Back to Basics at Lake Forth: Plenty of action when you know just where to look

Photo courtesy of Luke Clayton

As Lake Fork catfish guide Seth Vanover eased the throttle back on his 22-foot G3 Elite boat, he pointed to an area in the lower lake covered with timber.

“We’ve been hammering the channel catfish here,” he said. “There is a submerged ledge just out from shore where the water drops to around 27 feet. We’ll tie up and get our baits down close to bottom. It should be good this evening.”

Channel catfish love cover and the submerged forest of dead trees looked like catfish heaven to me; knowledge of the submerged steep ledge we were fishing over helped bolster confidence as well.

Vanover’s crew for this late-afternoon fishing trip consisted of me, my grandson Jack Zimmerman, Vanover’s stepdaughter Morgan Hartline and two young friends, Cason and Jesse. Vanover is a huge proponent of exposing kids to the fun of fishing and I was happy to bring my 11-year-old grandson along to meet some new friends and enjoy his first fishing trip to Lake Fork.

Vanover learned much of what he knows about catching catfish from his mentor Bill McCarrell at Lake of The Pines.

“Bill taught me the type of structure and depth to fish during various times of the year while fishing with him on The Pines,” Vanover said. “Years ago, I learned how and where to bait areas with soured grain to attract channel catfish.”

Some catfish anglers believe that catching catfish is as simple as tossing out a coffee can full of soured hen scratch or range cubes.

While soured grain definitely helps to concentrate catfish, it’s important to learn the depths the fish prefer at various times of year. A couple months ago, during their annual spawn, channel catfish were in water 3-5 feet deep and grain tossed around just about any shoreline cover would pull them in. Now, during the dog days of summer, the majority of the catfish are being caught in lower light conditions and cooler water temperatures of water at least 25 feet deep.

As Vanover’s boat came about on a taunt line, it was time to get baits into the water.

The awning overhead provided shelter from the summer sun. Shade is in big demand this time of year and an awning is a great addition to any fishing boat when constant casting is not necessary.

Vertical fishing is the name of the game when catching summertime channel catfish.

Casting would result in instant hang-ups in the thickly matted brush and limbs below. I noticed the side imaging sonar on the boat’s console and also noted it was not turned on.

“I’ve spent countless hours graphing areas for catching catfish on Fork, Vanover said. “This has been one of my most productive spots since the catfish moved into deeper water.”

It was very clear his state-of-the-art side imaging sonar had already mapped this area thoroughly and our guide had the subtle bottom contour lines firmly engrained in his brain.

In an interview with Vanover a week earlier for my radio show, he was quick to point out that his favorite bait for catching channel catfish was chicken livers.

“My catfish mentor taught me long ago that chicken liver is very consistent and readily available bait, Vanover said. “The blood in the liver attracts the catfish and it’s tough enough to stay on a treble hook well. A quick stop at any grocery store, and for less than two dollars, I’ve got what I’ve found to be the best catfish bait available.”

Vanover opened his cooler, removed a couple tubs of chicken livers and we began baiting hooks.

“Let the baits make contact with bottom and then crank it up two turns of the reel handle,” he said. “You’ll have to really watch your rod tip. Some of the catfish, even the bigger ones, have been just mouthing the bait. When you feel the slightest bump on your line, set the hook hard.”

The instructions were no more than out of the guide’s mouth when a couple of the youngsters in the front of the boat began jerking the rod tips in attempts to set the hook.

One of the boys, I forget which, was hooked fast to a chunky 2-pound channel catfish. I had my rod in a holder while I was shooting some pictures and missed a couple of good bites. Just a predicted, the bite was often soft. Sometimes the fish came up with the bait, resulting in a slack line, other times their nibble on the liver jiggled the rod tip ever so gently. Our hook up rate was about 70 percent, which resulted in plenty of good eating catfish for a big fish fry back at home the next day.

It’s common knowledge that Fork is home to some of the bigger channel catfish in northeast and east Texas.

While channel catfish weighing 1.25-1.5 pounds is a good average on many lakes, Fork’s cats run a bit bigger. Channel catfish in the 2- to 4-pound range are plentiful in Fork’s fertile waters and occasionally fish weighing several pounds more are landed. Vanover pointed out the same deep ledges that provided such good catfish action on our trip also hold some barn door crappie, but that’s another story.

There are plenty of big blue catfish in Fork as well and Vanover begins targeting them during the fall and winter months. For the big blues, he switches from chicken liver to chunks of fresh, bloody, oily cut shad or sunfish.

“We catch some nice blues this time of year, mostly at night drift fishing with cut bait,” Vanover said. “But with the channel catfish bite so dependable, it’s hard to get away from the steady action.”

I agree wholeheartedly.

Contact guide Seth Vanover at: or: 903-736-4557.

A tip for cleaning channel catfish

Channel catfish are excellent eating, but there is often a small strip of yellow along the outside top of the fillet.

Remove this little strip of fat and you are on your way to one of the best fried fish dinners imaginable. I marinate catfish in a 50-50 solution of Louisiana hot sauce and buttermilk for an hour or so before rolling them in corn meal and dropping them into hot cooking oil.

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