Channel Cat 101
by Daniel Kiazyk
The fish that was not so long ago maligned as a rough fish has gained a bit more respect of late. He is truly powerful and not as predictable as one would like him to be. The channel cat is for the most part a river fish. They are sleek with a longer body and a powerful forked tail. They have perhaps the largest eyes of the catfish family. Cats in the Red, Winnipeg and Bloodvein rivers vary in colour. Some are olive tan while others are Navy black. No particular colour scheme dominates. However cats do undergo a change in colour from their youth to adult hood. Many younger cats are spotted and tend to be a bit darker than their older kin. Any one that has handled cats knows that they have large spines that protrude from their pelvic and dorsal fins. These fins serve primarily as a defence device. The only warning about handling channels is that you have to avoid these spines. Having one penetrate your skin is very painful and usually results in a nasty infection. Six pair of barbels (whiskers) extend from the mouth area. Two of these are rather long and lie backwards of the mouth. The other four seem the rise out from the mouth to protrude to either the area above or below the fish's mouth. These barbels are of great importance to the channel cat. When visibility is low they are put to good use. They act as guides, sensing out the fish's environment or they aid in the fish's search for food.
A channel cat's diet is varied, but available forage dictates to a large extent what makes up the bulk of their diet. The Red River, as an example, has an excellent population of fish over 20 lbs. The fish in this river seem to key in on two type of forage fish, suckers and goldeye. Channels in this river are probably eating a lot of other forage fishes, but they seem to really like suckers and goldeye. The time of year also seems to make a difference as to when what bait is desirable for these cats. Generally sucker will be better earlier on in the season and as the water warms the goldeye seems to be a better bait. Of course there are more exceptions then rules when it comes to channels and their preferred diets. I've seen many types of baits work. Many anglers I encounter on the Red are using chicken livers and larger shrimp (both of these baits seem even more effective if allowed to "ripen" in the warm summer sun). So what does this tell us. Well, cats will eat a wide range of food and it's worth your time to go out and experiment a bit.
Locating cats isn't really all that difficult. Generally I'll start with deeper river channels "holes", deep cut river banks and the harder bottom areas associated with the latter two areas. The front of holes seems to produce more fish and this might have something to do with which fish are active. To say, however, that these channels are oriented primarily towards the bottom would be to reduce your angling possibilities…. I've seen cats busting the surface chasing bait fish and I've caught many a cat on bait suspended under a float a long way off of the bottom. In general I'll start by working the bottom and then as the day progresses I'll turn to those other areas in the water column. Early and mid summer (especially at night) can put cats up top or in that mid range. Spring and fall usually see the cats near or on the bottom.
The channel cat is actually a finicky feeder. Many would disagree but let me explain. How many times when fishing for channels have you brought up your offering half chewed or completely mashed? I have been subject to this on many occasions. There is a lesson here for the cat fish angler. The channel cat "bite" has been described as a mouthing action where the cat has the bait in its mouth long before the angler knows its there. Once the cat is satisfied that the offering is food, it commits itself to the bait fully. It's at that point that the angler has to set the hook before the cat pulverizes the bait with its powerful jaws and subsequently spits out the hook it does not want. How many times have I felt the "tap- tap" only to bring up a piece of mangled bait. The problem; waiting too log can result in more misses than boated fish. The ticket to catching this sneaky predator, more often, I believe is to set the hook when the cats mouthing the bait and not mashing it in his mouth. How? Depending upon the current some type of slip rig will be the most effective tool. Generally, when the cat is mouthing the bait the line will go a little slack and it is in this situation that the bait can be allowed to go back towards the cat so the cat can be given more of the bait---enough to be hooked more consistently…I found that when the current is very quick, a bell sinker with the line slid through the eye with a #8 octopus hook works quite well. The hook and sinker are together upon casting but when the cat starts to mouth the bait (and here you're hypothesizing) you'll let the line drop back towards the bite only to pull back with some force in an attempt to set the hook. When the water becomes a little more slack. Ill put a split shot between the hook and the weight. One again when the cat picks up the bait the line will go slack requiring the angler to drop back for a moment and then to set the hook with considerable force. It's my opinion that dropping the rod back allows the bait to slide back towards the cat persuading the fish to take the bait that much more positively.
Not much more needs to be said about the channel cat's pugnacious character. In Manitoba, especially on the Red, a 20 lb fish is not uncommon. These fish will not only use their powerful tails and bodies in the battle but they will also use the current to their advantage. I've seen many an unprepared angler have their rods snapped in half or a battle go on for the better part of 30 minutes with no winner in sight. It's at this point that a heavy rod loaded up with no less than a 20 lb line is a good idea. Today's super-lines allow for greater sensitivity, allowing the angler to key in on those mouthing pick ups that much more quickly. More importantly, a fish can be brought to the boat much more efficiently with the beefier tackle. That's not to say that lighter line won't work. However, I'm of the opinion that a 45 minute battle at 80 F can't be all that good for a fish that is probably 25+ years of age!
The channel cat is one "gamey"fish.It's true they have their moods and are not always that predictable. They do love to bite. And for those lucky enough to boat a fish over 34" its an experience that you soon won't forget.