Fishing for channel catfish should be uncomplicated — but that doesn’t mean the smart angler doesn’t have a couple of tricks up his sleeve.
The channel cat is the pinup of the catfish world – sleek, muscular and one of the best of all reasons to be a country kid with school just out and a farm pond nearby.
Fishing for these widespread whiskerfish is beautifully simple. Yet many ardent cat fans take this simplicity a step too far. They have one favorite place to fish, one favorite rig to use, one favored bait and one way to go about it. And if those don’t produce . . . well, there’s always next time.
Fact is, you can greatly improve your catfishing success by trying a few new tricks and by focusing your fishing effort on the most attractive catfish habitat in whatever water you do fish. Use favored approaches when they’re producing cats. But when the old standbys fail, the following pointers could help your catch rate soar.
You can catch channel cats on almost every type of bait imaginable, from crayfish, night crawlers and minnows to commercial stinkbaits, chicken liver and even Ivory soap. If big channels are your target, though, you’d be wise to use cut baits as often as possible.
Spring cats go for liver, too, but some fishermen complain about the difficulty of keeping tainted or aged liver on a hook. The stuff can be quite mushy, but here's a trick: Use deer liver instead! Whitetail livers are much denser and tougher than domestic livers and will stay on the hook even after several catches.
If you can't find deer liver, tie your beef liver chunks in mesh or nylon bags to keep them from washing away in the current.
Some fishermen double-hook their fish baits or sew them onto their hooks so that they last longer.
Image courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Prepared baits work best in waters with little or no current. Fast-moving rivers, for example, can clean a dough ball off a hook in seconds. For that reason, some anglers prepare their baits using nylon or mesh bags that are then tied securely to the hook.
Prepared baits also work as chum (again, where legal). Simply mix up a batch of bait, toss it into an onion bag or similar container and toss that into the water upstream from where you intend to fish. The odor of the bait will carry downstream and attract hungry catfish to your baited lines throughout the day or night.
Be sure to anchor the chum bag so that you can dispose of it at the end of the day.
When fishing for bigger cats, use whole necks or gizzards. Marinate the pieces in blood, cheese or their own juices for added flavor and appeal.
Offal may be marinated, soaked, allowed to rot (in a glass or stone jar sealed with a pane of glass to allow gases to escape) and then bagged as bait when it's time to go fishing.
Of course, preparing the more smelly baits for catfish should be done outdoors, not in the kitchen, garage or basement. There's a reason why the most successful catfishermen are able to stay out all night -- no one wants to be near them!
Cut baits are pieces of sliced baitfish. Body fluids from these baits attract cats over long distances. Use oily fish when possible – shad, herring, goldeye and the like – but when these aren’t available, almost any baitfish will suffice.
Cut bait is prepared many ways. Some anglers fillet strips from the sides or belly of the fish, saving the carcass and entrails for later use. Others cut the bait in chunks – head, midsection, tail. Vary what you use until you determine what catfish want.
Match the bait’s size to the fish you’re likely to catch. In waters with few cats over 5 or 6 pounds, use 1- to 2-inch chunks or strips of cut bait. Where bigger cats are common, 3- to 4-inch-long baits aren’t out of place.
SMALL TO MIDSIZE RIVER HOTSPOTS
Smaller rivers tend to be formed with a series of rapids and pools. Just below each set of rapids, at the head of each pool, fast water carves the channel deeper, creating a depression or hole. This is the deepest part of the pool and the area where channel catfish are most likely to be found. Rocks, logs and fallen trees in the deeper upstream end of a hole make it even more attractive to catfish. Channel cats wait in ambush behind these current breaks, darting out to gobble up food or bait that passes by.
Other channel cat honeyholes in small to midsize rivers include eddies, boulders, low-head dams, logjams and channels to backwaters.
Big-river channel cats usually position themselves at strategic places to feed and rest, mostly near structure that breaks or reduces the current. Focus your fishing efforts around such structures, which include wingdams, rock, gravel and sandbars, deep holes and cover in outside bends, bottom holes or depressions, bottom humps and deep holes at tributary junctions. A sonar fish-finder helps pinpoint prime fishing areas.
Channel catfish inhabit many types of reservoirs, but reach their greatest numbers and size in bodies of water that are large, warm and fertile with plentiful cover near deep-water sanctuaries and shallow feeding areas. For consistent success, key on specific areas within each reservoir. The most important are old river channels, inundated lakes and ponds, tributary mouths, riprapped areas and bridge channels. A good bottom contour map of the lake combined with sonar equipment should be employed whenever possible to zero in on the best fishing sites.
Channel catfish, along with largemouth bass and bluegills, are among the primary game fish stocked in farm ponds. And because ponds are small, anglers have fewer problems pinpointing actively feeding fish. Portions of a pond where you should focus your attention include deep-water areas (often near the dam or along an inundated creek channel) where channel cats usually stay during daylight hours and during the temperature extremes of summer and winter; near the mouths of feeder creeks, if they exist; near the outside (deeper) edges of green aquatic vegetation; and near rockpiles, stick-ups, stumps, logs, trees, holes, humps and points.
Still-fishing for catfish is a sit-and-wait game. You present your bait on or near the bottom, then wait for a catfish to find it. You can still-fish from the bank, as most catfishermen do, or from a stationary boat.
When still-fishing from shore, it’s important to set up where action will be best. The area just below a river dam provides some of the best channel cat action, 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 a deep pool on an outside bend of the river also can lead to good catches. Carry rod holders that have long, sturdy spikes at the bottom to permit secure upright placement.
When still-fishing from a boat, carry two anchors to position your craft sideways in good holes. This way, your rods are spread out to cover more water and avoid tangles. Try to pinpoint prime catfishing spots, such as channel edges and humps, then narrow your fishing zones down to a few best areas – a stumpfield near the channel edge, for example, or a large snag along a riprapped bank. Position your boat for best access to the structure you’ve chosen, then cast your bait to that spot and wait for a bite.
Drift-fishing is an active approach that helps you help the cats find your bait. You can drift-fish in a boat or drift-fish your bait below a bobber.
When in a boat, use a drift rig comprised of a slinky or bottom-bouncer sinker placed on the line above a barrel swivel to which is attached a 2- to 3-foot leader with a 3/0 hook on the end. A small bobber added on the leader just above the hook floats the bait above the bottom so catfish can see it. Drift with the wind, or using a trolling motor, move back and forth over areas with catfish-attracting structure.
When wading or bank-fishing on a river, you can drift your bait beneath a bobber. This allows the bait to move naturally downstream, responding to the current. Use a slip-bobber on the line above your baited hook, and as the rig drifts, guide it alongside catfish-holding structure and cover. Keep a tight line at all times, and feed line as the bait moves downstream. Drift by one side of a hole, then down the other and finally right down the middle. If possible, shift sides of the river now and then to present baits in every likely spot as you move.
Keep your rod tip high when drifting a bobber rig. This keeps most of the line off the water, resulting in better rig control and hooksets.
TIPS FOR SUCCESS
Now you know where you can find channel cats and some methods of fishing for them. All you need are a few tips that will help you fine-tune your presentation and nab more cats. Here are four to consider:
• Look At Hooks
If you’re having trouble hooking catfish (many anglers do), be sure your hooks are needle-sharp. Run each point over a fingernail. Sharp hooks dig in. Those that skate across the nail without catching should be honed or replaced. Second, instead of burying your hook in bait, leave the barb exposed. Catfish won’t notice. More hookups will result.
• Rods For Shore
Use long rods (7 feet-plus) when bank-fishing. These offer several advantages, including increased casting distance, more “reach” for working rigs properly around cover, better bait control and more hooksetting and fighting power.
• Quick Rig
One simple rig that works surprisingly well in many situations is just a lead jighead with a chunk of shad or herring impaled on the hook.
• The Night Bite
When night-fishing, know when a cat takes your bait. Helpful products include: night bobbers (special floats with a light on top powered by a cyalume light stick or lithium battery); a 12-volt ultraviolet light, which makes fluorescent monofilament glow, allowing you to see line movements; rods with glow-in-the-dark or fluorescent tips; rod bells, which clip on and ring when a catfish shakes your pole; and electronic bite indicators, which attach to your line and emit an audible signal when a catfish runs with your bait.
Stick to traditional approaches when they’re producing cats. But remember: When other tactics fail, the tips presented above can make your catch rate soar. Give them a try.