November 03, 2015
Going after the whiskery fish in freshwater can be a relaxing challenge.
There was the familiar river cold, a wet chill, persistent, jacket-penetrating. But today something animated the vapor, adding to the sinister look of a red marker pulsing in the darkness at Hontoon Dead River. On the docks, crystals of frost told of a late-season Canadian airmass. My wife and daughters, curled beneath blankets in the motel room, wanted no part of this.
I tightened the straps on my life jacket and eyed the comforting glow of the plotter. The Dead River, I reminded myself, is so-named for sluggish current. That's all. By daylight, it's a scenic, well-traveled detour on the St. Johns River, doglegging through a forest of cypress, water hickory and red maple. I had taken my girls sight-seeing the day before, looking for alligators, herons and turtles. With one eye on my sonar, I spotted a few brush piles in pockets of deep water. Four a.m. the next morning, I awoke, thinking about the enigma that is freshwater catfishing.
Largemouth bass are the main target on the St. Johns and associated waters. No one sleeps in where there are big bass poised at creekmouths and grassbeds, waiting to crush a topwater frog or buzzbait. But Florida bass are moody. They don't like sudden drops in water temp. Nor, as a point of reference, do they feed well in thick summer heat.
With limited options, and daylight hours committed to family activities, I forged a backup plan: Catfish.
Florida has many varieties of freshwater cats, and I knew the 300-mile-long St. Johns is home to at least four of them. Why chase catfish?
Besides their willingness to bite when other fish won't, catfish are crowd favorites at fish fries. The farm-raised channel cats, in fact, are among the few seafood offerings I find consistently satisfying at restaurants. Shrimp, salmon, lobster, and saltwater catches of the day such as mahi and grouper seem to arrive at my table in varying and unpredictable degrees of freshness and doneness—usually over-doneness. Hot sauce won't resurrect rubber lobster or reanimate an old chunk of grouper—it just makes these harder to swallow. As long as the oil is hot enough, you have to work at screwing up catfish.
As something of a bargaining tool, I brought to our St. Johns family vacation my frying pan and breading mix. Fishing resumed its time-honored place as necessity. My crew wanted to eat. I needed to fish. It was that simple. Married fishermen take note.
Catching a mess of freshwater catfish isn't as easy as you might think. For starters, they aren't everywhere. Whereas saltwater cats will dart across a mile of open bay to claim a single dead shrimp, you can literally drown a worm fishing in the wrong spot for freshwater cats. Usually you find them around cover or changes in depth. The flathead, discussed elsewhere in this issue, is a famously roving, mostly nocturnal predator, but it may not stray far from a brushy home in a deep riverbend. During the late spring and summer, all species—including the channel cats, blue cats, white cats and bullheads—gravitate toward rootballs, undercut banks and other crevices where the females deposit their sticky egg masses. Sometimes they move up pretty shallow, too.
All of these fish are predominantly bottom-feeders, using scent and taste to locate prey. Interestingly, they can sample potential food from quite some distance. With external taste buds, many of them concentrated in the whiskers, or barbels, catfish are able to detect chemical cues left by organisms in the water around them. (In Fisherman, a sister publication, has published compelling articles on how catfish also find prey by sound and lateral line sensitivity.)
Compiling a comprehensive list of qualifed catfish baits is impossible, but it's fun trying. Some favorites include nightcrawlers, chicken liver, cut shad, cut hot dogs, dough balls spiked with vanilla, commercial stinkbaits such as the Berkley Gulp! Shad Guts. Having fished a bit in Kentucky over the years, I chuckled at a list generated by local anglers on a Blue Grass Forum: raw hamburger meat laced with Wheaties, chicken breast soaked in Kool-Aid, live chicken soaked in Kool-Aid. I am reasonably sure the latter was an exaggeration, but it gets pretty crazy out there.
A diehard catfish angler I once fished with on the Apalachicola River (North Florida, but practically Kentucky) had a jar of locally brewed “catfish butter” which he applied like spackle to a wire bristle installed above the hook. The smell would choke a possum, but he said it was deadly on blue cats. Blues, like the flatheads, are recent introductions to certain Florida watersheds.
Rivers like the St. Johns, with tall trees on the bank, offer clues. Look for downed trees, especially in the outside bends of rivers, where the current scours out the banks. Sometimes the tree trunks anchor emergent vegetation. Modern high-frequency sonar renders drowned timber in stunning detail, likely with attendant fish. Finding structure may become something of a goal in and of itself, much like veteran grouper fishermen get a rise out of finding the next ledge.
To minimize snags, use a short leader and enough lead to reach and hold bottom. Try to position your boat as close to the structure as safety will allow. In river current, be especially careful if you choose to anchor—a Danforth anchor may be stuck permanently in heavy timber.Some use a soft grapnel anchor whose tines bend if embedded in structure. In many places, tying off to an overhanging tree limb or sweeper—a fallen tree perpendicular to the flow—is a better bet. Whether anchoring or tying off, keep the bow cleat on the upstream side.
In slow-moving or still water, an electric trolling motor can be useful for holding or repositioning over structure. I have a variable speed bow-mount troller, which I can dial in to very low, quiet speed. If fishing vertically in slow current, you might use a knocker rig, with an egg sinker sliding all the way to the hook. Or just pinch some splitshot sinkers onto the line—whatever you need to reach bottom. Unless you're chasing 40-pound flatheads or blue cats, use a light-wire hook.
Indeed there is a technical side to catfishing. Catfishing also has a way of directing your attention toward ancient joys and mysteries. The older I get (and I turned 40 a day after this trip), the more I appreciate escaping the redlining communication overload. Abandoning email for the final week of a decade, I half-imagined midlife would arrive with some epiphany, some divine stage instructions for my second act. I did hear voices in the chill of that morning on Hontoon Dead River, but they were pretty basic. The low query of stern barred owls—“Who-cooks-for-you?”—answered by the desperate echo of turkeys gobbling to attract hens. A pileated woodpecker—“Whacka, whacka, whacka!”—laughed at our predicament.
Blowing warm air into my hands, I stared at rodtips and sonar screen, waiting for the big bite. I became reacquainted with worm dirt, a childhood delight rendered borderline hideous by adulthood and boat ownership. What would my flats-fishing friends say about the dark stains on my nonskid?
Sunlight began to filter through the cypress, causing angels of mist to rise and dance. My attention zeroed in on a light baitcaster to which I'd rigged a ¼-ounce egg sinker and a No. 4 bronze kahle hook, embedded in a blob of nightcrawler. The rodtip bounced once, twice, then doubled over.
After a short but satisfying fight, I had a plump little white catfish thrashing in the livewell. Then a butterball-fat brown bullhead, then another white. Soon my livewell was brimming with fish.
Returning to the civilized world at 8 a.m., I passed an older couple camped out on a pontoon boat, tied up to a huge fallen hickory. I'd spoken to them to the day before—they were all-night catfishing on the Hontoon Dead River. They were cooking out there, too—I'd seen their grill smoke. This morning there was no smoke, and no rods out—just a bubble of blue tarp and bungee, its occupants presumably zipped up tight in warm sleeping bags, in no rush to go anywhere. FS
First Published Florida Sportsman June 2013