Muddy Waters knew catfish. And catfishers.
â€śWell, I wish I was a catfish/ Swimminâ€™ in the deep, blue sea/ Iâ€™d have all you good-lookinâ€™ women/ Fishing after me,â€ť the seminal bluesman winked in his classic version of â€śCatfish Blues.â€ť
Waters understood the appeal of these at-first-glance unattractive fish, with their slick and slimy body, sharp and slightly dangerous dorsal and pectoral fins, and a flat, broad and sloping head under which sits a rubbery mouth rimmed with barbels resembling worm-like whiskers.
He knew that folks who look beyond the outwardly off-putting appearance and see the fishâ€™s true character come to be charmed, if not wholly enraptured, by them. This is true not only because of the challenge and enjoyment of fishing for catfish, but also â€” and perhaps most importantly â€” the way those fish taste when fried. Or baked. Or grilled. Or in a courtbouillion.
Yes, Muddy Waters knew catfish and catfishers â€” not surprising considering he was born McKinley Morganfield within miles of the of the muddy waters of the Mississippi River, one of the great catfish fisheries in the nation and the genesis of his stage name.
But his sentiments certainly apply to Texas catfish and catfishers, â€śgood-lookinâ€™â€ť or otherwise. And they are particularly pertinent as late spring moves toward early summer, a several-week period many consider the best year to plum the stateâ€™s waters for these hugely popular fish.
Channel, blue and flathead catfish together make up the second most sought-after quarry of Texasâ€™ 2 million or so freshwater anglers; Texas Parks and Wildlife Department research indicates about 80 percent of the stateâ€™s anglers target catfish during some of their fishing trips. Only largemouth bass see more attention.
There are good reasons for this. Texas holds some of the nationâ€™s premier catfish fisheries, boasting an abundance of rivers and reservoirs holding catfish in quality and quantity found in few other places in the country. And strong populations of channel and blue cats, with flatheads to a lesser degree, are widely distributed. Thatâ€™s especially true of blue catfish, a species that can survive and even thrive in waters where other species struggle.
Catfish can be a cooperative lot, catchable on a variety of baits and fishing methods ranging from a simple cane pole on a shoreline to high-tech and high-expense baitcasting and spinning rigs and associated terminal tackle designed for taking trophy-size catfish from reservoirs or rivers. There are even options other than pole-and-line; catfish are the only freshwater game fish that can be taken in Texas on â€śpassiveâ€ť fishing gear such as trotlines and juglines.
And catfish come in all sizes, from pan-size 1- or 2-pounders to blue and flathead cats that can weigh more than 100 pounds.
Texas has generous bag limits on catfish, especially for blue and channel cats, the two most common and most commonly targeted catfish. In most Texas waters, anglers can retain as many as 25 channel and/or blue cats in the aggregate per day with a 12-inch minimum length requirement.
Flatheads, often called yellow or Opelousas catfish, are less abundant and fertile than blues and channels, taking much longer to reach reproductive maturity. The daily bag limit on flatheads is five per day with an 18-inch minimum length. (Some waters have different size and bag limits for catfish; check TPWDâ€™s Outdoors Annual for all exceptions to the standard limits.)
While catfishing in Texas can be good almost any day of the year, May and June are perhaps the peak season for catfishing in Texas. And that is tied directly to the fishâ€™s natural history and behaviors.
All three main species of catfish spawn during late spring and early summer. That activity as well as the spawning behavior of threadfin shad, a main forage food for blues and channels, combine to give anglers opportunity for some very good catfishing.
Catfish begin their spawn when water temperature climbs to about 75 degrees and holds there or slightly higher, a mark usually reached in most of Texas in early May.
Channel and blue catfish move into shallow water, usually in the littoral band rimming shorelines. There, they seek out their preferred spawning spots.
For catfish, thatâ€™s often some type of structure offering at least a bit of overhead cover. Those areas include cavities under logs, roots, rock jumbles, undercut banks or similar cover. There, the females lay their eggs, which are fertilized by males who often guard the nest until the sticky clusters of eggs hatch.
This move to the shallows and to specific types of structure make catfish vulnerable to anglers who know where to find this type of structure and how to fish it. Hooks baited with commercially or individually prepared catfish bait concoctions, dead shrimp, dead threadfish shad or chunks of gizzard shad or live bait such as hellgrammites, shiners or catalpa worms (if you can find a supply of this world-class catfish bait) fished on bottom or suspended just a couple of inches above it often proves most effective.
In some fisheries, especially in rivers but also in some reservoirs, anglers can move from spot to spot, dropping their baits in likely catfish holes and waiting for a hungry catfish to find it. They almost certainly will.
If anglers are fishing an area holding channel and blue catfish, live shiners fished around cover can be particularly effective during the spawning season. Adult channel catfish and juvenile blue catfish (blues donâ€™t spawn until they reach about 24 inches) feed heavily on live forage fish such as minnows and shad.
The fondness of blue catfish for live forage fish, especially threadfin shad, can set up another productive tactic for anglers.
Swarms of adult threadfins, which spend almost all their lives in open water far from shore, push into shallow areas to spawn this time of year. They congregate around â€śhardâ€ť structure such as rafts of floating limbs and logs, stands of cypress, buttonbush or similar vegetation and, especially, areas where bulkheading has been erected.
The shad are drawn to these areas, as that â€śhardâ€ť structure is crucial to their spawning. Fertilized shad eggs adhere to these surfaces, where they gestate until hatching.
Those swarms of spawn-minded threadfin shad, now concentrated into relatively small areas, attract schools of catfish aiming to take advantage of the easy pickings. Catfish anglers aim to do the same.
Anglers who find stretches of shoreline with extensive bulkheading used as threadfin shad spawning areas can enjoy fast or at least steady catfish action in such areas. This so-called â€śbulkhead biteâ€ť is one of the highlights of the year for most rod-and-reel catfishers. Hit the right spot, and a 25-fish limit of 1- to 5-pound and sometime larger channels and blues is a real possibility.
Going for the big fish
Anglers targeting larger catfish â€” trophy-size blues and flatheads that can weigh 50 pounds or much more â€” typically focus their efforts on deeper water, usually along submerged channels that serve as travel corridors for these mostly solitary larger fish. And most anglers aiming for these bigger fish use live bait almost exclusively. Flathead catfish feed almost exclusively on live fish, as do many of the larger blues.
Live sunfish 3-5 inches are one of the most popular baits for anglers targeting trophy-size cats, either with rod-and-reel, trotline or jug lines. And Texas anglers land some giant cats this way.
The state record blue catfish taken on rod-and-reel, caught from Lake Texoma, weighed 121.5 pounds. The rod-and-reel record for flathead catfish, wrestled from Lake Palestine, isnâ€™t far behind at 98.5 pounds. The heaviest flathead taken in Texas is a 114-pounder caught on a trotline in Lake Livingston.
Those three reservoirs â€” Palestine, Texoma and Livingston â€” are among some of the top catfish fisheries in the state. But they are far from the only ones. Lake Tawakoni (which in March produced a 67-pound blue cat that set the Texas junior angler record for rod-and-reel-caught blue), Wright-Patman, Toledo Bend, Choke Canyon. Richland-Chambers and Lewisville offer tremendous catfishing.
Lake Conroe holds one of the stateâ€™s premier catfish fisheries, and the extensive bulkheading of this heavily developed lake produces one of the best â€śbulkhead bitesâ€ť in Texas.
For sheer quantity of catfish, it is hard to top Lake Houston. The 12,000-acre reservoir on the San Jacinto River holds a world-class catfish fishery, producing incredible numbers of blue catfish.
All those fisheries are square in what most catfish anglers see as the yearâ€™s best stretch of fishing. Traditionally, the stretch between Motherâ€™s Day and Fatherâ€™s Day is the peak of the year for catfishing in Texas, the period when catfish are concentrated in the shallows, spawning or gorging on spawning threadfin shad.
And even the muddy waters many Texas lakes are seeing as runoff from recent heavy rains pours down rivers and into reservoirs isnâ€™t likely to give Texas catfishers the blues this spring. Muddy water and catfish go together just fine.