As each cast carries your bait into what is hopefully a catfish-rich spot, your mind goes to work. What does it really look like down there? Is the bottom an endless sand dune or is it strewn with debris? Do the holes and divots that lie alongside tangles of wood hold catfish? Are there rockpiles? If so, do they house crayfish or other prey species? What direction is the current moving? Most importantly, are catfish present, and are they actively swimming or lying belly-to-bottom and not doing much of anything?
Before anglers used underwater video cameras, there was no simple way to know for sure. Fishermen are often surprised about what they see on video, especially when they compare it to signals on their sonar. What looks to be a fish on sonar might actually be a clump of aquatic plants, a rock on the bottom, a log, or a tight cluster of baitfish. The camera confirms or negates many of the objects seen on sonar — not the least of which is identification of fish species and size. You could be fishing for "sonar catfish" that the camera reveals as carp. This isn't to suggest that cameras replace sonar; rather, sonar and cameras often are best used in tandem, providing a better interpretation of what's seen on both units.
A number of misconceptions may have kept many fishermen from buying a camera and applying it to catfishing. Cameras today, however, are portable, durable, easy to operate, and with recent advances in built-in lighting systems, they're effective even in dirtier water. With ready-to-use systems priced at just under $100, such as the Fish TV by Nature Vision, they've become affordable tools for most anglers.
A typical underwater camera unit consists of a 5- to 7-inch black-and-white monitor, camera optics built into a housing slightly smaller than a soda can, 50 to 100 feet of camera cable, and an internal, rechargeable 12-volt battery. Most cameras employ built-in light systems, either multiple infrared or multicolored LEDs that surround the camera lens, for viewing in stained water or during low-light periods. The newest technology, like Aqua-Vu's Explorer light system, features twin antennae-like white LEDs set above and behind the lens. This configuration, first used on deepwater submarines, minimizes particle reflection in the water and returns the clearest possible video. These breakthrough light systems offer catfish anglers a first-time glance into darker waters, where many catfish live.
Many first-time users question whether cameras are effective in dirtier-water rivers like the Mississippi and Ohio. While standard camera lights can be of little use in these conditions, the Explorer light system works well enough to allow you to at least examine objects, such as snags, bridge pilings, and other cover elements. In water to about 20 feet, for instance, the Explorer lights illuminate an area roughly 3 to 4 feet wide and 3 to 4 feet directly in front of the lens. If catfish are present, you'll see them. This is enough visibility to maneuver the camera alongside key spots for inspection.
This past season I used an Aqua-Vu Explorer attached to a 13-foot telescopic camera pole and was able to probe into some of my favorite river logjams. Even though I often could see only a few feet in front of the camera, I was able to observe the layout of cover and how catfish were positioned within it. This gave me new confidence in every spot, because I was able to accurately picture what was happening below. It has also helped me decide on bait placement and which rigs to use.
One of the river flatheads I saw was lying flat on bottom under a crosshatch of logs, while another smaller fish swam lazily just outside the woodcover. The channel cats were much more active, usually swimming several feet above bottom, sometimes 10 feet or more away from cover.
In winter in many rivers and reservoirs, channel cats gather into massive schools that often consist of hundreds of adult fish. Since the coolwater periods typically also herald some of the clearest water of the year, viewing in these holes with an underwater camera can be a worthwhile pursuit. Not only can you watch cats swimming in their habitat, but you also begin to understand just how many fish can live in a productive system.
For me, the ultimate viewing experience is watching catfish react to and eat baits. This "video-fishing" approach is simple to do and might be one of the most interesting types of fishing you'll ever experience. Start by attaching a line release, like an Off Shore Tackle OR-3, to the camera housing with a large split ring. Then clip the line from your rod to the release so that your bait is about a foot in front of the lens, and watch catfish as they move in on a bait. This works best when anchored, when you can fish vertically beneath the boat; but video fishing also can work when drifting or slow-trolling. Simply feed camera cable, while line peels from the rod and reel secured in a rod holder. A built-in tail fin stabilizes most camera models, so they continue to track straight even while moving in a boat or within current.
Catfish can "taste" potential food with their bodies, and you really appreciate this behavior when you see it on screen. I've watched channel catfish swim straight upward to a bait dangling below a down-viewing camera, then hover in place for a few seconds while tasting the bait by brushing their flanks alongside it. Sometimes they eat, but often they don't. I've spoken with anglers fishing dipworms who report that it seems like catfish are repeatedly striking their baits. Eventually a fish is hooked, often near the tail, and frequently, these fish have little "rubs" of dipbait smeared along their sides.
One of the bigger surprises I've seen is how strikes can fool you. The little peck-peck-pecks — the ones you rarely manage to hook — aren't necessarily small fish. What feels like a small catfish pecking at a bait might actually be a large fish inhaling, mouthing, and then rejecting the bait repeatedly. Many times, too, you never know a fish is there without seeing it on the camera screen.
Underwater cameras can transport anglers into a world that few people ever see. As fishermen continue to catch on to the potential for discovery, anyone can become a Jacque Cousteau of the catfish world.
- In Manitoba, anglers must fish barbless, which for catfish anglers causes problems keeping bait on hooks. The solution is Bait Buttons, which are plastic buttons that slide over the hook point to hold baits in place. The Buttons are in a handy dispenser. Shake the dispenser, hold the narrow end down to slide a Button into place in the holder. After the bait's on the hook, position the hook point in the center of the button, and pull the point through to slide the button onto the hook.
- No-Roll sinkers are available to make via molds from Do-it Molds, but also are available at stores, including Cabela's and Bass Pro Shops. In heavy current, the best leader length often is no leader at all. To minimize snags and still catch fish, let the hook slide right up to the No-Roll, adding a bead between the sinker and the hook. Pictured: No-Roll Sinker rigged for heavy current.
- Circle hooks with a snell eye like the Lazer Sharp L7228 should be snelled to work effectively. Hooks like the TroKar TK4, a similar design to the Lazer Sharp L2004, with a straight eye, should be snelled from the inside out, instead of tying direct, to facilitate the cam-action roll of the circle hook.