Fly Fishing for Channel Cats?????
Ictalurus Punctatus, two Latin words fly fisherman never hear. However, I’ll bet that every flyfisherman has heard of Channel Catfish, although I would suspect it is at the bottom of their Fish to Catch on a fly rod list. But let me say this about the Channel Cat, they are a hoot! No you are not misreading this, you can catch Channel Cats on the fly and they are every bit as challenging as any other species.
The first time I went out for Cats was a lesson in humility. It happened back in 1976 and I was 20 years old at the time and feeling that my angling prowess was on the verge of world renown; what 20 year old doesn’t think they know everything that is until that fateful June afternoon. I got to the Red River, at the town of Lockport at 4:00 P.M. and got into my fly fishing gear and rigged up my 7 weight and thought, “Big enough for these Cats”. HA! The one fish I was lucky to hook spooled me and broke my backing at the jam knot against my reel’s arbour. With my mouth open and lapping at the muddy Red all I could do was look in awe as the fish swam awaywith my fly line and 100 yards of backing trailing behind it. Slap me silly and call me Grandma! I couldn’t believe what had just happened and had to console myself by reminiscing on the great casting practice I had that day.
That short lived fight lit a fire under my waders that has never gone out and also made me realize that there is a lot more to Channel Cats than what I thought. It has taken years of experimenting to find out how to catch Cats consistently on flies and it has been a great and continuing learning experience.
Channel Cats are bottom feeders that eat nothing but decaying carrion.
While Cats will dine on decaying carrion if it is accessible, in most rivers and lakes they are top of the line predators. They will actively feed from the bottom to the top of the water column. The list of food items they eat is a fly angler’s dream. Aquatic insects, mayflies, caddis flies,dragon flies, etc. all make their way into the Cats stomach as well as crawfish, leeches, forage fish, and frogs. In my home province of Manitoba the Channel Cats are notorious for dining on Leopard frogs at the end of June. While poppers are least productive fly for Cats, when these fish start feeding on frogs, they forget all the rules. A popper fished to imitate these frogs will give you a coronary when you see the toilet bowl swirl beneath your popper.A friend of mine, Will Milne, actually spey fishes with mayfly nymphs and does quite well.
Personally I have taken Cats on an extended body size 10 Brown Drake and left my fly fishing friends shaking their heads. My favorite fly for Cats is my own DDH Leech in a brown and tied in various sizes to imitate crawfish, leeches, and aquatic insects.
Catfish are dumb
Catfish are probably the smartest fish that swims. Gordon Farabee, who was a biologist at the Missouri Department of Conservation, did some testing on fish species for their learning ability. What he discovered surprised me and may even surprise you. Channel Cats are, according to this research, the smartest fish that swims. They are smarter than the most prized fish sought by fly fishermen, trout, which ranked in the lower third of the species tested. Bass, another popular fly rod species ranked in the middle third of fish tested. Cats learn extremely fast.
Catfish live in poor water conditions
Like all other fish species Catfish require an adequate water quality. Although they can survive in a body of water with lower dissolved oxygen levels than many game fish and even an extreme range of water temperature, they do best in an environment of clean water.
Catfish have poison in their spines
Channel Cats have no poison in their spines located on the dorsal, anal, pelvic, or pectoral fins. However, their spines are hard and strong and capable of puncturing your flesh especially the young fish whose spines are pointy and sharp. Like any other puncture wound if it gets infected it will hurt. There are a few related cousins that carry venom, one being a Madtom, and it can be painful if you are poked by one of their fins. There is nothing to fear if you use a little common sense and caution when handling Channel Catfish for release or taking home for the frying pan.
Some other myths are that they are a slow sluggish fish, they are primitive, or they only eat something that is smelly or stinks to high heaven. Most fish are primitive and eat smelly bait; after all, fish are one of the oldest creatures to still inhabit our planet. As for being sluggish, I have to defer back to my first experience where I lost my entire fly line and backing.It is unfortunate that such a bleak picture has been painted of one of the best game fish available, the Channel Cat
To understand Channel Cats, as well as other game fish, anglers should do a little studying to consistently hook up with these brutes. One of the things I’ve learned since that fateful day 36 years ago is that Catfish like any other fish can see very well in clear water and will use their eye sight to chase and eat prey. Not too much different than Pike, Walleye, or trout.
The big difference between Channel Cats and other fish is that they are one big sensory organ that lives in the water. As humans our senses are attuned to our world especially smell and taste. So it is in the world of the cool Channel Cat.
When we look at other fish species, trout, Bass, Walleye, etc. the only way they can taste is by taking something in their mouth to see if it’s good to eat, not so for Cats. The cool part about Cats is the way they can taste anything that brushes up against its head, tail, or dorsal fin. Anywhere a food item touches the Cat it can taste it and if it tastes edible it will eat it. True most of the organs of taste are located in the mouth, barbells, and the gill arches but I can guarantee if a frog swims by and touches the side of the Cats body he will be made a meal.
Another gift Channel Cats received is amazing hearing and uniquely related to the hearing is the lateral line. Channel Cats for whatever reason have developed a system of hearing to detect the low frequency vibrations of predator, prey, and fellow schoolmates. So Cats don’t hear the low frequency (1 to 200 cycles per second) but feel it. It is then transferred to the ear by the lateral line and once it reaches the ear is transformed by small minute filaments so they can hear what caused the vibration. This means the Cat is more attuned with its environment and the associated activities in it. When an angler tromps up to a pool the fish is holding in, it will sense the tromping vibrations just as well as the fish can sense the vibrations of a wounded fish on the other side of the hole. Each of those two types of vibrations are distinct to the Cat and either one will cause the Cat to take two very different but appropriate actions.
Cats are one of the strongest fish that swim because the muscles that are located in the forward and middle portion of their body are highly developed. Their pulling power is legendary due to the muscle development and their body shape which is tapered to a slim Caudal Peduncle, the wrist like area that is just ahead of the caudal fin, looks like a torpedo. These two factors enable the Cat to have amazing power.
So far, we now know that a Channel Cat has highly developed muscles, excellent hearing and lateral line capabilities, a smell/taste sense that compares to no other fish, and is the smartest fish that swims, What else does this fish need to climb the fly fisher’s ladder? Well, in case that isn’t enough, read on, I’ve got plenty more reasons.
Fishing for Cats:
When fishing for Channel Cats in rivers the fly angler must think like he is fishing for Brown Trout, the only difference being the temperature. Browns prefer water temps in the 60-65 degree range and Channel Cats prefer 70-80 degrees. Aside from that, the Cat’s basic requirements are very similar to Brown Trout. Both these fish are best suited for life in large streams or rivers. These bodies of water must have a low to moderate gradient, bottoms of sand, rubble, or gravel and water that is clear, clean, and moderately cool. Channel Cats like Brown Trout organize their lives around the riffle, hole, and run sections of the river. The Cats will use the riffles and runs to feed just like trout, when a hatch is occurring, but will spend most of their time in the holes and become extremely familiar with their home. When Channel Cats feed they will use the slack water in front of and behind boulders, sunken logs, or debris.
However the most prized spot on the river for Cats is the end of the riffle in the deepest part of the hole. (It really does feel like I’m writing a trout article.) In the deep parts of the hole there is less current for the fish to fight and a steady pile of food being washed down to the fish. Whether it’s a medium size river or a large river think of it as a trout stream and fish all the holding and feeding areas and you will catch Cats.
Just like with trout, one of the keys to success is to be observant and willing to adjust to unanticipated conditions such as the time I was fishing the part of the Red River where most of the T.V. shows are filmed. When I was wading out to one of my favorite holes, I stopped, out of curiosity, and watched the fisherman in the boat that was filming to see if he was going to catch anything. While watching the star of the show fish the bottom one unproductive presentation after another, I couldn’t help but notice that the Cats were slashing at shiners on the surface of the water throughout the hole. These fish surrounded this person’s boat but he didn’t switch his bottom dwelling tactics. I switched to a dry line and put on a fly I call Stu’s Smelt and proceeded to catch a pile of Cats. In fact I caught 5 Cats in the first 45 minutes of fishing and I know the camera man shot some footage of me fighting these fish but the curious thing was the host, whoever he was, did not motor over to ask what I was doing and he never did switch his bottom techniques. If it was me in the boat I’d be over there like white on rice.
It really depends on where you are fishing. Small creeks or ponds you can get away with a 5 or 6 weight outfit as most of the Cats will average 2-3 pounds. In a medium size river a 7 weight would be ideal since these fish may go 7-10 pounds. If you fish a big river such as I do you need equipment to handle the big brutes. I am one lucky person because I live half an hour away from the absolute best spot in North America for big Channel Cats, the Red River. This may sound too good to be true but a typical Cat for me is 32-34 inches; not bragging, just a fact. After the number of years I have been fishing this area I just can’t seem to find any Cat less than 27 inches, which is my smallest to date.
My favorite Red River rod is the Stremside Elite, which is 10 feet long and rated for a 10 weight line. I can put an amazing amount of pressure on a fish with this rod and it has helped land Cats to 40 inches. My reel is a Legacy and holds 200 yards of backing and the fly line: yes 200 yards of backing is needed. It also has a very smooth and consistent drag which is a must for fighting big fish. When fighting a fish in a river with a current like the Red River, once a Cat decides to run down river there is nothing to do but hang on. Lines and leaders are pretty straight forward. If I get to my fishing location and I see Cats slashing bait fish on the surface out comes my dry line. If I don’t see any surface activity then I’ll put on a Type IV sinking line and fish for approximately an hour. If I don’t have any hook ups near the surface or on the bottom, I know the fish are suspended and will switch to a sink tip line.
One notable difference where fly fishing for Cats is a little different than trout is in the presentation. Cats don’t care if the fly is presented so it lands as gentle as a thistle down on water; if they want it they eat it, so the leader is not critical for presentation. On big water such as the Red River, I use a single piece of 17 pound test mono and change the length of it for different types of line. For dry or sink tip lines, I use a leader of 6-9 feet and for sinking lines, I like 3-5 feet. If I was fishing small streams I would change to 6-8 pound test and medium streams I would use 10-12 pound test.
Over the years I have experimented with just about every fly that has been tied and believe it or not they all work to one degree or another. A friend of mine, Stephen Jay, uses a big Prince Nymph and does well on Cats, another friend of mine uses nothing but Woolly Buggers and he catches Cats as well. I find that no matter what I tie on it is going to work but as the old saying goes, “some work better than others”. Without a doubt my best producing fly on the Red is my brown DDH Leech. This fly has out caught every other fly that I have tried and when tied in different sizes can be used to imitate just about everything a Cat eats. Other flies that have worked for me are a black and white Clouser’s Minnow, Black Nose Dace, Woolly Buggers tied in black, olive, or in a purple and yellow combination, Prince Nymphs, Beige Montana, and a Kaufmann’s marabou damsel.
Traditional trout tactics will work but not as well as a technique I discovered quite by accident. I was on the Red fishing one of the holes anticipating a great day of catching and enjoying the peace and quiet that comes with being the first one on the river. I made my first cast and nothing, second cast, nada, third cast, zippo, then zilch, zero, and on and on. I stopped at 11:00 A.M. for a snack. After changing lines and about 100 flies without hooking anything, I remember my dad saying that if your hook is out of the water you won’t catch fish. Smart men dads are. I flicked a cast up stream and let the current do whatever it wanted to do with the line and fly. I placed the rod underneath my arm and dug into my vest to pull out a granola bar.
No sooner had I taken the first bite when a fish hit the fly and took off just about yanking my outfit from under my arm! I tightened the crook of my arm around the rod while I tried to put away the granola bar; dumb idea. The fly line was trapped against my skin when the fish made its initial run and let me tell you fly line BURNS! I jammed the granola bar down the front of my waders and grabbed my rod to fight the fish properly finally landing a 37 ½ incher. Now I could have stopped right there with a fish like that but thought to myself things happen for a reason and I made another cast upstream. I did exactly nothing on this drift as well and WHACK! It was like getting hit with a 2×4. I set the hook and landed a 35 incher. This is too good to be true I thought to myself. Made another cast, missed. Another cast, did nothing EEEHAAA!!!! I landed that one to. Just for fun I decided to try a drag free drift again, nothing. I made another drag free drift presentation once again, nothing. Made another cast didn’t mend just let the fly drag, HOLD ON TO YOUR ROWBOAT JOHNNY!!!!!! What a power house! Landed that one to which taped out at 39 inches.
Well, there you have it a fish worth fly fishing for. They don’t look as handsome as trout, they aren’t as acrobatic as Smallmouth and they don’t have the savagery of Pike or Musky, but they pull like a freight train, are smart as a whip, and give you a fly fishing memory of a lifetime. I had Jeff Currier up for a visit and he gave the best descriptions of the fight of the Channel Cat I’ve ever heard. “This Cat feels like a Sailfish that is sounding” I never saw a happier fly fisherman.