by Robert Bruns
Challenging catfish by matching the hatch
Tell most fishermen that you’ve caught a catfish on the fly and they’re likely to question your state of mind. But thanks to modern fly tying materials and techniques, as well as advanced fly lines to deliver the fly, it’s no longer unusual to catch a cat on the feathered hook. While catfish are more readily caught with conventional fishing methods, there’s something to be said about fooling Mr. Whiskers on the fly. At times, a fly can be downright deadly for catfish that are putting on the feedbag.
But what fly should the fly fisher use? This question is both easy and hard to answer; easy because it turns out that cats have been caught on all fly types, even dry flies, and hard because there are so many choices that it can be overwhelming to choose the right fly. What follows is a guide for those anglers wishing to catch catfish in a new and exciting way as well as for those who want to optimize their fly selection to put a deep bend in their fly rod.
Starting simply, flies can be categorized based on where the fly is fished relative to the water’s surface – essentially surface flies and subsurface flies, otherwise referred to as dry and wet flies.
Surface flies can be subdivided as:
- Dry flies, designed to ride on the water’s surface to imitate mayflies, stoneflies, caddis flies, or terrestrials. They are fished dead-drift or with no movement. While true dry flies spend part of their time in the water and eventually emerge from the water to fly, terrestrials are insects that live on land and accidently land on the water. Terrestrials include ants, inch-worms, caterpillars, crickets, beetles and grasshoppers.
- Poppers, that also ride on the water’s surface but are fished to imitate baitfish, frogs, or mice, struggling or swimming on the water. They are actively fished and their “popping” or swimming is used to attract predatory gamefish.
Subsurface flies can be subdivided as:
- Wet flies, imitating drowned or emerging aquatic insects. They can be fished dead-drift or allowed to swing across current.
- Nymphs, imitating aquatic insects in larval, pupa, or emerging forms. They are fished dead drift.
- Streamers, designed to imitate baitfish as well as crayfish and leeches. They are actively fished.
Since catfish are generally bottom or deep-structure oriented, most will be caught with a subsurface fly, however, any fly angler hunting for cats should always include all types of flies in their fly boxes to handle special situations. As omnivores, catfish can be taken on dry flies and even poppers under the right conditions.
When targeting catfish with the fly rod, the best fly to use will also depend greatly on water conditions and the available forage one should match.
Factors to consider in choosing a fly based on water conditions are:
- Water depth. For shallow water, un-weighted subsurface flies will work best but for water depths greater than 3 feet, weighted flies and/or flies used in conjunction with sinking type fly lines will be needed. Flies can be weighted with lead wrapped in the body or by using a bead, lead eyes, or heavy conehead.
- Water speed. Current requires the use of weight to fish a streamer or wet fly deep in the water column.
- Water clarity. Poor water clarity will require the use of dark or very bright flies. Adding materials that bulk up the fly or create movement like legs or long hackle will improve detectability due to the vibrations created in the water. In the case of night fishing, the same color rules apply but flies that move a lot of water and send out vibrations are more important. And finally, a bigger fly is always more visible in dirty or stained water.
Factors to consider in choosing a good fly to imitate forage are:
- The use of marabou, hackle, or synthetics as fly materials will help to imitate the movement of bait in the water. Movement attracts fish and also sends out vibrations in the water that can be sensed by fish.
- Profile / Size. Flies can be tied to look big or slim in the water. If trying to imitate a bluegill or shad, a bulkier fly will more correctly match the profile of such forage. Size also matters – bigger flies for bigger bait, however, bigger is not always better. Fish can feed selectively to the size of the forage.
- Color and flash. Bright color or flash (silver or gold materials) can help imitate the forage and can act to trigger strikes. In some cases muted colors more correctly imitate forage, whereas when fish are “hot” or “turned on” and actively feeding, flash or bold colors such as bright red can trigger the predatory strike.
A good box…
Any river rat’s fly box should hold a collection of flies representing the diversity of forage and water conditions for the locale being fished. The flies listed below will surely work on catfish and will also serve double duty for the by-catch that comes when fishing for them:
Freshwater streamers like zonkers, muddler minnows, intruders, clousers and woolly buggers (and variants) in sizes 6 to 2. An assortment of colors is best – dark (black, brown, olive, red) and light (white, chartreuse). Include variants with legs and flash as well as weighted versions (conehead, beadhead, lead wire).
- Large baitfish streamers in sizes 6 to 3/0. These flies are particularly good for flatheads and blues that feed substantially on baitfish but will also take big channel cats. Saltwater patterns like Lefty’s Deceiver, Clouser minnows, and larger profile bunker flies (used for striped bass) are all good choices.
- Nymphs in sizes 8 to 4. Big nymphs such as hellgrammite nymphs, stonefly nymphs, and large emerging nymphs will all take catfish. Examples include Murray’s Roadkill nymph, Bitch Creek nymph, Murray’s Hellgrammite, and TeQueely.
- Crayfish / sculpin / leech patterns in sizes 8 to 2. These streamer type flies are bottom-oriented and weighted. Some are tied to ride hook up to minimize snagging. Excellent patterns include Whitlock’s Near-Nuff crayfish, Whitlock’s Near-Nuff sculpin, DDH leech, the Muddler Minnow, the Meat Whistle, and Galloup’s Sex Dungeon. Pic
- Egg patterns that imitate the spawn of fish in the water system will work well. Often time cats will forage on the eggs of carp, suckers, and other rough fish. Carp eggs are typically very small and pale, so smaller egg patterns in white or pale yellow will work best. Sucker spawn patterns, used by steelhead fly fishermen, are another good pattern.
- Berries, nuts, or chum flies. Since catfish are omnivores, it makes sense to carry special patterns that fall outside the norm of more typical flies. Cats are known to feed on mulberries, cottonwood seeds, and can be chummed up with bread and other man-made foods. Trout anglers targeting stocked trout will sometimes fish “pellet flies” designed to imitate the pellets fed to hatchery trout. In the same way, catfish can often fall prey to feeding on “chum”, whether man-made or from an overhanging tree. Dead drifting an imitation of this chum can produce great results.
- Dry flies that imitate big mayflies, caddis, or stoneflies on a particular waterway can work very well. In many of the northeast and mid-Atlantic states, for example, there can be a huge hatch of the white mayfly, sometimes referred to as the white miller. This large mayfly can be imitated with a #10 – 14 White Wulff. Other large dry flies to have on hand would be Irresistables, Adams, Slate Drakes and Hexagenia patterns. Waking flies can also be used such as Murray’s Bass Skater.
If left to the choice of just one fly for catfish, nothing beats fishing a big leggy woolly bugger. These flies move water in a life-like way that is hard for a catfish to resist. They are a great searching pattern when there are no special feeding conditions observed. When catfish can be seen feeding, it then pays to imitate the food source as closely as possible and “match the hatch”.