How To Pick A Fight With Mr. Whiskers
Written By: Cal Kellogg, March 12, 2012
Consider the lowly catfish. With his beady eyes, slimy skin, oft potbellied appearance and penchant for eating rotten morsels that both anglers and other gamefish find disgusting, it is little wonder that most West Coast anglers in California and beyond view the Mr. Whiskers as completely lacking even a sliver of nobility.
One of the problems that Mr. Whiskers’s PR Director is confronted with is the fact that the West Coast plays host to a list of sexy hard fighting gamefish including steelhead, stripers, regal brown trout and the mottled lingcod that dresses like a commando and fights like Chuck Norris.
Yet it isn’t really fair to compare the catfish to these fabled gamefish. To truly appreciate Mr. Whiskers you’ve got to consider his attributes. First of all catfish have a wide distribution, spread from the brackish waters of the Delta, through out the valley and foothills all the way up to the crest of the Sierra Nevadas. Beyond that, catfish tend to be ready strikers and can be caught all year long. Finally in many waters they attain massive sizes ranging from 8 to more than 30 pounds!
A lot of guys assert that catfish don’t fight. When I hear that I know I’m dealing with an angler that has never slugged it out with a 10 plus pound whiskerfish.
I cut my freshwater fishing teeth, chasing Delta cats at a very early age and I still enjoy fooling river cats with clams, worms and anchovy chunks, but in this article let’s focus on the channel cats found in nearly all of our foothill reservoirs.
When I think about reservoir catfish fishing I divide the action into two distinct categories. First there is the fishing that takes place for numbers of eating size fish in the 1 to 4 pound range and then there is trophy catfish fishing for fish that weigh 10, 15, 20 and as much as 30 pounds.
Fishing for pansize catfish in the spring, summer and fall is a relaxing and enjoyable past time that can be done from either a boat or the bank. Young cats, being the opportunistic feeders that they are move into shallow water areas during low light periods where they fan out across the bottom in search of a meal. When these fish encounter a worm, piece of chicken liver, baitfish fillet or one of the various commercially produced dough baits it’s generally game on and your stringer can get heavy in relatively short order.
Tackle requirements for pansize cats are pretty simple. A spinning or baitcasting rod with a light tip and a bit of backbone will get the job done. Spool the reel with 10 pound mono an you’re ready for action.
Terminal tackle and baits for small catfish are equally as simple. Most folks employ either a sliding sinker rig or a high low rig. I favor the high low. It works like this. To the end of your line attach a swivel to the swivel tie on a 30 inch 20 lb. test mono leader tipped with a snap swivel. Tie a pair of bait dropper loops evenly spaced in the middle of the leader. To the droppers attach a pair of snelled Eagle Claw No. 6 baitholder hooks and attach a 1 ounce sinker to the snap swivel.
Bait the hooks with worms, clams, dough bait, liver or bits of oily baitfish like anchovies and toss the rig into the water. Place the rod in a holder and tighten the line. When you get a trademark tap, tap tap catfish bite set the hook and reel in your prize.
Fishing for trophy size whiskerfish is a real challenge and can become quite addictive. Big cats put up a tackle testing fight, but since their flesh is rubbery and often tastes muddy, they are best fought, photographed and released.
Over the years my trophy catfish gear has undergone a number of changes. I started off with light tackle that utilized monofilament line. I found that during a prolonged fight the line would get frayed and break. Next I started using heavy mono, but often felt over gunned with the meat stick rods that heavy mono required. These days braided line allows my to enjoy the best of both worlds. My 30 pound braid is plenty strong, but fine enough to allow me to use relatively light black bass size rods and reels.
While spinning gear will certainly do the job for trophy cats, I prefer baitcasting gear. My favorite combo is a Fenwick Crankshaft Crankbait rod teamed with an Abu Garcia SX Revo matched with 30 lb. Fireline braid. The Crankshaft rod utilizes both fiberglass and graphite construction making it both durable and sensitive. The rod has a relatively soft tip backed with ample backbone.
End tackle for hunting trophy cats is characterized by strength, abrasion resistance and minimal weight. While trophy cats give you a big brawl once you hook them, they can be downright shy when it comes to taking your bait. If they feel too much resistance during the strike from either the rod tip or the weigh they will often drop the bait.
If I’m targeting big cats in shallow current free water, I’ll often rig up with no weight at all. I simply attach a swivel to the end of my braid and add a 24 inch 25 lb mono leader tipped with a 6/0 Gamakatsu octopus hook attached via an egg loop knot.
When I need to add weight I use the same leader, but before attaching the swivel to the end of the braid I slip a ½ to 1 ounce egg sinker followed by a plastic bead onto the braid.
Big catfish require big baits. My favorites include live 4 to 6 inch shiners, whole sardine or mackerel fillets, worm globs utilizing 3 or 4 large night crawlers or whole crawfish tails split, but fished with the shell on.
Big cats are apex predators, so you want to look for them in same types of areas where you would expect to find trophy size bass. Basically you’ll find them orienting to structure that sets on the break line between shallow and deep water. Submerged creek beds that set in 20 to 35 feet of water have been very productive for me over the years. If you find a creek that features submerged timber you might have stumbled on a real honey hole.
When hunting trophy cats I rely heavily on my sonar. Don’t expect to find a school of big cats. Instead look for one or two large fish holding near structure. Those big marks you see holding along the bottom are nearly always big cats. Most often you’ll spot the fish on the bottom, but don’t ignore big suspended marks.
Large cats are predators and it is not uncommon to find them suspended next to structure where they ambush passing baitfish. If these fish are confronted with a shiner or even a large sardine fillet they will very often gulp it down. One of the largest cats I ever hooked was suspended 18 feet from the surface next to a submerged tree in an area that featured water that ranged from 25 to 35 feet deep.