These lakes are your ticket to East Texas' best midsummer catfishing action.
By Matt Williams
School's out, summer's here and the catfish are ready to start chomping! Whether you're an angler hoping to fill a void in the freezer or a parent with plans to turn a youngster on to fishing for the first time, there may be no better deal going these days than Ol' Whiskers.
School fish by nature, catfish are predominantly bottom-feeders that are relatively easy to catch; a wide variety of baits and elementary fishing methods will get the job done. In fact, most of the tactics involved are so simple to master that even a 5-year-old can dunk a hook and reel in a few.
Figure in both the liberal creel limits in the state's catfishing rules and the fish's five-star rating as table fare, and it's no wonder that polls rank catfish second only to the largemouth bass in terms of angler popularity across the entire state.
Still another reason for anglers' fond feelings toward whiskerfish is availability. Next to bluegills, there may be no more abundant fish in Texas.
Just about every lake and river in our state harbors at least a decent catfish population, but some waters have garnered reputations that put them head and shoulders above the rest. Not surprisingly, many of these are located in East Texas -- and my top choice for fanciers of fat cats may come as a surprise to some: Lake Fork.
Fork came along in the 1980s and stole the Texas bass-fishing show. Now, it seems, the 27,000-acre impoundment may be on the verge of laying claim to the title of Texas' premier catfishing venue as well. Just 90 miles east of Dallas, it's arguably the best all-around catfish lake in the state. It may also be one of the most underused.
I call it an "all-around catfish lake" because it cranks out considerable numbers of all three subspecies -- channels, blues and flatheads -- and not a few of those are often of trophy proportions. The lake records tell the tale: The benchmark for channel catfish caught on rod and reel stands at 17.73 pounds, the biggest blue caught on a hand line came in 71 1/2 pounds, and the top flathead was a 64-pounder. Interestingly, two of those records were set in 2003 -- a convincing indication that word of Fork's world-class catfishing is finally beginning to circulate.
"We're seeing more catfishermen now than we ever have, but it is still a very underutilized fishery," said Martin Edwards, owner of the Minnow Bucket Marina. "This lake gained its reputation as a trophy bass lake, and that's still what most people come here to do. In the meantime, the catfishery has pretty much been ignored. That's pretty obvious by the average size of catfish you'll catch here."
Lake Fork is full of channel cats in the 5- to 10-pound range. I once fished there with guide Gary Paris -- (903) 878-2968 -- and we hauled in 30 channel cats weighing 3 to 10 pounds in about three hours' time. We used chicken gizzards to induce the fish to abandon their posts beneath cormorant roost trees, the trick being to find birds loafing in trees over 20 to 30 feet of water. We then cast the baits to the trunks of the trees to simulate cormorant droppings hitting the water.
The cormorant gig doesn't work very well during the summer months, because most of the migrant birds head back north shortly after winter. However, Paris says, anglers can chum up equally good results by fishing over baited holes with cut shad, minnows and blood and stink baits.
Paris suggests using soured milo, chicken scratch or range cubes to lure cats onto main-lake points, underwater creek banks and humps; depths of 20 to 28 feet are ideal. "Baiting a hole will help congregate the fish," he offered, "and it keeps them biting. This lake has so many catfish that you can go just about anywhere and catch fish. The key is finding the right depth."
Not far down the road from Lake Fork is a honeyhole with a long history of giving up plenty of keeper cats when it's hot outside: Lake Tawakoni. Paris, who grew up fishing the 37,000-acre reservoir, has learned from experience that its fishing is somewhat different from Fork's.
"The fish at Fork tend to relate a lot to structure," he explained, "whereas at Tawakoni you can catch them out in open water. I like a hard bottom right out in the middle of the lake. As long as the depth is right, you'll be able to bring in the fish with the soured grain."
Tawakoni cats will on average run much lighter than those you'll catch at Fork -- usually by about a pound. But the lake does surrender a brute every now and then. In January, in fact, a new lake-record rod-and-reel blue cat, a fat fish just over 70 pounds, was harvested there.
Ed Snelson -- (936) 876-4324 -- has never landed a 60-pound catfish on a rod and reel, but he and his trotlines have caught a fair share of rotund cats. At one time Snelson held the record for flatheads at Sam Rayburn with an 82-pounder he hauled out of the Angelina River north of the Highway 147 bridge.
During the summer, Snelson guides rod-and-reel catfish trips at Lake Sam Rayburn. In July, he likes to fish over baited holes in water 18 to 25 feet deep, spending most of his time in relation to underwater sloughs and the Angelina River channel.
The guide offers group trotlining trips to Toledo Bend -- a priceless opportunity for the inexperienced trotliner, because if ever there was a master linesman, Snelson's one. Bring along a big cooler if you make the trip, because when Ed shows up at Bill's Landing, the fish cleaners run for cover. And with good reason: On Snelson's best trip last summer, his 12 heaviest cats weighed 482 pounds! Last year, one of his clients booked four three-day trips -- and the least successful of those outings resulted in 600 pounds of cats!
"It's really a neat deal for people who like to eat fish, or have never run trotlines before," Snelson said. "I'll give them some instruction on how to make sets and how to run the lines. Once they see how it is done, I run the engine and let them run the lines. They always have a ball."
On Snelson's best trip last summer, his 12 heaviest cats weighed 482 pounds!
Snelson's trotline trips are for two nights minimum for up to three people. Fish cleaning is available for a nominal fee.
Rod-and-reelers shouldn't expect to load the boat with 40-pounders at T-Bend at any time of the year, but according to Charlie Shively, owner of Bill's Landing in Strong, limits of frying-sized channel cats and blues weighing upwards of 10 pounds each show up in angler creels frequently.
Shively says that hand-liners can opt for a couple of approaches. To take small channel cats, he suggests, fish vertically over baited holes along the edges of the Sabine River with stink bait or cut shad.
Most of the larger blue cats at T-Bend are caught by drifting cut shad or perch over shell ridges in 8 to 15 feet of water. Shively likes to fish his baits Carolina-style in combination with 20-pound line and a stout hook. He'll sometimes add a small piece of Styrofoam to the line just above his bait, providing the bait with lift while helping to keep it suspended off the bottom and away from snags.
East Texas is home to a number of other notable catfish lakes -- among them Cedar Creek, Palestine, Livingston, Richland-Chambers, Monticello, Lake O' The Pines and Wright Patman -- and at these, just about any of the aforementioned tactics will work. Additionally, a number of rivers are well worth your checking them out. The Sabine, Trinity, Angelina and Neches yield outstanding catches during the summer months. The best bite usually occurs when low water levels push the fish into the deeper holes usually found in sharp outside bends.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Catfishing buffs can test their skills against others who share the passion at the 2nd Annual Lake Fork Big Catfish Splash; taking place July 16-17 this year, it's presented by Sealy Outdoors and Lake Fork area merchants. Tournament headquarters is the Minnow Bucket Marina.
The tournament will follow a format similar to that used for the McDonald's Big Bass Splash events, except that catfish will be the target species. The event's strictly a rod-and-reel affair -- no trotlining or jugging.
This year's tournament will pay $48,000 in cash and prizes, including boats for the two heaviest cats of the event. There also will be five cash prizes paid out each hour for five heaviest fish. The top prize each hour is $500; fifth place gets $100.
The entry fee for the tournament is $60 per person for one day, $100 for both days. For more information, contact the Minnow Bucket Marina at (903) 878-2500 or Sealy Outdoors, 1-888-698-2591.