As a kid, I spent most of my free time pond-hopping, fishing for bass and panfish. After buying my first kayak as an adult, I targeted the same fish, but with more mobility and on slightly larger waters. At that time, kayak fishing was still pretty new to the Midwest, so I learned what I could from YouTube. I remember watching videos, one after another, of anglers documenting epic battles with all manner of giant fish caught in the salt. The more I watched, the more I knew I had to find a way to get some of that in my life.
When you are land-locked in the Heartland and you want to catch a real giant, that means you’re looking for something with whiskers. I turned my attention to catfish, to see what kind of thrill they had to offer.
For as much as I had to learn about catfish, there were misconceptions that I had to unlearn. Catfish are commonly viewed as bottom-feeding scavengers. Catfishing then, is presumably little more than putting something stinky on a hook and tossing it out to sit while you wait for a bite. The fact is, while juvenile catfish certainly root around looking for scraps, adult catfish are fearsome predators whose movements and appetites are driven by the prey that they hunt. Sure, you might catch a big one on a chunk of chicken liver the same way you might catch a trophy bass on a worm under a bobber – but to catch quality catfish consistently, you must appeal to the predator in them.
My initial efforts were rewarded with a series of ten-pound class catfish before finally landing my first “big cat,” a 20-pound flathead. My heart was racing, my adrenaline was pumping. Before that fish was even released, it was clear to me that THIS was what I was looking for.
There are three main species of catfish in North America.
Channel catfish are the most abundant and widespread. A few special fisheries grow them to over 20 pounds, but in most cases, a ten-pound channel is pushing trophy class.
Blue catfish have the distinction of getting the biggest, and a few 100-pound class fish are reported every year. Blues don’t have the range that the other species do, but if you have access to them, they are very targetable and can provide some excellent fishing, both in terms of size and numbers.
The flathead catfish rounds out the group. Solitary and enigmatic, they’re the hardest-fighting, meanest and the most elusive of the three. They can also reach weights of over 100 pounds, but those monsters almost exclusively belong to history. A 50-pound class fish is considered a modern giant by anyone’s standards.
Kayak fishing for channel catfish or blue catfish on impoundments can be load of fun, and it isn’t all that complicated. It mostly boils down to presenting the illusion of wounded prey at the right location, moving at the right speed. Drag or suspend some fresh-cut bait just off the bottom while you drift or troll over key structure elements such as points, humps, channel ledges and flats. Keep your speed between .3 and one mile per hour and see what the fish prefer. Maintaining the proper speed and position is crucial, so some basic YakGear items like a couple of drift anchors paired with an anchor trolley become essentials that can make all the difference.
Keep moving until you find fish, and once you do, repeat the drift pattern for as long as you’re catching. Using circle hooks allows you to leave your rods in the holders while you focus on your speed and position. Small fish might peck at your bait, but grown fish will most often bury your rod, setting the hook on themselves. The instant chaos that comes with a rod suddenly loading up in a holder is something that never gets old. Expect to get spun around and pulled off course, even by fish weighing less than ten pounds.
If you’re up for a little more challenge and excitement and want to target the undisputed king of the cats, then you’ll want to head to the river. Find a hole that has a big, gnarly brush pile, and you’ve got your spot. If you can fish through the dusk transition, you can set out live baits positioned on the front of the hole. Flathead catfish will move out of their cover to migrate or hunt at night, and you can intercept them as they head upstream.
During the day, flathead catfish take ambush positions, so you’ll want to put live baits as close as possible to the brush, checking a variety of spots and depths. Focus on the slack side of current seams and on any part of the cover that’s offering a good current break. If they’re active, it usually won’t take more than a few minutes to get a bite. If they’re in a neutral mood, you’ll have to keep repositioning your baits to goad them into striking. Navigating the stick-ups and current swirls common to these locations can be tricky business, and the hook feature on the Backwater Assassin paddle has made it an absolutely indispensable part of my toolkit that enables me to get myself into position without undue commotion.
A flathead catfish bite during the day is unmistakable. The “thump” when they inhale your bait can shake your entire kayak. Often after that thump they’ll just sit there, and your rod tip will barely load up. It’s important to pay attention to your rod and line, because if you don’t notice the thump, it’s easy to be completely unaware that you have a fish on the line – even one well over 20 pounds. Circle hooks can be used during the day, but because of this tendency to sit still after eating, J hooks can give you a higher hook-up rate.
Pulling a flathead catfish out of some heavy cover is hands-down one of the most exhilarating experiences kayak fishing has to of
fer. It’s typically a violent, short-line tug-of-war that’s won or lost based on being able to somehow finesse a few extra inches during the critical first few seconds of battle.
I still fish for bass and panfish, but these days, it’s the cats that I obsess over. If you’ve never experienced the thrill of catching a fish that truly fights back, one that pulls you around while refusing to come up – you’re missing out! Gear up and head out to your local lake or river and find out what the buzz is all about!
About the Author
Denny Ransom is an avid fisherman and kayaker. His passion for the water and his prize catch are obvious. Living in Carlisle, Iowa and growing up a short ways away in Albia has Denny targeting fresh water species and his love for “the big cats.” Follow Denny on Facebook and Instagram.