August 19, 2020
My concern that morning was that I’d oversold this fishing experience to my eldest stepson, Adrian. Turns out I needn’t have worried. Five minutes after tucking the Smoker Craft into a slight cut among the flooded willows, the boy was tight to the first channel cat of the day—a dandy 3-pounder that was quickly relocated to his new home in the cooler. A minute later I watched my fluorescent slip bobber slide beneath the surface. It was, as the boy said later, a bait-and-repeat kind of trip.
Summer can provide the best catfish action of the year, as long as you have the right rig to reach where they’re hiding.
To be a successful summertime catfish angler, you need to understand what the fish are doing during this hottest time of the year. Many fishermen believe that as it turns hot, channel catfish settle to the bottom and become sedentary creatures. While catfish do occasionally lounge on the bottom, they move often to feed, either suspending or cruising in search of forage and reacting to their environment and the changes there. These changes include rising or falling water levels and changes in forage location.
Catfish movement is not confined to directional movement, such as from north to south or east to west. Channel catfish also move up and down in the water column. This is where catfishermen often get lost, as they spend their time looking for channel cats exclusively on the bottom. However, channel catfish will follow a bait ball of shad, for instance, shadowing them just below the school. Here, good electronics are necessary for locating these bait balls and, subsequently, the catfish.
On modern electronics, channel cats suspended just below a shad school will appear as a strong, large return. Often, these marks are confused as largemouths or smallmouths, when in fact they’re channel catfish picking off shad from the school above.
Channel cats will also suspend and cruise on horizontal and/or vertical structure, like submerged trees and their limbs, stumps or hardscape outcroppings such as shelves or ledges. Here, as with other vertical locations, catfish can be difficult to access with baits.
So, when catfish suspend, how do we target them? Enter the slip bobber.
To catch suspended channel catfish, you must adapt. Traditional bottom rigs cannot catch fish that aren’t on the bottom. Slip-bobber rigs excel when fish are suspending in vertical structure or are cruising or following suspended baitfish. They also excel when fishing ridiculously snaggy bottoms like rip-rap or wing and apron dams.
Slip bobbers hold the bait off this structure, but not so far as to be out of reach for suspended or cruising catfish. In addition to holding the bait at the preferred depth, slip-bobber rigs also disperse more scent than a bait lying on the bottom.
Slip bobbers come in a variety of weights and sizes. The one you select is dependent on the type of bait you’re using and your sinker choice. Typically, I’ll run a 1- to 3-ounce float that’s highly visible, like Whisker Seeker’s EVA Catfish Floats or Beau Mac’s EZ-Drift foam floats. I recommend keeping your slip-bobber rig as simple as possible.
Catching a pile of channel cats on slip-bobber rigs is a great way to introduce kids to the fun of catfishing. Once you locate the fish, the action can be fast and furious. Plus, it’s hard to beat a catfish fry on a lazy summer evening. This month, when heading out in search of cats, make sure you’re the one giving them the slip.
“Anchor” Up in the Deepest Water
Once you’ve found fish, staying on them can be difficult. Traditional anchors and ropes are clumsy and challenging to use for even the most seasoned of captains. Minn Kota’s Ultrex trolling motor uses built-in GPS and electric power steering to keep you on your spot.
Once you decide where you want to fish, simply hit the Spot-Lock button on the foot pedal. The motor triangulates your position and keeps you there, hands free. An integrated transducer in the motor’s foot lets you see what’s below via your Humminbird fish finder. This technology essentially eliminates the need for anchors, allowing you throw them out—literally. ($3,099–$3,299; minnkotamotors.com) —Dr. Todd A. Kuhn
Make Your Own Bait
Commercial catfish bait comes in every imaginable shape, size and flavor. While these will certainly catch fish, you can make your own. To start, you need a baitfish base.
I like to use a quillback or common sucker, but carp, big shad or other rough fish would work well, too. Scale and fillet fish, but leave the skin on. By leaving the skin on you have a backer of sorts, which helps the bait stay on the hook.
Cut the fillets into chunks, usually about an inch square. Rinse the chunks well, then place in a clean Mason jar. Sprinkle two tablespoons of powdered garlic over the chunks and coat liberally with shad-scented Smelly Jelly. Seal the jar, shake and store in the refrigerator for up to a month. —M.D. Johnson
Catfishing Tackle Essentials
When tussling with channel cats, it’s important to have the right gear. A good catfish combo requires a rugged reel with a great drag and rock-solid build. An ultra-durable rod is also needed to withstand the bumps and bruises it’ll see bouncing around in a boat.
Abu Garcia’s new C3 Catfish Special reel ($149; abugarcia.com) is built for action, with a large handle for winching on big fish and a powerful drag to wear down the most ornery cats.
The Shakespeare Ugly Stik Catfish Casting Rod ($39.95; uglystik.com) is synonymous with the best in the catfish business; the graphite-and-fiberglass construction is legendarily strong. It even comes with a 7-year warranty. You simply cannot find a better catfish rod.
Your line lashes you to your big cat below. Trilene XT monofilament ($7.99/20 lb./270 yards; berkley-fishing.com) is abrasion resistant and super strong. XT is perfectly suited for battling catfish suspended in vertical structure without fear of breaking off. —Dr. Todd A. Kuhn
Catfish are well equipped for finding their meals. It’s estimated that every square centimeter of a catfish’s skin is covered with at least 5,000 taste buds. The greatest concentration of these taste buds is found on the gill rakers and barbels, which allow catfish to “taste” minute amounts of scent that is dissolved in the water around them. In fact, they’re capable of detecting scents down to one part per 10 billion. You might even think of a catfish as a giant swimming tongue. —Dr. Todd A. Kuhn