Cats on a Fly
by Daniel Kiazyk
Its a common theme in many contexts; people generally won't believe something until they actually see it. I'm not all that different from the rest of the crowd, I too like to see "stuff" in order to believe. What's this all about and what's this got to do with fly fishing for channel catfish? Well I'd heard that many fly fishermen had lots of success catching sumo cats on the "Fly" but to be honest I didn't believe the stories or more precisely the sources of the stories. Even after I had seen some pictures, and even some of the flies that they used I was still a bit suspicious. The funny thing that added to this disbelief was that even after trying in a few times myself I had no such luck hooking big-old whiskers. But as it goes sometimes it takes someone to take you by the hand to lead where you've never gone before. And so it was with my first real initiation to Cats on a fly…..
Now I'll be the first one to admit I'm no guru with the fly rod and fly but catfish were one fish I always wanted to tackle. Well to accomplish this goal I approached Stu Thompson a local fishing guide and expert on catching cats on a fly. Stu's response to my inquiry and requests was to actually get out on the river and show me how to catch a cat on a fly. This feat is typical for fly fishermen around this part of the world... they are unlike many bait fishermen who'll keep their best fish catching secrets tight to their fishing vests. But for Stu his invitation was to the point,"Want to go?". "Sure, let's go", I would say as I thought to myself that I didn't really know what I was getting myself into.
Prior to going on the river Stu would end up giving me a good overview of the techniques and flies necessary to hook up ol' whiskers in the Red. I might add that this is not unusual for the fly fishing fraternity. On the contrary this is more often the case than not that there would be a great deal of preparation before any outing. A bit incredulous still about the possibility of hooking up with the cats that I had caught for years using bait (and thinking to myself how would any creature see anything in that turbid water) I was all primed and ready to go. Catfish on a Fly,… Nope ,not going to happen. Catfish like meat not chicken feathers.
An early start is part of Stu's catfish fly fishing strategy. Getting out earlier is not necessarily because the bite is best in the morning but rather getting out earlier on means you can claim a chunk of real estate in an area which is very desirable by most shore anglers. Don't be surprised by the way (if after reading this article) you do go out to have a one ounce weight cast over your head or to have a boat encroach upon your "staked-out" position. A lot of folks out there don't quite understand that fly fishing is a dynamic activity and that you need room. Usually I'll just lift a line over myself or I'll courteously cast with forgetfulness for what's behind if someone proves to be outrightly obnoxious.
Water level is a key to the whole effort. Generally speaking early summer and late summer are best. It's at these times when water is easily waded into and you can get at those spots that kick out some of the best fish. Water being too high is worse than to low although both offer different possibilities. Personally, I prefer lower water as providing more opportunities at getting it more locations that hold fish. Higher water, like the summer of 2002, involves looking for different spots.
What water you're probably asking? Well the east side of the dam at Lockport and the floodway exit into the Red River offer to the best locales for fly fishing for Channel cats on the Red River.
What in particular are you looking for? The cats in question are in areas that don't receive too much pressure from boaters but do see their share of shore hurled tackle. Moreover, most of the shore anglers are fishing with food in mind.. This area is not necessarily the only place to fly fish for cats but it does offer an area where they are such concentrations that it makes the chance for numerous hook-ups to be that much greater. A couple, three areas come to mind, all of which provide better than averages chances of getting bit on a fly.
Initially the first place that comes to mind is on the east side of the river just behind the dam. There is a washout hole directly in front of the dam and then there is a hole/bar/hole off to the channel area (a bit further to the center of the river). The initial hole behind the dam splits off in two directions. To the east is that area which is most often the target of shore fishermen while the hole to the east is fished on some occasions by boaters looking for goldeye. The secret in this area is really no secret… that is if you are able to get to the bar better the two holes you're in the right spot. The only area that you've got to take care not to fish is behind the dam to the east where a fish ladder is in operation and anglers are required remain 75 yards from the structure. Finally just up at the dam and at the head of the shallow bar is where you'll catch some of the bigger cats in the Red River.
The area mentioned to this point has a number of particularities that need to be seen to be taken advantage of….. As water levels change from time to time (an imaginably the place where bait fish will hold out) not being stuck on just one spot/being flexible will be key to hookin' up with ol' whiskers on a fly. "Reading" the water means being aware of bottom composition as well as flow means knowing that much better a spot where more fish of different species will be present. It also follows that the micro seasons caused by rainfall will also see that as a season changes so will the type of fish who take up residence in this particular area. Carp and freshwater drum will be there earlier on in the year. Catfish, however, will be present throughout the season. Finally as the water cools in the fall, sauger and walleye will take up residence.
The next area where you'll find channel cats willing to take a fly is that area at the head of where the whole rivers seems to swing to the west. This shallow area very rarely has that many boat or shore anglers. Casting to the front of this turn and then allowing the fly to work its way out into the channel is a longstanding effective tactic. If water levels drop it's also possible to work the main channel of to the west but here you'll be competing for real estate with boaters targeting cats.
Finally the outlet of the Red river Floodway presents a whole series of options for the fly fishermen. This last option is for the most part very attractive during the early season. It is still possible fish the drop off to the main river channel but this is once again an area where you'll be competing with boat traffic.
So to return to the story at hand…..here we stood in the "right" spot for that particular day and Stu shared with me his idea of a good cast. I never really understood what a difference there is between casting in a river and casting in a lake. A cast in a river has it's own logic and catching on to what's happening to your fly at any moment in the water is definitely what makes or breaks your attempt to trigger cats to bite. According to Stu, it is necessary to follow the fly downstream and to mend the line to some extent in order to keep contact with a fly. Any bump or sudden stop or change in the fly's motion downstream requires a quick set. It was surprising how many times I would go to set thinking that I had just run into another rock when low and behold there was another cat with chicken feathers in its mouth! Perhaps the most interesting experience that I would have more than once this given day was when a fish would pick up my fly and would continue on to wherever they were going with no regard to my having a line and rod/reel hooked up to it! All that you could do in this situation was "try" to turn the fish….. but that was the operative expression "TRY". More often than not in the latter situation I would put so much pressure on the fish that the leader would break off (so not to lose all my line and backing!).
To fight these fish effectively you'll need a good fighting butt on a nine weight rod with at least a spool of backing. The tip of your rod must be kept high and it's not a bad idea to try and move the fish to shallow water where they won't have as much opportunity to use their muscle to your disadvantage. The first cat that I landed that particular day was landed only because I moved to the shallower water by accident. It seemed as though the shallow water didn't give the fish the chance to Bulldog or go down in the water column. After a short while I was able to tail the fish for a quick photo and release.
After having my first hook up break off, I started to wonder if I was going to see another brute. Approaching Stu I mentioned with a tongue in cheek that I was starting to lose confidence – yeah right like I ever had it in the first place! Here was the "Thomas" who had not believed but now saw and on top of it had lost his chance. But the day was not lost, about ten minutes later I was to be rejuvenated by a 20# brute that pounded my fly and nearly ripped the rod from my hands. Stu with his sneaky little smile added, "Cool stuff huh?". "You should see what it's like when they're on… Can't describe it Dan you've just got to be here!". About 15 minutes later, with my left arm shaking, I tailed the fish for a couple photos.
Catfish on a fly... I'm a convert! A Bit of Patience and an idea of locale and presentation set the context for truly unique and not so experienced fishing opportunity. Oh, I didn't mention much about the "Flies" used ….that's another story.