Kansas' rivers and creeks are full of catfish eager to take your bait. Here's how to take advantage of this rewarding fishing opportunity. (July 2007)
The author put together this fine stringer of fat channel catfish in just a couple of hours spent exploring a Kansas stream no wider than an average highway.
Photo by Marc Murrell.
Catfish don't seem to get their due respect in Kansas, or anywhere else in the country for that matter. I mean, really: You don't see catfishermen with their own television shows fishing out of shiny new $50,000 boats, complete with all the glamour and glitz. That's mainly because fishing for cats doesn't require gear or tackle the average angler can't afford, and the fish can be tricked with bait that could make a skunk gag. Catfish aren't particularly attractive, and their dining habits are a big step below those of the finicky largemouth bass.
But despite all that, catfish remain one of the most sought-after species among Kansas' anglers. And if you're looking to find a mess of them in the month of July, you need to look no farther than the nearest small stream, creek or river.
Kansas has thousands of miles of moving water -- from small no-name streams to the mighty Missouri River and everything in between. Hungry channel catfish can be found in most any of them, and catching them is often just a matter of getting out and trying it. Such was the case last summer on a memorable Fourth of July morning near my home in south-central Kansas.
My plans on that trip were to beat the near-100-degree temperatures by heading to the woods at legal shooting light for a quick squirrel hunt. I reasoned that it wouldn't take long to shoot a limit of squirrels and then head down to a small creek to catch some catfish.
I walked into the timber shortly after 6 a.m. and started calling. On the fourth stop, I hit the distress call, and immediately had a fox squirrel sound off and come running. Tree to tree he hopped, stopping only 20 yards above me. A shot from my .22 and he tumbled to the ground.
My next calling stop in the woods got an immediate response. I slipped through the timber, only to discover that the squirrel was on the other side of the creek. However, I could see him plainly at the top of the tallest tree and there was a set of riffles I could cross to get to him. It was one of the longest shots I've ever made on a squirrel, and I was quite proud of myself when he fell out of the tree.
I bagged another squirrel on the next stop, and, as I picked him up, I thought that if I managed to catch some catfish, the resulting dinner would be a redneck version of surf-'n'-turf. Granted, it's a stretch to compare squirrel to steak and catfish to lobster, but it still sounds pretty good -- and you get to kill it and catch it yourself.
I moved to the last place in which I'd call. An immediate response to my distress call yielded a quick shot, and squirrel No. 4 was on the ground. I started using the bark call and got another squirrel fired up; I readied my rifle, but squirrel fever got me, and I missed. But he made the fatal mistake of pausing during his escape; I rarely miss twice. A quick glance at my watch and a five-squirrel limit was in hand at 7:30 a.m.
My rodents bagged, I swapped my .22 and squirrel calls for a fishing rod and a bucket of Danny King's Catfish Punch Bait. I'd had the bait for a couple of months, and I was eager to give it a try. It had been sitting on a shelf in my garage, and I could tell it was good, as the lid had swollen to the point that I thought it might explode. I decided to relieve the pressure the day prior and my twin 7-year-old boys happened to be downwind.
"Ohhh, Dad!" they hollered, gagging and pinching their noses.
Anything that smells that bad and strong has to be good catfish bait -- and it was, too. Past trips to the same creek had yielded decent results with other dip-type baits and even globs of night crawlers. But I discovered that this bait worked, and right away. I fished the first two holes with no luck. Then I pitched a glob of Danny King's on a No. 4 treble hook into the third pool; within seconds I saw my line jump, and I felt a hit. I set the hook and felt the twisting pull of a fat 2 1/2-pound channel cat.
I headed to the next bend in the creek and pitched my bait near a brushpile. Within seconds I felt a thump and watched my line take off. I buried the hook but now felt more resistance. The 4 1/2-pound fish headed downstream, but after several minutes of fighting I finally beached him at my feet. Another toss to the same spot yielded instant gratification in the form of a 2-pound channel cat.
The results were the same at the next hole, except that I missed the fish on the first hookset. Dunking my treble hook again and pulling out a wad of the smelly goop, I threw to the same spot and got slammed before my offering even hit bottom; a short time later, a fat 4-pound fish lay flopping at my feet. Although I could have stayed a bit longer and tried for more, these four fish were plenty to complete the redneck surf-'n'-turf.
This catfishing scenario could have taken place in thousands of locations across Kansas. Access is the key as many streams and rivers are privately owned. Oftentimes, a polite request to a landowner for fishing privileges is all that is necessary. And if you offer to share your catch with the landowner, cleaned of course, it might pave the way for future trips.
But for those not wanting to make private land connections, there's likely more public land opportunity for catching catfish in moving water than any other species. The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks has a Fishing Impoundment and Stream Habitat Program that leases private waters for public access. In addition to ponds and watersheds, many miles of small streams and larger rivers are leased for fishing. There's also the Community Fisheries Assistance Program, which pays small city and county lakes to open their waters to public access. Both of these programs offer catfish anglers tons of angling opportunity. Anglers can find more information on the FISH Program or CFAP by checking the KDWP Web site at www.kdwp.state.ks.us for maps and other details of the popular programs.
In addition to these programs, Kansas boasts more than 20 reservoirs with plenty of public access. Many have major tributaries feeding them with either state or federally owned government land surrounding them. Dozens of state-owned, small fishing lakes are scattered from east to west and the small feeder streams and creeks supplying water to these can be terrific catfishing options.
Like any type of fishing, certain weather conditions can be more conducive to catching channel catfish on moving
water. Huge summer thunderstorms producing torrential rains may ruin fishing for some species, but not the whiskered ones. Big channel catfish come to life to feed on the buffet of tasty morsels washed into their home as a result of the run-off.
"It can be incredible," said Randy Benteman of the fishing after a summer toad-strangler. "It's a great time to catch big channel catfish."
A Natural Resource Officer for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, Benteman has been catching channel catfish since he started fishing nearly four decades ago.
"I was 8 years old when I started channel cat fishing," Benteman recalls. "There was a guy down the street that took me along as a mentor-type thing, and I had my first experiences on the upper end of the Delaware River above Perry Reservoir."
Benteman's favorite catfishing occurs during the first few weeks of June on aesthetically pleasing summer float or wade trips on small Kansas rivers and creeks. But he's quick to admit he's also partial to catching channel catfish after a summer storm near his home in central Kansas.
"You're going to catch more fish after the rains and the rises," Benteman says. "I mean, they're biting and eating and sometimes it's boom, boom, boom and you're catching fish."
This type of fishing is catching on according to Benteman. "The more knowledgeable, hardcore fishermen know that when you get a rise you've got that food supply coming in. And the catfish know that, too, and they're all going to move either because they're displaced or a lot of them know there's a fresh food supply."
Run-off can provide excellent fishing opportunities in any given body of water, moving or static. Benteman keeps his eye on the weather radar and anxiously watches to see what develops as far as rain potential.
"It used to be you'd just go out and look in the street or the ditches and see if water was running," he said of a rain indicator. "But now with the advance of technology and computers, you've got the Internet and all that information at your fingertips and you can tell how much rain was where, and plan accordingly.
"And the Corps of Engineers' sites for some of the bigger lakes will tell you what the inflow is and those are good things to know, too. Knowledge is the key in knowing that you have enough run-off to fish."
It usually takes several inches of rainfall, especially in dry conditions, to produce enough run-off to create any kind of rise in a river. While some fishermen believe that fishing is good during a rainstorm, and it can be, Benteman waits for things to fall into place.
"It could be two hours before you get a rise," Benteman said. "And when the sun comes out and it gets nice, the creeks and rivers are still running so you've got plenty of opportunity for the next two or three days to catch fish. It tapers off, but the fish will still be holding there and roaming because the food supply is still there."
Benteman targets the upper ends of lakes and reservoirs where the river dumps into the main body of water. The running water in secondary streams or feeder creeks can be ideal spots to find hungry channel catfish as well.
"I look at the mouth of the river where it hits the big water," Benteman said of his preference. "Those fish in the main body of water will move up and congregate at that opening where the water is coming in. I like to fish where the water just slows a bit in an eddy."
There's no special equipment required necessarily for this type of fishing, but like many anglers, Benteman has his favorite gear.
"No matter what I'm using I always use some kind of slip-sinker in my weighted system," Benteman said. "So when you've got that bait sitting on the bottom a channel cat can take the bait without feeling resistance."
As far as the amount of weight, it all depends on the current. "When it's running in hard, I've got to use a half-ounce egg sinker to get it out there and hold it where I want it," Benteman said. "My recommendation is to use just enough weight to hold in either the current or the backwater where you're fishing."
Benteman's standard rod-and-reel system for this type of fishing is a medium-action spinning combo. This he chooses mostly for improved casting qualities and ease of handling. "I like the fight," he said, "and I use 14-pound test. That's what I've grown up with over the years for channel cat, and I know I've lost some fish over the years that were up to about 20 pounds because of the lighter equipment."
As far as preferred baits go, Benteman has a couple that he relishes for run-off fishing. The others run the gamut; many hardcore catfishermen might not think to include a couple of them.
"If I've got any crappie guts left, I'll use those," Benteman said of the by-products from his earlier spring fishing excursions. "And I'm a waterfowler, so I've always got duck entrails -- and duck guts can't be beat. If you've ever cleaned one you know how much duck guts stink."
Other baits Benteman likes at this time of year include shad from the previous summer, or after spring's ice-out, held frozen in plastic bags. And during warmer water inflows, Benteman likes his own homemade sponge bait to tempt hungry channels.
While Benteman likes channel catfish to eat occasionally, he doesn't keep many of the fish he catches.
But there is one exception. "If I've got a landowner that's given me permission to fish that wants some fish, I'll give him a mess of catfish I've already cleaned," Benteman said. "Otherwise, I'll kick most of them back because I generally catch more than I can possibly eat myself."
And no matter what, any fish over 8 pounds is gently released back into the water.
"If I catch one or two fish to eat for a meal, I'm going to keep those 1 1/2- to 3-pound channels," Benteman said.
Benteman's advice to those that have never tried this type of fishing is simple. "Get out and go that first time," he said. "Watch the weather and go because you can't catch fish sitting in an easy chair."
THINGS TO REMEMBER
Most small streams can best be fished on foot. Waist or hip waders work but they tend to get extremely hot. The perfect attire is an old pair of jeans (no shorts, even though it's hot, due to lush growth of stinging nettles and poison ivy) and tennis shoes.
From small streams to large rivers, it's best to target certain areas. Remember where you've had success in the past as fish can often be caught from the same spot year after year. Logjams, brushpiles and deep outside bends of streams hold plenty of catfish.
Always remember to fish as you go, walking upstream; by so doing, you don't muddy the water y
ou plan to fish. Pitch your slip-sinkered rig upstream of where you anticipate catfish will be hiding. The current will take the scent down into brushpiles or holes.
Don't spend a lot of time in unproductive areas. If there are hungry catfish nearby, it won't take them long to find your offerings. After 10 or 15 minutes of no activity, move to the next spot.
Don't forget bug spray: Plenty of biting insects are out in July.
Bring a large cooler packed with ice and drinks. Cold drinks are refreshing during an outing, and the fish you've caught can be iced down immediately, thus keeping them fresh for the ride home.