By Luke Clayton
Published: October 25, 2010
As guide J.C. McCullough eased the throttle back on the airboat, slowing the craft to negotiate a steep bend of the Red River several miles downstream of the Texoma dam, a bald eagle swooped from his perch on a shoreline sycamore. The majestic bird had probably eyed a striper or catfish in the shallow water. Trees along this remote stretch of river are just beginning to change colors and all was right with the world with McCullough, his son Casey, Larry Sparks, owner of Sparkys Guide Service, and our buddy Dubb Wallace.
The moment we launched near the old bridge at Carpenter’s Bluff, I knew this was going to be a great day. This old bridge that spans the river in a very remote area has served as a crossing from Texas to Oklahoma for over a hundred years now. It allows one way traffic and one doesn’t have to be told to slow down when driving across.
The air had just a nip of fall and recent fishing trips had resulted in big catches of blue catfish and stripers. McCullough has spent a lifetime fishing and guiding on the Red River and when Sparks (Sparky) called this past week and said fishing was good, I promptly headed north to get in on the action.
Locating and catching catfish on the Red looks deceivingly easy when watching a pro such as McCullough at work. The entire river looks fishy but it’s the deeper holes, usually those with accompanying log jams, that hold the catfish.
J.C. slowed the airboat at a spot that had catfish written all over it! With a bow and stern anchor digging into the sandy river bottom, we were in perfect position to cast chunks of freshly cut shad up close to the fish attracting logs.
“We usually pull several blue cats from this spot, let’s give it about twenty minutes and see what happens.” Says J.C. as we cast toward the logs. “Getting hung up here is part of the game. If you feel you have snagged a log, let the bait lay, chances are good a big catfish will remove it for you!”
The guide had no more than spoken the words when I felt tension on my line in the gentle current. My bait/hook had indeed snagged a log lying on bottom. I let it set, no more than fifteen seconds, and then watched my line gently begin stripping from the reel. A catfish had picked up the piece of cut bait and was heading downstream at a fast clip.
I engaged the reel, reared back and set the hook on a very powerful fish. We thought it was a big blue catfish, but ten minutes later a flathead cat with a tail as wide as a boat paddle swam boat side and into the landing net. We estimated its weight around 25 pounds, easily the biggest flathead I’ve ever landed on rod and reel.
“The majority of fish we catch here at blues,” says J.C. as we put the good-eating flathead on ice, “but it’s common for the catch to include a few flatheads.”
Many folks, including myself, believe the flathead to be the best eating of all catfish and the clean waters of the Red are known for producing tasty fish, regardless the species!
Our first log jam produced a couple of nice blues and a bonus striper, then McCullough fired up the engine and we traveled downstream about a mile to another of the guide’s hot spots. We landed several blue catfish from the jumble of logs when Sparky’s rod bent heavily toward the surface.
“Boys, I have hooked something BIG!” Sparky yelled. “Don’t know what it is but it’s stripping line fast!”
The fish make a long run downstream, then the steady pressure of the rod began to tire the fish and he slowly moved back toward the boat. About twenty yards out, the fish jumped almost completely out of the water in a leap that would make a tarpon envious.
“It’s a gar and a big one,” exclaimed Wallace as we reeled in our baits to avoid the runaway river monster from tangling our lines.
We were fishing for catfish and stripers but, on the Red River, you never know what you will catch! Pictures were quickly snapped and we slid the monster gar back into the river to thrill another angler.
So the awesome Indian Summer morning went, moving from log jam to log jam and catching fish at every stop. We kept enough fish for a couple of mega fish frys and released the rest.
Our trip wrapped up at Harold Speed’s café, located on the Oklahoma side of the river a mile or so north of the Carpenters Bluff Bridge. Mrs. Speed definitely knows how to prepare a meal perfectly suited for a group of hungry river fishermen! We dined on a smorgasbord of country cooking and relived the morning fishing trip.
“It’s just getting good, Luke,” said McCullough. “The cooler the weather and water gets, the more the blue catfish will pack into those log jams.”
If it were any better, I’m not sure I could have handled the excitement. As I drove south along the old one-way bridge back to Texas, I vowed to make a return trip with Sparky and McCullough when the weather gets colder. This was a once-in-a-lifetime fishing trip and I am ready pumped about round two with those hard pulling river catfish and stripers.
Fall blues on the Red in a larger map