From the FWCC
Few anglers will ever have an opportunity to try to reel in a freight train, but people who hook one of Florida’s monstrous catfish have a pretty good idea of what it would feel like. One of the reasons Florida owns the bragging rights to the “Fishing Capital of the World” title is this state’s lakes and rivers are crammed with catfish -- and some top the scales at 60 pounds or more.
For lots of Florida fish fry fanciers, however, it’s not so much the fight as it is the vision of fresh catfish fillets in a deep fryer that makes anglers giddy. Roll the fillets in corn meal and drop them gently into hot vegetable oil, and keep an eye on them while you mix up some hush puppies. Then you whip up some cheese grits and coleslaw. Brew up some iced tea, and come suppertime, you will have arrived in Dixie, no matter where you are. It will be the kind of feast that, as we southerners like to say, “makes you want to swat your momma’s hunting dog.” Actually, we don’t really say that; it just sounds like something we’d say.
“You can catch catfish pretty much all year long, the regulations are pretty simple, the techniques are easy and you can catch catfish from shore without having to buy a lot of fancy equipment,” said Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) biologist Kimberly Bonvechio. “All it takes is a hook, line, sinker and some kind of bait that smells awful or is otherwise attractive to catfish.”
Blue catfish and flathead catfish, both found primarily in rivers, are the largest catfish species in this state’s waters. The state record blue catfish is a 61.5-pound monster, and the state record flathead weighed in at 49.4 pounds. Channel catfish occur all over the state. The state record is 44.5 pounds, while the record for the channel catfish’s smaller cousin, the white catfish, is 18.9 pounds.
Other catfish species in Florida’s waters include the abundant, but smaller, brown and yellow bullheads, which have rounded tails, rather than forked tails like the others.
“Channel cats, white cats and bullheads are good targets for kids just learning to fish,” Bonvechio said. “The equipment is simple, you can catch them from a pier or shore, and you don’t have to get up early on a weekend to go after them. In fact, the best times to go after catfish are just before dusk and at night.”
She said catfish’s “whiskers” or barbels are loaded with sensory cells that enable catfish to find food by smell. That’s why successful catfish anglers use baits with strong odors like chicken liver or gizzards, shrimp, cut mullet and commercial stink baits.
“Catfish are kind of like dogs in that respect,” Bonvechio said. “The worse it stinks, the better they like it, although catfish also will take less fragrant baits, such as earthworms and freshwater clams.”
FWC fisheries biologists recently selected Florida’s top 10 catfishing holes for 2005. They are (in no particular order):
· Escambia River – This one is not for sissies. Big channel catfish come out of this river between mid-April and June and early October into November if the water stays warm. It also gives up plenty of blue catfish and flatheads. Anglers catch catfish here year round, but it gets a little slower when the weather gets a little nippy.
· The Apalachicola River and Lake Seminole - It never fails…. If you’re looking for superlatives about freshwater fishing in Florida, you can count on finding this system somewhere on the top 10 list in every category. Channel cats and flatheads rule these waters. Big channel catfish dominate the fishing action from late May into early July. Flatheads start getting hungry in April and stay that way into the summer. Even during winter, small catfish get the munchies for some good old stink baits and other favorites. The best spots to fish are from Jim Woodruff Dam south, old creek channels, Lake Seminole backwaters and around mouths of tributaries.
· Choctawhatchee River - This river is a sweetie-pie that offers up some nice, big channel catfish and bullheads along with a few flatheads. Late May through early June and October into November (if the water stays warm) are the times to go if you’re after the big ones. Small ones never stop biting, but they get a little lazy about it when the weather gets too cool for them. Fishing is good all the way from the Alabama line to West Bay and near the mouth of Holmes Creek and other tributaries.
· St. Johns River and Dunn’s Creek - Here’s where you go to wear yourself out catching channel cats, white catfish and bullheads. Big channel catfish action gets heavy in early May through June. Smaller catfish feed relentlessly during spring and fall months but slow down during winters. The best places to fish are Dunn’s Creek to Lake Crescent, Murphy’s Creek from the St. Johns to Dunn’s Creek and the river section from Palatka to Little Lake George. There is a deep hole on the north side of Buffalo Bluff Bridge that is a real honeyhole, but it has lots of snags. Take plenty of hooks and weights if you fish there, because the snags will keep some of them. Try to watch your language when that happens, especially if you take children fishing with you.
· Oklawaha River –Big channel catfish, along with some whites and bullheads, bite here May through June and October to mid-November. Small ones keep on biting all year from Rodman Dam east to the St. Johns River and from the west end of Rodman Reservoir to the lock and dam at Moss Bluff. Take home a mess of fish from this river, add a little onion to your hush puppy recipe and cook it all up yourself, and your whole family will think you’re a hero.
· Ochlockonee River – Flathead action heats up in early April, and the channel cats join in from mid-May into early summer. Both species keep on biting until the weather turns cool in October or November. Small catfish bite year-round, but they bite best in warm months. The most successful anglers fish the Talquin tailrace area, but the whole river offers good catfishing, including flathead and bullhead fishing. When you go catfishing on this river, there’s no question about the main course for supper. There’s nothing left to decide except whether to use mild or sharp cheese on the grits.
· Suwannee and Santa Fe rivers – Catfish love the lime rock areas throughout these rivers, particularly in the upper and middle reaches. They like the deadfalls in the lower rivers. Channel catfish, white catfish and bullheads bite year-round, but the big channel cats like to get caught from late April through June. If you decide to fry up some potatoes to go with the fish, do them in separate oil. You wouldn’t want your catfish to taste like potatoes.
· Clermont Chain of Lakes – Channel catfish and white catfish like to hang out around canals and channels when water is flowing through them, but the rest of the time, the best places to fish for catfish are offshore, open-water sites, particularly near drop-offs or around bottom structures. To bag catfish in this system, some commercial trotliners catch them by baiting with chunks of freshly caught gar in the bigger channels. They also use honeybees for bait in smaller channels, and it works. Don’t mess around too long when you’re through fishing for the day. As with all kinds of fish, there is no substitute for freshness to keep the taste level in the magnificent category.
· Haines Creek – Between lakes Eustis and Griffin, especially below the lock and dam, channel catfish get real active from mid-April through June and again in October and November when water temperatures start to drop. That’s when catfishing picks up in creeks and slows down in lakes as catfish seek out flowing water and stay a little deeper. Small catfish bite year-round, especially when the creek is flowing. If you go fishing here when the weather is cool, be sure to put a little hot sauce on your hush puppies to help you warm back up at mealtime.
· Upper Kissimmee Chain of Lakes – Moving water concentrates catfish, so that’s the ticket for hauling in channel catfish, white catfish and bullheads out of this chain. The best times are peak spawning periods – April through June for channel catfish and October and November for bullheads. The best spots are East Lake Canal, Southport Canal, C-36 (the canal between lakes Hatchineha and Kissimmee), below the Kissimmee River structure, around the mouth of and in Shingle Creek and around fish attractors. Catfish like to hang around drop-offs and around bottom structures in canals. Admittedly, some of the lakes in this part of central Florida have names that are hard to spell, but don’t worry about that. Just know that if you fish here, your family is going to eat well that night.
Resident freshwater fishing licenses cost $13.50 per year. Nonresidents pay $16.50 for a seven-day license or $31.50 for an annual license.
For more information about fishing in Florida, visit MyFWC.com.