July 13, 2021
When it comes to summertime catfishing, there are generally two schools of thought.
Those partial to fishing during daylight hours will point to the fact that catfish are confined to creek channels, scour holes and other deep-water haunts while the sun shines and are therefore easier to find.
Nighttimers will tell you that since catfish feed more actively after dark, that’s the best time to target them. These nocturnal fish, they say, are more nomadic, roaming over wider expanses in search of food, which increases the likelihood they’ll come across your catfish bait.
Both catfishing camps make a strong case, and in the end there’s really no wrong answer, so let’s take an in-depth look at each scenario.
THE DAY SHIFT
The biggest advantage to catfishing during the day is that you can see. You can’t see the fish, of course, unless you’re running cutting-edge electronics on your boat. But you can see everything you’re trying to do up to and including the point when a fish is actually hooked and landed, and that is a huge advantage.
Where the Fish Are
By mid-summer, water temperatures, particularly in still waters, will have reached or are nearing their highs for the season. That means channel cats will seek out deeper, cooler water during the daytime highs and exhibit periods of inactivity. Deep-water haunts include the aforementioned creek channels, old river channels, scours behind riverine log jams, sandbar drop-offs midstream and current-formed holes at the tips of wing dams. Deeper water, but often adjacent to shallow flats where fish will transition to come nightfall.
When water temperatures hit between 70 and 80 degrees, it’s time for channel cats to spawn. Males select, prepare and then defend nests in rocks, undercut banks, old muskrat holes, hollow logs and the like. This can narrow the summertime search pattern considerably, and targeting such spawning areas can prove effective. However, care must be taken so as not to negatively impact the resource. Post-spawn fish are often aggressive fish, feeding in a frenzy to regain weight lost due to procreation. These post-spawn cats will fan out, following schools of baitfish. Find the bait, find the fish.
Floodwaters that raise lake levels well above normal pool can put cats on the best bite of the year, as they move onto otherwise dry, inaccessible habitats and take advantage of new and often seemingly infinite food sources. I’ve experienced some phenomenal catfishing courtesy of high water on old gravel roadbeds and in inundated willows. One summer, a cut cornfield covered with a couple feet of muddy water filled with hungry cats feasting on nightcrawlers, catalpa worms, grasshoppers and crickets.
How to Catch Them
On daylight forays, I’ll typically use one of three different catfish rigs, depending on the predominant habitat and whether I’m fishing from bank or boat. This trio includes a traditional bottom rig, a setup for drift fishing and a tactic that many anglers don’t associate with catfishing—a slip bobber rig. Bank fishing lends itself to either a traditional bottom rig or a slip bobber.
I prefer a sliding rig when fishing the bottom. That is, my braided mainline is passed through an egg or bank-style sinker and a 5-millimeter bead or rubber bumper to protect the knot that connects the mainline to a snap swivel. To the other end of the swivel, I tie a 24-inch 30- to 40-pound monofilament leader and Daiichi hook, which holds my bait du jour. Such a rig casts well, holds the bottom, presents no felt weight to the fish and allows the cat to run with the bait, thus increasing the potential for a solid hookset. Occasionally, I’ll peg a small (2- to 2 1/2-inch) float at the midpoint of the leader, especially when using larger baits like shad heads or bigger chunks. This lifts the bait off the bottom slightly, making it more visible and allowing applied scents to disperse more efficiently throughout the water column.
Applicable to both bankers and boaters, the use of slip bobbers, or floats, opens a new world for catfish anglers. Like traditional bobbers, floats suspend baits off the bottom, thus decreasing the likelihood of snags while increasing the attractiveness of the bait and scent dispersal. In the past, I’ve enjoyed tremendous success using slip bobbers for cats under high-water conditions, like in flooded timber. However, slip bobbers are also excellent tools for working sandbar drop-offs or creek mouths in small rivers, the tips of wing dams and stump fields or anywhere a bottom rig might prove problematic due to structure.
Drift fishing for summer cats is, as catfishing goes, a relatively recent development, and one that lies in the boater’s realm. Drifters are typically searching for one of two things before setting up shop: bait or water depth changes. In some lakes, baitfish such as young-of-the-year shad gather in large balls in the summer. Catfish, recognizing this potential bonanza, will drift along below the ball, picking off the injured and deceased. It makes sense, then, that a similar bait drifted beneath such a bait ball would attract attention. Drift rigs are identical to sliding-style bottom rigs, including the pegged float. Such set ups can also be slow-trolled when covering water to locate active fish more quickly.
No bait on the screen? Perhaps it’s not a problem. Finding a water break or transition such as the edge of a creek channel might be the ticket. Using a combination of electronics and boat control, suspended baits are drifted along this break, often with one set of hooks on the high side and the other on the lower or deeper side. Note where fish are encountered—water depth, structure and high or low rod—as multiple cats often lie together. In this scenario, fish the area thoroughly before moving on.
THE NIGHT SHIFT
Okay, so it’s more difficult to see in the dark, but get around that challenge with some good lighting and catfishing after sunset can be every bit as enjoyable—not to mention productive—as during daylight.
Where the Fish Are
Nothing in fishing is absolute—there are outliers to every bit of conventional wisdom—but it’s been my experience, by and large, that daytime channel cats hold deep while nighttime fish are often found cruising the shallows in search of food.
One of my favorite nighttime channel cat hotspots was a long, narrow point of land jutting out into an expansive, albeit shallow bay in a Midwestern impoundment. On the west side of the point, a 20-foot-wide creek, 10 to 12 feet deep in spots, spilled into the bay. To the front and east, however, a vast sand- and mud-bottomed flat, 2 to perhaps 4 feet deep in places, sprawled out almost 180 degrees. During the day, cats held in the creek and were susceptible to bottom rigs. Come night, however, these same fish fanned out across the flat hunting for crayfish, fingernail clams and anything else unable to escape their maw. Many were the nights my wife and I would park lawn chairs at the end of the point and cast our baits to the flats adjacent to where the creek met the bay. Few were the nights we left disappointed with a lack of action.
How to Catch Them
Before rigging comes lighting. I’m an old-school Coleman lantern guy, though I will admit I’ve made the switch from white gas to propane. On nighttime trips, I’ll pack two lanterns, just in case, and two or three 1-pound tanks. I’ll have at least two quality LED headlamps with me, as well as one or two Thermacell mosquito repellent units.
I use the same rigs and tactics at night as I do during the day, with the exception of drifting. After dark, I become sedentary in my approach, either sitting on the shore adjacent to where I know there are fish—or at least where there should be fish—or anchored where a shallow flat and a creek channel converge. Slip bobbers can certainly come into play after dark, with companies like Whisker Seeker offering lighted bobbers that make tracking the float and detecting strikes much easier. Whisker Seeker also sells LED-powered rod tip inserts called Nite Styx that help you see what’s happening during these low-light hours.
BAITS AND SCENTS
Channel catfish are highly omnivorous. On the cleaning table, I’ve found their stomachs to contain everything from crayfish, salamanders and leopard frogs to knots of willow leaves and whole mulberries.
But before we get into bait, a word on scent—human scent, in particular. A channel cat can detect dissolved substances down to as little as one part per 100 million. That means if something is edible, a catfish find it; if it’s unfamiliar or alarming, it’ll steer clear of it. Therefore, anglers should go to lengths not to foul their baits with unnatural odors from things like aftershave, fuel, sunscreen, or, perhaps most frequently the culprit, insect repellent. Keep everything clean and the result will be more strikes.
As for channel catfish baits, the sky’s the limit, but there are two basic categories—live or natural baits, and prepared or commercial attractants. Some, like chicken livers, may fall somewhere between the two. I tend to stick with a few tried-and-true baits, including:
- Cut or Whole Shad: My go-to bait across the board. Frozen works well; fresh is always better.
- Nightcrawlers: Easy to find and enjoyable to pick up yourself after dark. The only drawback is they’re often eaten by smaller, non-target species before a cat can find them.
- Crayfish: Procurement might prove an issue, but this is a great natural bait. Use crayfish with a pegged float to prevent them from hiding in the rocks.
- Chicken Livers: A fantastic bait, though tough to keep on the hook. Pre-tied, spawn-style bags made of old nylons or mesh can cut down on bait loss.
- Leopard Frogs: When the water’s high and cats can readily find these little amphibians, they make excellent bait. They’re tough and will last a long time on the hook.
There’s an almost infinite list of commercially prepared catfish baits on the market. I’ve had good luck with the Magic Products line, specifically their Blood, Liver and Shad chunk baits. Berkley, too, makes an excellent chunk-style catfish bait in both their PowerBait and GULP! formats.
Also be sure to apply an attractant scent to your bait. Oil-based attractants like Smelly Jelly’s Sticky Liquid, when used in conjunction with either natural or prepared baits, disperse throughout the water and can bring channel cats from great distances. Plus, they can help mask any human odors that might have inadvertently gotten on the bait.
Rod, reel and line considerations.
My primary rod-and-reel combination for channel cats is the same one I use for salmon and steelhead—a 9-foot, medium-heavy Ugly Stik Elite teamed with an older Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5000C levelwind reel spooled with 30-pound Cabela’s RipCord braid. I’ll also bring an Ugly Stik Catfish Spinning Combo that includes a 7-foot, medium-heavy, 2-piece Ugly Stik spinning rod and a size-50 reel that I likewise fill with 30-pound braid.
Ambassadeurs are excellent reels, especially if you can find one of the older models. They’re plenty strong enough for even the biggest cats and make short work of the small ones. Plus, they look nice. The rod’s length allows me all the casting distance I need, which sometimes can be as much as I can muster. And because I’m typically fishing either from a boat or an open spot on the bank with no overhead cover, nine feet of length isn’t an issue. Plus, the Elite’s strong, without sacrificing sensitivity at the tip.
The spinning outfit works incredibly well when I’m fishing from my kayak or any skiff where space is limited. The rod’s construction, a combination of graphite and fiberglass, provides backbone, but, as with the baitcaster, doesn’t lack in sensitivity at the tip. The matched reel holds 250-plus yards of 30-pound braid.
Speaking of which, the RipCord is notoriously strong and works incredibly well for cats given their typical rock- and snag-filled haunts. For a leader, I like a stout, abrasion-resistant 20- to 30-pound monofilament, like Berkely Trilene Big Game.