TEXAS HAS A DISTINGUISHED reputation for doing things up big, and we’re not just talking about the obvious stuff like cowboy hats, wide-open spaces and oil fields, either.
Blue cats have a way ringing the bell around here, too. In fact, some of the nation’s most hallowed hotspots for producing the piscatorial titans are found in Texas, or in waters we share with our neighbors in Oklahoma and Louisiana.
Sometimes referred to as a “high-fin” or “hump-back” because of its elevated dorsal fin, the blue cat is one of five catfish species found in Texas lakes and rivers, and one of three, including channel cats and flatheads, that are highly sought after by freshwater anglers for food, sport or a combination of both.
Although all three are excellent in the skillet, blues and flatheads are genetically wired to develop the most serious weight problems later in life. Both have been known to grow beyond 100 pounds, but the blue cat is recognized as the larger of the two.
Texas lakes and rivers have kicked out some giant blues over the years, including a former world record 121.50 pounder caught in January 2004 from Lake Texoma by shore fisherman Cody Mullennix of Howe. According to TPWD records, 12 reservoirs have posted blue cat records in the 70-pound class, five in the 80s and three in the 90-pound range. Dozens of lakes have lake records upwards of 40 pounds.
Though trotliners and jugliners account for a high percentage of blue cats that cross a cleaning table, anglers are discovering the thrills of going after them with a hook and line. The allure is particularly strong on heavy hitting fisheries such as Texoma, Tawakoni, Palestine, Richland Chambers, Toledo Bend, Lewisville and Waco, Special limits have been put in place in recent times to help protect larger, trophy class fish from over harvest.
Chad Ferguson knows the drill well. Ferguson is a Ft. Worth-based fishing guide who specializes in putting his clients on big whiskered fish in North Texas and beyond.
His personal best rod and reel blue cat weighed 77 pounds, and he claims one of his clients landed a blue that unofficially topped 80 pounds. Ferguson’s son, Lane, now 19 years old, owns the Junior Angler State rod and reel record with a 66.20 pounder caught from 3,500-acre Lake Worth in Dec. 2011.
Ferguson, 45, has been fishing most of his life and turned his attention almost exclusively to chasing catfish at the age of 20. He says he has put his hands of more blue catfish in the 20- to 40-pound range than he can remember. “Most fisherman have never caught a 20 pounder, but we’ve caught a bunch of them. They are pretty common in a lot of the lakes I fish.”
Ferguson has gotten the game down to an art form in knowing where big blues live and how to catch them. He also has narrowed down when the fish are most easily fooled on a succulent piece of fresh shad carefully placed on a wide gap circle hook.
That time is now.
“Winter is definitely the most consistent,” Ferguson said. “Blue catfish of all sizes are easier to pattern in the winter months when the water is cold. They don’t move around as much, or as often, as they do during the warmer months. The baitfish congregate in larger (and often tighter) groups and are limited to where they can be, especially when it gets really cold.
Bottom line: the blues are easier to find, and they will usually stay put longer when you find them.”
A common mantra among trophy cat captains is this: Find the bait and the big blues won’t be far away.
“The best piece of advice I can offer is on bait,” Ferguson said. “If you want to be a catfishermen you need to be a shad expert. Learning what shad do, where they go, how they move and when will always keep you in fresh bait. It will also teach you a lot about their movements. Blue catfish are eating machines. Find the bait, you find the fish.”
Plenty of trophy blues are caught along wind-blown shore lines and skinny water points during winter, so guys like Ferguson spend most of their time using their electronics to pinpoint large fish relating to balls of bait around deeper main lake structure such as points, humps, channels or old roadbeds.
Good electronics draw a detailed image of the structure, where the bait fish holding in relation to it and—more important—whether any big blues are patrolling the area. “Big blues are a heck of a lot easier to find than most other freshwater fish,” Ferguson said. “If you’re looking at a fish finder you can identify a 50-pound blue catfish a heck of a lot easier than a two-pound fish. Big blues definitely stand out.”
Ferguson employs a variety of strategies to target big blues. He likes to drag big chunks of shad, carp or buffalo for fish holding near the bottom, and he will suspend the bait to get at blues that are higher in the water column. He still drops anchor on occasion, but most often relies on his Minn Kota trolling motor’s Spot Lock feature when he wants to hold the boat steady. The Ulterra also has I-Pilot Link and autopilot features to help him be more efficient than drifting with the wind when fish are positioned along define break lines.
Patience also is a virtue, the guide says. “One of the biggest mistakes I see some beginning catfish anglers make is they expect immediate results. They want it to be like bass fishing or crappie fishing—drop the line in and pull one in. It just doesn’t work like that.
Big blues are easy to find, but they’re a lot more particular than smaller fish. They pay more attention; they’re older and smarter. You have to be more patient, pay more attention to presentation etc.…”
So, you wanna catch a big blue? As earlier mentioned, Texas is home to a number great fisheries. The best ones are usually fairly large in size with a rich forage base and may be fed by one or two large river systems.
I asked Texas Parks and Wildlife Department inland fisheries regional directors Spencer Dumont and Brian VanZee to name the state’s top lakes for trophy-sized fish and numbers of quality-sized blues. Here are their picks:
• Trophy Blues: Toledo Bend, Tawakoni, Palestine, Lake Lewisville, Lake Waco, Lake Texoma, Lake Buchanan and Lake Conroe.
• Numbers of Quality Fish: Choke Canyon, Palestine, Richland Chambers, Tawakoni, Cooper, Livingston, Lavon, Arrowhead, Eagle Mountain Lake, Aquilla, Granger and Kirby.
Ferguson has soaked baits and reeled in big blues from many of those lakes. He’s also a wintertime fan of Cedar Creek, Worth, Hubbard Creek and Possum Kingdom.
Here are his thoughts on what he considers to be the top lakes for trophy cats upwards of 60 pounds and numbers in the 20- to 40-pound range:
• Texoma: “It’s got amazing numbers of fish in the 80- to 100-pound class, and a lot more of them are caught than people hear about, he said. “I know some guys who catch them pretty consistently, but keep the catch pretty close to their vests. Texoma is the top lake for producing the biggest fish. It wouldn’t surprise me if another world record comes out of there in the future.”
• Tawakoni: “It produces some giants, but it also takes a pounding by a lot guys who know what they are doing. Tawakoni produces good numbers of big fish as well as quality and is definitely one of the best lakes in Texas for blues. It also gets a tremendous amount of hype.”
• Waco: “It’s got a healthy population of fish 40- to 50-pounds and up, but it seems be lacking in the numbers 20- to 30-pounders. It’s a good pick if you’re after a really big fish.”
• Cedar Creek: “It doesn’t produce the 60- to 80-pounders, but fish in the 20- to40-pound range are plentiful.”
• Eagle Mountain: “You won’t catch the 60- to 70-pounders, but for 30- to 40-pounders I’d put it up against any lake out there.”
• Arrowhead: “It’s not going to produce the 60- to 80-pounders that Tawakoni and Texoma do, but it’s a great lake if you want to catch fish in the upper teens to 30 pounds.”
• Ray Roberts: “It’s packed with good quality fish, but doesn’t get much pressure at all. It’s full of 30- to 40-pounders.”
• Lewisville: “Lewisville doesn’t seem to produce the 15- to 30-pounders it used to, but it still has lots of big fish.
• Possum Kingdom: It’s definitely a lake worth fishing. It’s a great lake with better numbers of fish in the low teens, but it doesn’t seem to have the numbers of bigger fish it used to have because of algae bloom and fish kill several years ago.”
• Worth: “It’s got some big fish, but not a lot of numbers. It’s seems to have taken a hit in recent years.”
• Hubbard Creek: “It’s a sleeper that doesn’t get a lot of hype. They’ve been catching a lot of 40- to 50-pounders the last few years.”
Catfish are the largest freshwater sportfish in Texas and are second only to bass in popularity among anglers. They are also quite popular on the dinner table, but for many the fun is in getting them there.
—story by MATT WILLIAMS