Photo by MIKE SEARLES.
While most of us do most of our fishing during daylight hours, everything from crappie to catfish — with the exception of some of the more colorful sunfish — feeds and prowls more by night. All three of Oklahoma’s most popular catfish species — blues, channels and flatheads — share that trait.
Which may not be good news in January or February when it’s 20 degrees and the wind chill’s down around zero. But it should be welcome indeed in July or August, when daytime temperatures often top 100 degrees; the nights then are obviously much more comfortable.
Can you go after catfish in the daytime during a hot Oklahoma summer? Yes, of course. But can you catch them even better at night? I think sometimes you can. And it’s sure more enjoyable than fishing under the blazing sun.
My nighttime catfishing began almost before I can remember. Growing up in Enid in northwest Oklahoma, I had an uncle and a brother-in-law who were both avid catfishermen. My uncle liked to run trotlines in a couple of creeks; my brother-in-law and his family liked to fish in the tailrace and stilling basin at Great Salt Plains Lake northwest of Enid.
I saw the sun come up many mornings as we fished throughout the night, running trotlines or tending baited lines at Salt Plains.
Years later, while teaching at Oklahoma State University and living at Stillwater, I used to spend Friday and Saturday nights in the summer camped on the shores of Lake Carl Blackwell or Lake McMurtry, or camped near the mouth of Stillwater Creek where it flowed into the Cimarron River near Ripley.
I had a lot of great nights on Stillwater Creek, filling my stringers with channel cats and the occasional flathead — but not every night was productive. I recall one night on Stillwater Creek, swollen and muddy after two or three days of rain. Set up beneath a bridge to stay dry, with four baited lines set out in the current since before dark, I hadn’t caught a single fish. I’d gotten a bite or two, but well after midnight, I still had nothing on the stringer.
About 2:30 or so, a pair of clearly intoxicated young men, talking and laughing loudly, pulled up and parked at the opposite end of the bridge. I gathered from their conversation that they’d stumbled out of Ripley’s one and only bar and discovered a big crawdad in a puddle at the edge of the street. They grabbed the crawdad and decided that as they had bait, they’d go fishing. They had one fishing pole between them.
With some difficulty, they finally managed to impale the crawdad on the hook, and one of them lobbed it into the creek directly across from my baited lines. Those drunks won’t do any good, I thought smugly, ’cause the fish just aren’t biting.
But the ripples had hardly died away when the pole in the guy’s hand jerked sharply toward the water. For a second I thought that he was going to fall off of the steep bank and into the creek, but he managed to sit down in the mud to keep from falling. They both began yelling excitedly as he cranked the handle on his big spincast reel. Eventually he pulled a channel cat that must have weighed 12 or 13 pounds to the surface.
The lucky tipplers had to walk downstream and pass the pole around a couple of trees before making their way down to a spot at which they could climb down to the water’s edge to grab the big catfish. They took their fish and left; I soon packed up and left in disgust.
I remember more fondly the summer nights I spent running trotlines or limblines or watching rods at the water’s edge.
When I was a child, I loved to help run trotlines. A great sense of anticipation always prevailed as we began working our way down a length of trotline; I just knew that monstrously big catfish would be on one or more of the hooks, and I was always a wee bit disappointed whenever we raised another bare hook, or one that was still baited, out of the water as we pulled our tiny johnboat along the line to rebait the hooks.
Sometimes you’d see the whole line moving, or feel the motion of a big fish, as you touched the line several yards away from the fish. Sometimes there would be a surprise on the line — a toothy gar, a largemouth bass, even a snapping turtle. But we harvested many pounds of tasty channel catfish from our trotlines in Oklahoma creeks or with our rods and reels in the tailrace.
And almost as much fun as the fishing was the job of gathering the bait.
When I was a youngster 8 or 9 years old I was big for my age; I could drag a seine, and often did. I had an elderly neighbor who was a trotliner. In the shaded area on the north side of his house he kept a metal trough about 8 feet long set up on sawhorses. Covered with a screen, it was actually made for mixing and holding mortar, but it served as his bait tank. He kept it filled with water from his backyard well throughout the entire summer.
If you’re fishing for channel or blue cats, a little chumming can help sweeten your fishing spot. I’ve chummed with dry dog food, canned corn and a variety of other “foods.”
Sometimes I would ride with him to a nearby creek. We’d seine crawdads and minnows and frogs from the creek, and he’d pick through the catch, choosing the crawdads, shiners and small sunfish that he thought were the right size for catfish bait. The crawdads he kept alive in the trough for rerunning trotlines and rebaiting the hooks; the fishes we’d quickly use for bait, since they didn’t live very long in the improvised backyard bait tank.
The kind of bait was important, and depended on what kind of catfish you were after. Channel cats and bullheads will eat just about anything — bits of hot dog, chicken livers, stink baits, dough baits, dead fish, crawdads, night crawlers, what have you. Blues are a little more selective; I’ve had more luck using fresh shad than anything else, but sometimes shad are hard to come by unless you have a good spot to net them or have a boat in which you can get out on one of Oklahoma’s big reservoirs to find roaming schools of gizzard and threadfin shad.
Flatheads definitely are the pickiest catfish of all. I’ve caught many flatheads while I was fishing crankbaits for bass. And when bait-fishing, I’ve rarely caught flatheads on anything that wasn’t alive. Big shiners, small sunfish and live shad or goldfish all work pretty well for flatheads. They’ll also eat crawfish, but if I bait two trotlines, one with small fish and one with crawfish, I’ll almost always take more flatheads off the lines baited with f
I like to fish for flatheads with limblines or yo-yos or bank poles — whippy willow poles anchored into rocks or mud and angled so that the fish, once hooked, must constantly pull against the springy pressure of the pole.
I’ve always had better luck with flatheads if my baits are set so that they swim within 3 or 4 inches of the surface. I don’t know why, but baits set to hang a foot or two deeper rarely seem to catch flatheads like the ones set barely below the surface.
Of course, setting your baits within sight of the surface can pose another problem. I once caught a raccoon on a yo-yo line that was set so that a crawfish hung just an inch or so into the water. I tried several times to grab the coon and get the hook out of his paw, but he was having none of it. He snarled and snapped and lunged at me repeatedly, until I finally just cut the line about a foot up from the hook, and he scampered away to deal with it himself.
Nighttime fishing poses its own set of problems. First, visibility: Except on exceptionally bright moonlit nights, you’ll need lanterns or flashlights to help you bait and run lines. I try not to shine bright lights too much into or around the water, because I think that it can alarm fish. But a Coleman gas lantern on the deck or hanging in the interior of a boat can make trotlining easier.
In recent years I’ve taken to wearing one of those little lights that clamp onto the bill of a cap. I have one now that has three LED lights, which can be turned on one at a time, depending on how bright a light is needed. It’s handy when I’m tying knots, or trying to disgorge a hook or grab a lively minnow from a bucket or tank.
Snakes can be a concern at night, as they seem to be attracted to lights and activity. Out where I grew up in northwestern Okalahoma, cottonmouths are unknown, so snakes didn’t worry us much out there, but I live in Eastern Oklahoma these days, and cottonmouths are all too common on some streams and lakes.
I’ve come close to stepping on a couple of cottonmouths coiled on the bank in shoreline grass at night. I actually did step right in the middle of a big cottonmouth one afternoon while bass fishing on a small pond. I shrieked like a little girl and jumped straight up in the air. I don’t know which of us was more startled and scared — but I’d bet it was me! The snake thrashed around and tried to bite me once, but as soon as I jumped off of him, he slid into the water and left me standing there in a cold sweat (and feeling silly about screaming).
So if you’re in cottonmouth country, be careful where you step or where you reach in the dark. I know the chances of actually getting bitten are slim, but a little caution doesn’t hurt.
If you’re camped on a creek or river bank and just running lines within a few hundred yards of your camp, you aren’t likely to run into nighttime boat traffic. But if you fish at night from a boat on a large lake, make sure your running lights are working and turned on, and that you have a spotlight or brighter light with which to signal any other boats you see approaching.
And it’s always a good idea — not to mention required by law — that you should have life vests or other wearable or throwable personal flotation devices handy. I’ve been pitched out of boats twice in my life, both times in the middle of the night in deep darkness — and neither time was I wearing a life jacket. Maybe I’m a slow learner. In any case, it’s easy to hit a log or rock at night when visibility is poor, and if you’re standing at the time, it’s easy to tumble out of the boat.
If you’re fishing for channel or blue cats, a little chumming can help sweeten your fishing spot. I’ve chummed with dry dog food, canned corn and a variety of other “foods.” Yeah, you may attract carp and other species of fish as well, but it does stimulate feeding in the area and attracts fish. Don’t overdo it, though: If you put too much food out there, there’s not much reason for the catfish to eat the bait on your hooks.
Where’s a good place for a nighttime catfishing trip in Oklahoma? You’re in luck: You’ll find many to choose from. With the possible exception of some farm ponds that were never stocked and have no run-off from other ponds or lakes or streams, one or more species of catfish will be found in just about every fishable water source in Oklahoma, Rivers large and small, little prairie streams, rocky mountain streams, small watershed lakes and municipal lakes, big U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoirs, even ponds in city parks throughout the state — all contain catfish. So finding a place to catch a few isn’t difficult.
For nighttime fishing, though, I like out-of-the-way places in which it’s unlikely that I’ll be disturbed by traffic, noise or other anglers. Many of our large lakes have shoreline areas accessible by road but removed from the developed “park” areas in which the boat ramps are located. It’s in those kinds of places that I like to set up camp for catfishing. I have spots like that picked out at Lake Eufaula, Lake Keystone and Fort Gibson, as well as at a couple of smaller lakes.
Nighttime action can be rewarding in some of the tailrace waters below Oklahoma dams, too. Such areas are sometimes crowded during daylight hours with anglers fishing for stripers, but after darkness falls, the crowds usually thin out.
No matter where you fish, please run the trotlines, limblines, banklines, yo-yos, juglines or other kinds of non-attended fishing lines that you set out regularly, and take them up when you’re finished. It’s always been one my pet peeves that so many Oklahoma catfishermen leave lines strung everywhere, creating problems and hazards for other fishermen and boaters and swimmers as well as for birds and other creatures.
I’ve seen several kinds of birds from herons to owls entangled in old limblines; I’ve also seen catfish, dying and dead, hanging inches or feet above the water’s surface when anglers set lines but neglected to run them promptly after the water level dropped in the lake. And I’ve cut and removed several old trotlines — covered with algae, hooks rusted — that had been abandoned for weeks or months.
State fishing regulations require anglers to check unattended lines regularly and to remove them after use. Trotlines are also supposed to be labeled so that the owner can be identified. It’s a good idea to obtain a current copy of the Oklahoma Fishing Regulations booklet, or to go to the wildlife department’s Web site — www.wildlifedepartment.com — to familiarize yourself with the catfishing regulations and any special rules that apply to your particular fishing hole.
In some Oklahoma waters, restrictions on the number of lines or poles you can use are in force. Some municipal lakes have curfews and don’t allow access after certain hours of the evening. So checking the regulations can save you from getting a ticket for doing something that’s legal elsewhere but not at your venue.
Nighttime catfishing can be good at just about any time of the year. But it’s most enjoyable during this season of scorching-hot days and far cooler, more com
fortable nights. And it sure beats watching reruns on TV.