Catfish Kay

by Keith “Catfish” Sutton

 Hardcore catfish anglers aren’t all men; some women are out there chasing big cats, too.

 

Her friends call her Catfish Kay. Her address is 148 Catfish Cove, Ashdown, Arkansas—a two-minute walk from Lake Millwood. Catfishing, as you might expect, is her passion.

“I’m always fishing for the big ones.”

 

I met Kay Emmons—aka Catfish Kay—at the Catfish 2000 symposium in Iowa. She seemed out of place among the throngs of hard-core catfishermen and catfish researchers—almost all men—but appearances can be deceiving. As I came to learn, no one at that gathering was more familiar with the ways of catfish than this warm, genteel lady. She attended the symposium to learn more about her favorite gamefish and was studiously taking notes at every seminar. I felt fortunate to make her acquaintance, and have wanted, ever since, to share her story with others.

Catfish Kay Emmons hopes to land a world-record-class blue cat in the waters of Lake Millwood or adjacent rivers—one bigger than, say, Splash, a 121.5-pounder caught by Cody Mullennix in Lake Texoma, not far from Millwood. (Texas Parks & Wildlife photo)

Catfish Kay Emmons hopes to land a world-record-class blue cat in the waters of Lake Millwood or adjacent rivers—one bigger than, say, Splash, a 121.5-pounder caught by Cody Mullennix in Lake Texoma, not far from Millwood. (Texas Parks & Wildlife photo)

When I tried to contact Kay for an interview, I determined that was easier said than done. I phoned at all hours, day and night, and always got her answering machine. “I’m out on the river fishing,” the message said. “Leave your name and phone number and I’ll call you back.”

I left my name but no number, telling her I’d call back. But after the umpteenth call with no contact, I started to fret. “Perhaps something happened to her out on the river,” I told my wife. “I’ll leave a number and see if she calls back. I’m getting worried.”

The water’s of Arkansas’ Lake Millwood and its tributaries harbor thriving numbers of monster flatheads, which also are targets for Catfish Kay. (Keith Sutton photo)

The water’s of Arkansas’ Lake Millwood and its tributaries harbor thriving numbers of monster flatheads, which also are targets for Catfish Kay. (Keith Sutton photo)

She called at 11:30 that night. “I just got in,” she said. “I fished the river all day but the catfish weren’t biting, so I went to the pier on the lake and fished some more.”

I tallied the hours. My first call that day was at 7:30 a.m. Kay’s outing lasted 16 hours.

“I fish every day I can,” Kay told me. “And I really love night fishing, so I fish at night sometimes, too. I just love being on the water.” A masterpiece of understatement.

Kay is an extraordinary woman with an extraordinary past. She became a fishing guide in 1966 at age 27 on the Allegheny River in New York and Pennsylvania. She moved to Tennessee in 1972 and guided catfishermen on the Cumberland River. From 1979 through 1997, she lived in Texas, guiding bass anglers on Lake Fork, and catfish and crappie anglers on Cooper Lake. She’s been a writer, had her own radio show, fished the Bassin’ Gal circuit, was a member of the Coast Guard, and worked as a part-time medical technologist.

Retired now on Lake Millwood, her goal is to catch a world-record catfish.

Catfish Kay Emmons often fishes the waters of the Little River. Sometimes she fishes the river above Lake Millwood, and sometimes the tailwater and river below Millwood Dam. (Keith Sutton photo)

Catfish Kay Emmons often fishes the waters of the Little River. Sometimes she fishes the river above Lake Millwood, and sometimes the tailwater and river below Millwood Dam. (Keith Sutton photo)

“I’m always fishing for the big ones,” she related. “There’s a lot of potential in Lake Millwood and the rivers that feed it. Big cats turn up on trotlines all the time. Below the dam, they caught a 100-pound-plus blue cat a few years back. Last week there was a 57-pound flathead caught. I think this area could produce the next world record on rod and reel, and I’m hoping I’m the one that gets it.”

Kay’s biggest cat to date was an 82-pound Cumberland River blue, but she’s hooked some bigger in her new home waters.

“I hooked a flathead last year using a heavy surf rod with a Penn reel and 120-pound-test braid,” she told me. “My tackle held up fine, but that fish—a flathead, I’m sure—straightened out a 7/0 hook. It was huge.”

From a lakeside pier near her house, Kay has taken cats up to 37 pounds. Now she mostly fishes the rivers—the Little River and Saline—above Lake Millwood.

“I like to float (bobber) fish,” she said. “I’ve found that catfish feed up, as well as on the bottom, and I’d rather let my rig float than put it on the bottom.

“I use an 8-inch long, weighted float above a 6/0 octopus hook or an 8/0 Kahle. About 15-20 feet above the hook I have a bobber stopper. I put two or three split shot right above my hook, but no other weight is used.”

After anchoring her boat, Kay sets the rig adrift.

“I keep an eye on my float and let my line go free,” she noted. “When it gets 100-150 yards down the river, I stop it and just let it ride there. That way I’m not on top of my hole spooking fish.”

Kay usually fishes with five outfits—two heavy-action, 7-foot surf rods paired with Penn baitcasting reels and 120-pound braid, and three 7-foot, medium-heavy graphite rods paired with Shimano baitcasters and 75-pound braid. The rods are placed in holders on her boat—two for trophy-class cats, three for smaller fish.

“I use shad gizzards to bait the biggies,” she said. “They’re natural forage, and because you can smell them two miles down the river, they draw catfish in.

“I catch shad below the dam, bring them home and take the gizzards out. I cut the rest up, put it in pint jars and freeze it for cut bait. But the gizzards are the gourmet meal. They don’t work as good for channel cats, which prefer Canadian night crawlers. But the blues and flatheads love them. Despite what you may have heard, you don’t need live bait for flatheads. I’ve proven that wrong lots of times. I catch more big flatheads on shad gizzards than I do on goldfish or minnows.”

Patience, says Kay, is the virtue that will help her catch a new world record.

“Catfishing is not instantaneous catching,” she said. “Patience is the key to catching big fish, and I have the patience of Job. So many people, if they don’t get a bite, they’re ready to go. Not me. I’m one of these people who can sit all day and never get a bite and still enjoy it. I just enjoy being out there, taking in the solitude and the beauty of nature. And that gives me an edge over folks who have no patience at all.”

Kay is a proponent of restrictive harvest.

“I eat catfish three times a week,” she said. “But I don’t keep anything over 5 pounds. I believe we must release the larger fish to protect them for younger generations. If we don’t, the kids growing up now won’t have a chance to catch big catfish like we do. And that would surely be a tragedy.”

And that world-record catfish? What will she do if she catches it?

“I’ll wrap it in a wet burlap bag, run to the nearest bait shop to get it weighed, shoot some quick photos, then release it. Nothing would make me happier than knowing my record had been broken by someone who caught the same fish later—the fish I released. Wouldn’t that be something?”

Lake Millwood Info
Lake Millwood lies in the extreme southwest corner of Arkansas near the town of Ashdown.
Channel cats up to 20 pounds are so abundant in this shallow 29,200-acre Corps of Engineers impoundment, anglers are allowed to keep 20 per day, twice the regular statewide limit. Trophy-class blues and flatheads thrive here, too, with many in the 50- to 75-pound class. Hundred-pounders are possible, perhaps even a world-record-class fish.
It’s the two rivers that feed the lake, however—Little River and Saline River—and the Little River tailwater below Millwood, that have the most potential for producing trophy-class cats. A 100-pound-plus blue cat fell to trotliner in the Little River tailwater in 1994. Huge flatheads and channel cats also thrive here.
For more information, visit www.swl.usace.army.mil/Missions/Recreation/Lakes/Millwood-Lake/.
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