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Catfish Week: Bojangles, Campfires & the Nite Bite for Big Channel Cats

You can almost feel the vibrations across the ages, and have the chance to cross paths with some crazy critters and characters.

Catfish Week: Bojangles, Campfires & the Nite Bite for Big Channel Cats
(Larry Tople illustration)

A small fire is the center of the universe as darkness falls and anglers like you and me sit silently, patiently, on a sandbar opposite a big riverbend hole, listening for a reel clicker to call evidence of a whiskered intruder. Some nights the action begins at dark and continues for hours. Occasionally it peaks late at night, while at other times the action never begins and the night is tempered by no more than a fish here and there. A final short round of action is typical, if not guaranteed, during those hours before sunrise, the increasing light apparently signaling a last chance to feed before another day dawns bright and hot.

Lots of you have asked, so I thought I’d take time to answer: Fishing at night has for me never been a consistent connection to larger channel cats, even during the hottest part of summer. Occasionally, yes. Most times, no. So after more than 30 years of spending hundreds of nights on the prowl, I believe that no overwhelming big-fish pattern prevails. A minor pattern here. A minor pattern there. Just depends. Fishing at night is, however, good enough to be worthy of note. And even if it weren’t, I’d still do it just for the excitement and the chance to share a campfire with friends.

Now I know a few of you like a little story with your catfishin’, particularly if it includes my old buddies Zacker and Toad. Well, one night we’d had ourselves a big ol’ midnight feast of cold Kentucky Fried, and the bone piles built up pretty good here and there around our campsite on a sandbar. Feeling fat and sassy, we all settled in for a snooze before morning light broke.

Roundabout first light I heard rustling in camp, peeked out of my sleeping bag, and there was a big ol’ raccoon, butt toward me, tail waving high in the air, not 10 feet away, digging in one of the bone piles. A big, dominant male he was, with a set of bojangles like an old Hereford bull; so it wasn’t any surprise that when I tried to shush him out of camp, he would have none of it—would just turn, bare his teeth and hiss. He was diggin’ those chicken bones, doing the breakfast shuffle, counting his blessings, such as they were.

Soon enough everyone was awake and watching this old boy chewing bones. Funny thing was he’d get grease on his paws—even his feet—and sand would stick to them when he walked. Annoyed, he’d stop and then stick way out and up, toes pointing straight as arrows, first one back leg, then the other, and would try to kick off the sand by doing a pathetic three-legged dance—all the while his tail, big butt, and those old bojangles shaking left-right, up-down. Well, we all got to laughing so hard Zacker finally had to get up and water the bushes, or else.

We fished the next day and didn’t think much about our buddy Bojangles until we set camp on the same sandbar that night. Now, Zacker always carried a pint XXX bottle with him for his arthritis. So just after midnight, Zacker sets this trap—three big yummy-looking chocolate brownies, frosting and all, laced with two sturdy shots of his Russian XXX, mixed neatly in a coffee can set 30 feet away on the sandbar.

Well, it didn’t take two hours for that old beggar Bojangles to hit camp. We all awoke to a ruckus and a mournful whoOOO-chip-chip-chip, whoOOOoo-chip-chip, which I guess is coon talk for “How dry I am,” or maybe, “The last word in lonesome is me.” As we peered from our bags, Zacker shined a flashlight toward the ruckus. Bojangles was sitting flat on his butt, tail sticking out at an odd angle between his legs, fur all messed up with chocolate frosting along one side of his face, the can held tight between his paws and legs. His eyes shining in the light, his head would nod a little left and then nod back a little right. WhooOOOooo-chip-chip-chip. Have you ever seen a raccoon grin?

Finally, ol’ Bojangles stumbled down to the water, intent on swimming the river. He started, then hit the first part of the current, which turned him, and he swam in a circle, hitting the shoreline just about where he started. He stood there for a moment, a little wobbly, considering this odd turn of events: “But I just left here a moment ago.” After two more tries, exhausted by his circuitous activities, he just flopped himself down on the sandbar and went to sleep. Ever heard a raccoon snore?

Raccoon critters aside, I was about to make observations about the night bite for big channel cats. Typical were our early experiments on the Red River below the Lockport Dam just north of Winnipeg, Manitoba, now the most famous channel catfishery in the world. Toad Smith and I first saw this portion of the river on a June day in the 1980s. We’d heard tales of the fishery and went to check it out. Caught some 40 channel cats that day that surpassed 18 pounds. Unbelievable. Still is.

That was sort of the beginning of the new age of catfishing on the Red in Manitoba. A few articles alerted anglers to the fishery, and the rest is history, including Manitoba’s proactive plan to protect the unique fishery, beginning about 1990, with restrictive harvest regulations.

By about 1987, having caught hundreds of 15- to 24-pound channel cats from this fishery during many day-trips, Toad, Manitoba friend Ted Jowett, and I began to wonder if we weren’t missing the big fish. We resolved to spend a few August nights fishing, to check out a nocturnal bite for big cats.

We fished eddy areas below the dam, as well as the head of prominent holes up and downriver. One night we caught 28 fish. Toad always counted. Couple small fish and 24 fish from 14 to 23 pounds. Never saw another angler after midnight. Never scratched a fish larger than we would have caught during the day. Seemed the fish never stopped feeding, no matter the time of day, until most of those holding in an area had been caught. That is, if you fished an eddy area below the dam one night, the catch would be drastically reduced the next night. Same thing for fishing the head of a major hole two nights in a row.

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The fish in this portion of the Red have gotten larger over the years, but it has everything to do with harvest protection and little to do with time of day. But then, I haven’t conducted the same sort of experiment in recent times. I’d expect today, though, to catch a fair number of 15- to 26-pound fish, as well as a few pushing beyond 30, especially during September—the same sort of fish you’d catch during the day.

We did learn interesting things about fishing at night: The Red has a good flow (at least a consistent one) most of the year, even when the water’s down during summer. Once you move downriver from the tailwaters, the river probably averages 150 yards from bank to bank. Some of those shorelines have a distinct lip connected to shallow flats that connect to midriver holes. So, say a shoreline has a lip that drops immediately into a foot or two of water, connected to a flat that runs 3 to 8 to 11 feet deep, which then drops into a hole maybe 15 to 20 feet deep.

If Toad Smith has a legacy in catfishing, something he introduced to the sport beyond his huge personality, it’s float-fishing. Toad was using floats when I first heard of him in the early 1970s. Today, drifting cutbaits below a float is popular on the Red and in a few other areas of the country, but it was entirely unheard of back then.

We anchored at the head (upstream end) of major shallow flats and used the current to drift baits over those flats. No need for a lighted float. Just keep your reel in freespool and monitor the drifting float with your fingers as it moves downriver. You can easily feel a fish take the bait. We could easily drift baits for more than 100 yards downriver before reeling in and beginning again. Set the bait below the float so it just bumps bottom most of the time. If the depth changes and the bait drags or floats a foot or so above bottom, cats still take it. The float not only keeps the bait moving but also keeps it from snagging.

Those flats held a lot of fish at night, and they still do. The surprise was in how many fish pushed right up against lipped shorelines. It seemed like the action peaked in the hours before sunrise, as before, although we also caught fish along those edges during the day. Twenty-pound fish in just a foot or two of water. In 1987, we shot TV shows on consecutive early mornings by fishing from shore on spots like this. I shot one show with Toad, the other with Englishman Duncan Kay. The portion of the filming where Toad and I stood in hip boots drifting baits downriver along those lipped shorelines was never shown; the other action eventually made it into some of our early videos.

That style of fishing isn’t unlike the fishing that transpires this time of year on major river systems like the Mississippi, where falling water levels make it possible to anchor or wade and drift floats over the shallow portions of sand- and gravel bars on or near wing dams. Again, cats push up onto these flats to feed at night. It isn’t unusual to catch 50 fish a night, but it’s rare to get a fish surpassing 10 pounds. The best wing dams seem to be on inside riverbends, although that isn’t a hard rule. The most popular baits are grasshoppers, nightcrawlers, and dipbaits. Most of this is close-range fishing, and anglers seem to prefer lighted floats; but the times I’ve fished this pattern, I didn’t find them necessary.

If there’s a class of water where an angler has a fair shot at bigger channel cats at night, it’s on bodies of water that have a good population of flathead cats in conjunction with channel cats, just the situation we were fishing that night old Bojangles The Bandit wandered into camp. Because of their aggressive predatory nature, flatheads rule these waters, moving all but the biggest channel cats out of primary feeding areas. So, when flatheads feed during the day during prespawn in May and early June, they hold near large snags and move channel cats into snags on river flats.

Once summer arrives, flatheads feed mainly after dark, prowling areas with large snags in conjunction with deeper river holes. Most average-sized channel cats do most of their feeding during the morning, after flatheads stop feeding and hole up for the day. Only the largest channel cats aren’t intimidated by flatheads. So, only the largest channels prowl right along with the flatheads after dark.

Not that you’re likely to connect with many big channel cats on these waters after dark. Just doesn’t seem to be that many large channel cats on any body of water except the Red, though we still have much to learn in this regard. I’m hoping to provoke thinking about this subject and to encourage feedback about what you’ve seen. I keep telling you we don’t know everything there is to know about catfishing. Channel cats inhabit waters in 44 states, and I’ve fished only in about 30 of them.

After dark on these waters, I target them by fishing with deadbait, which flatheads tend to ignore in favor of livebait, the livelier the better. Actually, big channel cats will take either livebait or deadbait, but in my estimation, they tend to prefer fresh cutbait. A typical good set would be with a freshly killed shad or, on the rivers I usually fish, a freshly killed sucker about 8 inches long. I cut off the head and snip off the tail (so the bait casts well and lays well in current) and make a series of cuts to the backbone on one side of the bait.

Using a hook like a 3/0 Mustad 92671 or Eagle Claw 84, my favorite hooks, I slip the hook through the tail of the bait, leaving the point exposed. I usually use a simple set rig consisting of a bell sinker (sliding on my mainline) pushed right up to the bait. No need for a leader between hook and sinker. Then I set the reel on freespool with the clicker on and put the rod in a rod holder. I’ve been using Tite Lok bank sticks for about 5 years. They’re expensive (around $35 retail) but so sturdy they’re bound to outlast me. Of course, a guy can get by with a forked stick.

The main mistake anglers make at night is to let cutbait sit too long without tending it. You know how it goes. You set several lines as the sun goes down. Nothing happens for a half hour—so you let the lines sit. After all, they haven’t been hit. The key is to fish cutbaits aggressively. Let a bait sit for 20 minutes, then reel it in and freshen it up.

Cutbaits work because they exude juices (blood and oil) that attract cats. Freshen the bait (reactivate it) by making a series of cuts on the other side of the bait, then cast to a different spot. Twenty minutes later, reel in the bait and step on it to squash it a bit, reactivating it again. Then make another cast. It’s unusual to go an hour at the beginning of the night without getting bit. By then it’s time to flip that old bait into the woods for the coons and put on a fresh piece.

As I’ve said, when you’re set up on a good hole that hasn’t been heavily fished, it would be unusual not to get action during the first hour after dark. That’s usually a hot time for flatheads, too, so I usually also have a livebait such as a lively bullhead set out for flatheads. If nothing’s happening during the first hour or into the second, chances are it’s going to be a long night. Sometimes I just take a three-hour snooze by the fire through the middle of the night, in order to be ready for the peak period that usually begins about the time light begins to crack the eastern horizon.

By this time, your baits having been set for several hours, it’s time to freshen them, then stir the fire and make coffee. I’ve often gone an entire night without any serious fish, only to get into a few nice ones just before dawn. If they don’t bite then, chances are you’re on a real bummer of a hole, at least until the water rises again and cats have a chance to move back in. This pattern continues into early October in the North Country, and well into early November in parts farther south.

Artwork of a hungover raccoon.
(Larry Tople illustration)

I’ve also fished many lakes and reservoirs after dark, my favorite spots being necked-down areas with a bit of current. The when-fish-bite patterns on these waters are similar to those I’ve already mentioned. Again, at night I’ve caught lots of nice fish, but only occasionally, and unpredictably, larger fish. Across the South, of course, fish bite during the day as well as at night, but the oppressive heat keeps anglers off the water most of the day.

One trick I’ve used on lakes is a cocktail bait, which consists of a piece of nightcrawler in conjunction with fresh cutbait. At first I thought the double bait would double my chances to interest cats that wander by. After a while, I realized that small fish—perch, minnows, bullheads, small cats—were constantly after the nightcrawler. This activity apparently attracts larger cats, which move in and take the cutbait. Other anglers fish a different version of this same rig by just dipping their cutbait in a good dipbait. All sorts of fish are attracted to rotten cheese. And when bigger fish move in, whether attracted by the activity or the cheesy aroma, they have a sturdy piece of cutbait to eat.

So, fishing after dark, in my estimation, only modestly increases the odds of catching larger channel cats, and then only in a few predictable situations. Still, those situations are an important part of the game, particularly if you have access to rivers and perhaps reservoirs where flatheads dominate. Don’t expect to catch many channel cats in those waters, but the ones you catch likely will be good ones.

What qualifies as a big channel cat varies by region. With the exception of the Red River, a 10-pound channel is a good fish, indeed. Of the 7 million catfishermen out there, most of whom are fishing for channel cats, I’d bet no more than a percentage point of them have caught a 10—much less a 20. Imagine then the difficulty in breaking the 58-pound world record. We’re working on verifying the handful of 50-pound fish on the record books. Chances for new world-record flatheads and blue cats seem good, but the present channel cat world record may stand for a long time.

Reasons for fishing at night go well beyond the slightly improved chances it provides for taking larger channel catfish. Our ancient ancestors ended each day sitting around a campfire. You can almost feel the vibrations across the ages as you consider the stars, the night sounds, the catfish, and have a chance to cross paths with critters such as old Bojangles, and characters the likes of Zacker and Toad Smith.

Bojangles, I have to tell you, was the next morning looking very much the worse for wear. The old boy was still snoozing sprawled on his side, tail pointed south and legs headed east, as I began to poke the fire. “Maybe he’s dead?” Toad wondered, as he looked out from his bag. Then a leg twitched, his head raised, and the old boy righted himself. “Just hung over,” Zacker said. Such a sad looking raccoon. Face still matted with chocolate and sand, he began a long, slow, shaky walk down the sandbar, tail no longer raised jauntily but dragging in the sand.

“Probably never eat another piece of chocolate cake,” Toad said.

“Been there, done that, lesson learned,” Zacker said.

Only on a sandbar in the wilderness with these guys, I said to myself. Oh my, it was always hard to tell what another day would bring.




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