Classroom Catfish is Called to Order
A Master Catman’s Guide to Getting Started
By Ted Pilgrim
Catfishing expert John Jamison says that the great thing about his favorite fish is that you never know how big they’re going to be. (Photo courtesy of Rippin Lips)
Somewhere, not far down the road swims a swarm of hungry catfish. Bigger, stronger and more angler-friendly than almost any other American gamefish, the cat clan—channels, blues, flatheads, whites or combinations thereof— thrive in most every state in the union. As if that’s not already enough good news, the best waters aren’t necessarily secret remote lakes or pristine rivers. Rather some of the finest cat fisheries lie smack in the middle of big cities. In fact, two recent world record blue catfish, each eclipsing 120-pounds, came from the Mighty Mississippi River near St. Louis, Missouri.
Perhaps no one understands these whiskered beasts better than John Jamison, a professional catfish guide and national tournament champion. Jamison travels the country, fishing tournaments and conducting seminars, offering friendly catfishing advice at every stop. You might even say the man is on a mission, and he’s not bashful about promoting his message of ‘catfish for everyone.’ “In bass tournaments,” Jamison says, “people come out to see the anglers themselves—celebrities like Kevin VanDam. But in catfish tournaments, it’s pretty cool to consider that people come out to see the fish themselves…any one of which might exceed the size of an eighth-grader.”
Still, while giant blue and flathead catfish make for great stories, the majority of anglers pursue channel cats that average 2 to 10-pounds. On any lake or river hosting channels, catching dozens per trip is a reality, particularly from early spring into summer— one of the longest hot prespawn bites in fishing.
At seminars and tournaments, Jamison answers boatloads of questions about catching catfish. But by far, the majority of anglers ask him about the basics. How can I start today and immediately begin catching catfish? Jamison, who began his fishing career hunting bullheads and channel cats in local Kansas creeks, gladly offers advice.
Finding Big City Catfish
“Many state fishery agencies stock channel and blue catfish into city ponds and lakes,” Jamison reports. “Often, these fish go totally unnoticed, and sometimes, can grow pretty big. Whether you own a boat or not, you can start catching cats right now by simply setting up in the shallower upper ends of these lakes. And anywhere there’s an inlet, ditch or some source of inflowing water is a great early season catfish spot. In fact, cats will gather there all year, so long as there’s water flowing in, which attracts baitfish.”
In lakes lacking inlets, Jamison says, it’s best to move to the windiest side of the lake where current concentrates food. If there’s a shallow point buffeted by wind and waves, make sure to cast one or two rigs into that area, which will often attract feeding catfish.
If your closest cat water is a creek or river, a similar approach applies. Bank anglers often set up on municipal docks and piers. But Jamison also suggests trying river areas with rock, such as a rip-rapped bank, or other catfish cover, like downed trees, brush and even vegetation, as well as inlets from feeder creeks.
Cat Rigging Basics
So you’ve found the described spot. You brought friends and family, set out folding chairs and jabbed a few sand-spikes (rod holders) into the earth. Now what? Jamison will tell you that simpler is nearly always better when it comes to catfish. “Start with a simple slip rig. Learn to tie a hook to your line with a Palomar or an Improved Clinch knot. A snell knot is another great knot for attaching catfish hooks. Nuts and bolts stuff like hooks and good knots are the keys to successful cattin’. Take a ½-ounce egg sinker and slide it on your line, then tie in an InvisiSwivel to eliminate line twist, and a finally a 6-inch leader and a 1/0 VMC 9800 or a Rippin Lips (www.rippinlips.net) circle hook. A circle hook is great for beginning cat anglers, because it sets into the fish’s jaw all by itself. Slide the rod into a sand spike and let catfish bite and bend the pole. Pick up the rod and start winding. You got ‘em.”
Another great rig for catfish is a slip bobber. “People think that catfish only feed on the bottom,” says Jamison. “But that’s no truer of catfish than it is of bass. You’ll often catch tons of cats by simply letting a cork drift with the wind, bait dangling just a few feet below. This works tremendously well for catfish in shallow ponds and rivers.”
Regardless of the presentation, says Jamison, it’s important to use a medium-heavy 7 to 9-foot fiberglass rod, which flexes toward a striking fish, allowing a circle hook to do its job. “Some of the best channel catfish rods are sold for under $40. Rippin Lips makes an inexpensive 7-foot spinning rod that is perfect for basic catfish presentations.” Most of these glass rods work with 15 to 25-pound test line, such as Sufix Superior, and can easily handle cats up to 20-pounds.
Big fish, Jamison says, are certainly a riot to battle, yet should usually be released in favor of smaller 2 to 5-pounders – they’re tastier and more nutritious anyway. Still, getting any fish to bite first requires good bait. “I can usually find two of my favorite catfish baits at the grocery store. Over the counter bait shrimp, usually sold for about two-bucks per pound box, work great for catfish. Or, go to your butcher and ask for chicken livers. He might give you a real bargain—and catfish sometimes bite livers like nothing else. Impale each of these baits on a 1/0 hook and you’ll rarely go without a bite.”
Though Jamison has favored natural baits for years, he’s recently discovered a new bait category that offers the best of all worlds. “Leakin Livers is a new type of manufactured catfish bait that isn’t stinky or messy, and stays on the hook better than anything I’ve ever used.”
Manufactured by upstart catfish company Rippin Lips, Leakin Livers comes in re-sealable bags, each bait offering a natural outer shell that contains tremendously potent flavor and scent within. “Unlike most gooey stink baits or dip baits, Leakin Livers is a clean bait with powerful catfish attracting ingredients—including chicken liver, blood and fish oils—all locked inside. Slide one onto your hook and give it a little pinch, cracking open the outer shell. This effectively activates the bait, which begins dissolving in water, emitting a strong scent trail for up to an hour of fishing. We’re finding this to be incredible stuff for catfish—every bit as effective as many natural baits, yet way more convenient and user-friendly.”
What Jamison is saying is that if you’ve never taken the occasion to get to know catfish, now is the time. Catfishing is a back-to-basics affair that’s as enjoyably simple as it gets. Grab a couple rods, and a small box of hooks, line and sinkers. Bring a couple bags of bait; perhaps a cooler of cold drinks set beside a lawn chair. Gather up the family and go. Good times are only a cast away.