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Don’t be afraid to try catfishing: Tom Shank's Woods & Waters

Posted 10/2/19

My fishing on the Susquehanna River has and always will be to catch smallmouth bass.

I enjoy catching these aerobatic wonders on light tackle. My lure presentations vary from spring to fall. They …

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Don’t be afraid to try catfishing: Tom Shank's Woods & Waters

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My fishing on the Susquehanna River has and always will be to catch smallmouth bass.

I enjoy catching these aerobatic wonders on light tackle. My lure presentations vary from spring to fall. They include hair jigs and small plastic grubs in the spring; a wide range of surface and mid-surface plastics such as flukes, worms and tubes; and my surface-twitching technique with small-lipped minnow lures such as Rebels and Rapalas.

However, sometimes change is a good thing. I experienced this recently in regards to catfishing. I never really concentrated fishing for catfish. After reading and seeing some of these monster fish being taken and the many guides that target catfish with paid clients, I thought: “Why not give it a try?”

The first thing I needed to do was to switch to larger and stronger fishing line. My 6-pound and 8-pound test wouldn’t hold a fighting cat, so my bait cast reels were switched to spool monofilament in the 20- to 30-pound range.

I decided to use a slider sinker rig, which is simply putting on a sliding sinker on your line first. I used 3/8 to 1 oz. sinkers. Once the sinker is slid onto the line, a barrel swivel is tied on your main line. With the barrel swivel attached, now it’s time for a 20- to 30-inch leader, the same diameter as your main line, to be tied on the other end of the barrel swivel with your hook. Your rod must have considerable backbone, and using anything less than medium heavy is taking a chance. Stiff and strong the fishing rod must be to handle a river cat.

When it comes to hooks, I learned the hard way on my first catfish excursion. My choice of hooks was size 1 baitholder. Well, my first couple of hookups resulted in lost fish.

After lengthy fights, I found that the hooks were, in fact, straightening. For that to happen, to a size 1 baitholder hook was amazing to me and shows the power and strength of river catfish. I switched to 2/0 and larger and have appeared to remedy that situation.

When it comes to bait, I used pieces of sunfish or the entire sunfish. I haven’t tried the commercial paste baits or the old standby of chicken livers. I have been successful using cut sunfish, and why change if it works? I hook my bait either through the lips using a whole sunfish or under the dorsal fin or tail when using chunk pieces of cut bait.

Keeping in mind that catfish prowl and roam for their food with excellent smell sensors, bait smell is important. Sometimes cutting your bait allows more scent into the water. Dusk and early morning hours appear to be the best times for catfishing. When the sun goes down and it becomes dark, cats will be active. Good lighting is important, too.

My techniques for catfish have worked for me, especially for channel catfish. These fish fight and will put up a battle and test your equipment to its fullest potential.

When I detect a bite, I will allow the fish to take the bait and not to rush attempting a hook set. Give it some line and when the line begins to move outward, reel up slowly and gently pull, setting the hook. The fun starts when the hookup is made when the cat first realizes it’s hooked. There is weight when you feel your rod and they will make some runs and at times break the surface.

The real battle begins between the cat and the fisherman when the hooked brute nears the boat. Be prepared for massive deep runs that will bend your rod into a u-shape. To land a big channel cat, you must fight it out until it tires and then attempt to net it. Trying to net a fresh untired catfish will result in the catfish winning most of the time.

All my catfish have been channel catfish. I haven’t hooked the giant flatheads that you hear about that are enormous and occupy the Susquehanna River. The channel catfish give me all the action I need, and their eagerness to bite at my offerings opens up a fishery when my smallmouths have lockjaw.

Give “catfishing” a try. I’m glad I did, and you will be, too!

Tom Shank has been writing the Woods and Waters column for the Press & Journal for about 10 years. His expertise has been gained through more than 50 years hunting, fishing, trapping and exploring the full gamut of nature. The Susquehanna River and his cabin in Lycoming County are his true loves. Woods and Waters is his playground in life, and to write about it for the Press & Journal is a dream come true.