October 22, 2017
Maybe they were stocked years ago for a kids fishing derby or perhaps just a sidelight of the local DNR management plan. Whether by design or accident, terrific opportunities for channel cats exist for shore-bound anglers in countless small lakes and reservoirs across the land, both for numbers and sizes that impress. Yesteryear's Huck Finns are now banking pot-bellied kitties like never before.
Throughout many regions of the country, small public lakes dominate the fishing landscape as developers and private landowners have created waters from 2 to 20 acres in urban and rural park settings as well as small community lakes. Many are managed by state fishery agencies and the channel catfish stocking programs have often paid off with quality and sometimes untapped fishing.
In early spring, usually March but sometimes into late February, lethargic cats stir on the first warm days where springtime highs hold in the 50s and 60s for a 3- to 5-day period. Sun-warmed shallows attract the first cats and they may cruise just off the bottom or suspend above remaining vegetation, feeding on small sunfish or crayfish. Midday efforts tend to be more productive, and we often divide tactics between slipsinker rigs on the bottom and float-fishing, allowing baits to drift with the wind to cover more territory.
Small, home-spun baits like hotdog pieces, chicken livers, or fresh cut oily baitfish from local markets produce more and bigger fish at this time due to the sluggish nature of cold cats. Actively feeding but not aggressively striking, they can be tentative biters and sometimes mouth a bait for several minutes before committing. For that reason, we use European style bite alarms designed for carp angling.
Alarms can be a huge asset for shore-fishing. They're sensitive and inexpensive and can indicate the activity level of biting cats. They particularly shine later in summer, when night-fishing becomes a prime tactic. We use alarms made by Delkiem and Flazar, both of which operate on a single 9V battery. Coupled with a dual-clutch baitrunner spinning reel like the Okuma Avenger or the Shimano Aero, alarms make a joyful noise when cats take off with baits. Most alarms have adjustable audio pitches and volume levels that can help you locate a bite among a spread of rigs along a shoreline.
Stationary baits rely on fish being drawn to your offering, while drifting baits on floats enables you to cover more water to locate feeding cats. Many of our fish are taken on baits drifted below floats in waters where submerged vegetation forms in and around incoming streams or long expanses of shallow, featureless flats in 5 to 10 feet of water. Cats are drawn to creek mouths, especially during rainy conditions. Once the water clears they tend to scatter in smaller ponds and lakes, often feeding in suspended positions. Drifting baits 3 to 6 feet deep over an 8-foot flat usually makes a connection, and then the other rods are deployed according to the depth of fish contact.
Economical bait options abound. Our gold standard for decades has been fresh chicken livers. But small-water channel cats can quickly discern specific bait types, shunning last week's hot ticket in favor of a new item. Released fish become wary and selective, especially if angling pressure is high. Indiana pondmeister Tony Livingston has noted that channel cats stocked in his ponds show strong aversion to repeated bait offerings. His believes that, at least in the smaller environs, they become line-shy and selective, often difficult to catch after the initial encounter. He recommends switching bait types often.
Starting in spring, we rotate baits to include raw shrimp, imitation crab meat, pickled herring, fresh chicken livers, flavored hotdogs, and fresh, native cut sunfish. Other options include dough-, stink-, and bloodbaits. A favorite is live nightcrawlers, despite bycatch of non-target species.
Shoreline tactics can be deadly on large waters that run from 50 to 1,000 acres or more. The best spots can vary, but great springtime locations are often up-lake flats with incoming feeder creeks that can both roil the water and elevate the water temperature after warm spring rains. Two lakes I fish, 300-acre Piney Run in central Maryland and 1,200-acre Lake Marburg in southern Pennsylvania, have major runoff areas that are both shallow and warmer than main lake regions in spring and early summer.
Both lakes have forage that draws big cats shallow long before other gamefish species arrive in spring. In Marburg, winterkilled shad pile up in tributaries, and at Piney Run, abundant golden shiners attract hungry, prespawn cats. At both lakes, anglers score with fresh cutbait on slipsinker rigs on bottom, and multiple rod setups that span various depths throughout the tributaries. Also at Piney Run is an annual stocking of eater-sized rainbow trout in spring and fall, triggering a big-fish bite that includes largemouth bass, stripers, and big channel cats, many running from 8 to 14 pounds. If regulations permit, cut trout can be a dynamite option that cats aren't used to seeing.
As water temperatures rise into the low 60s, cats become more active and feed on a variety of baits. Look for fish tight to wind-blown banks pounded by southerly winds for several days, pushing warmer surface water up against the shore and attracting both bait and cats into easy casting range. These banks can run 3°F to 7°F warmer than the mainlake and are early season magnets, holding fish for several days.
Tight, shallow constrictions or saddles can be early season hotspots as well. In these areas, cutbait on float rigs can pull bruiser cats up off of the bottom in 10 to 14 feet of water. Use the wind to move baits around and cover more water.
Marina docks are prime targets for bass anglers and they can be catfish havens as well. Most of the better docks we fish have lights on them that fish have become accustomed to. Cats make routine feeding movements keying on abundant sunfish or minnow species that frequent these structures throughout the bulk of the summer. Where permitted, dock-fishing at night with live native sunfish and other baitfish can put some of the biggest cats of the season on the dock. Many lake managers have initiated catfish tournaments and the night bite is often the best during the summer months, drawing good crowds and big cats.
In many lakes and reservoirs out east, big channel cats can key on stocked rainbow trout. I've seen several 12- to 15-pound channel cats that had 12-inch stocker rainbows in their stomachs. Again, if regulations allow, cut trout and similar oily fish provide bigger fish an option they aren't used to. It's another situation where keying in on a specific forage can kick-start a big-fish bite where anglers thought none existed.
Chumming and Distance Casting
At times, larger waters may require a combination of chumming and distance casting. Where legal, chumming can draw cats to areas you can reach. Many anglers have their own brew to attract them. In unpressured lakes, marinated or seasoned hotdog pieces work well. Some anglers use small pieces of frozen chicken livers and broadcast them with a baiting spod or a bait shovel. The spod is best used when you need to bait a long distance from shore, such as to a creek channel or drop-off. By spodding baits to these areas attractive to cats, they hold in a location for extended periods of time, often several hours.
Many chumming options work, and fresh cut bluegills are sometimes as good as it gets for matching natural forage. Unlike carp fishing, prolonged baiting efforts aren't required to draw catfish to specific areas. Same-day chumming always draws some fish, often many, to target areas.
Broadcast chum slightly upwind or upcurrent to draw fish away from bottom hazards that may cause snags and tackle loss. Also try to entice fish from areas of heavy cover to where you can more effectively fight and land them.
Some catfish hotspots may require long casts. Light surf rods from 9 to 11 feet match well with braided lines testing 20 to 30 pounds. We like to use large-spool 400- or 500-series spinning reels for distance casting. They handle sliprigs with 2 ounces of weight well for distances to almost 100 yards.
The size of cats you expect to encounter determines your tackle setup. Most of our fish weigh from 4 to 10 pounds, with the occasional fish in the low- to mid-30-inch range. Our favorite rods are 6.5- to 7-foot medium-power Shakespeare Ugly Stiks and Ugly Stik Lites. They're durable and economical and provide ample casting distance. Teamed with 4000 series baitrunner spinning reels like the Okuma Avenger or the Shimano Aero, they cover the bases for shore duty. If longer casting distances are needed, 8- to 9-foot Ugly Stiks and the combos described above get you out there. Another good distance-casting option is the Daiwa Carp Angling Series, available at most carp angling distributors on the Internet.
For mainline, we've used Gamma Torque Green Braid and Stren Super Braid in 20- or 30-pound test, and they perform well running through the roller feed on our bite alarms. For leaders, which run 16 to 24 inches long, we like 15- or 20-pound Berkley Trilene XT in clear or Ande 15-pound monos. We tie on Owner SSW Circle and Mutu Light hooks in sizes 2/0 and 4/0.
For tightlining bottom presentations using bite-alarm systems, we thread egg sinkers from 1/2 to 2 ounces on the mainline, depending on the casting distance required. A 40-pound-test barrel swivel is tied in between the leader and the mainline, with an improved clinch knot on the mono end and a "doubled-up" four-wrap clinch on the mainline. A plastic bead cushions the impact of the egg sinker on the knot. This same rig, minus the sinker, works for drifting baits below floats. Place fixed floats from 3 to 6 feet above the baited hook and let the wind drift baits. Wind-drifting baits below highly visible floats don't require the use of the bite alarm.
Many anglers dream of far off fisheries where lunkers prowl. But day-in, day-out, shore opportunities close to home for fine catfishing remain available to just about everyone. Bank on it!
Bait in Store
Fishing for brawny channel cats from shore can involve a variety of home-spun, store-bought baits that are sometimes more effective than standard baitfish and cutbait. Small-water cats can grow wary of baits, so have a variety on hand to switch things up as the fish catch on. Here are some options that can keep you into the game.
Chicken Livers — Often considered the gold-standard for quick and easy catfish baits, chicken livers have been catching cats for decades. We like to bundle them in smaller, cheese cloth "sacks" about 1.5 inches in diameter and run the hook through them and fish them on the bottom with little or no weight. Small frozen portions of livers can be used to chum areas to draw cats as well.
Flavored Hotdogs — We've had surprising success with hotdogs sliced into inch-thick sections and then sprinkled with garlic powder and zapped in the microwave for 20 to 30 seconds. They toughen up once nuked and hooking them through the rind, or skin, keeps them on the hook longer. Float-drifting hotdog chunks get the juices up and off the bottom, drawing hungry cats.
Imitation Crab Meat — The first time we tried fake crab meat we had a dozen runs and landed numerous 5- to 9-pound fish. It's not the toughest bait on a hook, but we sometimes anchor a 2-inch piece with a section of nightcrawler to provide a nice "cat cocktail."
Shrimp — We look for 1- or 2-pound bags on sale and fish these up off the bottom under a float. Bigger shrimp can be cut in half, depending on the hook size and fish size. You can marinate shrimp overnight in garlic sauce or other flavorings. Sometimes this is the ticket. Anticipate a bycatch of other species with shrimp.
Cut Fish — Store-bought cut mackerel and herring almost always draw cats due to the high oil content and distinct odors and flavors they possess. Other options are chunked portions of market trout or salmon. We've found that most market fish options are better during the Coldwater Period in early spring or late fall.
Marinated Cut Bluegills — Catch some bluegills at the local pond and then marinate/season them with garlic, sea salt, or any other flavors you have in mind. This is a dandy way to keep bait on hand as they can easily be frozen after each trip.
Parks, Ponds, & Cats
Some of the most overlooked venues can be found in small municipal and county park ponds and lakes. Ignored by the masses and visited by the picnic crowd, diminutive waters can offer big dividends for the shorebound catman.
Paul Sell, of Westminster, Maryland, fishes numerous small lakes within easy driving distance of his central Maryland home. By searching the Internet and watching YouTube videos, Sell has developed strategies that routinely put 6- to 12-pound channels on the bank. His favorite baits include small live bluegills and flavored hot dog pieces suspended below bobbers, but he switches to other baits if cats get fussy. Top flavorings include garlic powder and strawberry and grape flavored Jell-O that he soaks wiener chunks in overnight. He puts the powdered gelatin mix and hot dog chunks in a Ziploc bag and stores it overnight for a high-powered, strong-scented effect on picky pond cats that have grown wary of chicken livers and other standard baits. The 1- to 2- inch pieces discourage pesky panfish while appealing to a catfish's sense of smell.
Fishing a three-rod spread (legal in Maryland waters), he suspends baits on 2/0 circle hooks from 18 to 36 inches below floats. Often, his bigger fish are caught in shallow water, and fish don't even pull the float under, but tow the float without submersion. He likes to position his baits above weedbeds where bigger cats cruise.
Where channel cats adhere to a nocturnal pattern, he uses European-style bite alarms for strike indication after dark. His tactics work anywhere small waters hold channel cats and he keeps an eye out for local waters that are stocked periodically for kid's fishing derbies. Chances are good that some trophy-class cats exist in a small, public park lake somewhere near you. The largest fish we've seen within local town limits is a 22-pounder that came from a one-acre park pond that features baseball diamonds and walking trails.