Catfish, crawdads and bottomland rivers

Keith Sutton/Contributing Writer Published July 20, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.
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Josh Sutton, Keith Sutton’s son, shows off a wire fish basket full of crawfish caught by hand along the lower White River.

When I first saw “the crawfish run,” the sight astounded me. I’ve witnessed this incredible natural phenomenon several times in the intervening years, but memories of my first run will always be most vivid.

It was June, and floodwaters were receding along Arkansas’ lower White River. When the river fell to the right level, my friend Jim Spencer phoned.

“We need to go tomorrow,” he said, “or they’ll be gone. I’ll pick you up at 5 a.m.”

We met at the appointed time — Jim, me and my son Josh — and drove to the river. After motoring a few miles downstream in a johnboat, we tied the craft to some cypress steps on the river bank, then walked to a nearby oxbow lake. Some water still flowed through the runouts connecting the river and oxbow, but in a day or so, as the water continued falling, the connection between river and lake would be severed.

Only days before, the woods around the lake had been inundated with 12 to 18 inches of water. As the White River dropped, however, the water was pulled out, leaving behind wet, muddy, leaf-strewn ground. Even then, with the water gone, the ground was hard to see, for thousands upon thousands of crayfish covered the damp earth. You couldn’t step without mashing them beneath your feet — huge rusty-red crustaceans with pincers like Maine lobsters.

“Look, Dad!” Josh exclaimed. “They’re everywhere! There must be a million of them!”

We had toted a 100-quart cooler to the lake’s edge, and each of us carried a wire fish basket in which to place our catch. Walking through the woods, we gathered crawfish, and when our baskets were full, we returned to the cooler and dumped the catch in. Little yelps emanated from the collection crew whenever a crawfish found its mark with those big pincers, but in less than an hour, the cooler was overflowing.

“This is the best of two worlds,” Jim said. “We’ve got catfish bait and dinner, too, all in one cooler.”

The catfish liked the crawfish almost as much as we did. That night, fishing with crawfish-tail baits, each of us caught a dozen cats, and before the sun rose, the three of us had polished off more than 5 pounds of spicy, fresh-boiled crawfish apiece. I decided then and there that catfish, crawdads and bottomland rivers form a minor trinity.

I had known for years that catfish migrate into flooded spring woods to eat crawfish. As a youngster, I often accompanied my uncles on woods-fishing junkets, tying yo-yos and limb lines to green branches along the edges of inundated forests and baiting them with the tails of crawfish we caught ourselves. As we’d paddle through the woods making our sets, big cats would shoot this way and that, spooked by our approach. We’d see their wakes as they scurried away through shallow water. By that sign, we knew our timing was right. Cats were in the woods gorging on the annual banquet nature provided, and by morning, we’d be weary from catching and cleaning fish.

There was no doubt about the inspiration for this catfish celebration. The catfish we caught — blues, channels and flatheads — were literally stuffed to the gills with crawfish. Often, a fish would take our bait even though several crawfish could be seen protruding from its gullet. Their stomachs were distended like beer bellies with dozens and dozens of crawfish. Eating more was an impossibility, but still they tried.

Woods fishing is one of the oldest yet most obscure forms of catfishing. Few cat fans are familiar with the tactic today, but earlier this century, it was widely practiced in the Mississippi River Valley. D.S. Jordan and B.W. Evermann wrote about this unique sport in their 1923 book American Food and Game Fishes.

“During the spring rise in the Mississippi, hundreds of square miles of the adjacent country become flooded, and then the catfish leave the rivers, lakes and bayous, and ‘take to the woods,’” they said. “Here the fishermen follow them, and ‘woods’ or ‘swamp’ fishing is resorted to. Short ‘brush’ lines with single hooks are tied to limbs of trees here and there through the forest, in such a way as to allow the hook to hang about six inches under water. The trees selected are usually those along the edges of the ‘float’ roads, and, that he may readily find his lines again, the fisherman ties a white rag to each tree to which he has attached a line.”

Because the ground in a river flood plain is low and flat, a rise in river level of only a few inches can flood thousands of acres. As the water rises and woodlands become flooded, a new food source — terrestrial crayfish — becomes available to catfish.

Crayfish are abundant in most bottomland hardwood forests, but during most of the year, they live on land and are inaccessible to catfish. During overflow periods, however, the crayfish are forced to live in an aquatic environment, and catfish are drawn to them like kids to a candy store.

Flatheads, blues and channel cats all join the feeding frenzy, moving from rivers, lakes, bayous and sloughs into the shallow water that now inundates acres of bottoms. They will feed here as long as the water is high enough to swim in, sometimes for several months.

It would seem with so many actively feeding fish gathered in shallow water, it would be easy to catch them. But that is not the case. Fishing in flooded woods is difficult in the best of circumstances, and because the catfish are widely scattered and have an enormous supply of natural food, catching them on rod and reel is iffy.

Catching them with set lines is another story. This is the limb liners’ season, and as soon as the bottoms are inundated, their period of fun begins. Set lines hung from low branches produce extraordinary numbers of catfish.

The popularity of woods fishing has declined in recent decades, but this is still a topnotch tactic for catching lots of catfish, big and small. If you like to fish Arkansas’ big bottomland rivers, you can give woods fishing a try right now while some Natural State streams are still at or near flood stage.

Then, when the floodwaters recede, return to the woods you fished for a different kind of fun. The catfish do their best to eat every crawfish in the bottoms, but they cannot. Millions remain, so the fishermen, too, can catch and eat them.

Golden fried catfish with a side of spicy boiled crawfish, cooked fresh over a campfire and served by a big beautiful river. Friends, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

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