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Going for Big Texas Cats
Everything is big in Texas, and that includes our catfish. Here's where the big ones came from in the past and where more giants are likely to show up now.
By Chester Moore Jr.
You know what "they" say: Everything's bigger in Texas. "They" are right!
And that would be a hard point to counter, judging from the size of the catfish that anglers so often pull from Texas reservoirs and rivers.
Some of the biggest catfish ever caught hailed from the Lone Star State where access to trophy-producing waters is within an hour's drive of most of our major cities.
While it is true that Texas waters harbor plenty of heavy cats, truly big specimens are less than common anywhere. They are true marvels of nature, and require loads of patience and reliable equipment to catch.
Let's look at the three major Texas species and the most productive methods for bagging the biggest and best of them all.
Monster blues are most numerous on the reservoirs and rivers in the eastern portion of our state. Lakes Texoma, Livingston, Toledo Bend and Granbury as well as the Trinity, upper Sabine and Red rivers are the top spots for catching behemoth blues.
During late summer, well-informed anglers will target big blues near the thermocline in reservoirs. This is where the temperature stratifies and shad congregate in huge numbers there. Besides actively feeding on live shad, blues will scavenge shad killed by sudden temperature changes.
Gerald Burleigh of Orangefield likes to fish these areas on Toledo Bend and on Lake Livingston. He said they are prime locations for finding big blues.
"I heard years ago that these areas where covered with dead shad and that the cats were thick around there. And once I began to fish it, I found that to be true."
Burleigh likes to anchor on top of a hump and make long cats toward the deep water with a slip-rig and fishes around the boat with a slip-float.
"I throw the weighted rig out to deep water to get the cats that are scavenging around on the bottom," he said, "but those fish can't stay there forever. They have to come up above the thermocline to survive. The slip-float rig is used to catch those fish, which are suspended, and holding between feedings on the bottom."
Burleigh said the cats will often suspend in 15 feet of water over humps in 30 feet of water and may suspend as deep as 35 feet in areas that are 50 feet deep.
Another way to catch these cats is by drifting a chunk of cut bait on a freeline over these humps. A freeline simply consists of a hook and bait. Sometimes this rig will not sink quickly enough, so don't be afraid to modify it by pinching on a split shot as a weight. Rig it a foot above the hook.
Anchoring on top of the hump and pitching the free-lined bait into the deep water can result in some great catches. If your boat is equipped with a trolling motor, you might simply set it on low and slowly troll through the same spots to catch fish. Either method can work, but one may produce more or better fish on some days than the other.
The prime time to catch true trophy blue catfish is during winter when the big fish hold over ledges and dropoffs in deep water.
Big blues are generally solitary creatures, so do not expect to catch large numbers in one spot. Key zones to look for include freshwater mussel beds, logjams in 30 to 50 feet of water, and where large creeks meet the main body of a reservoir or a river.
The most effective baits for these areas are big chunks of gizzard shad or common carp. Live sun perch and crawfish can also entice blues.
Highly overlooked trophy blue cat areas are the brackish water marshes and bay systems along the Texas Coast, especially those on the lower ends of the Neches and Sabine River drainages, as well as the Trinity Bay system.
Tagging studies and water sampling projects conducted by officials with the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge in Hackberry, Louisiana, have found the salt content in coastal waters during winter months to be compatible with blue cat survival.
Blues have a higher tolerance to saltwater than do flatheads and channels, and they fare well in coastal areas during winter when certain forage items are abundant.
Look for big blues around the points at the mouth of the bay and river on incoming tides. Many of these spots have washouts created by current.
Big blues get in these holes, which fill up with baitfish such as menhaden and blue crabs. Another spot to consider during incoming tides is the river channel itself, which often extends into the bay.
When viewing a surface map it may seem as if they river ends where the bay begins, but things may look different when viewed from the perspective offered by a depthfinder or a detailed topographical chart.
Look to marshy drainages for the most consistent catfish action on outgoing or falling tides. As tides displace baitfish from the marsh, catfish will gather at key junctures such as sloughs that wind into the marsh and at the mouth of the drainage itself.
Since temperatures along the Gulf Coast can range from the 70s down into the 20s during winter, often there are large kills of menhaden and shrimp for the cats to dine on.
Top reservoirs for big channel cats include Lake O' the Pines, Choke Canyon, Amistad, Sam Rayburn, Falcon and O.H. Ivie. The 3,000-acre Fayette County Reservoir near La Grange is an overlooked but excellent choice. Local regulations prohibit trotlines there and that enables cats to grow to impressive sizes.
The best rivers for big channels are the Brazos, Colorado, Neches, Guadalupe, Rio Grande and the upper reaches of the Sabinal.
The best way to bring in big channels is to chum with soured grain along grassy flats or around boat docks. Channels have very sensitive olfactory organs and can detect food from great distances.
Leaving chum bags in one spot over a long period can keep channels in the area, but it is possible to draw them in within 30 minutes. Night crawlers, cut shad and prepared baits like cheese- and blood-based baits are good choices. With channels, nastier often means better.
In South and Central Texas, soured milo and wheat are the most popular forms of chum. Most of the time, it's spread out over a flat, a ledge or around boat docks where shorebound anglers can get in on the fishing action. Many anglers simply throw a coffee can's worth of chum overboard and begin fishing. If there is no action within 20 or 30 minutes, they move on and try somewhere else.
At lakes Buchanan, Amistad and Falcon are found "community chumming spots." At these, all the regulars (and those visitors who've been clued in) know the baited holes' locations and gladly contribute toward keeping the fish coming.
In East Texas, cottonseed cake is the most widely used chum. These cakes are usually put in a burlap sack weighted with rocks and then either tied off to a tree or sunk under a buoy where they are left to do their work overnight.
By morning, the chum has usually drawn in enough cats to justify fishing. Crappie anglers on Lake Livingston and Sam Rayburn first popularized this method of fishing, but reports of catfish caught in the same areas prompted anglers to try it for the whiskered fish.
Another method of chumming that is catching on in Texas does not really involve chumming it all. It simply entails fishing around natural chum.
Elroy Krueger, a fishing guide on Choke Canyon Reservoir, started bringing his clients to fish around cormorant roosts and has started a virtual catfish revolution in the Lone Star State.
"I got to figuring that cormorants eat fish and then poop it over the water where they roost," he said. "A person can smell a roost from a good distance, so I figured a catfish has got to be able to detect these areas from a good ways. Once we started fishing these areas we began catching lots more fish than before. Cats can't resist a good cormorant roost."
Targeting cormorant roosts is now popular throughout the big East Texas reservoirs and the practice has spread to Central Texas lakes where the fish-eating birds are also extremely abundant.
Frank Moore of Cove uses a highly unusual method to bag big channel cats. Frank calls it "flipping."
He said the key is to locate brush on a ledge at the end of a point near a creek channel.
"Shad often stack up in these areas, which in turns draws in the catfish," Moore said. "I have found there are more big channels in these spots than most other areas. Big channels are hard to come by, but this method can increase your odds."
By flipping a piece of cut shad or a live crawfish rigged on a 1/2-ounce jighead, he has caught many cats in the 3- to 6-pound range. He said many times the fish would hit the bait on the fall.
This method requires a rod with plenty of backbone to yank the fish from the cover. Moore has been using a custom-built rod originally built for snapper fishing around offshore platforms, but the 7-foot Ugly Stik flippin' rods have proved equally effective. Another requirement for fishing this brush is braided line. Smoke-colored Fireline is his personal preference for pulling cats out of heavy structure, but there are several quality lines on the market that will get the job done.
"The important thing when flipping for cats is to have a rod that's got enough backbone to lift them out of heavy cover, and line that won't stretch. That is why I use the so-called super lines that are extremely strong. I have used them all and most of them will get the job done. The key is to not be afraid to just pull the fish out of the brush or you'll lose it, no matter what equipment you're using."
As a matter of fact, the flatheads (also known as "Opelousas" or "yellow" catfish) are probably the best-eating cats of all. They get big, too. The Texas record flathead (unrestricted category) weighed 114 pounds.
Flatheads will be found statewide, with the largest concentrations inhabiting the central and eastern rivers and many of the state's reservoirs. They hit live baits almost exclusively, preferring perch, suckers and carp to nasty, stinky prepared baits.
Fish live bait on the bottom below dams and in river arms to find the most flatheads. Lakes Livingston, Texoma, Palestine, Toledo Bend and Wright Patman are some of the best choices for seeking trophies of this species.
Through late summer, catfish often feed in the shallow water during the early morning and at night when the water temperature is several degrees cooler. Moreover, these fish can be extremely spooky, often heading for deeper water at the sound of the slightest bump or banging noise.
Flatheads and other catfish have no sense of hearing, but they actually "hear" better than most other fish. A catfish has no outer ears, so instead it uses its swim bladder to detect vibrations. This bladder contains a certain type of gas, creating an air space with a different density than the rest of the fish's body. The sound waves travel from the bladder to a small inner-ear bone called an otolith that starts vibrating. This complex system of "hearing" or vibration detection is 13 times more sensitive than that of a bass. A catfish can hear a dropped tackle box or feet walking across a boat bottom with extreme accuracy.
The preferred method of wading is to cruise the shoreline and cast parallel to the bank and out into the creek channel itself. Pop the cork every 20 or 30 seconds and slowly reel it in about 20 feet and pop again. Then retrieve the bait and cast again. It may take as long as 30 minutes to properly work 100 yards of shore, but it can pay off.
This method can also be productive for landlocked anglers. The coves and creeks around many marinas have sandy or hard bottoms. Don't be afraid to wade the shorelines of these areas to locate catfish. They can be loaded with fish.
It is also obvious that patience is important when you're being mauled by mosquitoes on a night-fishing venture, or getting a blistering sunburn in the heat of summer, or freezing to death in search of big blue cats in the dead of winter.
Catfish can be extremely finicky. There are times when you know the fish are there yet refuse to bite.
This big-cat fishing may become frustrating, but it will all be worthwhile when that monster catfish doubles over your rod and puts your muscles to the test.
The first is that the alligator gar common in many catfishing areas can easily break flimsy limblines. Anglers catch gar weighing as much as 150 pounds on limblines in South and East Texas, so take all necessary precautions. (A gar, by the way, is a prized catch in these parts.)
Second, limblining is a great way to catch big blues. Veteran angler Michael Flaten set five limblines in the Sabine River one weekend and caught five catfish totaling 150 pounds in weight.
"The biggest fish weighed 51 pounds and the smallest 37. I usually catch some big ones, but not that many at once," he said.
Flaten's secret for keeping a big fish on a limbline is to use a heavy circle hook. He uses 14/0 circle hooks on all his lines. "I've had J-style hooks flattened out many times and have never had that happen with a circle hook," he said.
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