May 27, 2021
Western anglers have plenty of options of species to fish for in June, but there's an unsung hero that often gets overlooked: the channel catfish.
Widely distributed in lowland lakes and rivers, channel cats fight like bulldogs and make for a great fish fry. If you fish in the right place with the right bait, you’ll find them to be eager biters. Plus, daily bag limits are often liberal, and in portions of the Columbia River system they're nonexistent.
You don't even need to buy new a new rod and reel, assuming you already have a medium-heavy combo in your collection.
Unfortunately, a lot of folks aren’t familiar with the art of catching channel catfish, and they are missing out on some big fun. Here’s how to put a pile of these fine-eating fish in your cooler.
ROD, REEL and LINE
There’s really no need to overextend yourself in terms of the weight rating of your tackle. For most lake and river catfishing situations, a medium to medium-heavy rod and matched reel will work just fine. If you have such a rod for bass or steelhead or large trout, you can catch catfish all day. I happen to use the same 8-foot, 6-inch Lamiglas rod I use for salmon and steelhead as my off-season catfish rod. As for the reel, I’m old school and prefer 5000 or 5500 series levelwinds from Abu Garcia.
Fans of spinning tackle need not feel left out. The Catfish Combo from Ugly Stik features a 7-foot, medium-heavy rod matched with a #50 anti-reverse spinning reel, and proves perfectly suitable for channels. And the price—$50—is nice, too. Or, again, any 7- to 8 1/2-foot rod with a medium to medium-heavy action and matching reel will do.
As for line, you can catch catfish on monofilament, but braid is better. Prime catfish cover is often rocky, and rocks are hard on traditional monofilament. Braid’s small diameter gives you another advantage: For most braided lines, 200 or more yards of 30- or 40-pound test will fit on most catfish-suitable reels. You may not need that much line, but if one day you hook a trophy cat, it could be handy.
BAITS AND SCENTS
Researchers have determined that channel catfish, via the ability to taste and smell dissolved amino acids using a process known as chemoreception, can detect water-borne concentrations as minute as one part per 100 million. One of the reasons that basic gear is so effective under a wide variety of situations is that if there’s something good to eat near a catfish, the fish will find it.
That keen sense of smell also means that you should keep your catfish bait and everything associated with it, including your hands, as clean and scent-free as possible. Catfish do not like food that tastes like gasoline, aftershave or bug repellent. Many anglers use gloves when handling catfish bait. Aside from keeping the bait scent-free, gloves also keep the smell of the catfish bait off your hands. Many things that catfish think taste good—oily fish, worms, garlic and other powerful scents—you probably don’t want on your hands while eating lunch.
Whatever bait you use, its effectiveness can be enhanced with commercial or homemade scents. Scent will disperse in any water but is particularly effective in moving water where the current can flush these scents downstream.
The type of scent to use basically follows one of two strategies. First, there are several scents that seem to be universally effective. Classic examples include garlic, garlic-and-salt and anise oil. These scents can be used on several classic channel catfish baits including dip baits, sponge baits, nightcrawlers and chicken livers.
Second, you can enhance the scent of whatever bait you are using by adding a concentrated scent that matches the bait. Channel catfish tend to like fairly big bites of food and are more active in seeking out the food than many anglers realize. They get a high percentage of their food by ambushing live baitfish and crawdads in waters where that forage is available. Thus, one effective category of bait involves cutting fish such as shad, herring or pike minnows into strips.
Any of these baits can be enhanced by baitfish scent.
Catfish, like both trout and bass, like crawdads, which are a common forage in most catfish waters. You can trap your own crawdads, but there are several quality crawdad baits and scents on the market.
RIGGING AND TACTICS
Catfish are not leader-shy, and rigging for them can be extremely simple. A basic rig involves an inline weight, a bead, a swivel below the weight, a length of leader and a hook—much like a basic Carolina rig.
Variations include using a slip bobber to drift the bait off the bottom. Contrary to what many anglers believe, hungry catfish do not spend all of their time foraging on the bottom.
The size of the weight will depend on the conditions. The deeper the water or the stronger the current, the larger the weight you should use. In calm and shallow water, or when working a slip bobber, you’ll want less. In most cases, I use less than two ounces, and often little more than half an ounce. The goal is to take the bait to the fish and hold the bottom, but you don’t need any more weight than that.
As for the style of weight—egg, bank, bullet, pyramid—the situation determines the choice. If there’s a good deal of current and you want the bait to stay in one place, a pyramid weight is a good call because it holds the bottom well. If you are drifting, or slowly reeling to move the bait though an area, an egg or flat sinker has a shape that’s less likely to hang up.
Typically, my go-to rigging consists of running my braided mainline through an egg sinker and a 5-millimeter bead before knotting it to the swivel. A 2-foot mono leader is usually long enough. The business end of the leader is tied to an appropriately sized Daiichi hook. Hooks sizes are usually 1 to 1/0 for smaller fish and 2/0 or 3/0 for larger channel catfish or flatheads. And you may want to experiment with a smaller hook yet, like a size 4, if you’re targeting fine-eating bullheads.
Sometimes, I’ll peg a small float to the leader at the midpoint between the weight and the bait. The idea is not to get the bait to the surface, but just to lift it up off the bottom to make it and the scent it is giving off more accessible to passing catfish.
Some anglers think that catfish are always in deep water, but if shallow water is comfortable to them and the food they want to eat is there, they’re quite happy to feed in shallow water and hold in shallow cover and structure. Bank anglers should pay particular attention to cover and structure within casting distance. Catfish like to ambush prey, so any bottom variation, including flooded creek channels, may hold them.
Into the summer, as water temperatures increase, catfish do spend more time in deeper water during the day, but they still orient themselves around drop-offs, creek channels or scour holes downstream of logjams. After dark, they follow forage up onto big shallow flats adjacent to this deep water.
In waters where there is an abrupt “break” from deep water to shallow flats, catfish will often hold along this break. Once the sun goes down, catfish move out of their cooler midday haunts to cruise the shallows and look for crawfish and other nutrition. Where allowed, I’ll set two rods—one with bait in deep water and the other on the break. The idea is to catch fish moving out for the evening.
Slip bobbers are a great way to catch catfish, especially around rocks, heavy bottom vegetation, timber, stumps or similar structure. The bobber helps create a good presentation and cuts down on gear loss due to snagging.
A slip-bobber setup doesn’t have to be anything fancy: a bobber stop, a 5-millimeter stop bead, the bobber, a second 5-millimeter bead, a half-ounce egg sinker, a third and final 5-millimeter bead, a swivel and mono leader with the appropriately sized hook will get it done. I’ll fish the rig in lakes tight to standing structure—stumps, dead trees or flooded green timber. In a river, cast onto the shallow edge of a creek channel and allow the current to work the suspended bait back and forth over the break.
Channel catfish may not be as glamorous as trout and bass, but they are fun to catch, don’t require expensive gear and make for an excellent fish fry. If you find one, you’ll probably find more, which makes for a fun day for any angler.