I had set the hook with as much force as the limber rod I was using would take and now I felt there was a submarine attached to the end of my line.
No, I wasn’t fishing at the Outer Banks or even the waters of Lake Erie but I was spending a few hours at dusk in Washington County. It is commonly assumed that the big fish on the other end of the line might be a carp hooked by accident but the carp is not the biggest fish caught here. The biggest local fish is of course the Muskie but then the second slot belongs to the fish I’m talking about, the various catfish.
In my youth, I used to walk from my home in Hills Station, where my father worked in the coal mines, to the ponds along Hahn Road. There, we caught bullheads that seldom exceeded a weight of one pound. These common cats are largely ignored by the adult anglers but there are a handful of fishermen, who like to catch the bullheads larger cousin the channel cat or even bigger yet the fathead.
While Trout anglers walk a stream looking for the perfect trout habitat and bass fishermen stand in their boats making cast after cast hoping for that 20 inch largemouth, the catfish angler fishes from a lawn chair with a cooler holding not only his bait but a few cold drinks and perhaps some snacks. Combine a warm summer evening with the comfort of the drink and the chair, and what could be more relaxing? Oh, did I forget to mention maybe a good mosquito spray? We don’t want to ruin our relaxing evening catching malaria.
It is the two big cats that I seek these days, not the little bitty bullhead so lying next to the chair and the cooler there is sure to be a good sized net. These fish do grow very large and when one is hooked, the net is a necessity to landing them. You don’t lift 10- to 30-pound fish over even a small bank with just the pole or even worse with your own hands. It is like lifting a 10- to 30-pound banana.
My idea of equipment here is a bit different than most catfish anglers. Of course, the spot where one is fishing controls just how heavy the line and rod to be used. If the water is clean with few snags, then I like to use a lighter line and a more limber rod. Where there is a lot of trees and other snags close by, a heavier outfit is needed. I just like to play these fish until they tire. Believe me, if you use 6- or 8-pound test line on a 15-pound channel cat. he goes where he wants to and you also will be tired. Naturally, it invariably heads to the nearest cove resulting in a snag and broken line if there is a lot of trees or snags.
My favorite catfish spots are fairly free of obstructions and my cat outfit is a seven-foot rod with its 6- or 8-pound test line. With this lighter line, I can cast further and with the longer rod I can wear the fish down easier. The idea of the long rod is an idea that comes from Steelhead fishing at Lake Erie. One must have a reel with a smooth drag, filled with quality line without nicks and too much wear. This is because the cat will take long runs and test your strength and fishing abilities. Remember, I said when it wants to go, it will go and you are not going to stop it.
I believe the state record for channel catfish is just short of 40 pounds and the record for fathead is 50. The catfish family has an excellent sense of smell and most baits take advantage of this. Chicken liver makes a good bait as does shrimp. Shrimp is expensive and must be uncooked and unbreaded. My favorite bait is a gob of night crawlers. I like 3 night crawlers, so I use a bigger hook for this bigger fish. Many anglers use hooks in the 4/0 and 2/0 size but I use a hook around number 2 and find that big enough. Cats have tough material around the mouth and once hooked, the hook seems to stay put. Since the cat is a bottom feeder that comes out of hiding just before dark, that is the best time to fish for them. They tend to sleep in the day and feed at dark. On a hot summer day, it is the nicest time to fish just when it cools down.
Where to fish for this fun fish? The rivers are great catfish spots. I believe the Allegheny River turns out the most of both species of catfish. However, there are both in the Monongahela. There are cats in Canonsburg Lake and the water dams but overlooked are the channel cats swimming around in the local farm ponds. Most farm pond fishermen and women are targeting largemouth bass or maybe bluegill and tend to overlook those big cats in the pond. Try it just the hunt for a hotspot can be fun and you meet some great people when asking permission to fish.
George Block writes a weekly Outdoors column for the Observer-Reporter.