If you want to catch lots of catfish on your outings this spring, it pays to learn what those whiskerfish are likely to be eating. The three largest species of catfish targeted by Arkansas anglers — blue cat, flathead and channel cat — each differ somewhat in their preferences. Knowing what’s likely to be on the menu for each species this season can mean the difference between a fast-action fishing trip with lots of catfish landed and a boring day on the water with hardly a nibble.
To assure that you’re in the group of happy anglers who score on big fish and small, here’s a study guide that will help lead you to success this spring.
Crawfish for eating-size blue cats
Blue cats over 10 pounds are fish eaters. But younger, smaller blues — eating-size fish — take a wide variety of foods. Among their favorites are crawfish, and on many of Arkansas’ big bottomland rivers — rivers like the White, Cache and Mississippi — spring floods allow blue cats to gorge on an abundance of mudbugs not available during other seasons.
Crawfish are abundant in bottomland hardwood forests, but during most of the year, they live on land and are inaccessible to catfish. During overflow periods, however, crawfish live in an aquatic environment, and catfish are drawn to them like kids to a candy store. Big blue cats rarely leave rivers to feed in flooded woods, but smaller blues will. They swim from rivers, bayous and sloughs into the shallow water that now inundates many acres. They feed on crawfish here as long as the water is high enough to swim in, sometimes for several months.
Anglers should pay particular attention to the part of this phenomenon known as “the run-off.” This occurs when a river “falls out of” a connected oxbow, usually in spring or early summer when overflow waters recede. When the water gets low enough, the only connections between an oxbow and its parent stream are small chutes or “run-outs” created by low points in the topography.
All run-outs serve up extraordinary catfishing.
The best fishing in run-outs is during the few days before the river falls out of the lake. Water constricted in the run-outs increases in velocity. Crawfish are pulled by current into the rushing stream of water and adjacent areas. Catfish gather in great numbers to gorge on the resulting feast. Some hold near cover at the head of the run-out, in the lake. Others stay near the run-out’s tail, where rushing water meets the river. All feed ravenously, and a crawfish bait worked through or along the run-out will be quickly eaten.
A sliding-float rig using a 4/0 to 5/0 bait-holder hook works great here, with the bobber positioned so the bait floats just off the bottom. Cast above the run-out, and let the rig drift back, or drift the rig through current in the run-out tail.
For successful run-out fishing, learn the river-gauge level at which the parent river will overflow into each oxbow. When gauge numbers are higher than this number, the river and oxbow are connected. When gauge numbers are lower than the “magic” number, the river and oxbow are separated. Run-off conditions exist when the river level is just slightly higher than the magic number, and it is during the few days when this occurs that run-out catfishing is at its best.
Night crawlers for flatheads
Night crawlers are among the many foods flatheads are eating this time of year. Although bigger, older cats tend to feed almost exclusively on fish, they are opportunistic to some extent and will gorge on big worms washed into the water by spring rains.
To catch these cats, try this specialized setup. First, place a 1- to 2-ounce egg sinker on your main line, and below this, tie a barrel swivel. To the other eye of the swivel, tie a 3-foot leader with an 8/0 to 12/0 wide-gap circle hook on one end. Bait the hook with as many night crawlers as you can impale on it. Leave the ends of the worms dangling loosely. You want as many loose ends as possible, and you want to put enough worms on the hook to create a wad the size of a tennis ball. When done, cast the worm ball to a root wad or some other structure where you think a flathead might be.
Small fish — sunfish, suckers, little catfish — will nibble the ends of the worms. A big flathead nearby will watch the little fish, and if nothing disturbs the little ones, Ol’ Jumbo knows it’s safe to go out and eat. When you notice the nibbling stop, that means the small fish are fleeing as the big cat approaches. This is the point when you should prepare for a strike.
Many anglers have trouble with this technique. If the little fish stop nibbling, anglers may think their bait is gone, so they reel in and check it. More than likely, plenty of worms are still on the hook, but some anglers can’t stand the suspense, so they retrieve the worm ball when the little bites stop, and the whole process must be repeated — casting, waiting on the little fish to start eating, waiting while the big fish watches for the little fish and so forth. You’ll be more successful if you can resist the temptation to disturb the bait when it’s on the bottom. Leave it out there and wait, and when the nibbling stops, get ready to cross the eyes on a big flathead.
Frogs for big channel cats
In spring, frogs gather by the thousands to breed in shallow, weedy waters throughout The Natural State. Some types, like the leopard frog, breed early in the season, while others, such as the bullfrog, don’t start reproductive activities until spring is further along. For this reason, frogs are available in huge numbers for two to three months, and whenever and wherever they are singing, you can be sure channel cats are nearby. These whiskerfish prowl the shallows day and night, gorging on frogs. And because they’re hugging edge areas, even the biggest cats are easy to find and catch on frog baits.
Leopard frogs, often called grass frogs, are favorites for catfish bait in many parts of the state, but any aquatic species can be used. The best are larger ones such as bullfrogs, leopard frogs, green frogs and pickerel frogs. If possible, select those 4 to 6 inches long, an ideal size for jumbo channel cats.
Frogs can be hooked through both lips or in the thigh, but hooking the amphibian through a foreleg maintains maximum swimming ability, making the frog a more enticing bait. I prefer using a 5/0 to 6/0 weedless hook with a wire guard to prevent snagging in weeds or brush, but a similar-sized Kahle hook works as well. Add one or two split shot on the line 12 inches above the hook to complete the rig. No bobber is necessary.
Fishing shallow ponds stocked with channel cats makes the most of this pattern. Rig the frog, and cast it near shoreline cover using a spinning or baitcasting outfit. The frog will swim for the bottom, where it’s easily spotted by foraging cats. If you don’t get a bite within a few minutes, raise your rod tip to stir the frog into action again. Most strikes come quickly when the bait is swimming.