Dim the Lights for Channel Cats
September 24, 2010
Once summer is upon us many anglers choose to pursue catfish after sunset. Why is that and how do they go about it? Let's take a closer look.
Photo by Michael Skinner
By Ronell Smith
As a strong wind out of the west steadily slapped water up against the side of the boat, three anglers sat motionless on a moonlit night, waiting on the bite of the ubiquitous channel catfish. With millions of gizzard and threadfin shad spawning on the nearby riprap, the anglers surmised the whiskered creatures couldn't be far away. The fish would surely follow the river channel up to the nearest point, then be attracted to the sound of the thrashing baitfish, an occurrence that has to take place innumerable times. So the anglers sat and waited, their cut-bream baits dangling beneath the surface along the edge of the river channel.
Soon the trio had their first strike. The fish, its strength magnified by the current, ran toward deeper water, surging more each time the rod tip was raised.
"Can you get him to the top?" Mike Echols asked, pointing a flashlight while waiting for the fish to surface.
Within minutes a fat 4-pound channel cat was boated. The anglers were well on their way to catching a nice mess of catfish, a frequent occurrence that plays out often over the course of the summer.
Catching catfish is never a bad proposition, as most anglers will confirm. The creatures often aren't as finicky as largemouth bass, they are readily available on most lakes and rivers, and they can provide some of the most consistent action when the fishing slows for other species.
In the summer months, and especially in July, the long hot days make chasing fish almost unbearable during daylight hours, due to the sun continuously beating down on anglers' flesh. As if that isn't bad enough, the summer months are some of the worst to be on the water, what with personal watercraft and other pleasure crafts out in droves as well. Ever try anchoring over a favorite catfish hole when the waves are three and four feet high?
No, summer is the time to take advantage of a time-tested technique for chasing channel cats: night-fishing.
Not only is the weather cooler and the lake a lot less congested, but the fish are often far more willing to bite at night. While the hot sun pushes channel cats deeper in the day, after dark they are far more likely to be up in shallow water of just two or three feet.
Another, and possibly the biggest, advantage of fishing at night is that in most lakes the shad are active at the surface all along the riprap and other shoreline cover. In many lakes, shad spawn once the water warms significantly in spring. This activity along the banks continues for several weeks, but as the water heats up, the baitfish are pushed deeper during the day.
On cooler summer nights, however, the plentiful baitfish can be seen and heard thrashing about near rocks and wooden bulkheads. The sound is not unlike that of minnows flicking in a bait bucket, but is magnified several thousand times over, creating a veritable calling card for channel cats and other predators.
"If the baitfish are plentiful, the catfish won't be far behind," said noted catfish angler Phil King.
King, who mainly fishes large reservoirs and river systems, knows just where to look for the fish as well. He likes to find an area with good depth, which on a particular lake can be anywhere from 5 to 20 feet or more. Then he looks for wood cover in the way of blowdowns, stumps or old root balls. These areas can be fish magnets, and this is especially so for foraging channel cats.
What King does is get a good topographical map before heading to the lake, then he looks for areas where the river channel swings in close to any of this cover or structure.
"To catfish, a river channel is like a highway to you and me," he said. "They move along that channel."
King also looks for any holes or sharp bends in the channel itself, knowing that these often are deeper and over time collect more debris on bottom for cover.
Once he has identified such a spot, King usually situates his boat just over the channel itself and fan-casts several rods containing his favorite bait of shad entrails throughout the area. At least one of the baits, he notes, is thrown to the shallows, near the bank. Another bait is cast into the channel, while he also throws lines onto the outside edges of the channel. While shad entrails are a hard choice to argue with, other useful baits for nighttime channels include liver, dough bait and cut bait.
King's terminal tackle consists of a double-hook rig, which entails the use of one bait placed several feet above another on the main leader. He uses 5/0 circle hooks that are attached to 60-pound line, which is spooled on a baitcasting reel and affixed to a 7- or 7 1/2-foot rod.
For most applications, tackle and rigs can be much lighter. Ideally you want a rig that can be cast a great distance without slinging off the bait in the process. This makes a long, medium-action rod ideal. A simple yet effective set-up is the Carolina-rig, which incorporates a large egg sinker above a bead and swivel on the main line and is attached to a leader of two to four feet.
Also, with many of the fish being caught weighing less than 5 pounds, a spinning reel loaded with 10-pound test is a great choice as well. The key here is that you should go as light as you can while taking into account the relevant cover you are fishing.
While keying in on river channels is definitely important at night, so too is looking for forage that the channel cats can feed on. For example, if a river channel swings in close to a wooden bulkhead, anchor several yards from this spot and throw cut bait, night crawlers and liver as close to the bank as possible. Many times channels move right up to this cover and pluck shad from the surface or await an injured baitfish dropping below.
One of best places to fish for channel cats at night on reservoirs, however, is near docks. This cover, which is prevalent on most lakes, attracts baitfish and predators year-round. But at night, these wooden structures are even more important, since many of them have been fitted with lights. Around these lights congregate shad and other baitfish, attracting channel cats, among other predators.
Look for docks over water in the 8- to 25-foot range, then check them for the presence of cover such as brushpiles. If the structure sits near a main-river channel, that'
s even better. That likely ensures that a large number of fish move through the area.
Once a suitable structure is found, anchor the boat a cast away and place baits around the dock at varying depths. Ideal baits here are cut shad or bream, since that is what the fish are likely feeding on. Still, liver or any of the various stink-bait concoctions also work well.
When night-fishing for cats on reservoirs, anglers who look for the best cover with some active forage in the way of shad or other baitfish nearby are definitely on the track to getting their line tightened.
If there is an ideal location to night-fish for channel cats, a large river has to be it. These systems offer fertile, flowing water, are fantastic for catfish and are often loaded with plenty of healthy, active ones.
The problem with rivers is their size. They can be imposing to fish successfully, prompting the question, "Where do I start?"
The first place to look is below any dams. In the summer months, baitfish stack up along these concrete structures, where they take advantage of the algae and other organisms being agitated by the turbines. Where there are baitfish, there most certainly will be catfish. Channel cats find these flowing waters to be optimal habitat.
At night, channel cats swim along the edge of the dam, where they pluck baitfish from the surface near the concrete or any cover in the area.
To take advantage of these night feeders, catfish anglers like Tim Faulkner use cut bait placed on a 3/0 hook and suspended above a 2-ounce egg sinker, which keeps the bait in place and prevents snagging when the water is flowing. He casts this rig right up against the dam, using a 7-foot medium-heavy rod spooled with 15- to 25-pound-test line.
When the water from the turbines is not running, however, he fishes the cut bait under slip-bobbers, keeping the offering just off the bottom. And though he said the action can be good during the day, the opportunity to catch channels at night along a dam only increases.
"You hardly ever go without catching as many as you want," he asserted. "There's always some quick action."
Rivers are nothing if not diverse, offering a plethora of angling options. Along with the dam fishing, there are also points, flats, channel ledges and deep holes.
For the best channel cat action, however, look for an area where flowing water meets some wood cover, such as a blowdown or stump-field. Because channels favor flowing water, they most often situate themselves on outside edges of this cover, taking advantage of the morsels of food carried by the current.
At night, situate the boat on the downstream side of this cover and fan-cast several baits. At least one should be placed on both the up- and downstream outside edges of the cover.
Bait selection here can vary, but an obvious choice is cut bait. An even better choice, though, is liver. The flowing water agitates the bait, causing it to release blood scent to attract the fish.
The most important element when working cover such as this is having good equipment. Soft-tipped rods and light line are not good options here. Neither is a loosely adjusted drag, as the fish are going to run for cover when hooked, and without enough tension they can take a length of line, a weight and a hook with them.
Try using a 7-foot medium-heavy rod with a soft tip to aid in preventing the fish from getting too suspicious when it picks up the bait. However, the rod should have a good backbone for horsing the cat away from obstructions.
"That's why I love the Phil King series rods I designed for Cabelas," King explained. "They have really good backbone, but the tip is soft enough that when fish are finicky, just running up and tapping the bait, they don't detect the tension from the rod."
Additionally, 15- to 25-pound line is ideal, though you can go up or down depending on the amount of cover and the size of the channel cats being caught.
If there is a key to river fishing for channel cats, it is to look for those areas with current and cover, then present a variety of baits until the fish start biting.
But keep in mind that you don't want to fish too deep at night. While channels are often caught in deeper holes during the day, they frequently hold in shallow areas near eddies, points, rocks and blowdowns when the sun goes down.
Size alone dictates that ponds should be easier to fish at night for channel cats. These bodies of water can be as small as a half-acre, but others easily exceed 30 or more acres.
Many anglers prefer targeting channel catfish at night on these waters, in large part because they can be fished from along the bank. Also, there are no anchors to pull up or rods at the bottom of the boat waiting to get stepped on.
If fishing from the shore is desired, walk along the bank to the area of the lake at the opposite end from the dam. This region typically has shallower water but, most importantly, it is also more accessible to stumps or brushpiles. At night, channel cats move to this shallow water, often not more than a few feet deep, to feed on bream and other baitfish.
For bait, try using cut bream or night crawlers, which are very popular for pond fish. Rigs can vary, but a simple Carolina-rig with a 1/2-ounce egg sinker, a small bead, a swivel and a 2/0 hook works fine. Any medium-heavy rod of at least 6 1/2 feet should work well, and a baitcaster or spinning reel will suffice. Cast the bait out and allow it to sit for no more than 10 minutes or so, as the key is to move along the shoreline until you find the active fish in this area.
If fishing from a boat, target this same general area. But instead of fishing only the shallow end, fan-cast rods all around so that some of the baits are actually in the deeper water of the lake. This is important, because channels move up and down the lake all night, and having a well-placed bait at their entry and exit points for the shallow end increases the likelihood of a hookup.
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Whether fishing a reservoir, river or small farm pond, nighttime is definitely the right time for catching loads of summertime channel cats.
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