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Jim Gronaw: Big Cat Safari | OUTDOORS COMMENTARY

I was getting tired. My wrist and forearm were aching, and my left hand wanted to cramp.

But only 20-yards out from the shoreline was one of the biggest fish I had ever hooked on ultralight tackle. It would wallow on the surface and then take off yet again on another long, powerful run.

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Initially, when I hooked the fish on the very end of the cast, it had almost spooled me on the first run. Now, some twenty-plus minutes later, victory seemed to be in sight, within grasp, almost at my fingertips. I wanted this fish bad.

Some anglers would have scoffed at my dilemma, maybe even locked down on the drag and broke the fish off, so as to get back to fishing for “worthier” species. You see, I was hooked up with a huge, barrel-chested channel catfish … a species that is not everybody’s favorite.

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As the fish grew more and more fatigued, I realized that my one and only chance was to lead the exhausted fish up on the shallow bank and try and pounce on him before he could gather his senses and writhe away.

I was without a net and figured it was my only shot. Big channel cats are tough customers and powerful fighters, scrapping right until the very end of the fight. I had to get wet and wade into the water and hopefully pin the fish down and grasp it on either side of it’s wide head with both hands, hoping not to get gashed or lose sight of the fish as we began to muddy the shallow water.

As with any big fish, my absolute main goal was to just get my hands on it and then worry about pictures, selfies or any of that other Facebook stuff later.

As it finally glided in under the strain of the 4-pound test line I ditched the rod and pounced on the back of the catfish as if to ride it like a bucking bronco. To my great amazement, and relief, the bulky fish went limp as it’s gills continued to expand and contract and it’s mouth opened and shut in a rhythmic force.

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The tiny wire hook on the 1/64th ounce jig fell out of the rubbery lip along the fish’s upper tooth pad.

Victory was mine.

Jim Gronaw shows off a plus-sized channel catfish, estimated to weigh between 16- and 18-pounds.
Jim Gronaw shows off a plus-sized channel catfish, estimated to weigh between 16- and 18-pounds.

What an absolute giant of a fish. I didn’t have a scale, a tape measure or anything to gauge the size of the fish, but I knew I had just landed the heaviest channel catfish I had ever caught.

I have taken them up to 33-inches long and several over 30-inches during a lifetime of fishing for them. However, this fish lacked the skeletal length of those fish.

Instead it possessed a hulking girth unlike any channel cat I had ever seen. Smaller head, olive coloration and insane body dynamics led me to believe that this fish was a female, perhaps heavy with eggs, and didn’t have a single mark or battle scar on its’ entire body. Just an amazing, beautiful specimen of a catfish. If you can call a catfish “pretty”, this was the one.

Big — even giant — channel cats are around, and this pond-caught monster was an estimated 16 to 18 pounds. The largest channel cat I had ever seen locally had come from a community pond many years ago and weighed a whopping 22-plus pounds.

Giant channel cats used to be more common in the Potomac River, but the introduction of the invasive blue catfish have put channel cat numbers on the low side in many Chesapeake river systems.

Years ago, my good friend Patrick Korn caught and released an amazing 27-pound channel cat from the Fort Washington area of the tidal Potomac, an absolute “lifetime” catch for the species. Big channel cats remain in the upper sections of the Potomac, Monocacy, Shennandoah and Susquehanna River systems. The Conowingo Dam and Upper Chesapeake tributaries remain very good channel catfish waters despite the influx of dominating blue catfish in the upper bay.

Channel cats will hit a variety of lures despite their nature to be “bottom feeders”. Of the three largest I have ever caught, two took tiny hair jigs intended for panfish and another hit a #5 Mepps spinner. Popular bait options for them remain the classic chicken livers (wrapped in cheese-clothe sacks), fresh cut bluegills or other sunfish, flavored hot dog chunks and, if you can afford it, fresh shrimp.

Savvy cat men like the use of oily fish such as cut trout or herring and there are numerous prepared dip-baits and pastes that work well when fishing for those high numbers of fish in ponds or small lakes.

Many of our local farm ponds and community lakes throughout the state have been stocked with channel catfish over the years and the Maryland DNR lists a number of public waters that were recently stocked with adult fish during 2021. Sometimes, some of these fish grow quite large and provide big-fish opportunities for the angler.

My son Matt and I recently enjoyed a return trip to this backwoods location, and he picked up a pair of rotund kitties weighing in at 10.5 and 12.5-pounds on our very first effort targeting these fish.

Like the fish I caught earlier, all were returned to the water to fight again or hopefully reproduce. Great table fare, channel catfish are often the preferred menu item at many restaurants and dinners throughout the South and often farmed commercially throughout the Mid-West as well. Locally, I’m just looking for some fun and maybe a shot at a big fish.

Channel catfish are overlooked and underrated. Keep in mind that there is a 5-fish limit per angler on channel cats in Maryland and the best tasting fish tend to be smaller, 2 to 4-pound cats that make perfect fillets. This summer, try to go on your own “Big Cat Safari!”

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