Catfishing is a misunderstood sport. Some think it is simple as dunking worms on a bent nail, sort of like a Mark Twain fantasy.
This, no doubt, was true years ago. Most big cats were only caught by accident, often the case today. Average catches generally ranged between a half pound to 10 pounds.
Modern catfishing techniques are more sophisticated. Boats equipped with sonar pick up signs that could mean active fish. I recently witnessed what this new breed of cat fisherman can do in winter conditions.
Shannon Harrison, of Lee’s Summit, introduced me to this winter version of catching cats several years ago. The December day was barely out of the 30s. I tried to zip my duck hunting jacket around my next as the 225 Evinrude pushed his Stratos down part of Missouri’s Truman Lake. We would soon start fishing The Osage River, located close to Osceola, Mo. Harrison swerved several times to miss floating logs and other debris. He watched his graph and soon stopped the boat.
Mike Allison, of Lee’s Summit and Dennis Dahlke, of Shawnee, Kansas, started tossing a round throw net off the boat’s bow. Each net opened into full circles while twisting through the air. The nets landed flat and sank to unsuspecting clouds of gizzard shad. Each cast brought in more of that day’s bait. Soon Harrison’s live well was half full of the flopping bait.
Large surf rods were soon rigged with shad heads on Gamakatsu Kayle style off-set hooks. Baits were cast out into a deeply submerged rock chute in the current.
“The catfish use these chutes like highways,” Harrison explained.
Boulders littered the bottom where each bait dropped. Some casts with the huge rods were 75 yards. The surf rods sent each bait and rigging a remarkable distance.
Tightened lines only showed movement from river currents and occasional breezes. Suddenly, Allison’s rod tip bounced lightly. He set the hook hard. A shock drove through the rod into Allison’s hands as the great fish jerked back hard.
The fight was on. The big cat made several runs into and around the boulders. Powerful surges reminded me of tying line on a big hog and trying to reel him in. Allison squeezed the rod with all of his strength.
Dahlke and Harrison quickly untied the boat and the fight away from the shore. The current immediately become more of a factor in mid-stream.
The catfish made numerous strong runs as Allison grunted while trying to hang on. Each reel turn brought the big cat closer. Then the cat saw Harrison’s boat. The cat dove deep and hard like a submarine diving. The rod bowed to touch the river’s surface as if paying tribute to this incredible fighter. A surprised Allison continued reeling and holding on white trying to loosen the reel’s drag.
I wondered if the manufacturer had intended for the surf rod to bend that much. Finally the big cat gave up and slipped in to be gaffed and hauled into the boat. Allison let out war whoop as he studied his 47-pound blue cat. This beautiful cat was caught while most were hunting or watching football.
Harrison depends on his graph for this type of fishing. He starts by locating bait, then the river bottom is studied.
“I look for humps, submerged boulders, collected brush or log piles and other structure that might hold cats,” he said. “The graph notes big catfish around these areas and schools of shad. This type of fishing is only possible with sonar. Today’s graphs really paint a picture of what is below the surface.”
Next the boat is anchored on shore within possible casting range. As noted before, surf rods cast baits and riggings long distances. The shad are killed and cut in pieces. Sides are mainly used for channel catfish while the head and guts work better for big blue cats. This bait is threaded on the kayle-style hooks with the hook tip showing. Fresh baits are used at each position. The rule is to use live baits for flathead catfish and dead bait for the rest. Blue cats are gluttons who eat large numbers of shad daily.
Rigging consists of a heavy three-way swivel that separates weight and bait. A 2- to 8-ounce weight, depending on the current’s strength, anchors the bait that floats just above the bottom. Leaders should be 2 feet long and 80- to 100-pound test line. The group uses size 3 to 5 hooks. Rods are generally 11 feet, 6 inches and medium-heavy action. The large Ambassador Model 7500 is the reel of choice.
Floating debris in most rivers make the use of an older boat advisable. Most river runners use stainless steel props. Breaking a standard prop on floating logs, sandbars or rocks is a common occurrence. Equipment on most rivers must be built for toughness.
“My equipment may seem extreme, but I am constantly after monsters over 25 pounds,” Harrison said. “ Our largest is the 47-pound blue, but I have hooked and lost many twice that big. We catch a lot of 20-pound cats each season. I have a lot of respect for this battler. Catfish are all muscles. I have fought big cats almost 25 minutes. They never give up even after being hooked on a stringer or tossed in a live well.”
The group agrees that catfish are not dumb fish like many anglers who fish for other species think. They seem to be scared when hooked and fish with all of their power. Bigger cats dive straight down to the rocks or other heavy cover. Older catfish are smarter, a fact evidenced by how they fight. Many are lost when they tangle up in brush piles.
Bites vary from taps to big hits. A catfisherman who judges the size of fish by their bite velocity may be badly mistaken. Remember that Allison’s 47-pound blue made two light taps.
Types of catfish are found in different spots throughout winter. Flathead catfish love current. Channel and blue cats find deeper holes out of the current. The cold water makes them dormant. The best fishing occur a day or two after the ice melts from lake or river surfaces.
“Gizzard shad become trapped in the ice during winter’s freezes,” Harrison said. “Thawing send the preserved shad remains floating to the bottom. Catfish gorge, cleaning up this easy forage. The longer stretches of cold weather really make this a valuable feast for cats. Winter fishermen capitalize on this feeding frenzy.”
Harrison has made a science of catfishing, but he still admits having a lot to learn. The thrill of fighting and landing a large cat is hard to beat. Yet the taste of fresh catfish fillets from cold water is amazing.
Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.