Catching Cornhusker Cats
September 30, 2010
Catching big Nebraska catfish seems to be a little easier for these fellows than for the "average" angler. What do they know that we don't?
By Gene Hornbeck
The channel catfish is Nebraska's state fish, and well it should be, because it serves up fishing thrills for novice and expert angler alike.
Keith McCoy, 48, of Fremont, has been catching catfish most of his adult life. He fishes Nebraska lakes such as Harlan County, Merritt and Elwood reservoirs, but hits the tournament trail in other states as well.
"I've fished the National Catfish Tournament held at South Carolina's Santee-Cooper five out of the last six years," McCoy said. "I was lucky enough to win it back in 1997.
"There are some good catfishermen in Nebraska," McCoy acknowledged. "Jerry Walker, of Gretna, won the nationals last year with 10 fish weighing 246 pounds. His brother Rick is also good. He won in 2001.
"I was fishing with Joe Rogers of Omaha when we won the tournament at Santee in 1997 with 13 fish weighing 235 pounds. I landed a huge blue - it weighed 70 pounds - it's still a tournament record.
"All of us got our start here in Nebraska. I originally lived in Valentine and I fished Merritt Reservoir a lot. Becoming a good catfisherman isn't any different than becoming a good walleye or bass fisherman - you have to know the habits of the cats.
Eric Miles of Gretna caught this huge channel cat at a nearby sandpit lake. Photo courtesy of Eric Miles
"You have to learn to read the water, the cover and the structure on any given lake and know how to fish it.
"A lot of people believe the only way to catch catfish is on a setline or limbline," McCoy said. "If you know what you are doing it's just as easy to take them on a rod and reel as it is to catch bass or walleye."
It usually takes a bit more than luck to catch big cats consistently, but the channel cat can be forgiving at times.
Eric Miles, a 15-year-old Gretna High School freshman, went fishing last summer in a sand pit lake near his home. He and fishing partners, Ryan Brun and Ryan's dad Jeff were "just fishing." Eric baited up with what he reported as a small worm.
"I was using a spinning outfit," Eric said. "I don't think we had been fishing much more than 10 or 15 minutes when my rod jumped and I grabbed it and set the hook. I knew right away it was no bluegill. The fish stayed deep and fought hard. It took me about 10 minutes to get it in where Ryan and his dad could land it. It was huge - a 34-pound, 9-ounce channel cat
"It was the biggest fish I ever caught and might be the biggest I ever catch - it was a lot of fun."
Mike Harouff of Monroe is a dedicated catfisherman who has caught over 30 Master Angler channel cats over the past two years. Those fish must weigh more than 12 pounds or measure 30 inches or greater.
"My largest Nebraska channel cat to date was a 23-pounder I caught at Merritt," he said. "I've been seriously fishing for cats for over five years. My two largest last year were an 18-pound channel from Swan Lake and a 19-pounder from Merritt. My largest flathead was a 42-pounder I caught from the Loup Power Canal."
Harouff doesn't use stink baits for his catfishing. "Blood bait is the best warm-weather bait for lake fishing I have used for channel cats," he said. "It will also take a flathead once in a while too. You can buy blood bait commercially, but most of us who fish the tournaments make it ourselves. We just go down to the local slaughter house, get a bucket of blood, season it up a little with a garlic or maybe anise, pour it out in a flat pan and let it set up."
Harouff, McCoy and Walker say they use basically the same rigs for fishing the blood bait. They rig up a leader (12 to 18 inches long) of braided line - 40- to 50- pound test - tie it to a No. 1 or No. 2 treble hook and tie a loop in it. They use a piece of light wire that they run through the loop and then through the bait. Then they work the hook into the bait. After that, the wire is taken off the leader and the fishing line is snapped onto it.
"I've used a piece of the bait for over an hour," McCoy said. "You have to get the bait to the bottom or very near it and I like to move it slowly - either by drifting or using the trolling motor."
Harouff uses the same system. He likes to let out about 100 to 150 feet of line and then drift. He uses a baitcasting outfit loaded with 17-pound-test line.
"It can be a little tricky at times on lakes such as Swan, which is a shallow Sandhills lake that has lots of weeds, but with experience you can keep it moving slowly along the bottom behind the boat and catch fish," he said. "The same system works in reservoirs such as Merritt, Sherman, Calamus and Harlan County. The blood bait sinks pretty fast so I just keep letting out line until I feel the bottom. I don't use much lead unless the wind is strong, then I put some on using a dropper above the swivel."
Thelma and Ray Sheibal of Waterloo are avid fans of the catfish. Last summer they decided to fish Wehrspann Lake in Omaha because it is pretty well known for big catfish.
"Ray had fished in by himself a few days before and caught some fish," Thelma said. "We went to the place he had caught fish, anchored the boat, and Ray said, 'We'll give it 10 minutes or so, and if we don't catch a fish, we'll move.'
"We fished about 15 minutes, and he said it's time to go, so I cranked in one line and picked up the other, began to crank and it wouldn't move. I told Ray I was snagged, and began jerking on the line. All of a sudden it began to move, and I yelled, 'My God - it's a fish! And it's taking off!'
"My spincast outfit wouldn't give line, and I thought the fish was going to break off, so I handed the rod to Ray. He checked the drag and said it was working, gave it back to me and said, 'It's got to be a big one!'
"I finally worked the fish alongside the boat, and when Ray made a move to land it, it threw water all over us. I'd never seen a catfish that big. We finally landed the fish, and Ray told me to hold it up for a picture. I tried but it was too dang heavy for me to get it off the ground - it weighed 25 pounds, 4 ounces."
Not all cats are caught on worms or blood bait. Guide Don Lewton of Republican City hammers channel cats on bait shrimp and shad at Harlan County Reservoir. Shrimp, chicken livers and minnows also score well on chann
el cats below Gavins Point Dam in the summer.
Spring fishing on the Salt Valley Lakes in the Lincoln area with shad can be good at times. At Lake McConaughy, small shad or shad gizzards begin catching cats as soon as the ice goes out at the west end of the lake. During the summer Al Van Borkum, a Lake McConaughy resort owner, says he fishes crawlers, minnows and shrimp along the bottom for channel cats.
I've found that a minnow will take frying-pan-sized channel cats on the Platte River east of North Platte. Guide Steve Lytle catches big flatheads on jigging spoons in the fall and early spring at Red Willow and Swanson reservoirs.
While on the subject of cats and bait, Cory Muhlbach of Grand Island took a flathead in 2001 at Sherman County Reservoir on a yellow jig. It weighed 62 pounds, 2 ounces.
The 34-pounder taken by Eric Miles was the largest channel cat entered in the awards program. In talking about these big cats, one can't help but wonder how old the fish are. Daryl Bauer, a Nebraska Game and Parks Commission biologist in Lincoln, explained a little about growth.
"On the average, a 5-pound channel from Nebraska reservoirs should be 10 to 12 years old," he said. "A 35-pounder, maybe 30 to 35 years."
Think about that next time you catch one of our Nebraska giants.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Great Plains Game & Fish