As I walked up the dock at Lake Tawakoni Marina, I was greeted by catfish guide Tony Pennebaker. I could tell by the expression on his face that he had something humorous on his mind. “Fryers or trophy,” he asked. “Knowing you, Luke, I think I already know what your answer will be!”
Yep, Tony has me all figured out. While I thoroughly enjoy doing battle with big blue catfish, especially during the winter months when the fish are most aggressive, I also enjoy a big fish fry of catfish fillets caught from cold, clean waters. I opted to go for “eater” catfish. I knew the odds were very good that we would catch all the catfish weighing between 2 and 10 pounds that I needed for a big family fish fry, and besides, the bite would be faster for the smaller fish.
Fishing for giant blue catfish is much like hunting for big whitetail bucks; it’s often a waiting game followed by a few minutes of intense, heart-pounding action. Although the rigs Tony uses when targeting trophy class blues is a bit different from the rigs used for skillet fish, it was entirely possible for us to catch a giant catfish while targeting the smaller ones.
As Tony eased his big pontoon guide boat out of the marina, we noted the wind changed to the south, a day before the first cold snap of fall had blown in. With dropping water temperatures and lighter winds, this promised to be a good, albeit chilly morning of catfishing.
As we headed to a section of the lake with standing timber, thousands of cormorants left their roost trees, heading to find their morning breakfasts in the form of tasty shad. Tony and I knew these fish-eating birds had left their droppings in the water around the trees they had spent the night in. We also knew the waters would be chock full of catfish that feed on the dropping. We weren’t actually fishing directly under the cormorant roost trees as fishermen often do in the winter months, but in little pockets of open water close to the trees.
With the big pontoon boat stationary under anchor and two power poles pushed into the mud in the shallow water, we were ready to begin catching. It’s hard to beat fresh shad for catching blue catfish in Texas waters, and we soon had seven catfish rods rigged with modified (short) Santee Cooper rigs and circle hooks baited with chunks of shad. The floaters on the Santee rigs provided just enough buoyancy to keep the baits just up from bottom.
Tony’s prediction of fast action came early with three of the baited rods out. The first strike of the day came and a chunky blue catfish was in the live well. The remaining four rods were then baited and baits positioned in a fan-shaped formation around the bow of the boat. I’m a firm believer that the more baits in the water, the quicker the scent is dispersed and the better the action, especially in cold water. Usually there is a brief lull when catfishing and the bite often intensifies the longer the baits and scent is in the water. Not so on this trip, the cormorants that overnighted in the higher limbs of the standing timber had already attracted the catfish; they were there and in a feeding mode when we arrived. It was all about fishing at the right place at the right time.The bite began as soon as the first bait was placed in the water and didn’t stop until the quota for the upcoming fish fry was reached.
My choice to target eater-size catfish during a period when the big ones are on the best bite of the year might be rare. Most of Tony’s clients opt to spend their time on the water targeting the fish of a lifetime and then targeting the eaters. Although we didn’t connect with a trophy-class blue catfish, it is very common to catch one or more big ones mixed in with the huge schools of smaller catfish. But specifically targeting the jumbo-size blues does differ a bit from fishing for table fish.
Tony employs planer boards and a slow, controlled drift/troll when going after the big fish The planer boards ensure the baits are evenly dispersed around the stern of the boat and that baits are set at varying distances from the boat. The trolling motor is used to keep the boat heading in the desired direction rather than depending strictly upon the wind. This method ensures the baits are kept at the desired depths and on structure holding fish.
Back at the cleaning table after the trip, Tony gave some great tips on ensuring your catch becomes the best table fare possible. After the fish are filleted, it’s important to wash them thoroughly in fresh water. Tony keeps running water on the fish until the foam bubbles disappear. The oil from the fillets creates a slight film on the water surface, which creates the bubbles or foam and the continuous spray of fresh water removes those oils.
I can attest that these catfish caught from cold water and cleaned properly provide for some mighty tasty fried fish at our family get-together. The choice is yours to make. Go after the big fish of a lifetime or opt for a limit of some of the best eating in fresh water.
Yes, folks the catfishing is as good as it gets right now at Lake Tawakoni.