There’s an oddly satisfying charm to the simplicity of catfishing. It’s about as far as you can get from the clean elegance and complexity of fly fishing for trout, but for some reason it has captivated me since the moment I first encountered it, probably striking some young boyhood chord rooted deep inside that still likes to play with worms and run around barefoot in the mud. The anticipation of watching a freshly-baited pole is nearly unbearable, and you never quite know what’ll end up eating your bait, which is a large part of the intrigue. Rivers and catfish haunts have a habit of holding all sorts of crazy fish, and, at least when fishing casually, there’s no particular skill or reason involved in hooking big catfish, though landing them can be a different story. It takes a good bit of skill to entice a big brown trout, but it’s just as probable that a ten pound catfish will take your bait as a ten incher will when soaking worms. While fishing worms on the bottom might sound a bit like treason for a die-hard fly fisherman, it’s a good way to kick back and relax on the water, not to mention it’s just plain fun.
But none of us had any idea that we’d get into big cats this weekend.
Noah and I started the weekend at the lake by poking around a few flooded marshes looking for some carp. The fish were spawning and not interested in flies, though we did find one that was happily slurping bugs from the weeds but didn’t like my poor presentation. I’d bet we saw around fifty fish, with an occasional tank that made nearly any other freshwater fish pale in comparison.
I tried a few casts at the river mouth with the fly rod but couldn’t interest any bass. The water was quite a bit higher and dirtier this weekend, adding to the already unstable pattern we’ve had this spring. I’ve never seen the water so brown on the lake, and so far it hasn’t been great for the bass fishing. I’m sure there are a few less obvious variables that are affecting the fishing, but the brown water at the river mouth just hasn’t been producing like it should.
Partly out of curiosity and partly out of boredom, Noah and I set up with a “river rig” (simply a big chunk of worm with a sinker a foot or two up the line) at the mouth of the river just as the sun was dropping behind the trees. It’s a good way to relax after paddling all afternoon, and there’s a good chance you’ll tie into a bigger fish – maybe a bass or carp or the odd walleye that prowls the shallows after dark. The first few fish were potbellied yellow bullheads – a very normal occurrence for night fishing and not terribly exciting. After a half-dozen fish I got a strong thump and set into a good fish. I figured it was a carp, but a good, dirty fight revealed a respectable catfish of 22″!
While I never realistically expected to catch a catfish in the lake, it was never completely out of the picture. A few years ago, the DNR stocked a bunch of channel catfish in a connected lake system a ways downstream. Much to the delight of some anglers and the dismay of others, the cats flourished and moved into nearly all the connected waterways. The lake we’re on is separated by nearly a half-dozen lakes and a few dams upstream from the original stocking site, but somehow the catfish must’ve made their way through on the seasonal spurts of high water. I’m glad they did.
A few more bullheads (and a bit of disappointment at each quiver of the rod that produced one) broke the silence of the darkness before Noah stuck a good 24″ cat. It’s a blast to just hang out in the lantern light and goof around. We stuck it out till around midnight and lost one more big catfish before ending the madness and calling it a night.
The river mouth was dead again this morning. I tossed the jig fly from Opening weekend and the crankbait but didn’t get a single bite. There wasn’t much else happening, so I tied a few flies before Noah and I hopped in the rowboat to chase some panfish.
I planned to chase some bass in the evening, but there was a league bass tournament and the little 300-acre lake was hopping. It was a good night at the river mouth, though. The odd chorus of skeeters and coons and frogs filled the night air, only broken occasionally by the thrashing of a catfish exploding through the shallows somewhere in the distant darkness.
We turned in sometime around midnight, weary yet satisfied with the evening’s fish count.
The bass bite never happened on the last morning, despite a decent effort of pitching and flipping and casting at docks in hopes of finding a “pattern” worthy of the fly rod. One feisty largemouth – the only one of the weekend – spit the tube after going airborne beside a dock. I’m sure there were still a few hungry fish hanging around in the morning sun, but we just couldn’t find them.
I’m afraid that catfish are becoming somewhat of an addiction. Most fly anglers might not understand the bait-fishing pursuit that has stolen our attention (and a good bit of sleep), but I guess you have to experience it to appreciate it. It’s hard to argue with the thrill of strong, beefy fish in the dead of night.
The weeds have really started to come in. A crankbait was worthless in the shallows of the river mouth. Besides a few casts with the jig fly and the “stupid tube,” there wasn’t much time to bass fish before darkness crept over the water – and the catfish moved into the shallows. I had foolishly left the worms in the garage the week before, so we were in a bit of a predicament for bait. A quick run through the pantry looked grim. A bread crust. Crackers. Butter. Marshmallows(!).
Yeah, we were desperate.
***Side note: While Noah was casting a tube for bass just before dark he hooked into a good catfish. Makes you wonder in they’re catchable on a fly rod. Maybe tie a big, heavy conehead with a rattle and plenty of silhouette to imitate a crayfish. Or a hot dog.