unfortunately, we had been stocking it pretty regularly (with catfish), which we can't justify anymore. With a good population of bass there to eat up the catfish reproduction, it may go down."
Crockett, another good catfish lake, will probably suffer the same fate, as less stock and more predation from the lake's big bass keeps most channel cats from reaching frying size.
"The big bass eat the catfish spawn, and there are so many bass in it, the bass eat all the little catfish.
Metroplex anglers don't have far to travel for good catfishing, he said.
"Lavon there northeast of Dallas is a big lake. We've stocked blues in there and they have successfully reproduced. The population is building now and we had a new lake record there last year. It was a good channel catfish lake already, with lots of parks there to fish.
"Lake Ray Roberts is known for channel cats, although there are no blues in there. It's good enough to support a few catfish guides. The only problem is limited access, because there are not many boat ramps. Bank access is mostly from the state park, and from the pier at the park. It can be very good in the spring when the catfish are working into the rocks to spawn."
Other good catfish lakes in this region are Bridgeport and Weatherford, he added.
ROLLING PLAINS/PANHANDLE The rolling, mesquite-covered hills of the Rolling Plains don't usually bring to mind whiskerfish, but the region offers anglers a number of quality choices.
Abilene biologist Spencer Dumont says anglers should focus on the more fertile lakes for catfish, especially those enjoying full water levels for the first time in several years.
Most other lakes in the region have rebounded with 2002 rains.
"Proctor, Brownwood, Coleman, Leon are all filled," he said.
"Fort Phantom Hill is a real good blue cat and yellow cat lake. It doesn't have as much timber.
"Sweetwater used to be one of our best channel cat lakes, but it's so low now that I don't know what's going to happen there."
It varies from lake to lake on whether the whiskerfish are likely to wind up on your line is a channel cat or a blue, he said.
"In Phantom Hill, the blues have basically taken over and completely dominate. In Sweetwater there are no blues. Hubbard Creek is good for all three. It's the same at Proctor."
Lake Proctor, the super-fertile lake between Comanche and Stephenville, is going to explode with new production now that it's refilled, he added.
"Proctor is going to be even more productive because of all the flooded terrestrial vegetation," Dumont said. "It's going to be phenomenal for everything. Crappie and bass fishing is in the rebuilding stage, and the catfish are doing really well over there."
O.H. Ivie, an established heavy-hitter for largemouths, has also offered good catfishing, especially for channel cats. Anglers here will usually bait several areas, or will fish under lights at night.
One new lake, Lake Kirby in Abilene, could be a great future star.
"It dried up in October of 2000," Dumont said. "The city began putting treated effluent water into it in 2001 and it's filled this year. We stocked it with channels and blues and they're doing really well. The lake should stay full now, and in that rich water the catfish are growing like gangbusters."
For anglers who want to travel farther north, up through the Panhandle, Lake Meredith north of Amarillo may be the most underrated catfish lake in Texas. The lake's deep, cold waters hold huge numbers of big flathead catfish averaging more than 20 pounds apiece. Meredith is also a quality channel catfish lake.
* * * As you can easily tell by the vast amount of territory we've covered here and the abundance of good catfish waters, there's no shortage of great fishing waiting for anyone who wants to try it. Get out there and get your share of fishing fun. And those catfish filets - yum!
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