Dark Waters, Moonless Nights
Nighttime is the right time...for catfish.
Some folks say you can catch as many catfish during the day as you can at night. And maybe some folks do. I’m not one of them.
I’ve been catfishing since I was old enough to hold a cane pole, going on 40 years now, and my best catch came on a moonless night in April while fishing from a sandbar on the lower Mississippi River. In just four hours, a friend and I caught more than 150 catfish — mostly flatheads, a few blues and channels, several over 20 pounds. I’ve had 100-cat nights more times than I can remember. I catch lots of catfish in the day, too, and nowadays, I must admit, most of my fishing is done when the sun is up. But my best daytime excursions have never equaled my best night fishing trips.
If you’re thinking about working the late shift for catfish, there are some guidelines that should be followed.
Mosquitoes are night creatures, too, so insect repellent is a must (on you but never your bait). You’ll need a good lantern, and if you’re bank fishing, a lawn chair and some rod holders. Pick a body of water where catfish are abundant (your state fisheries department can recommend some), and carry plenty of bait. Good all-around choices include baitfish (minnows, shad, or sunfish), nightcrawlers, crawfish, catalpa worms, and stinkbaits.
Simple tackle is best for catfishing after dark. A cane pole works fine, but most catters use a medium-action rod-and-reel combo to better reach offshore fishing spots. Six- to 15-pound line and size 1 to 2/0 hooks are okay for the small “eating-size” catfish most folks are after.
When fishing for cats 20 pounds and up (100-pounders are possible in some waters), use a long rod, 7 feet at least, for more hooksetting and fighting power. Those constructed with graphite-fiberglass composites offer strength, sensitivity, flexibility, and moderate pricing. Also consider the supertough E-glass rods several companies sell. They’re somewhat pricey but nearly indestructible, with extra strength for lifting, pulling, and casting heavy rigs.
Baitcasting reels are toughest and provide more power for cranking in big fish. Look for a solid frame, tough gears, and smooth casting, plus enough line capacity for the conditions you fish. The best for night fishing also feature a “clicker” mechanism. The clicker gives an audible signal when line is pulled from the reel, thus indicating that a catfish is taking your bait. The clicker also keeps a soft, steady tension on the spool, thereby preventing a cat from backlashing the reel when it runs with a bait. To use the clicker, simply push the free-spool button and engage the clicker switch. Then set your rod in a holder and wait for the sound that indicates a taker.
Use big hooks for big fish — 8/0 or better, with heavy wire construction that won’t bend. Hone them to needle sharpness. For big-cat bait, use fish and nothing but fish. My favorite is a thick chunk of shad, herring, or other oily baitfish for blue cats and channels, and a lively sunfish or bullhead for big flatheads.
Fish on the bottom, using a sinker heavy enough to carry your bait down. Or use a bobber to float the bait slightly above bottom.
Don’t get antsy; let the bait sit several minutes before moving it. Like kids after fresh-baked cookies, cats smell their treats then track them down. You can fish from a boat or from shore, as you prefer. A boat offers more mobility; your range is limited only by the size of your fuel tank.
Unfortunately, boating at night can be hazardous. For that reason, most catfishermen do their night fishing from shore. A campfire is built, the rigs are baited and cast, and the rods are propped on forked sticks or placed in holders. The participants sit and sip coffee while they shoot the breeze. A cat probably will bite sooner or later, and then the action staarts.
If the action part of the outing is as important as the aesthetics, be sure to pick a site within casting distance of prime catfishing areas. This might be a clearing on shore near the outside bend of a river, a spot under a shady tree beside a farm pond levee, or a gravel bar adjacent to a deep hole on a small stream. The best areas have flat, brush-free banks where casting is easy and you don’t have to worry about ticks and snakes crawling up the legs of your britches.
Ideally, you should be able to walk from one likely site to another without any problems. Fish for 15 to 30 minutes at the first spot you pick; if a bite isn’t forthcoming or a good bite stops, reel in your bait, walk down the shore, and try another locale. If that site is better, great. If not, move again after half an hour. Try this spot, then that. Your catch rate will greatly improve.
Of course, leapfrogging around isn’t to everyone’s liking. And in some areas, it’s impossible due to the lack of good bank sites. In that case, cast your bait to the best-looking spot you can reach; then prepare to wait out your quarry. Place your fishing combo in a rod holder properly set in the ground, put the reel in free-spool, flip on your bait clicker, and relax until the action starts. This technique may not put lots of catfish on your stringer, but it’s an excellent way to target trophy fish, especially at night when big cats are roaming in search of prey.
Once you have the technique down, prepare to experience memories like no other in fishing. I remember a night on the Mississippi River when freshwater drum added a percussionist’s beat to nature’s witching-hour rumba. These big, silvery fish were spawning, and their peculiar drumming noises boomed from the dark river. We could feel the deep tones as they vibrated our aluminum boat — a cat man’s rhythm-and-blues.
I remember the earthy smell of riverside woods after cleansing twilight rain showers, and the flavorful aroma of coffee brewing over midnight campfires, the sweet taste of just-caught catfish cooked in a black-iron skillet, and the haunting serenades of owls calling from the darkness.
I remember the strike of big, unseen fish. Each time I hoped it was a giant catfish. But you’re never really sure. You don’t know what’s down there, and you won’t know for sure until you get it up. That’s the mystery, the mystery of the night that draws people like me to this sport.