Head down to this ultra-productive area, and you’ll be frying catfish for your whole neighborhood.
George Dupuy flipped his rod tossing out a double drop-rig with a couple of nightcrawlers impaled to a pair of 1/0 hooks. The angler attentively watched his line drift downstream with the current making sure it didn’t tangle in his partner’s line, until it came to a stop.
Now settled in, with his line tight as a guitar string, Dupuy spoke to no one in particular.
“I can feel it — I can feel it tapping,” he said. “Must be a little one though.”
With a sudden jerk, Dupuy’s pole bent over as he set the hook. The arch in the rod didn’t necessarily tell the truth. The 1-ounce weight fixed to the bottom of his rig, combined with the little keeper he reeled in against the stiff current, made the catch initially seem like a lunker catfish we were after. But at least he had broken the ice tossing the first Belle Isle catfish of day in our ice chest.
Belle Isle, which sounds more like “bell-leel,” when locals from around the area pronounce it, is known for excellent springtime catches of both channel and blue catfish — not just in numbers, but also in bruiser size that will stretch the limits of most monofiliments fastened to a rod and reel.
Dupuy’s partner, Harris DeHart, grew up, as they say, “down the bayou,” hailing from a family of trappers who made a living there year round. DeHart knows most of the honey-holes, and it was his responsibility to put us onto a few Belle Isle bruisers.
However, in all actuality honey-hole is a misstatement. And for those who’ve never been to the surrounding waters of Belle Isle, you can just about find likely catfish locations at nearly every bend of a bayou, canal crossing, pipeline crossing, small branch bayous that join larger bayous or any opening to Atchafalaya Bay, Belle Isle Lake or pond if you have even an inkling of what to look for.
Bruiser catfish grow big in this shallow-water region. Set up anywhere during a falling tide, and what you’ll see is massive amounts of baitfish and numerous invertebrates such as crabs, river shrimp, insects and worm-like creatures flushed from the marshes — a virtual smorgasbord for all species of hungry predator fish.
Ideal locations in this region are where two and sometimes three bayous converge forming multiple backwater eddies. Wherever there is an eddy, there’s bound to be a deep hole, where catfish can sit, feed and expend less energy than in the rapidly flowing tidal current of the main bayou. Food sources swirl into these eddies falling prey to schooled-up catfish in the deep hole.
These locations typically also have two or three points of land that jut out, which harbor catfish as well. It was one such location where a 12-pound Belle Isle bruiser blue cat put a smack down on DeHart’s bait that he worked on the shallow side of the point.
Ask anyone. A 5-pound blue cat is a lot of fish to handle. But 12 — 12 is a behemoth.
I watched DeHart get a bicep workout, as the big blue cat rolled, sliming his line while surging for a deepwater getaway. It wasn’t happening when DeHart called for his partner to get the net.
“Maybe we should have thrown my little one back — looking at Harris’ fish,” Dupuy said jokingly.
I reminded him a legal cat is a legal cat.
“We’ll take them all sizes,” I said, justifying with emphasis based on the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries creel possession limit of 100 catfish, where 25 can be undersized of a single species or any combination of three species consisting of blue, channel or flathead catfish.
Legal minimum length happens to be 11 inches for channel catfish, 12 inches for blue and 14 inches for flatheads.
“Last year, George and I were fishing a catfish tournament, and I caught a big blue cat way bigger than this,” DeHart recounted after pulling his fish out of the net. “But when we got to the weigh in, and I saw they had two that would weigh over 50 pounds, I didn’t even weigh mine in. Those guys were fishing close to where we are. They’ve got some big catfish around here.”
The region also produces quantity. During the same trip, Dupuy mentioned he and DeHart caught 97 fish by rod and reel — not one was caught from jug lines, trotlines or spanner lines, all popular catfish methods.
Around Belle Isle, fishermen will land both channel and blue catfish. In the narrower shallow bayous more inland away from the bay, water tends to be fresher and slightly clearer than the wider, deeper bayous. Channel catfish, also known locally as eel cats, willow cats and yellow cats, typically bite in these locations more often than blue cats.
Though still considered fresh water, bayous that open into Atchafalaya Bay have a slightly higher salinity level — somewhere in the 1 1/2 to 2 parts per thousand range. Able to tolerate higher salinity, blue cats are the more common species of catfish you’ll catch in these stretches of bayous.
Blue catfish also tend to prefer deeper-moving water closer to main river systems, such as the Atachafalaya River that feeds them. To the west of Belle Isle is the deep Wax Lake Outlet, also known as the Calumet Cut. The cut drains a significant portion of the Atchafalaya River and provides a steady flow of fresh water into the region. As a result, both of the major drainages create a virtual haven for catfish to grow to bruiser size.
It was DeHart’s quadruple-drop rig that raised my eyebrow, when he broke it out. Single- and double-drop rigs are pretty common when tightline fishing for catfish, but never before had I seen such a thing.
DeHart’s take on it is, if one hook is good, two is better and four — well that’s a trotline he can cast with a rod and reel.
“I like it because I can catch more than one fish at a time on it, if they’re schooled up in a hole,” DeHart said. “But I also will bait it with a piece of cut-bait, river shrimp, worm and even bacon. I can see what they like best. And I’ve caught more than one fish at a time often using it.”
DeHart also mainly uses 2/0 kahle hooks, saying he finds they catch catfish in the corner of the jaw and lips better. On the other hand, Dupuy uses 1/0 straight-shank ringed or big eye hooks.
“I don’t use anything special on my rigs,” Dupuy said. “I use nightcrawlers mostly for bait, and sometimes I use river shrimp. But I don’t use any special tackle, not even a swivel. I tie my hook and weight right to the main line when catfishing. And I use those big eye hooks because I can’t see no more.”
When fishing in the marshes below the Intracoastal Waterway, it’s good to have a variety of hooks and weights. A heavier weight may be necessary to keep bait suspended off the bottom in deeper and faster-moving water. Durable hooks larger than 1/0 are often necessary for holding bigger blue catfish.
DeHart will also rig a pole with a couple of hooks suspended by a crappie float for shallow-water catfishing. Quite often during the spring, catfish will feed in the shallows along the bayou banks.
DeHart can tell when a big catfish is chasing bait by the wake it makes. Whenever the angler sees this sort of action, he tosses out the rig and jerks it every so often to entice a bite.
Big cats call for heavier line. Catfishing isn’t finesse fishing. And in the marshes surrounding Belle Isle, you never know when you’ll tie into the next 40- or 50-pounder. When bruisers are hooked, it becomes a tug of war. The last thing a fisherman wants to say is, “He broke my line.”
No less than 15-pound-test should be used. Moreover, any quality brand of monofilament, fluorocarbon or braided line will get the job done.