Even in muddy water, this massive channel catfish had the ability to "home in" and engulf a 5-inch lure. Catching big cats on lures is not as rare as one thinks.
Even in muddy water, this massive channel catfish had the ability to "home in" and engulf a 5-inch lure. Catching big cats on lures is not as rare as one thinks. (Jim Gronaw photo)

Just this past week, I had the chance to stop by a local public lake and make a quick-hit fishing trip for some of the lake's bass population.

I had discovered, by accident, that after a heavy rain or thunderstorm the lake would "muddy up" and that bass would turn on to feeding in the off-colored waters. The tactic was simple — cast big-bladed, in-line spinners that could set off a good strong vibration and let the fish home-in on the disturbance. This had worked before in other waters, but it had to be muddy to really be successful.

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The first several fish were small bass in the foot-long variety. They would smash the big No. 5 Mepps with authority, then quickly show their size with a fairly lightweight display of battle. A couple fish in the 15-inch range gave me a few hopes of bigger game. Despite it being mid-day with temperatures in the low-90s I still held out for a few more fish.

At one end of the pond an incoming stream had the water particularly turbid and I knew that a shallow weed bed would come into play, so I kept my retrieve just a few feet below the surface. About halfway back from the initial entry of the cast the spinner stopped with sledgehammer force and a huge boil rippled the surface.

Almost immediately, line began to peel from the drag and, as I tried to back-reel, the fish simply was just too fast, too powerful to try and keep up with. I was forced to walk, at a brisk pace, to keep up with the fish as it made a serious run for an area of deeper weeds. This could not possibly be a bass, so I knew almost right off that it had to be the only other top-line predator of the lake.

A channel catfish.

I was amazed at the power and dogged, determined fight that this fish was putting up as it made several strong, long runs for freedom. After nearly 15 minutes of give-and-take, back-and-forth fighting, I gained the upper hand as the big kitty began to tire. I could not quite view the fish in the murky water as it made the occasional boil nearing the surface. However, I did know one thing … it had to be big to crush a No. 5 Mepps spinner.

As I eased the fish into the shallows, the beast came into view. Broad head, wide back, big gut and long. I had no net, but a willing spirit. I had to be patient and wait for the fish to completely tire out before attempting a grab of any sort.

Should I snatch the fish with both hands across the back of the head, being careful to avoid the sharp, serrated pectoral spines? Or, would I be better off getting a few fingers under the gills and hope the cat was too tired to convulse and possibly dislocate or cut a finger with it's jaw strength and pectorals?

Man, what I would do for a net about now! And a big one!

I decided to go for the gill gig and hope for the best and try not to damage the fish's gills in the effort. The big cat played nice and the massive fish was slid up on the bank, it's broad sides, mouth and gill plates heaving in the glistening sun. Sweat poured off my brow and my chest was pounding. I don't know who was more tired, me or the fish!

I had to take a little bit of a breather so I slipped the fish back into the water, lure intact, and tried to calm myself down as the catfish rested motionless, save for breathing gills and slight tail sweeps. It had been a good, good fight from two worthy opponents, but only one could win. Little did the big cat know that she would be back in the water with the murk and mire in but a few minutes.

The fish had completely engulfed the big Mepps spinner, bending the heavy wire shaft to a near 40-degree angle, likely on impact with the lure. It unhooked easily with no bleeding. At nearly 31 inches with a thick, heavy body profile, I estimated the fish to be in the 14-pound category thus making it my new "personal-best" channel catfish, lure-caught or not. I struggled to take a few "selfies" with my Go Pro camera then eased the fish back to it's home and watched as she (yes, likely a female) gently swam off in the muddy waters from where she came.

Game, set and match to the old man and the pond. I was in no way disappointed that this fish was a catfish and not some other, more "worthy and proper" gamefish.

Additionally, it was not the first time in my fishing history that I had caught a "whisker fish" on an artificial lure. In past years, I had seen and caught them on crank baits, Rapalas, the classic JitterBug, soft plastics and more yet on in-line spinners. Channel catfish are aggressive, top-line predator gamefish in many environments and will readily hit lures of all kinds if the urge strikes them. Yes, they currently carry the label as a bottom feeder, but they didn't get big by just scarfing dead items on the bottom.

So don't be upset the next time your trophy bass or trout turns out to be an out-sized channel catfish.

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