Channel Cats the Kansas Way
by Brent Frazee
Fishermen go high-tech to catch giant channel catfish…but old-school ways still work, too.
Ask Ty Wolf about why he is so passionate about fishing for channel catfish, and he’ll relate a tale about a dream outing he experienced this summer.
Following a period of heavy rain in eastern Kansas, runoff was flowing into John Redmond Reservoir. For channel cat fishermen, that’s “drop-everything-and-go-fishing” time.
The first place Wolf positioned his boat, he caught plenty of fish but they were all one to three pounds – not the kind of channel cats Wolf was seeking. But the second stop…well, Wolf found a spot where channel-cat fishing doesn’t get much better.
Using earth grubs, fresh cut shad, and fresh cut white bass for bait, he caught five fish exceeding 15 pounds, including one that weighed 20 pounds. And he landed 13 others that weighed from 8 to 14 pounds.
“It was all about location,” said Wolf, 37, who lives in Olpe, KS. “The big ones hadn’t moved up into that faster runoff yet, but they were still feeding pretty actively in a spot where the channel widened out.
“That’s how it can be with channel cats. They’re opportunistic. And a lot of times, they’ll gather up by size. You just have to stay on the move until you find that right spot.”
It’s a game Wolf loves to play. Forget the stereotypes of the old cat men setting up along a bank somewhere and waiting hours for the fish to move in. Wolf represents the modern channel-cat fisherman, all the way from his twin HDS Gen-3 fish finders to his remote-control trolling motor to –get this—the planer boards he uses to carry his bait off to the side of his boat.
Yeah, channel-cat fishermen have come a long way. And Wolf is part of that trend.
“My electronics have down scan, side scan, lake maps, nine different colors, GPS, you name it,” Wolf said. “Channel cats like to hug the bottom, so you don’t always see the marks themselves. But you can see shadows. That tells you the fish are there.”
What do channel cats eat?
Channel catfish have been nicknamed the “vacuum cleaners” of the freshwater fish world. They’re the cleanup crew…and they’ll eat just about anything. I’ve talked to more than one channel-cat fishermen over the years who provided the proof.
“One time, we were eating lunch and fishing at the same time,” said David Schmidtlein, an avid catfisherman from Kansas. “My son dropped a dill pickle to the bottom of the boat and he tossed it into the water.
“Later we clean a few fish to see what they were feeding on. One had a big bulge in its stomach. When I opened it up, there was a 4 ½-inch long dill pickle. It must have swallowed that pickle whole right after my son dropped it into the water.”
Most catfishermen might find that story amusing, but not unbelievable.
• David Studebaker, who runs the Catfish Chasers tournament trail, remembers the days of his youth when he caught channel cats on chunks of a road-killed rabbit.
• Other fishermen shop the meat aisle in their grocery store to buy their bait – anything from cheap hot dogs to chicken liver to aged cheese to jerky.
• Elsewhere in the grocery store, some buy bar soap to put on their trotlines and strawberry bubblegum to put on their treble hooks.
• Some fishermen even report catching channel cats on cigarette butts.
Like we said, channel catfish aren’t always picky.
__ Brent Frazee
The modern way
Wolf relied on his side imaging to find a spot to anchor when he stumbled onto channel cat nirvana that day.
“I was looking for a place that had some cover, but not so much that I would be getting snagged all the time,” he said. “I saw a lot of baitfish on the screen, so I knew it had potential.”
Wolf used a 7-foot, 6-inch medium-heavy rod with a baitcasting reel spooled with 20-pound monofilament line. He used a 1 ½-ounce egg sink to keep the bait on the bottom in the flowing water, and that did the trick.
But Wolf and other Kansas channel-cat fishermen have many other tricks in their bag.
Wolf and his friends have found success this year fishing with planer boards to get their baits off to the side of the boat. They will use a swivel with a sinker attached to the main line, and a leader with a small float and the hook attached to the other.
“You want to have that bait floating just off the bottom so it is visible to the fish,” Wolf said.
Wolf and his fishing partners will have planer boards set on both sides of the boat, with down lines trailing directly in back of the boat. They will often use fresh cut shad for bait.
He fishes from the back of his boat, using a remote to control his trolling motor. He uses his electronics to follow a contour line such as a creek channel or a bend in a river channel while trolling at a turtle’s pace–.6 to .8 miles per hour. But he will occasionally experiment with higher speeds to see if he can trigger more strikes.
“Using those planer boards is a great way to cover a lot of water,” Wolf said.
The old-school way
In Kansas, where the channel catfish is king, there are plenty of ways to catch bruiser fish. And they don’t all require high-tech equipment.
David Studebaker, who runs the Catfish Chasers tournament circuit, is up-to-date with the latest techniques in catching channel cats. But he finds some irony in the way he caught his personal best fish, a 34-pound, 6-ounce brute that he landed and released in 1989.
“I was fishing from the bank with a medium-action rod, a Zebco 33 reel and a live bluegill,” said Studebaker, who lives in Harveyville, KS. “I was fishing in the rocks and I was sure that fish was going to dive down and break my line. But I got lucky.”
Wolf also uses old-school tactics to catch big channel cats, especially at John Redmond. He looks forward to the days when waves of cormorants will migrate in and perch in the flooded timber in the lake.
Those birds feed heavily on shad, then perch in the trees to rest. The channel cats move in to feed on their droppings, which are filled with shad, and the fishing can be outstanding.
“We call it the ‘splat pattern,” Wolf said. “We look for the trees that have the most cormorants roosting in them. Some of them are white from all the droppings.
“We know there’s a good chance there will be channel cats in there. Sometimes we’re casting to water as shallow as two feet, but we’ve caught some big fish there.”
Wolf starts by netting fresh shad. Then he ties his boat to a tree within a long cast of the roost sites. He uses a medium-action rod, 20-pound line, big Kahle hooks and one-ounce sinkers to do battle with the fish.
The action will last until the cormorants migrant on. Then, Wolf and others will switch to other methods.
Once the water cools into the low 50s, Studebakers likes to go to a more subtle, old-school technique. He will use a lighter-action spinning rod, line as light as 10-pound-test, and no weight and cast his fresh cut shad into water that is receiving sun, allowing it to warm more quickly.
“It’s more of a natural presentation,” Studebaker said. “When the water starts to cool down, the fish aren’t going to be as aggressive.”
The Kansas way
The Kansas state record for channel catfish stands at 36.5 pounds, caught in 2003 in a strip pit on the Mined Land Wildlife Area. But many fishermen don’t think that record is necessarily safe, though it has survived for 15 years.
“I would rank Kansas right up there near the top in channel cat fishing,” Studebaker said. “We have the type of water channel cats like—shallow and murky, with plenty of baitfish.
“John Redmond, Perry, Tuttle Creek and Cheney are some of my favorites, but I could rattle off a dozen places where someone would stand a chance of catching a big fish.”
Studebaker has caught his share, and so have fishermen in his tournaments. He has seen the popularity of the channel catfish steadily rise in Kansas, partly because of the characteristics of the fish.
“The channel cat is primarily a shallow-water fish,” he said. “That makes them accessible to the bank fisherman.
“They’re like a freshwater shark. Where you catch one, you’re likely to catch 10 more.”
Both Studebaker and Wolf are strong supporters of CPR (Catch, Photo, Release). All of the channel catfish 10 pounds and over that they catch are released.
“Some of these Kansas reservoirs get hit pretty hard for channel cats these days,” Wolf said. “If everybody kept those big ones, it wouldn’t be long before we’d see the effects.”