Great Lakes Catfishing
May 28, 2014
The broad distribution of channel catfish across North America is a testament to how remarkably successful this fish is. To succeed on such a large scale requires a certain degree of flexibility, which in the case of the channel catfish has allowed it not only to survive, but also to thrive in many types of habitats across a large swath of the continent.
Most of what we have come to know about catfish, including what we regard as standard catfish approaches, has largely evolved from a region encompassing the midwestern and southern states. Certainly if there were ever a coalbed for catfish wisdom, that would be the place, for nowhere in the world have anglers so thoroughly celebrated this fish and embraced this tenacious scrapper for all its delicious plentifulness.
Yet other, much smaller centers of catfish expertise do exist, which challenge many of our preconceptions regarding what we consider optimal habitat for growing big fish. One such microcosm of catfish tacticians is located in the northeastern part of the channel cat's range bordering the Great Lakes. Of particular interest are the perspectives and curious goings-on of a handful of catminded anglers in southern Ontario. This area includes parts of lakes Erie, Ontario, St. Clair, Huron, and Huron's Georgian Bay.
Small groups of catfish anglers have been piecing together the whens, wheres, and whats about catching catfish in their local areas. Adding to the information pool are anecdotal observations from commercial fishermen, fishery management agencies, and researchers, who coincidentally stumble across catfish while searching for answers to other questions.
Catfish knowledge cultivated in southern Ontario could be applied to catfish in other areas bordering the Great Lakes. Such fresh perspectives broaden our general understanding and appreciation for what catfish do and how they react to their surroundings, no matter where in their range you happen to find them.
Tys Theysmeyer of Guelph, Ontario, is a fishery ecologist with the Royal Botanical Gardens. Among his many projects, he's responsible for the operation of a weir, which separates Hamilton Harbor from a large rivermouth wetland complex known as Cootes Paradise at the westernmost part'‚of Lake Ontario. The weir was constructed with the primary purpose of keeping carp from gaining entrance to the marsh, but has since been used to collect data on the fish species that use the marsh, including channel catfish. On average, about 700 adult catfish enter the marsh each year.
Theysmeyer says that while a few channel catfish pass the weir into the marsh in April and May, most arrive sometime in June, occasionally extending into early July. Like clockwork, another run occurs six weeks later when channel catfish leave the marsh. Once the water reaches 22ºC (72ºF), the first major rainfall is guaranteed to prompt a substantial movement of catfish into the marsh.
Anytime during June, a cold front can stop the run altogether and send catfish back to the deeper waters of the harbor. Living so close to the northern edge of their range carries risks for channel catfish because they spawn late in the season, after other species spawn. If cold water temperatures delay catfish spawning into July or mid-August, the abbreviated growing season for juveniles could result in year-class failure, because they won't have acquired enough energy reserves to survive their first winter.
In the case of Cootes Paradise, where water depths average only about 3 feet, Theysmeyer finds that once spawning is complete, catfish migrate back into Hamilton Harbor where the water is deeper. In some other marshy areas along the Great Lakes, habitat is more suitable for adult catfish, so they move in sooner and stay longer. These spots include places like Jordan Harbor, which abuts Lake Ontario, and the Grand River, which flows into Lake Erie. Both of these areas are large and deep enough to hold some catfish throughout the year, but even so, large numbers move out of what seems to be good catfish habitat in preference for open, clearwater lake environments. Commercial fishermen using trap nets along the Lake Ontario shoreline often encounter large numbers of channel catfish, especially during August.
Spawning migrations also take place at numerous marinas, wetlands, and streams adjacent to the Great Lakes. Mid-June and early July are prime times to find open-water cats moving into these areas in search of suitable undercuts, riprap, or other debris around which to build their nests. Anglers taking part in the early bass season on Lake Erie report catching large catfish guarding huge nests fanned out along open shorelines of the main lake. It's not uncommon for these catfish to weigh upwards of 20 pounds, which speaks both to the lack of fishing pressure on these populations and the ability of catfish to find sufficient food in the main lake.
Along the Lake Huron shoreline, catfish migrate up what are generally regarded as steelhead waters, such as the Saugeen and the Nottawasaga rivers. These runs tend to occur earlier than on Lake Erie, and the average size of the catfish tends to be smaller, perhaps due at least in part to the cooler water temperatures in this region. What we know about channel catfish farther northward, into the weathered granite shorelines of Georgian Bay, often comes in the form of spotty reports. Those fish that make headlines tend to be well into the 20-pound class.
Approaches to Great Lakes Catfish
Most standard approaches developed farther south catch catfish in the northeastern part of their range. But don't expect to find vast assortments of stinkbaits or similar accessories on local tackle-store shelves — in fact few anglers in Ontario have tried them. Most of the local catfish anglers have adapted presentations that they've used for other species, which in many cases has led to the pioneering of techniques in relative isolation to input from more southerly anglers.
A popular technique on the Grand River, for instance, is slow-trolling or drifting with worm harnesses weighted to run near bottom. Most effort tends to be focused on the larger pools found in the lower, snag-free sections of the river during the daytime. Here, worm harnesses provide an excellent way to cover water quickly and effectively. This approach produces best either preceding or immediately following the primary spawning run — which makes sense, as in this context the lower pools would represent staging areas for fish prior to and immediately following their run upriver to spawn.
The Welland River, which flows into the Niagara just upstream of Niagara Falls, has a healthy population of catfish. Trevor Katch of Wainfleet, Ontario, is one of a handful of local river rats who specialize in extracting 15- to 20-pound catfish from this area. When fishing from shore, he tends to fish at night, setting up near bridges, dams, or other manmade structures that offer structural diversity and generally encourage downstream pools to form.
In a typical night of fishing, Katch may hit a half dozen proven spots, using large cutbait rigged on a standard slipsinker rig. The large bait is primarily a means of discouraging smaller fish. He has a strong preference for using baitfish that's common to the area he fishes, with large common shiners being his favorite on the Welland.
During the daytime, Katch fishes many of the same spots he fishes at night, but from a boat, rigging the same type of cutbaits on a 4/0 or 5/0 weighted wide-gap bass hook such as a Mustad 91768. This setup allows him to probe the structure rather than waiting for fish to come to him. The technique is applied much like a bass angler would flip for bass, with the exception of pausing baits longer to give the catfish a few seconds to move in on the bait.
Another bait option that's widely used for targeting cats in Great Lakes tributaries is salmon roe, which shouldn't be all that surprising considering how seasonally plentiful this food source is and how opportunistic channel catfish can be. While many steelheaders inadvertently hook cats while fishing roe bags beneath a float, catfish anglers opt for large gobs of skein attached to the hook via a skein knot or through the use of Spider Thread. Spider Thread is more commonly used for tying roe bags, but it's amazing for holding softbaits like skein or chicken liver to your hook. Put your bait up against the hook shank, apply a dozen or so wraps, and the bait is there to stay. The larger profile and scent emanating from a gob of freshly cut skein has to be on a par with even the most potent fish scents or commercial stinkbaits.
So, what does all this mean to anglers interested in catching Great Lakes catfish? Expect some of the best fishing to happen during the spawning run, when fish move out of main-lake areas and funnel into harbor mouths, marinas, and small wetlands to spawn. Expect bigger rivers and marshes to attract catfish first and hold them longer. If catfish are only using an area for spawning, they may be in and out in two weeks; but hit it right and you may find yourself connecting with giants that have never seen a human up close. Heavy rain events occurring between mid-June and July should be prime time.
For those looking for even more of challenge, trap-net records suggest that neckdown areas along main-lake shorelines, such as openings in breakwalls and the mouths of inflowing streams, offer prime intersection points later in the year, especially when teamed with current or storm runoff.
If you find a spot that looks like it has all the ingredients, don't give up on it just because you didn't catch anything on your first visit. Fishing for catfish, especially big ones, takes persistence, which makes the capture of a trophy all the more rewarding.
Like any longlived fish, big catfish are particularly susceptible to overharvest. A 16-pound catfish taken from the St. Lawrence River was believed to be almost 40 years old, though 24 years is considered a more reasonable maximum age. So, handle these fish with care and release the big ones, because the 20-pounders of today are the 30-pounders of the future.
Great Lakes Catfish Stateside
At the May 2006 Cabela's King Kat qualifying tournament held on Lake Erie at Monroe, Michigan, anglers fished Bolles Harbor and the powerplant discharge to catch limits of channel cats on cut shad. Two teams tied for first place with 7-fish limits of 66.4 pounds, with a 17.5-pounder taking big fish honors. This Great Lakes catfishery, just south of Detroit, is covered in more detail in this Catfish In-Sider Guide in Dan Anderson's article on some of the better but lesser-known fisheries.
Along Lake Erie, catfishing can be phenomenal, says Jeff Tyson, Fisheries Biology Supervisor for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. During May and June, channel catfish move near shore for spawning on flats, particularly sandflats, with anglers catching mixed bags from 14- to 16-inch eaters to 20-pounders. Good fishing lasts through summer in many areas.
Tyson recommends several options, including Metzger's Marsh, located 13 miles east of Toledo, Ohio. Anglers catch lots of catfish in the canal, and those in the main lake are accessible by boat or from the fishing pier. Other options according to Tyson include the Maumee River and the Bayshore access at the powerplant in Maumee Bay near Toledo. The Huron River from Huron upstream to Milan is another good bet for channels. Both the Maumee and Huron were historically stocked with flatheads, with remnant populations and larger flatheads existing in both rivers.
On Lake Huron, Saginaw Bay in Michigan is among the best spots for Great Lakes channel cats. In summer, big channel catfish suspend in open water in the bay, where they're caught on trolled crankbaits and spinner rigs. Traditional cat rigs baited with cutbait also produce in near-shore areas. The Au Gres River, flowing into Saginaw Bay, is a top spot for scads of fish in summer.
On Lake Michigan, Green Bay hosts some good channel cat fishing, in addition to the Fox River from its mouth at the bay upstream to the dam at De Pere. Reports of big channel cats caught by walleye anglers also come from Big Bay de Noc, Michigan.
Off cold Lake Superior, a productive fishery exists in the St. Louis River Estuary, from the mouth of the St. Louis at Duluth 20 miles upstream to the Fond du Lac Dam. John Lindgren, Fisheries Specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Duluth, says that most catfish caught in nets during surveys are in the 18- to mid-20-inch range. He says their nets don't sample the larger fish, but anglers tangle with catfish upwards of 10 pounds.
Catfish are overlooked options throughout the Great Lakes, so there are likely other spots where anglers can get into some fine Great Lakes catfishing. Many tributaries, harbors, and bays exist along hundreds of miles of shoreline, providing plenty of opportunities for exploration.