By John N. Felsher
Small channel catfish can still offer big sport
Many people probably start fishing by catching channel catfish, often in a private pond or public lake. Many states and cities stock channel cats into park lakes to provide angling opportunities for urban sportsmen.
One of the most numerous fish in North America, channel catfish range from southern Canada to northern Mexico and across most of the continent between the Atlantic Coast and the Rocky Mountains. Channel catfish look very similar to blue cats, but don’t reach such gigantic sizes. However, channels can exceed 50 pounds, although most run in the 1- to 5-pound range.
“Channel cats can be found almost everywhere and are not shy about biting,” advised Brian Barton, a catfish guide (www.brianbartonoutdoors.com) from Muscle Shoals, Ala. “If they’re in an area, they are going to bite.”
“Channel cats tend to like shallower water than blue cats,” continued Barton. “They usually seek out shoreline structure, like logs, stumps, weeds and shallow water rock piles. Channel catfish usually school in small numbers, so if you catch a fish off a piece of structure, continue to fish the area.”
With about 10,000 taste buds per square inch in its skin, a catfish swims through the water like a giant tongue, tasting everything. It can detect minute food particles or scents over long distances. Sensors can perceive odors down to one part in 10 billion parts of water. Catfish can even locate food with tiny natural “scanners” in their heads. Every living cell emits a tiny electrical field. Catfish use their electro-sensors to find prey at night or in muddy water. Almost like using sonar, they can also acutely detect sound waves far better than most fish.
Smell It. Find It. Eat It.
With excellent sensory systems, catfish miss few opportunities to grab a tempting morsel. Channel catfish eat almost anything. Some excellent bait choices include crickets, shrimp, nightcrawlers, minnows, fish pieces, catalpa worms, clams, dough balls, crawfish, cheese, livers, gizzards, commercial stink or blood baits and even such odd baits as soap, among other things.
“In general, the more it smells, the better channel cats bite it,” Barton explained. “This is why blood- and cheese-based prepared baits are so effective. A glob of shad guts is my favorite bait. I also use chicken livers, slightly spoiled shrimp, cut bait and nightcrawlers. I also use Secret 7 or Sudden Impact, a fiber bait fished on a Furry Thang bait holder over a 2/0 or 3/0 hook.”
While many people count channel catfish among the first fish they ever caught, unfortunately, many anglers grow out of chasing channels as they turn to other species. Some return to catfish, frequently trying to entice that giant blue or flathead. However, the smaller whiskered scrappers can still deliver excellent opportunities for sporty action – and provide the main ingredients for a tasty meal.
Old and New
Countless people catch channel cats with one of the simplest forms of fishing. They dangle nightcrawlers or other baits from a bobber, toss it next to a stump, fallen log, grassy patch or drop-off and wait for the float to disappear. Others remove the bobber and add a sinker. Toss the bait to a likely spot and wait for something to tug on the line. People vertically jig baits next to bridge pilings, standing timber, sheer walls or next to dams.
Of course, those old methods still work, but anglers can catch cats many different ways. For fishing sloping shorelines or other deep structure not directly under the boat, try a slip-float rig. With a slip-float rig, a small weight pulls the line through an eye on the float. A stopper keeps the line from slipping too far, allowing the bait to suspend at the desired depth. With a slip-float rig, an angler can make a natural vertical presentation without sitting on top of the structure or fish, thus keeping the bait in the strike zone longer. Experiment with different depths.
“With a slip-float rig, I primarily fish deeper ledges, humps or rock piles where I want to suspend my baits just off the bottom,” Barton explained. “I typically try to position my bait about one to three feet off the bottom. In river environments, look for channels in eddy pools and slack current areas just outside the main flow.”
At Reelfoot Lake, TN, anglers flip for catfish. Much of Reelfoot looks more like a swamp with live cypress trees growing in the shallow water than a lake. Trees standing in the water create excellent roosts for cormorants and other fish-eating birds. After eating their fill of shad or other fish, the birds rest in the trees and relieve themselves of smelly waste. The fishy smell attracts catfish.
What works at Reelfoot Lake could work on any water body where trees dot the surface and fish-eating birds gather. To flip for cats, simply attach a fresh threadfin shad to a 4/0 hook or similar jighead and pitch it under a tree frequented by birds. Put the bait as close to the wood as possible and just let it sink naturally.
“When it’s a calm day, I don’t use any weight at all,” instructed Billy Blakley, a guide for Blue Bank Resort (www.bluebankresort.com) in Hornbeak, TN. “I just flip the shad against the tree trunks. The shad drifts to the bottom naturally. On windy days, I use a leadhead jig or a slip sinker. It’s almost like combining the fun of bass fishing with the size and abundance of catfish.”
Channel catfish typically prefer natural baits, but anglers occasionally catch them on spinnerbaits, crankbaits, plastic worms or jigs. Barton tips weedless spoons with succulent bait and throws them into places where more conventional catfish rigs would likely snag. A strip of skipjack, shad or other baitfish undulates through the water, giving the impression of a live fish swimming. The natural scent and oils coming off the bait add to the enticement. Throw this combo rig into likely structure, such as weed beds, fallen trees or rocks and retrieve it slowly. Pause occasionally, but briefly.
“With the combination of the spoon and the natural bait, it’s a one-two punch,” Barton explained. “With the spoon, I can cover a lot more water than with just bait. The fish sees the flash of the spoon and feels the vibration of the lure. It also smells the meat. I’ve fished with just spoons and have caught catfish, but I catch more with a bait trailer. 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. It’s kind of like fishing a crankbait for bass. I’ve caught as many as eight to 10 channel cats from under one tree.”
Abundant and widespread, often with very liberal creel limits, channel catfish can provide incredible action almost anywhere all year long. Many people consider catfish a “summer fish,” but some of the best action occurs in the fall when whiskerfish gorge themselves on shad before winter comes. When you are hungry for some fish on the dinner table it is hard to beat fresh-caught channel cat fillets, prepared just the way you like them.