Photo by Keith Sutton.
An owl’s hoot echoed through the night air when I felt the first gentle tap on my line.
“Here, son,” I said, handing the pole to 12-year-old Josh. “I think a big catfish is fixing to take it.”
Josh tensed with anticipation.
“Don’t get in a hurry,” I said. “Wait till he starts swimming away.”
“I feel him yanking it,” Josh said. “It feels like he’s got it.”
Suddenly, the fish surged away, putting a stiff bend in the rod. There was no doubt now the fish was on. It twisted and turned as Josh grimaced and cranked.
After a brief but exciting tussle, the fish came in, resigned to its fate and croaking softly. It was a nice channel cat, 5 pounds of muscle and mouth, and before we left the lake, it would be joined by nine more of its whiskered brethren. For Josh, this was a little like heaven.
I’ve been fishing for catfish since I was big enough to hold a cane pole. Now I have six sons who share my enjoyment of the sport. When possible, we make our catfishing forays at night. That’s when cats bite best, and a night-fishing junket is far more memorable for the boys than a daytime outing.
If your idea of a fun summer outing is sitting around the motor home sipping sodas and watching TV, then nighttime catfishing is probably not for you. But if you don’t mind a snake dropping in for a visit now and then; if you don’t mind reeking of shad guts and limburger stink bait; if the hummingbird drone of a million mosquitoes fighting over the tender cuts of your body doesn’t drive you bonkers; if you’re not repulsed by the feel of catfish slime and bottom ooze between your digits; then, maybe, just maybe, a witching hour safari for cats is your ticket to happiness.
A catfishing adventure is the best of all ways to scratch your fishing itch. You’re almost sure to catch a few fish for the frying pan, and there’s always a good chance you’ll hook a big channel cat that outweighs any bass or trout you ever caught. This is memorable fishing, any way you cut it.
PLAN FOR ACTION
Thorough pre-trip planning can spell the difference between a good night-fishing trip and a bad one.
First, plan where you’ll fish. The best night-fishing waters for channel cats have some deep water, are fertile, support abundant baitfish and have a good mix of structure and cover with areas of open water adjacent structural elements. The right conditions may be found in lakes, ponds and rivers.
In small, shallow waters, such as some small ponds, summer catfishing is generally poor. Catfish have no cool, oxygen-rich depths to which they can retreat. If water conditions are really bad, they become semi-dormant. They may scatter to conserve oxygen. Fishing suffers.
Photo by Keith Sutton.
Picking a good body of water for night-fishing using these guidelines isn’t foolproof. But by coupling this information with a few questions to the right individuals (state fisheries personnel, anglers, bait shop owners, etc.), you can narrow the field to a few choice waters.
It’s also a good idea to organize all of your catfishing gear before leaving home. Clean out unnecessary equipment. Have poles rigged and ready to go. Organize your tackle box. You don’t want to waste time fumbling around in the dark trying to tie hooks or locate specific items of tackle when you could be fishing instead.
PLOT THE RIGHT SPOT
Know exactly where you’ll fish when darkness falls. Prospect during daylight hours, and be sure you can find each fishing spot after nightfall if you leave and return. Select alternate sites in case of a change in plans.
If you plan to fish from a boat, study a bottom-contour map of the body of water you’ll fish if one is available. Many hot-weather catfish congregate in deep, open water near breaklines (areas where there’s a sudden change in depth on the bottom), so look for elevation markings indicating deep-water ledges, creek and river channels, points, ridges and humps.
The map directs you to a likely position, and then a sonar unit pinpoints breaklines. The dropoffs are then checked with a fish finder to locate catfish-attracting cover (stumps, treetops, brushpiles, etc.) and the catfish themselves.
After spotting fish on sonar, use buoys to mark the site. This enables you to fish in the most productive water without straying off.
If you’ll be fishing from shore, be sure to pick a bank-fishing site within casting distance of prime catfishing areas. This might be a clearing on shore near the outside bend of a river, a spot under a shady tree beside a farm pond levee or a gravel bar adjacent to a deep hole on a small stream. The best areas have flat, brush-free banks where casting is easy, and you don’t have to worry about ticks and snakes crawling up your britches legs.
The tailwater area just below a river dam also can provide excellent night-fishing action for channel cats, especially if you can cast to the slack-water areas between open gates. Many bank-fishermen set up below tributaries or at the junction of two rivers. Fishing near fallen trees at the head of deep pools in rivers also can lead to good catches.
A final type of night-fishing spot worth mentioning is public fishing piers. These wooden structures extend from the bank far out into a lake or pond, thus offering access to offshore areas you might not otherwise be able to fish. Nearly all are wheelchair-accessible, so the joys of catfishing from these manmade hotspots can be experienced despite mobility limitations. Piers also provide safe, convenient locations where you can take the entire family catfishing at night. Pack some snacks, outfit your children with life jackets to avoid any unforeseen mishaps, then share the fun and excitement of catfishing, pier-style.
Mosquitoes are night creatures, too, so insect repellent is a must (on you but never your bait). You’ll need a good lantern, and if you’re bank-fishing, a lawn chair and some rod holders. Pick a body of water where catfish are abundant, and carry plenty of bait.
Simple tackle is best for dark-side catting. Most anglers use a medium-action rod-and-reel combo to better reach offshore fishing spots. Six- to 15-pound line and size 1 to 2/0 hooks are OK for the small “eating-size” catfish most folks are after.
When fishing for trophy channel cats (20- to 30-pounders are possible in some waters), use a long rod, 7 feet at least, for more hooksetting and fighting power. Those constructed with graphite/fiberglass composites offer strength, sensitivity, flexibility and moderate pricing. Baitcasting reels are toughest and provide more power for cranking in big fish. Look for a solid frame, tough gears and smooth casting, plus enough line capacity for the conditions you fish. The best for night-fishing also features a “clicker” mechanism that gives an audible signal when line is pulled from the reel, thus indicating that a catfish is taking your bait.
Unlike blue cats and flatheads, which rarely eat anything but fish, channel cats aren’t the least bit finicky. Buy some worms, crawfish or minnows at the bait shop, or pick up some fresh chicken livers, hot dogs, bacon, cheese or shrimp at the supermarket. Other good baits include frogs, catalpa worms, pieces of cut bait, leeches, creek chubs, small suckers, chunks of Hormel Spam (yes, Spam!) and (where allowed) goldfish.
Commercial dip baits and doughbaits also work great, and usually can be found in the sporting goods departments of discount stores. When using these, you might want to pick up a few of the specialty items often used to fish these soft baits, including some catfish “worms” (ribbed, soft-plastic lures used for fishing dip bait) or some spring-wound doughbait treble hooks.
Don’t stick to a single presentation if it’s not producing cats. If one bait doesn’t work, try another. Change to a bigger or smaller bait. Vary the depth at which it is presented. If catfish are biting, and you’ve come prepared with an assortment of baits and tactics, sooner or later, you’ll pinpoint something productive.
MARK FOR THE DARK
The biggest problem when night-fishing is seeing your equipment, but a can of fluorescent paint can be used to mark equipment for easy visibility. You’ll be surprised how much easier it is to see a bright yellow bobber than a white one. A splotch of glowing paint in a tackle box compartment eliminates the painful experience of sorting hooks by Braille. A stripe of fluorescent color on black needle-nose pliers thwarts their usual invisibility. Painting a black rod tip some bright color helps in detecting bites.
The benefits are compounded when you use black lights. Look for special paints at craft stores that glow under ultraviolet.
Fish on the bottom, using a sinker heavy enough to carry your bait down. Or use a bobber to float the bait slightly above bottom.
Don’t get antsy; let the bait sit several minutes before moving it. Like kids after fresh-baked cookies, catfish smell their treats and then track them down.
You can fish from a boat or from shore, as you prefer.
A boat offers more mobility. Bank-bound anglers are limited in the choice of fishing areas. Anglers in boats aren’t. If you’ve been fishing in one spot for a while, and the fishing is unproductive or the bite stops, you can move quickly to another spot. Your range is limited only by the size of your fuel tank.
Unfortunately, boating at night can be hazardous. For that reason, most catfishermen do their night-fishing from shore. A campfire is built, the rigs are baited and cast, and the rods are propped on forked sticks or placed in holders. The participants sit and sip coffee while they shoot the breeze. A cat probably will bite sooner or later, and the action starts. But if not, it’s an enjoyable outing anyway. The camaraderie makes it worthwhile.
Ideally, you should be able to walk from one good bank-fishing site to another without any problems. Fish for 15 to 30 minutes at the first spot you pick, and if a bite isn’t forthcoming, or a good bite stops, reel in your bait, walk down the shore and try another locale. If that site is better, great. If not, move again after half an hour. Try this spot, then that. Your catch rate will greatly improve.
Of course, leapfrogging around isn’t to everyone’s liking. And in some areas, it’s impossible due to the lack of good bank-fishing sites. In that case, cast your bait to the best-looking spot you can reach, and then prepare to wait out your quarry. Place your fishing combo in a rod holder properly set in the ground, put the reel in free-spool, flip on your bait clicker and relax until the action starts. This technique may not put many catfish on your stringer, but it’s an excellent way for targeting trophy fish, especially at night when big cats are roaming in search of prey.
AS DIFFERENT AS NIGHT AND DAY
Some folks say you can catch as many catfish during the day as you can at night. And maybe some folks do. I’m not one of them.
My best catch ever came on a dark, moonless night in spring while fishing from a big-river sandbar. In just four hours, a friend and I caught more than 150 catfish — mostly channel cats, including several over 10 pounds. I’ve had 100-cat nights more times than I can remember.
I catch plenty of catfish in the day, too, and nowadays, I must admit, most of my fishing is done when the sun is up. But my best daytime excursions have never equaled my best night-fishing trips.
I still fish at night when time permits. The number of catfish I catch doesn’t really matter, though. I fish at night for reasons that have nothing to do with mathematics.
I go to listen to the whippoorwills and owls. I go to smell the freshness of the night air. I go to feel a cool twilight breeze rustling my hair. I go to see the heavens ablaze with countless stars.
Mostly, I go to relax and enjoy some time with friends and family. If we catch a mess of catfish now and then, that’s a bonus. If we don’t, none of us really cares. What’s important is the companionship an after-hours catfishing excursion provides.
BOATING SAFETY AT NIGHT
When night-fishing from a boat, safety should always be foremost on your mind. Many deaths and accidents occur each year when boats collide in the dark or strike unseen obstructions.
For safety’s sake, be sure your craft is equipped with proper lighting. Check the lights before launching, and carry a flashlight or spotlight for signaling other boats and watching for obstacles. Always wear a life jacket, and wear a kill-switch to stop the engine if you fall or are thrown overboard.
If you leave your boat, be sure the craft is properly tied or anchored so it won’t be carried away by rising water or current.
Be attentive. Your life could depend on it.
GOOD GEAR FOR NIGHT-FISHING
In addition to the usual gear any catfish angler might use, some items are particularly useful when you fish in darkness. Among the special “night gear” you might want to consider are:
• Night bobbers. These special floats have a light on top powered by a cyalume light stick or tiny lithium battery. Super for catfishing after dark.
• Black (ultraviolet) lights. Make fluorescent monofilament glow, allowing easy bite detection. Several models that run off 12-volt systems are available.
• Rods with glow-in-the-dark or fluorescent tips. Very helpful for detecting night bites.
• Rod bells. Clipped on your rod tip, these little metal bells ring when a catfish shakes your pole.
• Electronic bite indicators. Several brands are available, all of which attach to your line and emit an audible electronic signal to let you know when a cat bites after dark.
• Head lamps. Great for hands-free rigging after dark.
• Lanterns. Crucial for fishing the twilight hours.
• Spotlights. Helpful for navigating in a boat after dark.
(Editor’s Note: Keith Sutton is the author of several books on catfishing. His latest, just released, is Pro Tactics Catfish from Lyons Press.)