Jul 5, 2017

Prime Season River Cats

By: Larry Smith

It’s May and the rivers of the Winnebago System are absolutely teaming with life.   The white bass run is ramping up, and anglers are catching them like crazy on everything from flies, to spinners, jigs, small cranks, and the list goes on. Buckets of fish caught with ease. When I see this going on, I’m not thinking about white bass, however. I’m getting my catfish gear.

May and early June are prime cat fishing months. This is usually the peak of the pre-spawn period where LOTS of fish can be caught along with plenty of BIG fish. This is also the best time of year for harvest. 3-5 pounders are great baked, fried, or on the grill. (Provided fish are kept fresh and cleaned properly. More on this later.) Plus catfish are, in my opinion, the best fish next to salmon out of the smoker. The reason for this is simple: Diet. 

With so much biomass in the rivers this time of year, catfish dine on freshness: Spawn, baitfish, white bass, etc. Even though the prey may be dead, mortality was a recent event, and the meals stay fresh for the hungry cats with comparatively cooler water temps this time of year than those of summer. (A season many think is prime catfish time.) During the summer months, the cats tend to have a diet consisting of more dead and rotting items than in spring. It’s the old saying, “You are what you eat.” With the cats shifting into the spawning mode and their metabolism revving up, they put on the feedbag! Nature provides a buffet of fresh fish to the cats through the white bass run, which in turn provides us with the opportunity for excellent meals through wise harvest. It’s amazing how things in nature are linked. 

Catfish tend to reside in deeper river holes and can be caught during the day, but I prefer a night-fishing approach this time of year. The reason is two-fold:           

  1. The white bass run brings many anglers to the system. The evening hours provide solitude, and more availability to prime river locations.
  2. Catfish, by nature, are nocturnal.   They leave the cover of the deep holes at night to actively find food. Active fish provide better angling opportunity.

I typically like to get on the river and set up during the last light of the day. Let me tell you, it can be pretty difficult to set up a bunch of catfish rigs in the dark! Even though my boat is equipped with green LED rope lighting (the green colored lights are easy on the eyes at night), it’s still way more effective and hassle-free to set-up during daylight and then wait it out.   No one wants to deal with tangled lines or tying hooks in the dark if they don’t have to! 

River bends near deeper holes with wood cover and shallower flats adjacent to them are usually your best bets for locating river cats. I like to anchor slightly upriver of the holes, using around a 28 lb. navy-style anchor with 3 feet of chain and plenty of rope. I favor navy anchors because, in my experience, they hold the best on most any type of bottom substrate, and can usually be saved if they do happen to get snagged in something. You don’t want to be sliding around on the river at night with an anchor that wont hold! Stay put, and stay on fish with a navy anchor. 

With the boat in place, it’s time to gear up. My catfish outfits consist of 7.5 to 9 ft. medium action rods (spinning or bait casting, whatever you prefer) spooled with 14 lb. high-vis monofilament. The high-vis mono makes seeing your lines in the dark a heck of a lot easier; reducing tangles when you have a double or even a triple hookup at night. Catfish have a tendency to swim left to right, roll, and cause all sorts of havoc to a multiple rig spread, and the high-vis line just adds that edge of visibility to help you stay in control.

I learned a unique terminal tackle rigging from a great catfish guide in the area: Patrick Morack (Moracktion Guide Service, 920-216-9085). A lot of catfish anglers fix the sinker to the mainline, causing cats to feel resistance when they pick up the bait and drop it. Patrick’s technique involves tying a swivel to the mainline with about 2-3ft of 14lb fluorocarbon leader, and behind the swivel is the sinker; a swivel rig sliding freely on the mainline with about a 6in-1ft dropper line with a snap swivel on the end allowing you to change sinker sizes with ease depending on current.   A good rule of thumb is to use the lightest weight you can get away with and still maintain bottom contact (usually ¾ to 1 oz.). Cats pick up the bait without feeling any resistance from the sinker, and with the rods in holders, the fish can run and set the attached #1 circle hooks for themselves.   I always use circle hooks while cat fishing because they are easy to remove with the fish being hooked in the corner of the mouth 99% of the time, ensuring safe handling of fish you want to release, and safety for you as well. No digging deep into the mouth of a catfish to free hooks. Circle hooks are the only way to go. 

Rods are spread out covering a range of water depths from the bottoms of holes to the surrounding shallow flats. You may find that the deeper rigs will be the most productive early in the evening, with the shallower sets heating up as the night wears on due to cats moving out of the holes to actively hunt for food. Baits of choice during the pre-spawn period (which is the focal time period of this article) include FRESH cut sucker, shrimp, chicken livers etc. I emphasize the freshness factor of the baits because, as I said before, the fish are not focused on dead and decaying food sources. They want fresh food! Post-spawn fish (late June) tend to bite better on “fouler” baits such as Uncle Josh’s Little Stinker line (this is a great option later in the season). My dad, who was a cat-fishing machine, even used to throw shrimp outside in the hot summer sun and let them rot for a few days before trips. It would stink to high heaven, but it would produce! Let me reiterate that this is exactly why I don’t choose to harvest catfish during the post-spawn period. Even though they are still great sport, the change in diet gives the fish an off flavor. Again, you are what you eat…

Fish that are chosen for harvest (and I recommend releasing the bigger specimens; just as I do for all fish species,) should be bled immediately and put on ice. Years ago, catfish anglers would “clean” their catch by letting the fish swim around in tanks filled with cool, clean water for a few days, but current regulations don’t permit this practice. Bleeding is just as effective. I prefer to cut the throat area, but my father swore by cutting the tail and letting them bleed that way. Whatever the method, bleeding the fish is paramount to having the best table fare no matter the cooking method.   Bled fish yield pearly-white, firm fillets that are perfect for your choice of preparation.

Catfish are one of the most universally appreciated fish across the entire angling community. You can catch LOTS of fish, you can catch BIG fish, and if properly handled and prepared, yield great eats! It’s a species that will get kids involved in fishing because they can catch good numbers, they fight like crazy, get big, and the techniques for catching them are not that complicated. The night-fishing aspect alone is a time for families to get together and connect with one another; whether it’s on the bank with a warm fire or in the boat. Stories told, monsters caught, and while snacking on smoked catfish spread and crackers, surely makes one say, “What a great day to be alive!”

Larry Smith is an avid catfish angler, full-time guide with almost 30 years experience, and host of Larry Smith Outdoors television; current weekly outdoor entertainment. Follow us on Facebook for current outdoor information from across the Midwest! To see these techniques in action, go to our YouTube channel and check out “Cattin’ around on the Wolf River.” If you like what you see, subscribe to never miss an episode!