Learning from your Catfishing Mistakes

By Nick Johnson

It was nearly twenty years ago when I caught my first catfish. It was not by design, but rather a welcomed surprise while fishing for bluegills with a small chunk of worm at Badger “Kennedy” Lake on the north edge of Fort Dodge. This did not spark my love for catching catfish but it did give me a vested respect for the brute strength and tenacity of the species.

It would be nearly a decade later when my quest for catfish, especially big catfish, would take a front row seat among my favorite species to catch. During the open water season I would guess that nearly 50% of my fishing adventures center on targeting channel catfish and flatheads. This has not come without failure, not even close. Countless hours spent along the river bank or in the boat has yielded a lot of fish over the years, and some really big ones, but a lot of trial and error and picking apart the river have played in. I have learned from mistakes and misconceptions along with guidance from my close friend Jarred Marvin who I would regard as one of the better catfish anglers in this area. Let’s dive in to some of these learnings that have helped me become a better cat angler and catch bigger fish more consistently.

I’ll be honest, catfish in general, especially channel catfish, aren’t terribly hard to catch. Most of you reading this I am sure have wrestled with one a time or two whether targeting them or not. They are very opportunistic feeders and willing to consume a wide range of baits. I have caught channel cats on everything from crankbaits to jigs to stinky dead stuff. Flatheads are a bit tougher to catch but even they, when fishing strategies are dialed in, are not completely elusive.

The challenge often can come with finding them, catching numbers and especially catching big fish. When I say big fish I am talking about channel cats pushing ten pounds. A truly big channel cat in Iowa is pushing fifteen pounds and I can count on just two hands the number of times I have held one of this stature, the biggest of which was a 22 pounder I landed two summers ago.

Where many of my mistakes have come from is following the status quo. What I mean by this is fishing where everyone else fishes such as the local dam as a default or ignoring key signs like water temp, river levels, photoperiod, and selecting the wrong rig and bait. Mistakes are also made with rigging the bait and when to set the hook when a cat takes the bait.

Using Cutbait
When targeting larger channel cats there is no better bait in my mind than cutbait, especially fresh cutbait. I do a lot of bowfishing and will generally have a stock of carp fillets frozen when we need bait, which works well in a pinch but I have found that fresh bait like bluegill, chubs, and sucker meat generates more fish, more consistently. I am not a fan of using rotting fish chunks for bait. Not only is it unpleasant, but it is unnecessary. It can also be difficult to keep the fish on the hook compared to fresh chunks.

When fishing cut bait I take the time to remove the scales of the fish chunk, at least from the area where the hook comes through. This can be done very easily using a knife and scraping against the scale pattern. This isn’t as critical when using chunks of chub or bluegill or something with small scales but it is far more imperative to do when using chunks of carp or sucker. With carp I like to remove all of the scales before even cutting the fillet off the fish. Just make sure that no scales are present on the hook point when the bait is rigged in any circumstance.

With cutbait I almost exclusively use circle hooks. There are two reasons for this. The first is that if the rod is in a good hold the fish will virtually hook themselves when they take the bait which eliminates early hooksets. The second is that nine times out of ten the hook will be planted firmly in the corner of the mouth which reduces fish getting off and allows for less stress on the fish with hook removal, if you intend to release them.

When rigging cutbait, or any bait for that matter, leave the hook points exposed. I’ve heard cat anglers talk about needing to bury the hook point because the fish feel it and will drop the bait. This is a misconception and often leads to missed strikes when a fish takes the bait. Leave the hook point exposed especially with a circle hook because when a cat decides to eat and tightens the line, the hook will do its work and more often than not result in a caught fish.

Dip Baits
I have a love-hate relationship with using dip baits. Back in my early catfishing days I used dip baits like Sonny’s Super Sticky a lot and I caught a lot of fish but rarely anything more than three pounds. Which, if you are looking to catch a bunch of eater sized channel cats is great! However, I’ve grown to love catching bigger catfish so using dip bait is not something I use often.

If you want to catch big catfish then I would urge against using dip bait. If you want to catch smaller cats in numbers then dip bait is a viable option. That is not to say a big Channel won’t take dip bait, but more often than not the smaller sizes will do so. Where I have encountered success using dip bait is during cooler water. The bait stays on the hook longer and the fish seem more receptive to it. One mistake I have made in the past is not re-baiting enough. Reeling in and re-dipping the bait every fifteen to twenty minutes or so is important. This stuff does wash off and having it on there is what catches the fish.
It is also wise to use a dip bait worm, such as a Junnie’s Cattracker or Doc’s Super Worm, these help the bait last longer in current and give an attractable presentation to catfish.

One thing a lot of cat anglers, including myself, get hung up on is fishing right at dark, into dark. This can and will produce quality fish in numbers at times, but I have come to learn that this isn’t the peak time to have bait in the water. I’ve seen studies of catfish activity that show when cats are most active and surprisingly this happens in the dark of early morning through mid morning, even for flatheads. Some of the biggest catfish I have landed have been in the morning period between sunrise and about 10 A.M. Now this doesn’t coincide well to those who work a day job during the week but my best success on numbers of larger catfish on average have come during this time frame.

I have had great luck at night, more so when the moon is full or a weather front is approaching during hot weather. Catfishing can also be really good during the mid-day periods. When I fish during this time period I have learned to relate to structure more tightly. Fishing tight to the upstream side of log piles can be a dead ringer for mid-day channel cats. In times of higher water, focusing on the current seams of secondary channels adjacent to structure or deeper water can also be key. The time of year, water temp and time of day are three very important variables to consider. In the spring with rising water levels and temps, the catfish will be on the move a little more so secondary channels, creek outflows, dams and current seams are going to be areas of focus. Into summer and fall when water levels are warm and more stable, structure, mid river gravel bars at the head of a run, mid river structure, bends with rip rap banks and pools are key for feeding fish.

Dams are indeed a congregation point for many species of fish during spawning time and periods of rising water. The trap I see a lot of anglers fall into though is focusing on these areas year-round. Can catfish be caught below dams through the open water season, absolutely, but much of my success on numbers of bigger fish takes place in other parts of the river.

Just as I described in the last section, structure, current breaks, and time of day can lead to phenomenal success in many reaches of the river, even for bank fisherman. Dams are a great place to catch fish during key times of the year as well as the morning period during summer when fish are actively moving to feed. Don’t get hung up on fishing solely dams though, explore other parts of the river and let water levels and time of day dictate where you fish.

Talk to any cat angler about the rig they favor and you will get a wide variety of answers. In any situation I have learned that you need to cater your rig to the conditions at hand. For example, when fishing tight to structure like a log jam I prefer to use a no-roll sinker with a bead stop and short leader. When fishing in current such as below a dam or some type of mid-river scenario I will generally go with a three-way rig to keep the bait up off the bottom slightly.

In most of my presentations I have found that a shorter leader works as well as any and offers less of a chance to snag up. I have even used a sinker with no stop so that it pegs against the hook and does well when fishing in snag prone conditions like rocky bottoms. When fishing for flatheads with live bait it truly helps to keep the leader short, say six to eight inches which limits the bait’s chance to wrap around debris and snag you up.

Something else to keep in mind is the size of sinker to use. Just the other day I was fishing a mid-river area from the bank with moderate current. Not only did I have to bomb a cast to reach where I wanted to fish but I also needed to hold it there. The option I chose was a six ounce tear drop weight on a three-way rig. It seems a little heavy but it worked and I caught fish. If your bait isn’t holding in the current then upsize the sinker. No-rolls on a straight rig with a bead or swivel for a stop on flat bottom or fishing tight to cover is a rig I have found works well, especially when fishing directly downstream from your location. Tear drop sinkers or even pyramid style weights are great for three-way rigs when fishing in snaggy or rocky bottom areas, cross currents, or off angle scenarios. These are the two primary setups I use throughout most of the year for both channels and flatheads.

Catfishing has its ups and downs and conditions, time of day and locations really play into success no matter what part of the country you are in. Don’t be afraid to try something new or move locations if one spot isn’t producing, even if it means hiking or boating to new locations and uncharted waters. Keep things simple and use your best judgment to read the river. Catfish can be caught using a wide array of presentations and bait styles and the topics I have discussed are just a few of the many ways I have found success and less headache from time spent on the water. Good luck this summer!