So-called trash fish can be tremendous fighters

By Keith Sutton Originally Published August 18, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated August 16, 2013 at 3:14 p.m.
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Keith Sutton/Contributing Photographer

Grass carp are Asian natives stocked in Arkansas to help control unwanted aquatic vegetation. They are great fighters that put on dazzling displays of aerobatics when hooked.

I’ve long enjoyed fishing for bowfins, grass carp, drum and gar in Arkansas lakes and rivers. Many people lump these fish under the negative label “roughfish,” a term in which the word “rough” means coarse, offensive or vulgar. I’ve never liked that name.

Rough has another meaning as well, however. My thesaurus says rough is a synonym for violent, fierce, savage and brutal. In this context, the name is appropriate; fighting roughfish possess all these qualities, and I like the thought of a violent, fierce, savage, brutal fish at the end of my line.

All these ruffians fight tenaciously and frequently exceed the weight of trophy largemouths. They’re widespread and abundant, thus easy targets for many anglers. And during summer, when other fish have lockjaw, these rough boys can save the day.

If you’ve never fished for them, conquer your prejudice and give these throwbacks a try. When these roughhousing roughnecks are roughing up your tackle, you’re in for some serious fun.


Examine a bowfin, and you get the impression that, given a chance, it would chew your arm off. Nicknames include mudfish, dogfish and grinnel, but more vulgar monikers are often used by frazzled fishermen with broken lines and mauled lures.

How to catch them: Bowfins are ambush predators with a fondness for shady hideouts such as weed beds, cypress hollows and submerged trees. You can catch them using any bass lure and with live baits such as minnows and crayfish. The best enticements, however, are lures easily worked through the bowfin’s gnarly lairs. The best of the best is a black Texas-rigged plastic worm. Other colors can be used, but in the tannin-stained waters where bowfins typically live, black is best. A sturdy, needle-sharp hook and heavy braided line increase hookups with these toothy, hard-mouthed brutes.

Cast the lure to cover; then slowly retrieve it with flips and twitches. If a hungry bowfin is near, you’ll soon know. The fish’s strike is as electrifying as a lightning bolt. Set the hook hard; then prepare for battle. Bowfins commonly weigh 10 pounds or more and are among the toughest freshwater fish.

Freshwater Drum

Freshwater drum are great trip savers. They eat almost anything that swims, aren’t especially wary and are common in many Arkansas waters. “Cooperative” is a good word to describe them. And because they often exceed 20 pounds, they’re great targets when you need to scratch your big-fish itch.

How to catch them: Drum root through bottom mud and debris for invertebrates and small fish, so bottom fishing works best. River hot spots include deep pools around river sandbars, dam tailwaters, creek channel/river channel junctions and washouts near outside bends. Good lake-fishing areas include creek/river channel drop-offs, underwater humps and depressions, tributary mouths and rocky points.

Many baits and lures entice drum, including live minnows and crayfish, small jigs and spoons, crayfish- and baitfish-imitation crankbaits, and small spinners. The most reliable and readily available bait, however, is nightcrawlers. Fish these on a hook weighted with an egg sinker on the line above it, impaling as many as you can on the hook. The wiggly ends of the worms quickly attract hungry drum. When you hook one of these hawgs, you’re sure to enjoy the ensuing battle.

Grass carp

Grass carp are native to Asian rivers, but introductions expanded their range to 40 U.S. states, including Arkansas. The experimental imports did what they were brought to do — eat excessive aquatic vegetation — and by the early 1970s, grass carp were being used to control weeds in many of our state’s public waters. One carp can eat two to three times its weight in vegetation daily and may gain 5 t0 10 pounds annually.

How to catch them: Catching a grass carp on rod and reel is stupendous fun, but because these fish are vegetarians, you must use plant parts for bait. Take cherry tomatoes, for example. These are grass-carp baits par excellence. Impale a cherry tomato on a No. 1 bait-holder hook without a sinker, cast it, place your reel in free-spool so the line moves freely when a carp takes the bait, and voila! You’re ready to catch carp.

French fries are superb baits, too, and because they float, you can enjoy the excitement of a topwater carp hit. Hook a fry, cast it out, and watch it. Soon, if you’re fishing

a good carp lake, you’ll see some big lips sticking out of the water nearby, and those lips will keep moving closer until they engulf the fry. Set the hook now, but be aware. If you set the hook on a short line, you could have a carp in your lap (or worse) almost instantaneously. The carp will jump as soon as it feels the hook’s sting, and it will jump several times before you land it … if you land it. Boating a 50-pounder — and 50-pounders are common — is like landing a sailfish.


Many anglers curse gar as scourges of young sportfish. Still others dislike the gar’s uncanny knack for stealing bait and mangling lures. No one can deny, however, that gar are noteworthy opponents on rod and reel. These powerful fish jump like tarpon, and landing a heavyweight is a thrilling challenge.

Species that can be targeted in Arkansas include spotted gar, shortnose gar and the sometimes huge alligator gar. The most common and widespread species, however, is the longnose gar. Ten- to 20-pounders are abundant in many large streams and reservoirs, with trophy fish exceeding 40 pounds.

How to catch them: To catch big longnose gar, use heavy tackle: 50- to 80-pound test line, a heavy-action rod and a baitcasting reel with an excellent drag. Most serious gar anglers also use a steel leader as insurance against the gar’s sharp teeth and violent thrashing.

One excellent gar-fishing tactic employs a 6-inch length of 3/8-inch nylon rope attached to a wire leader. Fibers on the ends of the rope are unraveled, bucktail style. This “lure” is then cast near surface-feeding gar, which find it irresistible. When a gar strikes, the nylon threads tangle in its many sharp teeth, holding it securely while the angler plays it in — if he’s lucky. No hooks are required, and it really works.


The attitude most anglers have toward roughfish is perhaps summarized by a conversation I once had with an angler drifting past my drum fishing hole.

“How’s fishin’?” he asked.

“Pretty good.”

“Whatcha catchin’?”


“Really? What for?”

At that time, my pole bobbed, and I set the hook in a dandy drum. The fish splashed both of us, then popped my line and was gone. The fisherman stared at the swirling water.

“That looked like a nice one,” he said.


Then, sheepishly, he asked, “Mind if I give it a try?”

None Keith Sutton can be reached at .