Typical spring weather has finally arrived in southern Michigan. Its arrival closely coincides with the opening day of trout, pike and walleye fishing and the new catch-and-release bass season last weekend. However, many impatient anglers are already getting the urge to start catfishing. In fact, I had a young man call me at home a few weeks ago seeking my advice. James asked why he wasn’t catching any flathead catfish. He’d been catfishing several time recently without success and wondered if he was doing something wrong. The weather was still cold and I don’t think that the daffodils had even emerged from the ground yet.
To be perfectly honest, my advice is to pursue other fish species this time of year and let flathead catfish lie. They abhor cold spring water and would rather vegetate on the bottom of a lake or river than feed. There’s no point in wasting your valuable time if you want to catch fish. Channel catfish will occasionally feed in cold water and if you insist, you can target them. I’ve taken some very nice channel catfish on tip-ups baited with large shiners while pike fishing through the ice. It happens but it’s a rare occurrence. If you persist in catfishing this time of year, nightcrawlers and fresh cut bait can be effective, too.
However, channel catfish will also hit skeins of salmon/steelhead spawn. If you use spawn in the right location in rivers, you can pick up bonus spawning steelhead in the early spring using standard catfishing techniques. Channel cats will often stack up in deep, slow holes below large dams and will feed lightly in preparation for spawning later, depending on the water temperature. Unfortunately, the catfish bite can be extremely slow in cold weather. Water temperatures rise slowly and it takes time for warm-water fish such as catfish to adjust and become active again.
Rick Casey holds a very nice native Michigan flathead Catfish
At this time of year in Michigan, smart anglers focus on river steelhead runs, open two-story trout lakes and pre-spawn slab bluegills or crappies. As much as I love catfishing, I accept the fact that it’s not the best time of year to focus exclusively on catfish, much less flatheads. You can catch channel catfish and possibly a rare flathead now and then but what’s the point when angling can be so good for other fish species?
During my spring forays, I’m always looking for new sources to catch live catfish bait (bluegills, suckers, etc.) and I file that information away for use later in the summer. I test my fishing tackle and equipment on hard-fighting steelhead. I often revisit the same holes that produce many of my trophy flatheads each summer. I explore more river water and look for potential hotspots to catfish later. If the weather is right, I’ll even spend a night or two on a large river fishing for steelhead. Some of my best steelhead catches occurred after dark. I use the same night-fishing tactics essential for catfishing (just don’t try to lip a 15-pound rainbow!).
I don’t feel any need to start angling for trophy flathead catfish until hot weather arrives (usually around the first of July). I also spend considerable time sorting through marine fishing supply catalogs and visiting D & R Sports for appropriate tackle that will handle trophy flatheads. As a result, I receive almost as much pleasure planning and preparing for future catfishing trips as I do actually going catfishing. By the time I’m ready to start serious catfishing in the summer, I’m prepared and full of pent-up energy. All I have to do is catch my live bait. I often enjoy catching my bait almost as much as catfishing. Well, almost….It is really hard to beat the thrill of landing a big ornery 38-pound flathead cat after dark but you should get my drift.
Put another way, it’s better to go catfishing one time when conditions are ideal than to go dozens of times when conditions are not right. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to hunt and fish less often but more smart. As a result, I’ve seen a vast improvement in my success rate.
Cold water and catfish don’t mix very well. Remember that ideal catfishing conditions are just down the road so be patient. Conditions are steadily improving and on a warm night soon, you can use that hard-earned patience for an all-night catfishing trip.
This week’s catfishing topic may be obvious but it’s the one subject that can have the most positive effect on your overall success: When is the best time to go catfishing? The old one-liner that “the best time to go fishing is whenever you can” still applies but let’s fine-tune it better than that.
Although countless catfish have been caught during the day, it is almost universally accepted that catfishing is best if done at night. All catfish species become much more aggressive after dark. However, catfish are opportunistic and if they have a chance to feed, they will take advantage of any situation, no matter the time of day. If inactive catfish discover prey nearby, they’ll usually strike without hesitation. As a result, anglers fishing for other species during the day often catch catfish. These incidental catches occur because anglers inadvertently get their bait or lures close to hungry catfish. Catfish often stay in the same habitat preferred by bass and walleyes during the day but generally, they are a lot less active.
Anyone that has ever tried fishing at night can tell you how much easier that endeavor is to do during the day. That’s why most people would rather avoid night fishing. In fact, if a daytime angler is willing to take a methodical approach and work his bait slowly through good habitat, catfish can be caught consistently. Unfortunately, daytime catfishing often results in considerable loss of terminal tackle because you’re constantly fishing inside dense cover where the fish hide. Also, if you hook an exceptionally large catfish in such conditions, landing it may be extremely difficult.
A few years ago, an elderly gentleman called me at home seeking fishing advice. He really wanted to catch some catfish but had no idea where to start. He asked if I had any ideas that would help him. The old angler explained that he did not want to go catfishing alone at night and that he had a small boat. I responded that the best catfishing occurred after dark but that I appreciated his limitations. I asked the senior citizen to give me a little more time to come up with an appropriate plan.
The next day, I had an idea and immediately called him back. I decided to send him an easily accessible logjam located near a public boat launch on a local river. My instructions were to get there at dawn, tie up on the logjam, stay there and to fish straight down near the river bottom in about 10 feet of gentle current using nightcrawlers and large shiners. I knew that catfish would retreat from the bright sunlight and that the logjam provided perfect shade. A few days later, he called me back, gushing with gratitude. Following my instructions to the letter, he caught and released several nice channel cats and a five-pound flathead catfish. As far as I know, the old fellow is still out there somewhere catching catfish in the broad daylight.
Catfishing exclusively at night offers several distinct advantages. The primary benefit is that large catfish feel more comfortable after dark and will become more active. They’ll exit cover near dusk and start aggressively searching for sustenance. If you set your bait close to cover and take advantage of the current, catfish will scent the presentation and swim to you. It becomes a waiting game with the patient angler holding all the high cards. Rather than tossing your bait into a dense logjam and hoping for the best, you can remain upstream above the cover and lure catfish out. Your odds of landing huge catfish increase significantly if you can hook the big fish away from dense river debris. Also, you can frequently catch several catfish in one location without having to move. I actually prefer to stay in one location all night rather than relocating after a few hours with no action.
I’ve caught catfish from dusk to dawn but I’ve noticed three distinct time periods when the fishing seemed to be the best. The one-hour twilight period around dusk has proven to be one of the very best times for me. As a result, I always prefer to have my bait in the water well before dark. There seems to be a flurry of activity as the sun disappears. This makes perfect sense when you think about it: Catfish have lain up all day and have developed an appetite. They’re eager to get out and feed. The first twilight conditions on the river spark activity.
The middle of the night has been hot, too. I’ve taken many nice cats during the hour around midnight. By that time, the river has settled into its nightly routine and boat traffic is usually absent. For whatever reason, most catfishermen simply give up and go home. It’s usually very dark, quiet and peaceful. I normally have a well-established bait scent trail established in the water current. Perhaps that helps the big cats to zero in on my position from further down stream.
Dawn has been very decent to me, too. On many occasions, I’ve caught trophy cats before I could barely see. When the birds start to sing and get active just before dawn, the cats are preparing to call it a night. My theory is that the fish are returning to their holes from a night of wanderlust and they often have appetites. Hungry cats are not likely to pass up a tasty bluegill or fresh cutbait when faced with a long inactive day ahead. Remember that catfish are opportunistic feeders and that this characteristic takes precedent whenever there is any available food nearby. If this scenario is correct, I may have originally missed the fish when they first left the hole the previous evening to feed. Being there at dawn and dusk significantly increases the possibility that they will find my bait.
For that reason, I routinely fish all night. I feel that the more time that I can keep my bait in the water when the cats are most active, the better my chances of landing a huge flathead catfish. I’m extremely reluctant to miss any of the three prime periods described earlier. However, if I had to limit my time on the water, I would fish exclusively from dusk until about midnight.
If you want to catch catfish, fish at night whenever possible. If you want to increase your success rate, fish all night. Keep your bait in the water when catfish are most active. These simple rules will consistently put catfish in your boat. Congratulations to Therman Preston for his trophy 33-pound flathead catfish entered last week in D&R Sports Big Fish Contest. His first place cat was taken on a minnow. Therman started off the 2005 Contest with a similar size fish last year and appears to be an accomplished catfisherman.
This week’s topic is catfish bait. Whether you’re fishing for bullheads or giant flathead catfish, your choice of bait can mean the difference between success and failure. There are numerous natural and commercial baits available and all have merit under the right circumstances. However, there is continuous debate over what constitutes the best catfish bait. Some catfishermen prefer live bait while others swear by stink baits that can turn your stomach. There is no hard and fast rule. If you find something that works, you would be wise to stick with it.
There are four basic categories of catfishing bait. I’ll start with natural live bait. This bait consists of nightcrawlers, minnows, shiners, crawfish, catalpa worms, hellgrammites, small fish species (bluegills, suckers, etc.) and so forth. In Southern waterways inhabited by blue catfish, whole freshwater clams and mussels are a hot bait choice. However, some species of freshwater clams and mussels are now endangered and as a result, they’re protected in many states.
Using fresh live bait has several advantages. The first one is that all catfish species will eat live bait. In fact, live bait is almost a prerequisite for catching flathead catfish. If you scale your live bait choice to fit the size of the catfish species that you’re after, you’ll have success. Another advantage of using live bait is that you’ll occasionally catch other desirable fish species. It never breaks my heart to find a big walleye on the end of my line while catfishing at night. That would never happen if you were using stink baits.
After almost two decades of pursuing trophy flathead cats, I’ve refined my live bait choice down to large bluegills and small bullheads. As a result, I seldom catch anything but flatheads and very large channel cats. Nothing else can handle the size of my bait. My largest channel cats weighed over 20 pounds. In local rivers, a 20-pound channel cat is equivalent to catching a 40-pound flathead. A 20-pound channel cat is an awesome critter to behold. They’re incredibly long and some actually leap out of the water when fighting. However, they seldom remain in D&R’s Big Fish Contest very long due to dominant flatheads.
Of all the live bait choices available, it is extremely hard to beat the lowly nightcrawler. Nightcrawlers will catch everything from tiny stone cats or madtoms to huge flatheads. A nightcrawler or two on a #4 hook will slay bullheads and channel cats. You may also pick up a few tasty walleye fillets in the process. The main disadvantage of using nightcrawlers is all the attention that your bait will receive from other less desirable fish species. However, that can be a good thing if you have people or children along with you who crave a lot of action.
Large wads of nightcrawlers can be extremely effective on big flatheads, especially in the early summer. I don’t know exactly why but I’m guessing that a lot of worms end up in the water from spring rains and the cats become accustomed to seeing/tasting them. Some of my relatives in Arkansas catch big flatheads from Ozark Mountain streams using nothing but large leaf worms, which look very similar to our Michigan nightcrawlers. However, they’re much larger, wiggle a lot more and they weep a smelly yellow mucous fluid when impaled on a hook.
To create a nightcrawler wad that will attract big flatheads or channel cats, take a 5/0 to 7/0 hook and make sure that it is needle-sharp. I’ll discuss appropriate catfish tackle at a later date. Start impaling as many night crawlers on the hook as possible. Hook each worm at least twice. You may end up using two dozen nightcrawlers on the hook before you’re done. The finished bait should be about the size of a tennis ball with tentacles of crawlers wiggling in all directions. I like to suspend the mass about a foot or two off the bottom below the boat in flowing water. You’ll have to check the bait often due to activity from other fish species. Believe it or not, I’ve taken some huge walleyes with this method. You’ll also need to bring a lot of nightcrawlers along with you (12 dozen is a good place to start). This unusual nightcrawler technique will catch trophy flatheads.
The second popular catfish bait category is cut bait: Cut bait can include fish, liver, cheese, soap, skeins of spawn and various kinds of meat. I’ve even seen some anglers use large frozen shrimp. Personally, I would rather eat the shrimp but each to his own. I’ve had my best luck with fresh fish (suckers, carp, bluegills, etc.) scaled and cut into small squares with skin left on to the help retain the hook. The cut bait should be kept on ice to keep it as fresh as possible.
Cut bait can be extremely effective for bullheads and channel cats. Although flatheads prefer live food, fresh cut fish is a close second and they will often eat it. For that reason, I like to attach a small piece of fresh cut bait to my live bait. It creates a real mouthful and adds more tantalizing scent to the water. Finely diced fresh fish also makes a great chum. Liver and cut meat work fairly well on bullheads and channel cats but I’ve never taken a flathead with it. All cut bait will quickly leach out in flowing water and it should be replaced periodically.
The infamous stink baits make up the third catfish bait category. Although offensive to the nose, they are particularly effective on channel cats. In some parts of the country, catfishermen chum good locations in lakes and reservoirs with fermented, highly odiferous, spoiled grain for a few days and then return to fish over it for channel cats. Many large catfish dinners have been supplied in this manner. Almost any pungent bait will attract channel cats. Other popular stink baits are rotten, coagulated blood/cheese concoctions. If you want to take the stink bait route to catfish heaven, I recommend purchasing the commercial squeeze tube baits and the various hook/plastic bait retainer systems now available. They’re highly effective and you should be able to keep some of the odor off yourself. I’m sure that your friends or spouse will appreciate it.
My last category may surprise you. It’s artificial lures. Most catfishermen never even consider using lures but I can assure you that many big cats are taken with them. For example, I’ve seen more big channel cats caught by walleye anglers while trolling lures on Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair than walleyes. The big cats are highly efficient predators and they will pounce on lures if given a chance. Anglers fishing with lures for other species have inadvertently caught some of the biggest cats ever taken in this area. For example, I believe that a bass fisherman caught the current state-record flathead catfish in Muskegon Lake while using a small lure.
I found one of my favorite trophy catfish holes by talking to an irate walleye jig fisherman at a public launch. He complained that giant catfish were breaking him off every time he fished a particular location, going back several years. He told me exactly where to go but I was not particularly impressed by what I saw. The hole was not very deep and there was little current. However, there was a nice logjam located nearby. Over the years, I’ve taken close to a dozen flatheads weighing between 30 and 40 pounds from that hole and it continues to be a great spot.
I’ve learned the hard way not to make the mistake of casting lures with light line at night while waiting for flatheads to find my live bait rigs. Boredom and trying to catch a stray walleye has caused my lost of several expensive lures to big flatheads. Hefty, deep-diving crank-baits with a lot of action really seem to attract big catfish. It’s not difficult for even small flathead catfish to engulf large pike and muskie-size lures with their huge mouths.
I’ve even toyed with the idea of slowly back trolling down a river at night with a couple big diving plugs working the water and holes carefully ahead of me. It’s basically the same technique used by many salmon/steelhead fishermen during the day. You should be very familiar with the water before venturing out after dark. Black lights, fluorescent lines, silent electric trolling motors and scented lures could make this a deadly new catfishing technique. You could cover a lot of habitat and present your lures directly to active catfish instead of just sitting in the same hole all night. Take the action to catfish rather than waiting for them to find your bait. I think this idea has great possibilities. If anyone tries this idea this summer, let me know how you do.