HOW TO FIND AND CATCH MORE
CHANNEL CATS BY TED PECK
Dip baits are short plastic
worms that are anointed with a cheese-based,
folks still think finding consistent success on catching channel catfish calls
for having more bait entrees available than the grand buffet at the Holiday Inn.
Although every bait, from chicken liver to Ivory soap has its days, there is one
concoction which the finicky fiddler finds irresistible every time-- dip baits.
Dip baits (short plastic worms with ridges that are anointed with a catfish
attracting mixture) have been catfish killers in some parts of the country for
years. Docís Catfish Bait, a product of Iowa, has been around since the 1920ís.
Other dip baits with local favor like Sonnyís, G&S, Olí Whiskers and Dunkers of
a more modern genre work magic on catfish, too. These baits will produce catfish
far from the areas where they have popularity. But the regional bait preferences
of local fishermen tend to be deeply set in tradition. It seems that
catfishermen are hesitant to try a new twist. Even a twist which will lead them
to a gunny bag full of tasty catfish just about every time out.
The Ď90ís may be a time of change when those who enjoy
the piscatory pursuit of this "whiskered walleye" opt for action over
tradition. And the action comes fast with dip baits. If a channel isnít
working on your bait within 10 minutes after it hits the water, either there are
no fish present, or youíre doing something wrong. Stream parameters influence
catfish location year-round. But they are especially important to key on during
the warmer months when most anglers pursue this species.
Catfish fall hard for dip baits,
often bowing the rod deeply on the strike.
Channel catfish prefer a moderate current and clean bottom,
preferably with sand or rock-rubble substrata. They spend a great deal of time
relating to deeper areas in a stretch of river called "holes."
Frequently these holes are created by an obstruction like a deadfall or the
current itself, like an outside bend of the river. The deadfall or snag meets
all of the channel catís habitat requirements, including service as a
catch-all for various foodstuffs which come floating down-current. But at
certain times, particularly early and late in the day, catfish will leave the
shelter of deadfalls and move upstream to riffles and the head of a pool to
actively forage. At these times of low light you might be money ahead to anchor
cross-current above the riffles, rather than trying to position a boat directly
up current from a snag. By taking your offering to Mr. Whiskerís front door,
the connection between fisherman and fish can be made at the anglerís
convenience rather than having to face the handicaps of darkness and insects.
(Although a night on a living river is one of the most fulfilling experiences
which nature provides.) Catfish movements along the snag are easy to predict
according to river level and time of day. If no runoff has entered the river for
several days, river level will probably be stable or dropping. Under these
conditions youíll generally find fish lying within five feet of shore when
direct sunlight is not a factor; Donít worry about depth near shore. A foot of
water is plenty, especially in smaller rivers. Fish will move toward
progressively deeper or more sheltered water as the sunís presence becomes
more evident. By noon youíll likely find them near the midstream end of the
In a rising river, fish movement is generally not as
pronounced. The influx of muddied water into the stream will help block the
penetrating power of the sun, while offering the added enticement of foodstuffs
tumbling into the water from the bank. Although fishing is almost always good
with dip baits, it is superlative on a rapidly rising river or under muggy,
unstable weather conditions which precede a summer thunderstorm. Catfish are
active just about any time the air temperature is warmer than the water
temperature. But youíll find fish at least willing after passage of a typical
cold front, too, as cold fronts donít affect river fish as much as lake fish.
And cold fronts affect river catfish less than other species because they are
profound opportunists. They have no pride. Put food in front of a channel cat
and he will eat...or at least chew on the food out of spite...just about every
time. Provided you are tempting him with an opiate which is irresistible like a
high-butterfat, cheese-based dip bait. High butterfat cheese is invariably the
base product in dip baits. But this ingredient is all any serious bait maker will
concede. Other ingredients in a spectrum ranging from anise to turtle livers may
be in there, too.
The olfactory orientation of catfish is certainly different
than that of humans. What smells like roses to fish smells more like a fermented
road kill to us. At least until youíve been fishing with the stuff for a few
minutes. Dip bait is messy. No getting around it. When mixed to proper
consistency dip bait has the aroma and appearance of diaper contents. But, hey,
does it catch fish!
The plastic worm is pushed into
the dip bait and worked around with a stick. The right
consistency of bait means there should be a little remaining
on the worm grooves after 10 minutes of fishing.
In cold water
(less than 60 degrees) an inch-square piece of sponge which hides a #8 treble
hook is a good way to present your bait. However, the sponge is even messier
than using one of the various treble hook-tailed plastic worms which are
specifically designed for dip bait fishing. There are two basic worm designs.
Both have a 20-lb.-test mono leader with is 6 to 8 inches long. My favorite
cold-water worm is about three inches long with the diameter of a pencil.
Grooves on this worm are relatively small and the treble hooks sticks out far
enough from the worm body to enable a good hook-set without any modification. A
more popular worm design is about two inches long and a half-inch in diameter.
The wormís diameter is almost as wide as the gap between hook point and shank.
Experienced dip bait fishermen bend these hooks out as much as 45 degrees in an
attempt to increase hooking potential. Typically the short, fat worms have
deeper concentric grooves to hold more bait. When bait is mixed to the right
consistency there should be just a little remaining in the wormís grooves
after 10 minutes of fishing. At this consistency the bait drips off the hook
leaving a scent trail which hits olíwhiskers right in the face, resulting in
an offer which he rarely refuses.
Sometimes you have to doctor the bait to reach this
consistency, as most baits are mixed to be ideal at water temperatures of about
80 degrees. In cold water try mixing the bait with mineral or cooking oil to get
the desired consistency. In warmer water the bait may become too runny and not
adhere to the hook. If this is the case, setting the bait in the shade or in an
ice-filled cooler next to your lunch will remedy the problem. Mixing in a little
corn meal also works. If the bait is of ideal consistency but still wonít
stick to the worm, try blotting the worm dry with a paper towel before applying
the bait. After bait is in place lower the worm gently into the water for 30
seconds to permit the bait to congeal before making your cast.
In cold water (60 degrees or
less) white, chartreuse and yellow worms seem to work best.
As waters warm (60-73) orange and brown will usually outfish
other colors. In warm water (74-85) black and purple are
Bait should be
applied to the bottom two-thirds of the worm only, permitting the underlying
worm color to show. Although catfish will hit a good dip bait on any color worm
at any water temperature, these fish do tend to exhibit certain color
preferences which seem to be based on water temperature and season. In cold
water (less than 60 degrees) white, chartreuse and yellow worms work best. As
waters warm (60-73 degrees) orange and brown will out fish other colors. In warm
water (74-85 degrees) black and purple are deadly. Red colored worms are a real
ringer. When fish are tenuous and coming in lip-hooked, switching to a red worm
may result in rod-bending strikes. Herein lies another beauty of using dip
baits. Channel catfish donít pussy-foot around when they hit. A wise old fish
or little fiddler might suck the nightcrawler or liver right off the hook
without ever feeling steel. Set the hook too soon or too late and youíll miss
the fish. When using dip baits, fish will frequently chomp on the worm trying to
remove the last vestige of bait from its grooves. In the process, your rod will
bow deeply and may try to leave the boat. The cats practically set the hook for
you. This tendency makes dip baits an ideal candidate for teaching hook-set
fundamentals and playing large fish to neophyte anglers.
My youngest daughter, Emily, got her eyes opened by a six-pounder
at a river out my back door at the ripe old age of seven. She had done a fair
amount of perch jerkiní before this encounter. Simple stuff--the rod bends and
you crank in the fish. When she tried this maneuver with her first catfish, it
tried to take the rod away from her. She squealed with a voice full of both
terror and joy. The basic spincast tackle she used that day is the same gear I
use. You donít need anything fancy for catfish. But the gear had better have
guts. A Zebco 404 mounted on a six-foot Berkley Power Pole is ideal. Twelve
pound test mono will get the job done. If a worm gets hung up, a steady pull
will usually retrieve it without spooking the fish. Terminal tackle is just as
simple. An assortment of egg-shaped slip-sinkers from 1/16 to 3/8 ounce, some
Cross-Lok snap swivels and a roll of paper towels is all you need, other than a
good assortment of treble-tailed worms in different colors. An eighth ounce
sinker is usually the most effective weight to use when fishing from a boat.
This sinker is heavy enough to maintain contact with the bottom, but will still
roll with the current if you cast cross-current.
By casting at a 45 degree
crosscurrent angle, the light egg sinker will roll
downcurrent while the dip bait spills its deadly catfish
drawing scent. The bait will come to rest just upcurrent
from the snag.
SUBTLE HOLDING AREAS
Visible Twig or Stick Indicates Presence of a Deadfall.
The current and individual snags are major factors to
consider with bait presentation. If itís high noon and youíre anchored
directly upcurrent from a natural funnel under the drift pile, toss the bait
directly downstream just up from possible snags. If catfish might be holding at
one of several points along the deadfall, cast at an angle and let the current
scatter your bait across the face of the snag like hand swoon seeds. Donít
worry. Fish will zero in on the source of your bait within minutes after it
comes to rest down stream from the boat. Keep in mind that current seldom runs
directly up and downstream in a hole with a deadfall. The snag will cause the
current to change course. Anticipate this change and put the bait where it will
end up with a minimum of line drag. Finding just the right touch is a matter of
being able to read the river; an ability which only comes with time on the
water. Obvious snags and deadfalls are frequently not the best place to find
fish. Subtle little boils in the current or little branches sticking out of the
water will give you a clue of what lies beneath the riverís surface. Something
is disturbing. Ahead of this disturbance is where youíll find the fish. The
subtle spots seldom get approached by other anglers.
Choosing quality snap swivels is a
point which canít be over emphasized. Those little gold-plated made in Taiwan
jobs simply donít hold up to the tank commander pull of the catfish headed
downstream. Use a quality Cross-Lok snap swivel and the chance of sliding the
landing net under dinner is greatly enhanced. Some successful dip bait fisherman
let the egg sinker slide down the line until it hits the eye of the snap swivel.
You can never go wrong with the basic set-up. But there are times when the river
is stable or dropping that using a split shot will mean more fish. This
technique allows the worm to float several inches off the bottom rather than
hugging it. Something which can trigger strikes when the fish would rather chew
than eat. Channel catfish will take dip bait worms belly-deep if youíll let
them. A device such as a hook remover will permit removal of the worm with
little or no damage to even deeply hooked fish. I just usually unhook the wormís
leader from the snap swivel and place the fish in the livewell, retrieving the
worm later. Even in extreme hot weather leaving the worm in the fish causes
little apparent trauma, enabling you to bring the fish home alive to be prepared
for the pan. Although fishing from a boat is probably the ideal way to fish dip
bait, there are a number of rivers and fishing situations where the bank or
wading angler can do quite well. Line drag is the biggest obstacle a bank angler
has to overcome in chasing catfish in their lair. Line drag can be lessened by
decreasing the angle between the rod tip and final point of bait presentation.
This may mean a longer cast from a little further upstream than the angler would
like to set up. You will need a heavier sinker for casting a distance. A longer
rod also provides advantages, both for castability and hook-set. Because this
bait tends to fling off in all directions when mixed to proper consistency, even
with a gentle cast, you may want to mix the bait a little thicker when shore
fishing. Sometimes it is extremely difficult to place the bait where you want it
when fishing from shore. Part of this is due to the egg sinkerís tendency of
rolling in the current. This problem can be minimized by placing a nail through
the hole in the sinker, then hammering the sinker flat. When the nail is removed
the hole remains. You can place the bait with reasonable accuracy and use a
lighter weight by using this flattened sinker.
Dip worms strike again. The
author has used them time and time again to outfish other
popular catfish baits
My first catfish outings of each year are invariably from
shore, as boat launches are still choked with ice. There are two catfishing
rivers fairly close to home, in which fish can be reached in their holding spots
at channel edges, which run fairly close to shore. Catfish action starts to pick
up in these locations with the advent of a little snow melt, which adds forage
to the river.
For years, waxworms and redworms were my favorite offerings
for cold water catfish in this pattern. I had always considered dip bait to be a
warm water weapon--until this past February. My first catfish outing of 1990 was
a fairly warm winter day. Air temperatures were in the mid-30ís, with water
temps just a little cooler. Not exactly prime catfish conditions. But a fat
four-pounder which fanned idly in the current a long cast from shore didnít
seem to notice. Catfish in February? On dip bait? You bet!