Catfish have always been a favorite of mine for many reasons. I love catching the big blues, usually during the cold weather months, and I dearly love the often non-stop catching that is common this time of year on lakes with high numbers of channel catfish. Dusted with a liberal amount of cornmeal and dropped into hot cooking oil, catfish fillets fried crispy are a culinary delight.
Lake Fork is a well known hotspot for catching larger than average channel catfish but these days, if you know where to fish and use the proper baits, you can fill several freezer bags with catfish fillets with catfish averaging 2-4 pound and an occasional 6- to 10-pounder thrown in for good measure. On most lakes, channel catfish averaging 1.5 to 2 pounds is common this time of year.
Guide Seth Vanover knows where to fish and what baits to use. He chases Fork catfish throughout the year.
In the affable guide’s own words, "It just don’t get any better than it is right now!"
Seth has been exposing veteran and novice anglers alike to red-hot, bite-every-time-the bait-hits-bottom action for the past month.
"I’ve got several holes baited with cattle range cubes but we’re usually never having to move the boat from the first spot," says Vanover as he secures the bow of the boat to a stick up on a deep water flat relatively close to more shallow water. "We have been catching two- and three-person limits during a morning or afternoon trip.”
Two of my grandsons were in the boat with us on this outing earlier in the week. Jack Zimmerman and his younger brother, Conner, can’t wait until the boat is positioned over the baited hole. Jack is a veteran of many catfish outings and he knows just how fast the action can be when channel catfish are on very aggressive bait. Conner has heard the stories but never experienced the non-stop action that a big school of actively feeding channel ‘cats’ can provide.
A glance at the boat’s sonar indicated we were setting in water precisely 29.4 feet deep. I brought a couple of jars of catfish bait that I’ve had good success with for years. Seth broke out a half gallon bucket of bait that I’d never used.
“This is Stubbys Cheese bait, made locally here on the lake by Lendy Stubblefield. You will note there is no fiber or cattails in the bait but it stays on the treble hook very well and catches fish better than anything I’ve tried. It’s also not nearly as rank as that stuff you are using!” joked Vanover.
After ten minutes of inactivity using my old standby bait, I baited the #4 treble with a liberal amount of Stubbys and proceeded to get in the action! What’s that they say about teaching an old fisherman a new trick? I immediately noted the bait had a pungent rank smell but it was just ‘cleaner’ than the concoction I was accustomed to using. Cream colored and without fiber, I was surprised to see it stay on the hook well, at least until I dropped it down close to bottom, that’s when the pungent aroma served as a ringing dinner bell for the catfish.
As a general rule, channel catfish during the warm water months are greedy, voracious feeders, especially when in a tight school feeding on a hole baited with soured grain or cattle range cubes. These fish were different. They bit more like crappie on a cold winter’s day. I watched Vanover set the hook several times before I finally began to catch on. I was waiting for at least a subtle tug on the line but that seldom happened.
“For the past couple days, and for reasons that I cannot explain, catfish have been just mouthing the bait,” says Vanover. “Occasionally one will hammer the bait hard, but the only indication of a bite you will often feel is a slight movement of the line or simply feel that tale tale ‘heavy’ feeling on the line. Set the hook hard when you think there is a fish down there. You will loose some baits but you will also catch lots of fish!”
My grandsons and I never perfected Vanover’s uncanny ability to know when to set the hook, but the two boys came close. I’ve fished for channel catfish over baited holes with everything from chicken blood bait to scores of prepared baits, but never have I experienced such a ‘soft’ bite.
Vanover says he has noted catfish go through periods of this ‘soft’ bite on occasion but it usually doesn’t last long. As a rule of thumb, summertime and the accompanying warm water equates to actively feeding fish.
If you have a couple of grandkids or children of your own that might be getting a little bored, consider planning an action packed catfish outing this summer. Just remember to bring good sun screen, a wide billed hat and plenty of cold water. I’m already looking forward to a big family fish fry to celebrate this great day on the water with two of my boys and a great friend that just happens to be a fish-catching guru!