The "Bite" is Just the Beginning
By Daniel Kiazyk
Someone asked me recently while fishing for cats if I had ever written an article on what to do when a catfish bites or at least how to prepare for a catfish bite and fight. After having thought about it for a few seconds I had realized that after all these years of coaching and seeing the different kinds of catfish bites that we can experience on the Red River that it might be time to jot down a few notes on the subject. The bite can at times be brutally forceful but also relatively subtle so to say you can follow a certain set of steps to be successful would be furthest from the truth. On the contrary there are some consideration to be made and some actions to suggest that will assist the angler who may never have tangled with a large catfish
Perhaps it should be said at the beginning of this reflection that there will always be a need to adapt to the conditions that present themselves. There are certain preparatory actions that that will allow you to be prepared for a variety of different bites that you may encounter. These actions will take into account the type of tackle you'll be using and who might be using it as well.
Initially two options immediately present themselves for how the pole should be held. For the beginning catfisherman it might be a good idea to set the fishing rod in a rod holder. In such a position believe it or not you may actually catch more catfish as a held pole will often over react to a bite while a rod holder will allow the catfish to bite and hook itself. Holding the pole on the other hand has its virtues as well. It is very exhilarating to feel the power that these animals may attack and move off with the bait that we are offering them while catfishing. With the latter approach it may be important to let the angler know that they may have to adjust their reaction to a bite should it require simply holding the pole as if they were a rod holder.
Just holding the rod is not as simple as you might think. Set the rod in a holder at two low an angle could possibly see a rod bounce and exit the boat. And that reminds me that it needs to be said that laying down a rod in the boat while catfishing could potentially result in a lost rod as cats easily have enough power to pull a rod out of the boat in a split second (see my article called "Cat Attack"). So it goes for anglers that hold the rod. It is a necessity that the angler have their index finger around the trigger on the rod. That finger acts as stop should the rod angle be lower and the grip around the pole be too relaxed.
Rod angle for both the rod holder and the rod held is important as well . Too low an angle and the fish may have the ability to pull with enough pressure on the line to break it but more importantly the fish can create enough "bounce – tight/loose" that they can pop a hook out of their mouth. Having the pole at about 45 degrees will allow the catfish to put enough pressure on the pole which in turn allows the hook to seat itself effectively in the fish's mouth.
To this point nothing has been said about whether setting a hook or just hanging on is what is required when a catfish bites. I'll suggest that the type of hook will be a first determinant on what you can do. A regular 2x extra strong kahle type of hook will often require the angler to set the hook when a good tug is detected. What kind of tug? Well, I'll often suggest that the angler while holding their rod steady at 45 degrees experiences a pulling down of their pole of about 10 degrees they should set the hook with moderate pull back. A circle hook on the other hand only requires the angler to hold on and allow the fish to hook itself. Circle hooks are nicely suited for folks who haven't done a lot of fishing or who don't want to hold a pole while catfishing. One habit that I find particularly hard to break with walleye anglers is the habit of dropping back to feed the fish the bait. Doing the prior will often result in a fish that is deeply hooked or a bait that is crushed and spit out before the hook can be set. Holding your ground and not moving the rod during the bite will most often result in more hook-ups.
OK you're hooked up…what now? Just reel 'em in right? Well not really. Here is where with a little experience most anglers get the idea that these fish aren't all that easy to "just reel in". Actually the process of retrieval is assisted largely by the proper use of the fishing pole. The fishing pole is the primary means of retrieval through a pumping motion (the act of retrieval) and then a gathering of line when moving the rod back and reeling in of line back to the fish. The latter part of this process can be tricky in-so-far as you shouldn't let off too much pressure or the barbless hooks we use in Manitoba will work itself free of the fish's mouth . Just for fun and to cut into an experience that can put the beginning angler into a state of "fight" I'll often inject a bit of humour reminding the angler of the proper retrieval technique by mentioning the SNL sketch of "Hanz and Franz" when they say "pump it up!" and then use the reel….
Interestingly enough it is important to note that the process of bring a catfish to the boat is not yet complete. The last, sometimes most difficult part of this process is getting that catfish into the net! I find that it is most helpful that the retrieval process starts with the angler retrieving the catfish directly behind the boat. However as the catfish starts to get closer to boat the angler will be asked to start to work their rod to the side of the boat to help avoid a cut off on the propeller and to assist in the netting process. To net the fish in a moving current such as that which we have in the Red River requires that the "net-man" place himself behind the angler . The prior process, of moving retrieval to the side becomes helpful at this point. One fine point to also focus on at this point is to remind the angler to keep their tip down in the retrieval process as a raised tip at this point allows the fish to pivot on a hook and to release itself. Remember that the weight that we'll often put in front of our hooks at this point can spin around to pull out the hook. Lastly when I'm able to get the fish in the net it often takes a soft reminder to the angler that the job is done and they need not pull any more…..just to relish the particularly unique experience of reeling in a giant catfish.
A particularly important point of safety to remind anglers of through this whole process is the recognition that the rigs we often use are anchored by 2-3 ounces of weight. As such, there is the potential for a rig to come flying back at the boat at high speed. Wearing glasses is a really good idea and being aware that a weight may come flying back at the boat is something that they might experience through a day of angling. Remember that an ounce or three of prevention in this case can really be a matter of a great day ending that way.
So after a bit of reflection, my answer to the fellow who had asked if I had written an article about the process of hooking up with our Red River cats, also had my mind starting to collect a series of ideas that might be helpful for those who come to angle our particularly unique fishery. Having at least a starting point with a few of the points made here to work from can make getting into a comfortable catfishing grove that much more easy.