Cat Food

Catfish are plentiful in Louisiana, and they’re easy to catch. Haul in a basket of them this month, and your taste buds will thank you.

Sometimes the best way to stay unnoticed is to go along quietly, minding your own business right in front of everybody.

That’s the exact tactic used by some of Louisianas biggest, tastiest fish that hug the bottom of rivers and reservoirs and thereby stay largely under the radar. If more anglers knew what delicious creatures lurk in the depths of Louisiana waters, there might well be a run on fishing tackle at sporting goods stores.

Those creatures, of course, are catfish. Despite an ability to grow to huge sizes and a willingness to chomp down on all different kinds of bait, cats are accorded respect by too few anglers.

Sure, catching a 3-pound largemouth bass at Toledo Bend is fun, but catching a 30-pound catfish in the Atchafalaya River is even more fun, in the opinion of some anglers. And given the excellent catfish habitat to be found all over the state, catching a 30-, 40- or 50-pound monster isn’t all that difficult.

Furthermore, a tasty bonus comes with this freshwater angling action: For every huge catfish that swims in Louisiana waters, many smaller cats, each one ideal size as the main ingredient for a fish fry, are waiting to take your offering. No matter how you slice it, big fish or small, day or night, sport or supper, catfish anglers can’t go wrong.

Catfish are a diverse group. Named for their prominently displayed “barbels” — slender, whiskerlike sensory organs located near the mouth — they swim in freshwater environments of many kinds, with species found on every continent except Antarctica.

Catfish have no scales but do possess a strong, hollow ray in their dorsal and pectoral fins, through which a stinging protein can be delivered when the fish is irritated.

Channel catfish closely resemble their larger cousins, the blue catfish. Both creatures have forked tails. However, channels, unlike blues, have scattered black spots along their backs and sides. The backs are blue-gray with light blue to silvery-gray sides and a white belly. The maximum size is about 45 pounds (the world record is 58 pounds, 11 ounces, caught in South Carolina’s Santee-Cooper Reservoir in 1964). Most channel cats caught in Louisiana waters average 3 to 4 pounds.

The diet of catfish varies, consisting of aquatic insects, crawfish, small fish, crustaceans, frogs, freshwater mollusks and seeds carried in the water. Contrary to popular belief, carrion is not their usual food.

Catfish feed primarily at night using sensors located in the sensitive barbels and throughout the skin to locate prey. Although they normally feed on the bottom, catfish will occasionally eat on the surface and at mid-depth.

Trolling minnow-imitation lures does occasionally succeed in catching catfish; however, 99.4 percent of them are taken on dead or live bait of one kind or another. Chicken livers and gizzards, shrimp, nightcrawlers, red worms, fish belly strips and stink baits are all used as catfish bait, which most anglers send straight to the bottom. However, if the bottom is super-weedy, a float can be used to suspend an offering.

When boat fishing, try and anchor above a known catfish hotspot. Catfish frequently congregate around underwater mounds. Cast and retrieve slowly. Your rod tip will bend as you drag the bait up the side of a mound. When the rod tip straightens, you are, more than likely, on the ridge of a mound. Prepare for a strike as you slowly work your bait down the side. Keep in mind: Catfish are slow eaters, so be patient before setting your hook.

But an angler doesn’t need a boat to enjoy great catfishing. Catfish anglers, in fact, fish from boats significantly less often than do most other anglers. On many Louisiana lakes and streams, 70 percent of whiskerfish fans pursue their quarry from shore. If you’re among that majority, the following tips may help increase your catch.

Select bank-fishing sites near prime catfish-holding areas, perhaps a shore clearing near a river’s outside bend, a spot beside a pond levee or a gravel bar adjacent to a deep hole in a small stream. Ideal sites have flat, brush-free banks that make for snag-free casting.

When bank fishing on a river, you can fish different locations by letting your bait drift in the current beneath a bobber. This activity allows bait to move naturally downstream, flowing through rapids and settling enticingly in or near catfish holes.

Keep your line taut at all times. If your line is slack, it will bow downstream ahead of the bait. This unfortunate situation leaves you in a poor position for setting the hook once a catfish does strike.

No matter where you bank fish, don’t let your guard down when landing a big one. A long-handled net is best for landing large fish; still, there are times when beaching a catfish may be necessary (such as when the specimen you have snagged is too big to fit into a net). If you anticipate this happening, use heavy line, keep your drag set, and pull the fish up on land as far as possible before attempting to remove the hook.

The range of catfish locales spans the entire state — cats thrive in ponds, lakes, watersheds, rivers, creeks and bayous.

Much Louisiana catfishing today is done in large bodies of water. The state is blessed with several reservoirs that have sizable populations of channel, blue and flathead catfish. But do keep in mind: These creatures are stream fish by nature. They’ve adapted well to reservoir environments, but did originally make their home mainly in moving streams.

Catching catfish in streams is a family tradition for many Louisiana natives, a tradition that predates construction of dams and reservoirs. And while big lakes have inundated some streams, the fact remains, hundreds of miles of creeks and rivers where catfishing is excellent do still thread the Louisiana landscape.

Prime rivers to pursue catfish include the Mississippi, Ouachita, Atchafalaya and Red, which cuts diagonally from northwest to central Louisiana, where the number of channel catfish found is mind-boggling. Channel catfishing is particularly good in the Atchafalaya. One of the more popular areas on the Atchafalaya is around the locks near Simmesport, where water is diverted from the Mississippi.

The Atchafalaya Basin, branching out into the lowlands of South Louisiana from the river, is a hotbed of catfishing activity. The basin is known for its abundance of crawfish. Since mudbugs are a favorite food for catfish, it comes as no surprise that crawfish are among the best baits for catfish in the basin.

There is a lake in Northwest Louisiana where channel cats have been king for eons. Cross Lake, which sits on the edge of Shreveport, has provided fun and food in the form of channel cats for generations. Cross is an 8,000-acre impoundment that Shreveport depends on for its water supply.

Because the lake is used as a freshwater source for Shreveport residents, certain restrictions are in place, including the requirement that anglers secure permits to fish there. Cross Lake drift fishing for channel catfish offers all the excitement an angler can handle.

One of Louisianas newest lakes, Poverty Point Reservoir, is already being described as dynamite when it comes to producing large stringers of channel catfish. Located near the town of Delhi in Northeast Louisiana, Poverty Point is yielding not only plenty of catfish but particularly some of the biggest channels to be caught in the state.

There are a couple of South Louisiana lakes in close proximity to one another that have long been known for their excellent catfish production, especially for channel cats. One of these is Lac Des Allemands, a very fertile body of water with cane fields draining into it on the north end. Lac Des Allemands has huge populations of channels, blues and flatheads.

The area near Vacherie is especially popular. This 12,200-acre lake is relatively shallow, with few holes deeper than 10 feet. Located 40 miles west of New Orleans, Lac Des Allemands sees heavy fishing pressure from South Louisiana catfish anglers.

Another South Louisiana catfish hotspot is Lake Verret, located 15 miles west of Thibodeaux. Vetter has all species of catfish, with channels being the most numerous. Bayou Magazille, at the southern end of the lake, is particularly popular, as is Crackerhead Canal on Verret’s eastern side.

Louisiana has enough angling action for whiskerfish to suit the sporting demands of most anglers. Catfish may not have the cachet of bass, trout or sac-a-lait, but as table fare, they’re unrivaled.

Bodies of water all over Louisiana are filled with catfish. They may not be all that great to look at, but try and tell your full stomach that after eating a mess of what many people consider the best-tasting fish around.