Spooning Forked Tails
by John N. Felsher
Accept the challenge and spoon–feed some channel cats.
Although channel catfish typically act like scavengers scouring the bottom for any morsels that might taste good, all catfish prey upon live creatures like small baitfish, frogs, insects, crawfish, grass shrimp and anything else they can catch.
“All catfish have predatory instincts,” explained Brian Barton, a catfish guide (256-412-0969, www.brianbartonoutdoors.com) from Muscle Shoals, AL. who normally fishes the Tennessee River lakes. “Some of my best sources for finding catfish are bass fishermen who catch them by accident.”
Bass anglers occasionally catch catfish when throwing jigs, spoons, crankbaits, soft plastics or other lures. In fact, Harold W. Clubb set the Louisiana state record for channel catfish with a 30.31-pounder he caught while tossing a spinnerbait tipped with a black and chartreuse curly-tailed plastic trailer.
Crappie anglers also sometimes catch cats on tiny tube or hair jigs, but few people intentionally fish artificials for cats. Most people fish for channel cats by tossing out natural baits and waiting for a catfish that can’t resist the temptation. Nevertheless, some people prefer to do more than just sit and wait for a bite. Some anglers seeking a tougher challenge specifically target catfish with their old familiar bass lures, but adapt their techniques to enticing catfish.
In the Cover
Like largemouth bass, channel cats often hunt in or around lily pad patches, dense weeds, rock piles, jetties, stumpy flats, fallen trees and other shallow cover. Most traditional bait-and-hook catfish rigs would stay snagged in such entangling habitat. Even most bass lures wouldn’t go far through gnarly fallen trees or thick weed beds. However, a weedless spoon can wobble through seemingly impenetrable cover without snagging.
“Spoon fishing is deadly on channel cats,” Barton proclaimed. “With a spoon, I can cover a lot more water than with just bait. A hook and bait rig is not as effective when moving fast as when sitting still and hangs up more than a spoon and bait. A spoon hangs up occasionally, but with that rig, I can put it through just about anything. I like to fish a spoon around cabbage weeds, stumps, blowdowns, logs and other structure along the bank.”
Toss a weedless spoon as close to the shoreline or cover edge as possible and bring it out slowly into deeper water. Pull the lure over the drop-off edge and let it sink to the bottom. Then, reel it just fast enough to wobble above the bottom. Occasionally pause to let it fall. Catfish frequently hit baits on the fall.
“I throw it up into the structure and drag it back through the cover slowly to get a reaction strike,” Barton commented. “I keep the rod tip up at about a 45-degree angle and keep the bait moving slowly. I never really let the bait stop or settle down for too long.”
A Double Whammy
A metal spoon creates flash that mimics baitfish and creates tempting vibrations in the water that trigger predatory instincts in catfish, but it doesn’t give off tantalizing scents. Since catfish find food primarily with their highly tuned senses of smell, taste and feel, sweeten each spoon with a juicy natural morsel. The lure produces wobbling action and flash while the natural oils and scent coming off the bait make an irresistible combination for any hungry catfish.
A skipjack fillet cut into strips about a half-inch wide and two to three inches long makes an excellent temptation. Attach a strip to the hook so the bait undulates through the water like a swimming fish when the angler retrieves the spoon. Besides skipjack, anglers can use mullet, shad or other baitfish strips. Some anglers tip spoons with shrimp, crawfish tails or other enticements. Anything that gives off a bit of odor and taste might work.
“With the combination of the spoon and bait, it’s a one-two punch,” Barton explained. “The fish sees the flash of the spoon and feels the vibration. It also smells the meat. I hook a skipjack strip on a spoon with just the tip of the hook sticking through the meat. I leave the skin on the skipjack and rig it so that the skin faces the outside so it looks more like a fish swimming. In general, the more it smells, the better channel cats bite it. I’ve fished with just spoons and have caught catfish, but I catch more with the bait trailer. At times, I catch more catfish with the spoon and bait trailer than just a hook, sinker and cut bait.”
Different situations, different spoons
Barton uses two different kinds of spoons for different situations. For fishing in the shallows around heavy cover, he likes a BoJoLe flutter spoon with a number 2 or 3 hook.
“When I’m fishing shallow cover, like flooded timber or blowdowns along the bank, I’ll use the BoJoLe Flutter Spoon,” Barton recommended. “I pitch it up into the cover and fish it really slowly. I raise it up off the bottom and let it fall, almost like fishing a Texas-rigged worm for bass. In stained or muddy water, I use a gold spoon.”
During late summer or winter, channel catfish seeking more comfortable temperatures may drop into deep holes. Deep water generally stays relatively constant all year long. Many anglers scan holes with electronics and might drop spoons to specific fish. Drop a spoon to the bottom and bounce it up and down a little. If nothing hits at the bottom, pull it up a few feet. Keep trying different depths to locate where fish want to stay.
“In deeper water, I throw a 1/4- to 3/8-ounce Daredevil Spoon and let it sink to the bottom,” Barton advised. “I rip it up off the bottom faster. I pull it up about two feet off the bottom and let it drop on a tight line. Most of the time, the fish hit it on the drop. With the Daredevil Spoon, I remove the treble hook and replace it with a Number 2 circle hook. If fish are more lethargic, I move it much more slowly. In that case, I’ll just crawl it along the bottom, sometimes just twitching the rod tip a bit.”
Beat the Heat
Also, in the summer look for channel cats hovering near the bottom of dams, bulkheads, bluff walls and similar deep, vertical cover. In rivers, cats prefer to hide in cool, well-oxygenated waters in eddies and pools behind current breaks such as fallen trees or rock piles. At the currents edge, but not directly in it, they face upstream waiting for food to flow to them.
In addition, after a blistering summer day, catfish might turn more aggressive on a cool night. At night, fish in the same places as during the day, but try as shallow as possible. Even on the darkest nights, channel cats can home in on the combination of vibration and smell from a wobbling spoon.
“Fishing a spoon is usually more of a numbers technique, but it can produce some big fish,” Barton said. “I’ve caught as many as eight to 10 channel cats from under one tree.”
While lures will never replace traditional catfish baits, they can produce incredible action at times. Besides channel cats, anglers might even land some big blues or flatheads, bass or stripers.