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Master Hunter Products

Dog Days Catfish

Enjoy outstanding summer angling despite the stifling August heat.

by Daniel D. Lamoreux Reprinted with permission of FUR-FISH-GAME magazine.

Dog days encompass that interminable stretch of summer when the heat and humidity descend upon the Midwest like a coffin pall. You know they’ ve arrived when morning fog hugs the cornfield tassels, your t-shirt clings to your back like plastic wrap, and a walk to the ‘fridge for a cold drink seems like entirely too much effort.

It’s funny they’re known as the dog days, since even the dog doesn’t want to do anything but lay under the porch and nap.

This is also the time of year when grandpas who live along big rivers begin acting half their age. Fishing poles that look more like broomsticks come out of the closets; campfires and lanterns appear in the strangest places, twinkling over dark waters at night.

When the dog days arrive, it’s really time for the big cats. Catfish, that is.

Finding the best catfishing hole in a river, however, takes knowledge.

“A lot of people think you just fish deep holes for catfish,” Mitch said. “That’s not true.”

Mitch and his partner Rose own Big River Bait & Taxidermy, in Mt. Carroll, Illinois.

“A catfish will hang around any kind of structure,” added Ron. “A log, or rock, anything that makes a disturbance in the water.” Ron, along with his wife Nan, owns the G&S Cheese Bait Company in Milledgeville, Illinois.

“If you’re fishing in August,” Jim said. “Go someplace where there’s current.” While Jim admits that J&N Dip Worm is actually his wife Nancy’s business; he takes full responsibility for field-testing products.

“If the weather’s right, and the wife’s right,” Jim said. “It’s five days a week.”

With more than 80 years combined experience on the river, these three know their stuff. Better yet, they are willing to share their knowledge, and all agreed that current is the place to start looking for catfish holes in the river.

During summer when the water is hot and sluggish, oxygen content declines. But current pumps oxygen back into the water, making the cats more active. Finally, current allows the cats to feast in the manner they most prefer, restaurant style, where the food is brought to them.

Catfish generally prefer to feed in shallower water, because it is more likely to provide the necessities listed above. Catfish are light sensitive, however, preferring darker waters during the day. The result is catfish tend to move around as conditions change.

Ron has established a routine to follow the fish as they follow their daily routine. “We time it,” Ron explained. “Early in the morning, we work the banks. By nine o’clock, we’ ve moved to the ends of brush piles out from the banks. Later on, we move to riffles, then out to deeper holes, and by noon, we’re usually in the center of the river.”

Like all wild critters, catfish may move in mysterious ways – at least by our way of thinking. Oftentimes, the process of elimination is best.

Among the most obvious spots in a river are the logjams and snags. “Look for the biggest log jam in a stretch.” Mitch advised. “The biggest log jam will hold the biggest fish, because it has the most cover and the greatest opportunity for cats to feed.

The most productive log jam will not be just one tree, 40 feet long, that’s lying in the water,” he added. “But a stockpile of many bushes, trees and limbs that contain a lot of nooks, crannies and holes.”

Cast to the upstream side of the snag, allowing the bait to drift down into the top of the snag. Minnows, night crawlers, cut bait and dip bait all can be effective.

Because logjams aren’t exactly a secret, Ron advised looking for the less obvious ones. “Stay away from big trees when there’s a lot of people fishing,” he said. “They’re all going to be fishing the big trees.”

Where fishing pressure is high, instead key on more subtle signs. Pencil twigs sticking out of the water can be indicators of submerged snags that get far less attention from fishermen, but plenty of attention from catfish. Other signs of submerged structure include eddies and swirls on the surface of the water.

Jim said he prefers to fish the wing dams, especially when it’s really hot. Dams that are relatively new, or recently renovated, offer the most opportunity, in his estimation. “There are more holes and cervices in them, because they haven’t been silted in,” he explained. “The cats have more areas to hide.”

Although cats may hold on the upstream and the downstream side of a wing dam, the most productive way to fish is by anchoring well in front of the structure and using the current to present your bait on the front side.

Most wing dams develop a slight trough on the front side. Fish in these troughs or near breaks in the structure.

Dip baits produce a chumming effect. Dip baits work best when maintained in a thick, frosting-like consistency that will wash off the dip worm or sponge. In this manner, the bait permeates the water, drawing fish from downstream. Coat the offering with a gob of bait, and redip often.

Another less obvious location for big cats is the holes or pockets within a mud flat. “It may sound funny,” Mitch explained. “But if the whole slough area is three feet deep, the catfish hole may be five feet of water. You need to look at the entire area. Any variation within a constant depth could be a good hole.”

When fishing holes in flats, again work the upstream side. “The most aggressive fish,” Mitch said. “Are going to be on the upstream side of the hole, ready to feed.”

Submerged weeds and stump fields in close proximity to flowing water may offer a lot of catfishing opportunity.

River islands that have been flooded by high water can present great, if somewhat temporary, fishing holes. “I’ve poled in on top of an island, between 30 or 40 trees, and fished right at the base of the trees to catch catfish,” Mitch said.

A heavy, abrasion-resistant line is best for catfish, especially when fishing in heavy cover. Catfish are notorious for rolling when hooked. In grass, that can put a lot of strain on the line.

“I’ve pulled seven-pound catfish out of grass patches,” Mitch said. “But by the time they were in the boat, there was seven pounds of grass wrapped up with that seven-pound cat.”

Horsing a cat out of structure strains tackle, too, and in areas where zebra mussels are prevalent, the sharp little shells cut and fray line. Check for nicks and abrasions after each cast; cut and retie if the line shows wear.

Catfish are opportunists. Like an old billy goat, they’ll eat most anything. However, selecting and presenting the proper bait is essential if you want to maximize your catch. Ron stated an obvious preference, “I never use anything other than cheese bait,” he said. “It’s proven itself so many times.”

Under the right circumstances, Mitch agreed. “When chasing channel cats in August, dip baits are probably your best bet.” But dip baits have to be used properly to be effective. Specific baits may demand special handling. Cooking oil may be added to dip baits to help maintain a soft, pliable consistency.

However, certain brands become less effective with the added oil. Experiment with your favorite to find the best recipe.

The bottom line with all dip baits, however, is that they become most effective when they bleed off the hook and draw fish from surrounding areas.

A tip offered by Ron is to add water to the bait, straight from the river in which you are fishing. This is most important when the water is colder than the bait. “When you throw it in and it hits that cold water,” Ron said. “It sets up like a rock and won’t bleed off.”

Add cold water beforehand to work the bait to the desired consistency while also reducing its temperature.

Dip worms are Jim’s specialty, and he insists that color is important. “You’ve got to know what you’re fishing in,” he explained. “I’ve found catfish with bellies full of moss. If moss is floating down the river, a moss green dip worm is the first one I’ll put on.

“If you’re fishing in mud, use your darker colors. Cat prey that lives on mudflats, like leeches, are dark. White is a good color on clam beds. Red is a good color where fresh water crabs are found.”

“Color makes a difference” Ron agreed. “A big difference. Start out with a dark one on one pole and a light one on the other. If they bite on white, use varying lighter shades. If they’re hitting dark, go off those shades. But try two different contrasting colors and work from there. You’ll find they’ll like one color better than another.”

Cut bait, if prepared properly, is very effective for river cats. Start by filleting the sides from a 6- to 8-inch sucker or chub. Leaving the skin attached, the fillets should then be cut front to back into strips approximately 1-1/2 inches wide. These strips should then be cut into chunks of bait approximately 1-1/2 inches square.

Pierce the bait squarely a single time with a 2/0 hook, leaving the hook barb exposed. Fish on the bottom, changing to fresh pieces frequently.

Live baits are good for catfish, too.

“I never use one small minnow,” Mitch said. “I put a couple on a hook, so it’s a bigger target, a bigger bait.”

His philosophy for flathead cats is similar. “For flatheads,” Mitch said. “Your best bet is always live bait. The bigger the bait, the better the bait.”

Regardless of the bait, all three men fish on the bottom using a variation of a slip sinker rig that allows the fish to move off with the bait without feeling any weight. All three place a plastic bead on the line between the slip sinker and snap swivel, to protect the knot from wear.

While rivers are the traditional summertime catfishing holes, lakes and ponds also “turn on” with the summer heat. Many of the tactics used in rivers can be translated to ponds and lakes, but with some minor variations.

“When I’m fishing a lake,” Mitch said. “I don’t look for the deepest hole. The deep holes are going to be cold, because they’re below the thermocline.”

Like the hot spots on a river, the best areas within a lake usually are shallow. Lakes vary considerably in regard to structure, but the most prevalent form of structure in all lakes is the shoreline edges. Riprap along roadways and dams can be attractive, and submerged stump fields also hold summer cats.

The nature of lakes and ponds dictates that current will be at a minimum. So locating areas with current patterns can be key to catching catfish in numbers.

The best fishing spots in lakes usually are bays fed by incoming creeks. The bay itself may contain submerged stumps and trees, or lacking that, riprap shoreline with a depth of 4 to 5 feet and some grass growing into the water.

Bottom fishing with dip bait or night crawlers is effective in most lakes. Because of the relative lack of cover, however, you may find that the summer fishing is best early morning, late evening and into the night. Lacking protective cover, catfish go deep to escape the direct sunlight of midday.

Regardless of where you fish for summer cats, they offer a lot of challenge and enjoyment. And a heaping plate of catfish fillets offers enjoyment long after the fishing tackle has been put away. The catfish is quite prolific. When it comes to cats, the best way to practice catch and release is into a fryer full of hot grease.

It’s just one more benefit to a fish that may bite best during the dog days of a long, hot summer.