Combine the nose of a bloodhound, the eyes of a hawk, and the hearing of a bat, and you begin to understand the sensory power of channel catfish. Lest we forget, catfish also possess the gustatory sensitivity of Wolfgang Puck. Not that Chef Puck would be caught dead in front of a plate of gizzard shad sushi. Though as Andrew Zimmern might say, “If it looks good, eat it!”
Early in the season, when environmental conditions in their world click into place, everything does look good to a channel catfish, and they do indeed eat it. Through the course a year, a catfish’s diet could easily qualify for a “best-of” episode of Bizarre Foods.
For any discerning chef, however, great food is never just about taste—although it’s certainly the ultimate payoff. Judging the quality of food often can have just as much to do with visual presentation and savory aromas. For catfish, sound and vibration also factor into the decision to dine—or whether they’re even able to locate potential food.
Current Thoughts on Tailraces
Like most of you, I live close to a stretch of splendid catfish water. The best early spring spots lie immediately below dams. Friends and I regularly fish three or four of these tailraces, and the recurring theme is the relationship between water release rates and catfish concentrations. Serious discharges act like a reverse vacuum—a deluge of water gushing downstream induces major waves of cats swimming upstream against it.
Anytime high water gushes over the principal and emergency spillways, it’s game on. Bring your spare anchors and lots of heavyweight no-roll sinkers.
Early season tailrace fishing is a known goldmine. But what I’m telling you is that although we fish these dams every year, we pray for high water. Raging water versus low trickling releases can spell the difference between a 50-plus fish day and a struggle to boat 10. More flow draws more cats that need to eat. Our best days have all occurred when discharges are so high, loud, and mighty that you can barely hear your buddies talking inside the same boat. Call it sensory overload; call it catfish bliss.
In larger rivers with complex tailrace areas hosting varied depths and structural features, you can easily spend an 8-hour excursion anchoring and investigating dozens of areas, all within 100-yard stretch of river immediately below a dam. Done with efficiency, 100-fish days are possible. Caution is warranted when navigating amid dangerously turbulent waters. Drifting is possible in less rocky tailraces, although riprap—a major component of many rivers—makes this approach less practical.
Catfish in these rivers are powerful enough to push through high flows—I’ve seen them tailing like salmon in fast water. Pinning baits to bottom in main flow areas can be difficult, though, and fortunately, the great congregations of fish position just out of current.
The ultimate high-water spot on any of the four dams we fish is a shallow rock shelf that lies directly behind a major concrete abutment separating the main spillway from the powerhouse release gates. Parades of feeding cats move through. They push into the currents on either the spillway side or powerhouse side, feeding on food items dead-drifting downstream. Or they swim over the top of the slackwater shelf, which swirls with ever shifting eddies. We start on the downstream section of the shelf, moving incrementally upstream and reanchoring as we catch fish from each position.
In low-water years when flows barely move through the main turbines, catfish flush toward this current. Between each of a half dozen main turbine gates lies a pillar-like abutment. The slack water behind these abutments draws cats, and if you can get close enough, casts that position baits right at the base of the abutments can produce immediate bites.
Regardless of flow, every year, beginning about the second week of April, through the month of May and into June, friends and I work our home river stretch with all manner of baits. Fresh or fresh-frozen cutbait is a staple. But other baits have a place, too. Jigs can work well. Artificial softbaits—Berkley Gulp! and Fishbites—also work well at times. In the right setting, cats also certainly take cracks at wholly unflavored, unscented baits like plugs and spinners, proving that vision and vibration play important roles in feeding. Sometimes, these triggers outweigh even the almighty taste-test.
We always carry meat. Frozen whole ciscoes, gathered during the ice-fishing season, get bagged and stored in vacuum-packs. Three to four bags of bait—three large ciscoes per bag—easily cover two anglers on an all-day outing. Slowly thawed in a cooler, bags opened and baitfish filleted on-site, vacuum-sealed baitfish work perhaps just as well as freshly killed specimens. Native to northern waters, greasy, aromatic ciscoes are one of the finest cutbaits going. A member of the herring family, they’re just as desirable as skipjack. I believe that ciscoes are better even than fresh goldeye, another species that largely inhabits northern rivers, including the Red River of the North.
My friends who get heavy into the baitfish thing have scoured fish markets in Chicago, Minneapolis, and Seattle in search of the anointed bait. It’s given me the opportunity to introduce catfish to bizarre foods they’d never encounter otherwise—mackerel, anchovies, and mullet, in particular. Fresh-frozen, cut mackerel fillets are a fine bait, but like delicate-fleshed cisco, you must refresh it on your hook. Nearly all the top blue and channel cat anglers in California catch their own mackerel from the Pacific, and huge blues have been caught with the stuff.
We’ve had mixed results with anchovies, though the baits we’ve used haven’t been fresh. Mullet’s been so-so, no better than fresh sucker. The fresh-frozen whole mullet is the best, not the filleted fish missing entrails. And forget canned anchovies preserved in salt and olive oil unless you’re short on snacks. Same for those little smoked herring the English call kipper snacks.
As much as I hear about secret bait additives, soaking baitfish in things like garlic, Preparation-H, and oil of wintergreen—I’ve heard it all from cat anglers far and wide—it’s all just so much nonsense. Fresh cutbait always wins, and oilier species such as ciscoes (herring) and shad reign supreme. Greasy-grimy baits put cats on sensory overload, and that’s exactly how we like ‘em.
Most of my early season cutbait fishing is done with ciscoes. A single 12- to 14-inch baitfish provides up to 6 nice straps of bait. Omega-3 rich cisco is catfish gourmet fare. Every predator that encounters ciscoes in nature devours them. Catfish rarely share their habitats, but they know good food when they find it. Again, lacking ciscoes, skipjack herring and mackerel are two other primo baits that catch cats anywhere, and outfish nearly everything else consistently.
Beyond Taste and Scent
One enjoyable aspect of fishing relatively clear water is observing catfish via underwater video camera. I have a camera setup that lets me attach and monitor baits a foot or so behind the lens. Much of this video-fishing has been done in slow to moderate current in river tailraces.
I’ve noted that long, slender strips of cutbait move, flutter, and perhaps even vibrate more than short fillets or chunks. Certainly, according to what I’ve seen on camera, flappy bait straps often attract more attention from catfish. I like a boneless fillet or strap because it moves best in current. Remove the ribcage on a 4- to 6-inch strip of bait and you have got a floppy meat strip that moves well in light to moderate current.
Even in dirty water where vision probably plays a limited role in feeding, bait movement perhaps still makes a difference. Catfish use their lateral-line sense to detect the vibes that signal food, perhaps more so in dirty water. Most freshwater fish detect low-frequency vibrations up to about 1,000 Hz, but channel cats hear up to 13,000 Hz. Likely they use this sense to detect food.
In clear and stained water where visibility spans at least a few feet, visual bait movements might matter more. In slightly clearer rivers, I’d wager my best bait that catfish are tracking the vibration of drifting or swimming food from a distance, and as they get close, inspect its visual movements before ultimately snapping their jaws to feed. Over and over, I’ve watched catfish on camera hone in on and inhale these wavering straps of bait, even while compact chunks of bait on other rods sat untouched.
Some anglers contend that in heavier current, chunks are better than fillets or strips because they’re more hydrodynamic; chunks don’t spin or catch current so they stay pinned to bottom where they’re less likely to drift into a snag. But spinning straps of bait rigged to flip-flop behind 8- to 12-inch leaders get the attention of catfish. On camera, fast-spinning baits look unnatural, but cats don’t care. My experimental fishing shows that catfish find and bite spinning bait straps better than chunks or rigid fillets.
We’ve had a lot of success using the head of a large baitfish. Cut the head off just behind the gill covers, then hook it deeply though both jaws. In strong current, heads spin madly. Nonetheless, cats sometimes eat them way more often than strips or chunks. Maybe it’s an “eye” thing—that in clearer water, catfish are visually attracted to the marble-sized eyeballs of ciscoes and goldeye. Could also just be the scent power of entrails and juices contained within the head section.
Of course, super-spinning baits like these expose your rig to line-twist. Best anti-twist device I’ve used is a new fluorocarbon-based product called the InvisaSwivel. Almost neutrally buoyant, and perhaps because it self-lubricates in water, the little swivel spins like a top. InvisaSwivel is flexible and durable.
Sometimes, we can say for certain that taste and scent play no role in catfish feeding, for the lures catfish occasionally strike offer neither. Whenever we first pull into one our river spots, I often reach for an artificial lure. Untouched cats make for great experiments. We’ve taken channel cats on topwater lures intended for smallmouth bass. We’ve had hefty cats hit large plugs while casting for muskies. Then there are spinnerbait cats, plastic worm cats, and crankbait cats.
A favorite combo features a slipfloat rigged with a 2/0 Lazer Sharp L042 hook and one of several biodegradable “tastebaits,” including Berkley Gulp! Alive! and Fishbites. The three Alive! products that have produced cats are the Jumbo Leech, 4-inch Peeler Crab, and 7-inch Belly Strip. In-Fisherman Managing Editor Rob Neumann has been along on some of these exploratory outings, and has caught cats with Gulp! Alive! Peeler Crabs and Leeches presented under a slipfloat.
Shad flavored Fishbites Yeh Monn! Catfish Bait, a thin strip-bait that can be cut to any size, has at times been effective. There’s science behind the Fishbites stuff, and it probably is the fastest dispersing tastebait on the market. A strip of it dissolves in a glass of tapwater within a week. Fishbites have a fine mesh backing that keeps it securely on the hook.
Another thing I like about Fishbites is that the longer you fish it, the more potent it becomes. After fishing a Fishbites strip for 15 minutes, it begins to turn oozingly soft, yet holds fast to the hook.
The science behind the formula plays on the belief that fish sense and react only to chemicals dissolved in water. Strong airborne odors, the developers found, do not necessarily dissolve in water so may not be attractive to fish. Fishbites consist of natural ingredients that are almost scent-free in air, though the material is highly water-soluble.
That vision sometimes plays as large a role as the other senses has been proven when cats often attempt to grab the float on top, while leaving the bait below untouched. Neumann and I have also fished with South Carolina guide Captain Marlin Ormseth, who is experimenting with rattling surface rigs. He’s convinced that catfish in the Santee-Cooper lakes are tuned into sound, and it is a primary feeding sense.
This is all about pushing the envelope; going a little nuts with presentation—all in the name of sensory discovery. Push the outer limits. Send cats into five-alarm sensory overload. It’s one of the most productive things happening right now.
In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt lives in the Brainerd, Minnesota, lakes area.