July 24, 2014
If you're a believer, baptized in slime and fervent about the gospel according to the prophets Doug Stange and Toad Smith, it's hard to keep it to yourself. It doesn't matter if you've fished for catfish since you were old enough to hold a fishing rod, or if you're a recent convert from other species of fish, you probably find yourself sharing the satisfactions of catfishing with anybody who listens.
There are risks to sharing your enthusiasm with non-believers. Justin Brucker is a convert to catfishing who lives near the Texas-Oklahoma border in Devol, Oklahoma. "My old bass-fishing friends think I'm crazy," he says. "My brother wanted to disown me after I sold my bass boat and switched to catfishing from a pontoon boat. I sold all my bass rods and reels and bought Abu Garcia 5000 and 6000 baitcast reels and put them on 8-foot Ugly Stik Catfish rods. I even converted from braided line to 30-pound Berkley Big Game mono 'cause I got tired of burning my thumb casting baitcasters and trying to stop a 3- or 4-ounce weight and a big chunk of catfish bait."
Thirty-one-year-old Brucker had been a devotee of bass fishing since he was 15 and was heavily involved in local and regional tournaments. His conversion to catfishing took place over several months. After years of weekend tournaments and tens of thousands of dollars spent accumulating the latest and greatest bass lures and tackle, he'd lost his zest for largemouths.
"It reached a point where it was almost a job to go fishing," he says. "I'd been talking with my wife about maybe giving it up. You have to understand, fishing is what my family has always done for recreation. My son's name is Layke — that says something about what we think is important in life. But it happened that an old friend who's a long-time catfisherman invited me to go fishing with him. We didn't catch anything big, we didn't fill the boat, but we caught a nice mess of cats that I was able to take home and have a big fish fry with my family. Something about the experience excited me and I started fishing for catfish. It took me two months, but when I landed my first channel cat over 10 pounds, you'd have thought I'd won the Lotto by the way I acted. After that, there was no turning back."
Lexington, Kentucky's David McIlrath was fishing for bass with a black plastic worm when a 15-pound channel cat gulped his offering. He was hooked. "The fight was like nothing I'd ever experienced fishing for bass," McIlrath says. "That was it — I wanted to experience that feeling again. But I had no clue how to target catfish, so I became obsessed with learning how to catch them. I bought Stange's book and read about him and Toad. I bought all the In-Fisherman catfishing videos, and started buying Abu Garcia Ambassador reels and Ugly Stik rods."
Not all catfishing conversions are sudden. Kokomo, Indiana's Scott Smith heard friends talking about catfishing, studied the grip-and-grin photos of catfish on bragging boards at local baitshops, and decided to see what it would take to catch a catfish. It took him more than six months to land his first cat.
"All I knew was how to throw artificial lures for bass, and that's all I had in my tackle box," Smith says. "I'd heard catfish like nightcrawlers, so I figured plastic worms would work, so I threw a lot of worms at places that looked like they should hold catfish. All I accomplished was to make my arm sore."
He began using live nightcrawlers and chicken livers, figured out what good catfish water looked like, and was rewarded with his first channel catfish, a 4-pounder. "It was everything I hoped for," he says. "A 4-pound catfish puts up way more fight than a 4-pound bass. Once I figured out how to hook a catfish, the next step was learning how to consistently land them. I broke a lot of lines and messed up some reels till I got the right tackle for cats."
While it's beneficial to have tackle designed for catfishing, it's not necessary. More than one state record flathead or blue cat has been accidentally caught on light tackle using 6- to 12-pound-test line, by anglers fishing for panfish with minnows or jigs. But part of the fun for any type of fishing is selecting and acquiring specialized tackle to improve the size and number of fish caught.
"Women call it 'retail therapy'," says Captain Brad Durick, who guides on the fabled Red River on the North Dakota-Minnesota border, and was a dedicated walleye and northern pike enthusiast until he converted to catfishing. "That's when they go shopping for fun or to feel better. I think guys sometimes use fishing as an excuse for retail therapy. There are times in the winter when I can't take it any more, waiting for catfishing season, and I go online to Cabela's or Bottom Dwellers Tackle and order catfishing gear. "
Brucker admits he's spent a lot of money accumulating an arsenal of rods and reels dedicated to catfishing, but defends catfish tackle on its economy, compared to the cost of specialized gear for other species. "I don't want to put a number on how much money I've saved on catfish tackle compared to what I used to spend on bass gear," he says. "A $40 or $50 catfish rod is the equivalent of a $200 bass rod."
McIlrath admits there are still bass rods, reels, and lures in his garage. His son, Rusty, who was his partner in bass tournaments from the time Rusty was five years old, is an accomplished bass angler and a member of his high school's bass fishing team as a freshman. "We used to go to all the professional bass tournaments," says David McIlrath. "I've got photos of Rusty with Kevin VanDam, Mike Iaconneli, Bill Dance, and all the big-name pros, and he's been on TV several times being interviewed about bass fishing. But I think I've sort of ruined him for bass fishing. His team was going to pre-fish for a big bass tournament last fall, and he asked me if I thought the coach would mind if he took along a catfish rod so he could have some fun after they were done pre-fishing."
Converts to catfishing are often our sport's best recruiters. Durick says one of the highlights of his guiding business is helping non-believers see the light. "I tell people, it's about the fight," he says. "A good example is a friend of mine who hired me to take him and his buddy catfishing. The buddy had never caught a catfish, was a walleye guy from Minnesota who went on the trip just so he could be with his friend and spend the day drinking beer. On the way to the river the walleye-guy was giving me a hard time, saying he just didn't understand why anybody would want to catch a catfish. All I could do was smile and say, 'It's about the fight.'"
Durick says that once they were fishing and the non-believer's rod went down, he had to wrestle it from the rod holder. "His first catfish was around 21 pounds. It swam into fast water and had its way with that guy. His buddy, the catfisherman, caught and landed two smaller fish in the time it took the walleye guy to land one big fish. We finally got it in the boat, and the walleye guy just stood there out of breath, and shook his head and said, 'Okay, I get it — it's about the fight.'"
Durick understands the quick revelation a big catfish can bring to an angler's life. As a once-avid walleye angler who still has a cabin and boat on Devils Lake, a walleye factory in North Dakota, he spends most of his time chasing catfish on the Red River.
"I was all about walleyes till a friend took me catfishing on the Red," he says. "I ended up catching a 6-pound channel cat on my walleye rod. The next day I was at Cabela's buying baitcasting reels, long fiberglass rods, heavy sinkers, and hooks bigger than I'd ever used."
Durick admits he occasionally goes walleye fishing at his cabin, but only for practical purposes. "I go a few times a year to get away and get some walleye fillets, because I almost never keep catfish," he says. "I'm after big channel cats, fish over 15 to 20 pounds, and I release them all. My passion is figuring out how to catch the biggest catfish possible. Studying how catfish relate to currents, flow, and temperature fascinates me. I can never learn it all, and that's what keeps me going back. I wrote a book about catfishing in rivers, and even before I got it back from the publisher I'd learned more things I wish I could have included. Maybe I'll have to write another book — there's so much to learn about catfishing."
McIlrath says the challenge of deciphering rivers and lakes to pinpoint prime catfish holes fulfills his intellectual side, while the aesthetics of catfishing soothe his soul.
"There's nothing that's simultaneously as peaceful yet exciting as sitting and watching lines until the tip of your rod dives down and touches water," he says. "Even when I'm not fishing, I find myself daydreaming about what I need to do to catch a bigger flathead or blue cat. I still have some bass rods. I still go fishing for other species every now and then. But once catfishing gets under your skin it's more than a hobby, it's like a religious experience."
Amen, brother, amen.