Fishing Channel Catfish
May 23, 2012
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.