Catfish are increasingly becoming the major target species all over the country when summer temperatures start to soar. Channel and blue catfish are the primary game fish for lakes that aggressively stock farm-raised loads to please warm weather crowds. Cats are typically taken for granted, yet they can be a highly finicky feeder, sensitive to light, noise, wind, and current. Their “bite” can range from a series of gentle nibbles to hitting so hard they pull the rod out of a rod holder. I might add, the power of the strike does not always indicate the size of the fish. I have caught many catfish over 20 pounds that were initially nothing more than a gentle bite.
When it comes to bait selection, almost every catfish spot across the country has its own favorites. Here in the far West, a 1×3 inch slab of frozen saltwater mackerel is the main preference. But frozen shrimp, the rather messy chicken livers, live night crawlers, and occasionally some of the commercial-made doughy “stink baits” will get bit. Other frozen saltwater bait fish such as anchovies, sardines, and smelt will also draw in catfish.
Most weekend anglers will typically fish catfish with the standard sliding egg sinker rig using 10–15 pound test line. While filming some of the best catfish pros in the West for my weekly T.V. show on FOX Sports West, I learned that fly-lining these baits when possible produces best results. I like casting that slab of frozen mackerel out without any sinker at all—totally weightless. As I noted, at times the bigger channels and blue cats can be very skittish and temperamental. If you fish with even the lightest sinker, it can sometimes spook these trophy fish if they feel resistance while taking the bait.
So after I cast the mackerel strip out totally weightless, I set the rod in a holder but strip off about 24–36 inches of slack line. I want that bruiser cat to feel absolutely no resistance when it starts to pick up that bait and run. You might actually be surprised at how well this tactic works. It is not uncommon for an angler to lose their rig when a hungry catfish makes a powerful run, feeling no resistance with the fly-lined bait, pulling the rod over the side of the boat, off the stump where it was resting, and even out of a weak rod holder on the bank.
Another trick is to pre-scent your baits the night before. Put all the bait you will be using for the day in a plastic, sealable container. Add an ample amount of any of your favorite fish attractant. Flavors like garlic, anise, and brine shrimp are popular examples. Seal the lid and put it into the freezer. The next day, each piece of bait you put on the hook has been impregnated with the fish attractant. This results in a prominent “vapor trail” that is emitted as you soak your bait on the bottom. Probably don’t reconsider re-using the plastic container once you have fished all your hot stink bait!
Catfish are excellent table fare with numerous traditional preparations. They can be baked with a fine layer of bread crumbs or broiled with a marinade. They are excellent fried in beer batter, or with a layer of cornmeal. I actually find the younger, 1–3 pounders slightly less “muddy” tasting at times. But overall, catfish will rival any fresh water species as a dinner favorite.