by Ron Presley
California catfishing is not for sissies
“California Dreaming,” by The Mamas & the Papas, is #89 in Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Dreaming of big blue California catfish is #1 on Steve Johnson’s top ten list.
“I fish for a vast variety of fish,” declared Johnson, “But catfish are my specialty and it brings me back to my roots and my family that is very dear to me.”
Fifty-seven-year-old Johnson is retired. He guides part time and works in retail bait and tackle part time. His schedule leaves him plenty of time to pursue his dream fish. His primary target is big California blues, but his passion for catfish didn’t start in the Golden State.
“I got started fishing the banks of the Missouri and Sioux Rivers in Iowa,” recalled Johnson. “My family also fished at Browns Lake and Yankton Dam in South Dakota. I really got my passion for fishing from my Uncle Dave. We would go down to the Missouri River, in the back waters, to shoot carp and buffalo fish. We also caught bullheads to use for big flathead catfish bait. Family and fishing go hand and hand. And family is everything to me.”
“…cats will hold to these deep-water structures as the water cools…”
“I moved to California at nine years old and brought my passion for fishing with me to the mighty California Delta. I continued to fish California through my youth, now I live there and fish there as an adult.”
The adjustment to Northern California fishing was easy for Johnson. California had awesome catfishing and the methods used were similar to what he practiced in Iowa. The Delta has plenty of other trophy species, but catfish remains his passion.
The California Delta is located between Sacramento on the north and Stockton on the south. It includes about 1,000 miles of waterways for anglers to check out. The main rivers are the Sacramento River, coming in from the north, and the San Joaquin River, coming in from the south. Other rivers that feed the delta include the American River, the Mokelumne River, the Cosumnes River and the Calaveras River.
A lot of the catfish world is in the deepfreeze come January, but for Johnson it is a time when monster blue catfish are active in the Delta. Winter brings much needed rains and the winters are pretty mild in the desert regions of San Diego County. That’s where California’s largest populations of blue catfish live.
“I chase the big blues from November thru the spring,” revealed Johnson. “January thru March is the best time to land a monster in the 50- to 100-pound range. The daytime temperatures can still be in the high 70’s, but 50- to 60-degree temperatures can show up.”
“The rainwaters run down from the high desert mountains, filling the small creeks that fill the lakes and reservoirs. San Vincente Reservoir, El Capitan Reservoir, Lower Otay Lake, Lake Jennings, Lake Hodges and Lake Sutherland all hold a good population of blue catfish, and some hefty channel cats too.”
Johnson uses suspend drifting or spot-locking over structure to target the blues. The structure he targets will be in the 50- to 100-feet depths. Safe fish handling and proper decompression techniques are very important to ensure a healthy release, since a lot of Johnson’s fish come from deep water.
“I find the cats will hold to these deep-water structures as the water cools,” instructed Johnson. “A big dose of patience is needed. The bite is not always fast and furious this time of year, but those who stick it out are usually rewarded with a fish of a lifetime.”
Johnson suspends baits on either a drop loop setup or a Carolina rig. His strategy is to fish from 1 to 5 feet off the bottom.
“I use a 4- to 6-ounce bank sinker for the dropper rig and a 3- to 6-ounce egg sinker on the Carolina Rig. In either case I tie on a Back Stabber 8/0- to 12/0-circle hook from Hookers Terminal Tackle. I want enough weight to keep the lines straight up and down.”
“If anchored up I like to tie the main line straight to the hook and pin on some heavy baits,” added Johnson. “Just fish the weightless rig slacked line and wait for a run. When the rod loads up you can have fun just trying to get the rod out of the holder,” joked Johnson.
Johnson’s equipment includes his Deep V 1750 Crestliner I/O with Minn Kota Terrova iPilot trolling motor. For sonar he chose the Hummingbird Helix 7 SI unit. His rods include Larry Muse signature series Roller Rods from Warrior Cat Rods, in medium and medium/heavy action, and Warrior Cat 7’6” medium/heavy and heavy action E glass rods. His reels are ABU Garcia Ambassador 9000i Big Game and ABU C-3 7000, spooled with Power Pro 65- and 80-pound braid.
“The baits we use for the big Delta blues are pretty much the same as anywhere else,” said Johnson. “There are a couple saltwater exceptions.”
He uses threadfin shad and American shad, just like in other parts of the country, but his top choice for big cats surprises some anglers.
“One of the top baits we use for the blue cats and big channels is fresh or frozen mackerel or bonito,” offered Johnson. “Even fresh sardines will produce bites. These baits are very oily and bloody and have been catching catfish in California for many decades. I’ve been using these saltwater baits for 50 years, and have caught a couple of personal best with it.”
Anglers should note that throw nets or cast nets are illegal in California. Even bluegill are illegal in many lakes and rivers. That’s the reason Johnson and other California catfish anglers have turned, successfully, to easily caught saltwater fishes for bait.
“I like to use big chunks of these baits,” instructed Johnson. “I’m talking 8 to 16 ounces, with no weight, when targeting the trophy blues. The fish will average in the 40- to 50-pound range, with 60- and 70-pound fish being common. Occasionally, 80- and 90-pound blues are caught, every year, in the Delta.”
“I don’t want anglers to just think of California as a great place to fish for trophy largemouth bass, huge striped bass, monster sturgeon, king salmon, steelhead, trout, and the many exciting saltwater species. I want anglers to think of California as one of the premier catfishing destinations in the country. After all, catfishing in California is a year-round activity.”
Johnson’s claim is backed by statistics. The state record Channel Cat is 53 pounds. Johnson reports channels in the 40-pound class are caught every year. In fact, he says most channels caught are in the double-digit range. Flatheads grow big too. The state record is 72 pounds. Most of the monster size flatties come from the Colorado River, which borders California and Arizona.
“The state record blue cat is 113 pounds,” concluded Johnson. “The big blue was caught in San Vincente Reservoir in 2008. That was the same year they closed San Vincente to raise the dam more than 60 feet. That job is complete and the reservoir opened back up in September 2016. There have been some monsters caught there this year and some believe it could be holding a new world record blue catfish!”
Katfish J on the Tournament Trail
Steve Johnson lived in Southern California for 15 years. If you went down there to his old stomping grounds and asked for him by name, nobody would know who you were talking about. But if you asked for Katfish J, they will know exactly who you were looking for.
Johnson readily admits to his passion. He has been fishing as long as he can remember. Fifty-two years at least, out of his soon to be 58. A lot of those years he has been tournament fishing.
“It never gets old,” says Katfish J. “I’m always learning something new. I’ve been tournament fishing for 23 years and 20 of those years were fishing catfish tournaments. I fished my first catfish tournament in 1999 and won my first in 2001. I won a boat that year and it’s been on ever since.”
“In 2016 I started fishing catfish tournaments outside of California,” continued Johnson. “We are the first team from California to compete back east. We have been to Texas three times and Kentucky twice. We will be competing in Winter Blues on Wheeler, in Alabama, in January 2018.”
“Fishing never gets old,” chuckled Johnson. “It keeps me young and reminds me of where it all started. Being outdoors with nature brings a freshness to my heart and mind. Fishing gives me peace and freedom from everyday issues and tasks. The challenge and the feeling of surprise when you catch a fish, or get a big bite, keeps me coming back for more, year-in and year-out. I fish for a variety of fish, but my specialty, and the fish I love to chase, are catfish.”