Catching Nebraska's Midsummer Cats

Don't let July's heat get you down. Now's the time to hit these hotspots to take advantage of some of the year's best Cornhusker catfishing.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Gene Hornbeck

Late July and August, the so-called "dog days" of summer, very often live up to their reputation on the fishing front. However, there are those who take exception to the idea that all fishing must be poor during those days - and they suggest that the naysayers try changing their luck by casting their offerings to catfish.

Nebraskan Tom Hirtes, a cat fan for over 30 years, asserts that during the peak of summer, the fishing's good. A carpenter by trade, Tom's also a guide who spends most of his fishing time working the channel, blue and flathead catfish of the nearby Missouri River.

"July and August are good months for cats on the river," Hirtes said. "Both months are good for big catfish. July is particularly good for big flatheads."

The Bellevue guide has consistently received Nebraska Master Angler Awards for his catfish. In 2002 alone he boated a 31-inch channel on July 13, another 31-incher on Aug. 25, and yet a third on Aug. 31. He took a 49-inch flathead on Sept. 28 and a 44-incher on Oct. 12.

Hirtes declares that the Missouri is better for fishing right now than it has been for years. "The catfishing has improved dramatically since commercial fishing was banned on the river a few years ago," he said. "There are lots of eating-sized channel cats in the river. It isn't unusual to get anywhere from 25 to 100 bites on any given trip on these fish. If I'm fishing for big flatheads, I feel it's a good day when I boat one and get anywhere from one to five bites."

In Hirtes' view, those fishing the river need to gear up for it. "I use bait-casting reels and light, steelhead or salmon rods," he offered. "My rods for channel cats are loaded with 25-pound-test line, and those I use for big flatheads with 50. This may sound like I'm overgunned, so to speak, but if you hook into a cat in the 10-pound-plus class in the river, you will understand why you need heavy gear - a 30-pound flathead in the heavy current is awesome."

The guide uses a variety of baits in a year's time. "My favorite for channel cats is a dip-bait - particularly in the summertime. Early in the year I use stink baits such as shad sides. When the water temperature gets to about 50, I start using crawlers and minnows, and then, when it gets up to 60 or better, I switch to the dip baits. For flatheads I stick to live baits such as bluegills, shad, chubs or goldfish."

Merritt Reservoir has been one of the best, fisheries in the state for trophy channel cats, and possibly the best of those, over the past few years. A trophy fish there is one measuring at least 30 inches, or weighing 12 pounds or more.

Last year Scott Norby of Coleridge caught a 21-pounder on a smelt in July. Among the many others taken was an 18-pounder by Kyle McAndrews of Omaha on June 2. Shane Asmus of Pierce sacked one weighing 16 pounds, 13 ounces on Aug. 10. Joe Scripter of Valentine fooled a 15-pound channel with a crawler on June 29; Zack Cassity of Omaha used a leech to catch a specimen that ran 14 pounds, 4 ounces on July 22.

Marty Vlach of Grand Island fishes both Merritt and Calamus reservoirs, and he finds Merritt to be the best for big channel cats.

"I think midsummer offers good to excellent fishing for catfish," he said. "I use a variety of baits on Merritt, but seem to have the best luck on blood bait."

Vlach racked up a number of Master Angler channels at Merritt last year, the larger ones being two 34-inchers taken on Aug. 21 and two 33-inchers taken on Aug. 30.

"One of the best ones I have taken out of Merritt was a 36-incher I caught in 2002," he said. "It weighed over 20 pounds, and I caught it on blood bait. I fished a catfish tournament there that year and caught five fish that totaled 58 pounds - and I didn't even place!"

When he's fishing Calamus, Vlach uses shad most of the time. "Calamus has a lot of channel cats and quite a few big ones," he said. " I usually use shad when fishing that reservoir. I catch them with a cast net. It's fairly easy to do: Just find a small cove where the waves are washing into the shallows and toss the net. There are usually shad there.

"It takes a few trips to learn where to fish these reservoirs. For example I fish the upper end of Calamus early in the year, mid-lake in July and down close to the dam in August and early September."

Columbus' Robert Blahak took the largest Master Angler channel from Calamus last year. Caught on a shad on Aug. 24, it measured 37 inches in length and weighed 24 pounds, 7 ounces.

Some of the other fish coming out of Calamus in July and August were impressive as well. A sampling: Ryan Hall, Osceola, 16 pounds, July 30; Brandon Schwisow, Dorchester, 16 pounds, 6 ounces, Aug. 16; Jeremy Swiener, Columbus, 15 pounds, 8 ounces, Aug. 16; Jim Johnson, Omaha, 14 pounds, 2 ounces, July 16; Marissa Brown, Sargent, 13 pounds, 9 ounces, July 27. And those are just a few of the trophy fish landed.

John Loveless, who lives in Columbus, fishes nearby Lake North for channel cats and the Genoa Power Canal for flatheads. "Lake North is good for channel cats, and you can catch a lot of pan-sized ones," he said. "One of the best days I had last summer was in July when I caught a limit (10 fish) that weighed just over 20 pounds.

"I generally use cut bait such as shad early and late in the year for channel cats and shrimp during the hot-weather months," the 54-year-old angler offered. "When fishing the canal for flatheads, live bait is a must. I use bullheads, bluegills or chubs. The largest one I have caught was in late July of 2002; it weighed 31 pounds.

"The canal is fairly easy to fish once you understand it. I think the best fishing is when the power is shut off and there is no current - I have some spots that are deep and have a lot of structure (and snags) in them, and have found they are the best. Some of the spots have steep banks where you can basically fish straight down. I rig up with a sinker on the terminal end and the bait off a dropper. I drop the line down to the bottom and then crank it up a foot or two to get out of snags.

"This program usually works if you can keep the fish out of the snags. When you hook one, you really have to put the pressure on it - because a big flathead can get mean, bad and ugly real fast!"

Two or three other power and/or irrigation canals in the state are also hotbeds of catfish

action. The Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District (CNPPID) Canal, which runs from North Platte to Lexington, is a serious flathead venue.

Bertrand's Robert Donaly hauled a 47-pound, 10-ounce giant from the canal on July 29 last year. Jason Morisch of Central City used a night crawler to catch a 24-pounder in September. Grand Island's Martin Borges took two Master Angler flatheads from the canal - a 39-incher on Sept. 17, a 38-incher on Aug. 31.

The Taylor-Ord Canal doesn't measure up to the CNPPID canal, but it did yield up a few big flatheads last year. One of the largest, a 42-pounder, hit a bluegill fished by Columbus' Woody Carvalho on June 17.

Sherman Reservoir has long been a worthwhile place for catching both channel and flatheads. On Aug. 3, Aurora residents Matt Schwartz and his dad Dave were trolling a Shad Rap for walleyes when they thought Matt's rig was snagged up.

"We soon discovered the snag was a huge fish, and Matt, who is 11, played it like a veteran," Dave Schwartz said. "It took about 20 minutes to wear the fish out and get him alongside. Matt was just a little surprised to find his snag turned out to be a 45-inch 42-pound flathead."

Schwartz fishes for channels on Sherman too; he reports that the reservoir holds a lot of 1- to 3-pounders.

Gabe Petersen of Blair caught one of the largest channels reported at Sherman last year. He was fishing with shrimp on July 5 when he hooked and landed his 16-pound, 9-ounce cat.

Despite being plagued by low water levels the past two years, Harlan County Reservoir is a veritable catfisherman's heaven. July and August are likely months for bringing in a load of channel cats, say anglers such as Republican City's Don Lewton, who ran the bait shop and local "watering hole" called The Island for years prior to his retirement. He uses shrimp or shad and drift-fishes for the cats - and regularly gets limits.

Scott Uden of Kenesaw was fishing Harlan with his brother-in-law, J.R. Pulver, on June 29 last year when Uden hooked into a big channel cat. "I don't fish Harlan for cats as much as J.R. but I go with him when I can," he said. "We were drift-fishing with shrimp when I hooked the big one. We were about ready to call it quits, but seeing I caught a big one, we decided to make one more drift. J.R. got a bite, and it was a good one too. We couldn't believe it when we weighed them - mine weighed 15 pounds, 1 ounce, and his, 16 pounds, 2 ounces. And we caught them only a few minutes apart!"

Lake McConaughy has long been one of the state's top spots for channel cats. Midsummer is a great time to work on the cats there. It doesn't give up a lot of Master Angler channels, but it does have the numbers.

Al VanBorkum, a resort owner on the reservoir, has fished and monitored the action on McConaughy for about 30 years. He says that drift-fishing with shrimp, shad or minnows on the west end of the lake is profitable in June, July and August.

Cleo White of Lincoln took one of last summer's larger ones, landing a 12-pound, 4-ounce specimen on shrimp on June 21. Other McConaughy trophies were taken by Johnny Ramsey (Byers, Colo., 12 pounds, 2 ounces, Aug. 30; bait: a chub) and Ken La Blue (Golden, Colo., 12 pounds, June 2; bait: a minnow).

While the Missouri dominates the river fishing for cats in Nebraska, many smaller streams serve up some exciting action as well. The Big Blue annually accounts for a good number of big flatheads as well as plenty of eating-sized channel cats.

Last year on Sept. 4, Dewitt's Richard Peterson, fishing the Blue, had his night crawler inhaled by a 44-inch-long 41-pound yellow cat (a "horse," he calls it). Nick Bailey of Lincoln tossed a salamander into the river on Sept. 15 and took a 17-pound, 8-ounce flathead! And on July 24, Elliot Geigler of Pleasant Dale used a goldfish to take a 17-pound, 8-ounce fish from the river.

The Loup River too boasts some noteworthy fishing, as does the Niobrara River below Spencer Dam. The lower Platte from the mouth of the Elkhorn to the Missouri is worth the expenditure of some time, though the river from there west to North Platte was basically dry last summer owing to drought in the upper watershed.

Drought has also affected the Republican River watershed reservoirs. Though well below normal levels, Swanson and Red Willow have all the same served up fair to good catfish action. Both reservoirs attract a lot of Colorado and Kansas fishermen.

Among the many lucky anglers was Tom Bonny of Aurora, Colo., who hit the channel-cat jackpot when he landed a 35-inch fish weighing 21 pounds, 8 ounces at Swanson on June 24. A day earlier, Zebe Baylie of Vona, Colo., got one weighing 17 pounds, 14 ounces. And on July 6, Jody Tubbs of Colby, Kan., was fishing a shrimp when a channel weighing 15 pounds, 12 ounces ate it.

Swanson also yielded a bunch of big flatheads last summer: Harold White of Scott City, Kan., landed a 45-incher on June 3, and on June 28, George Huff of McCook used a Rebel Crawdad lure to fool a 39-incher.

Some lakes have restrictions on catfish, but bring anglers a lot of action anyway. Branched Oak Reservoir northwest of Lincoln is a catch-and-release lake for flatheads. It does produce a lot of channel catfish, considering the fishing pressure it gets, says Daryl Bauer, lakes and reservoirs manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission at Lincoln.

"Branched Oak is one of the top catfishing lakes in the state," Bauer said. "You can't keep the flatheads, but there are lots of channel cats in the lake of all sizes, and the limit is 10 daily. I think this reservoir, along with Willow Creek near Pierce as well as Sutherland Reservoir, are probably about as good as it gets for numbers of fish.

"Low water levels in a lot of our reservoirs in the southwest have had a definite impact on all fish. This includes those such as Swanson, Enders, Red Willow, Medicine Creek and Harlan. These lakes are still producing fish, as is McConaughy, which is also very low, but we believe the low water will have a negative effect on all fish, including the forage base."

According to Bauer, the fisheries division raises about 200,000 channel cats up to 10 to 12 catchable inches each year. Some of the pan-sized cats are stocked in urban lakes to create put-and-take fisheries, while others are used to stock larger reservoirs at which natural recruitment can't keep pace with the fishing pressure.

In addition to the major reservoirs and rivers, the farm ponds and sandpit lakes in the state contain a lot of catfish. In 2002 there were 349 Master Angler Awards issued for channel cats, and these small waters were home to 56 of them.

Phil Eggli of Stromsburg often keeps a baited rod on his dock on the sandpit lake where he lives. Last year, on July 20, his readiness paid off big.

"I was working on the house when the neighbor came over with a

few salamanders he had left over from a fishing trip and ask if I wanted them," he explained. "I said, 'Sure,' and used one to bait up a rod I have on the dock.

"A short while later I glanced down at the dock and saw the rod jumping around, so I ran down, grabbed it and hung on for about 15 minutes until I got the fish landed. It was a channel cat. It measured 38 inches and weighed 25 pounds. It's the biggest catfish I have ever caught - and I got it right in front of my house on a hot-hot day in July."

Results like that are hard to beat, but you'll have the chance to do it this month on many of Nebraska's top catfish waters!



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