How To Get Your Cat(fish) Out of a Tree

Don't call the fire department! Get that cat yourself - channel cat, that is.

Fallen trees sometimes seem formidable to fish, but they often harbor outsized channel cats, making them good targets for your catfishing efforts. Photo by Keith Sutton

By Keith Sutton

If you want to catch a cat, look in a tree. As often as not, you'll find one.

The cat of which I speak is not the furry feline that rubs against your legs or purrs in your lap. I'm talking about hairless, aquatic kitties - the channel cat in particular. This species likes protected home sites in inundated trees. And if you can pinpoint trees from which they're ambushing prey, you can entice these pole-bending tabbies with treats they can't resist.

The best trees are in locations that allow catfish easy movement between shallow and deep water. Look for fallen and flooded trees along channel drop-offs, underwater humps and holes, the edges of shallow flats and other fast-breaking structure. Other trees may hold cats, too, but these are among the best.

My favorite hotspot is where several trees have washed out and toppled into the water on an outside stream bend. Outside bends usually have deep pockets of water adjacent to a channel break. Add the thick cover provided by branchy underwater treetops and you have an ideal cat hideout.

Heavy line and tackle are a must for this type of fishing. Use braided line - 50-pound-test or heavier - and a long, stout rod. Strong line is a necessity when "hossing" big battle-wise cats out of these hideaways. You don't want to let a hooked fish diddle around in the cover. Get it out of there if you can, and let it do its fighting closer to the boat or shore. The long rod gives you a fighting advantage and allows you to fish dense cover better, where casting is virtually impossible.

If you're fishing from a boat, take along a big landing net, too. It's tough getting a giant catfish in a boat under any circumstances, but the right-sized net can help tame your fishy feline.

Another tip: set your drag just barely below your line's breaking point. You don't want a big brush pile cat peeling off any more line than necessary, or you'll be hung up in an instant.

When you're properly outfitted, you need to plan the logistics of your attack. Fact is, there's only one way to go about it: you gotta get right in there with them for close-quarters combat.

I use a bobber rig because there's less chance of getting snagged beneath the surface. A slip bobber is best, because it allows you to reel your entire rig right up to the rod tip. This allows more freedom to work the rig back into cover.

Any standard catfish bait can be used, but for tree cats, I prefer cut shad or skipjack herring. Big cats love cut bait, and dead baits don't get tangled like live baits. I thread a chunk about two inches square on a 5/0 or larger circle hook, and unless current is strong, I don't use any weight.

Get within rod's reach of the tree, and work slowly and precisely, moving your rig over, under, through or around the cover until you can ease it down in an opening. You may catch a few nice cats along the outer edges of the tree, but most will be deep within the cover, striking only when you put the bait right on their nose.

When you do get a strike, react immediately, setting the hook hard and reeling like crazy. You've got to get a good hook set and pull the fish out of cover before it has time to tie you up. That's why heavy tackle is so important. This battle requires brawn, not finesse.

My friend Denny Halgren, a Dixon, Illinois, catfish guide, also likes catching cats in trees - channel cats, in particular. Some folks who see him fishing for these tree-loving river kitties think he's in trouble. Often, his boat is smack-dab on top of a big tree laid over in the water. He might be in the boat, but more likely, he'll be standing on the tree with a rod and reel.

Halgren calls this technique "crashin' and thrashin'" and with good reason. First, you "crash" your boat into big timber - the only effective means for reaching those hard-to-get-at catfish hotspots other anglers wouldn't dare fish. Next, you drop a bait into the swirling water at just the right spot. Then, if all goes well, and a catfish is there (one usually is), you experience the thrashin' part of the name. The fish nabs the bait, you set the hook, and you try to "hoss" a thrashin' log cat out of its hidey-hole.

"One day, I decided to try something different," Halgren says, explaining how he discovered this overlooked catfishing tactic. "I crawled out on top of a big tree instead of casting out beside it. The water was flowing just right to create a monster boil on the downstream side. I dropped a bait into the boil and got bit. And I pulled a dandy channel cat out of that hole. When I fished other trees in the same way, I caught more channel cats.

"After I bought a boat, I continued fishing these same kinds of spots. The boat gave me more mobility. I could fish dozens of trees each time out, instead of just a few. And the more I fished, the more I learned. Now, years later, I've learned enough to teach others this great method for catching big channel cats."

The key, Halgren says, is learning to pinpoint the exact spot where a big cat is likely to be. That spot will have two primary components: a big tree and a big boil.

"The ideal place," he says, "is where current has undercut a tree and caused it to topple over into the water. At least part of the tree must be in shallow water - two to three feet deep - and there must be at least moderate current coming across the tree. When the right amount of current is present, the biggest, most territorial catfish centralize. In other words, the current causes them to hold in very specific spots where they can easily grab food that is carried in the current. Without proper current, the fish could be anywhere and are difficult to pinpoint. When the current is right, you can find them every time."

Prime locales rarely consist of more than one tree lying parallel to the bank. When scouting a river, anglers should look for a single fallen tree positioned perpendicular to the bank, with the root end still close to shore in shallow water.

"In the best spots, current washes underneath the trunk of the tree in shallow water and creates a channel," Halgren says. "As the water goes through that channel, it's funneled through to the do

wnstream side of the tree and creates a big boil. Right in that boil is where you want to fish. You may catch smaller catfish in other spots around the perimeter of the tree. But the biggest cat on that piece of cover will almost always be in the biggest boil."

A good stretch of river may encompass dozens of locations exhibiting these features when water levels are right. Some almost always hold big catfish. Others aren't as productive. If you fish the same stretch frequently, you'll learn which are which, and you can zero in on the honeyholes without wasting time at substandard locales.

"I'm not sure why these boils attract big catfish," says Halgren. "But they do. You'll seldom catch a small fish in a place like I've described. These are the biggest cats in that stretch of water, and they're not resting in these boils, they're actively feeding. That's a prime feeding spot, so that big fish makes it his territory. And the only thing that will run him out is a bigger fish. Consequently, big cats are what you'll catch."

The crashin' part of this technique isn't as dangerous as it sounds. You don't actually have to crash your boat into a tree, although Halgren has been known to do just that.

"I've hit the brush too fast and raised my boat completely out of the water," he says. "I've been knocked out of the boat, had minor cuts and abrasions, lost several pairs of glasses and even speared my boat into the bank, filling it up with dirt. The point is: be careful. Don't move too fast when trying to get your boat positioned."

Ideally, after spotting a good tree/boil location, the boat operator slows the boat and allows it to slide gently onto the tree trunk or into the tree's branches. When done properly, the boat will catch and hold, and the fisherman will be able to drop his bait into the boil.

"You may have to crash your boat right up on top of the tree," Halgren says. "You must be positioned so you can drop your bait straight down into the largest boil on the downstream side of the trunk. Sometimes it's simply a matter of floating your boat sideways along the tree and dropping bait in. If I can't do it any other way, I'll put on my life jacket and climb out of the boat and up on the tree to fish. It's important to drop your bait straight down, because this allows you to fight the fish straight up, increasing your chances of getting it out."

Some anglers try anchoring upstream and fishing the perimeter of the tree, thinking the bait will draw a catfish out of its hiding place. Halgren says this may be true for smaller catfish, but big cats tend to hold tight to the cover, requiring a "drop-it-on-their-nose" presentation.

"If you're fishing the edges, you're not going to get the biggest catfish in there," he says emphatically. "There's no reason for that fish to leave his sanctuary. He has everything he wants. He can sit and wait for the food to come to him.

"What's surprising to most anglers is that riding your boat up on that tree only rarely spooks the fish out. The big cats just don't spook, so you can move right in on top of them."

When fishing woody cover, Halgren says, it's important to use bait that triggers quick hits from feeding fish. His favorite is the commercial cheese-flavored dip bait, JoJo's Pole Snatcher made by Cat Tracker Bait Company (telephone (888) 248-9183; website

"There's no flour in this bait," he says, "so the bait doesn't slough off. If that happens, the catfish will eat the bait but won't get your hook. You can't catch him that way. The Cat Tracker bait stays on the worm where it's needed."

The "worm" Halgren refers to is a Cat Tracker Tubie 2000 or Cat Tracker Egg Worm. These special-made, soft-plastic baits are ribbed so the dip bait clings when the worm is pushed into it. The Egg Worm comes pre-rigged with a two-foot section of 20-pound-test mono run through the worm and tied to a small treble hook that fits snuggly against the tail end. The Tubie 2000 is made to be rigged by the angler.

Halgren uses single 2/0 or 3/0 Tru-Turn hooks on both rigs - catfish hooks with the Tubie 2000 and worm hooks with the Egg Worm. The rig is tied to his main line - 20-pound mono - with a 1/4-ounce split shot or bullet sinker on the line above the worm. When a bullet sinker is used, a split shot is placed below it to peg it on the line.

"If I'm dropping baits into a spot with a lot of branches, I slide the weight down so it almost touches the top of the worm," Halgren says. "If the boil is behind the trunk and pretty free of obstruction, I slide the weight up above the worm about six inches. This type of rig is simple and ideal for fishing in these situations. In 4 to 5 mph current, the bait will stay on about 45 minutes."

Halgren prefers a 6- to 7 1/2-foot, medium-heavy to heavy action rod paired a stout baitcasting reel. "I carry rods of various lengths," he notes. "Sometimes a six-footer is too short to reach the boil and drop a bait straight down. A 7 1/2-footer may be too long. You need to have a choice."

Halgren rarely fishes a spot longer than 10 minutes. "Catfish usually bite quickly when you use this bait and rig in this situation," he says. "I drop the rig in the boil and then leave it. You can't move the bait, even if you think it's hung.

"Chances are, you'll get a hit right away. If not, wait for up to 10 minutes. If you don't have a catfish by then, it's time to move and try another spot."

Catching more than one jumbo catfish at each fishing spot happens only rarely. "When you catch one, you might as well head for another tree," Halgren says.

Flathead catfish love woody cover, but channel cats comprise most of Halgren's catch. "This tactic produces big channel cats, from 4 to 12 pounds. Even though they're hefty cats, you can set the hook, keep a tight line and get them out. Get them up and let them thrash at the top of the water. That way they won't get wrapped up, and you can get them out.

"Flatheads are another story altogether. You can't hoist a big flathead to the surface in a treetop. With those guys it's an entirely different scenario. You'll hook plenty of flatheads, but most of the fish you catch will be channel cats."

Of course, getting a cat out of a tree is never easy, whether it has fur or fins. You may get scratched. You could fall. You have to be brave - some say crazy - to try.

But if you're brave enough, or crazy enough, to fish where other anglers won't, big cats will be your prize. Fishing in trees is a sure-fire method for catching cats.

(Editor's Note: Keith Sutton is the author of Fishing for Catfish ($22.00). To order autographed copies, send a check or money order to C & C Outdoors, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002. Arkansas residents should add sales tax. For credit card orders and more in

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