First in a series of "Big and Ugly" fishing
There is something to be said about large, bulky fish that lurk about in the depths and darkness of our waters, both locally and afar. Fans of the 'River Monsters' TV series will tell you that they cannot wait for the next new episode to air, and with great anticipation of the giant fish and battle. On a much smaller scale, and without all the exotics, we have some opportunities to enjoy our own big fish locally. In the forms of channel and blue catfish, along with the common carp, big fish adventures are not beyond dreams. They are the 'big and ugly' crowd, looked down on yet marveled at by many. This first installment will focus on channel catfish, a popular sport and food fish throughout much of our nation.
Most anglers will admit that their experiences with channel cats are often pleasant surprises, as big cats overhaul a bass-intended bait with smashing strike and heart-pounding fight. Recently, we have taken a break from our routine bass and panfish efforts to seek quality cats in local venues, both public and private. It can be as simple as you want, or you can strive for a bit more sophistication in the effort. We currently use European style bite alarms to signal catfish strikes as our baits are cast out and rest on the bottom, waiting for a cruising cat to chow down. Our rods are rigged on holders that maintain little resistance to a biting cat and as the line peels out on the initial 'run' the mainline runs through the alarm and sets off a high or low pitched scream. Either flip the bail of the spinning reel or, in our case, simply engage the fighting drag by setting the hook on the bait runner reel and hopefully you are into a slugfest with a big channel cat.
So…what's big for a channel catfish? In small lakes and ponds, these fish can reach amazing proportions to exceed even 20 pounds. However, under most conditions, pond and small lake catties that run 22 to 28 inches would be considered good fish for our region. For a Maryland Fishing Challenge citation you need to land a channel cat of 30 inches or better. Such a fish would go anywhere from 9 to 14 pounds at that length. Ten-pound channels are considered quality fish, nationwide and some trophy venues, like Manitoba's Red River or Calamus Reservoir in Nebraska, see fish that routinely run 20 to 30 pounds. The world record is 55 pounds caught in Santee-Cooper, South Carolina and the state record is a 29 pounder caught in Mattawoman Creek.
The nice change of pace with catfishing is to relax and let the fish come to you. We use a variety of baits, but fresh chicken livers have a timeless appeal to channel cats, and are always in our arsenal of baits. Other options are cut bluegill or crappie, fresh cut fallfish, cut rainbow trout, shrimp and imitation crab meat. Commercially prepared stink baits with special hook and bait applications are popular in certain areas of the country as well. Preserved herring or other oily fish you can buy at the store are also options.
With the chicken livers, we like to make 'liver sacs' out of cheese clothe. Simply cut the cheeseclothe in 4 by 4 inch squares and place a portion of the liver in the middle. Next, pull up each corner of the fabric, twist tight, then secure with a tight wrap of a small twisty tie. Take side cutters and clip off the excess tie and you have a secure, ball of liver that will ooze from the fabric. Run you hook in and then out of the sac and it will be enough weight to cast it a good distance on 10 pound mono or 20 pound braid. We prefer 20 pound Stren or Gamma Braid with a 20 pound mono leader like Trilene Big Game. On the business end we snell 2/0 or 4/0 circle hooks by Gamakatzu or Owner. You can chuck sacs a long way on the braid, handle a big fish and keep liver 'on the hook' a lot easier that just trying to secure the soft tissues of the livers and lob-cast.
Our recent efforts have had some success and failures, with fish topping out with my son Matt' 32 inch powerhouse cattie that had battle scars, and another hook, from a previous hookup where the catfish won. We took photos and then removed the hook and sent the beast back on his way, hopefully to give another angler a thrilling fight some day. Sometimes the fish just drop the bait on the initial pickup and other times they have it well into their mouths. Use circle hooks if you want to release fish.
Small water channel cats can show an amazing preference to certain baits, and can become skittish and hook-shy once released. What tore-em-up last week might not get a sniff this week, so change you bait options to keep the catties off-balance. Powerhouse fighters, big channel cats demand respect and appropriate tackle and are delicious in the pan, with 'catfish nuggets', marinated in Teriyaki sauce then deep fried, being my favorite. Most of our public lakes, and many local ponds have them to impressive size. Try something different…try channel cats!
Jim Gronaw is a Times outdoors writer. His column appears every other Sunday. Reach him at 410-857-7896 or firstname.lastname@example.org.