It was a good night for murder. The fog was thick and wet as black paint. A mile across the lake, somebody’s hound was howling a mournful, Deep South spiritual. Billy Simms’ face resembled a zombie’s in the glare of our hissing gasoline lantern. The combined odors of Red Man, Wild Turkey, and Puss-in-Boots catfood floated over us like mustard gas, a far deadlier mosquito repellant than any store-bought brand. (The Red Man came entirely from Billy’s end of the johnboat.)

Simms’ knife flashed in the dark as it sliced off a square of nylon stocking. He ladled a tablespoon of the fuming catfood into the square, folded it over, and closed it with several twists of a rubberband. Plunking a No. 10 hook, into the resulting bag, he held the rig up to the lantern for inspection. It did not look appetizing to me, but it brought a grunt of approval from Billy. He heaved it into the black waters of Lake Minneola from the end of his 8-foot spinning rod. “Won’t be long now,” he confided. “Is there any more ice?”

About the time I had finished splashing another three fingers of Turkey into Billy’s tin cup, the rod began to tap dance its way along the aluminum gunnel. He picked it up, dropped the tip, and struck when the line came tight again. He cranked powerfully on the big saltwater spinning reel, gaining perhaps 20 feet.

April 1979 cover of Field & Stream
The April 1979 issue was loaded with “bass, catfish, and panfish tips!” Field & Stream

Suddenly the line stopped coming in and began going out, steadily. “Now he knows he’s hooked,” Billy chortled. “He’s a growed man!”

He pumped as if he were raising a bluefin, then whirled the big crank again. Out in the lake something the size of a young hog wallowed on the surface, then dived once more. Again 15-pound-test monofilament peeled from Simms’ spool. Eventually he pumped the fish to the boat. I held the lantern high, and we had our first look at the adversary. It was close to a yard long, torpedo shaped with a cobalt-blue back shading to blue-gray sides. The fish was perfectly streamlined, except for a halo of whiskers and spines around its head and shoulders.

“That’s him,” Simms grinned. “You have met ‘the sting’ in person. Now how about sticking that gaff in him before he punches a hole in the boat?”

I found the gaff, made one inaccurate swipe at the fish, and then bore the rain of Billy’s curses as he had to work the giant back to the boat once more. On the second attempt I connected, however, and hoisted 17 pounds of channel catfish aboard.

“When’s the last time you saw a bass that big whack his tail on the bottom of a boat?” Billy chuckled as he evaded the cat’s stinging spines and unhooked it. “And you can bet there’s half-a-dozen of his uncles and and cousins around here right now, too. These big fellas school just like the little scamps.”

He was right. Before the roosters began to crow, we had eight of the giant catfish wallowing in a gunny sack tied to the stern. Coupled with the five smaller cats and one stray largemouth bass that had gulped one of the catfood balls, it was the heaviest catch of freshwater fish I’d ever hoped to see.

That night opened my eyes to a whole new resource in Southern waters. But it’s a resource that’s going untouched, even during these days when bass and other freshwater species are feeling a rather acute case of angling pressure.

Catfishing in the South

Catfish exist in large schools in almost every Southern lake and river and are well-distributed throughout the rest of the country, too. In my experience, the poundage of these cats runs close to twice that of the average largemouth bass from the same waters. If you hit “the sting” in a feeding mood, it’s not unusual to bring home a boatload of 2- to 5-pounders. And occasionally in prime waters there may be a bonus lunker of close to 20 pounds thrown in. In terms of action, bass fishing on most waters can’t come close.

An informal survey I recently conducted with fishery commissions across the South indicates that catfish are being underharvested in almost every state. In fact, they are so abundant in many states, including Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, and Tennessee, that they are still taken commercially. Thousands of tons of these excellent sport fish wind up in restaurants each year. The nets, traps, and trotlines of commercial fishermen are reaping a bounty that has been ignored by sporting anglers around the country.

Most bass anglers still turn up their noses at catfish, but the fact is that modern bassing methods are not a 4X leader’s width away from the best catfishing methods. First, most good catches of both species are made from offshore “structure.” Second, the largest of both species are caught most often on live bait usually large shiners. Third, both readily take artificial lures, though the lures must be presented somewhat differently to catch channel cats. And finally, both species feed best in low light.

Smelly baits have long been a favorite with “meat fishermen” who specialize in catfishing. Raw liver, limburger cheese, anise oil, blood balls, and a dozen other unlikely perfumes are traditional catfish baits.

Frank Sargeant

Locating catfish in any body of water is based on simple, known principles. They like deep water during most of the day; they like edge conditions where deep water meets shallow or where muddy water meets clear; and they like moving water wherever they can find it. By applying these principles consistently and covering as many likely areas as possible, just as the bass angler does, catfishermen can find their quarry more often than not.

In Florida’s shallow lakes, there is usually a spring hole or channel considerably deeper than the rest of the water. During daylight hours, all the catfish in the lake will be in this deep water. At dusk, the fish will begin to move around in search of food, and will first prowl the edges of the hole. If they don’t satisfy their appetites, they’ll move into progressively shallower water; sometimes as little as 3 feet. Commercial anglers call this behavior “climbing the hill,” and they take advantage of it when they don’t find fish in the usual deep-water spots.

Runoffs that occur after heavy rains also produce catfish concentrations in many Southern waters such as those in the hill country of central Alabama and Georgia. Muddy water, loaded with earthworms, insects, and other organic material flows into the clearer water of the many impounded lakes and creates a natural feeding station for catfish.

In deeper creeks, the cats may move right into the tributaries to gorge themselves on the feast. Otherwise, they’ll usually be found outside the first good dropoff, where the incoming food will tumble toward bottom as the flow slows down.

Channel cats do not stay long in muddy water, however. They much prefer clean, well-oxygenated water, and they like sand or gravel bottoms over muck. Ictalurus punctatus came by his English name naturally; the channel catfish likes nothing better than the flowing waters of a dam tailrace, diversion canal, or other deep channel with swift currents. In fact, the present world record, a hulking 58-pounder, came from just such waters; the Santee-Cooper diversion canal in South Carolina.

The Stinkier the Bait, the Better

Catfish have a strong sense of smell, which makes them a likely mark for live or cut bait. Anything that puts off a scent is likely to draw fish from a long distance in moving water. This is the reason that smelly baits have long been a favorite with “meat fishermen” who specialize in catfishing. Raw liver, limburger cheese, anise oil, blood balls, and a dozen other unlikely perfumes are traditional catfish baits.

But in my experience, there is nothing more attractive to channel cats than the ground fish meal found in most canned catfoods; hence the success of anglers like Billy Simms. Canned chunk tuna is also good, always easily available, and always smelly. It stays on the hook without a mesh bag, too, which usually means more solid hookups. Freshly cut chunks of mullet, herring, or shad are some of the most productive cut baits, when they are available.

Probably the best bait for channel catfish over 5 pounds is a large shiner. This is a natural food for the lunkers, and one they’ll rarely turn down. The big minnows do best when wind-trolled slowly in deep water, a foot or 2 off bottom, or free-lined through a fast-running dam race. In both cases, the shiner should be lip hooked on a light wire 2/0 Kahle-style hook. The light hooks are strong enough to hold big fish, but don’t interfere with the shiner’s swimming motion.

Shiners between 5 and 7 inches over muck. Ictalurus punctatus came usually provide the best action, and the wild variety available at some riverside bait shops are livelier and more productive than commercial bait. The strike is usually telegraphed by the nervous motion of the bait as it sees a catfish approach, then a quick surge as the attacker strikes. The reel should be in free spool when this happens. Allow the fish to take perhaps 10 feet of line as he works the bait down, then set the hook and hang on.

Another good catfishing trick is fishing a live nightcrawler like a plastic worm. Rig with a small slip sinker ahead of a weedless 3/0 hook. Use jumbo crawlers, preferably those you’ve just gathered from your wet lawn, so they’ll be firm and lively. Hook them just as you would a plastic imitation, threading them on to cover the entire shank of the hook, leaving the tail trailing behind the bend.

This creates a snag-free bait that can be crawled right along the bottom where the cat is looking for food and that puts out a good scent for him, too. On a pickup, give the fish a second to swallow the bait, then set hard as in bass fishing. Use a light spinning rod for casting; with a stiff rod you’ll throw the worn off the hook repeatedly.

Channel cats also readily take artificials; the 58-pound world record was caught on a leadhead jig. They take lures much more often than their cousins, the white, blue, and flathead catfish, and nearly as often as largemouth bass, in the right kind of water.

Channel cats love flowing water, and in this kind of water—dam tailraces, bypass canals, and diversion channels—they often feed as much by sight as by smell. Lures that put out both flash and vibration, such as small spinnerbaits, often work best. The old-fashioned June bug spinner also is effective, especially when sweetened with a small piece of night crawler or shrimp. The lures are cast upstream, then allowed to come bouncing down current right along bottom. Slight tension must be kept on the lure to feel its movement; anytime it stops, set the hook.

Cats eat a lot of crawfish wherever they can find them; in fact, Florida commercial fishermen tell me that they rarely catch a channel cat without the shells of at least a few crawfish in its stomach. So, quick-diving plugs that root and swim along bottom, like the crawfish does, often produce. So do small saltwater jigs with plastic tails. Best color for either of these baits is something that imitates the natural, a dark reddish brown, for daytime fishing.

Catching Catfish on Lures

These same lures also work well when trolled slowly over sand or gravel bottom in deep holes of lakes and rivers. And oddly, a few channel cats are even taken on surface lures; a friend of mine caught a 12-pounder while casting a Rebel floater diver along a sandbar in John’s Lake, west of Orlando, just a few weeks ago.

Whatever the bait or lure, and wherever you fish it, you can expect to catch at least five times as many channel cats by concentrating your efforts in the hours between sunrise and sunset as by fishing during daylight. It often seems that the blackest nights are best, especially if heavy rains have started a muddy in-flow in the lake or river you’re fishing.

Of course, live or “stink” baits work well after dark, since the cat can follow his nose to your offering. But lures that put out a vibration also catch channel cats, even on the darkest nights; apparently catfish are just as sensitive to underwater motion as are largemouth bass, which also take lures readily after dark.

The only difference between night and day fishing for channel cats (other than the mosquitoes) is that the fish often move out of the deepest holes to forage along creekbanks, channel edges, or sandbars. Concentrate your fishing in these areas, and you’ll soon find action.

About the only thing that will turn channel cats off is a burst of cold weather. Even as far south as Florida, when a cold front moves in, catfishing comes to a halt—with one exception. Find a warmwater spring, and you may hit a bonanza. At Silver Springs Run, near Ocala, you can view (but not fish for) dozens of yard-long catfish milling around the 72-degree spring boil after any extended cold, and the same thing happens in many other rivers and lakes. In general, catfish bite pretty well all year in the extreme South, including the lower half of all the Gulf Coast states. Further north, through Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina, the best fishing runs from May to October.

One of the nicest things about catfishing is that, at present, you can keep as many as you want without harming the overall population. As all sportsmen know, this is no longer true of the largemouth bass in many waters. And, to most palates, the channel cat is better tasting in any case.

So give “the sting” a try. I think you’ll be glad you did.