Tackle-busting cats turn cold lake into hot fishery
Well known for producing big salty species such as speckled trout and redfish, the normally brackish Lake Pontchartrain also holds monster freshwater catfish at times.
Several rivers flow into the 483,390-acre lake north of New Orleans, La., or associated waters. Few people even know that this fishery exists. The hottest cat action typically takes place during the coldest months. Also at this time, the massive lake usually sees the least pressure.
“A lot of big blue cats move into Lake Pontchartrain in late fall or winter,” explained Gary Vitrano, a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologist. “Historically, cold fronts push salty water out and salinity levels fall in the winter. Quite often, people can catch blue cats and redfish in the same places at the same time with the same baits during late fall and winter.”
Many people fish for cats exactly as they would for redfish, with fresh bait on the bottom. Shrimp, mullet chunks, clams, crab pieces, filet strips, fish heads, and similar morsels attract both species. Cats and reds also eat live finger mullets, menhaden and shrimp, but particularly relish soft-shelled crabs!
“Catfish act just like redfish,” noted Kenny Kreeger with Lake Pontchartrain Charters (985-643-2944). “There’s not much bait in the lake during the winter so catfish will hit about anything we put in front of them. I’ll throw out a couple handfuls of chum and put out four rods baited with shrimp. We won’t load the boat with fish in the winter, but we’ll catch some pretty good sized ones.”
Kreeger uses a Carolina rig with an 18-inch leader for fishing bait on the bottom. He usually anchors the rig with a 3/4-ounce lead slip sinker, but may use a 1-ounce chunk when fishing a strong tide. On the terminal end, he threads a shrimp on a long-shanked J hook, but many anglers prefer to fish bait with a circle hook.
Although catfish respond best to natural baits, they occasionally hit lures. Some favorites include soft-plastic grubs and shrimp or minnow imitations used for tempting trout and redfish. Sometimes, anglers tip lures with shrimp pieces for extra scent and flavor.
“Catfish are very aggressive predators,” stated Dudley Vandenborre, (985-847-1924), who guides on the lake. “We catch a lot of them while fishing plastics for trout and redfish. On one cast, we might catch a 15-pound catfish. On the next cast, we’ll catch a 5-pound trout and then a 10-pound redfish, all on the same lure. The biggest catfish we’ve ever put on my boat weighed 32 pounds and hit an avocado Deadly Dudley soft plastic bait.”
Like redfish, catfish hang around hard structure waiting to ambush bait. Several bridges crossing the lake create excellent places to find reds and cats. The longest bridge in the world continuously over water, the 24-mile-long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway spans the estuary at its widest point from north to south. Anglers also fish the Interstate 10 twin bridges, the old U.S. Highway 11 bridge and a nearby railroad trestle.
“All the bridges can hold catfish,” Vandenborre recommended. “I’ve probably caught more cats by the trestle, but that’s because I fish there more than the other bridges. The Twin Spans probably have a lot more cats than the other bridges. A friend of mine fishes by the U.S. 90 Bridge over Chef Pass. He’s caught some cats topping 70 pounds. Several times, I’ve seen him with some 50- to 60-pounders on the boat in the winter.”
Big blues also move out of the catfish-rich Pearl River system into eastern Lake Pontchartrain. In September 1992, Christie Carpenter pulled a 72.50-pound blue catfish from West Pearl. West Pearl River splits into two mouths. One flows into the Rigolets, a pass that connects Lake Pontchartrain to Lake Borgne, and the other into Little Lake, an estuary close to Lake Borgne.
“The two mouths of Pearl River are good places to fish for cats,” Kreeger advised. “A lot of big freshwater shiners come out of the rivers at that time of year. Catfish probably follow the shiners and feed upon them. We anchor in the mouth of the river, drop some baits into the water and sit there waiting for catfish. I’ve hooked some that broke my line. I never saw them so I don’t know how big they were.”
Many anglers awaiting the return of warmer weather could miss outstanding opportunities to battle really big, hard-fighting fish. For area information, contact the St. Tammany Tourist and Convention Commission at 800- 634-9443 or see www.LouisianaNorthshore.com.
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Top Photo: Capt. Kenny Kreeger and a blue catfish he caught while fishing by the Interstate 10 Twin Spans crossing Lake Pontchartrain near Slidell, La.