Premiere “Roughfish” Waterways.
Every angler dreams of that once in a lifetime “trophy”. And every angler has that one “spot” they hold near and dear to their heart which has, does, and will provide those trophies. We as angers can catch the same species over and over, but truthfully, the experience is always uniquely different. Just the same, no two bodies of water are identical and frankly, some are simply ‘better’. Perhaps there is no definitive answer as to what dictates which location is ‘best’, but some bodies of water simply yield more monsters than others. What I intend to present is a compilation of water bodies, both renown and remote, which have, do, and will more than likely yield trophy “rough fish”.
To some extent, even the most seasoned multi-species angler is somewhat of a novice. The ‘boundless angler’ expands his time attempting to seek out and educate himself on the broader spectrum of species than say, a diehard bass fisherman. To master such a trade to the same degree as a truly proficient bass angler, however, would be impossible. There are simply too many species out there to possibly ‘master’ all of them, and thus, most accomplished multi-species anglers are simply ‘masters’ of being moderately skilled in the pursuit of each unique species he pursues. Unfortunately, the avenue to success with less sought after species is narrow and uncharted. There are just not enough publications out there to cater to the interest of an open minded angler looking to get his start on fish like bowfin, suckers, etc. The first step to that pursuit is figuring out “where do I find them?” Education with the ‘lesser desired’ species is more often than not by trial and error or by experienced word of mouth.
Perhaps among the most grossly under appreciated, sporty members of the “roughfish” category are our gar species. Plentiful, big, mean, nasty, and most importantly willing to bite, the gar is among the most attainable species of roughfish to be pursued. Having extemporary history with the dinosaurs, this fish predates even the earliest human anglers by millions of years and thus, has fallen under the radar of sports fisherman longer than almost any other. Gar species, however, are growing in popularity and there seems to be a shift in perception amongst anglers thanks in part to a far more open minded younger generation of anglers. Donnie Hinkle of LaGrange Georgia has found a way to draw profit off of the growing popularity of gar fishing with his own guide service.
Westpoint Lake –
Hinkle has been fishing West Point Lake since it was impounded in 1975. West Point Lake is part of the Chattahoochee River along the Georgia and Alabama state line and was impounded for flood control reasons by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Hinkle began fishing West Point Lake more than 10 years ago, primarily for Largemouth Bass. It was there that he first encountered Longnose Gar, and the frustrations that come with trying to catch them on conventional tackle. After spending countless hours on the losing end of a frustrating pursuit of the gar with bass tackle, Hinkle spent the winter months that year educating himself on the elusive quarry he had stumbled across on West Point Lake. Hinkle, like many multi-species advocates, found that he had to reach out to others with the same passion for the first hand knowledge he sought.
“Two southern fishermen stood out to me because of their unconventional way they catch their Longnose Gar. Terry Smith had a guide service on the Coosa River and the late Gar Man Jack on Lake Lanier, both used homemade nylon rope lures and both marketed their own designs.” – Hinkle
“Later on I saw Terry Smith on the southern outdoors show “O’Neill Outside” with O’Neill Williams fishing for Gar with rope lures and I knew that was the technique I want to catch them with too.” – Hinkle
Over the course of the next 10 years, Hinkle perfected the art of capturing Longnose Gar by rod and line, and has keyed in on the seasonal habits of the gar in his area, particularly West Point Lake. His chosen method is an approach totally unique to gar anglers, the nylon rope lure. The rope lure is made up of fine twisted nylon rope unraveled such that it moves through the water with surprisingly natural fluid motion. The fine fibers of nylon eliminates the necessity of barbed metal hooks because the toothy bill of the Longnose Gar actually becomes entangled in the fiber itself. Today Hinkle spreads the knowledge he has gained through years of experience with his guide service on West Point Lake. His efforts to educate clients in a professional manner have helped to promote a truly unique, underappreciated fish, and has put West Point Lake on the map as a proven hot spot of big Longnose Gar. Donnie Hinkle can be further contacted at (http://westpointlakegargrabbers.blogspot.com/)
Santee Cooper, SC
Despite the dramatic lack of information leading to the capture of gar by hook and line, anglers seeking to find these prehistoric monsters on the end of their line scarcely have to look far. Gar, specifically Longnose Gar, can be found in most all warm water river systems and lakes in the Eastern United States. West Point Lake in Georgia is just one of many strongholds of these formidable sporty fish. The Santee Cooper system in South Carolina draws hundreds of thousands of anglers from all over the country every year to its world class bass fishing. The Santee Cooper is also one of our nation’s premier catfishing locations. Flying under the radar, however, is a very healthy population of Longnose Gar. The entire Santee Cooper lake and river system is packed with these sleek, prehistoric predators. Local or visiting anglers seeking to encounter their first Longnose Gar in South Carolina should focus on areas around the Santee Cooper like Wilson’s Landing – dam below Lake Marion, The Hatchery of Lake Moultrie, and Lawfalls Landing on Lake Marion. Because the surrounding areas of the Santee Cooper system is a popular fishing community, non-local anglers can stop by any of the plentiful local bait shops to pick up simple terminal tackle. Suspending bait store shiners below a float is an elementary method that seems to harvest Longnose Gar from the clear waters of the Santee just fine. Because the Santee has relatively good clarity and shallow sandy flats, sight fishing for Longnose Gar is a viable and productive option.
Lake Champlain – (Longnose Gar, Bowfin, Carp)
Longnose Gar are not simply a warmwater southern species, however. They can be caught as far north as Quebec, infact, one of their true strongholds testifying to their propensity to live up ‘North’ is Lake Champlain. Champlain is a natural freshwater lake in North America located primarily within the borders of the United States, but partially situated across the US-Canadian border extending into provinces of Quebec.
Champlain is surrounded by a plentiful fishing community which enjoys a plethora of some of North America’s most popular sporting fish. It is also a stronghold for some of the most popular “rough fish” species. A lake so popular amidst trophy fisherman, Champlain has its own legendary beast lurking within its dark cold waters “Champ”. In 1609 Samuel de Champlain wrote that he had seen a ‘lake monster’ five feet long and as thick as a man’s thigh, with silver-gray scales a dagger could not penetrate. The alleged monster had 2.5 foot long jaws with sharp and dangerous teeth. The legend of ‘Champ’ has lasted the test of time, and the original story has morphed into a monstrous tale of man eating beasts. Perhaps what Samuel de Champlain truly saw was a prehistoric creature that predated this myth by millions of years, the Longnose Gar.
More popular for its landlocked Salmon, Smallmouth Bass, and Walleye, Champlain also boasts water body records for Bowfin in excess of 14 pounds, Carp of 37 pounds, Freshwater Drum of 20 pounds, and Longnose Gar of 17 pounds. Longnose Gar are particularly popular among fly anglers on Champlain.
Alligator Gar Locations
Trinity River: (including longnose gar, buffalo, carp, catfish)
All gar species have undeniable sporting qualities, but the undisputed king of the gars is the Alligator Gar. The Alligator Gar is perhaps the heavyweight king of all fish in North America. It is a true giant that simply cannot be ignored any longer by the angling community and thanks to major exposure from National Geographic, Animal Planet, The History Channel and more, anglers are flocking from all over the world to capture Alligator Gar. The range of the Alligator Gar is small however. The true stronghold of trophy sized Alligator Gar remains almost exclusively in Eastern Texas rivers, particularly the Trinity.
The Trinity River is one of the longest rivers in Texas, but is punctuated by limited access points. The Trinity River consistently yields the most impressive specimens of Alligator Gar each year. Because trophy Alligator Gar are so concentrated in remote East Texas river systems, non local anglers seeking to experience these fish often have to rely on the knowledge of local fisherman like Dawson Heffner. Dawson Heffner of Tyler Texas has found a way to take his passion for Alligator Gar fishing and make a living off of it.
Dawson Heffner is a young, fit, and experienced local Angler with 150+lb gar to his credit. Heffner started drawing profit off of his passion for Alligator Gar through his guide service, Texas Magafish Adventures (www.texasmegafishadventures.com). He has been featured in publications such as US Carp Pro Magazine, and televised in educational formats produced by Texas Parks and Wildlife. Heffner has been fishing exclusively for Alligator Gar for more than 5 years. A lifelong native of Texas, during his tenure as an Alligator Gar fisherman Heffner has developed a keen respect and impressive knowledge on this one of a kind species.
Having been acquainted with Dawson Heffner in the gar fishing community for several years, I have personally benefitted from his expertise in my own gar fishing endeavors. Heffner can attest to the virtual necessity of assistance from more experienced local anglers. “The best Alligator Gar fishing is found in areas that are far from easy access” –Heffner. The Texas landscape surrounding the most rewarding stretches of the Trinity is unforgiving and not for the faint of heart. Traveling into the remote regions of East Texas river stretches without proper research or preparation is not just ignorant, it is dangerous. As an up and coming guide in a limited pool of truly knowledgeable local gar anglers, Heffner is well known for his tenacity in pursuit of trophy Alligator Gar. Heffner boasts a noteworthy referential clientele list, all of which adamantly proclaim that he lives up to the notion, “Texas Tough”, working longer, harder, and more diligently than anyone to put his clients on the fish of a lifetime. “An alligator gar measuring over six feet is a trophy, and there is a good chance of landing one of these 100lb plus fish on each trip.” 100 pound optimism is a terrifyingly exciting prospect, but simply put, Heffner has, and does walk the walk.
Heffner has had most success along the Trinity River during the early spring pre-spawn months when Alligator Gar, like most fish, are fattening up in anticipation for spawn. During spawn, Alligator gar stay within close proximity to areas that afford access to different water levels. One must quickly learn to indentify these areas in the rare opportunity the Trinity’s murky water provides visual observation of it, or with electronic aid. Alligator Gar seek out submerged vegetation to deposit their eggs during spawn, because of this, if the rivers do not see seasonal floods allowing them access to flooded vegetation, Alligator Gar may not spawn at all.
Springtime water conditions often fluctuate during the ever-changing Texas weather patterns, making river conditions fraught with danger and nearly impossible to predict. Unpredictable weather means anglers like Heffner have to maintain constant surveillance on forecasts affecting water levels. Operating a motor propelled vessel through the Trinity River requires careful navigation around many hazards that lie above and below the murky waters. Heffner sometimes travels up to an hour across the obstacle laden waters to his preferred locations. The zero visibility conditions make it especially dangerous to boaters who simply cannot see what debris sits just below the surface. The Trinity, despite its tranquil name, is a very dangerous river system. With each flood, new vegetation, timber, and other debris begin to float downstream. Some debris, including large tree trunks, becomes lodged around trestles and bridges; some debris settles along the bottom of the river. Assistance of seasoned locals such as Heffner is extremely beneficial. Nevertheless, making long trips with a power boat along the Trinity engages the conscience like no other. Despite its muddy, cluttered shores, the Trinity has a stark beauty about it that cannot be compared. Long runs from put in points to isolated holes have no shortage of natural beauty. The shores of the Trinity have a vast array of wildlife such as various waterbirds, eagles, deer, and wild hogs.
Heffner usually keys in on eddies in the current, or shallow flats adjacent to deep holes. Heffner typically looks for where depths taper from a starting depth of 6 feet. Heffner probes his preferred fishing locations by placing baits fixed to steal leaders, barrel swivels, and large trebble hooks. Because Heffner generally matches his bait size to the size fish inhabiting the waters he fishes, he may use bait as small as a bluegill, or as large as a 5lb common carp.
Having made several trips to the Trinity River myself, I can attest to the necessity of assistance from locals. Though Alligator Gar are plentiful in the Trinity River, the truly massive specimens seem to be nearly inaccessible without proper resources.
Red River (Alligator Gar/Longnose Gar, catfish, buffalo and carp)
Only mere miles north of the headwaters of the Trinity River is the Red River. The Red River is the second-largest river basin in the southern Great Plains, and borders Oklahoma and Texas. It is also home to a healthy population of large Alligator Gar and Longnose Gar. Perhaps most popular amongst catfisherman, stretches of the Red River within close proximity to Lake Texoma are inhabited by largely unspoiled populations of Alligator Gar and Longnose Gar. Because the Red River often runs very shallow during the drought season, isolated deep holes near rocky bluffs and sharp bends in the river are often packed with Gar. The Red River, however, does not have a great deal of access points for anglers who intend to use boats. Like the Trinity River, the Red River is a very muddy with little to no visibility is and is subject to major fluctuations in turbidity and water level. During the drought season it is often so shallow in some areas that boat use would be treacherous or impossible. Anglers looking to capitalize on the unspoiled populations of massive gar should utilize Google maps to seek out sharp bends and darker colored water indicating depth that is relatively close to the head and tailwaters of Lake Texoma. The Red River is also home to some of the largest Longnose Gar in the country. In 2012 I captured a Longnose Gar exceeding 61 inches that weighed roughly 40 pounds. By any account this fish was tip toeing on the fine line of the record books. I can say without hesitation that there are absolutely World Record shattering class fish swimming in the Red.
Other Alligator Gar locations:
South Texas and East Texas each have several other noteworthy locations for prime gar fishing. The Brazos River is the longest river in Texas, and the 11th longest river in the United States. Hot spots along the Brazos to key in on for trophy Alligator Gar are in the stretches close to Waco and further South around Houston. The Brazos has yielded Alligator Gar in excess of 200lb. The Sabine River bordering Texas from Louisiana also hosts a sufficient enough population of Alligator Gar and Longnose Gar that Dawson Heffner often brings his clients to it. Smaller rivers further south in Texas such as the Guadalupe River just outside of Victoria Texas also have very good populations of Alligator Gar.
Alligator Gar do not just dwell in rivers. Alligator Gar are more than happy to venture into and sustain themselves in large body lakes. The Choke Canyon Reservoir near Three Rivers, Texas hosts some of the most popular Alligator Gar waters in Texas. Massive specimens have also been pulled from Lake Sam Rayburn, Lake Livingston, and Lake Texoma.
Another notable prehistoric beast is the Bowfin. Perhaps even less understood or publicized than gar, the Bowfin possesses uncanny sporting qualities that should stimulate the senses of any angler seeking a first rate battle on rod and line. Most bass anglers across the Southeastern United States have encountered Bowfin some time in their life. They may have known them as Mudfish, Grinnel, Dogfish, Choupique, or some other variation of conjured up slanderous nicknames.
The Bowfin, like the gar, is a readily available and realistic option for inexperienced “rough fisherman”. Though their mapped range vastly covers most of the Eastern United States, intentionally finding Bowfin is not that easy. Unlike gar, Bowfin are lone wolves, and are not particularly fond of competition or company. They stay concealed in relative obscurity, typically preferring quiet, clear, backwater areas, lingering along the margins of aquatic vegetation, in undercut banks, and around branches and other submerged structures. Anglers seeking to find these fish should first map out these swampy backwaters
Haw River, NC and surrounding estuaries..
Henry Veggian of North Carolina has been fishing for Bowfin for a decade. His tenure as an avid multi-species enthusiast with particular interest in Bowfin has made him a well recognized figure among the small but passionate core group of “Bowfin anglers”. Veggian is also the author of the forthcoming book “Welcome to Bowfin Country”. In addition, he organizes the FOTY (Finner of the year) events every year for the Bowfin Anglers Group, and has won the event several times himself. During his time, Veggian has developed a profound understanding of seasonal preferences in habitat and diet unique to the mighty Bowfin. Despite the monotonous, repetitive notion that Bowfin are a “slow water” fish, Veggian maintains that even the largest Bowfin are often caught along current lines. “I’ve caught the majority of my largest Bowfin along current lines.” –Veggian. Bank lines of rivers and creek channels in lakes host underappreciated opportunity for anglers seeking a truly unique fighting machine in Bowfin.
“Some of my favorite places to fish for them here in central North Carolina are below the old dams on the Haw River north of where it becomes the Cape Fear. I use crankbaits, spinner baits and in-line spinners at those times, but with the exception of winter time, I look for them always along current lines.”-Veggian
To the frustration of anglers seeking preliminary knowledge on Bowfin, general publications available simply don’t suffice, and certainly don’t cater to the interest of anglers seeking knowledge from an angling perspective. We simply don’t know much about Bowfin behavior, but a new scientific study by a team of Cornell University fisheries biologists tracked Bowfin for two years across a large lake in upstate New York. The results confirmed what Veggian took mental note of during firsthand experience on the water. Bowfin do not merely sit by idly in the same general vicinity as the seasons change, in fact they do a great deal of traveling. Because of this, Veggian proactively combs the impoundment lakes of the Carolina Piedmont during the course of each fishing season for the seasonal migration of his prehistoric quarry. The primary water bodies comprising the Carolina Piedmont include Jordan Lake and Falls Lake, a duo of scarcely promoted –premiere Bowfin lakes.
According to Veggian, during early springtime the Bowfin he targets tend to be most prolific in areas of current. As springtime transitions to the summer months the fish move shallower, seeking calmer, more stereotypical Bowfin territory. Veggian’s artificial patterns mimic the Bowfin’s preferred prey accordingly with these seasonal changes, often including softplastic worms, lizards, and crayfish patterns. During the winter months in North Carolina, Veggian says Bowfin can become so lethargic sunning in the shallow water that you can practically reach out and touch them. Nevertheless, they can still be captured with slow moving patterns like jigs.
Despite the Bowfin’s propensity to feed opportunistically on natural baits, Veggian fishes exclusively by artificial means. This adds a uniquely sporty experience to the thrill of pursuing Bowfin. Conventional tackle typically used by Largemouth Bass and Walleye anglers works well for Bowfin, however, the Bowfin couples considerably more powerful jaw pressure with a set of gnarly teeth. They are also, without question, more powerful “pound for pound”. As a result, standard terminal tackle used by more popular predator species often winds up busted and broken at the end of a good day on the water catching Bowfin.
“I tie strong knots, upgrade all my split rings and hooks, and fish with a medium action rod that can turn a fish that is running into cover. I also use braided line – it does not stretch, allowing for strong hook set penetration into the Bowfin’s bony mouth.”-Veggian.
Santee Cooper, SC
A first option for ‘where to start’ might be looking towards where the largest specimens have been caught. The IGFA All Tackle World Record Bowfin was captured in South Carolina in 1980 from Forest Lake, exceeding 21 pounds. Forest Lake has since become a private residential body of water that is inaccessible to outside anglers. Nevertheless, the State of South Carolina is home to many preferred habitats of trophy class Bowfin that are overshadowed by equally impressive Largemouth Bass. In 2006 the record for the heaviest 4 fish weight total in Bassmasters tournament history was shattered on the Santee Cooper. The Santee Cooper is also home to a healthy population of trophy class Bowfin (30 inches being the standard). The Santee Cooper, which is a two lake system connecting Lake Marion to Lake Moultrie, hosts a plethora of opportunity for a multi-species enthusiast. With access points at every corner of the system, fisherman in this region do not have to work particularly hard to find the fish. Both Santee lakes are punctuated by murky backwaters with enough cypress trees, roots, and vegetation to make any Bowfin fishing excursion uniquely challenging and rewarding. Because both lakes are shallow with sandy bottom along the shoreline, sight fishing is a viable option, though Bowfin are very well camouflaged and will rarely compromise their position during daylight for the sight fishing approach to work well.
The Santee Cooper is not the only South Carolina body of water with quality Bowfin fishing by any stretch. Only several miles from Lake Moultrie is the Goose Creek Reservoir. Anglers in the Charleston area of South Carolina with interest in catching Bowfin should absolutely consider this 600 acre impoundment located in lower Berkeley County. Popular among panfish and bass anglers, the Goose Creek Reservoir is home to an outstanding population of Bowfin. The entire reservoir provides adequate weedy substrate along its shorelines to target these fish, but the narrow channel at the north end of the Reservoir is a prime funnel point hosting perhaps the best Bowfin fishing on the entire reservoir. Anglers may have the best results anchoring in the deeper portion of the channel and setting Carolina rigged shiners or cut bait along the shorelines of the channel.
Perhaps among the nations central most hotspots for giant fish is Lake Fork. Lake Fork is the top bass lake in the state of Texas, and a premiere big bass lake renowned across the country. Jason Johonnesson, a well respected and recognized angler in the carp community, lives in Rowlett Texas and has been fishing this lake for years. In a recent conversation with Jason he explained the massive undertone of multi-species enthusiasts enjoying world class carp and buffalo fishing in the shadow of Lake Fork’s dominant bass fishing populous. Johonnesson explained, “Out of all the lakes in Texas, Lake Fork has 33 of the top 50 largest bass ever caught in Texas. That means that Lake Fork produces more big bass than all of the other lakes combined. That is an astonishing fact. Even though this datum is so incredible it tends to get lost in the periphery among tunnel vision bass anglers. Lake Fork isn’t a big bass lake, it is a giant fish lake of many kinds of species.”-Johonnesson
Among those lesser known and appreciated North American giants is the buffalo, more specifically the Smallmouth Buffalo. The Smallmouth Buffalo is often confused with Common Carp, which also inhabit Lake Fork. Despite the anatomical similarities, the two fish are not at all related. Buffalo eat mussels, crawfish, shad, bloodworms, insect larvae, and nearly anything else they can opportunistically feed on. Johonnesson, a seasoned buffalo angler, explains that this high protein diet has allowed the fish in Lake Fork to grow to enormous size. The current Lake Fork record is over 66 lb but the captures are getting even larger.
Lake Fork is not only home to giant bass and buffalo however. It is also a premiere lake for carp fisherman. Common Carp in excess of 30lb are routinely pulled from its waters. Because of the truly massive buffalo and carp captured so often from Lake Fork, carp enthusiasts from all over the world flock to its shores by the thousands every year. The culture of carp fisherman is enormous, but largely unnoticed in North America. Nevertheless, massive carp fishing events draw interest from carp addicts from all over every year to Lake Fork. Lake Fork is also home to the now world famous Texas 44 Lake Fork Carp and Buffalo Challenge, hosted by Wild Carp Companies (www.wildcarpcompanies.com) and CarpPro magazine (www.carppro.net). In the past two years, the competition has brought world fame onto the lake, with anglers coming from all over the US and even as far as Hungary, Romania, Italy, South Africa, Canada, and the United Kingdom to fish in the competition. With the help of the Lake Fork Sportsman Association, the tournament is also doing a huge part in promoting and introducing carp fishing to the mainly bass dominated area around Lake Fork. Lake Fork is much larger than typical European swims known for giant carp, it is 27,000 acres across the piney woods of East Texas.
Perhaps one of the more familiar faces in the North American buffalo and carp scene is Austin Anderson. Anderson is a pro staffer with CarpPro Magazine, and in his young age, has accomplished some truly astonishing feats in his tenure as an angler. Anderson provided experienced knowledge from a truly outstanding angler’s perspective on the marvels of fishing Lake Fork in a recent conversation. Anderson has some of the most impressive buffalo and carp catches ever recorded to his name.
Anderson has been fishing Lake Fork for almost 3 years. Despite what may be perceived as a short tenure about the lake, Anderson is as widely recognized in the carp and buffalo community as anyone, logging as much time on the bank for carp and buffalo as the most established and dedicated anglers out there. Anderson’s boundless dedication to his passion for Lake Fork giants has not been in vain. Along with his partner Shane Hine, Anderson boasts a win of the Big Four Carp division of the Texas 44, a personal best Smallmouth Buffalo of 63lb 3oz; the IGFA junior world record Smallmouth Buffalo at 50lb 6oz; and most recently, a Common Carp of 36lb 10oz.
The largest Buffalo and Common Carp captured in Lake Fork are an unbelievable 67lb 8oz and 40lb 4oz respectively.
Lake Fork isn’t easy, however. The water is loaded with snags and the fish are extremely strong. “Fork is loaded with natural cover, huge expanses of flooded timber and other structure. It’s literally a paradise for fisherman of any kind. You have to be prepared to put in hundreds of pounds of bait in order to keep the fish in your swim and the trips can be grueling sometimes due to the sheer numbers of fish that can possibly be banked on a session. Fork really is paradise for the big fish angler.” -Anderson
Anderson is a prime example of a growing trend amongst the next generation of anglers. He approaches the timeless sport of fishing with an open mind, constantly educating himself and others on a truly unique opportunity our native waters provide for enormous fish. Austin Anderson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lake Fork is a breeding grounds for giant fish in general. It holds the Texas state record for Bowfin, at nearly 18lb. Lake Fork also hosts outstanding catfishing opportunity, where a flathead catfish over 100lb was recently recorded. Johonnesson himself captured his first flathead ever from Lake Fork, a 50lb 4 oz. monster. “I suspect that Lake Fork might have some of the best flathead fishing in the world yet anglers are focused mostly on bass.”-Johonnessen Additionally, Johonnesson has fished for Alligator Gar, Longnose Gar, and Spotted Gar in the surrounding areas. Johonnesson claims that Lake Fork is an outstanding fishery for Spotted Gar. The Spotted Gar is the smallest of the 4 gar species, but perhaps the most elaborate. Named for obvious reasons, it is covered with large spots and mottling. Johonnesson himself has personally captured Spotted Gar from Lake Fork’s waters that unofficially shattered the current record.
Aside from the giants that reside from within Lake Fork its self, its proximity to other great fishing locations makes it particularly special. Lake Fork is no more than an hour and a half from stretches of the Red River known to hold giant Alligator Gar, Longnose Gar, and catfish. It is no further away from Lake Texoma. Lake Texoma is a stronghold for some of the largest catfish ever caught in the United States, boasting a 121lb Blue Catfish caught in 2004 to its long line of massive catfish. Texoma is also home to trophy sized Freshwater Drum, which have been caught in excess of 30 lb from the lake, as well as trophy sized carp, buffalo, and gar. Lake Hawkins, a neighbor to Fork, has produced a 106 lb buffalo. Jason Johonesson expects that Lake Fork will surpass this size of buffalo one day.
Root River, MN
The buffalo species are not the lone representatives of the sucker family worth mentioning, not by a long shot. In fact, there are 80 different species of suckers globally. In the United States, some of the more popular sucker species among multi-species anglers are the redhorse variations, White Suckers, Northern Hogsuckers, just to name a few. Perhaps shunned due to outdated notions behind “bottom feeders” sucker species are more often targeted by anglers harvesting bait, ‘bowfishing’, or chucking spears. As a result, truly diehard sucker enthusiasts are extremely protective of their swims and scarcely associate outside of tight knit social groups with common interest in this unique species. These “bottom feeders”, however, possess outstanding sporting qualities. Unlike some of the larger, more difficult to locate species already profiled, many sucker species are just as accessible as any of the most popular game species in North America.
The overwhelming majority of suckers have subterminal mouths, which means their mouths are located on the underside of their head. Suckers are well equipped for bottom grazing. Many suckers possess pharyngeal teeth, which act as a set of crushing teeth closer to the back of their throats. Suckers are most often found in clean rivers, but can and will thrive in most any freshwater environment. Their preferred diet consists of detritus, bottom dwelling organisms like mussels, snails, crustaceans, and immature aquatic insects.
Anglers should rig accordingly. Most suckers will take a well presented nightcrawler bouncing or drifting along naturally in the current. Anything natural such as small crayfish or aquatic insect larvae, or artificial patterns resembling local forage creatures should produce fish. Many anglers using fly tackle may find some redhorse variants respond well to flies imitating mayfly and stonefly nymphs, as well as scud patterns and caddis pupae. Anglers should consider using circle hooks to avoid damaging the fleshly lips of the respective sucker which they are pursuing.
To avoid a long winded explanation of the numerous species of suckers spanning across the country, a particular stronghold of numerous popular and sporty species of suckers exists. In Southeastern Minnesota, stretches of the Root River host some of the most outstanding sucker fishing in the country. The Root River is a tributary of the upper Mississippi which runs through 80 miles of Southeastern Minnesota. It is home to numerous species most familiar to avid river anglers such as: brook trout, , brown trout, rainbow trout, rock bass, smallmouth bass, channel catfish, and crappie. The Root is also home to numerous species of suckers such as: shorthead redhorse, river redhorse, golden redhorse, silver redhorse, greater redhorse, black redhorse, northern hogsuckers, and white suckers.
Cased by cascading rocky bluffs, the winding clear water trickling waters of the Root River is fraught with plentiful wildlife, making it an ideal destination for recreational kayakers and anglers alike. The Root River is comprised of four minor branches, plus the main stem. The North and Middle Branch which join the North Branch just outside of Chatfield are both fed by numerous warm and coldwater junction streams. Several of these streams, such as the Deer and Bear, are popular with more typical anglers seeking smallmouth bass. Other anglers flock to fine trouting waters like the Money Creek and Trout Run. Both of the branches hold good numbers of redhorse, White Suckers, Northern Hogsuckers, and more.
To the delight of particularly outdoorsy anglers, both branches are relatively small, and shallow, allowing anglers to wade into remote areas in a more natural approach to the species to pursue. Access to these areas is limited however. The North Branch, below Chatfield, has designated canoe routes with established campsites conveniently placed along its route providing kayak anglers the option of multi-day float trips.
The South Branch of the Root feeds out of Mystery Cave. Mystery Cave consists of over 13 miles of natural underground passages and is the longest network of caves in Minnesota. The South Branch is primarily trout water, with naturally reproducing brown trout in its upper section, and populations of browns and stocked rainbows below.
It is at the Main Stem of the Root is perhaps the most ideal region for “roughfishing”. Nestled in ‘farm country’, small town communities, and winding through hardwood forests, Main Stem of the Root is ideal territory providing more access points for anglers seeking to intentionally pursue a plethora of sucker species.
The upper section of the Main Stem produces massive runs of Silver Redhorse, Mooneye, Hogsuckers, and many other species. Further downstream the species mix begins to transition as more typical river dwelling species are replaced with heavier bodied species like Freshwater Drum, carp, catfish, and Shovelnose Sturgeon. The Minnesota State record Golden Redhorse was captured from the Main Stem of the Root.
In some of the Southern-most stretches of South Fork, multi-species enthusiasts can also encounter buffalo, gar, and Channel Catfish.
For more than 10 years, groups of multi-species enthusiasts have met on the banks of the Root River in the annual “Root River Roundup”. An event hosted by members of www.roughfish.com, this event is perhaps the most organized gathering of multi-species anglers of its sort. A multi-day camping, cooking, canoeing and fishing event promoting shared experiences, common interests, and cultural beckoning. The Root River Roundup, originally a simple gathering of a budding community of die hard rough-fish anglers has become the staple defining event of rough fish anglers from many different walks of life and corners of the United States, though its participants have scarcely changed and still primarily consists of open minded anglers who share the common interest of catching different species supplemented with friendly competition and prizes. Reports at the conclusion of this event are a great testament to the outstanding variables the Root River offers, particularly with sucker species.
Anglers considering a trip to the Root River should refer to online Minnesota DNR River Guides which serve as a mapping source for canoeing and regulations.
Lake Sturgeon – St. Croix River
One of the more unique species of fish categorized as “rough fish” are the sturgeon species. There are some 26 different species of sturgeon. They are one of the oldest families of bony fish in existence, dating back hundreds of millions of years. Like the gar species and bowfin, for whatever reason sturgeon have fallen under the radar of recreational anglers. Despite the fact that some sturgeon can exceed well over 100lb and willingly take natural baits by hook and line, it is seldom that they are publicized by television programs or publications.
Sturgeon can be found in native, subtropical, temperate and sub-arctic rivers and lakes of North America. Most sturgeons are anadromous, meaning they travel up river systems to spawn. They will venture into river deltas and estuaries to feed, and can be followed seasonally by anglers seeking to capitalize on their movement into popular fishing waterways.
Sturgeon are slow-growing and mature very late in life. They are especially vulnerable to man made threats including pollution, habitat loss and encroachment, and commercial exploitation. Because of this, most sturgeon are currently considered to be at risk of extinction. They are more critically endangered than any other group of species.
There are few sturgeon species that exist naturally in the southern United States, and those that do are so critically endangered that the intentional pursuit of those fish would be practically futile. In the ‘Northern States’, however, there exists a species of sturgeon that occurs in the Mississippi River drainage basin south to Alabama and Mississippi. It occurs in the Great Lakes and east down the St. Lawrence River to the limits of fresh water. In the West it reaches Lake Winnipeg and the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers. The Lake Sturgeon is a realistic option for anglers seeking a truly unique experience pursuing a fish that can grow in excess of 9 feet long and 350lb. Its mapped, natural distribution can be dated back to large lakes formed as the glaciers retreated from North America at the end of the last ice age which were linked by what remains as some of North America’s greatest river systems.
Like other sturgeon, the Lake Sturgeon has taste buds around its barbells near its prehensile ‘sucker like’ lips. The Lake Sturgeon will extend its trunk-like mouth downward to vacuum up its food, which is swallowed whole due to a lack of teeth. The diet of the sturgeon consists of insect larvae, worms and leeches, and other small organisms it finds in the mud. Lake Sturgeon will also opportunistically feed on other fish. Given that it is a large species which sustains itself by feeding on very small organisms, terminal tackle and bait selection for Lake Sturgeon provides a unique challenge. Todd Mauren of South Metro Minnesota is an extremely seasoned multi-species angler with nearly 100 different freshwater species captured by hook and line to his credit. Operating under the moniker “Dr Flathead” on the forums of popular roughfish outlet “www.roughfish.com” , Mauren is recognized as a particularly accomplished multi-species enthusiast. Fishing entirely for self fulfillment, Mauren possesses “professional” quality experience and knowledge in many areas of multi-species pursuit, including Lake Sturgeon.
According to Mauren, every year on the St. Croix River in Minnesota there is a month and a half long season for Lake Sturgeon. This season usually opens around the beginning of September and extends through the middle of October. The fishery is mainly catch and release, but anglers can harvest a fish throughout the first month of the season with the purchase of a special Sturgeon stamp. Also the fish must be at least 60 inches to keep. “The St. Croix is an excellent Lake Sturgeon fishery. I have had the privilege of watching this fishery grow since I was young. Back then, a forty inch fish was a real nice one. Twenty years later, 60 inch fish are a common sight out there”-.Mauren Mauren boasts a personal best Lake Sturgeon of 59 inches, but has caught other specimens in the range of 57 inches. Lake Sturgeon are slow growing fish, really only growing an inch or two a year. To encounter a truly massive Lake Sturgeon in the range of 300lb would be a truly inspiring accomplishment. Sturgeon grow extremely slow, and can reach well over 100 years of age. To put into context how fragile these fish are, they do not even reach sexual maturity until their third decade of life. They are absolutely modern day dinosaurs.
According to Mauren, who has fished the waters of the St. Croix for many years, the main forage of interest to the Sturgeon on the St. Croix River is Gizzard Shad. Good baits are nightcrawler balls, cut suckers and shad. Mauren has had most success with Lake Sturgeon during the night time hours, but states that it is not uncommon to capture them during the day. “They like cold water. The bite usually gets better the farther into the season”-Mauren. Because Lake Sturgeon seem to bite best during cold weather conditions, they are very popular with ice fisherman.
Good gear for Lake Sturgeon consists of: 7 foot Muskie rods (heavy). Abu-garcia 6500 series reels. Spinning gear is usually a 7 foot catfish style ugly stick and an Okuma Epixor 30 bait-feeder reel. For line, Mauren uses 20-30 lb mono, but many of people use really heavy line, like 80 lb PowerPro braided line. Mauren maintains that lighter capacity monofilament line will suffice, and high visibility florescent green aids for easy bite detection. Despite their tremendous size, sturgeon are finicky biters. Rather than slamming a bait and ripping off with it, they will often hover above a bait, investigating and mouthing it. To avoid giving an unnatural feel to a presented bait, Mauren insists that anglers should consider leaving slack in the line and watching the actual lead line as a strike indicator.
For terminal tackle, weight is usually 2 to 3 ounces no roll or bell style sinkers followed by a swivel; usually 12 inches from swivel to hook. Hooks are usually 3/O to 4/O circle or J hooks. As far as locations go, look for areas that attract bait. Current seams, deep holes, warm water discharges are all good places to start looking. In a nutshell, learn the local forage species and follow them.
Perhaps tipping in the favor of more popular game species notoriety are our nation’s three major catfish species, the Blue, Flathead, and Channel catfish. Nevertheless, due to largely invasive populations of “Arkansas Blue Catfish” and Flatheads being introduced and flourishing, some anglers continue to scorn them for their voracious appetite on more favorable game species. Catfish in general remain a highly prized and recognizable species of fish worth targeting by rod and line. From farm ponds to the greatest rivers in the country, our native catfish species can be as plentiful as any other creature, and as large as a man. To stimulate the interest of ‘trophy hunters’, we’ll focus on the areas where the true beasts roam.
Our two giants are the Blue catfish and the Flathead. The Blue is perhaps our largest species, reaching lengths in the range of 65 in, and upwards of 150lb. Their primary distribution, like many large fish is in the Mississippi River drainage. Their introduction into established fisheries such as the Santee Cooper, and James River had made those locations some of the nation’s premiere catfishing destinations.
Measuring up to the mighty Blue is the Flathead catfish. Its range from the lower Great Lakes region to northern Mexico has been shifted to many different waterways across the country due to its wide spread introduction. As a result, they are considered an invasive species in many areas. Flatheads grow to a length of 61 in and in excess of 120lb. The world angling record flathead catfish was caught May 14, 1998, from Elk City Reservoir, Kansas, and weighed 123 lb 9 oz.
A common element of flathead catfish location is submerged wood cover such as logs and rootwads which often collect at bends in rivers. A good flathead spot usually also includes relatively deep water compared to the rest of a particular section of river, a moderate amount of current, and access to plentiful baitfish such as river herring, shad, carp, drum, panfish, or suckers. Flathead catfishing often takes place at night either from a boat or from shore once a catfisher has identified a likely looking flathead spot.
Santee Cooper –
Perhaps one of the most established lake systems for catfishing is the Santee Cooper system. The construction of this trophy ‘one-two punch’ catfishery took a long time, and the fishing fruits of its effort were largely incidental. In 1939 workers began clearing a small area of trees in lower South Carolina for what would become two of the areas largest lakes. What timber cutters intended to accomplish in their efforts to construct a massive electricity generating power source later became home to the best catfishing opportunities in the state, possibly the country! To its credit, the Santee has hoisted some of the consistently trophy class catfish of any standing body of water. On Feb. 8, Leland Selph of Cross, SC ran a trotline on Lake Moultrie and caught a blue catfish that tipped the scales at 136 pounds, 6 ounces and 56 inches in length. The fish would have surpassed the current 21-year-old state record of 109 pounds, 4 ounces had it been angled with a rod and reel. The Santee Cooper is also home to the current world record Channel Catfish at 56 pounds!
Combined, these two lakes cover more than 160,000 acres. Efforts to clear the area of forests during the construction of the lake means the floor of the Santee is littered with stumps and felled timber, ideal habitat for big catfish. Catfish are structure oriented. Anglers who intend to find the fish should first find the areas with a lot of structure. During spawn the fish move very shallow, straying away from deep water snags as they seek out their preferred spawning grounds. This offers anglers with less boat capacity opportunities from the shore or small watercraft. During the winter months, large catfish species retreat to the deepest points of the lake.
During the ‘mid-season’, ie, waters in the 60 degree range, anglers can find great success seeking out structure in water levels between 10-15 feet. Most avid Santee catfish anglers maintain that natural forage species work best for bait, this typically consists of Sunfish and white perch. Using gamefish as bait is legal in South Carolina so long as they are captured within the creel limit (by hook and line).
As a local angler in the Santee area, I have had personal success catching good numbers of quality sized Blue catfish and Flatheads sharing a common territory amidst shallow flats surrounded by stumps and submerged vegetation. Here I typically fish the nighttime hours in areas that I know hold good populations of forage species like small sunfish. I will typically set out up to 6 rods Carolina rigged with live bluegill on circle hooks.
Kerr Reservoir, VA
Another great stronghold for truly massive catfish is the Kerr Reservoir in Virginia. In 2011 an angler pulled a 143lb Blue from Kerr Reservoir, setting a new world record. Kerr Reservoir annually produces catfish in excess of 80 pounds, and has a previous state record of 109lb (which currently resides in the Bass Pro Shops aquarium in Ashland).
Kerr Lake, commonly known as Bugg’s Island Lake, is a reservoir bordering North Carolina and Virginia, created by the John H. Kerr Dam. It is also the largest reservoir in Virginia. At its maximum capacity, it’s one of the largest reservoirs in the Southeastern United States.
Ohio River – Henderson, KY
Despite the benefits that come with lake fishing, most diehard catfish anglers head for the rivers during big catfish season. One of the premiere catfish rivers is without a doubt the Ohio River, particularly the region surrounding Henderson Kentucky.
The Ohio is the largest tributary of the Mississippi, and among its most storied. For trophy anglers, it represents a landmark paradise with incomparable propensity to produce potential record sized fish. The Ohio River at Henderson produced the largest five-fish weight ever recorded (210.0 pounds) for the Cabela’s King Kat trail in 2011 and is perhaps the top river stretch for consistent numbers of trophy Blue catfish.
A common starting point for anglers seeking to benefit from the Ohio River’s great catfishing might be the Pike Island Lock and Dam. The chambers of the lock lie on the West Virgina side of the Ohio River along WV Route 2, and just north of the Warwood district of Wheeling WV.
The Ohio River is not just a stronghold for trophy Blue catfish, it is the breeding grounds of all great catfish. There are plenty of large Channel and Flathead catfish in its waters, but big Blues dominate here. Many anglers key in on the main stem of the Ohio River, drifting shad or other “small” fish species through areas in the rivers flowing current.
Mississippi, Alton IL
Aptly nicknamed “Father of Waters”, the mighty Mississippi needs no introduction, it is the mightiest river in North America. It also harbors some of our nation’s most monstrous fish. The Mississippi River at Alton marks the major river confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri. That is, the joining point of the mightiest river with our longest river! This particular stretch of river has twice reached the promised land of fishing, producing the world record Blue catfish on two separate occasions, one of which exceeded 124 pounds.
The Mississippi is not only a giant catfish river, however. It is a giant fish river where enormous flatheads have been recorded as well as an impressive record of giant species like a 157 pound Alligator Gar in 1944, a 48-pound buffalo, and a 57 pound sturgeon.
At the Lock and dam just south of Route 67 the river is Illinois on one side, Missouri on the other. Occasionally anglers will hook into sturgeon at this location. The Alton side of the dam provides bank fishing opportunity where anglers still pull good numbers of quality sized blue catfish. In 2005 Tim Pruitt, 33, of Godfrey, Ill caught a 124 pound blue catfish from the Mississippi near Alton Lock and Dam. The fish, measuring 58 inches long and 44 inches around, at the time it was a new world record and is currently the largest catfish ever landed in Illinois. That fish outweighed the previous world-record Blue by just over 3 pounds. (That fish was caught in Lake Texoma, TX). Though launching ramps are found in virtually every town along the river in surrounding areas, access is very limited in the stretch below Alton, providing more isolated holes for trophy class fish. In July of 2010, a 130lb blue catfish was pulled from the neighboring areas of the Missouri River.
Potomac River, Maryland
Widely considered “ the next big thing” in the world of catfishing is the Potomac River. The Potomac is a tidal fishery that runs straight through the heart of the nation’s capital. Nestled into the heart of the nation’s capital, the surrounding area of the Potomac are more often associated with museums and cherry blossoms, but the recent introduction of Blue catfish have put the area on the map for anglers seeking a different kind of thrill.
In the 1980’s a flooded brood pond allowed a contained population Blue catfish, not native to the Potomac, to escape into the natural environment. The resulting affect is subject to polar perception. Whereas the Maryland DNR views Blue catfish as a treat to the fishery, big cat aficionados like Jason Kintner are reaping the benefits of what has become one of the premiere catfishing locations in the country. Kintner has ample experience with truly massive catfish, and boasts an outstanding fishing resume coupling quantity and size that would drop the jaw of even the most seasoned angler.
Jason Kintner is the team captain of Team Mojo, a professionally sponsored competitive catfishing team. Lead by Kintner, team MOJO has tournament wins and Big Fish awards in Ohio, Maryland, and Virginia to bolster the already amazing accomplishments he has fishing recreationally. Kintner is no stranger to large fish, boasting truly world class specimens of Blue Catfish in excess of 80lb, enormous Flatheads, and man sized Alligator Gar from the Trinity. I had the pleasure of exchanging words and gathering veteran knowledge from Kintner in a recent chain of email communication. Though Kintner has captured massive catfish from most established catfish rivers and lakes including the James, it is the Potomac that he is most excited about.
Talking bait, Kintner stated that the main forage species in the Potomac is gizzard shad. During the months of March-May, the upper portions of the river are prime spawning grounds for Blueback Herring, American Shad, and Hickory Shad which make their annual spawn run from the oceans. During this opportune time, massive catfish engorge themselves on the virtual buffet of migrating species of herring. Kintner typically takes advantage of this opportunity during the nighttime because of the heavy boat traffic along the Potomac from pleasure boats, water taxis, and recreational boaters enjoying the DC area.
Kintner suits up with 7-8 Medium/Heavy casting or spinning outfits with heavy braided or monofilament line (up to 80lb). Terminal tackle is a sinker slider with 8-14 oz sinkers above a barrel swivel. A 6/0 to 10/0 circle hook attached to a 12-18 leader completes a typical rig. To harvest bait Kintner normally uses the preferred dietary species straight from the source, capturing them with castnets. During the daylight hours, the shallower flats are warmed by the penetrating sunlight and the shad scatter out onto the flats to feed, not far behind them are the big Blues. “I usually start fishing as shallow as 3 feet of water and move deeper until I find out what depth the fish are feeding in. Expect big things to happen!”-Kintner For Kentner and his crew an average day yields multiple fish in the 20-40lb class. That is average! “This is just how good this fishery is. 50 pound fish are common, with 60-80lb fish becoming more common every year”.–Kintner In a particularly fruitful trip last fall Kintner spent a day on the water in which he caught nearly 1,000 pounds of fish in a single outing. During that trip innumerable fish under 30 pounds were caught, seven over 30, nine over 40, three over 50, and one fish exceeding 60 pounds ! “ We quite literally could not keep our lines in the water. It is not uncommon to have multiple hook ups, I have had up to 5 fish hooked up at the same time all over the 45lb mark!”-Kintner Can be reached at the team MOJO Facebook page (www.facebook.com/pages/Team-MOJO/15609801782444?ref=ts&fref=ts )
No premiere lineup of top catfish locations would be complete without the James River. Though it has only known the fish for roughly 40 years, the populations of big Blues and Flatheads are established here in very healthy numbers. The James possesses unparalleled character among catfishing rivers, fed by a collection of clear trout streams in the mountains of western Virginia and ultimately dumping into the Chesapeake Bay as a massive tidal river.
Along the James River anglers key in on submerged rock structures for outstanding Flathead fishing. During the nighttime hours the fish spread out to hunt and scavenge. Anglers should prepare accordingly, first locating where the preferred baitfish reside. During the night time, anglers can take a ‘sit and wait’ approach in those areas.
There is also an ‘interception period’ between the movements into and out of those feeding locations which typically takes place during dusk and dawn hours.
Usually the fish begin moving around dusk, and that’s when the most fish will be active, then as night falls, the fish will roam their hunting grounds in search of a meal. This all takes place in around an hour, though in fewer numbers they do prowl readily throughout the night. Common baitfish in the James include: sunfish, bullheads, various minnow species, and small carp. The James River has produced catfish in excess of 100lb, with a best Blue catfish of 102 lbs 5 oz.
These destinations only serve as a mere glimpse into a multitude of unmentioned strongholds for “rough fish” of all kinds. Nevertheless, they should serve as starting points for any angler seeking to catch some of our nation’s biggest fish. Of the bodies of water profiled, 5 of the mentioned inhabitant fish species have been documented at over 100 pounds; a staggering statistic. Despite that fact, most of these profiled waterways are also promoted only as world class Bass fisheries! Our North American waters are a drastically underappreciated home to freshwater giants. On the global scale of freshwater monsters; Alligator Gar, large Sturgeon species, Blue and Flathead Catfish, and Buffalo are on the front lines of team America. Anglers seeking to pursue these beasts could greatly benefit interpersonally from “rough fish trophy hunters” like those listed in this article, who in their own endeavors as anglers, are leveling the playfield for those “other species” amidst an industry overrun with overhyped “mainstream” species!