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Written By: Cal Kellogg, March 12, 2012
From a national perspective, black bass are our most popular gamefish. In a virtual tie for the title of second most popular sport fish you’ll find catfish and crappie.
Out here in the Golden State our freshwater fishing scene boasts many more options than found in many other areas of the country. On any given day the California, a freshwater angler can choose to target black bass, trout, steelhead, land locked kings, kokanee, stripers, mackinaw, sturgeon or a short list of other species including bluegill, perch, crappie and of course catfish.
With all these hard fighting gamefish to choose from, it is little wonder that catfish get lost in the shuffle, so to speak, for most California anglers. Yet, the same factors that enable our lakes and rivers to provide such productive bass and trout fishing also set the stage for robust healthy catfish populations that are grossly under utilized.
When “A List” gamefish are cooperating why would you want to target those lowly whiskerfish, but what about when the going gets tough? You know the times when the water temperature has dropped a bit and the black bass have gone into a funk or when a bright full moon gives the trout a severe case of lockjaw. These are the times when catfish can really save the day, since many of the common factors that often put a damper on trout and bass bites, will have little or no effect on the catfish action.
Catfish also shine when you want to fish with your spouse, kids, relatives or friends that aren’t as skilled and avid as you are when it comes to fishing. The quickest way to turn a perspective new angler off to the sport of fishing is to take them out for a long boring day of targeting fish that are difficult to catch.
With catfish, you can pretty much depend on getting plenty of action, and if your partner does something wrong, the next bite is right around the corner. Let’s face it, it takes skill and mental toughness to wait 8 or 9 or 10 hours for a single sturgeon pump and then execute properly to turn that pump into a hookup. When your son or wife misses those first few catfish bites, who cares? Those fish aren’t going anywhere and they’ll likely keep on biting until you hook them.
In this article we aren’t going to discuss how to catch monster trophy size cats. Instead, we’ll take a look at how to go out to a reservoir or the delta and catch a mess of eating size whiskerfish for the deep fryer. Having said that even though your intended target is pansize fish, there is always the potential that you’ll stumble on something in the double digits!
Catfish are one of those wonderful species that can be effectively targeted from either a boat or the bank. For bank fishing you’ll want to arm yourself with a 7 foot fast action spinning stick teamed with a reel filled with about 150 yards of 10 pound test monofilament. For boat fishing the tackle is pretty much the same, except that I would choose bait casting gear over spinning gear.
In situations, such as fishing off the bank when it might be necessary to cast a good distance, spinning gear is the best choice for most anglers. However, by its very nature spinning gear tends to twist your line, setting the stage for tangles down the road. This is why bait casting gear is the best choice for boat fishing, since distance casting isn’t a consideration. Bait casters don’t create line twist and that makes them largely immune to problems, with the exception of backlashes while casting.
Now some of the folks out there in Fish Sniffer Country are thinking about that 10 pound test line and wondering if they’ll be able to land a 10 or 12 or 15 pound cat with it should one happen to bite. The answer is a resounding yes, provided you don’t rush the action. Catfish don’t fight like stripers or steelhead. A big cat isn’t going to tear off on a long run. Instead they are going to try to hold the bottom and pit their muscle against the resiliency of the tackle. If you keep steady pressure on the line and keep the fish out of the snags, you’ll wind up on top.
With rod in hand, it’s time to think about end tackle. The accompanying illustration shows the three basic rigs used by California catfish enthusiasts. The top rig is known as the high-low rig. It is characterized by having a sinker fixed to the bottom of the leader with two hooks positioned above it on short droppers. This is the most popular rig. When this rig is casted out and fished on a tight line the result is one bait setting right on the bottom with the other bait suspending from 6 inches to a foot off the bottom.
Using this rig, when a bite is registered on the rod tip, pick up the rod and feel for the fish, when you feel it working on the bait set the hook. If the fish isn’t hook set it right back down and tighten the line. Most of the time the fish will come back.
The middle rig is the sliding sinker rig. With this rig the bait sets right on the bottom. This is the best set up to use in situations when the water is cold and the catfish are a bit sluggish. I fish this rig on a tight line, but at the first sign of a bite I pick up the rod and drop the rod tip. This gives the fish a bit of slack. When it moves off and you feel weight, that’s the time to set the hook.
The final rig to familiarize yourself with is the slip bobber rig. Most folks think that catfish are strictly bottom feeders, but this isn’t the case. They will feed throughout the water column. I use bobber rigs most often around standing wood, near docks or up against steep rocky walls. The presentation is simple. You put a glob of bait on the hook and cast the rig out. When the bobber disappears, count to five, start reeling slowly and when you feel the fish slam the hook home.
In lakes and reservoirs you’ll only need to use an ounce of weight in most situations with both the high-low and sliding sinker rigs. In the delta or other rivers you’ve got to use enough weight to keep the rig on the bottom in the current. Typically you’ll never need more than 3 ounces and 2 ounces is generally plenty.
Catfish have a varied diet and at times they will hit almost anything. Over the years, clams and sardines have emerged as my favorite baits and have seldom failed me, but just in case, I usually carry some worms and liver with me when catfish are on the menu. Every serious catfish angler has his or her confidence bait, so it pays to mix and match until you find the bait that you are most confident with and which the catfish seem to like the best.
When looking for potential whiskerfish honey holes, think transition zones. Rocky points, standing timber or brush, creek channels and the edges of vegetation are all good bets. Don’t live and die at one location. Catfish are generally ready strikers. If you spend 45 minutes at a location without action pack up and try another spot.
As a final word, take it from me, the best catfish for eating are those that weigh 5 pounds or less. If you catch one of those monsters, take it’s photo and let it go. All the big cats I’ve tried to eat had a muddy flavor and rubbery flesh. Yuck! Cal Kellogg is the author of the Trout Fishing Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide For The Conventional Tackle Angler. For more information or to order a copy call (530) 320-0368.
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