Wisconsin River Catfishing
July 10, 2012
Catfish haven't changed a whit since Grandpa Robbe used to dog them relentlessly in flowing waters around Bagley back in the 1930s. With six kids to feed, the carpenter had precious little time to fish for fun, and so most of Grandpa's catfish harvest came from bank poles, limblines and set lines.
Those well versed in the ways of whiskerfish seldom come home empty handed — especially on waters where these primitive fishing tools are still allowed. Modern Wisconsin anglers are limited in the number of bank poles and limblines they can place, with setlines having a slightly different set of regulations.
Only Wisconsin residents are allowed to use these fishing tools on inland waters, with some waters off limits and with seasonal or bait-use restrictions, or a combination thereof.
In some waters there are restrictions on catfish harvest, with 10 the typical number for keeping channel cats, and flathead possession limited to one or two — sometimes with length restrictions as well.
Grandpa always used to say, "Anything that works too well is probably against the law." He was absolutely correct, of course. Not that fish and game laws mattered much to the old river rat in those days.
An old game warden named "Sprink" Hensal caught me shooting ducks after hours one night when I was a teenager. This would not have happened had I followed Grandpa's and my father's advice on how to avoid the law — at least not in that particular case.
My excuse for that violation was failure to own a watch. A couple of weeks later, Sprink returned my shotgun with a scathing lecture on conservation. He also gave me a Timex watch with the admonition, "Any more game violations and I'll see you go to prison!"
That encounter made me realize game laws existed to keep folks like my Grandpa from annihilating natural resources. I have tried my best to follow the rules ever since. Grandpa's teachings on the ways of fish and game have resulted in a very bad day for countless critters harvested within both the letter and spirit of game laws over the past 50 years, with lessons on catching catfish revisited on a frequent basis at this time of year.
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Grandpa's observation that "a catfish is nothin' but a swimmin' tongue," prompted me to explore the meaning behind his cryptic comment. Fisheries biologists categorize this homily under the predator/prey relationship — the primary drive in both catfish location and behavior.
Catfish are forever following their forage base. Variables like current flow, time of day and changes in the easiest obtainable biomass pull predators to a point where they can find dinner with the least amount of effort.
Flathead catfish are carnivores. Live bait usually works best on them. Frogs, bluegills and bullheads are almost irresistible to flatheads if you put the bait where they can find and destroy those offerings easily.
Little tricks like clipping a fin or two on baitfish, or slightly slitting the belly on a frog makes your bait even more appealing to a hungry cat. Be sure to check the legality of any flathead food before putting it on a hook.
Channel cats are omnivores, happily garwoolfing obvious offerings like crustaceans, minnows, worms and insects, but are prone to feeding on obtuse entrees from ivory soap to mulberries if the swimming tongue's taste buds find the stuff on your hook intriguing. Dip bait, more commonly known as stinkbait, is a world of culinary delight unto itself.
My father's lesson on the mulberry bush teaches the importance of observation.
One summer day we were fishing a scour hole on an outside bend of the Pecatonica River above a pair of always-productive deadfalls. The cut bait we were using produced just two forktails instead of the usual dozen fish.
When Dad cleaned those fish he found their bellies full of mulberries! That night he made an awful looking paste out of bread, molasses and a couple of other ingredients I can no longer recall, all in a 2-pound Hills Brothers coffee can.
The next day Dad instructed me to pick a couple handfuls of mulberries before we anchored up above our favorite spot. He stirred the berries into his dough bait and we caught the daylights out of the catfish!
Everything from a colony of crawdad holes on a mud bank point where current diverges, to birds dipping and diving for something on the water's surface, to a bunch of tadpoles that have just sprouted legs — all hold the potential for food to predators prowling nearby.
Close observation and experience also reveal habitats that practically scream "Catfish!" A deep hole with several fallen trees indicating a tangle of brush beneath the surface with shallower, faster-moving water just upstream is a likely summer base for catfish.
If several hours of serious fishing produces no results, this optimum habitat is the likely home address of a large flathead cat. Smaller fish that dare to swim there have two options: leave or be eaten.
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Several strategically placed bank poles baited with frogs, bullheads or bluegills — where legal — will almost always be visited by the dominant cat during the night. The only exception to this "rule of fin" is the full moon periods in July and August when flathead catfish often move to their feeding area in the shallower water at the upstream edge of such a hole during the day.
Dominant flatheads are very territorial, but they will share feeding areas with other flatheads and even with channel catfish.
Channel cats tend to move over much larger areas than their flathead kin in the course of a 24-hour period if river levels are generally stable. Forktails prefer a firm bottom with moderate current and escape cover such as the limbs of a fallen tree or shelter of a shady cutbank.
Between dusk and dawn during summer months, you may find channel cats cruising shallow water at the leading edge of a river hole or close against the bank. At mid-day under a bright sky, the best place to start looking is in deeper water on the channel edge of the deadfall or similar barrier.
If the river has been running at low summer pool levels due to a lack of runoff, look for channel cats to spend more time in the deeper, more sheltered water near the channel edge of the snag.
A rapidly rising river tends to put catfish close to the bank where they can both feed aggressively with little effort while avoiding the power of an angry, surging river.
Time on the water will reveal areas that are perpetual catfish haunts. Once you find a channel cat honeyhole, time of day and prevailing current conditions provide a good starting point for placing bait in a current seam that will carry the "easy meal" message to the fish.
Using dip bait has been my favorite way to find and catch summer catfish for more than 30 years. There are several consistently productive dip baits on the market. For my nickel, Sonny's Super Sticky has no equal.
If you put this dip bait in the water directly upcurrent from catfish in a positive feeding mood, they will find it in 15 minutes. Bites should come steadily until you've tangled with all the active fish that can taste the bait. When action slows to the point where you haven't had a bite in 10 minutes, its time to move the boat.
Locating catfish habitat on small to medium-sized rivers is fairly easy. Many first-time anglers to the Mighty Mississippi are intimidated by the sometimes mile-wide expanse of flowing water.
A major key to catfishing success on this vast water is to picture it like a giant living wiring harness with each tributary stream just another wire. The Mississippi is separated into pools averaging 20 river miles in length by massive lock-and-dam systems.
A half-dozen or more tributaries of various sizes join the main river in every river pool. Gravity causes a perpetual mission for every river to shorten itself. This is especially evident on old rivers like the Mississippi and lower Wisconsin.
Today's running sloughs off the main channel may become placid oxbow backwaters 50 years from now. In the meantime this collateral current away from the main river channel and the lower mile or so of tributaries represent prime places to prospect for channel catfish.
Before engineers tried to harness the Mississippi with 33 lock-and-dam systems between St. Paul and St. Louis in the 1930s there were many areas where the big river had several side channels instead of a single 9-foot channel in place today.
Deep holes and other structures remain in these running sloughs. Some are prime spots to probe for flatheads in addition to channel cats.
Besides the massive lock-and-dam systems, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continues to build rocky fingers called wing dams just off the main river channels to help direct the powerful flow.
Depending on current volume, the water either above or below one of these structures may hold catfish. In many instances multiple wing dams are placed to direct the current. In a complex of three to five of these rocky structures, the optimum spot may be one small area of a single wing dam. Once again, time on the water is the best way to decipher likely catfish location.
The Wisconsin River's nature has also been impacted by dam construction. Waters from The Dells dam downstream to the Wisconsin's confluence with the Mississippi south of Prairie du Chien offer the most productive catfishing, but angling is also good in the more serene waters of Petenwell, Castle Rock and Lake Wisconsin flowages.
The lower Wisconsin is a maze of ever-changing sandbars that fall away from several inches in depth to several feet. Navigation on these waters can be difficult, even hazardous. But sandbars are a major key to catfish location on the river.
Anchoring up at the trailing edge of a sandbar where it drops away into deeper water and casting bait to a point where the current will carry the food message to the fish is a solid strategy on the lower Wisconsin River.
Fallen trees along both shorelines and on midstream islands are catfish magnets. Current often creates scour holes many feet deep under these barriers, with water flowing over the sandy bottom just upstream sometimes only inches deep.
A 4- to 6-foot deep hole surrounded by water less than half that depth is a great spot to catch a bunch of cats at midday. During low light periods it isn't uncommon to find cats holding in just a foot of water where current flow will bring food right past their sensitive barbells.
On a mile-per-mile basis, Fox River holds more big catfish than any other flowing water in the state. The areas around the seven bridges of the lower Fox between the DePere dam and confluence with the south end of Green Bay seven miles downstream is Big-Cat Central.
This is no place to come prospecting for catfish with wimpy gear. My weapon of choice is a heavy baitcast outfit spooled with at least 50-pound-test superbraid and a large shad-pattern Echotail blade bait.
Both flatheads and channel cats hold close to bridge pilings on the lower Fox, waiting for an easy meal. A large Echotail looks like an easy lunch. But you're liable to lose both the catfish and your lure fishing there with anything less than a young winch.
There are several places in this seven-mile run of Fox River where discharges from factories and power plants enter the flow. These areas also draw catfish and other species.
The discharge across from the Coast Guard station at the mouth of the Fox on Green Bay holds catfish year 'round. There are no sure things when it comes to catfishing, but that spot is the closest thing to it.
Although anglers are allowed to keep catfish taken from this water, a catch-and-release philosophy is the way to go. Pollutants such as heavy metals which have been dumped into the lower Fox from a century of industrial activity has made this water a toxic headache for those attempting to clean up the riverine environment.
The Fox is much cleaner and smaller west of Lake Butte Des Morts between Berlin and Omro, but the catfish are almost as big. This may be the best-kept flathead catfish secret in the state, where fish in excess of 30 pounds are waiting in holes only 4 to 8 feet deep for a bullhead or bluegill to enter their domain.
Flatheads weren't part of the fishery in Rock River above Lake Koshkonong until a trade deal with the Illinois DNR re-introduced Ol' Ugly into those waters about 17 years ago.
The Wisconsin DNR stocked about 100 flatheads averaging 6 to 10 pounds back in the 1990s. Natural reproduction since that time ensures big catfish will swim there for years to come, with any of the initial stocking still in the Rock River basin now weighing on the heavy side of 30 pounds as well.
Channel catfish numbers in the Rock have decreased since the mid-1990s but this southcentral Wisconsin river remains one of the best places in the state to tangle with the swimmin' tongue.