Channeling the cats of Ontario

by Lonnie King | June 24, 2019

As I sat in my chair, nestled amidst the shoreline vegetation of a local pond, my body was at rest, content. Nevertheless, I remained vigilant, frequently repositioning my line and tossing in small bits of bait. I was hoping to attract and hold the attention of hungry fish, which I strongly suspected were using the area.

Others fishing nearby were oblivious to my presence, as were the pair of meadow voles noisily competing for spilt bread crumbs and kernels of corn.

My cover would soon be blown, however, as the stem of my float began to waver, lift slightly and then pop beneath the surface. Snapping the rod from its stand, I drove the hook into a solid mass that immediately took off, causing my reel to give out a long, alarming scream.

I was only fishing with 8-pound line, so it was an anxious few minutes as I strained on the rod to avoid the mussel-encrusted sticks and jagged rip-rap that lined the shore.

Its dogged determination and distinctive fight style were clear indications I’d hooked a sizeable channel catfish, but it would be a full five minutes before its big whisker-lined mouth begrudgingly crossed into my long-handled landing net.

With the fish safely secured, I tossed in a bit more bait and quickly slid the catfish into a keepsack, rebaited my hook and fired the float back out. Channel cats tend to travel in groups and, sure enough, in rapid succession three more plump channel cats were added to the tally. It was a terrific way to enjoy a warm spring day, and was a reminder that there’s often great fishing in local waters, which are easy to reach and inexpensive to fish.

Catfish are a widespread resident that many in southern Ontario take for granted. As opportunistic predators, they will hit almost any bait — providing that it smells like food and sits still long enough to get their mouth around.

Ontario is home to six species of catfish, which include channel catfish, three bullhead species (brown, yellow, and black) and three smaller, reclusive species of madtoms (tadpole, northern, and brindled), which few anglers are ever likely to see.

Spring is prime time for catching catfish of all species, as they tend to be concentrated — often gravitating to shallow warmwater areas where they are easily accessible by shore anglers.

Channel cats in particular are a great sportfish. They are tireless fighters, grow to impressive sizes, and are widely spread throughout the lower Great Lakes basins and their tributaries.

Given the ability of this species to thrive in still and flowing waters, it’s hard to generalize where catfish can be found in early spring, when their movements are often mistaken as spawning migrations. In fact, they don’t typically spawn in Ontario until June and sometimes into July.

Immediately following ice-out, channel catfish start gravitating to warmer water. Fish will often hold in deeper areas during the day, but move up into shallower bays or tributaries at night. Where deep-water refuge is not available, catfish will often rest under brush piles or other thick cover, waiting until darkness to prowl more open areas for food.

catfish

Don’t stay married to a spot if it’s not producing. Move, move, move until you find them, and expect that where you find one, there will be more.

Current can also be a big draw for channels. They tend to roam over large areas. Don’t stay married to a spot if it’s not producing. Move, move, move until you find them, and expect that where you find one, there will be more.

Channel cats are efficient predators, so, if you do find an area holding concentrations of baitfish, it’s well worth putting in a little extra time. In past spring fishing experiences in southern Ontario, it was common to find channel catfish in the same spots holding concentrations of crappies, once the sun went down.

Cat tactics

Given the strength of these fish and their tendency to lurk in snag-infested areas, it should come as no surprise that many anglers like to make use of stout, no-nonsense tackle, especially when targeting big channel cats.

Heavy-braided line fitted on a rugged medium- to heavy-action baitcasting or spinning outfit is typically considered standard issue.

The business end of such a rig is equally durable, often a heavy egg or bell sinker with large single hook for cutbait, dead minnows, shrimp, or worms. Such a setup does a great job of keeping natural baits anchored on bottom for catfish to find.

Finicky float fishing

Heavy gear isn’t necessarily needed in all cases. There are plenty of situations where lighter, more refined presentations work well. Slack-water areas in rivers or ponds are ideal for float fishing. Long-stemmed waggler-style floats are perfectly suited to these situations, and provide incredible sensitivity for detecting strikes without alarming fish.

Most of the buoyancy or bulk on a waggler float is located at the bottom of the float. The line also attaches to the bottom, which encourages the mainline to submerge. Together, these factors greatly reduce drag caused by wind or surface currents that could otherwise pull the float under or drag the bait out of place.

Overshotting your float (putting more weight on your line than the float can actually carry) also helps to hold your hookbait stationary on bottom, while allowing for optimum bite detection.

Start by adding one or two large split shots to your line just up from your hook. This should cause the float to sink completely below the surface. From there adjust the position of the float on the line until it just peeks out of the water. This arrangement will cause the float to rise as soon as the split shots are moved or lifted off bottom. All the fish will feel is the light resistance of the smaller split shot resting on bottom.

This setup is so sensitive, your float is likely to start quivering at the mere presence of a fish milling around the area. Don’t react too quickly. Wait for the float to be firmly and clearly pulled beneath the surface.

Method feeder madness

Another presentation that works wonders is a method feeder. Like carp fishing, you pack the feeder with aromatic chum that dissolves and breaks down in the water, giving off plenty of scent to call fish in from a distance. On the trailing end of the feeder, attach your hookbait. When fishing for carp, the feeder is attached firmly to the line, so that the carp sets the hook itself when it bolts away. Catfish are less inclined to bolt, so a free-sliding setup allows the fish to take a bit of line before the angler sets the hook.

When targeting catfish, use protein-based flavours, such as shad, blood, or crayfish, as opposed to the sweeter flavours preferred by carp.

On the tail end of the feeder you could run any number of standard catfish baits, or use a boilie on a hair rig, just as you would for carp. In either case, you will want something that resists being nibbled to pieces by smaller fish. I’ve found boilies to be particularly effective when dipped in concentrated scents, such as Scopex Bait Flavouring.

There’s truth to the old saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but you don’t have to find catfish attractive to appreciate them for their willingness to engage anglers of all skill levels.

And, if you value learning new fishing techniques, they’re a great candidate to test a number of approaches, which will make you a more well-rounded angler.

Originally published in Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine’s 2013 Fishing Annual.

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