by Ron Kruger
Catfish can be caught all year, but the best time is when their reproductive urges overcome caution and good sense. This takes place when the water temperature reaches about 80 degrees in May or June, depending upon your latitude.
Catfish become so aggressive during the spawn, in fact, that bass fishermen often catch them on crankbaits and other lures. This rarely happens at other times of the year, but I’ve had days as a bass fishing guide on Kentucky Lake during the spawn when I’ve caught as many channel catfish as bass on medium- and shallow-running crankbaits.
I’m not suggesting that you fish for catfish with crankbaits. My point is that during the spawn, catfish seem angry enough to eat or attack anything that comes near them.
To catch catfish most consistently; however, you have to get real, because a catfish is like a swimming tongue laced with super-powered taste buds. Their main tool for making a living is imbedded in their barbels, those whiskers that inspired their common name. Each barbel is loaded with taste buds, as are their outer lips, gill rakers and even some of the body. A young catfish just 6 inches in length has more than 1/4 million taste buds on its body. A catfish can saunter up to a meal and taste it before the fish actually opens its mouth.
In water, smell and taste molecules are the same thing. Sometimes you and I might get a whiff of something that smells so good we can almost taste it. But when a catfish gets a whiff of something, it literally tastes it, just as surely as if it were in its mouth. Avoid getting gasoline, sunscreen or insect repellent on your hands and inadvertently on your bait. Catfish hate those smells, and any distasteful smell will hinder your fish catching.
Usually, catfish take their time about eating something, but during the spawn, their territorial spawning instincts make them crazy and impulsive. Maybe all that hanky panky makes them hungry. At any rate, in the right spot, catfishing can be so fast that one pole is all an angler can handle.
For most of the year, catfish spend their time haunting deep places where the sun is shunned, moving shallow mostly under the secure cover of darkness. But reproductive urges reverse that, too. Catfish not only feed more aggressively during the spawn, they congregate in the shallows during the day, when most people like to fish for them.
Early morning, late evening and just before a storm are still the best times, but when catfish are preoccupied with the urge to make more catfish, they’ll inhabit the sunlit shallows even at mid-day. They line the rocky shores and rip-rap banks to perform their reproductive duty, and I believe they get angry or crazy enough to eat anything that can’t eat them.
Most catfishing is done with heavy weights cast far out into the lake to reach the deep water, but during the spawn, this method goes way over their heads. A lighter weight under a bobber fished relatively close to shore (4 to 6 feet deep) will best catch these whiskered Romeos.
Live worms are the most common bait. If you use them, don’t be stingy. Weave them on to create a wiggling glob. This is much more attractive than a single nightcrawler threaded onto the hook. Besides, threading a worm on the hook kills it quickly. Just secure the hook through the worm a few times and let the rest wiggle freely.
Some mistakenly think catfish are scavengers. They will devour the dead, as long as that dead something is not too long gone, but catfish not the slimy garbage disposal some believe. Keep your live bait alive, and keep your cut bait as fresh as possible.
Another tip for catfish anglers is to make your own “luck.”
Luck is something most catfishermen sit around waiting for, but it’s not much different than other types of fishing. The luckiest fishermen are those who increase their odds through their own efforts.
Luck is mostly about being in the right place at the right time, so don’t let any catfish bait sit in one place for more than 15 minutes. If there are catfish nearby, this swimming taste bud we call a catfish will find it within that time. If you don’t get a bite within 15 minutes, reel in a few yards or cast to a different spot. This method covers varying bottom types, searching for catfish, instead of just waiting, sometimes for hours, in the same spot for a catfish to come to you.
If a particular area does not produce after an hour or so, move. Pick up your cooler, all your gear, and try a completely different spot.
Don’t be afraid to cast near logs and stumps, either. The bigger ones like to stay near some type of cover, and they especially like to spawn in logjams, hollow logs, big rocks, and bluff banks where wave action or rocks create holes.
The old adage often used by crappie fishermen applies equally to catfishing: “If you aren’t getting hung up once in a while, you’re not fishing in the right place.”
The Art of Stealth… For Catfish?
A beautiful aspect of fishing for catfish is that this is generally a low-tech effort. It’s not like we are trying to fool a pressured trout on a tiny ribbon of mountain stream with a hand-tied fly, right?
The catfish of late spring move close to the bank, which is great because we can catch them from the bank. But anglers had better be quiet when bank fishing.
Catfish have a bunch of little bones along their backs that act like a high-intensity hearing aid. These modified vertebrae, which are unique to catfish and goldfish, pick up the pressure component of sounds—like an angler stomping along the bank—and transmit them directly to their inner ear. This modified series of vertebrae, called “Weberian ossicles,” act like an amplifier, which means catfish hear far better than most fish. Bass and many other fish, for example, hear up to about 800 Hz, while catfish hear up to 5,000 Hz¬or a little over six times better.
So be quiet when fishing from the shore. Keeping noise to a minimum in a boat is also recommended, particularly this time of year when catfish are shallow.
Even a foot tapping to a favorite tune might spook catfish.
The Catfish Cocktail
Malcolm Lane is one of the oldest guides on Kentucky Lake, and he is the only guide I know that specializes in catfish. When the catfish are shallow, Malcolm uses bobbers and a cocktail of live leeches and frozen shrimp. These are the large shrimp sold specifically for fishing (mostly in saltwater). The seasoned variety you get from the grocery store won’t work as well.
Malcolm peels the shrimp and threads them onto a single hook. Then he threads the hook through the head of the leech for about one-quarter of an inch, bringing it back out so that most of the leech is left to wiggle freely and vigorously below the shrimp.
“The shrimp provides the smell, and the leech provides the action. Catfish can’t resist the combination,” Malcolm says.
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