by Russell Tinsley
Forgive Dave Ross if he’s prejudiced, but Lake Amistad is where he makes a living as a catfish guide, and the big border reservoir is his office of choice.
“Amistad has to be the best catfish lake in the state, no question,” he says. “Fishermen take out thousands of cats each year, but then here comes a bunch more to take their place.”
Covering some 70,000 acres, Amistad impounds the Rio Grande, Pecos and Devils rivers near Del Rio. The reservoir is a water project built cooperatively by the United States and Mexico. It is deep and rocky and as clear as tap water, a splash of rippling oasis blue among the drab thornbrush of southwest Texas.
“Rocks, that’s the secret,” explains Ross, who has spent his entire angling career chasing catfish. “Cats prefer rocks to spawn. One cove of this lake will have thousands of crevices and holes. It’s like one big catfish factory.”
If anything, it is too productive. The typical cat will weigh about a pound, give or take a few ounces. Most times, the smaller cats are much easier to locate and catch than are the larger specimens, just because there are a lot more of them. That’s okay, though. Dave says most of his clients like action, catching a lot of catfish rather than a few bigger ones. “And the smaller cats are by far the best to eat and my clients like to catch something they can eat,” he says.
Right now is one of the prime times for catching. Dave’s favorite season is from now through October when catfish are in shallow water and he can catch them by what he calls “cork fishing.” This method, he says, not only puts catfish in the boat, it is a fun way to fish. The fisherman can keep his eye on the float and actually see a bite. “The anticipation of watching the float and waiting for it to go under is what it’s all about,” he says.
Actually, he adds, fishermen make two fundamental mistakes when fishing for summertime catfish: They fish too deep and they always fish on bottom. When fishing the bottom in deep water they’re looking for catfish in the wrong places.
“Just because the weather is hot, the fisherman assumes catfish will be in the deeper parts of the lake,” he goes on. “Catfish are a warm-water fish. The summer temperature affects the fisherman more than it affects the cats. Cold water is what drives ‘em deep.”
Dave says the eight- to 10-foot water he typically fishes will be over a flat, maybe back in a cove or out off a point, depending on the lake’s water level, but usually around brush or vegetation, not in open water. The first order of business is to bait or “chum” about five spots. He uses soaked wheat. The grain is put in a bucket, covered with water, and allowed to ferment a few days. From Dave’s experience, wheat is superior to grain sorghum (maize).
Not a lot of grain is needed. He’ll scatter about five handfuls in one small area. Once he has the five spots baited, he’ll return to the first one he baited to begin fishing. If this spot doesn’t pay off, he’ll move on to the next one. Having several spots baited increases the odds for success. Seldom will he have to visit all five baited holes. But that’s all right. Catfish will clean up the soured grain. It’s good for them.
Baiting to attract catfish has been an Amistad practice for many years. It now is catching on at other reservoirs thanks to advocates such as Ross and Bob Fincher of Nixon, a well-known catfish fisherman who makes and sells Bob’s Cheese Bait. “How important is baiting?” Fincher asks. “Well, let’s put it like this. If you bait a spot in the right place, the right depth, you’ll catch at least 10 times more fish than if you didn’t bait. And baiting doesn’t cost much. That’s the beauty of it all.”
When fishing, Dave will anchor or tie to brush, positioned where casts can be made upwind. Amistad catches a lot of wind and Dave’s big boat is equipped with a 60-pound homemade anchor to hold the boat in place. He wears a support belt, the type weightlifters use, to take the strain off his back while wrestling with the heavy anchor.
He rigs by putting a small weighted float on the line at a place to correspond to the depth of the water. If the water depth is 10 feet, for instance, he’ll have about eight or nine feet of line hanging below the float. Up from the hook a couple of feet he will pinch on a split-shot, just enough weight to keep the bait down. “A cat often will rise to take a bait and ignore one that’s right there on the bottom with him,” he says. “And in the summer, the shallower water will have the most oxygen and this is why the fish don’t go deep.”
Casting a float and a long piece of line can be rather awkward. For this reason, he uses a fairly limber rod, about eight-feet long, and sort of lobs the bait on out there. His reels hold 20-pound line. “I hang up in the brush a lot and I seem to catch as many fish on heavy line as I do light line,” he explains.
The hook is a No. 8 treble. “I’ve always had a preference for smaller hooks.” The bait is Bob’s Cheese Bait. “I sometimes use shrimp when fishing deep water in colder weather, but for this shallow-water fishing with a float, Bob’s Bait is the best I’ve used.”
Dave and his clients cast upwind and let the baits drift over the spot where he has scattered wheat. It is important, he says, to watch the float and be sure it is drifting naturally, bobbing along with the wave action, the bait not hanging on underwater brush or vegetation.
“The float needs to be moving the bait all the time; that’s the key to this kind of fishing,” he stresses.
Casts will be on out yonder, 15 yards or more. In the clear water, cats will see the boat if baits are fished too close and the suspicious fish won’t be as aggressive. “Actually, I like the lake level to be down,” he says further. “This exposes islands, and points and wind action off of them will put a little color in the water, and when clarity is not real good, fishing is better.”
The same thing can happen when catfish are rooting around on the bottom to pick up wheat. “When they have things stirred up and the water gets sort of murky, it is not usual to start catching fish right by or under the boat.”
Wind sweeping across unprotected Amistad goes with the low-slung terrain. It is windy more days than not. This can discourage fishermen. But Dave doesn’t let it bother him all that much. “Given the choice, I would rather have wind than calm,” he says, adding he has caught fish when the wind was howling 40 to 50 miles per hour. “Rough water makes the fish bite better.”
Fincher prefers less wind, although he likes a breeze when the weather is hot, to keep from baking. And again he agrees with Ross about fishing water less than 10 feet deep. In fact, he’s caught channel cats in June in water no more than two feet deep in lakes such as Choke Canyon, Sam Rayburn, Livingston, and Cedar Creek where he lived for many years.
He says: “Most times I’ll fish in the daytime in water no more than 12 feet, fishing vertically, straight down from the boat, or using a slip float, fishing the bait about a turn or two of the reel handle off the bottom. But if I’m fishing at night, I’ll anchor in deeper water and cast my bait right next to shore, in water that sometimes is no more than a foot deep. When they’re feeding at night, the cats really will work that shallow water. But it is hard to convince some people. They think cats live only in deep water and that’s where they fish. They’re in the wrong places.”
Even in the daytime he often fishes the shallow water along shore if there’s some kind of cover such as reeds, brush, moss beds or rocks to attract and hold fish. “I catch a lot of fish in reeds or rocks, such as riprap, in shallower water. These are the kinds of places I like to bait with soured grain.”
Given his druthers, though, he prefers to fish rocks. Catfish spawn in the summertime, later than scale fish and in warmer water, and they spawn in rock crevices. Also, in hot weather the channel cats forage on moss and algae that grows on rocks.
“This time of year catfish love to hang around rocks and that’s a prime place to fish for them,” he says.