Changing Channels

By Matt Seek | photographs by Noppadol Paothong | July 1, 2017
From Xplor: July/August 2017

Put down the remote and climb off the couch. Lazy summer days aren’t meant to be spent indoors watching TV. Besides, there’s a more exciting “channel” to catch outside. You’ll find it at your nearest pond.

Introducing Mr. Whiskers Channel catfish — with their gaping mouths and fleshy whiskers, their fins armed with venomous spines, and their smooth, slimy skin — could be cast as monsters in any Hollywood movie. But anglers love to catch these fish, and it’s easy to see why. They’re found in nearly any pond, lake, or stream, and you don’t need fancy fishing gear to hook ’em. On the line they put up a thrilling fight, and on the table they make a tasty meal. Best of all, they’re tons of fun to catch.

Bait Up

Every inch of a channel cat’s slippery skin, from its whiskers to its tail, is covered with taste buds. This sensesational skin isn’t made to savor flavors. It helps catfish nab snacks in dark, murky waters. So to catch this cat, all you need to do is throw something with a strong taste or smell in the water. Live minnows, crayfish, and grasshoppers work well. So do chicken livers, stinky cheese, hotdogs, shrimp, pieces of dead fish, and even soap. Wiggly earthworms are tough to beat.

Many anglers use treble hooks for catfishing. But these can be tough to remove from a fish’s mouth. Circle hooks are designed to hook a fish in the corner of the mouth, which makes them easy to remove. They’re also nearly impossible for a fish to swallow. Whichever hook you choose, make sure it’s sharp. Catfish have tough, leathery lips, and a dull hook will miss lots of fish.

Find the Fish

Channel cats may lurk in nearly any part of a pond, but certain spots are more fish-ful than others. Cast your bait along pond dams, over rocky areas, and near any underwater brush, weeds, or other structures. Catfish are usually hungriest in the early morning and late evening. Fishing after a rain storm can be exciting, too. The rain washes insects and worms into the pond, sending catfish into a feeding frenzy. Summer heat sends fish down deep to find cooler water, but not to the bottom, where oxygen is scarce.

Rig Up

There are two basic ways to fish for channel cats. One way is to crimp a couple of split shot about a foot above the hook, bait up, and cast out. Let the bait sink all the way to the bottom of the pond, then reel in the extra line. Keep a finger on the line so you can feel if a hungry whiskerfish is nibbling.

The other way is to use a bobber to suspend the bait several feet under the water’s surface. A couple of split shot will help the bait hang straight down and willkeep a wary catfish from feeling the tug of the bobber. Watch the bobber closely, and if you see it start to wiggle, get ready.

Land That Lunker

When you suspect Mr. Whiskers is tasting your bait, quickly sweep the tip of the rod upward to set the hook. If you’re using a circle hook, however, doing this will likely snatch the hook right out of the fish’s mouth. Instead, just keep the line tight. A circle hook is designed to hook the fish all by itself.

Once the fish is on, keep the tip of the rod high, and reel in line to pull the fish closer. Don’t jerk the rod or pull too hard.

That could snap the line or injure the fish. When the fish is close enough, slip a net under it or reach down and grab it.

Watch Those Spines

Channel cats are armed with sharp, venom-laced spines on their top and side fins that they raise like spears when they feel threatened. This turns an otherwise tasty fish into a painful meal for a predator to swallow.

If you get poked by a spine, the venom won’t make you sick, but it will make you say “ouch!” Protect yourself by holding the fish from the underside, with your fingers firmly behind the spines on the side fins. Smaller catfish can be held by putting your thumb into the fish’s mouth and pinching its lower lip (don’t worry, catfish don’t have teeth).

Some people think catfish can sting with their whiskers, which are called barbels. That’s not true. The barbels are harmless andare used to find food in muddy water.

Dinner or Swimmer?

If you like catching channel cats but don’t want to eat them, make sure you release the fish quickly and carefully so it has the best chance to survive. When possible, leave it in the water while you remove the hook.

If you must take it out, wet your hand before handling it. When a fish swallows the hook, don’t remove it. Cut the line, and the hook will eventually rust away. If you’re hankering for a fish dinner, fried catfish can’t be beat. For an easy recipe, check out “How To”

Know the Rules

Fishing doesn’t have many rules, but it does have a few, and it’s your responsibility to follow them. Get the lowdown on permits, daily limits, and other rules at huntfish.

Find a Place to Fish

Looking for a place to cast a line? The Conservation Department has hundreds of ponds, lakes, and river accesses across the state. Find one near you at fishing/where-fish.

Also In This Issue

Bet you can't count 'em all.

This Issue's Staff

Bonnie Chasteen
Les Fortenberry
Karen Hudson
Angie Daly Morfeld
Noppadol Paothong
Marci Porter
Mark Raithel
Laura Scheuler
Matt Seek
David Stonner
Nichole LeClair Terrill
Stephanie Thurber
Cliff White