Small Water Catfish
June 03, 2014
Catfish anglers are preoccupied with size. Not only do we want the biggest catfish possible, we assume we must fish the biggest bodies of water to catch them. The Mississippi and Red rivers are magnets for river rats, just as the Santee-Cooper system and Lake Texoma are meccas for those who specialize in pulling catfish from confined waters.
Unfortunately, that "bigger is better" attitude defers a lot of catfish anglers from enjoying some of the best catfishing in the country. Thousands of ponds and small lakes scattered across the nation offer catfishing opportunities that often exceed the potentials of larger waters.
How small is a small water catfish pond or lake? Steve Wagle of Omaha, Nebraska, routinely catches channel cats up to 15 pounds from ponds and gravel pits in eastern Nebraska that cover less than 2 acres. Jerry Smith of Council Bluffs, Iowa, focuses on state- or county-managed artificial lakes in Iowa that range from 50 to 300 acres, and considers it a mediocre night if he doesn't boat a dozen or more 5- to 10-pound channel cats.
Whether they're fishing a tiny pond or a small lake, Wagle and Smith agree that small-water catfishing starts early in the year. "One year the ice went out early, and I had good luck fishing the north side of a little sandpit on sunny afternoons in late February," says Wagle, who fishes from shore. "It was cold enough that I only stayed for an hour per trip during the warmest part of the afternoons, but I was picking up 3- to 5-pound channel cats every time I went out."
Smith says ice-out signals some of his best catfishing of the year. After ice-out, winterkilled baitfish float to the surface and drift with the wind. Smith watches for several warm, sunny days with a strong wind from the south, then heads for shallow bays or coves on the north shore of small lakes.
"Bait up with soured shad or whatever winterkilled fish you can find and cast it right next to shore," Smith says, who fishes from a boat. "Channel catfish are in as little as one foot of water, feeding on the dead baitfish. Everybody talks about how catfish binge on winterkilled gizzard shad in big reservoirs, but they do the same thing in small lakes, and you don't have to cover as much water to find them."
As waters warm, catfish in small impoundments prepare to spawn, and Smith and Wagle take advantage of congregating catfish. They look for areas with lots of holes and cavities — shorelines with large riprap, artificial reefs made of old tires anchored to the bottom, or tangled deadfalls along the shoreline. During the spawn, drifting a wad of nightcrawlers or chunked cutbait beneath a bobber along the face of a riprapped dam or over a submerged brushpile can be deadly.
"Sometimes they're real aggressive and pound any bait that comes close to their nest," Wagle says. "Other times you have to hit them on the head with your bait to get their attention. But it's a great time of year to find all the cats in one spot, especially if a small lake has only a small area of riprap or other habitats attractive to catfish."
Because Smith prefers to drift fish from a boat, while Wagle fishes from shore, each uses tackle, strategies, and baits specific to their style of fishing during Postspawn. "Drifting works well in some lakes, not so well in others," says Smith, who founded The Iowa Catfish Drifters fishing club and is active in catfishing tournaments across Iowa, Nebraska, and northern Missouri. "If a lake is a dishbowl, without a lot of structure, drifting is the way to go, because the fish are scattered all over the lake and you can cover a lot of territory. But if a lake has submerged brushpiles or shoreline deadfalls, it's better to anchor and work the structure.
"At one tournament on a lake with lots of submerged brushpiles, I used my trolling motor to do a controlled drift and zig-zag between them, hoping to get fish moving between brush. I didn't do very well, while the guys who anchored over brush caught a lot of fish. But on other lakes that are dishbowls with no structure out in the middle, I do well drifting and the guys who anchor and work the shorelines don't do as well," he says.
Smith likes to drift after dark over areas of deep water near drop-offs, points, or over old creek channels. Depending on wind direction, he parallels the face of dams or traces old creek channels. His favorite driftbait is homemade bloodbait. "Blood puts a nice scent trail in the water," he says. "It's tough to cast, so drifting is the best way to take advantage of how good a bait it is."
The short recipe for Smith's bloodbait is to get a 5-gallon bucket of fresh beef blood from a local meat processor and put it in the refrigerator for a week to congeal and coagulate. Once it's firmed up, he slices it into 1-inch cubes, which are sprinkled with salt and brown sugar then frozen until it's time to go fishing.
To bait up with his bloodbait, Smith ties a 1/0 or 2/0 treble hook to an 18'‘inch-long 17-pound monofilament leader, with a loop at the opposite end. The leader is dangled by that loop from a bait needle — a short piece of stiff wire with a small, tight hook on one end. Blood cubes are threaded onto the wire, down the leader, and pressed onto the treble hook. After removing the bait needle, the leader's loop is attached to a snap swivel on the end of his fishing line. A small sliding bullet sinker above the snap swivel keeps his rig on the bottom as he drifts."The bullet sinker doesn't hang up as much as a regular egg sinker," he says. "Around 1/4 ounce is usually enough to hold it down."
Smith uses a variety of rods and reels when drifting. In the past, he favored 81â„2 foot Eagle Claw Fiberglass rods with Shimano 4500 open-face spinning reels. His neck problems made it difficult for him to keep an eye on the tips of the tall rods when they were in rod holders, so he now uses 61â„2-foot Rhino Indestructible rods.
Shorefishing is Good
Midsummer is also a favorite time for Wagle, the shorebound angler from Nebraska, to pull catfish from small impoundments. "If I'm fishing in the evening, I hope the wind has been blowing all day long," he says. "If it has, I fish the windward side of bowl-shaped ponds. But the really hot deal is if there's a shallow point that sticks out into the pond, or any sort of underwater rise that the wind has blown across all day.
"I fish a small lake where there's an old, submerged roadbed that comes to within 3 feet of the surface, and on days when the wind is blowing across that old roadbed, it's the best spot to catch catfish in the late afternoon or evening. I think that wind blowing across a shallow point or rise creates a current or wave action that stirs things up and attracts catfish."
If Wagle's fishing in the early morning, he targets shallow bays or coves where cats have fed all night. He probes the edges of weedbeds, in deadfall trees or along riprapped shorelines. As midmorning approaches, he keys in on a unique catfish movement pattern that he's still trying to figure out.
"There's a certain time each morning, maybe around 10 o'clock, when the sun gets to an angle where it really starts to penetrate the water," he says. "All the cats feeding in the shallows start to move to deeper water, seemingly to follow a distinct trail back to deep water. The times when I've been able to put my baits along that trail, it's been boom'‘boom'‘boom as fast as you can set the hook.
"I haven't figured out what they're following, whether it's an old creek channel, a certain bottom contour, or what," he admits. "But in a couple ponds I fish, if I can have my baits at certain spots between the shallows and the deep water when the sun gets to a certain height, I'm going to catch fish."
Sandy shallows also draw Wagle's attention. "There's something about a shallow sand bottom that fish like," he says. "If a lake or pond is mostly mud bottom, and there's a shallow sandy area like a swimming beach, that's a prime place to look for cats. I caught my biggest channel cat, a 23-pounder, next to a swimming beach. Even in sandpits, where the bottom is all sand, a shallow sandy area is going to attract catfish. Sandpits usually have steep, deep sides, so if you can find a shallow shoreline, or a shallow ledge between the shore and the drop-off into deep water, that's where the cats are."
Wagle baits with nightcrawlers early in the season and switches to chunks of fresh bluegill or shad as the water warms. His favorite warm-weather bait is frozen freshwater crayfish he buys in bulk at WalMart. "They're used to feeding on crawdads in ponds and lakes, so it's a flavor they're really tuned in to," he says. "Shrimp is okay, but not as good as crawdads."
When he fishes from shore, Wagle sets out several 6- to 7-foot Ugly Stiks with a variety of moderately priced, open-faced spinning reels loaded with 8- to 10-pound Stren monofilament. With an eye towards catching the biggest cats in each lake, he always sets out at least one 8- or 9-foot Berkley Reflex rod carrying a Shakespeare Tidewater Freeliner spinning reel spooled with 20'‘pound'‘test Stren, baited with a couple of crawdads or silver-dollar-sized chunks of cutbait on a 5/0 or 6/0 Eagle Claw circle hook.
"There are 10-, 15-, even 20-pounders in almost all these little lakes," he says. "Most people use stinkbait and small tackle and never cross paths with the big boys. I've had good luck pulling 15- to 20-pounders out of little lakes, because nobody fished those spots with bait big enough to interest them or tackle heavy enough to land them."
Both Wagle and Smith pursue catfish long after the majority of cat anglers have hung up their rods for the year. "September and October are actually the two best months to catch them from lakes," Smith says. "They feed heavily when the water starts to cool. A couple years ago some friends and I fished Lake Mazengo in Northwest Missouri in October, and we limited out on 7- to 8-pounders in less than an hour and a half."
Wagle agrees. "Catfish are a little deeper as the water cools, but late summer and early fall is some of the best catfishing of the year in these little ponds and lakes," he says. "But when you come down to it, small bodies of water can be good catfishing just about year-round. They get stocked with lots of fish, they're easily fished from shore or a small boat, and they're readily accessible. At the end of a year, when I add up the number of fish I've caught from big lakes and rivers versus small lakes and ponds, the small spots are the places that have produced most of my catfish."
Catfish spawn when water temperature reaches about 70°F to 75°F, though their efforts are usually in vain in small lakes and ponds. Studies have shown that largemouth bass, the predominant predator in small standing waters, view catfish fry as snackfood.
"The fry tend to swim in tight, dense swarms," said Daryl Bauer, Lakes and Reservoirs Program Manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. "A couple of gulps from a big bass and those fry are history. It's rare to get significant recruitment from catfish spawned in a small lake, simply because the bass get them all."
That's why fishery departments in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, and other states have intense stocking programs to maintain catfish in small lakes. Depending on habitat, size of lake, and fishing pressure, up to 100 7- to 10-inch channel catfish are stocked per acre.
Arkansas has had a "Catchable Catfish" program since the 1920s, stocking 500,000 channel catfish per year in small lakes and ponds around the state. Missouri stocks more than 200 small impoundments, mostly in the northern half of the state, at an average of 20 channel cats per acre per year.
In Iowa, these fry are raised in special cages in 44 small county- or city-managed lakes, where they're fed daily until they reach 10 to 12 inches and can be released without fear of predation. Other lakes in Iowa share 100,000 7- to 8-inch hatchery-raised channel cats stocked each fall. Indiana adds 10-inch channel cats to some small urban lakes at up to 100 fish per acre per year, depending on fishing pressure. Nebraska stocks ponds, sandpits, and impoundments as small as 1/2 acre at rates that vary from 30 to 50 channel cats per acre.
"Just about every state where catfish are viable has some sort of stocking program," said Bauer. "And most lean toward heavy stockings, so those small impoundments may actually provide better catfishing than rivers and larger lakes."
Tackle-Busters Where You Least Expect Them
A one-of-a-kind stocking program in Arkansas offers anglers opportunities to catch blue catfish that weigh up to 100 pounds, from small ponds in urban areas. Blue catfish that are considered a nuisance near gamefish rearing pens in some of the state's lakes are netted and transported to small lakes, to give anglers access to fish far larger than normally found in urban fisheries.
"It's an interesting solution to a problem," says Don Brader, Assistant Chief of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's Fisheries Division. "Blue catfish are attracted to the spilled or leftover commercial fish-food we feed young fish we raise in our rearing pens. We see hundreds, maybe thousands, of big blue catfish around those cages at feeding time. They damage our pens and cause other problems, so we need to get the blues out of there. For the past two or three years we've been netting them and hauling them to small ponds, where people in urban areas get a chance to catch trophy-class fish."
The relocated blue cats range from 25 to 70 pounds, though 100-pounders have been moved. "It takes a lot of manpower and fuel to move the fish, but the response has been good enough to justify the work and costs," says Clifton Jackson, coordinator for the Statewide Urban and Community Fisheries Program.
"We see it as an opportunity to get more people interested in fishing. We try to have local TV stations on hand when we release the big fish into a lake, and the TV stations and newspapers have been good about reporting when people catch a big one. It's generated a lot of interest and has been good publicity for fishing."
The big blues have proven to be easy to catch from these ponds. "Most of the ponds are dishbowls with no significant structure, so the fish just cruise around the edges looking for food," says Jackson. "They're used to grabbing the commercial fish-food that's dropped into the water, so they take just about any bait. Our creel surveys show that almost 100 percent of the big fish that we put in each lake get caught within a couple of months."
Most of the lakes that receive stockings of huge blue catfish are in the Little Rock area. Jackson noted that a small lake at MacArthur Park regularly gets some of the mega-blues, as does the pond at Kiwanis Park. All of the lakes stocked are small and easily fished from shore. Benton City Lake, covering 12 acres, is the largest of the lakes stocked with big blues.
Even if anglers don't fish in lakes seeded with trophy blue cats, there are plenty of catfishing opportunities in Arkansas lakes designated as "put and take" fisheries. Depending on fishing pressure, selected small lakes are stocked up to three times each year with as many as one hundred 10- to 12-inch channel cats per surface acre. "Statewide, we're stocking a half million catchable-sized channel catfish every year," says Jackson. "People like to catch catfish, and our goal is to make sure they have plenty of opportunities in Arkansas."
Just how aggressively do channel catfish feed on winterkilled baitfish in large reservoirs after ice-out? A study conducted several years ago by Steven Fischer, Stephen Eder, and Elvessa Aragon at Missouri's Pony Express Lake showed that the shallow-water feeding frenzy in spring concentrates most of a lake's catfish population in a relatively small area.
"In our study, all eight of the channel cats we had implanted with radiotelemetry tags were in the same bay of the lake, on the same day, feeding on dead shad, " says Eder. "Statistically, that's about as close to 100 percent of a representative sample as you can get. That tells me that there can be amazing concentrations of channel cats in certain spots when they're feeding on winterkilled shad."
To capitalize on this once-a-year opportunity, concentrate on the windward side of lakes. Optimal conditions are a sudden warmup after ice-out, with several days of strong southerly winds. Fish in bays or coves on the north side of the lake, where wind and currents have deposited the carcasses of dead baitfish. Fish shallow, as close as possible to any rancid carcasses rimming the shoreline, using equally rancid chunks of soured shad. (Savvy anglers wear disposable surgical gloves when baiting up to avoid getting the soap-resistant, putrid juices on their skin.) Mid-afternoon is generally the daily peak of the spring feeding frenzy.
Doug Stange's Sour Bait Recipe
1. Use tough-skinned fish like carp. Shad works too, but it might need to be fished in nylon netting to keep it from disintegrating. Remove scales from coarse-scaled fish like carp.
2. Cut fillets (skin-on) into 1x2 inch pieces about 1/2 inch thick.
3. Pack the pieces into a glass jar, leaving an inch of space at the top.
4. Add a few teaspoons of water. Screw on the lid loosely to allow exnding gases to escape.
5. Bury the jar in 6 inches of soil that receives full sun for a good portion of the day. Let it sour for about a week and it's ready to fish.