Simple Tactics for Small Water Cats

By Joel Johnson

With all the technology marketed to catfishermen today, you would think cats were as difficult to locate and catch as walleye or musky. Specialized rods and reels, precision trolling systems, side-imaging sonar, and custom boats are all being focused on catfishermen. However, I still prefer the tried and tested small water tactics that have filled buckets and stringers for generations.

In West Central Iowa, catfish season starts after spring rains, high water, and rising water temperatures trigger the annual pre-spawn migration upriver. In this part of the state, the major branches of the Raccoon River (north, middle, and south) and their tributaries provide nearly unlimited fishing opportunities. Depending on the weather and water conditions, my family and friends start fishing these small streams in early May.

The equipment needed to catch small water cats is simple. Any medium weight rod spooled with 8-10 pound line will suffice. Terminal tackle should include hooks to match your preferred bait and a variety of split shots and slip sinkers to adapt to current speed and water depth. Later in the season make sure to pack a few slip floats and several bobber stops in case of snags. Add a sturdy five or six gallon bucket and a nylon stringer and you’re all set.

During the early season, you want to present your bait just off the bottom. Channel cats have an overbite, and keeping baits up out of the mud improves scent dispersion and makes it easier for the fish to slurp them up. There are many different ways to achieve this, but I like to keep it as simple as possible. Start by sliding a slip sinker on your line, using just enough weight to hold your sinker on the bottom. This may take a little trial and error to perfect. Next, tie on your preferred hook. This time of year night crawlers and cut creek chubs are my baits of choice, so I like to use a number two or four bait keeper. The last step is to set your leader length. As a rule of thumb, the leader should be shorter for fast water and longer for slower flows. This will help prevent excessive line twist and should also help reduce snagging. To reduce line twist even further, some guys tie on a barrel swivel between the slip sinker and leader. If you’re not using a swivel, set your leader length by simply pinching a split shot on your line at the desired length to stop your slip sinker.

One of the best places to target these pre-spawn fish is from bridges on lazy back country roads. Bridge pilings, and debris that collects around them, create current breaks and provide cover that make ideal ambush spots for cats to dart out, grab a quick meal, and retreat safely out of the main flow. Very often, deep cut banks, rip rap, and grassy points can be found immediately downstream from bridges and these features also concentrate fish. To entice the most active and aggressive fish, cast your bait so that it settles just upstream from holes, eddies, and current seams created by these structures. To improve your odds of landing a chunky spring cat, have someone with a long handled net along the bank scoop them out of the flow when they’re played out, rather than trying to swing them over the bridge railing.

It is important to note that when fishing from a bridge you check and make sure it is first legal, and you follow all signs that might be posted. Also practice safety at all times. If need be you can always take your fishing to the bank or underneath the bridge.

As the season progresses, the waters recede and catfish spawning begins (typically during the month of June). At this point, it is time to leave the bridges behind and start walking, wading, or floating creeks and tributaries to find the best holes. The presentation doesn’t change too much during this time; continuing to fish slip sinkers or a couple heavy split shots to keep baits in place and suspended just off the bottom. However, to reduce carp and bullhead strikes, leave the worms at home and switch to live or dead creek chubs and minnows. My Dad’s all-time favorite bait for small water cats was three creek shiners or fathead minnows threaded on a number two long shank Aberdeen hook. There isn’t a self-respecting catfish alive that can pass on this offering.

For me and my friends, the peak of catfishing season occurs when spawning is over, typically just before or after the 4th of July. By this time water levels have usually stabilized and cleared up, and most importantly young leopard frogs have shed their tails and left the water for damp grassy areas. Once the leopard frog run starts, it’s time to leave the sinkers at home and bust out the slip bobbers. If you’ve never walked or waded a stretch of river with a frog under a float, you are in for a treat! When the fish are biting, it’s common for two or three man limits to occur within hours on the right stretch of river. If summer rains temporarily turn the water to chocolate milk, try switching back to the slip sinker rig with a frog on the bottom to keep catching fish.

There are a few keys to properly presenting a leopard frog under a slip bobber. First, make sure the float you use is buoyant enough for the weight of the frog and a couple split shots. You don’t need one of those beach ball sized corks I see some guys use. Instead, pick up a couple cheap three packs of cigar-sized foam models for this application and leave the expensive balsas at home. After you slip on the bobber stop and float, add just enough weight to guarantee your bobber stays vertical in the current. This will help you differentiate between strikes and hang ups. Also, for hooking frogs, switch out the bait keepers and tie on a number two long shank Aberdeen hook. These fine wire hooks allow you to thread the frog onto your hook through the mouth and body with the point exiting at its rear end. This presentation gives the frog an extremely natural look, allows the legs to kick when you jig it, and enables the bait to slide up your hook and line during a hookup so it can be used again. The gold hooks will also straighten easily when you snag up, saving you the time and frustration of re-rigging your set. The ideal cast when using a frog and slip bobber lands your bait on the edge of a cut bank, allowing you to plop the bait in the water with a twitch of your rod and a small splash. When executed properly, it won’t take long for your float to vanish and the fight to be on!

The best way to secure a supply of leopard frogs is to look for them on dewy mornings in low-lying areas with short to medium length grass. Bogs, swamps, and small creeks flowing through grazed pastures are ideal areas to search. While it is possible to catch them by hand, the most efficient way is to build a frog swatter, which is indeed very similar to a fly swatter. The basic design is a flexible three-four foot switch handle (doubled pieces of lathe, golf club shaft, etc…) with a six-eight inch rectangular piece of rubber or wire mesh attached to the business end. When a frog is spotted, simply reach out and slap them with the swatter set to “stun”. There is no need to use a tomahawk chop or pile driver stroke for this work. Ideally, you only daze the frogs to make them easy to pick up and feed into the mouth of a plastic soda bottle. When done correctly, the frogs become extremely lively and active again in a few moments. If you’re too rough with them, my recommendation is to freeze the dead and dying for use later. The plastic soda bottle works great for storing your frogs and try to find one with the standard size mouth. This will allow you to shake one frog out at a time and head first. Once you have one secured, give it a quick thwack on the head to stun it, and you won’t have any trouble baiting your hook.

I don’t hate technology, and I often employ all the fancy tools mentioned at the start of this article when probing area lakes for summertime panfish and walleyes. However, when it comes to catfishing, my favorite tactics are still those passed on by my Dad and Father-in-Law on the small creeks and rivers in West Central Iowa. While the average size is going to be smaller (one-three pounds) on these waters, the numbers can be astonishing, and cats over five pounds are still relatively common on the ‘Coon and its tributaries. During the month of May, I can’t think of anything better than sitting on a bridge in Greene County with my wife and daughters watching a couple of rod tips and a dazzling spring sunset.