Spend a little time fishing for catfish, and it's not hard to see how they are one of North America's most popular game fish. They are found in a variety of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs from Canada to the southern United States, and can reach very impressive sizes. Whether you're looking for a hard fight, or something to take home for dinner, catfish can provide you with exactly what you're looking for. There are many species of catfish, and all behave differently and tolerate different conditions. Channel catfish have one of the largest ranges, and although they are typically smaller than blue cats or flatheads, are very plentiful and still regularly attain sizes of 20 - 30 lbs in some river systems. The Red River in Manitoba, Canada, has without a doubt the largest channel catfish anywhere in the world. Fish are rarely less than 20 lbs, and putting 15 - 40 fish in this size range in the boat on a good day is not uncommon. As you can imagine, this requires some fairly specialized tackle.
Depending on how you like to fish, channel catfish allow to you use either spinning or baitcasting gear, depending on the presentation you're offering, and the size of the fish you're targeting. I recommend baitcasting gear anytime you're targeting the larger fish with traditional catfish rigs. Catfish can also be caught using oversized slip floats, and heavy spinning gear may also be used in this situation. As with most applications these days, longer rods of the 7-8' length are ideally suited for catfish. Catfish are notorious of literally ripping the rod out of your hand when they engage the bait, so a rod with moderate fast - fast action is preferred to give a little shock absorption on the hit. This won't affect your hook sets at all, since the fish typically does half the work for you when they hit and run. A medium-heavy to heavy power rod is recommended, with a heavier rod being selected if you are fishing stronger current. Catfish will occasionally use the current to their advantage by rising to the surface and forcing you to drag the fish through the heaviest current possible, so a heavy rod is absolutely necessary to bring the fish in without pulling anchor. There are many commercially available catfish rods, but musky rods fit the bill nicely for the larger cats. A. St. Croix Premier musky rod has the necessary backbone and shock absorption for this application.
In many cases, catfish prefer to hang around areas of structure in order to get out of the current and to ambush prey. Because of this nature, an abrasion resistant line is needed. Braided line or a monofilament may be used. Use a mono line if you're using a heavier action rod, because the stretch in the line will act as a shock absorber. If you're using a softer rod, then a braided line is ideal and typically results in a better hook set. Braided lines in the 50 - 80lb range or monofilament in the 20- 30lb range is best. Personally, I prefer the braided lines as I feel I get a better hook set when using no stretch lines and so I use 80 lb Power Pro.
There are many reels that are well suited for catfishing. As far as baitcasting reels are concerned, a medium sized reel is all that is needed. A good drag is important as the large catfish seem to never give up and will often have one or two powerful runs left in them, even when you think they're just ready to give up. As with other large fish, a high gear ratio is not recommended because torque will be needed to help move these fish. A reel with a 5.2:1 gear ratio or lower will get the job done. Choosing a reel with a power handle is also a good idea as it will reduce angler fatigue when you're fighting big fish all day. I've been using a Shimano Tekota 500LC for catfish and I've had no problems at all. It handles the abuse with no problems at all and has a loud clicker for setting up rods in rod holders, which is very handy for the days where you just want to sit back and wait for the fish to find you.
Fishing for catfish is not complicated at all. The most effective rigs are very straight forward and easily purchased or made on your own. A basic catfish rig consists of nothing more than a weight, swivel, snell, and hook. Typically you'll want your snell to be as short as 12" and as long as 36". Shorter snells seem best in heavier current as the reduced length minimizes bait movement, but you often have to experiment to see what the fish want. Use a 30-40lb monofilament for your snell, and tie the swivel on one end and a large 5/0 - 7/0 single hook on the other. Sinker weights very according to depth and current conditions, but typically a weight from 2 - 8oz is necessary to maintain bottom contact. There are a variety of sinkers available in these weights, however I've found a no-roll sinker to work best as it prevents the current from rolling the weight across the bottom, and easily backs out of most snags.
Catfish have incredibly tough, leathery mouths and therefore a powerful hook set is necessary, even when the fish hit the bait and run. This can make things tricky for younger anglers, or those with less upper body strength. One great solution is to replace your single hook with a large circle hook. Circle hooks are designed so that the fish will set the hook themselves, and will not hook a fish if swallowed. Rather, they drag to the corner of the mouth, and as the fish applies tension the hook will penetrate. The key is to NOT set the hook. Allow your rod to load and simply start reeling. If you attempt a hook set, chances are you'll lose the fish. It takes some patience sometimes and some willpower to not drive the hooks home, but you'll see that circle hooks work very well if used properly.
One common misconception about catfish is they are exclusively bottom feeders, or that they only feed on dead or rotten meat. Obviously, they do feed in this manner, however, channel catfish are incredibly lethal predators. Here on the Red River, goldeye are one of the main forage bases for trophy catfish. It is very common to see the water literally exploding as the catfish smash the goldeye out of the water right on the surface. These are the situations where a slip bobber is ideal for catching suspended catfish. There are a million recipes for the ultimate stink bait for catfish, however it seems that the fresher the bait, the better. Goldeye, frogs, tullibee, sucker, or whole shrimp are without a doubt the best baits for catfish on the Red River. Chicken livers, nightcrawlers, or stink baits also work in many water systems. Simply cut the bait into 1" steaks as you need it and you're ready to go! Each bait seems to have a time of year where it works best, so bringing a few bait choices on each trip is generally a good idea. The aforementioned baits can be used on both a bottom rig or a float rig. Float rigs are a great idea for shallower water, or when you observe catfish feeding on or near the surface. Simply adjust your float to allow your bait to drift 1-3' under the surface. Typically, cast your float upstream as close to a current break as possible and allow it to drift past you and as far downstream as you'd like. When the float goes under, set the hook hard!
One of the best things about catfish is they can be found almost anywhere. They are easily accessible by both boat and shore anglers. Generally catfish are found in river environments, but that doesn't mean they are always in the current. During periods of high, fast water, catfish often leave the heavy current in search of current breaks or holes in the river. These situations can cause the fish to really stack up in areas and wait for the current to bring the food to them. With a sonar system, you will easily mark the fish holding inside the deep holes. Generally, fish an area for 15 - 20 minutes. If you haven't caught a fish then its time to move. Catfish are equipped with a great sense of smell and taste. If there are active fish in an area, you'll know about it right away. Also, it seems that in morning and evening, the catfish will typically move shallower. As the sun rises and the water temperature reaches it's daily peak, they seem to seek out the cooler, deeper water. The key to successful catfishing is to remain mobile because once you find them, you may just have some of the best fishing you've ever experienced!
Andrew Klassen guides the waters of Lake of the Woods, Winnipeg River and Red River in Ontario and Manitoba Canada for trophy channel catfish, sturgeon, northern pike & muskies. For more information please visit Andrew's web site at andrewklassen.com.