Channel Catfish: America's Most Popular Cat
April 15, 2014
So we know the channel cat is a willing sort, too, a fish that likes to bite, therefore its loyal following from anglers of all ages and angling skills. Somewhere, four seasons long, channel cats are biting. At night and during the day — more so than catfish like the flathead and white cat. In deep water and shallow, particularly along current edges, and even in open water in reservoirs and ponds.
Oh, and The Boys did like to eat some of those old cats. Fixin' a midnight jambalaya, a cajun catfish chowder, was a tradition, bankside under the midnight stars. Soon enough everything seemed just right in this old world. And soon enough, in one way or another, all of us pretty much found ourselves agreeing with what we already knew — that baked, fried, broiled, or in a chowder, a catfish dinner was the perfect ending to a day of fishing.
As a side note in this regard, the demand for channel cats has even spawned a multimillion dollar aquaculture business, with millions of pounds of farm-raised channel cats being shipped to restaurants and grocery stores around the world. "Keeps commercial pressure off our wild cats," Toad would observe.
And then he'd make the point that unlike other groups of anglers, where snooty has sort of become the rule of the day, catmen won't begrudge you a stringer of smaller fish for the table, won't look down their noses at you while you stand there cleaning your fish. Stange's main point always was and remains that channel cats are a delicious, nutritious, and, when harvested wisely, renewable resource.
So, too, we came to understand that the modern catman understands his quarry and uses a variety of presentations to trigger fish. It was The Boys who taught us to survey long stretches of rivers, not just park by the first bridge hole we came to. The right spot in most rivers, they said, is near snags. Call 'em blowdowns, brushpiles, whatever you want, they attract channel cats, especially if the snag coincides with a hole.
Holes, you see, are the home of catfish in rivers. A snag — cover — in conjunction with a hole makes the best home. The better the home, the more likely that catfish will be present — lots of them and perhaps a monster or two, or more. But to find the best homes, it's necessary to move — again, to cover lots of water in order to be able to make the right judgment about which areas are best, the better if the areas are far removed from the reaches of other anglers. Just as The Boys said.
Another special thing about the quest for channel cats is that shore-bound anglers can catch plenty of fish. Most anglers continue to fish from shore as a matter of economics. The Boys rode a reasonable line in that regards. They'd tell you that while shore-bound anglers can score plenty of cats, on anything bigger than a small stream, a boat increases the amount of water that can be covered. Of course, the humble flat-bottomed johnboat still serves as the flagship of the catfish fleet. And, often as not, The Boys were featured fishing from shore, or from Toad's beat up and totally revamped 14-foot Lund, an old boat they affectionately called Old Sorta Red.
Stange, though, as editor in chief of In-Fisherman publications, had all sorts of battleshiplike craft available to him. And The Boys would use them when the situation demanded. Santee Cooper's no place to be running around in a 12-foot johnboat, after all. Clearly, too, we all came to see, that boat designs for channel cats are as varied as the environments in which cats are found. Now, for the first time, a few forward-thinking boat manufacturers are designing new boats for catfishing. Yet an angler can transform almost any craft into a functional skiff.
A Unique Sensory Package
The Boys were no slouches on the scientific front, either. They spent time teaching us about the senses of the channel cat, for understanding these senses provides insights on how to catch this cagey critter. Note that a more thorough discussion of these senses is provided by our resident fishery scientist, Steve Quinn, in the first section of this guide. We won't cover that ground again here, except to suggest in passing that such information can help you catch channel cats.
Scientists believe, for example, that channel cats use their incredible sense of smell, which is capable of detecting minute concentrations of substances dissolved in water, as a social sense to locate members of their own species and potential spawning sites. Their sense of taste, on the other hand, powered by several hundred thousand taste buds covering their entire body, is more important for homing in on food. Toad always enjoyed telling folks that a channel cat could taste with its tail. So, too, can catfish taste at a distance. It is this sense of taste that must be stimulated in the right way at the right time in order to catch channel cats consistently.
For channel cats during spring, that may mean sour baits or live minnows. Crawlers, too, are effective at times. Cutbait, often The Boys' most productive bait, especially for bigger channels, is effective all season. Meanwhile, prepared baits — pastes and dips — often become effective by early summer and remain so through early fall. And other natural baits such as crayfish, crickets, grasshoppers, catalpa worms, and others — particularly leeches — may also trigger cats, especially during periods when these baits are abundant in nature.
The channel cat's hearing and lateral line senses, by the way, are even more closely related than smell and taste, and are equally advanced. The inner ear is connected to the swim bladder to amplify vibrations and allow catfish to hear higher-frequency sounds than most other gamefish. They detect low-frequency vibrations through their lateral line — a series of pores extending the length of the fish's body. Each pore functions as a tiny ear, allowing fish to home in on the source of low-frequency sounds, like the rustling of a crayfish or the struggling movements of a baitfish. This is one reason lively bait is at times so effective for channel cats.
Then, too, the channel cat's small eyes lead some anglers to wrongly conclude that they have poor vision. No, The Boys said. Actually, vision often plays an important role in the channel cat's feeding strategy. Indeed, in lakes, rivers, and reservoirs with clear water where channel catfish pursue shad or other baitfish in open water, or pursue crayfish along the bottom, they frequently attack fast-moving crankbaits. Spinner rigs, too, with their flashing and thumping in conjunction with baitlike crawlers or leeches, attract and trigger cats. Their eyes also contain plenty of rods, which allow them to see well at night. Their ability to feed successfully at night and in turbid water is ample testimony of their ability to use their combined senses.
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Tank Feeding Strategy 1
Catfish instantly notes baits dropped into tank.
Tank Feeding Strategy 2
Cat makes a swim-by, apparently tasting, perhaps smelling the water.
Tank Feeding Strategy 3
Cat may make another slow swim-by or slow move to the bait. In either case, the primary upper-lip barbels are projected straight down, not necessarily to touch the bait, but apparently to help taste it.
Tank Feeding Strategy 4
Catfish arches down on bait from above, instantly and surely pinning the bait to the bottom and at the same time picking it off the bottom.
Through The Seasons
Whether in pits, ponds, reservoirs, natural lakes, or small or large rivers, channel cat location changes with the season. A synopsis of the seasonal effect on channel cats can be taken almost verbatim from Channel Catfish Fever.
Spring — In the northern portion of their range, snow melt and cold spring rains keep water temperatures low and keep channel cats confined to the deep holes where they have been dormant throughout winter. In the South, spring rains and overflowing tributaries have a similar effect.
As water temperatures rise, channel cats gradually become more active. No specific date or event marks the beginning of aggressive feeding, but natural cues suggest the arrival of good fishing. A few nice spring days warmed by a southerly breeze usually trigger catfish metabolism and start them feeding. By the time water temperatures climb into the 50°F range in the South and the mid-40°F range in the North, channel cats are on the prowl. Particularly where large numbers of winter-killed baitfish are available, however, channel cats often begin feeding with water temperatures in the low 40°F range.
Rising water washes food from the surrounding watershed into rivers, and cats become increasingly active. The high water also affords cats the option to move, usually upstream, into major tributaries in rivers, and into creek arms in reservoirs. In rivers, areas that offer protection from current, like snags along the shoreline, tend to concentrate resting and feeding fish. In reservoirs, look for structural elements like points near running water in the back of a creek arm. Again, this is prime time for sour baits and livebaits, which are naturally abundant throughout spring.
Prespawn-Spawn — Channel catfish have one of the longest prespawns of all North American gamefish — good news, since this period offers some of the finest fishing of the year. As cats continue to search for food and possible spawning sites, barriers like dams and shallow riffles stop upstream migration and temporarily concentrate cats in holes below these obstructions. As spawning time draws near, channel cats seek suitable holes and crevices in the immediate area, sometimes drifting back downstream if none is available. As quickly as prime holes are vacated, new fish may move in.
Channel cats are less active during the spawning period, but since this period spans a month or more, some fish will still be in prespawn while others have already finished spawning. Spawning is motivated by the length of daylight, which ensures the time of year is correct, and water temperature, which ensures the correct environmental conditions for survival of eggs and fry.
Water temperatures above 75°F are sufficient, though laboratory studies suggest that 80°F is ideal. These temperatures may occur as early as May in the southern part of the channel cat's range, and as late as July in the North. Fresh cutbait often keys fishing throughout the spawn period and into the summer, though live baitfish, chicken blood, and other attractor baits often produce good results as well.
Summer — In reservoirs, channel cats often continue to feed in creek arms as midsummer sets in. Gradually, though, some fish also return to the main reservoir, where they often hold along deep-lying channel edges during the day, feeding shallower at night. Some fish also run shad in open water during the day.
In rivers, water flow keys much of where channel cats are found as well as what they are doing. In big rivers, channel cats often hold below wing dams, moving shallow in the evening to feed. Other anglers use drift techniques to ride the edge of deep channels where cats hold during the day.
Holes remain the focus of catfish activity in most rivers, particularly deep holes with snag cover. Stange offered this advice: "Once you survey large sections of river, you'll find a few holes that you just know hold huge fish. We take some nice fish during the day, but we rarely get into huge channels then. That's when we break out heavier tackle, bigger live baits or bigger pieces of cutbait, and set lines, and settle in beside a campfire with a bucket of Kentucky Fried, a bag of Oreos, and a six-pack of cheap diet soda."
Or was it membership in their "Royal Order of the Sacrificial Oreo" that keyed good fishing? We were told we could join by practicing only one tradition: First Oreo from the bag, the one you want the worst, goes into the river, a token gesture to the cats, the river, and catfishing. If you prefer Fig Newtons, The Boys supposed you could substitute.
Channel Cats For The Future
Much remains to be said about the channel cat, one of the most popular sportfish in North America. It should be noted, for example, that they are the most widely distributed sportfish in North America, found in all but a couple states and six of ten provinces. Yet most major players in the tackle industry have traditionally paid catfishing little mind. This too is changing, as the ads in this periodical attests.
And what of monster channel cats? The quest for a world record? Seems a remote possibility these days. The record — 58 pounds — was taken from Santee Cooper in 1964. While Santee today is a prime candidate to produce a world-record flathead or blue cat, apparently few large channel cats are left. Actually, only one other channel cat surpassing 50 pounds has ever been verified — a 55-pound fish from the James River, South Dakota, in 1949. And we know of no fishery that even occasionally produces fish near 50 pounds.
Tremendous channel catfisheries exist in most states, though. State records are a possibility in perhaps some 20 states. Perhaps unique fisheries like the portion of the Red River below the Lockport Dam, in Selkirk, Manitoba, will continue to get even better. Twenty-pound channel cats, a difficult task most places, are actually common there. And the fish appear to be getting larger. Many upper 30- and lower 40-pound fish recently have been taken. And many other only slightly less unique channel catfisheries exist around the country.
Most anglers, though, are just after a mess of decent fish and a real good time. That's the appeal of the channel catfish for millions of anglers. The line The Boys used to describe the channel cat still applies: The Fish Of The Future, Here Today!