Out and About
The Catfish's Meow
Not much to look at, New Mexico's abundant catfish are fun to catch and delicious to eat.
by Mary Syrett
Catfish may not have the cachet of bass or trout, but as table fare they're unrivaled. It doesn't matter whether you go after blues, channel cats or bullheads, southwestern New Mexico has whiskerfish aplenty.
This angler is already thinking of dinner time. (Photo by Mary Syrett)
Despite an ability to grow big and a willingness to clamp down on many different kinds of bait, catfish are accorded respect by too few anglers. Sure, catching a two-pound bass is fun — but catching a 10-pound catfish is even more fun, in the opinion of some anglers, including myself. And around Silver City, catching a 10-pounder isn't all that difficult. Furthermore, a tasty bonus comes with this action: For every monster catfish that swims in the state's waters, many smaller catfish, each one just the right size as the main ingredient for a fish fry, are waiting to take the bait. No matter how you cut it, big fish or small, river, lake or pond, a New Mexico catfish angler can't go wrong.
What's in a name? Catfish are a diverse group. Named for their prominently displayed "barbels," which are slender, whiskerlike sensory organs located on the head, the creatures swim in watery environments of many kinds, with species found on every continent except Antarctica. Catfish have no scales but do possess a strong, hollow ray in their dorsal and pectoral fins, through which a stinging protein can be delivered when the fish is irritated.
The diet of catfish is varied, consisting of insects, small fish, frogs and freshwater mollusks, as well as seeds carried in water. Although trolling minnow-imitation lures does occasionally result in a catfish being caught, most whiskerfish are taken on dead or live bait of one kind or another. Chicken livers, shrimp, large worms, fish-belly strips and stink baits are all used to attract catfish.
If you are boat fishing, try to anchor above a known catfish hot spot. The creatures tend to congregate around underwater mounds, so cast and retrieve slowly. Your rod tip will bend as you drag the sinker up the side of a mound. When the tip straightens, you are, more than likely, on the ridge of a mound. Prepare for a strike as you slowly work your bait down the side. Remember: catfish are slow eaters, so be patient before setting your hook.
You don't need a boat to enjoy great fishing. In many parts of southwest New Mexico, catfish fans pursue their favorite fish from shore. If you're among them, the following tips may help increase your catch.
Select bank-fishing sites near prime catfish holding areas — perhaps a shore clearing near a river's outside bend, a spot beside a pond levee or a gravel bar adjacent to a deep hole in a small stream. Ideal fishing sites have brush-free banks that make for easy casting.
When bank fishing on a river, you can fish different locations simply by letting your bait drift in the current beneath a bobber. This activity allows bait to move naturally downstream, flowing through rapids and settling enticingly in catfish holes.
No matter where you bank fish, don't drop your guard when landing a big cat. A long-handled net is best for catching large fish; still, there are times when beaching a fish may be necessary. If you anticipate this possibility, keep your drag set and pull the catfish up on land before attempting to remove the hook.
Bodies of water in the Silver City area that may harbor catfish include the Gila River, Bill Evans Lake, Glenwood Pond, Bear Canyon Lake (fishing here is often good for catfish using salmon eggs and homemade dough bait), and Lake Roberts (located in the Gila National Wilderness Area, this body of water features catfish that go for liver and worms). Within the Gila National Forest there are some 500 miles of fishable streams. Quemado Lake in the Apache National Forest offers year-round fishing, with special emphasis on rainbow trout and smallmouth bass, as well as catfish.
Close to Las Cruces, the Rio Grande features bullheads, channel cats and blue catfish. Caballo Lake in Sierra County, south of Truth or Consequences, varies in size by season and drought severity, but when the lake is full, it is over 11,500 acres in area and 18 miles long, making it New Mexico's third-largest lake. A primary attraction of the lake is catfishing. Also try Snow Lake, Escondido Lake and Elephant Butte Reservoir, where the odds are excellent for snagging a channel or blue catfish.
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