Catching Channel Cats with Lures
June 18, 2018
I knew that the local park lake held big channel catfish as I'd caught them there on a variety of jig and bait options when seeking bluegills and crappies. Most were in the 5- to 7-pound range, plenty of fish for an ultralight outfit to handle. There were larger, thicker fish, too, 10 pounds and up. Their forage options were panfish and crayfish along the riprap shore. Could I target them and be successful with lures? It was worth a try.
It wasn't ideal catfish weather—95°F, partly sunny, and humid. These catfish were surely more active at night, but the lake was closed to the public at dark. Maybe early morning or late evening would be a better option, but the locals would be out then for bass and panfish. Midday heat for channel cats with lures? This couldn't possibly be proper catfishing logic.
I tied a #5 silver Mepps Aglia onto a 15-pound monofilament leader that was attached to a barrel swivel on 20-pound braid mainline on a medium-power bass spinning rod. Slowly retrieving the lure in the stained water over shallow weedbeds might coax a strike, as previous panfish efforts had resulted in hookups with big cats. I had made no more than a half-dozen casts when a crushing strike nearly tore the rod from my hands. The power and fury of this fish was a clear indication that it was no bass but indeed a large channel cat. Ten minutes later I was able to maneuver the beast into the shallows and get my hands on it. It had completely engulfed the pike-sized spinner and bent the shaft into a crazy angle, and the fight had been a chaotic, line-peeling mess. At over 30 inches, it was my first In Fisherman Master Angler channel cat and, at that time, my personal best.
I learned a valuable lesson long ago when I saw my first channel cat caught on a lure from a local reservoir. The 3-pound fish had struck an Original Floating Rapala and it etched a clear vision in my teenage brain—that all the popular catfish species, including bullheads, are predators and can be caught with a variety of lures throughout much of the season and much of the nation. Over the next several decades, more images of big cats with various lures hanging from their mouths reinforced the idea that lures could be effective.
Minnow imitations are often the best choice for catfish, especially channels, and they work particularly well in rivers or small streams. Most free-flowing waters that have smallmouth bass also have channel cats and some also have blues or flatheads. A scan of the shallows often reveals a variety of minnow species such as chubs, fallfish, redtails, or other soft-rayed shiners that catfish feed on, especially during spring and summer when baitfish abundance is typically high.
Different lure profiles can excel during specific conditions. During periods of high, turbid water, swift-water cats are on the move and feeding actively. In my local streams and tributaries of the Monocacy River, a Potomac River tributary, channel cats seem to appear from nowhere once the waters are roiled from thunderstorms, activating fish to feed. Vibrating baits like the 1/4-ounce Rat-L-Trap and Cordell Spot trigger aggressive strikes at this time. Two-inch Floating Rapalas and Yo-Zuri Pins Minnows, a favorite of mine in clear water, are also effective at slower retrieve speeds, exhibiting a tighter wobble and accurate size profiles of many minnow species. Cats aren't much different from bass and walleyes in that they use current breaks and ambush points to overtake baitfish that have been flushed into the flow of recent rains.
In-line spinners, producing strong vibrations from the rotating blades, also are effective in high water and are easy to fish with straight retrieves. Blade sizes in #2 and #3 match most baitfish and are easy to cast and work through deeper pools and troughs or along rocky shorelines. If you have 10-pound or larger cats in your local river you can increase blade size to #4 or #5. Classic Mepps Aglias and Black Furys have accounted for a number of big, river channel cats for us over the years.
Once waters recede and clear, 1/8-ounce hair jigs and 3-inch tubes get the attention of bottom-oriented cats that are taking refuge from sunlight in deeper runs. Several winters ago, I found an abundance of 3- to 7-pound channels in a small stretch of Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River. The mild winter and stable water levels had them congregated in a few key locations, sharing deeper, shoreline runs with walleyes and smallmouth bass. Although all three species pounded 3-inch Kalin's Grubs on 1/8-ounce jigheads, catfish dominated the catch on most trips when we were able to wade into position to bounce jigs past stacked-up cats. This certainly isn't an everyday scenario for winter catfish, but proof of their willingness to strike lures despite the sub-50°F water temperatures.
Tipping jigs with bait can make a difference. Most walleye anglers traditionally tip with nightcrawlers, minnows, or minnow portions, and a bycatch of channel or flathead catfish can occur, especially during colder weather. You can up your odds for catfish by threading a portion of a minnow or a piece of fresh cutbait of a native forage species on your jig. Although not always necessary, the added appeal to their acute sense of smell can be an advantage. Some days, only jigs tipped with bait catch cats.
Throughout much of their range, channel cats have an extended period from prespawn to postspawn that puts them in varying moods from heavy feeding pre- and postspawn to little feeding during reproduction and parental care. During early spring and until prespawn, small jigs can be effective. Each year we incidentally catch cats on hair jigs as small as 1/64-ounce, which often are sweetened with a waxworm, meal worm, or a couple of maggots to tempt early season crappies or bluegills. Mostly we fish these baited jigs 3 to 4 feet below small floats, hovering them relatively high in the water column. Cats readily come up to eat these diminutive baits well above the lake floor.
Last April, I landed my personal-best channel cat, a 33-inch 18-pounder from a stocked trout lake. It ate an untipped 1/64-ounce hair jig and fought long and hard on 4-pound line and was another Master Angler entry. When seemingly out-gunned with a monster fish on light gear, it takes patience and a little luck to close the deal.
In many small community and park lakes where local fishery agencies stock channels, catching them on a variety of lures is common. Most of these waters have abundant populations of various sunfish species that often serve as the bulk of the forage base for cats. Squarebill crankbaits can take both bass and cats in the same outing. Look for 1-½- to 2-½-inch lures that replicate bluegills and other sunfish species. Strike King's KVD square-billed series and Livetarget sunfish imitations fit the bill.
It's usually not necessary to get these lures tight to cover as cats patrol riprap shorelines and weededges in late evening and early morning. Casting parallel and close to shore can be a great early summer to mid-fall tactic as low-light cats go on the prowl after sunfish. Anticipate explosive, arm-jolting strikes when a big cat crushes your lure in shallow water. Dusk and dawn are prime times as we have taken cats over 10 pounds on Jitterbugs and gurgling buzzbaits.
In the summer of 2017, we located a pair of small lakes where brown bullheads readily took our suspended jigs intended for bluegills. We tipped most of the lures with bait. We were amazed, however, at how far these "bottom dwellers" would rise above the lake floor to strike jigs. We caught 15- to 18-inch bullheads just 3 feet below a bobber over 10 feet of water. And, once the bait ran out, we continued to catch bullheads on 1/32-ounce unbaited hair jigs and shad darts. Aggressive and powerful for their size, bullheads had us more than once thinking we had a state-record bluegill on the line.
In most of these situations we use light spinning gear with 200-series reels spooled with 12- to 20-pound Gamma or PowerPro green braid. Lures are tied to a 12- to 15-pound, 16- to 20-inch mono leader, connected to a 50-pound-test barrel swivel with an improved clinch knot. The swivel is tied to the braid mainline with a Palomar knot.
Choose a quality spinning reel with a smooth drag because a 30-inch channel cat can be a brutal customer. As the fight progresses, big fish wear down. Test your drag on a "loaded" rod and allow slight slippage on the strike. Big cats should be allowed to run, but not pull freely into logs, rocks, or other cover. Another option is to back-reel. I set my drag tight and back-reel throughout the fight, getting a good sense when the fish is about to run. Hookups of rampaging cats on ultralight panfish gear require you to rely on a reel's drag to control the fish. Be patient and have a full spool of line.
Whatever lure option you choose, make sure your hooks are sharp and strong. Last year, I used barbless hooks almost exclusively and found hookups and successful landings increased. By keeping a tight line you lose few fish, and going barbless also makes it easier and safer to unhook fish, and yourself, should a mishap occur. Landing tools such as a Boga Grip, Frabill Conservation Series landing net, long-nose pliers, or other gripping tools can aid in unhooking and reduce time out of water, which is especially important for fish caught during warm months. Take photos quickly to ensure a successful release of trophy-class cats.
A small plastic box can hold an ample selection of lures for your outing—spinners (blade sizes 3 through 5), 2- to 5-inch crankbaits and surface baits, and hair jigs or tubes from 1/16- to 1/4-ounce. Keep extra swivels and monofilament leader on hand, as well as bait in appropriate containers if you're tipping jigs.
Lures not only work well for aggressive, feeding fish, but also during the colder months. Use insulated chest waders and wear warm clothing when water temperatures dip into the low 60s and below. If you're fishing a river or stream, it's always wise to fish with a friend, and keep an eye on rain events that could cause a quick rise in water levels.