When I caught my first hefty channel cat, it felt as though I’d hooked onto a speeding transport truck. A big girl pushing 18 pounds, she actually towed our anchored 18-foot Lund a short distance along Ontario’s Grand River. Not that I should have been surprised.
These are decidedly not dumb, sluggish bottom-feeders. Rather, they’re a highly intelligent fish whose apparent goal in life is to punish anglers daring enough to hook them. And that’s exactly why I can’t wait to tackle into my first catfish of the season once the ice leaves my favourite catting holes. Here’s how you can get in on the action, too.
Timing: Catfish are creatures of habit. Once the ice comes off and spring arrives, they’ll be looking to feed on minnows and suckers, and searching for prime spawning areas. Anne Yagi, a biologist with Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources, explains that the fish’s appetite increases as temperatures rise from winter lows to summer peaks. And depending on their winter habitat, they may move from large waterbodies into rivers and estuaries to spawn.
While opinions vary on the best time of day to fish for cats, I’ve had the most success in the two hours after the sun reaches its highest point in the sky. I’ve had mornings with nothing but nibbles and dropped bites, but once the sun rose high, the fish would literally rip the fishing rod from my hand. As famed U.S. catfish angler Tim Scott observes, cats feed most aggressively around noon, when the sun has heated the water and prompted them to become more active.
Location: So, where do you find the cats? Using your electronics, search out hard bottoms laden with chunks of rock, especially areas adjacent to depressions or holes. Using the side-scanning feature on many of today’s sonar units, anglers can get a 3-D perspective of everything beneath the water. Side-scanning also enables you to survey a wide swath of the bottom without driving over fish. As well, you can zoom in on specific pieces of structure. On my waters, I start looking in 25 feet of water and work my way back toward 18 feet—the magic usually happens within this range.
If you don’t have side-scanning, slowly run S-patterns through key areas so you can view the bottom contours on your sonar from a variety of angles. This helps identify key catfish-holding spots. According to Scott, cats feed in the area just above a depression, not in the hole itself. And big cats are often found solo. They’re easy to identify, too, because they appear as large arches on the screen. If the fish become inactive, search outside the key area you’ve been targeting; they may have simply repositioned themselves.
Although structure is a big piece of the puzzle when hunting for early-spring cats, nothing is more important than finding current that flows through the structure. Manitoba catfish guide and outfitter Donovan Pearase agrees that current is king. “How they set up and feed all relates to the current,” he says. “Find the current edge—the seam between fast and slow water—and you will find the cats.”
Gear: I recommend a parabolic, medium-heavy-action crankbait rod, in either spinning or baitcasting. Big cats will try to drag you into the drink or tear the hooks out, so the parabolic blank absorbs the power of the fish, yet has the backbone to control it. Downrigger rods will work, but they gravely lack in sensitivity.
Be sure to choose a reel that has solid gearing. I like the Shimano Tekota because it sports a line-counter feature, which is helpful for putting your bait back in the same spot you caught your last fish. For spinning reels, the Shimano Baitrunner has also worked well. With the flick of a lever, you can activate a secondary drag that puts the reel in a tension-controlled free spool so the fish can run without knowing it’s been hooked. To fight the fish, you just have to turn the drag back to its primary mode.
Bait: The best thing about catfish bait is that you really don’t have to break the bank. Plus, there’s plenty of room for creativity. For live bait, go with minnows, suckers or dew worms. Some cat anglers prefer freshly cut suckers where the regulations allow, while others prefer frozen mackerel, store-bought shrimp, chicken liver or even hot dogs. Cats feed based on smell, so choose your bait accordingly. And don’t be afraid to experiment with scents or stink baits. While there are plenty of companies that commercially produce dip bait and pastes, home concoctions can work just as well.
Where it’s safe to do so, anchor your boat so you can precisely and repeatedly present your bait right where you want it. Just remember to position the boat far enough away from your target area so that you don’t spook the fish when the anchor locks onto the bottom. If you can, use an anchor at both the bow and stern to get optimal boat control.
Cast into the current so that your sinker finds bottom and holds in the strike zone. If you cast with the current, the sinker tends to keep rolling and skipping along the bottom unless you use a really heavy one. I prefer to use the lightest sinker possible to avoid getting snagged yet maintain the proper bait presentation.
To properly present your bait, use a Carolina rig with a circle hook (see diagram). The design of circle hooks makes it easy for catfish to hook themselves when they swim away. However, you have to make sure not to set the hook. Instead, keep tension on the line to let the hook naturally plant itself in the corner of the fish’s mouth as the fish turns. I like the 5/0 Owner Super Mutu hook—it’s so sharp that I’ve caught fish by their whiskers as they sniffed the bait.
Forty-pound-test braided line is a good choice for the main line. Depending on whether I want my bait to float higher or lower, I alternate my leader material between 20-pound-test monofilament and 30-pound-test braid. If the fish are suspended off the bottom, a longer, heavier leader allows the bait to float.
Catfish will either slam your bait and speed away like a freight train, or they’ll play with it, so you have to watch your line very closely. For those non-committal fish, patience goes a long way—when the feeding window finally opens, the taps on your rod tip will evolve into strong, steady pulls.
While the right set-up allows cats to set the hooks themselves, the trickiest bite occurs when the fish picks up the bait and swims toward you. Even the most skilled anglers can miss these fish when quickly reeling to keep tension on the line is the only recourse.
Now, touch gloves and come out swinging at the bell.