September 14, 2022
By M.D. Johnson
About the time I thought the fish had given up pestering the shad chunk I'd laid out, the rod bounced once, twice and then doubled over. After a solid hookset, the battle waged upstream and down, at one point threatening to change venues to the interior of a huge fallen cottonwood 50 feet away.
I applied enough pressure to steer the fish away from the tree, and a few minutes later it was flopping on the cobblestones on which I stood. The 3-pound channel catfish would've been a fine eater, but this one earned a reprieve. With a quick flick of its forked tail, it darted back to the depths.
Summertime and channel cats. For many anglers, it doesn't get any better. Relaxation. Minimal gear. Plenty of places to fish. And, lest we forget, ol' Mister Whiskers' reputation on the dinner table.
Big lakes and wide, swift rivers alike are home to good populations of catfish throughout much of the eastern U.S. But it's the smaller streams--the intimate waters--that often provide some of the best fishing, particularly in later summer.
READING THE WATER
So, what qualifies as a "small" catfish stream? When my wife and I lived in Iowa, we often fished the Wapsipinicon River, which is a river by name but in many places looks, acts and fishes more like a small stream. It stretches about 75 feet from shore to shore--more in some spots and less in others.
The water depth varies, as one might expect, ranging from mere inches to 8 or 9 feet in some of the more productive holes, even at the height of the summer dry period. Cobblestones, river rock, sand, mud, fast water, riffles, tailouts, eddies, current seams--the Wapsi had it all and epitomized, for me, what a small catfish stream should be.
In addition to having many of the above elements, a good channel catfish stream must also support a good forage base for all the gamefish within its banks. The Wapsi, for instance, had a tremendous number of crayfish; hellgrammites and other aquatic insects; and a wide variety of minnows, gizzard shad, suckers, small quillbacks, bluegills and green sunfish. The river was quite alive, and when the bottom rung of a system’s food chain thrives, those at the top will also do well.
But where do you make that first cast? A big, hard-flowing river—the Susquehanna, for example—presents dozens upon dozens of possibilities for concentrating one's efforts. Smaller streams, by virtue of their diminutive size, narrow those choices and make that first-cast decision somewhat easier. There are two things to remember before we venture into the specifics:
First, while channel catfish are occasionally quite aggressive, they’re more often content to let food come to them. Seek out a spot with the water depth, current and structure that allow for this food delivery mechanism.
Second, with it being late summer, your home stream is probably at its lowest flow of the season. This, too, can help narrow the choices for that first cast. Often, 2 to 3 feet is more than enough depth to hold fish. With those two points in mind, the following spots are my favorite first-cast locations.
Due to the influx of water where a creek enters the main stream, there’s typically a scour hole immediately downstream of the confluence. Often, the water here will be slightly cooler and deeper than the surrounding flow. Finally, you have the food delivery element here thanks to the creek’s current.
- The Rig: A basic Carolina rig using the lightest possible weight; scent helps attract cats from downstream.
Where the current creates a submerged yet visible sandbar—shallow on one side and slightly deeper on the other, with a sharply defined break from high to low—is another good jumping-off point.
- The Rig: The slip bobber shines here. Cast shallow and let the bobber sweep the bait off the edge into the deeper pockets.
Here, the current slows and swirls, bringing in food items from upstream while creating the perfect nursery, per se, for small fish, crayfish and other cat treats.
- The Rig: A lantern, ThermaCELL and good headlamp are what you'll need as you work the eddies from dusk ’til dawn with a Carolina rig.
Current seams, or current breaks as they're often called, hold cats for many of the same reasons that creek mouths and sandbar drop-offs do. Fish can sit in the slower water and wait for a meal to be delivered, courtesy of the current.
- The Rig: A slip-bobber rig allows you to cover the most water. However, free-drifting live minnows, crayfish, leeches or nightcrawlers, with just enough weight to keep the rig ticking the bottom, can be killer.
Cats love cover, especially if that cover is adjacent to slightly deeper water. Log jams, like creek mouths, often show a scour hole on the downstream edge. Cats will lurk here, waiting for the bottom edge swirl or bottom eddy to bring food to them. Sometimes, though, they’ll be right in among the wood, waiting to ambush unsuspecting prey. Hunt-and-peck is the best strategy here.
- The Rig: Opt for heavier tackle, as hooked fish often head straight for the brush, and you’ll need something with enough backbone to horse them out. I’m going with a Carolina rig fished vertically, if possible.
RODS, REELS AND TACKLE
I pack a couple different outfits when I'm headed to a small flow for channel cats. The rods are both two-piece, 8-foot Ugly Stik Catfish Special rods—one spinning and one baitcasting—rated at medium-heavy. The spinning rod is paired with a 40-series Pflueger President spooled with Cabela's Ripcord 30-pound braid. The baitcasting rod features an Ambassadeur 5000 series reel (yeah, I'm old-school), also filled with 30-pound braid. Sometimes I’ll pack a third rod just in case—an 8-foot, medium-heavy Okuma SST fitted with an Ambassadeur 5500C3 baitcaster.
Terminal tackle and go-to riggings are likewise elemental. For a leader, I use 30-pound Trilene Big Game monofilament. The trays in my pack contain both bank and egg sinkers (1/2 to 1 1/2 ounces), a selection of quality snap swivels (size 4 to 6), 5 mm beads, Daiichi D16Z Bleeding Bait Octopus Wide hooks (sizes 1 and 1/0) and clip-on brass bells (strike indicator/alarm clock).
For channel cats, I'm partial to a Carolina rig in most instances. The mainline goes through an egg sinker that's appropriate for the depth and current, followed by a 5 mm bead and a snap swivel. A 1/0 Daiichi hook is snelled to a 24- to 30-inch monofilament leader, and a simple double overhand loop on the opposite end goes on the snap swivel clip.
In recent years, I've discovered the efficiency and versatility of a slip-bobber rig for cats. I use the smallest bobber possible, and while almost any type of weight can be used, I've found inline swivel sinkers reduce drag, improve bobber performance and help prevent line twist. It's been a process of trial and error with slip bobbers, but the ability to efficiently target previously unfishable water has proven well worth the time and effort. My slip-bobber rig comprises a Beau Mac Inline Drift Float (1/2 to 1 ounce), a bobber stop, a 5 mm bead and the inline swivel sinker (1/2 to 3/4 ounce).
CATFISH BAITS GALORE
The list of channel cat baits is almost without end and includes well-known natural baits like nightcrawlers, crayfish, minnows, leeches, frogs and a variety of cut baits, as well as off-the-wall options such as Ivory soap, bubble gum, hot dog chunks, coagulated cow blood and even raw chicken skin smeared with peanut butter (smooth, not chunky).
I've had my best luck with summer cats using the following DIY cut-bait recipe. Start with a 2- to 3-pound quillback or common carp. Scale and fillet, leaving the skin on, then cut the fillets into roughly 2-inch-square chunks. Half-fill a quart Mason jar with bait chunks and cover with shad- or garlic-flavored Smelly Jelly (or both). After 24 hours, it’s ready to use straight from the jar. However, my mantra with this bait is, "the longer it sits, the better it gets." Refrigerate any leftovers. This DIY trick can also be done with 3- to 4-inch cull shrimp, which are peel-and-eat shrimp deemed unfit for human consumption and bulk-packaged for bait. Cull shrimp are perfect for working under a slip bobber.