The Quest for Channel Catfish

The author goes out on a fishing trip in search of channel catfish, offering useful advice along the way.

| August/September 1992

"Come on down to the Chowan," he said. "We'll catch one that'll go 20, heck, maybe 40 pounds." Phil Livesay, a longtime fishing buddy, was singing the siren's song over the telephone and it was working like a charm. The Chowan River curls down from Virginia in a wide, tea-colored swath to empty into North Carolina's Albemarle Sound. It's the home of our grail, a fish with the whiskers of a walrus and nearly the same girth: the Chowan River channel catfish.

Aesthetes in the angling world may disdain the lowly catfish as a dull, sluggish, scum-sucking bottom feeder with a penchant for putrid meat. Some undoubtedly are. But the wily channel catfish and its big brothers, the blue and flathead, are the poor man's marlin—fish so agile, so discerning, so powerful, and sometimes just so darned big that they leave other freshwater fish floundering in their wake. The big catfish can grow up to five feet long and weigh more than 130 pounds. One of the most accessible game fish, catfish are the largest family of freshwater fishes endemic to North America, with some 40 species found in the US and Canada. More than 2,200 catfish species haunt rivers and lakes worldwide. And in the frying pan, where the caviar is separated from the fish eggs, so to speak, the mild flesh of the channel catfish will beat the pants off of a marlin every time.

Catching Catfish: Use Fresh Bait

A few days after our telephone conversation, we were skimming over a light Chowan chop in Phil's 16-foot skiff just off of Perry's Beach, a small clutter of cottages near the hamlet of Colerain, North Carolina. "Most people think that the best way to catch a catfish is to use rancid meat, cat food, or some other stink bait," Phil yelled over the whine of the old Chrysler outboard. "But I've always had the best luck with fresh bait—worms and minnows." The day before, he and his wife Renee had gone worming along a nearby ditch bank, turning over the damp, soft loam with a shovel until they had half-filled a coffee can with red wigglers and soil. Renee, who is smaller than the biggest catfish, but every bit as feisty, has had catfish fever for more than a year now, ever since she hooked a 15-pound channel cat on a six-pound test line and fought it skillfully for 45 minutes before landing it. "When I hooked that fish I thought I had snagged the bottom," Renee says, a wistful look in her eye. "Then the bottom started to move."

Renee sat in the bow of the boat, her dark curls blowing in the light southwesterly breeze as we headed for a small creek mouth to seine for minnows. We found them in the shallows, sardine-sized slivers of flickering light. Catfish are really connoisseurs, Phil explained. They love small herring fry that swarm through the shallows in late spring and early summer. But herring don't live long in captivity, which reduces their value as bait. His second preference are common river minnows, or shiners, which are just as abundant as catfish. After four sweeps with the 20-foot seine, we had about three dozen minnows swimming contentedly in a five-gallon bucket.

Casting Lines on the Chowan River

Phil has been fishing this part of the Chowan since before he could cast a cane pole, and the river's nooks and crannies are imbedded in his memory. On the western shore, steep, clay bluffs drop to the water's edge, where they give way to sandbars and deep channels. Here the catfish often doze in the daytime. On the eastern shore, nearly a mile away, is a flooded cypress forest whose knees and roots provide shelter for a variety of small bait fish. Here the big fish prowl the shallows, hunting minnows like their feline counterparts stalk songbirds. Phil decided to try the cypress first.

My first catfish tackle as a boy was a stout cane pole, a hook that seemed as thick as a ten-penny nail, and a line strong enough to haul up the transatlantic cable. Today's gear is more refined but just as simple. We rigged up three light spinning rods with a quarter-ounce sinker and two number six hooks tied about a foot apart, beginning a foot from the lead. For an added attraction, Phil added a tiny silver spoon near the sinker and finished it off by clipping a round, red and white bobber to the line in order to keep the bait just off of the bottom.

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