The Sights, Sounds and Smells of Channel Catfishing


Imagine yourself sitting on the riverbank watching the sunset as ducks fly overhead looking for a spot to spend the night or turtles plopping off a nearby log into the water or a beaver scooting by—life is good. Life get’s better if your reel clicker makes two clicks and a barrage of clicks and line screams from your reel. Catfish fight in river current, taste great in the frying pan and are one of the Midwest angler’s most-sought after fish.

Catfishing is pretty simple, and bottom fishing can get an upgrade when you use the proper gear and bait for the job. Channel cats average a few pounds, with some as large as 25 pounds so it’s important to gear up correctly. River catfish prefer a little current. A catfish relies on its sense of smell to locate food, and the current helps to flood its senses quicker, kind of like a dog sticking its head out a car window.

Catfishing is a waiting game, but it can happen faster than you think. Make a cast and give it 15 minutes, and then recast or move. I like to use at least two rods. If state regulations allow for three, then I’ll use three. Whether I’m fishing from a bank or a boat, I’ll cast shallow, then deep, and finally somewhere in between. Sunken logs and logjams are key areas, so I’ll always make a cast up-current from those.

I fish the Mississippi and Rock rivers, and my top baits for channel catfish there are ‘crawlers, dip baits and fermented shad. Dead shad will work all season long, but I prefer to use ’crawlers and dip bait as the year progresses.

Dip bait is manufactured from spoiled cheese and fermented additives like blood or fish for the discriminating catfish. The blood seems to work better in the spring and fall while fish formulas tend to excel in the hot summer months. ‘Crawlers work great anytime, but I like to use them when the current is heavy or when the rivers are at flood stage.

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As mentioned, bottom fishing can be a simple affair. I’ll use a 1- to 8-ounce no-rolls or egg sinkers with a 12-inch leader to a 1/0 circle hook for ’crawlers or shad threaded up on the hook. When using a circle hook you don’t have to set the hook until the rod loads up. About 99 percent of the catfish you catch will be hooked in the corner of their mouths for an easy release. Dip baits, however, are another matter altogether and require a broken stick for stirring and for applying the rich, gooey mixture. Here, instead of a circle hook, I’ll use a pre-tied catfish tube that is a few inches long of a section of surgical tubing with holes and sometimes a sponge bottom. I prefer the tubes with a sharp treble hook and a 12-inch leader. The key to making the dip stick to the tube is a dry surface. So, you’ll need a throwaway rag to wipe the tube dry before reapplying. Simply stick the tube in the jar of dip and smash it around with the stick. Then give it a dip in the river before you cast.

You’ll have to determine what depths the channel cats are in. I like to start shallow, about 2 feet. Additional casts will then go deeper. If you don’t get a bite in 15 minutes you can cast to a different area or move to a completely different spot. And catfish rely on their sense of smell to locate food, so use dip bait, as it’s designed to slowly melt off the tube. A catfish will hit it as soon as it hits the bottom, and if he’s near, he will smell his way to the hook.

The tackle I prefer is from Rippin Lips and I use their new SuperCat Rod that’s specifically designed for using dip bait, ‘crawlers and shad. They offer a medium-light-action 7-foot 6-inch dip bait/’crawler rod, but don’t let the action fool you. This has a soft tip to detect strikes and enough power to handle catfish up to 40 pounds. Team the SuperCat rod up with a Ming Yang MC500 baitcasting reel and a spool of 50-pound-test SuperCat braid. The SuperCat braid comes in their Chartreuse- Fluorescent, a color that really helps for bite detection. The braid is also strong enough to pull a tree from the bottom of the river.

Finally, Rippin Lips Bootleg 131 Blood and 17 Original dip baits are my preferred choice for river channels and smells great to the catfish. To thin it out in cold weather, I’ll spray some Scent Trail into the tub and stir it all up. I spray it on ’crawlers and dead shad for a little extra “umph.”