Misconceptions about catfish
Folktales, old wives’ tales, cock-and-bull stories, and prejudices lie at the heart of many misconceptions about catfish myths. Some fallacies are derived from our anthropomorphic inclinations, which attribute human characteristics or tendencies to catfish. Others are developed out of partial truths. Even scientists aren’t immune from unintentionally propagating a myth or two. In our quest to be skilled and thoughtful catfish anglers, it’s necessary to expose some of these mythical notions.
Years ago, tracking studies led to the belief that the home range of flathead catfish is limited to relatively small areas. But the revelations of Tom Burns, a fishmonger from Lawrence, Kansas, during the late 1990s cast doubts on this theory. Burns spent more than 10,000 hours on the Kansas River, observing and pursuing its denizens along parts of the 30-mile stretch from Lawrence to Kansas City. Every June from 1931 to 1991, he encountered thousands of flatheads migrating out of the Missouri River and up the Kansas River. During one migration, he observed a throng of flatheads over an area the size of a football field, frolicking on the surface like seals.
He also discovered that if the water level rose 5 to 6 feet in mid-October, many flatheads, as well as channel cats, migrated out of the Kansas River into the Missouri. But if a similar rise occurred during early November, the channel cats and flatheads would merely move into the deepest holes of the Kansas River. Burns’ observations were published in the February 1997 issue of In-Fisherman.
Rob Neumann, fishery biologist and In-Fisherman Managing Editor, says one of the problems that confounded early tracking studies was that the timeframe of observations on individual fish was short compared to today’s standards. Back then, batteries in transmitters were short-lived, limiting observations of movement over weeks to a couple months. Depending on when the tracking was done, major seasonal periods may have been missed.
Better tracking equipment and longer-lived batteries, Neumann says, have enhanced biologists’ abilities to identify flatheads’ annual movements. Recent tracking studies reveal long-range migrations between wintering sites and spawning and summer areas in some rivers, such as a study by Greg Gelwicks of the Iowa DNR. Neumann says that a Missouri River tracking survey found flatheads spending the summer upstream in primary tributaries, then wintering either in the Missouri River or in the far downstream reaches of the tributary where they’d spent the summer.
Currently, many biologists conclude that if flatheads’ annual habitat needs are met within a smaller stretch of a river, they are unlikely to venture far. But they migrate, as Burns observed decades ago, if their wintering, spawning, and summer habitats are many miles apart. In addition, modern studies have also disclosed that some blue catfish migrate a couple hundred miles, and channels may move extensively as well. Yet despite all the recent revelations, many anglers still subscribe to the small home-range myth.
Cold Water, Shallow Water
After In-Fisherman in the late 1990s featured Jim Moyer of Clarksville, Tennessee, and his pioneering methods for catching big wintertime blue catfish, scores of anglers began to assume that deep-water lairs were the only locales to ply for big blue catfish during the Coldwater Period.
Steve Brown of Warsaw, Missouri, however, has helped to fill gaps about winter habitats of blue catfish. Between February 15 and March 15, when the water temperature is in the low-40°F range, he finds that scores of big blues begin moseying about on the shallow mudflats of tertiary feeder creeks in the upper portions of the Lake of the Ozarks. At times they wander as far as a mile inside these creeks. Except for a occasional log, there is nothing on these flats but mud covered with one to four feet of cold water. What’s more, it’s rare to encounter a school of shad or any other baitfish. But if shad wander upon a mudflat, blues pursue them in water shallow enough to see their backs as they feed.
On many late winter outings, Brown has noticed that some shallow-water blue catfish are attracted to the sound of baits and sinkers hitting the surface of the water. To supplement this effect, he sometimes tosses rocks into the water near his baits. Throughout this 30-day span, Brown says there are at least two weeks of the most extraordinary shallow-water fishing of the year.
Many observers believe catfish are exclusively bottom dwellers and foragers. But back in the late 1990s, when In-Fisherman Publisher Steve Hoffman was a staff writer, he ventured to the Horseshoe Chain of Lakes in Minnesota to shoot TV footage of ice-fishing for channel catfish. Using an underwater camera, he saw many channel cats suspended, as well as on bottom. The ones on the bottom didn’t move as much as the suspended fish, which were easier to catch. Hoffman’s observations also debunk the myth that channels cats are difficult to catch in ice-cold water.
For the past 30 summers, several chummers fishing the Hog Trough at Perry Lake, Kansas, have tangled with many suspended channel catfish, catching them at a variety of depths between the surface and the bottom, as deep as 35 feet.
During recent winters at Tenkiller Lake, Oklahoma, when the surface temperature was 48°F, Gary Dollahon of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, has caught numbers of blue catfish suspended 35 to 45 deep over 70 to 120 feet of water. What’s more, he caught them on artificial lures—primarily a tandem rig of a 1/8-ounce jighead dressed with a 3.5-inch Gene Larew Long John Minnow and a 3/4-ounce jigging spoon.
For decades, anglers at a various waterways have caught suspended blue cats on trotlines and juglines. In the 1940s into the 1960s, for instance, Guido Hibdon Sr. and several of his sons caught blues on trotlines near the mouth of the Gravois Arm of the Lake of the Ozarks in the dead of winter. Their lines were set over deep water but baits were about eight feet under the surface. At times, the Hibdons saw blue cats behaving like porpoises, making long jumps across the surface of the lake.
Since the 1990s, chummers and punch-bait aficionados across the Heartland have tangled with suspended blue catfish. Likewise, anglers at Santee-Cooper, South Carolina, and Lake Texoma, Oklahoma and Texas, occasionally catch blues suspended around aggregations of striped bass. Santee-Cooper Guide Marlin Ormseth has devised methods for catching blue cats on surface rigs.
Beginning in 2006, John Jamison of Kansas and Jeremy Leach of Indiana found ways to locate and allure suspended blue catfish at several tournaments that they competed in on the Ohio River. And Phil King, renowned catfish guide and tournament angler from Corinth, Mississippi, says this myth persists because most anglers have a difficult time targeting suspended catfish since they can’t properly control their boat and the depth of their baits.
In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt notes that flatheads, unlike blue and channel catfish, are virtually dormant creatures in northern rivers during the winter. They rarely feed and are unlikely to be caught. When anglers do tangle with them, they usually snag them. Brian Klawitter, who guides for flathead catfish on the Mississippi River near Red Wing, Minnesota, has taken video footage of wintering flatheads. It shows flatheads, often dozens lying side-by-side in a state of torpor, neither responding to a bump from the camera or to a tasty shad dragged across their snouts.
Night and Day
An incredible number of catmen maintain that nighttime fishing is more productive than during the day. Although at times night-fishing is the way to go, Phil King finds that an equal number of catfish can be caught during daylight hours. What’s more, he notes that two brute blue cats exceeding 100 pounds each were recently caught during a daytime tournament. King says that his daylight fishing is so good that he never pursues them at night. A look at the catches by professionals at daytime tournaments and daytime guides should convince anglers to reconsider this myth.
For years, many folks across the Ozark region of Missouri called blue catfish “white cats.” White catfish Ameiurus catus don’t abide in Missouri. They’re native to rivers and streams that flow into the Atlantic. They have been stocked in some waterways in California and Nevada, as well as the French Broad River, North Carolina, Pigeon River of Tennessee and North Carolina, and some of the tributaries of the Tennessee River.
Pick Your Poison
Even In-Fisherman has unintentionally propagated myths. In their book Channel Catfish Fever, published in 1989, it was stated, “No poison gland or other source of poison exists in channel catfish.” It was, however, noted that the madtom was venomous.
Recently, Jeremy Wright, a graduate student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan, determined that there are at least 1,250 and possibly more than 1,600 species of venomous catfish in the world, including the yellow bullhead, brown bullhead, channel catfish, blue catfish, stonecat, slender madtom, and white catfish. All madtoms except the Orangefin, which is a threatened species from Virginia and North Carolina, are venomous.
Wright didn’t find evidence of venom glands in the spines of flathead catfish or black bullhead. He explains that prior studies have found black bullhead from Texas to be venomous. Wright’s samples of black bullheads came from Michigan, however, leading him to speculate that there may be regional variation.
Steve Quinn, fishery biologist and In-Fisherman Senior Editor, says that catfish have sensory capabilities beyond those of nearly all other species, and their eyesight is superb. What’s more, Doug Stange, the magazine’s Editor In Chief, says that some scientists have surmised that catfish are smarter than bass, northern pike, trout, and walleye.
If you watched “Trolling with Tag,” a video that Virgil Tagtmeyer of Missouri made in 1989, featuring his prowess at catching big blue cats and flatheads by trolling crankbaits, the idea that catfish are languid critters with poor eyesight would be quickly tempered. He revealed that catmen don’t have to fish stationary or even slowly to garner strikes. He thought that if more anglers realized that catfish could be readily caught on artificial lures, anglers would have a better appreciation of their spunk and sensory capabilities, and eventually the ways anglers fished for them would get out of the dark ages.
Enticing catfish with visual attraction is making its way into the repertoire of many anglers. Pat O’Grady of Cheyenne, Wyoming, has pioneered tactics for catching channel cats on the P.K. spoons he manufactures. Often cats are aggressive enough that tipping spoons with bait isn’t necessary. The visual attraction is enough to call them in for a bite. More anglers are finding vision a key ingredient in attracting and catching channel catfish, especially in clear water— a topic covered in another article in this Guide.
What’s On The Menu
There are controversies galore and some myths about what catfish eat. For instance, Jeremy Leach, a savvy catman and tournament angler, says that it’s critical to use fresh bait from the waters you plan to fish. “I’ve brought skipjack to lakes in Texas and never got a sniff, but I catch fish on fresh, locally caught shad,” he says. In contrast, John Jamison, knowledgeable catman and top tournament angler, says: “If skipjacks are properly taken care of prior to being frozen, they’re as good as or better than fresh bait, especially during cold-water periods. But most anglers don’t know how to properly prepare skipjacks for freezing. Shad is always better fresh except during the Coldwater Period. It’s important to have some native bait on board, but I have only been on one system that I thought the fish didn’t eat skipjack as well as the native bait species.” In short, Jamison believes the fresh-bait obsession is a myth.
Catfish are often castigated as lowly scavengers, feeding on carrion decaying on the bottom. Consequently, many channel cat anglers use only chicken livers, shad guts, and sour shad or carp. At times chicken-liver devotees catch a surprising number of wipers, but you don’t hear anglers calling this species a scavenger.
Phil King knows catfish are opportunistic feeders, pointing out that they consume mussels on the bottom, but may devour almost anything, including other fish, invertebrates, and their own young. Sometimes they’re vegetarians, feeding on filamentous algae and other aquatic vegetation. King says there’s a seasonal aspect to their diet, which is tied to food availability. Differences in forage types among waters also shape feeding preferences.
For example, at Lake Texoma, when areas surrounding the lake are invaded by hordes of grasshoppers, Paul Mauch of Calera, Oklahoma, has a heyday wielding a small topwater bait, such as 21⁄2-inch Storm Rattlin’ Chug Bug, catching channel catfish foraging on grasshoppers as they scull across the surface.
Deep Dilemma Debunked
Before the turn of the 21st century, the pursuit of blue catfish was a relatively shallow-water endeavor. Consequently, even the most avant-garde anglers didn’t spend time pondering the possibility of their quarry lurking in the deepest coverts of a reservoir.
But during the summer of 2000, Joseph Grist and Dr. Brian Murphy of Virginia Tech studied the habits of blue catfish in Lake Norman, North Carolina. Under Murphy’s guidance, Grist completed his thesis, “Analysis of a Blue Catfish Population in a Southeastern Reservoir: Lake Norman, North Carolina” in 2002.
As Grist began his research, he discovered that Lake Norman’s blue catfish were extensively pursued by recreational and tournament anglers and commercial fishers, but the species’ seasonal movements, habitat, and home ranges were unknown in this lake, which has 520 miles of shoreline, 32,000 acres of surface water, and an average depth of 30 feet. Its deepest area is covered with 130 feet of water.
Grist used radio telemetry to investigate catfish habitats and movement, finding that the year-round average depth that blue cats occupied was 16.4 feet. Overall mean depths used were shallower in spring and summer and deeper in winter, although the minimum and maximum depths varied widely by month. In June, for example, fish were located as shallow as 3.2 feet and as deep as 82 feet, and in February they were found in 3.2 to 88.5 feet of water.
In the angling world, the deep-water myth was shattered when Phil King and Stacey Thompson of Texas won the Cabela’s King Kat Classic on Pickwick and Wilson lakes near Sheffield, Alabama. They extracted 233.75 pounds of blue catfish from 80 to 90 feet of water at Wilson Lake in September of 2003. Then in October 2006, Jamison and Mark Thompson of Kansas caught 14 blue catfish that weighed 490.75 pounds from water as deep as 114 feet at the Cabela’s King Kat Classic on Pickwick and Wilson lakes.
As the deep-water frontier opens for exploration, new myths will been spawned in the catfish world. In due time, they will be debunked as well.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Ned Kehde lives in Lawrence, Kansas, and is a frequent contributor to the Catfish In‑Sider Guide.