Channel Cats on the Prowl

By Ted Peck - June 1, 2010
If you're one of those folks more at home in the great outdoors than a man-made environment, "cotton" raining down from cottonwood trees just before the Memorial Day weekend was a welcome sign.

The parachuting seed signals catfish spawning is nigh, typically beginning within 4-5 days. Channel cats spawn when water temps reach 78 degrees. This benchmark arrived 4-5 days after the cottonwood rain began to fall.

Funny how conventional river rat wisdom enables those who heed nature's whispers to consistently cash in on a river's bounty.

Channel cats are omnivores, dining on everything from hot dogs to Ivory soap. Nightcrawlers, cut bait, chicken livers, shrimp and decaying mussels are all likely to pique interest in these whiskerfish. But if you're looking for a nice mess of eaters a concoction known as dip bait is pretty hard to beat.

Some call dip bait "stink bait". The term "stink" has negative connotations. True catfishers think this cheese-based goo smells like fun.

There are over a dozen popular dip baits on the market. The most productive are concocted right here in the Midwest. Wicked Sticky, Catfish Charlie and Junnie's Cat Tracker all have devotees. Other cat chasers prefer Sonny' Super Sticky, Doc's Catfish Getter or G & S cheese bait. All of these baits catch catfish. But there is more to dip bait fishing than selecting bait you believe in.

Serious catfish fanatics believe that every one of these commercial baits is simply a starting point. The difference between catching catfish and catching lots of catfish is often a matter of subtle tweaking.

Every dipbait has a consistency which will produce the most interest from catfish.

G & S dip bait works best when it has "the consistency of a runny milkshake, " according to G & S inventor Ron Geary.

Baits which are designed for optimum performance with runny milkshake consistency require a bait delivery system which allows release of bait into the water column over about 15-20 minutes. Choose the wrong dip worm and bait will splatter all over the water rather than clinging to the hook.

Those who fish G & S prefer the J & N or Bouma worms which are hollow with fairly large holes-functioning sort of like a cheddarwurst with a hook in the tail. A ¾ inch cube of sponge impaled on a #4 treble hook is another viable option.

Sonny's Super Sticky and Doc's Catfish Getter work better with a little stiffer consistency, somewhat akin to an aged cheese flavor concrete malt.

Temperature has profound impact on bait consistency. Soybean oil is the best tool for thinning bait which is too stiff. Vegetable oil or WD-40 will work in a pinch.

A more common problem is bait which becomes too runny from sitting out in the sun. The common way to counter this conundrum is to put the dip bait in a cooler with your sandwiches and cold beverages.

There is a better way; Cattail fuzz. Of course, mature cattails are pretty tough to come by this time of year. Autumn is the time to harvest cattail heads. When juxtaposed against the bait in the sandwich cooler option, cattail fuzz is a truly slick solution.

Sonny's and Doc's baits perform better on solid plastic worms. Those with the diameter of a pinky finger are popular. I believe worms with the smaller diameter of a #2 lead pencil work even better.

If you can find any of those skinny Doc's Super Devil worms, buy them. Doc's owner Frances Krull tells me they are no longer in production. The worms that remain can be accessed by visiting Doc's website.

Dip bait manufacturer Sonny Hootman showed me an even smaller, skinnier worm called the Cat-A-Tube a few years ago. The Cat-A-Tube works best in conjunction with another dip bait worm-two worms with differing leader lengths will result in more than double the number of cats taken on a single worm rig. The potential for splattering dip bait over even more objects when casting is virtually assured.

Dip bait worms come in a rainbow of colors. Bait should only be applied to the bottom half of the worm. Geary, Hootman and Krull all agree that the little bit of color exposed above the bait makes a difference when cats move in for the kill.

As a general rule black, white, purple and brown worms work better in colder water. All other variables being equal red, yellow and orange will catch more fish when water temperature is above 75 degrees.

More important than doctoring dip bait to an ideal consistency is adding special ingredients. Shad flies, turtle livers and crawdad guts will both enhance your catch rate. But you need to know when and how much of these additives to fold into the mix.

A pile of shad flies beneath the light by a favorite Mississippi River boat ramp over the Memorial Day weekend practically screamed the need to do a little bait doctoring before heading out.

When shad flies come down like snow fishing on the Miss is generally tough-unless you show the fish something which smells or looks like shad flies.

By mid-June it will be time to keep a sharp eye for burrow holes in backwater dirt banks. Crawdad colonies attract everything from bass to cats. A dirt bank usually isn't worth a cast. But if crawdad holes are present you better have the net handy.

Most clients who share my boat want to chase walleyes or bass or panfish or pike. The ones who want to fish for forktails usually have a different perspective on fishing and the River.

Channel cats are always on the prowl. Those who meld into the great circle of life on the River know where they're headed and are ready when fish get there.

Author Ted Peck
Ted Peck
Cap'n Ted Peck has over 30 yrs. guiding experience, specializing in multi-species fishing on Pool 9-10 of the Mississippi from Genoa, Wi. to Prairie du Chien. Cap'n Ted is a pro staffer for Lund, Northland Tackle, MinnKota, Bill Lewis Lures, Evinrude, Uncle Josh, HT Enterprises and Custom Jigs & Spins. When not guiding Cap'n Ted communicates the outdoors experience via newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and through seminars. This work has taken him all over the midwest, Canada and beyond... but he always returns to the upper Mississippi which he considers the most diverse fishery in North America. Click here for more info on Ted's guide service. Cap'n Ted's new book Mississippi Musings with the Old Guide is a personal account of his long career as a professional fishing guide on Old Man River.