Cats are for kids


August 01, 2013

Sarah was all smiles as she picked up the bent double rod and began cranking on the big catfish. For some reason she absolutely loves fishing for big ‘ole whisker fish, gets very excited about catching them and takes great pleasure returning them to the water. Of course I started her young on cats and she beached trophies on the Grand River, Kalamazoo and Tittabawassee Rivers. She would always have a big smile on her face if we caught channel cats when fishing walleyes on Saginaw Bay or Lake Erie. When she was a young kid she loved catfish, often asked to fish for them and now that she is out of college employed as a nurse at Bronson Hospital in Kalamazoo I still think back to those fun outings. Fact is many Michigan fishermen share my feeling that catfish are for kids.

I’ll never forget an outing to my favorite channel catfish honey hole with Benton Brewer and his son Owen Brewer from East Lansing. There was very little current and we could get offerings on bottom by using only a few split shot about two feet from the hook. Owen’s eyes got big when his rod tip wiggled and he reeled hard and brought up a huge clam that actually gobbled his bait. Next time the rod tip bounced I kidded him that it was a clam but when he jerked hard to set the hook a feisty fish ripped line off the drag. After a short tug-of-war the beautiful cat came to net and Owen was fired up to the max. The young man was fish crazy, super excited, anxious to bait the hook, check lines and reel up slack line to set the hook.

In a matter of a couple hours he hooked and landed several dandy channel cat fish when he finally hooked into a larger fish. It took several minutes to get the big cat off bottom but he and his father Benton were both all smiles when it came to net. It was my pleasure to snap photos of the happy duo, a good example of a father/son team that will be hooked for life on catching cats.

Michigan’s waterways are teeming with them and they are showing up in increasing numbers throughout Michigan, especially in southern waters where rich biomass and a monumental forage base offers food aplenty. I’m talking about catfish, long whiskered fish that gulp your bait and strip line off the reel like a runaway king salmon. Michigan is home to just about every kind of cat fish, monstrous flat heads longer than your leg are found in most rivers, streams and many lakes and the popular channel catfish that is the number one sport species for most anglers. If you are looking for some warm weather fishing fun, hefty catches and the perfect species for introducing kids to fishing, please try catfish.

I absolutely love to take night summer trips to Saugatuck, found close to Lake Michigan. Here the mighty Kalamazoo River meanders through the sleepy village that attracts summer visitors by the thousands. Most come to bathe in the warm sun on the beach at Lake Michigan, others prefer boating but those in the know understand that the lower Kalamazoo River is alive with catfish just waiting for your hook.

For years I’ve made annual treks to Saugatuck, launched my Lund at Gleason’s on the river and motored upstream to my favorite catfish hideout. The hotspot is found across the river from Coral Gables restaurant and bar. I frequently anchor next to my favorite marker, a huge red Channel Buoy 13. Here, the current from the Kalamazoo swirls into a huge hole that can also be reached by casting from the sea wall on the east bank. I like to anchor on the west side and work bait rigs in the deep water and along the ledges found closer to shore.

On some trips I’ll troll for trout and salmon until sunset, then motor to Buoy 13, anchor and fish for cats until midnight. More often than not I run out of bait in an hour of fishing and have my live well chucked full of big cats. Some nights I catch only the 2-5 pound variety of channel cats but most outings I hook into the big cats, fish that weigh over 12 pounds and pull on your line hard as a junk yard bull dog on a short leash. Occasionally I’ll hook into flat head cats that are simply huge and they strip all the line off my reel or break the 12-pound mono leader. Keep in mind the Kalamazoo produced a 54 lb. flat head and I’ve put 30 pounders in the boat. Flat heads usually prefer live bait and if you want to catch them use fresh alewife caught using a cast net off the Lake Michigan pier.

Cats love bait. You name it, chicken parts, liver, stink baits, shrimp, crawfish and just about any piece of cut up fish will get the attention of hungry fish. Most cat anglers have a system, a method for keeping the food close to bottom using a variety of weights from bell sinkers, pancake weights, pyramid sinkers and heavy split shot. The trick is to get close to bottom, set the chow on bottom, let it sit stationary and a catfish will smell the offering, swim into the current and eventually slurp the bait. This style of fishing requires patience and a willingness to watch your line for the faintest strike.

Rod holders are essential. Some anglers rest their rod on a forked stick; others employ manufactured rod holds placed on rolling carts, wagons or stakes placed in the bank. One trick is to duct tape PVC tubing to the rim of a five-gallon pail. The pail is used to tote gear and once in position the gear is removed, the pail is filled with water, providing a stationary rod holder.

My river cat strategy is simple. I use 12 lb. line that goes through a 1/2-1 oz. egg sinker with a hole in the middle. Line is threaded through the hole and a barrel swivel is attached, one that is large enough to stop the egg sinker from sliding over it. A two-foot leader of 10 lb. fluorocarbon is attached to the swivel and a large #2 Eagle Claw style 181 bait holder hook. The barbs on the bait holder hook help to keep the fish eggs on the hook.

Now, here’s my secret. I stop by charter boat alley when they are filleting the days catch and I get fresh trout and salmon eggs that are still in the cluster. I cut the eggs into golf ball-sized pieces, roll them in a Ziploc bag with 20 Mule Team Boraxo hand powder and the eggs are kept cool in a cooler full of ice. When I reach my fishing destination I anchor upstream from the hole and cast the egg cluster downstream to waiting fish.

Cats have unbelievable sense of smell and if you let fresh salmon skein lay on bottom it will milk in the current, send a scent line downstream that cats follow to the hooked bait.

To sweeten the offering I string a few mini marshmallows on the line and hook before I hook the skein. Cats apparently have a sweet tooth or they are attracted to the aroma and white texture of the submersed marshmallow and skein sweetened with the chewy substance usually produces more strikes than unsweetened varieties. Sometimes you cannot keep the lines in the water at Buoy 13, other times you need to be patient, wait them out and concentrate on the rod tip to indicate a strike.

Cats don’t hit the bait and run. They suck the offering off bottom, take it into their lips and mash the soft bait before gulping it down the hatch. When you see a cat strike, give him time to taste and eat the bait, say a couple minutes, then pick up the rod and slowly reel up any slack and when you feel the line get tight set the hook hard. Some cats feel the bait with their whiskers, slowly take the bait in their lips and swim toward you as they chew on the eggs. This puts slack in your line and strikes of this kind are difficult to detect.

I guarantee a night will not pass without fish stripping the bait off your hooks and you will not detect the strike. Well, that’s because it is not a strike but rather a sucking/munching bite.

Although I have had monster fish take the bait, swallow it deep, and swim at the boat and when you reel the slack all hell breaks loose. And don’t think for a second I haven’t had a huge mouthed whisker fish gulp the hook and swim downstream suddenly jerking rod and reel overboard.

Michigan fishermen can find outstanding numbers of channel catfish in Lake Erie, St. Clair, Detroit River and Lake Erie. This Erie cat smashed a trolled spoon and Sarah Darwin loved catching and releasing Mr. Whiskers. Kenny Darwin photo

You can certainly catch cats all day long but if you want to capitalize on a peak feeding period you need to concentrate on night outings. When the wind becomes calm and the cool night air is highlighted by twinkling stars overhead you can count on cats prowling the bottom for food. Some nights they bite best shortly after sunset, other times the hot bite is around midnight.

In order to see lines and detect the subtle bite of a sucking cat you need ample light. I usually bring my Coleman lanterns rigged with full canisters of propane and fresh mantles. Other times I use the lights of the local restaurant and bar to outline my rod tip and illuminate the dancing strike of a hungry cat.

The idea is to cast across stream and allow the offering to slowly roll downstream until it is sitting stationary in the center of the hole. If the river is calm and slow moving a 1/2 oz. lead egg sinker is the ticket. But if the current is fast you will need to bump up to a 1 oz. sinker or larger.

Now that my kids are older I delight in taking others. It is such a thrill to teach kids how to catch cats, watch them as they concentrate on the rod tip, identify strikes, set the hook and almost get their arms jerked off by fish with a huge maw and worm-like twitching feelers extending from their lips. Most find them sort of gross and they don’t want to touch them. Others love the fishing, enjoy the hard fought battle and can’t keep their fingers off the silky smooth skin of big cats. Plenty like cats simply

because they have beautiful furry

pets at home. Hey, maybe that’s

why my daughter Sarah, who

absolutely adores her kitty, is a

catfish nut.

When this old sea dog sets the hook on a dark night and the rod bends double it brings a smile to my face. Cats are a riot to fight especially when they strip line, sulk near bottom and the battle is a constant tug of war. When a huge critter slides near the boat and your headlamp exposes his gaping maw that could swallow your foot, the spectacle guarantees a rush of adrenalin and memories to last a lifetime.