Channel cats are fierce fighters that offer everything an angler could ever want.
I’ve done a bit of snooping around the Louisiana High School Athletic Association records, and quite frankly, I’m a tad disappointed. Louisiana athletic programs have picked a wide array of mascots to represent their teams, but there is one that is sorely missing. There are dozens of Tigers, an equal number of Bulldogs, bunches of Lions, Bears, Gators, Cougars and Wildcats.
Nowhere, however, can I find a team represented by one of the most prolific, tenacious, fighting creatures that lives in Louisiana. I’m obviously speaking of channel cats. The mascot for the team in my town is Bearcats. Why not the Ruston High Channel Cats? What the heck is a Bearcat anyhow?
While there may not be any football team in Louisiana with a channel catfish as its mascot, it’s not because channel cats are in short supply. They are one of our state’s most abundant fish, they’re easy and fun to catch, and when it comes to tablefare, there is none better.
Fishing for catfish was, for me, the equivalent of Ned’s First Reader I tackled in first grade. For me and those with whom I grew up, it was necessary to learn the ABCs before tackling Shakespeare.
When it came to catching catfish, we started out at the bottom of the catfish barrel by fishing for bullheads. To us, they were “mudcats,” but we loved them because neither trickery nor skills were needed to entice them to bite our offerings.
Later, we would graduate to fishing for more respectable species of catfish. Flatheads grew big and mean in the bayous near our home. Limb lines baited with live bream occasionally resulted in unparalleled excitement when we paddled up to one of our sets with a cypress limb lashing the water. The fish on the line could weigh 4 pounds or 50. You never knew until you wrestled him into the boat just what you had.
There is one species of catfish, though, that defines who we are as southerners — the channel catfish. When you visit a catfish eatery in the south — there’s one on nearly every corner nowadays — the fish you have served on a heaping platter garnished with sides of french fries, onion, pickles and hush-puppies is the channel catfish.
Granted, these crunchy, sweet, tasty morsels were reared in a pond at a commercial catfish farm somewhere. They were caught by a hydraulically operated net in a fish-farming operation.
The ones that flounce on the bank of my memory were caught by a kid with a cane pole and a gob of red wigglers.
Jeff Samsel, author of Catfishing in the South, put it succinctly when he wrote, “While overgrown blue and flathead catfish attract most of the catfishing headlines, channel cats are the whiskered fish that most southern anglers know and love.”
Channel cats are easily identified by their silver sheen accented by small black spots on their backs and sides. Their tails are deeply forked, and they are generally stream-lined in shape.
Let’s take a stroll around the state to take a look at some of those areas where the channel catfish is king.
Several of the state’s river systems offer topnotch fishing for channel catfish. The Ouachita River is one.
Slicing out of Arkansas across Northeast Louisiana, the Ouachita is a lovely stretch of water where fishing for channel catfish is popular. While catfish can be caught on the Ouachita anytime during the year, the most popular time for catfishing is soon after heavy spring rains inundate the area, causing the Ouachita to leave its banks.
As the waters reach their peak and begin to slowly recede, anglers head in droves to the Ouachita to take advantage of nature’s bounty.
Catfishing on the Ouachita can be a laid-back experience. I recall several times sitting in a boat with friends, anchored on one of the river’s deeper holes, lazily watching rod tips for the tell-tale sign of a catfish taking the bait, usually a gob of night crawlers or catalpa worms.
While many fishermen go after bass, bluegills and crappie for which the river is also known, seasoned catfishermen have no problem with sitting and watching other anglers haul in bass and bream; they’re after sleek and slippery catfish, and the more others fish for bream, bass and crappie, the less the competition for catfish.
Another river system that is improving in quality for catching channel catfish is the Red River. This long and winding river that cuts diagonally from northwest to central Louisiana has undergone drastic changes in recent years. Where the river was once known for its swift current and rusty color from whence came its name, its waters have today been tamed, are less turbid and unless flood conditions exist, movement of the water is scarcely noticeable.
These changes came about when the last of five locks and dams were completed in December 1994, creating five pools between Shreveport and Marksville south of Alexandria. Instead of a rapidly moving stream, there are pools that more resemble lakes along the margin of the river.
Biologists working the Red River routinely take samples, using the electro-shock procedure, and the number of channel catfish that have floated to the surface has been mind-boggling.
Ronnie Christ is one of the biologists who works on the Red, and his comment about what their shocking samples revealed is telling.
“The first time we tried it for catfish on the Red River, quite frankly, I was amazed,” said Christ. “The water was covered with catfish; they were all around us. This didn’t just happen once; we found fish of such high numbers each time we did the electroshock samples.”
Another river where anglers can expect excellent channel catfishing is the deep and mysterious Atchafalaya River. The river, in fact, is up to 120 feet deep in places, too deep for anglers to attempt to fish.
However, there are other portions of this south-central Louisiana river where fishing is extremely good, according to Don Lee, LDWF fisheries biologist.
“One of the more popular areas on the Atchafalaya is around the locks near Simmesport, where water is diverted from the Mississippi. There is a lot of current in that portion of the river below the locks, and catfishermen enjoy plenty of success in this area,” said Lee.
As good as the river is for catching catfish, the Atchafalaya Basin, branching out into the lowlands of South Louisiana from the river, is a hotbed of catfishing activity.
One reason for the Basin’s fantastic catfishery is the topography of the area. As spring rains come and river levels rise, water spreads out over the low-lying swampland, inundating stumps, logs and other structure catfish use for spawning.
Because of the fertility of the area, nutrient levels are high and the water quality is unusually good. 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 the best bait, hands-down, for catching these feisty fighters in the Basin.
There are a couple of South Louisiana lakes in close proximity to each other that have long been known for their excellent catfish production, especially for channel cats.
One of these prime water bodies is Lac Des Allemands. LDWF fisheries biologist Tim Morrison knows all about this lake and its tremendous catfishery.
“After Hurricane Katrina, we wondered if the fishing would be affected on this lake,” he said. “However, the lake is in good shape for catching channel cats now.
“This is a very fertile lake with cane fields draining into the lake on the north end. This lake has heavy populations of channels, blues and flatheads.”
Morrison noted that the majority of anglers who go after Des Allemands channel catfish work the brush tops along the edges of the lake. The area near Vacherie is especially popular.
“Channel catfish will bite virtually anything, but channel cats here prefer something like earthworms or blood bait,” Morrison noted.
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 Crescent City anglers along with other South Louisiana catfishermen.
The other South Louisiana catfishing hot-spot is Lake Verret, located in Assumption Parish some 15 miles west of Thibodeaux. Verret is almost a mirror image of Des Allemands, according to Morrison.
“There was a rather small fish kill from Hurricane Rita in this lake, and frankly, I’m not sure whether the fishery has returned to normal here after the storms,” he said.
“Verret is a little larger — 14,080 acres — but it is also a shallow lake with lots of good catfish-holding structure such as sunken brush and trees.
“Verret has all three popular species of catfish with channel cats creating the most interest. The lake was restocked after Hurricane Andrew in the early 1990s, and it has responded with hefty growth rates of blues and flatheads.
“Bayou Magazille, at the south end of the lake, is one of the better spots for catfish. There are some deeper holes with current.
“Another popular spot is Crackerhead Canal along with several other oilfield canals on the east side of the lake. Catfishermen know about these areas, and you can just about always find anglers trying for cats in these areas.”
There is a lake in Northwest Louisiana where channel cats have been king for eons. Cross Lake, which sits on the edge of Shreveport, one of the state’s largest cities, 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. As a result, commercial fishing is not allowed on the lake.
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 the lake.
A popular method of filling a limit of channel catfish on Cross is known for its simplicity. Head for open water on a breezy day, hang several poles off the side of the boat and let the breeze do the fishing.
Once the bites begin, anglers will note the area where the channel cats are concentrated. After a drift through the area, the best method is to motor upwind of the hotspot, stop the engine and drift the area again and again. It may seem boring, but when several poles begin dancing at once, Cross Lake drift fishing for channel cats can offer all the excitement one can handle.
One of the state’s newest lakes, Poverty Point Reservoir, is already being described as dynamite when it comes to producing hefty stringers of channel catfish. Located near Delhi in Northeast Louisiana, Poverty Point is already yielding not only lots of catfish but some of the largest channels to be caught in the state.
“We’re having anglers catching channels that weigh in the neighborhood of 10 pounds already coming out of Poverty Point,” said fisheries biologist Mike Wood.
As we complete our trek around the state looking for the best channel cat waters for 2006, it is fitting to end at Lake D’Arbonne, a lake where catching channel catfish is a sure thing. If you can hold a pole in your hand and detect a bite, you can catch channels on D’Arbonne, no doubt about it.
The area best known for its production is “the meadow,” a flat stretch of lake bottom averaging 6 to 10 feet deep and located between Bear Creek and the dam. This area is a hotspot throughout the year as anglers dangle Canadian nightcrawlers, popularly known as “cold worms,” in the depths to catch hefty stringers.
O.K., so no football team in the state wants to be known as the Channel Cats. I think they’re missing a good thing. In my mind, these feisty fighters are capable of scoring plenty of points on the end of the line, and are a slam dunk on the platter.
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