Sound Strategies for Catfish
June 12, 2018
We've lately been considering various notions regarding the sensory superiority of catfish. Frankly, it's about time. Taste and scent are foregone conclusions, as each of the three major North American catfish species frequently show gustatory preferences for certain regional baitfish species, as well as a limited collection of secondary flavorings such as blood, liver, and various fermented "whatnot.
Absent from much of the early literature on methods for catching catfish has been considerations of sound and vibration. In 1998, In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange summarized the sensory proclivities of catfish: "Catfish are one of the most sensitive of all freshwater fish when it comes to processing messages from their environment. They fall on the hypersensitive side of the scale in every sensory category except vision, and we're not too sure about that one. Astute anglers are just beginning to understand how the unique senses of catfish can be toyed with in order to catch them.
"Thanks to a unique set of bones known as weberian ossicles, which connect their inner ear to that resonator of sound, the air bladder, catfish possess a hearing range far greater than that of other common gamefish.
"Hearing works in combination with the lateral-line sense, which detects low-frequency water waves (below about 200 cycles per second) that can't be heard. The lateral line in catfish also is more sensitive than that of most other fish. Perhaps this is because it may somehow be connected with or at least by enhanced by their ability to sense electrical impulses from muscular movement in other fish. So far as we know, catfish are the only commonly sought freshwater sportfish with this ability."
Having travelled the country observing many of the major goings-on in fishing, I submit that it's no longer even debatable that the most interesting and important developments in fishing are occurring within the realm of barbels and adipose fins. Cat anglers have become increasingly astute, playing in particular on curiosities for the species' natural abilities to detect sound and vibration. We know for sure that blues, channels, and flatheads all possess superior auditory sensitivity.
So why wouldn't the sport's top practitioners eventually crack codes that draw heavily on the sound-vibration side of the presentation equation? With catfish, we've so long leaned on the scent and taste end of the presentation spectrum that perhaps the inspiration to play on the fish's other primary senses has been lost.
Not so in Europe, however. Across the Atlantic, wels catfish, a leviathan barbel-bearer, have been documented to swim toward the surface in areas where anglers practice the fascinating art known as klonking. With various livebaits presented below a stationary or slowly drifting boat, an angler wields a handheld klonk, which sports a sort of concave "foot" at its base. With a downward thrust the angler pulls the klonk sharply underwater before flipping the foot of the tool back out through the surface with a reverse wrist snap. The resulting peculiar sound describes the technique itself, as the klonk creates then instantly bursts an air bubble. Notable European anglers such as Keith Lambert, John Wilson, and Simon Clarke have practiced and witnessed the attracting power of this maneuver for years, frequently observing on sonar wels cats swimming up toward the klonk sounds. Notable, too, is that wels often attack large vibrating lures such as the tail-thumping Musky Innovations Bull-Dawg.
Whether such sound ploys truly call in baitfish or stimulate predatory activity, we can only suppose. And as far as anglers such as ace guide Captain Marlin Ormseth is concerned, it doesn't really matter. What he knows for sure is that sound and vibration have truly elevated the number of blue and flathead catfish bending his rods. When I asked Ormseth—whose ingenious cat rigs have been frequently detailed in In-Fisherman—about what prompted him to begin injecting sound into his rigs, his response was a story in itself. "I've been trolling with planer boards for walleyes and other species for a lot of years," says the Santee-Cooper, South Carolina-based guide. "When I first moved to Santee-Cooper country and unveiled planer boards for catfish, locals thought I was crazy," he recalls. "In fact, many of them still do, but that's another story.
"Didn't take long before a big blue took a serious whack at one of my planer boards as it tracked across the surface. (Most planer boards contain lead shot for weighting purposes that can produce rattling sounds.) I started toying around with things, adding different components that produced sound and vibration. I began by adding a 3-inch cylindrical foam float, pegged in place ahead of the hook to keep the rig off bottom. This drastically reduced snags. Then I put some large buzz blades (buzzbaitstyle) on a few rigs and tried that. I soon had my first topwater cats in the boat." Ormseth tells me that his buzzer rigs aren't just accidentally successful. "On many of my guide trips, surface rigs account for a majority of our strikes."
So long as Lake Moultrie's not riled with big waves, Ormseth always runs at least a few of these noisy rigs behind planer boards. Of course, "noisy" is relative. It wasn't until about a year ago that he dialed up the decibels. "While trolling though huge schools of shad, I wondered how I could make my rigs more appealing to cats swimming in the middle of so much food." Ever the handyman, he went back to tinkering, this time emerging with rigs that were adorned with a small homemade rattle chamber. "I found that 1- and 11/4-inch round red and white bobbers make the best rattlers. They're cheap, easy to find, and are made of a hard, hollow plastic that boosts rattle volume."
He drills one small hole in each chamber (one in the white side, one in the red side) and inserts a few size #6 shot into each hole, resealing them with a small piece of electrical tape and a dot of epoxy. Rattles now embellish nearly all of his catfish rigs, whether coupled with a buzzer for surface fishing, or butted up to a foam float behind a 1/4- to 1½-ounce slinky-style weight for bottom presentations.
When I asked Ormseth what he thought the sounds possibly imitated to catfish, his response was direct: "It sounds like a dinner bell, man! Truthfully, I never really gave it much thought. I do know that at night, blues and flatheads often hunt baitfish on the surface. You get that evening vertical movement of the whole food chain—plankton moves up in response to fading light, baitfish move up, and cats do likewise. Beginning at dusk, you see 1- to 2-inch shad surfacing all over. We see lots of 6- to 7-inch blueback herring, too. Little splashy things that make noise mean one thing to feeding cats. Just as the sound of rattles on the surface means one thing to us—a hooked catfish."
Ormseth's noisy surface rigs add an audible element of stimulation to the otherwise sensory-deprived world of night-fishing. When you hear one of the rattles activate out on the dark water, it takes a moment to realize that it's an alarm, signifying a striking, head-shaking blue. It's exciting stuff, along the lines of your reel's bait-clicker triggered by a running flathead. Every living thing, it seems, responds to sound, and for both catfish and angler, the reaction is inevitably favorable. "Even on breezy nights," says Ormseth, "my grandson hears those rattles every time a cat grabs hold. People sometimes question the necessity of rattles on my rigs. Tell you what, when you're moving a cutbait through huge clouds of shad, that rattle really lights 'em up."
Such a cause-and-effect relationship is similarly noted by Kansas catman John Jamison. While the tournament champion might not go so far as to add buzzers or rattling floats to his rigs, he does harbor an increasingly strong belief in the power of sound-attraction. "In rivers, big blues eat a lot of dead fish which they intercept as it rolls downstream, often making subtle knocking sounds as it contacts rock, wood, and hard clean bottom. On certain bottom types, I think you can attract and activate cats simply by lifting and dropping a heavy sinker as it walks downstream. Another thing we often do to call fish is to insert a hollow rattle tube inside the body cavity of a large baitfish, like a skipjack herring with its head and tail removed. We often see noticeable differences in bites between rattle-injected baits and silent ones."
Rattle tubes come in an array of shapes and sizes, though common varieties include the McCoy Rattle, Bass Pro XPS Tube Rattle or Lindy Rattle EZ-Tube Weight—each mainly used as inserts for soft plastic bass baits. While the sounds produced by these rattles appear subtle and insignificant to our ears, it's likely that catfish, which easily detect low-frequency sounds underwater, perceive them as virtual aquatic maracas. Note, too, that the underwater world is literally wired for sound. Sound travels at over 4 times the speed and with far greater intensity underwater than in air.
Synthetic Sounds and Good Vibes Channels
Moving further into the realm of sound and low-frequency vibration sometimes leads us to presentations wholly void of natural scent and taste. For Ormseth as well as Jamison, cut baitfish remains central to the presentation package. Bait seals the deal, even though a rattle or something that thumps, such as a spinner or buzz blade, might be the thing that called a catfish to begin with. With most artificial lures and rigs—be they a rattling crankbait, like a Rattlin' Rap, or a clacking spoon, such as the ReelBait Fergie—compelling catfish to finally bite requires some sort of scent-taste garnish. Thread a nightcrawler onto the rear treble hook of the Rattlin' Rap. Tip the Fergie Spoon with the head of a 3-inch fathead minnow or a whole baby gizzard shad.
Typically marketed for walleye or kokanee salmon, spinner-bladed bait rigs are another sound-vibration generating ploy that often bring on throngs of cats, channels in particular. In clear water, such as the Great Lakes, vision is likely a major sense on which feeding channel cats rely. Sometimes, sight or sound alone is incentive enough for fish to bite. Significant catches of large Great Lakes cats are common on plugs intended for walleyes, bass, or muskies. From the waters of lakes Erie and St. Clair I've taken channel cats to nearly 20 pounds with lures such as #9 Shad Raps and the 8-inch Wiley Bait. On Great Lakes region inland lakes such as Manistee and Muskegon, professional angler Mark Martin has for decades scored 20- to 40-pound flatheads while trolling #13 Rapala Original Floaters near ancient submerged logpiles. In Nebraska reservoirs, fishery biologist Daryl Bauer's favorite flathead plan revolves around shorecasting #10 Rapala Husky Jerks, #9 Shallow Shad Raps, Smithwick Rattlin' Rogues, and 5-inch Berkley Power Swim Shads rigged on a 1/2-ounce jighead.
Bauer, a keen observer of catfish behavior, notes that the sound-attraction game is a double-edged sword of sorts. "You've got to be quiet," he says. "We don't wade very far into the water when we do this. You need to sneak up on these fish. If we arrive at our spot and find other anglers there, we usually turn around and go home—it's not going to happen. Most anglers are too noisy. Loud activity moves flatheads out of shallow water every time.
"We talk so much about how well catfish taste and smell that it's easy to forget about their other senses. For flatheads, vibration is a huge draw. It's why setliners often place baits just beneath the surface. These guys know that vibration and bait movement are strong feeding cues for flatheads. The thump of a foot-long shad or chub kicking its tail on the surface is like a flag flapping in the windâ€”it gets noticed immediately. Flatheads don't just take big wild baits because they taste good. Active baits put more vibration into the water, and cats use their lateral line system to locate the source," Bauer says.
Jamison: "It would be pretty silly to assume that an animal so completely capable of hearing sound and detecting vibration to such acute ranges doesn't rely heavily on these senses to locate food."