Spilling the Beans On Channel Catfish
August 23, 2012
To most catfishermen, chumming means scattering fermented soybeans, wheat, or milo around a covert to attract catfish or to stimulate those that are in the area to feed. Besides fermented grains, some anglers in Texas opt for cottonseed cakes, which are manufactured from the residue of cottonseeds after most of the oil has been removed.
Cottonseed cakes are expensive, and at many locales, they aren't readily available. Consequently, some anglers use 20-percent range cubes, which are big pellets that contain a number of ingredients, such as alfalfa and cottonseed meal. A 50-pound bag of 20-percent range cubes costs about $6, and they're available at many feed stores.
Cottonseed cakes and range cubes aren't offensively odiferous, and that appeals to anglers with weak stomachs who find spending a day afloat with a 5-gallon bucket of rank soybeans to be a miserable ordeal. Yet, in the minds and noses of the devotees of foul-smelling chum, it's the redolence of the fermented grains that attracts channel catfish and stimulates them to feed. These anglers gladly endure the smell to reap the benefits that it renders.
Reservoirs, Rivers and Recipes
On a map of the U.S., draw a line from slightly north of Topeka, Kansas, southward to Laredo, Texas. There lies the axis of the chumming world among channel catfish anglers.
Reservoirs have been the domain of channel catfish chummers, and its roots can be traced back at least four decades. But some folks recall that as far back as the late 1940s and early 1950s, anglers at the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri used cottonseed cakes and grains as chum around their boat docks to attract crappies, carp, and channel cats.
Until 1993, most anglers thought that chumming a riffle or a hole in a river wouldn't work because the current would swiftly wash the chum downstream, limiting its effectiveness. But after the Great Flood of 1993, Wayne Smith and Catdaddy Shumway, both of Topeka, Kansas, successfully chummed holes and riffles and some runs in the rapidly flowing Kansas River. Their chum was created by mixing chicken or turkey blood with woodchips, allowing it to stew in a 30-gallon barrel until it generated a massive population of maggots.
They deposited several gallons of their chum upstream from lairs that they wanted to ply. As the chum coursed downstream through a logjam, for instance, it activated the channel catfish and an occasional blue. They caught catfish on treble hooks encased in bloodbait presented upstream from the chummed logjam.
Nowadays, Shumway, a catfish guide and tournament angler, uses a chum that he concocts out of ground shad. The fish he catches with it are bigger than those he and Smith caught by using the blood-woodchips-and-maggot chum. At a hole he chums with ground shad on the Kansas River, for example, Shumway has caught three In-Fisherman Master Angler Award flathead catfish. He's also caught and released from this same hole blues and flatheads weighing from 30 to 88 pounds, belying the notion that chumming only works for small channel cats.
Across Texas, catfish anglers chum streams by placing a fish basket or tow sack partially filled with range cubes in the lair they're fishing. Because the cubes can stay intact for up to 3 days, anglers can move them and fish from spot to spot.
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Not every chumming site is created by design. At the marinas around Lake Texoma on the Texas-Oklahoma border, for instance, anglers fillet scads of striped and white bass nearly every day. Filleted-out carcasses are tossed into the water, forming a pile of unintentional chum, which attracts Texoma's blue cats. Some blues consistently gambol about the vicinity of the chum heaps where anglers tangle with some titans and numbers of smaller fish.
Likewise, channel catfish are caught around docks at Grand Lake, Oklahoma, where anglers dispose of carcasses of filleted crappies and white bass. Shumway's use of ground shad on the Kansas River is a clever way to duplicate Lake Texoma's and Grand Lake's unintentional but effective chum sites.
He makes his soybean chum in 5-gallon plastic buckets, each having a lid with a narrow slit cut partway across the top. The slit allows the fermentation gases to escape but also keeps flies out, preventing maggots from developing. Anglers who want maggots in their chum should drill holes in the lids to allow flies to enter the bucket and lay their eggs in the moist, rotting soybeans. Maggots develop in 8 to 20 hours during the heat of the summer.
Holscher prefers unadulterated soybean chum, however, one that exhibits a golden hue and has a mild aroma. He fills a third of a fermenting bucket with soybeans then fills it with water and secures the lid. He normally begins to chum after it's fermented for just 48 hours, and uses it until the bean color changes from gold to gray. Like many other chummers, he finds that gray soybeans are too rank and not as effective as gold ones. He says that in August, a milo-soybean chum is more effective than one made from pure soybeans, and he makes it the same way as his soybean chum.
Working a Chum Site
During the summer at Kansas reservoirs, Holscher fishes vertically in deeper water, at times down to 50 feet, noting that Dave Schmidtlein of Topeka is the master of the vertical presentation.
Most Kansas chummers use two anchors, one off the bow and another off the transom. But Schmidtlein shuns anchors, except when the wind howls. Instead, he works with a bow-mounted electric trolling motor on his Ranger bass boat. Even when the wind roars, he uses only one anchor set off the bow. One anchor helps tame the wind and waves, keeping his boat on top of the channel catfish covert while he uses his trolling motor to slowly move around and across a spot. Schmidtlein says that the two-anchor system prevents anglers from probing the entire perimeter of a lair, inhibiting them from presenting baits from a variety of angles, which often can be a critical factor.
He prefers 8- to 9-foot light-action rods, similar to a 7-weight flyrod, and spools medium-size spinning reels with yellow or chartreuse braided line from 10- to 50-pound test, opting for the heaviest line when he's fishing brushpiles. He's caught significantly more channel catfish since he switched from mono to braided line. He says that the prepared bait he uses elicits soft bites — at times, almost phantom bites. A long, soft-tipped rod makes a good strike indicator when catfish aren't phantom biters, and a good number of soft strikes wouldn't have been detected if he hadn't used braided line, he adds.
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Strikes are identified by holding the rod tip several inches above the reel. He routes the line across his forefinger and then runs it between his hand and the rod, and feels 75 percent of the strikes on the braided line before he detects them on the rod. That scenario seldom occurred, he says, when he used less sensitive monofilament, especially when probing depths of 30 feet or more and battling a pesky wind.
With the long rod, Schmidtlein can slowly lift his bait several feet off the bottom, often a deadly way to generate a bite. He says that channel cats regularly bite as the bait rises. Despite the light rod, he has enough leverage for a solid hook-set. In addition to his slow-lift presentation, he says that deep-water channel cats often suspend, and a longer rod allows him to more easily cover a 10-foot depth zone off bottom. After a major feeding frenzy in summertime, schooling channel cats often suspend 4 to 10 feet off bottom and at times up to 25 feet above it.
Precise depth control and braided line are critical elements of his vertical presentation for suspended fish. He marks his line at 5-foot intervals with a black permanent-ink marker and at 10-foot intervals with a red marker. Yellow and chartreuse hold the marks well, allowing him to determine depth as the bait descends. When a catfish strikes, he knows the depth that fish inhabited and can quickly lower baits to catch more at that same depth.
To some anglers, bright line scares off fish, he says; but he believes that it attracts their attention to the bait. If an angler thinks the bright line is a detriment, the permanent marker can be used to camouflage the bottom portions of the line.
For terminal tackle, Schmidtlein prefers a number 6 heavy-duty treble hook, choosing a #4 if he's catching some catfish that weigh more than 4 pounds. Immediately above the hook, he uses a slipsinker, ranging from 1/8 ounce in shallow water to 5/8 ounce in 50 feet of water. At times, however, he finds that the catfish strike better on a sliprig consisting of a slipsinker, a small barrel swivel, and 18 inches of leader, rather than with the sinker resting on the eye of the hook.
When the fish are tentative, he switches to light line without a sinker and a #10 hook. But if there's wind and the fish are deeper than 20 feet, his weightless tactic becomes problematic. It also tends to hook catfish deep in their throats, severely injuring some fish and jeopardizing his devotion to catch-and-release.
Baits and Seasonal Location
Schmidtlein makes two baits to use at his chum sites. One is a punchbait made mostly from fermented cheese, a bait that's soft and contains fibers, with a binding element that makes it adhere to a treble hook. The hook is baited by grasping its shank with a pair of needlenose pliers and sweeping it in a figure-8 motion through a container of bait. In the water, it has a smoky hue, creating a cloud around its periphery that he says is attractive to channel catfish. Moreover, some of the fiber suspends in the water, creating another chumming ingredient.
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His punchbait is durable, allowing him to garner three bites before he has to rebait. One of the keys to catching a lot of channel catfish, he says, is being able to rebait quickly, which he can do in about 6 seconds.
His other bait is a doughbait that he makes out of fermented soybeans and other savory ingredients. Some of his colleagues call it Cat Candy, and it offers several advantages: It works for casting and retrieving, especially in current situations; it can make a treble hook snagless when probing brushpiles; and when catfish prefer a weightless presentation, it's often more effective than punchbait. The disadvantage is that channel cats tend to nibble at it. Schmidtlein says that his punchbait is more effective than his doughbait overall. Holscher uses a punchbait called J Pigg Stink Bait and finds it works better than doughbait, too.
Both anglers chum only during the summer, the best time being from July 4 until Labor Day. Before about July 4, many of the channel catfish in northeastern Kansas reservoirs are scattered, recovering from the rigors of the spawning season. Around July 4, large concentrations of channel cats gather in deep water along the edges of humps, points, and creek channels. As Labor Day approaches, the massive schools begin to disperse.
Early in the summer, Holscher chums points and drop-offs in 15 to 20 feet of water in the vicinity of the best spawning grounds. In August, he and Schmidtlein ply deep midlake humps and channel bends, where Schmidtlein occasionally ventures into depths of 50 feet or more. Then as the Labor Day dispersal takes place, Holscher returns to the points and drop-offs that he fished in early summer.
During a typical day of chumming, Schmidtlein catches about 150 channels. His best outing occurred in the summer of 2005, when he and his two sons caught and released 403 channel catfish. On that day, his sonar revealed a band of channel catfish that was 18 feet thick along a drop-off that plunged into 35 feet of water.
Holscher doesn't tangle with as many channel catfish as Schmidtlein does, because most of Holscher's clients are novices and don't have Schmidtlein's touch at detecting a bite and setting the hook. Still, Holscher says it's a rare four-hour outing when two of his clients don't catch and release 100 catfish.
Holscher's found that chumming is a great way to introduce people to the joys of catching catfish. What's more, Schmidtlein and Shumway say that chumming expands knowledge of their quarry for even veteran catfish anglers, and Holscher agrees.
But to Shumway's chagrin, until last year, he hadn't been able to chum on the tournament circuits because it has been prohibited by event organizers, who proclaim it to be an unsportsmanlike tactic. Shumway, Schmidtlein, Holscher, and scores of enlightened anglers disagree.
To Shumway's delight, on August 11, 2007, Ken Freeman's Outdoor Promotions' Big Cat Quest Tournament at Lake Texoma allowed anglers to chum, and in 2008 chumming is allowed at all of the Big Cat Quest events. Perhaps in years to come, Freeman's innovation will spawn an interest in chumming outside of its traditional domain in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.
*Ned Kehde, Lawrence Kansas, is a field editor for In-Fisherman and a frequent contributor on many fishing topics.