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The Big, the Bad and the Ugly-Catfish By Gary Howey

Entered by Gary Howey

Former tournament angler, hunting and fishing guide. Inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing "Hall of Fame" in 2017. Active member of the Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers (AGLOW), Past Executive Director (AGLOW). Howey has been an outdoor communicator since 1980 with his award winning syndicated "Of the Outdoors" columns appearing in magazine, newspapers, and tabloids throughout he upper Midwest and nationally.

June 12, 2019

They can be big, bad and ugly and found lurking on the bottom of just about every body of water in the upper Midwest.

Many of the larger ones may look like it, some large headed demon; they are catfish, one of the most popular yet under utilized sport fish species in the Midwest.

Part of the reason anglers go after catfish as they are tremendous fighters, excellent eating, and in some states have a huge sports value with thousands raised commercially throughout the U.S.

The Channel catfish, found in about any body of water, with some species preferring bodies of water that have clean bottoms of sand and gravel.

Areas they haunt include logjams, beneath tree roots protruding into the water, beaver runs and as long as a food source is in that area in rocky turbid water.

Found throughout the U.S. with the biggest populations being located in the central part of the U.S.

There are several species of catfish in most bodies of water, including rivers, creeks, and ponds as well as in our larger lakes and reservoirs.

Feeding primarily on fish, crayfish and insects, depending on the species, bite on a number of different baits including night crawlers, minnows, live bait, cut bait or about any stinky concoction, including shad guts, chicken liver, blood baits and fermented cheese.

Channel cats, are known night feeders, located in the swifter moving water, but you will find them feeding throughout the day in many of our bodies of water.

During the spawn, they travel up smaller rivers and tributaries including the Niobrara, James and Sioux Rivers looking for suitable spawning habitat.

To identify the channel catfish from other species of catfish is quite easy because of their distinctive appearance. It is a good bet that if your catfish has a deeply forked tail and spots, it is a channel catfish.

Other species of catfish have forked tails including the blue catfish and the yellow or flathead catfish but neither of these is ever spotted.

Besides having spots, some channel catfish especially the males during the spawn may have a black dorsal fin.

To be certain as to what species catfish you have, count the number of rays on its anal fin. Blue cats have 30 to 36 rays, Flathead’s have 14 to 17 rays and Channel cats have 24 to 30 rays.

At times, catching channel catfish is not very difficult, but it can be smelly proposition, as channel cats prefer dead or decaying prey to live bait.

Why catfish prefer those smelly concoctions is because of their poor eyesight, so they rely heavily on their sense of smell to locate food.

By using their sense of smell, the channel cats can locate and follow the “flavor” upstream to your bait.

A catfish’s lips, both the inside and outside are coated with taste receptor and these along with their barbells or whiskers helps them to zero in on a meal.

When fishing for Channel catfish, you will not need a whole lot of complicated equipment as the old hook line and sinker is the name of the game when it comes to catching these cats.

If fishing where bigger fish are common, those rigs consist of a longer, stiff rod with good tip action, rigged with a bait-casting reel, heavy line fed through a large egg sinker, heavy snap swivel, heavy leader and then tipped with either a larger Kale or Circle hook.

When fishing for larger catfish, I like to use chubs or cut bait such as shad, stacking several pieces on the hook.

If I am fishing out of the current and looking for some smaller fish for supper, I am not too proud to attach a stink bait worm on my smaller rods and use Sony’s cheese or blood stink bait to bring home some good eaters.

In states, where set lines are legal, those tipped with live bait do very well with many big catfish caught each year using this method.

A Set line is one anchored to the shore or sandbar and can be tied to tree limbs or made up using a willow branch or PVC pipe stuck in along the shoreline.

Set lines use much heavier cord or line than those fishing with a rod and reels as set lines stay out over night in areas where big cats feed.

Shauna Tobin, Gayville, South Dakota with a big 28-pound catfish she caught on rod and reel while shore fishing in the Big Sioux River using chubs last summer. (Contributed Photo)

Their tackle consists of some type of makeshift weight to keep the bait down in the current and large hooks baited with live bait or some type of cut bait.

Depending on the state you are fishing in the laws, pertaining to the use of gamefish for bait varies.

Some states require that any gamefish used for bait be caught on rod and reel. While in other states, the use of gamefish for bait is illegal, so be sure to check your state laws before using them for bait.

Where legal, some of the most widely used gamefish used for bait include bullheads and bluegills. Other baits used on set lines for cats include large creek chubs, shad and shad entrails as well as numerous other types of cut bait.

Cut baits can include cut up frozen shad, strips cut from rough fish and even shrimp.

The tackle that rod and reel anglers use when fishing for catfish varies, with some using their regular fishing gear, while others, like me, go with a stout rod with a large capacity reel. These larger reels have a heavy-duty drag system and the capability to hold heavier line.

Because numerous catfish relate to snags or some type of underwater debris, I use a heavier line, a 35 and 45-pound Big Game line as it is tough and has good abrasion resistance.

For those anglers competing in the catfish tournaments, the rigs used by these anglers consist of a heavy or sliding sinker, allowing the line to slides down the line, giving the catfish an ample amount of slack line. When it picks up the bait, it feels little or no resistance, holding onto the bait, giving you a better chance of hooking the fish.

As they may catch catfish, running from a couple of pounds all the way up to 50 plus, a heavy-duty snap swivel is required and a short heavy leader with a large hook.

The amount of weight needed, depends on the type of water your fishing, the depth ad amount of current.

Anglers fishing in heavy current will often go to a 5 to 6 ounce weight in order to keep their bait on the bottom.

If you are in an area with big catfish, you may want to go with a larger 5/0 or 7/0 Circle or Kahle hook.

As I mentioned earlier, if you are after a few cats for a meal, you will not need larger hooks with the smaller stink bait rigs, working fine.

For those not familiar with “Stink” Bait rigs, they consist of a short 12” heavy monofilament leader run through a ribbed plastic worm with a small treble hook.

By dipping the plastic worm rig into the stink bait and working it around with a stick, or paint stirrer, this gooey mixture adheres to the plastic worm of these rigs.

Stink baits, such as the cheese, blood and shad flavored versions are not something that you want to get on your hands or clothing. These baits are nasty and can be tough to get off even after washing.

Because catfish are eager biters, it can be a great trip to start a youngster out on and nothings better than having a fresh meal of catfish after a day of on the water fishing!

Gary Howey, originally from Watertown, S.D., now residing in Hartington, Neb. is a former tournament angler, fishing & hunting guide, an award winning writer, producer, photographer and broadcaster, a recent inductee into the “National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame” in 2017. Howey is also the Producer-Co-Host of the Outdoorsmen Adventures television series and Outdoor Adventures radio. If you are looking for more outdoor information, check out, and like Gary Howey’s Facebook or watch his shows on

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