The Best Told Catfishing Mistakes
May 21, 2014
It was Marion Brink, the savvy principal in the school where I first taught science so many years ago, who shared one of his strategies for dealing with parents who called to complain about how little Johnny said he was being mistreated at school. "Listen," he'd tell parents. "If you'll promise not to believe everything little Johnny says about what goes on at school, I'll promise not to believe everything he says about what goes on at home." This usually was at least sobering enough to get the conversation between parents and principal started with some measure of mutual respect.
The conversation here is more straightforward and, I assure you, I respect you, even though I know a good many of you out there. Not likely to be much debate about typical problems facing many of the catfish anglers I meet at sport shows and when I'm fishing. Catfishing isn't difficult. It can be learned. If I can be fairly successful, so can you.
Indeed, I like a challenge, so we might pretend just for this article that we're teaching Mongo how to catch catfish. If you don't know Mongo, go to your favorite video store and rent Blazing Saddles. Don't just rent it, Doughball, watch it. You probably need a good laugh, anyway. Let's just say that Mongo is a rather large and somewhat slow-witted individual, played by an ex-professional football player who eats a lot of beans (it's a Western) and subsequently farts like a racehorse on steroids. I say, nothing like a little flatulence in a storyline to get a movie on the right track. To heck with the critics, that kind of stuff's thumbs up by me. Anyway, I was about to say that Mongo's a likable sort. And he's teachable. Good Mongo. But, Mongo, put the horse down. (OK, forget the Mongo idea.)
Don't Hide the Hook
It isn't that catfish aren't intelligent. Indeed, science suggests that they're among the most intelligent fish of those we usually write about, way smarter, in many ways, than pike and walleyes, notably smarter than bass and trout, and just about on an even plane with carp. But catfish without experience with hooks, which is most catfish, bajillions of them, haven't a clue what a hook is. Admittedly, catfish that are caught and released probably learn to associate hooks with danger, but even that takes time.
So no sense to hide a hook in order to fool a catfish, even though it seems logical to a lot of catfish anglers. The entire process isn't just a waste of time, it's one of the main reasons anglers don't get a good hook-set. Everything I say here has exceptions, of course, but in most cases leave the hook point exposed, so that when you set, the hook point immediately and easily moves forward into catfish hide.
"But," a skeptical angler questions, "won't the fish feel the hook when it picks up the bait?" Yes, maybe, but so what? It still won't know what a hook is and isn't going to care, given everything else it's perfectly comfortable grabbing and swallowing. Cats pick up crayfish that bite and scratch. They eat spiny bullheads like so much popcorn. And when they suck food off the bottom, they often inhale a good bit of debris — sticks and pebbles — right along with the good stuff, sometimes rejecting the junk, but other times swallowing it all without flinching. Getting rid of that stuff might be a different story, but then I don't know, I've never asked a catfish.
So, when fishing a nightcrawler, one of the best baits in a lot of waters in April, leave the hook point exposed. Yes, no matter what Grandpa said. Just run the hook through the crawler four or five times to get the juices oozing and calling in catfish, but don't run the point back into the crawler.
When fishing a piece of cutbait, like a one-inch strip of filleted shad or sucker, run the hook point through the skin in a corner of the bait one time, leaving the hook point exposed. In running the hook through, be sure no scales are impaled on the hook point, which makes setting the hook past the barb difficult. And so on and on with all the baits you might fish, from grasshoppers to chicken liver. The exception would be pastebaits and dipbaits, which are so soft that the hook point pushes through immediately on the set.
On this same tack, many anglers also tend to use smaller hooks than they should, thinking fish won't see or it's easier to hide a smaller hook. In general, though, use the largest hook you can get away with, given the type of bait you're using. Larger hooks offer more gap, which generally means a better set. When fishing with one big crawler, go with at least a #4 hook, better a #2. Fishing two or three crawlers calls for at least a #1 or 1/0 hook. A big grasshopper takes a #6 or a #4. For chicken liver, which to tell the truth, I rarely fish with for reasons discussed in the next section, use a #1 or 1/0 hook. For chicken liver, leave a 10-inch tag end on your line after tying on a single hook, and use the tag end to wrap the liver on the hook. Finish off the wrap with a half hitch to hold everything in place.
It's particularly important to use larger hooks with livebait. The smaller the hook, the smaller the gap and the more likely the hook will set back into the bait, making it impossible to get a hook-set. Even when larger hooks set back into the bait, they still often have enough gap to break free and find flesh. For 8-inch suckers and 6- to 8-inch bullheads, I use at least a 7/0 hook. For bigger baits, I go with a 10/0 hook. Mustad's 92671 is one of the few hook styles in sizes up to 10/0. Most other hooks are available in sizes up to only about 7/0.
Hooks don't need to be particularly sharp in order to set into the soft mouth of catfish, but a modestly sharp hook slips through a bait easier, making less of a mess of the bait and causing less injury to live minnows. Don't get carried away, though, especially if you're after flatheads with big livebaits. Needle-sharp hooks snag into wood debris too easily. Needle-sharp hooks also sometimes puncture a baitfish again and again as it swims while impaled on the hook. Sometimes, too, a needle-sharp hook sticks right back into a baitfish when you reel it in to recast. Keeping a good big baitfish as lively and as healthy as possible is important. Many times, they aren't that easy to come by.
About Secret Baits
There aren't any — secret baits. Not chicken liver, beef blood, chicken blood, frogs, grasshoppers, baby turtles, rotten cheese, semi-rotten cheese, shad guts, shad gizzards, yak meat, or medicated monkey meat. There are many fine baits, some that work better than others, given time of year and body of water. A few baits, experience has shown, tend to be top choices during most seasons on almost any body of water.
Fresh cut-up baitfish — cutbait — is one such all-season choice, a consistent top choice for blue cats and channel cats and, in some instances, for flatheads. The last time Toad Smith and I fished below the famous Lockport dam on the Red River just north of Winnipeg, Manitoba, we had a typical experience relative to other catfishermen fishing the same water with a supposed secret bait. This was early June, the water was in perfect shape, the cats were feeding heavily in prespawn mode, and we had a great first day of fishing, landing at least 40 fish from about 12 to just over 25 pounds.
We came off the water a bit early, and Toad, naturally, struck up a conversation with a couple of cat boys who said they were seasoned catsters. Been fishing cats in Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, and them there parts for over 30 years, they said. Knew just about everything there was to know about catching cats. And had come on up to Canada to see what all the fuss was about. Well, they said they were rightly impressed with the fishery and the fish, which they had pretty much just about conquered on this particular day, thanks in part to their secret bait.
Well, now, Toad just had to know, What would that be? "Rotten chicken livers," they said. Had to be aged to the point of deterioration in the midday sun. "Kind of difficult to fish, ain't they?" Toad asked. They said they spent the time it took to tie the livers up, held together in nylon stocking. Tedious, they said, but worth it.
How worth it? Toad wanted to know. Ten fish, they sort of whispered, not wanting any of the other anglers at the ramp to hear. All more'n 20 pounds. Then, "Here, we have a few extra baits we'll share with you." That's when Toad, being the honest, helpful sort he was, always wanting others to catch as many catfish as they could, said, well, thanks, but he'd caught 25 fish to 25 pounds all by himself and took an hour nap in the boat to boot at noon, and all on simple old cut-up suckers that didn't stink too bad and were easy as can be to fish. The catsters were, in no particular order, indignant, offended, PO'd, and beyond believing that anyone possibly could have outfished them or their secret bait.
We are lucky that catfish are abundant across most of the country. So some cats aren't all that difficult to catch in most places. That can be a problem, because anglers get to catching a few fish and then assume they've chosen the only bait that works, when another bait might produce five times as many fish in the same situation. I keep talking about fresh cutbait, which we usually fish in one-inch strips, after filleting the sides of a baitfish that's been kept cold in a cooler. I keep talking about it, because we've generally done so well with it almost everywhere we've fished it, often enough in direct competition with the other "hot" baits that are supposedly producing cats galore. I wouldn't go anywhere on a major trip for channel cats or blue cats without fresh cutbait in the cooler.
But, granted, cutbait's not magic, either, and at times, other things produce more fish. Even chicken livers are OK, because they're bloody, and bloody baits, like pure coagulated blood, are attractive to catfish. Chicken livers also are easy to get. But if you can get fresh livers, I say roll them in seasoned flour and sauté them in butter and serve them alongside a mess of hushpuppies drizzled with honey. Now that's good. And more productive than fishing with them, at least by my measure, for in 30 years of occasionally fishing them alongside other baits, I've rarely seen them be the best thing a feller could be fishing. Same with shrimp. Work fine, often as not, but rarely the best choice. Same with wieners dipped in one concoction or another. But, the point is, a few cats can be caught on just about anything. Dip a sponge in gasoline and see if you can't catch a catfish or two when the bite's on. A friend caught a cat with a cigar butt in its stomach. But then it was a CAO Churchill, a pretty classy cigar.
We know a lot more today about dipbaits, too, which aren't to be confused with pastebaits. Pastebaits are thick enough that you have to work the paste into a ball with your fingers. Then it's fished on a treble hook. Paste is handy to keep on hand, but it hasn't proven to be as consistently effective as dipbait, which is of a looser consistency and needs to be fished on a "carrier," such as a plastic dipworm or piece of sponge.
All the good dipbaits I know have rotting cheese as a basic ingredient. But there's a real art to this business; this isn't just mixing up a bunch of slop. Each company has its own secret procedures and pet ingredients that make, say, Sonny Hootman's "Sonny's Super Sticky" just a little bit different from Cat Tracker's "Sewer Bait."
These baits can be the hottest thing going, especially for channel cats. Blues bite them, too, although it would be hard for me to say at this point that something else might not produce better in those same situations for blue cats. Just don't know for sure. We also know cats eat these baits in cold water, not just during summer, some of the secret during cold weather being to get the baits into a consistency that stays on a dipworm well.
My original opinion about dips generally not being a top bait for big cats still stands, although certainly dips do account for bigger fish in some waters. Again, though, an angler always has to weigh how many more bigger fish he would catch — if big fish alone are his intent — if he would fish something else instead of the dip.
"Doug, you're right," says Sonny Hootman, who manufacturers his famous Sonny's Super Sticky in Farmington, Iowa. "My bait produces lots of fast action for eater cats, but fish generally top out at, oh, say, 6 to 8 pounds. Occasionally, someone latches onto a good one. Been some monsters caught, too. So it's a good choice for fast action — and an outside shot at a bigger fish. I'm the first to say I'd probably fish something else if I was after only big cats. But then the reason my boys and I can't make bait fast enough is that most people want action."
Maybe the biggest mistake of all, though, relative to dipbaits, is not using them. Half the country still hasn't discovered dipping. Hardcore dippers mostly reside in the core of the country, from Kansas into Indiana. Most of the catfishermen in the East, Southeast, Deep South, Southwest, West, and Canada still never have "cut the cheese."
Don't Let Catfish Run
It follows somewhat logically that if catfishermen assume that a catfish knows what a hook is and will drop a bait if it feels the hook, they also worry that a catfish might "feel" them on the end of the line once a fish picks up a bait. So everytime a fish gives a tug or pull or makes a run, they flip the reel into freespool and feed line, which is a mistake most of the time.
Feeding line usually just causes problems, especially in current. Try feeding line to current without having a bite. Feels just like a fish taking line. Feed 10 feet of line to a catfish and usually about 6 to 7 feet of that is excess line bowed in current. Try to set and all you get is slack line. So, quickly reel the line "tight" and set again. Maybe on the second set, if the fish is still there, it gets hooked.
Cats usually not only don't know or care that you're on the other end of the line, but they also actually seem to respond favorably to having you there. That is, if you keep the line modestly tight, so the fish has something consistent to pull against, the fish, too, usually continues to pull consistently. That's another subject, but this is one reason setlines work well for catfish. And along yet another angle, it's the reason circle hooks also work well.
But you do want the fish to move away from you slightly before setting. It should at least turn so the hook slides across its mouth. So most of the time, all an angler needs to do is ease the rod tip along with the catfish as it moves away, all the while maintaining steady pressure on the fish. Once the rod tip has eased along down a foot or two, set the hook. When you're used to doing this, keeping your rod tip at a right angle to the fish when you're monitoring bites becomes natural — so you have room to move the tip with the fish.
Sometimes it's necessary to give line in order to get a fish to take. Occasionally, flathead cats seem to be so picky that if they feel any pressure they crush the bait and just drop it. Sometimes, in that situation, though, pulling the bait away from a fish actually seems to make them mad enough to pick up the bait more firmly. With fish and fishing, you never know everything. Many situations call for a modification of this basic rule. The rule still remains, don't feed line.
Shorter Leaders, Not Longer
A leader of a certain length is rarely a critical factor in catching more catfish. Use the least amount of leader you can, which, surprising to most fishermen when I tell them, often is no leader at all. Particularly for channel cats, just let the sinker slide all the way down to the hook. This is a precise way to fish. The advantage is that the baited leader doesn't wave around in current and get snagged. Or when fishing a livebait, particularly for flatheads, the livebait stays close to the sinker and doesn't have enough leader to swim around and get under rocks or into timber.
Fishing with a leader, though, is such a "thing" with catfish anglers that most of them never have even thought about doing otherwise. They just do it. Part of the thinking here is kin to worrying about a catfish sensing that the sinker's in combination with the hook. But a catfish doesn't know or care what a hook is. A sinker is just another rock as far as a cat is concerned.
I usually fish with about a 6-inch leader for flathead cats, unless I'm fishing in heavy cover. It's usually bait movement that attracts flatheads. So I want, say, my bullhead to move as much as it can, but not so much that it gets snagged. In this instance, I'll probably have a 3- to 5-ounce (or maybe as heavy as an 8-ounce) bell sinker sliding on my mainline and a barrel swivel tied in 6 inches above the hook, to stop the sliding sinker.
Blue-cat ace, Jim Moyer, of Clarksville, Tennessee, a long-time contributor to our knowledge bank at In-Fisherman, has convinced me that a leader of about 2 feet or so when anchored in current during coldwater periods helps attract blue cats. He anchors above a hole or a structural element, then casts the bait downcurrent a hundred feet or so. Apparently, the extra leader allows the bait to move a bit in current, attracting more blue cats. Moyer, of course, pays occasionally for his extra leader with extra snags. He pours his own sinkers, though, by the ton.
Some of the catfishing mistakes I've mentioned here rank as modest meanderings compared to the more overwhelming mistakes. In rivers, for example, there's a time to move and fish a variety of spots, seeking active fish, instead of just parking by the first bridge you come to. Nothing I've noted here, however, compares to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. None of these mistakes means anything if you're not first on catfish.
Granted, once you're familiar with a 10- to 20-mile section of river, there's a time to sit around a campfire at night and wait them out, especially if your quarry is big flatheads. But you can't just sit anywhere. You need to have surveyed a section of river by actually fishing it to make a good judgment about the quality of spots you intend to spend the night fishing. This is a story I covered in the March 2001 issue of In'‘Fisherman magazine. It's also a story we cover in our book, Channel Catfish Fever.
The right tackle's important, too. Doesn't have to be expensive. A modest investment in good rods and top-end reels — both will last for decades (unless Mongo sits on them) — makes fishing more fun and more effective. It's common for catfishermen to be way undertackled when they begin. Eight- and ten-pound line and whoopee noodle rods are for small cats in ponds and creeks, but they won't land much for you in most other environments. Certainly, you rarely land bigger fish with such tackle.
There's a time to experiment with a variety of baits. You learn as you go about appropriate fishing lines and various other tackle items. There's a time to fish all night instead of pressing the issue during the day, just as there are times to fish during high-percentage periods at dawn or dusk, instead of trying to do a 24-hour thing.
All the problems, all the potential solutions, all the extra catfish, and in the meantime, all the fun are the reasons I fish for cats and subsequently write about them in hopes of helping others catch more fish. There's enough to write about, enough fish to catch, enough stories to tell, to last a lifetime.
Like the little boy who showed up late for Sunday School one day. His teacher asked him why he was late. He sort of shuffled his feet around for a moment, then said, "Well, I started out to go fishing instead, but my dad wouldn't let me."
His teacher smiled. "Now that's a fine father," she said. "He was absolutely right not letting you go fishing on Sunday. Did he explain to you why?"
The little boy nodded. "Oh, yes. He said there wouldn't be enough bait for the two of us."