Cat fight: Fly fishing edition
For a true channel catfish challenge, tackle Canada’s whiskered giants on a fly rod
All you need are basic trout-fishing skills, stout tackle and the courage to try
My buddy Mike was standing waist deep in the water, with his 10-weight fly rod bent in a perfect U-shape. He couldn’t believe what was happening—a fish had taken the entire length of his fly line, along with 80 yards of backing, and it was still running. After an intense 10-minute battle, he landed a beauty of a channel catfish, measuring 37 inches in length.
“Not bad for your first one,” I told Mike. “But there are bigger ones out there.”
“Really?” he said. “It’s hard to believe it gets any better than this.”
I’ve been fly fishing for channel cats for 40 years now, and even I’m still sometimes humbled by this remarkable species—one of Canada’s biggest, strongest and most underrated gamefish.
I’ve also learned a lot about catching them on the fly, and I’m blessed to live 30 minutes away from what I consider the absolute best spot in North America for big channel cats: the Red River, at the town of Lockport, Manitoba. Every summer, thousands of cats longer than 34 inches are caught at this location, and there’s even opportunity for 40-inch fish. The fishing is so good, in fact, that numerous TV fishing shows are shot here every season.
I appreciate that casting flies for channel cats may seem daunting at first, but it’s not as hard as it seems. If you’ve caught brown trout on the fly, you can also catch cats. The main difference between the habitat preferences of these species is water temperature. Otherwise, both prefer the same bottom substrate—sand, rubble or gravel—and organize their lives around the riffle, hole and run sections of the river.
Of course, cats are much bigger and more powerful than brown trout, so targeting them with fly gear requires some specialized equipment and tactics. Here’s how to get started chasing cats...
RODS AND REELS
Since Red River cats are so large, I use heavy outfits to match, with nine- and 10-weight rods the norm. But if you’re fishing a river where you know the fish weigh only three to eight pounds, then a 6- or 7-weight will work.
As for the reel, it must accommodate an adequate amount of backing. Once again, if you’re fishing for smaller fish, then 50 to 100 yards will do, but on the Red, that won’t cut it. I have 200 to 250 yards of 20- or 30-pound Dacron on my fly reels, and when the water is high and fast, sometimes that’s still not enough. Many times, I’ve been spooled by big fish in the high water of spring, and all I can do is break them off.
LINES AND LEADERS
Contrary to what many people believe, channel cats are not exclusively bottom-feeding scavengers. Rather, they’re top predators that feed throughout the water column. So, if you see cats slashing at baitfish on the surface, you don’t want to be stuck with just a sinking line.
I typically bring three different fly lines to the river, allowing me to fish the entire water column, top to bottom. For times when cats are actively feeding, I have a floating line to fish streamers. Then I have a Type 6 sink-tip line, which sinks at a rate of six inches a second. For this, I prefer Rio Products’ InTouch with a 15-foot density-compensated sink tip, although a Type 6 line with the standard 10-foot sinking tip will do, as well.
Finally, I also bring a Type 6 full-sink line. With the full-sink, it’s imperative to use a stripping basket to hold the coils of unused line you’ve stripped back. If you just drop the line at your feet, it will get snagged on the river bottom.
As for leaders, you don’t have to be fancy. There’s no need for tapered leaders, so my basic set-up is nine feet of 15-pound-test monofilament line. Of course, I shorten that when using a full-sinking line or lengthen it when using a floating line.
FORAGE AND FLIES
Channel cats eat a wide variety of food. In the Red River, for example, they’ll feed on mayflies, caddisflies, leeches, crayfish and forage fish, primarily shiners and shad-like goldeye. No matter where you fish for channel cats, spend some time studying what’s on the local menu.
You could also ask experienced local anglers what they use for bait. Cats are opportunistic feeders, so many anglers simply use stink baits or even pieces of hot dog. Find that one old-timer who uses natural bait, however, and you’ll have the golden key to mimicking the best forage on the river.
Although I fish for big cats, most of the flies I use are only two or three inches long. One of the most productive patterns on the Red is the reliable old Woolly Bugger, in olive, black or brown. Other top choices include the Prince Nymph, the Montana Nymph in beige, and streamers such as the Black Nose Dace and the Clouser Deep Minnow (in black/white, chartreuse/white, black/red/white or black/orange/white).
Another very popular fly on the Red is my own creation, the DDH Leech in olive, hot olive, brown or black. Easy to tie, it has proven effective for many different fish species (for more, see final slide: “The deadly DDH”).
Channel catfish are most active when the water temperature is around 68°F, which means June in Manitoba, although they’re catchable throughout the season. Typically, the best place to find them is in the deep holes between swifter sections of a river.
During spring, when the water is still high and too fast for wading, finding these holes can be tricky, but it can be done. As spring progresses into summer, however, the water levels drop, exposing some of these holes and presenting a prime opportunity to catch cats.
Many anglers are surprised by the way I present my fly, but believe me, it produces catfish. I simply quarter my cast upstream and do nothing. I repeat: do nothing. Numerous times, I’ve taken friends fishing for cats and they start mending or stripping the fly as soon as it lands in the river. If you do that, however, you will not catch channel cats—period.
Despite all the years I’ve been fly fishing for cats, I’ve yet to figure out why the fish prefer the fly this way, but they do. They usually hit halfway through the drift or right at the end, just as the fly is being pulled toward the surface by the current.
When a channel cat takes your fly, it can sometimes feel as if your rod has been hit by a 2x4. Other times, the fish will eat the fly so gently that all you’ll see is the line hesitate. So during the drift, if your line hesitates for even a fraction of a second, set the hook. Then hang on.
When tackling a big channel cat, the most important thing is to never hold the rod upright with the tip high. This concentrates pressure on the top of the rod, and it will break—not a good outcome at any time, but especially bad when you have the fish of a lifetime on the line.
Instead, load the stronger, lower part of the rod, by holding the rod nearly horizontal (as above), with the tip out to the side. The rod will never break if you hold it like this, and it hugely increases the amount of pressure you put on the fish. And if the fish changes directions, you can change the angle of pressure by swinging the rod out to the other side. Most people fight big channel cats for 15 minutes or longer, but by keeping the rod out to the side, the longest fight I’ve ever had was 10 minutes—and that was with a 40-incer.
Of course, all this doesn’t mean it’s easy to fight channel cats—on the contrary. The power of these fish is beyond belief, and that makes catching them on the fly rod a true challenge.
THE DEADLY DDH
Since developing the DDH Leech in 1995, I’ve shared the pattern with friends all over the world. To date, 80 species of fresh- and saltwater fish in 12 countries have fallen prey to its seductive powers. The name comes from the first body materials I used: long rabbit hair blended with Diamond Dub Holographic—a finely fibred flash material. To give the fly even more action, tie it to your leader using a loop knot.
- Hook: 2X long nymph hook (such as Talon SA-163c), sizes 4 through 8
- Eyes: Bead chain, sized to fly and desired sink rate
- Tying thread: Size 3/0 to match body colour
- Dubbing loop Thread: Size A rod-wrapping thread
- Tail: Marabou, 1 to 1½ times the hook length
- Body: Rough dubbing loop of Superfly Diamond Dub or DD-fur blend
For full instructions on tying the DDH Leech, see www.outdoorcanada.ca/ddhleech.
Winnipeg’s Stu Thompson is a proud multi-species fly angler.