Cats in creeks — yes, it happens!

Cats in creeks — yes, it happens!
Releasing adult channel catfish from smaller tributary streams goes a long way in ensuring the future for creek cats. Harvesting fish from larger rivers like the Potomac and Susquehanna is recommended. (Jim Gronaw photo)

It had been a successful afternoon of ultralight fishing at a local creek for spunky smallmouth bass and a variety of panfish species.

Nothing big, mind you, but the sheer numbers of fish made it a fine trip.


Along the way were some aggressive rock bass and a few 15-inch class fallfish that stuck my tiny crank baits in various pools, troughs, and eddys. It was 90 degrees and getting near supper time.

A few more casts into a prime pool and then it would be time to slosh on out and head home.

A nice, long arching cast dropped my Matzuo Nano crank bait at the head of a nice, deep run of darker water over the shaded pool. I had hooked, and lost, a 3-pound class smallmouth earlier from this same spot and thought that a rest period, followed by a few more casts, might draw the interest of this stream giant and maybe, just maybe, I’d have a story to tell the old dudes at the senior center or to my son.

However, I was in no way prepared for what was about to happen.

About halfway through the run my lure stopped cold and my reactionary hookset doubled my ultralight rod over completely. Almost immediately a huge surface boil and splash disrupted the water, and I knew immediately that this was a fish of far greater dimensions than what I had previously caught in this creek.

There was power, strength and speed in this creature, and it didn’t like its predicament one bit.

My mind was in a blur, as the fish whistled off on a downstream run that would rival any trout or bass I had ever caught. Could this possibly be a smallmouth in the 4-pound range?

Or … one of those monster carp I had seen there back in the spring?

As I kept my rod high and pressure on the fish, it grudgingly swam back upstream, drifting into view in the clear water.

It was a big channel catfish!

The fight was tense but remained in the confines of the trough and pool as it continued to dig for the bottom and boulders below. I began to think about my 4-pound line, the barbless hooks on my lure and the knot I had tied. A lot of things run through your mind when you hook a big fish, especially when you are clearly “out-gunned,” using mini-tackle and hook a maxi-fish.

Ten long minutes later, I slid the fish up on a shallow, gravel bank. I don’t know which one of us was more exhausted, the catfish, or me!

This big channel catfish clubbed a tiny crank bait and gave me a crazy, toe-to-toe battle in a small central Maryland creek recently.
This big channel catfish clubbed a tiny crank bait and gave me a crazy, toe-to-toe battle in a small central Maryland creek recently. (Jim Gronaw photo)

It wasn’t the first time I had seen, or caught, channel catfish from the confines of small Piedmont meadow streams. But at nearly 28 inches it was certainly my largest in a lifetime of creek fishing and was a welcomed surprise.

The fish was thick and heavy and appeared to be a female with a smaller head and olive flanks with sporadic spots. As I nervously unhooked and photographed the fish I realized that cats in creeks aren’t all that rare.


Just the week before my angling partner Alvie Sickle had caught a nice channel catfish downstream from this area. And he had retold tales of big cats, some from 7 to even 12 pounds, that he had captured years ago in a variety of Potomac and Monocacy River tributaries.

It makes sense that channel cats would “hole up” in the deeper, cooler waters of some of our local streams and be inactive during the day, perhaps feeding aggressively at night time. Most of the streams and rivers of the Mid-Atlantic have abundant populations of minnows, crayfish and smaller sunfish species that could easily offer forage for quality-sized cats.

Channel cats also have a very long and extensive spawning period that lasts from late April to even early July in many waters. They are cavernous spawners, meaning, they tend utilize hollowed-out logs, undercut banks or even old tires or man-made debris to lay their eggs, which are closely guarded by the male fish. Mature, male channel cats are often a dark, cobalt blue in color with a large swollen or pithy head.

At times they appear even to be black in coloration. Mature females tend to be lighter in color with dark green to olive shades and a white under belly. Depending on the progression of the spawn, they can be swollen and heavy with eggs or “spawned out,” having deposited their eggs in one or more cavity-type environments.

The she-cats also have proportionately smaller heads per body length than the big-headed males. Additionally, males can often appear beat-up or cut from physical aggression and fighting for prime spawning locations with other males.

Many Susquehanna and Potomac River tributary streams have self-sustaining populations of channel catfish.

Our local Monocacy watershed has them in a number of adjacent streams as well. In Virginia I have heard that the North and South Fork of the Shenandoah River has numbers of large fish and routinely ranks high in the Virginia awards program for producing 30-inch citation sized fish.

However, in smaller systems it is wise to release the adult fish for continued successful spawning purposes. In the Upper Chesapeake Bay region tidal flows such as the Bush, Gunpowder, Middle and Lower Susquehanna have good populations of channel catfish and would be better waters to harvest these abundant fish.

Contrary to popular belief, channel cats are not exclusively bottom feeders. Rather, they often feed and ambush prey species much like bass and trout, especially in moving water environments.

So the next time you hook a big fish in a small creek don’t be surprised if your “personal best” smallmouth bass turns out to be a whisker-fish of grand proportions.