A new breed of trophy hunter focuses on the blue cat's favorite snack food.
By Paul A. Cañada
When TPWD biologist Bruce Hysmith used to fish off of Lake Texoma’s Roosevelt Bridge as a boy, he was usually in search of white bass. But he always heard stories of something larger looming just out of sight.
“Our parents told us about giant catfish lurking in the water below that bridge,” says Hysmith. “Of course, those stories were most likely contrived by the adults in hopes of scaring us from leaning over the guardrail. Still, they had us kids believing that if we fell in, we would be eaten by fish as big as cars.”
Throughout the years, the impressive size, raw power and long lifespan of blue catfish have fueled the imaginations of Texas anglers. In January of 2004, the folklore became reality when Cody Mullennix of Howe, Texas landed an enormous blue catfish from Lake Texoma. The large predator tipped the scales at 121.5 pounds. The fish was a new Texas state record. For a short while, until a 124-pound blue was caught from the Mississippi River in Illinois, Mullennix’s fish stood as the International Game Fish Association world record.
It often takes decades for a blue catfish to reach trophy size. In fact, some blue cats are older than the angler on the other end of the line. According to Hysmith, the estimated age of the 121.5-pound state record blue catfish is between 27 and 30 years old.
“Any cold-blooded animal has what we biologists term as indeterminate growth,” says Hysmith. “They will continue to grow on and on, unless one of three things — food source, senility or environmental conditions — limit or control that growth. Under the right conditions, these blue catfish will grow to tremendous sizes.”
While most catfish anglers still rely on traditional means — jug lines, trot lines and limb lines — when targeting the bigger cats, a new breed of catfish angler has arrived on the scene today. These anglers actively hunt the big blue cats found in Texas’ large, relatively deep reservoirs. Using electronics and special techniques, they chase after the largest predator found in their impoundments.
The new breed of trophy hunter focuses on the blue cat’s fondness for shad. Many members of this select group of anglers are former striped bass anglers whose first contact with blues 30 pounds and larger occurred while fishing for giant stripers, under schools of shad, in open water. The trophy blue’s tendency to move with schools of baitfish often makes the highly sought predator a tough cat to catch. Few understand the blue catfish and its habitat like guides Chad Ferguson and Randle Hall.
Trophy-sized Fish are Structure-oriented
Throughout Ferguson’s angling career he has studied and pursued many species, including striped bass, black bass and catfish. The longtime guide believes, as with stripers and black bass, the location and activity of blue catfish correspond with the seasonal movements of large schools of shad and baitfish
As soon as water temperatures drop into the 60s and the reservoir’s water level stabilizes, baitfish begin congregating in large schools and moving towards deep water. Depending on geography, this period can occur as early as October in North Texas and as late as December in South Texas. According to Ferguson, this phase of colder water temperatures and large schools of baitfish begins the ideal season for catching trophy-sized blue catfish.
“While I do catch big blues year round,” says Ferguson, “I don’t start concentrating my efforts on trophy-sized fish until that cold-water period. I simply don’t see the numbers of big fish, like I catch in late fall and early winter, during any other season. I’ll have days where I am likely to catch more than a dozen fish over 25 pounds.”
On many of Texas’ larger impoundments, these schools of bait relate chiefly to main-lake structural features, such as flats, roadbeds, berms, points and humps. The blue catfish use the same structure to intercept shad and other fish moving out of creeks and coves, and back out to the deep water of the main lake.
Ferguson targets main lake structure, adjacent to deep water or a channel, when looking for the biggest blues. The water depth over most of the structure he targets ranges between 25 and 45 feet. Using his electronics, the catfish guide first looks for the schools of shad, roaming the flats. Typically, the shad are spread throughout the water column.
The ideal location for finding the larger catfish is a hump or point created by the intersection of two channels. The change in water depth between the channel and structural feature may be as subtle as 5 feet. However, when a school of baitfish is holding over or near the structure, the biggest blues will normally be found nearby, along that channel edge.
“The blue catfish suspend or park themselves underneath the baitfish,” notes Ferguson. “In most cases the catfish will be near the bottom. However, there are times when the fish are suspended off the bottom, just below the baitfish.”
According to Ferguson, anglers trained at using onboard electronics normally have no problem locating the big predators below the school. The profile of a trophy-sized blue cat on a depth finder is unique from other predators. Unlike the classic inverted-V of a striped bass or largemouth, the profile of a larger blue is more round and resembles an umbrella.
“I rely on my depth finder nearly 100 percent of the time to locate these fish,” says Ferguson. “However, they don’t always show up as an umbrella-shaped arch on the depth finder screen when moving, or holding tight to the bottom. It takes some practice and experience to find them under those conditions.”
Like Ferguson, Randle Hall has devoted many years to the study and pursuit of Texas’ largest freshwater predators. Hall’s studies and fish-catching ability brought him national recognition as a top guide and trophy catfish hunter. In fact, Hall’s clients have set the last six Lake Lewisville water body records, including the current 63.12-pound catfish. Today, Hall is an offshore saltwater guide working out of Port Mansfield. However, he still returns to his old stomping grounds, Lake Texoma and Lake Lewisville, to chase the blue catfish.
According to Hall, it’s not unusual to find what seems to be the perfect structural edge, or break, and not find the big cats. However, find schools of shad near that edge and you almost always find big blues underneath them.
“The baitfish is the key,” explains Hall. “You have got to take a look at the entire ecosystem. The plankton determines where the shad will be, and the shad determine where the big blues are going to be found.”
Like Ferguson, Hall looks for secondary features intercepting a main channel. According to Hall, the biggest predators hold off of ditches, drains or tributary creek channels during the day. At night, the big fish use the structure to travel up on to the shallower flat.
As noted before, active blue cats are typically found suspended under a school of baitfish. Hall prefers to drift cut-bait when targeting suspended fish. His first drift presentation utilizes a Carolina rig with a crappie float, 6 to 8 inches above the hook, which lifts the cut-bait and leader off the bottom. The length of the rig’s 50-pound test leader varies, depending on how far off the bottom the fish are suspended, between four and 10 feet.
Whether the fish are suspended or near the bottom, Hall believes it’s important to keep the bait off the bottom.
“I try to get the bait at least 18 to 24 inches off the bottom,” he says. “By keeping that bait off the bottom, I am making it easier for the catfish to take the bait.”
Hall uses cut pieces of shad or carp under a balloon — a traditional striped bass rig — when the catfish are suspended over deeper water. He prefers a slightly inflated balloon attached to a sliding snap-swivel, stopped by a glass bead and a float-stop. The float-stop is placed 10 to 12 feet above the bait. The balloon acts as slip float, casting fairly easily and then sliding up the line to the float-stop and resting on the surface.
Hall pays great attention to detail when setting up a drift. He specifically targets deep-water breaks, aligned with the prevailing wind. Hall then spreads four to six lines out behind the boat. He’s able to regulate the speed of his drift by matching the size of his sea anchor, ranging between 54 and 106 inches, to the wind speed.
“Presentation is everything when using a drift technique,” warned Hall. “The speed of your drift is critically important. In summer, the biggest fish are spread out but are very aggressive, and so you can drift faster. In fall, when the big catfish are congregated in small groups, it’s sometimes important to drift as slow as possible.”
Ferguson also uses drift presentations, but when given a choice, he prefers anchoring, casting and slowly dragging a presentation back to the boat. He relies primarily on two presentations when anchored. His bread-and-butter rig is the traditional Carolina rig, with a three- or four-foot leader and a three-ounce, egg-shaped sinker.
The North Texas guide’s second-most-utilized rig is what locals call a “Santee-Cooper rig.” The rig utilizes an in-line cork, located halfway down the leader. Similar to Hall’s cork rig, the Santee-Cooper rig keeps the bait off the bottom.
“I start with a presentation that best matches the conditions at hand, and then pay close attention to how the fish react to it,” says Ferguson. “I will change rigs or modify the rig to adjust to the fish. The big fish bite changes from day to day. They may be aggressive one day and more selective the next.”
No matter how the large blue cat approaches and takes the bait, the ensuing battle is bound to be memorable. Still, each fish is an individual. While some fight hard immediately after the hook set, others come right to the boat, convincing the angler that a smaller fish is on the line. However, the angler is quickly enlightened when the big cat’s fierceness is unleashed at boat-side.
“The majority of the trophy-sized fish, 25 pounds or larger, surface a great distance from the boat,” says Hall. “They roll and slap the surface, spraying water 15 to 20 feet in the air. It’s a thrill to see a big fish do that because, until the fish surfaces, you don’t really know how big it is.
“I remember a time out on Lake Texoma when a big blue pulled my 25-foot Boston Whaler backwards. That’s the kind of strength these fish have. All you can do is hold on to your rod and hope for the best.”
Trophy Blue Cat Fisheries
Texas is blessed with dozens of fisheries supporting trophy-sized blue catfish. Nearly 50 fisheries have water body records of more than 40 pounds, and 20 fisheries have records of more than 60 pounds. In fact, five reservoirs — Conroe, Sam Rayburn, Lake Fork, Gibbons Creek and Lake Texoma — have water body records exceeding 80 pounds.
The majority of the reservoirs with record fish over 60 pounds have a few things in common. First, they all have healthy populations of prey fish, such as threadfin and gizzard shad. Second, nearly all of these reservoirs have plenty of habitats, adjacent to deep water. Finally, many of these impoundments have impressive striped and white bass populations.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department district biologist Bruce Hysmith quickly dismisses the notion that blue catfish only grow large in large impoundments.
“Typically, you think of blue catfish as big-water fish,” says Hysmith. “You think of Lake Livingston or Lake Texoma when considering the best place to find trophy-sized blues. However, Lake Bonham is about 1,020 acres and it has a great blue catfish population. Similarly, Lake Nacoma is another relatively small reservoir with an outstanding blue catfish population.
“Many of our fisheries in Texas support good blue catfish populations. It’s not impractical to think that there are 60- to 75-pound fish swimming in most of our reservoirs.”
North Texans have a good number of trophy fisheries to choose from, including Cooper, Fork, Lavon, Lewisville, Tawakoni and Texoma. Likewise, anglers living in East Texas also have a variety of fisheries to try, including Conroe, Gibbons Creek, Livingston, Toledo Bend and Sam Rayburn. Fishing for blue catfish is good on many central Texas impoundments, including Belton, Buchanan, Fayette County, Travis and Whitney.