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!