Why We Catfish: A Guest Editorial by Justin Johnston
For the fun of a kayak sleigh ride.
For most of us, our first childhood fishing memories involved watching a bobber dance around on the water surface before getting pulled under by an unsuspecting bluegill. That feeling of excitement and accomplishment as you reel in that first fish as a small child is almost magical. For some reason though, as we get older, we tend to move on from the simple pleasure of fishing with a worm and bobber. We begin to target specific species of fish and use more “advanced” techniques. Like an addict trying to replicate the rush of their first high, we continue on this path often overcomplicating how we fish just to try to get that same feeling of excitement that we used to get as kids when our bobber would go down.
My story is no different. My first childhood memories of fishing involved a worm and bobber. As I moved into my teenage years, I took up bass fishing because it was the cool thing to do. I got my first boat at age 17 and was on Fort Loudon and Watts Bar chunking crankbaits and spinnerbaits at every opportunity. It wasn’t until my early 20’s that I got into catfishing. After seeing a picture of a huge catfish at a local bait shop, I decided to venture out on a quest to catch one myself.
It wasn’t easy in the beginning. I had no idea what I was doing out there. I spent an entire summer trying various store-bought and commercial baits and never caught anything bigger than a few pounds. One fateful day though, using bluegill as bait next to Fort Loudon dam, because that’s where I was told catfish as big as Volkswagens could be found, I hooked into my first monster blue cat. Truthfully speaking, that fish only weighed around 15 to 20 pounds but it was the biggest fish I had ever caught to that point in my life and it sure looked and felt like a monster to me at the time. To say that fish changed my life would sound like a pretty lame and maybe extreme cliché’ but it definitely changed how I fished going forward. Gone were the days of me spending my free time chasing bass. I was all in on catfishing from that moment on.
I spent the next few years learning as much as I could about catfishing mostly through trial and error. It will make me sound old, but back in those days there was no YouTube and information on the internet about catfishing was pretty sparse. I just kept at it by trying various baits and anchoring at random locations along the Tennessee River. Over the course of time, I began to figure out when and where I could find fish and what baits were the most effective to use. As I continued to get better at catfishing, fish in the 15- to 20-pound class started to come more frequently along with an occasional larger fish here and there. While I was perfectly happy catching fish of any size, it got to where I was needing to catch bigger and bigger fish to achieve the same rush I felt after landing that first 20-pounder a few years before.
Fortunately, in 2008, I had another one of those cliché life-changing moments that changed how I fished going forward. While on vacation, I went on a kayaking tour on the Colorado River. As I was taking in the sights, I kept thinking about how much fun it would be to tangle with a big catfish in a kayak. When I got back home, I bought a cheap kayak and hit the river to do just that. From the moment I hooked into that first big catfish in the kayak, I was addicted. It was the greatest rush I had ever experienced while fishing.
If I could go back in time and watch myself when I first started kayak fishing, I would probably cringe. From not wearing a life jacket, to being in a kayak that was way too unstable for the size of fish I was targeting, I made a lot of dumb mistakes and put myself in some dangerous situations during those early days. Thankfully, I survived my ignorance though and for the last 10 years, I have continued to hone my catfishing skills from the seat of a kayak.
A lot has changed during that time. My boat has since been sold and I have gone through a few different kayaks in the process. I certainly have a lot less hair now than when I started too. The one thing that hasn’t changed though is the rush I get when I hook into a big catfish in the kayak. In all the years that have passed, that feeling has never faded. And best of all, it doesn’t take a very big catfish to achieve that feeling. Any catfish over 10 pounds will get a kayak moving and the monsters can take you on a true kayak sleigh ride.
Nowadays, I continue to spend my free time targeting big catfish from my kayak but I also now share my adventures with others. Through my YouTube channel, Kayak Catfish, and my website kayakcatfish.com, I try to be the resource for others that I wish I could have had when I got started in kayak catfishing. These platforms allow me the opportunity to not only teach people how to catch catfish from a kayak but also to do it in as safe a manner as possible. I also use these platforms to educate about the importance of practicing catch, photo, release (CPR) on trophy catfish so that future generations of fishermen will have the chance to experience the fun of a kayak sleigh ride too.
For me, when a big catfish doubles my rod over and starts to take the side of my kayak down with it, there are no bills to be paid, no chores to be done, and no stress from work. In that moment, I am just an innocent kid again who is filled with excitement as he watches his bobber go down. The only difference now is that I get to ride on top of the bobber and hang on for dear life as the fish swims away. That is why I catfish.