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Herding Cats

A Lake Buchanan catfishing trip takes an unexpected “tern.”

By Larry D. Hodge

Of all the freshwater fish in Texas, blue catfish provide perhaps the most exciting action on rod and reel. No other fish in a lake can make a reel sing louder or an angler’s heart pound harder than a big blue making for parts unknown with a hunk of cut bait in its jaws.

That adrenaline rush is what blue cat anglers seek, says Clancy Terrill, who has guided for blue catfish on Lake Buchanan for more than 20 years and has landed and released a 65-pounder. He knows there are bigger ones out there. “I’ve had fish just walk off and leave with my line,” he says. “There was no turning them. I think we have fish in this lake as big as that 121.5-pound former world record from Lake Texoma.” [See “One Big Case of the Blues,” below.]

And so it is that Zoe Ann Stinchcomb and I head out with Terrill late one afternoon in search of Buchanan blue cats. “If it happens, the action will come from about an hour and a half before sunset to about an hour and a half after,” he explains. “I always look for a cove or a creek channel with rocks on one side and a ledge or trees or soft sand on the other. The catfish move up there following shad that move into the coves in the evening and come out in the morning.”

Terrill eases the boat into an unremarkable looking cove and sets anchors fore and aft to hold the boat in position. “I’ve fished hundreds of places on this lake,” Terrill says, “and this spot has been the most consistent.” If there is a catfish honeyhole in the lake, we’re on it. The cove has a name, as does the brush-covered hill in the distance, but I promise not to reveal either.

“Right now we are in 25 feet of water,” Terrill says, glancing at the fish finder. Then he turns the electronics off. I look at him and raise an eyebrow, since watching what’s not taking your bait is one way to pass the time when catfishing. “I think they can hear the noise the unit makes,” he says. “I tell people they can talk and have a good time, but not to stomp around or make loud noises. Fish can hear that.”

It’s time to bait up, and Terrill starts to reveal his secrets for catching trophy blues. The first is not the quarter-pound chunks of gizzard shad that go on the Kahle hooks, it’s how the bait is attached to the hooks. Rather than bury the hook in the slab of meat, Terrill gingerly inserts the hook just under the skin on one corner of the bait, leaving almost the entire hook exposed. The shad slice dangles from the hook, looking like it will fly off and land somewhere in the vicinity of Llano when Terrill casts, but shad skin is tough, and the bait lands in the water with a solid plop. He pushes the free-spool button on the reel, sets the clicker, puts the rod in a holder and strips out a couple of feet of line.

“It’s very important to just barely hook one tiny bit of skin on a corner of a big hunk of cut shad,” Terrill explains as he continues baiting rods. “This makes it easier to set the hook when a fish takes it, because you don’t have to drive the hook through a lot of meat to hook the fish. That works because when the fish picks up the bait and swims off with it, the slack in the line and the free-spooling reel let it swallow the bait. The Kahle hook tears out of the bait when you set the hook, travels up to the fish’s mouth and hooks it.”

Lake Buchanan is better known for striped bass than for catfish, and to keep things interesting, Terrill baits one rod on each side of the boat with live threadfin shad. When he’s done we look like a floating porcupine with six giant quills.

Terrill advises against baiting or chumming a hole when fishing for big blues, because you will attract small fish that will steal your bait.

Everything Terrill does is geared toward catching big catfish and was learned through experience. “A tight line is okay if you are fishing for small fish, but as soon as a big fish feels tension on the line, it will drop the bait,” he says, pulling out a couple more feet of line from one reel. “I put the loose line on the side of the rod opposite the reel crank so it won’t get tangled when a fish takes the bait. Watch the line. If it moves, pick up the rod and point the tip down at the water. When a blue cat hits, it takes off. Flatheads almost always just drag the bait a ways and quit. When you set the hook, really lay into it to tear the hook out of the bait, start reeling and keep the rod tip up. Sometimes a big blue will run right at you, so if the line goes limp after you set the hook, reel like crazy.”

A clicker starts ticking, then the reel begins to sing. It’s one of the rods baited with a live shad, and shortly Zoe Ann reels in the first of what will be several stripers. The catfish rods are silent. A loop of silk from a balloon spider appears on one line as if to taunt us about the catfish not biting. It’s 4:30. We wait.

Without warning, the loops of line on one of the rods slither through the guides. The line tightens, then goes slack. Moves sideways. Tightens. Goes limp. “It’s probably a gar,” Terrill guesses. Zoe Ann takes the rod out of the holder, points the tip at the water, turns the crank just enough to engage the reel and waits. The line tightens again, and she sweeps the rod skyward.

What splashes into the net minutes later is not a gar and not the blue catfish we expect — it’s a flathead catfish of about four pounds. Over the next three hours Zoe Ann and I take turns reeling in one flathead after another, all looking like clones of the first. A couple of blues take baits, too, but not the 20- or 30-pounders we’re after.

Between bites Terrill gives us a run-down on Lake Buchanan catfishing by season. “The good catfishing starts in late November and early December when it starts getting cold,” he reveals. “Early in morning and late in evening they will move to 20 to 25 feet of water, always in a cove with a rock shelf or point or with a creek running into it, and always with deep water nearby. After 9 or 10 a.m. they move out to 40 to 50 feet of water, but with the same kind of structure.

“In February and March, they move up into 10 to 20 feet of water in the same area,” he continues. “The prime catfishing can be in two to three feet of water if a lot of water is coming in from creeks and washing worms and bugs into the water. No matter how dirty the water is or what time of day, they will sense that moving water and move up into the creeks.”

For big blues in the summer, Terrill advises fishing near a rock shelf in 40 to 50 feet of water. “After baitfish hatch in May, you can find clouds of bait anywhere in the lake, and the cats don’t have to move up into shallow water to find food,” he explains. “I think the big blues — not flatheads — stay out in deeper water around rocks in hot weather. In summer you’ll catch a lot of good eating-size blues and channels, and some flatheads.”

It’s not summer, but for some reason we are overrun with four- to five-pound flatheads. Zoe Ann and I are quite happy catching and releasing them, and after seeing how hard they pull, I’m secretly glad I don’t tie into a 30- or 40-pound fish. Fishing is supposed to be fun, not work.

Besides the plethora of flatheads, one more surprise awaits us. We’re on a plane heading back for the boat ramp when suddenly a white cloud envelops us. Unidentified ghostly shapes streak by on both sides of the boat, and before I have time to realize what they are, Terrill kills the motor. Zoe Ann is laughing: She’s taken a tern in the chest, and another dazed bird is walking around the boat behind me. Though as confused as we are by the sudden turn of events, the birds appear unhurt and take their leave.

And all this time you thought there was a misspelled word at the beginning of this article. So did the editors. They had to go back and undo their change.

But there’s nothing I’d change about the catfishing on Lake Buchanan. The blues may not appear on cue, but with stripers and flatheads abounding, there’s plenty of fun to be had.

One Big Case of the Blues

The Texas state record blue catfish (and former world record) was caught from Lake Texoma in January 2004 and taken to the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens. Named Splash by Cody Mullennix, the angler who caught her, the 121.5-pound fish was the star attraction at TFFC until her death in December 2005 from an infection that probably resulted from being hooked.

Splash’s skeleton is being prepared for display at TFFC. The people who work there miss her every day, and visitors still ask about her. Big blue catfish have a special hold on people.

“I have caught blues up to 65 pounds from Lake Buchanan,” Clancy Terrill says. “I take their picture and turn them loose, and I encourage all my customers to do the same.”

To pursue your trophy blue catfish with Terrill, call (512) 756-4764 or visit <www.centraltexasfishing.com>.

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