Fishing Channel Catfish

Fishing Channel Catfish

The stream sections I remember vividly, having walked them and fished them for more than 40 years, stretch beyond reality into imagination. Sometimes, thinking about where catfish hold so predictably in these waters, I dream of trips to rivers in parts of the country I haven't yet visited.


One recurring curiosity is about fishing the Little Missouri River in western North Dakota. It is because I have long been interested in the history of the Plains Indians; so I wonder about them fishing the river as they camped in those years when they roamed the area.



There's no record of any such fishing, but I get there by leap of fact and faith: We are told about General Crook and General Custer as they pursued the Lakota and other allied Indian factions in the period before and, in Crook's case, after Custer's annihilation at the Little Horn River in late June 1876.

By the time of Custer's death, Crook and his command in pursuit of the Indians from the south, up from Wyoming into Montana, had already been kicked in the pants and pushed back into camp in Wyoming on Goose Creek, at the base of the Big Horn Mountains. The record indicates the men fished Goose Creek by various means, including hook and line — but more often in the way the Indians usually fished, by herding the fish with their horses, running them upstream or downstream into shallow areas where "fishermen" waited. Thousands of fish were caught during the weeks Crook was in camp.


Those fish probably were cutthroat trout. The Little Horn (or Little Bighorn), which runs into the Big Horn, which runs into the lower Yellowstone, has channel catfish as well as trout. Custer's men didn't get time to fish, but surely some of the Indians did from time to time — and so it's no stretch to imagine them occasionally fishing the Little Missouri, which also was a fundamental part of their terrain.


I have read that the Little Missouri by late summer often is so shallow that it's difficult to float by canoe. But that's true of many small streams in North America in a typical August, until the September and October rains gather. I know something of the Little Missouri from photos of it set in the surrounding terrain, so it's easy to imagine the stream — the riffles, the holes, the runs — and where the fish would hold.

I could catch a mess of channel cats for an evening meal and overnight encampment on a bank of the Little Missouri. I'm confident because I've not been anywhere else in North America where small-stream fishing isn't the same type of small-stream fishing that I grew up with in Iowa in the 1960s.

The stream I fish most often now in Minnesota is so secluded in certain sections that it wouldn't surprise me if a Pterodactyl flew overhead. This comes to mind because I am watching TV the other night, flipping from channel to channel, and suddenly on a sci-fi channel two time travelers are walking somewhere in open country and a Pterodactyl swoops from above and clips off the top half of one guy, leaving only two legs topped by a part of lower torso spurting blood in great burbling leaps toward the sky. Cool.

The catfish in my Minnesota stream hold in the same places the catfish did when I last fished a small section of the upper Des Moines River in Iowa before my old buddy Toad Smith died. Those fish, meanwhile, held in the same places the fish did in my boyhood streams, Otter Creek, the Little Rock River, the Big Rock River, and the Big Sioux. Well, maybe leave the Big Sioux out. The fishing's almost the same, but you get to tinkering around in little-bit-­bigger rivers like the Big Sioux and the fish get spread out a bit more and become more difficult to pin down — the story begins to change.

Well, not that much come to think of it, especially in the uppermost sections of that river near Sioux Falls. That's a salient point, here. We have creeks and small streams and the smaller upper sections of bigger rivers that all function alike, whether you're in New York, Michigan, Alabama, North Dakota, or Florida. Except in Alabama you might have to watch out for snakes — maybe 'gators too in Florida. Might actually be a rattler or two along the Little Missouri. Have to check on that before I go.

That day now more than 17 years ago, Toad is using 10-pound line on a spinning reel on a 6-foot rod to flip a grasshopper and a classic red-and-white round bobber into likely spots. (A good float today would be Rod-N-Bobb's new EZ-flo Slip Bobber with the big eyelet on top for easy line flow.) The hook's an Aberdeen, probably a #4 for big hoppers or a #6 for smaller ones, held down by a lead shot about 6 inches above the bait, which is riding about 1.5 feet below the bobber. Meanwhile, I'm using an ancient 9-foot fiberglass flyrod with an old flyreel. I have a short section of monofilament leader tied with a nail knot to the flyline — and the same terminal setup as Toad's (minus the float).

These are simple yet effective rigging options wherever you fish. You ever see a happy duck walking through the barnyard? A waddle here and there and always a little butt wiggle — a little tail-feather shake — along the way. That's Toad and me walking along that stream that day. It's easy to catch fish in this setting and it feels good. Catch fish, talk smart, have fun — shake a little tail feather, baby.

I'm following Toad as we walk upstream. Our system that day is for him to fish through areas first, making a pitch and a short drift or two with his rig. Then I follow, fishing more thoroughly by dabbling the bait vertically into and through the highest percentage spots.

Given that we're both wading wet in jeans and tennis shoes, I wade right into the stream to reach the critical spots. At that point I hold a bait in a spot until I'm satisfied no one's home — or at least no one's going to bite. Or I make the same 5-foot drift 5 times in a row in less than a minute, before moving on.

In a mile river section it isn't unusual to find a dozen decent spots with little bit deeper water and catch a couple dozen fish. It certainly isn't unusual on my Minnesota stream to have a 20-fish afternoon, fishing at a leisurely pace. I fish a little slower these days. Twenty fish doesn't seem that many fewer than twenty-five, like it used to in the old days.

One of the biggest channel cats I've seen caught in a tiny stream was brought to bank by Chef Lucia Watson last year as we filmed an ­In'‘Fisherman TV segment about selective harvest. That fish probably weighed 6. Most fish weigh a pound or two. As was the case with Lucia's fish, most big fish are in portions of streams with close access to lakes or larger rivers. This fish was about two miles upstream from where this little river dumps into a small reservoir.

Another way to walk a stream with a friend is to take turns fishing each spot as you go. Or, if you're in a hurry, you can hopscotch each other, fishing every other hole or goodlooking spot along the way. But it's fun to watch someone else fish a spot, anticipating what's going to happen and, perhaps, giving commentary on what they're doing right and wrong. Toad could talk trash with the best of them. I'd listen for a while, catch a catfish, then turn and look at him with all the feigned disdain I could muster: "Bite me!"

Told a story once about fishing with In-Fisherman Publisher Steve Hoffman when he first came to work at ­In'‘Fisherman. He was hired originally to be the new editor of Catfish In-Sider magazine. We're fishing with Mark Mihalakis of the Cat Tracker bait company, wading wet for catfish in a small stream in August. Me? Well, I'm working, shooting pictures to capture this historic event.

Of course, the fishing's pretty good — easy, actually. And right away, don't you know it, as all those young fellers were wont to do in those days, Hoffman's talkin' trash. "Boys, boys, boys, wouldja look at this, yettanother catfish. And a big 'un," he's saying, with a Howard Cosell canter and swagger in his voice. "Maybe the biggest old catfish to ever come from this or any stream of any size, anywhere in this here country. Just call me King Catfish — the Catfish Kid. Better yet, just call me Mister Catfish — the hottest, the most astute catfish angler of this or any age. Tell you what, if Bill Dance calls, he can just cool his jets; my agent will be in touch."

After a half hour of all that lip and me sweatin' and shootin' photos, well, that kind of uppity was uppity enough. So I say, "Hold it there, Spiffy. Take the camera and shoot me."

"But you don't have a rod," he says.

"Not a problem where I learned to fish, " I say.

So I pick up an old tree branch with an impressive bend. Cut myself 8 feet of line and tie it to the end of the branch. Add a hook. Catch a grasshopper. And in three minutes I'm swingin' a catfish bankside.

"Cost per catfish catch-ratio, four cents," I say. "Let me know when you can break 50 cents and you can be editor in chief." Trash in, trash out.

I have occasionally fished like that before — just picking up a bank-side stick and making do. What you find if you do this a few times is that soon you go looking for just a little bit better stick — a little thinner and lighter and maybe longer than the one you have. No surprise then that we do the same thing as we bring today's rods and reels to bear on any fishing situation. We're always looking for a little bit better tool. And even when we've probably found it, we still keep searching and also get pleasure in debating our choices with other anglers who have chosen something different.

But this fishing is easy enough most of the time that just about any rod — reel or no reel — works just fine. Any old canepole works. Some streams have enough cover to require heavier line and a rod with backbone, but many streams in farm country don't have any timber cover at all.

Talk about fun, last year I fished with a Shakespeare Ugly Stik Crappie Pole. They make them 10 and 12 feet long and they break down into 3 or 4 pieces for easy storage. Not a lot of backbone in these sticks, but that's just fine in most cases. I used an 8-foot section of 10-pound line and no reel. Hand-to-hand combat. Little box of hooks in one pocket, a bag of split shot and maybe some cutbait in a plastic bag in my back pocket, just in case I couldn't catch grasshoppers from along the stream bank. Dipbaits work well this time of year, too. The meat from crayfish tails can be dynamite. Carry a wire fishbasket with you as you go if you want to save a fish or two for dinner.

Dinner, indeed. The stream section I've been walking the last couple years runs through an old farmstead with a retired couple living in a mildly weathered, classic old three-story house. As of last year they were still doing a beautiful garden. Most days I can see the two of them sitting in the shade on the back porch when I round a bend in the stream. So I go up and sit for a spell, have a Kool Aid, and enjoy the summer breeze as it blows through the trees.

They drive a hard bargain. I skin them several small catfish and they insist that in return I take a few ears of sweetcorn and a couple big fat ripe tomatoes. When I get home it's deep-fried catfish fillets, sliced tomatoes with blue-cheese dressing drizzled on top, and freshly buttered sweetcorn sprinkled with salt and cayenne pepper. That's late summer catfish fishing — simply as good as it can get.

Drop Shot Rig

Dropper Rigs

These rigs can perform well for panfish, like crappies and perch, that are feeding near bottom. One rig is called the dropper-loop rig for the looped snells holding the hooks off the 6- to 12-pound-test monofilament mainline. Sinker size ranges from 1/2 to 2 ounces depending on conditions. Typically, one to three pre-tied snells are secured 12 to 18 inches above the sinker for presenting multiple baits simultaneously, state laws allowing.Drop-shot rig — The drop-shot rig is a type of dropper rig, often used in bass fishing. On a drop-shot-rig, the hook is attached directly to the mainline rather than on a loop or leader shooting off the mainline. Below the hook is a sinker fixed to the end of the mainline. The rig allows baits to be presented off bottom a set distance, and is effective with livebaits, as well as with artificial softbaits such as worm, grub, and minnow imitations. On a drop-shot rig, baits can be worked very still, or jiggled and twitched, to attract fish and trigger strikes.

Generic Egg Sinker Rig

Livebait rigging is used to drift or troll livebait on or near the bottom, with frequent pauses to give fish a good look at the bait. If a fish strikes, drop the rod tip toward the fish and feed a little line as it swims off. A sliding sinker reduces weight resistance. Heavier fixed sinkers risk spooking fish that strike the bait and feel unnatural pressure.

Generic Slip Rig

Livebait rigging is used to drift or troll livebait on or near the bottom, with frequent pauses to give fish a good look at the bait. If a fish strikes, drop the rod tip toward the fish and feed a little line as it swims off. A sliding sinker reduces weight resistance. Heavier fixed sinkers risk spooking fish that strike the bait and feel unnatural pressure.

Lindy Rig

Livebait rigging is used to drift or troll livebait on or near the bottom, with frequent pauses to give fish a good look at the bait. If a fish strikes, drop the rod tip toward the fish and feed a little line as it swims off. A sliding sinker reduces weight resistance. Heavier fixed sinkers risk spooking fish that strike the bait and feel unnatural pressure.

Northland Roach Rig

Livebait rigging is used to drift or troll livebait on or near the bottom, with frequent pauses to give fish a good look at the bait. If a fish strikes, drop the rod tip toward the fish and feed a little line as it swims off. A sliding sinker reduces weight resistance. Heavier fixed sinkers risk spooking fish that strike the bait and feel unnatural pressure.

Rubbercor Rig

Livebait rigging is used to drift or troll livebait on or near the bottom, with frequent pauses to give fish a good look at the bait. If a fish strikes, drop the rod tip toward the fish and feed a little line as it swims off. A sliding sinker reduces weight resistance. Heavier fixed sinkers risk spooking fish that strike the bait and feel unnatural pressure.

Sinker Placement

Slipsinker Rig

Teamed with livebait, the slipsinker rig has accounted for more walleyes than any other presentation, but this versatile rig also is a favorite of catfish anglers and has taken many bass, pike, sturgeon, and panfish. The heart of this rig is a sinker that slides on the monofilament or braid mainline above a barrel swivel. For walleyes, for example, you might use a 1/4-ounce walking sinker, 6- to 10-pound monofilament mainline, and a leader of 4- to 10-pound monofilament or fluorocarbon, with an octopus style hook of a size appropriate for the bait. For larger fish, like big catfish, upgrade to line tests of 20 to 30 pounds or more. As with the split-shot rig, the length of the leader determines bait action and control. Use sinker weights appropriate for current and depth. Slipsinker rigs used in strong current might require sinkers up to 8 ounces or more.
The slipsinker rig can be cast and slowly retrieved, slowly trolled, or used as a stationary presentation, so the depth of the water, bottom terrain, and how fast the bait is being moved by the boat, current, or during retrieval, all play a part in determining the weight of the sinker. The sinker usually is a boot-shaped walking sinker or egg- or bell-shaped sinker for gravel and sandy bottoms, or a bullet sinker in weeds and wood. Beads or blades are sometimes added to the leader in front of the hook as an attractant.
Because the mainline slips through the sinker, anglers often find it to their advantage to let a fish 'œrun' with the bait, fishing the presentation with an open spool and letting the fish pull line off the spool with the least resistance possible. This gives the fish more time to get the bait further in its mouth or throat, which can cause more — often lethal — injury to fish. If you can set the hook quickly, or fish on a tight line, it'™s often better to do so, especially if you intend to release your catch.

Slip Float Rigs

This is the rig that just about every angler fishing today started out with that first time they went fishing, although most were probably too young to remember. Nothing too fancy, just a float or 'œbobber' a couple of feet up the line from some split shot, and a hook baited with a worm below that. Works like magic on panfish.
There are two primary types of float rigs — fixed-float and slipfloat. The fixed float is just that, when the float is fixed to a certain point on the line, and is best fished in situations where the fish are feeding shallow, say four feet or less. The slipfloat rig allows the float to slide up and down the line so you can fish in deeper water. A small bobber stop is fastened on the line somewhere above the bobber to limit how far up the line the bobber can slide, determining how deep the bait is fished. When the rig is reeled in, the stop goes through the rod guides and onto the spool of the reel to allow for casting and retrieving.
While the fixed-float rig is a good way to target shallow fish like crappies, bass, sunfish, catfish, and trout, the slipfloat rig'™s ability to go deep broadens the potential species list to include pike, walleye, muskie, striper, and more. A longer light-to-medium action spinning rod, about 7 feet long, with a slow to moderate action, spooled with 4- to 8-pound monofilament, is a good choice for a float rig. Hooks should be matched to the bait, such as a #4 to #8 baitholder hook for angleworms and nightcrawlers, for example, although a jig also can be used.
Fishing a float rig often is a case of not doing anything at all, letting the bait do the fish-attracting work, as the float is slowly moved by wave action on the surface. Both rigs should be cast by gently swinging the rig sideways and behind you, then thrusting the rod toward the target with a slight upward motion as you release the line. You want to lob the rig to a specific spot as gently as possible. If the wind is blowing, or you'™re fishing in current, target your cast so that the wind or current moves the rig into your target zone. In other instances, a little bit of action added by quick twitches of the rod tip or even substantial pulls that move the bait up in the water column and then let it settle, induces strikes. The float signals when a fish is on the line, a visual experience that remains exciting to anglers no matter their age or fishing experience.

Standard Three-Way Rig

An alternative to the set rig is sometimes called the bottom rig or three-way rig. While this rig can be used from the boat, slowly trolled, it also works well as a stationary presentation. Instead of attaching the mainline to the sinker, the mainline is attached to a three-way swivel, with a dropper line to the sinker, and a leader and hook. This adaptation allows the bait to move a little higher off the bottom.

Weedless Bullet Sinker Rig

Livebait rigging is used to drift or troll livebait on or near the bottom, with frequent pauses to give fish a good look at the bait. If a fish strikes, drop the rod tip toward the fish and feed a little line as it swims off. A sliding sinker reduces weight resistance. Heavier fixed sinkers risk spooking fish that strike the bait and feel unnatural pressure.

Split Shot Rig

A hook tied on the end of the line with a sinker pinched on the line above the hook might be one of the best-producing panfish presentations of all time, but it works for bigger fish, too. Most often fished with live­bait like nightcrawlers, angle­worms, minnows, or maggots, this rig can work with some softbaits, like smaller worms and curlytail grubs. The beauty of this rig is that it lets the bait swim free to attract fish with its natural movement. The closer to the hook the sinker is placed the less movement allowed; the farther away the hook and sinker are separated the less control you have and bites can be missed. The number and weight of the sinkers is determined by depth, current, and size of the bait. You want just enough weight to keep the bait freely moving and in the strike zone.
Due to the light weight of this rig, it'™s usually fished in water shallower than about 20 feet, and most often shallower than 8 feet, with a 6- to 7- foot slow to medium action, medium-light power spinning rod with 4- to 8-pound-test monofilament line. The split-shot rig can be gently cast and slowly retrieved, fished stationary, or allowed to drift. Follow the drift with your rod tip to be sure it drifts naturally and doesn'™t snag.

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