Channel Cat Fish

Channel Cat Fish

Characteristics - silvery-gray above fading to lighter shades on the belly; body marked with dark spots (may be obscure in adults); tail fin deeply forked.

Distribution -rivers in southrn Manitoba as well as rivers which feed lake Winnipeg (east side)

Foods - fish, aquatic invertebrates, plant material.

Expert's Tip - the fresher the bait during the summer the more likely a channel cat will bite on it

Other names -- channel cat, 'ol whiskers, channels, river cat, cat, forked tail cat.

This fish can be found in good numbers in the Red and Assiniboine rivers of southern Manitoba.. During spring flooding catfish have been known to ascend even the smallest streams to inhabit the larger pools in these creeks. Populations of Catfish are also found in the Bloodvein and Winnipeg rivers which sugggests that these fish are distributed throughout lake Winnipeg.

Body color of channel catfish varies widely from silvery-gray on the top side to light on the underside, depending mostly on the clarity of the water. The body is profusely marked with dark pigmented spots, which are usually more or less obscure in large adults. Young individuals, under 2 or 3 inches in length, also frequently lack these spots. There are from 24 to 29 soft rays in the anal fin, and this fin is about two-sevenths the standard length. The posterior margin of the adipose fin is free. The tail is deeply forked, which is unlike all the other catfishes except the blue cat. The eyes are large, but the head is small, slender and conic. The air bladder has two lobes which are laterally paired so as to appear as one at first glance. The upper jaw is slightly longer than the lower jaw.

The channel catfish is quite selective in its breeding habits. It prefers obscure places to deposit the eggs. Overhanging rock ledges, deeply undercut banks, underwater aquatic mammal runs, hollow logs and even large tin cans, tile, and other similar objects in the stream serve admirably for spawning purposes. Spawning activity takes place from late June through July when the water temperature reaches 23-25 degrees C. Male and female channel catfish exhibit active and prolonged courtship behavior before mating. During the actual spawning act, the male swims beside the female but facing the opposite direction. Each fish then wraps its tail around the other's head, whereupon the male body quivers, which stimulates the simultaneous release of eggs and milt. Eggs are deposited in a golden colored gelatinous mass. The length of incubation depends upon the water temperature, but it is usually completed in 6 to 10 days. Although the number of eggs deposited by a female may run as high as 20,000 or more, catfish weighing from 1 to 4 pounds produce about 4,000 eggs per pound of body weight.

After spawning takes place, the male drives the female from the nest and takes over family duties until the young hatch. In artificial culture and perhaps in the wild as well, females and even the parent males will often devour the eggs from their nests, especially when disturbed.

Young catfish travel in schools for several days, or even weeks, after birth. Eventually the schools disperse and the young feed singly in the shallow waters over sand bars, around drift piles, and in rocky areas of quiet waters.

Female catfish reach sexual maturity at 13 to 16 inches and males somewhat earlier. Average body length at each year of life for channel catfish in most rivers is 1 - 3.5 inches, 2 - 6.5 inches, 3 - 8.7 inches, 4 - 11.2 inches, 5 - 13.9 inches, 6 - 15.0 inches, 7 - 17.4 inches, 8 - 19.1 inches, 9 -20.4 inches and 10 - 21.3 inches. Trophy catfish of the Red River are probably 20 years or older. Take care to protect this incredibly valuable and fragile resource.

The channel catfish is omnivorous and opportunistic in its feeding, gorging on all manner of living and dead material. Because of its highly developed sensory system, it feeds by touch, taste and sight. For this reason it is frequently caught by anglers in turbid waters which are unproductive for fishes that feed principally by sight. In extremely muddy waters, however, they are prone to feed much less.

A large part of the natural diet of the channel catfish is aquatic insects and their larvae. Crayfish, snails, small clams, worms and fish, both live and dead, are taken as part of the diet. The catfish is not necessarily a selective feeder and takes advantage of the food at hand. In the spring of the year its stomach may be packed with elm seeds and cotton from cottonwood trees. Other natural foods include such items as wild grapes, weed seeds, wild fruits, and other vegetable materials dropped into the stream from overhanging branches. Large channel catfish feed almost exclusively on fish.

Feeding Habits

First, before getting into the actual fishing techniques it might be advantageous to take a look at the natural feeding habits of this species. Catfish, by and large, are omnivorous feeders with a well developed sense of smell. This simply means they consume a wide variety of food items, and the fish is most often attracted to odoriferous or "smelly" morsels of food. The single greatest determinant of catfish food preference is body size. Smaller catfish, those less than 14 inches, feed primarily on bottom-dwelling organisms, such as aquatic insect larvae and other invertebrates. As catfish grow to a larger size, their diet changes and a wider variety of food items are eaten. Fish, however, either alive or dead, make up the bulk of their forage after they reach 16 inches.

The diet of channel catfish also varies with the different seasons. Some food items are more available at one time of the year than another, and, being an opportunistic forager, channel catfish take what food is vulnerable to predation at that time. During late winter and early spring the most abundant food is a wide variety of organisms, including fish, that have succumbed to the harsh winter. These morsels, in various stages of decomposition, are consumed in large quantities by catfish. It is not unusual to find catfish stomachs gorged with decaying fish shortly after ice-out. As the water warms into late spring and summer the diet of catfish shifts continually to food items that are again most available and vulnerable. The most prevalent foods at this time of the year are aquatic and terrestrial worms, fish (goldeye), frogs, crayfish, mulberries, insects and their larvae forms, elm seeds and algae. Many other items are consumed but usually make up only a small portion of the menu. Catfish food habits in the fall again change as the water cools. More fish is consumed along with aquatic invertebrates and terrestrial insects. Frogs become increasingly important for food as they move into streams before the onset of winter. Under the ice cover catfish feeding is reduced to a low level and consists mostly of dead fish that are picked up from the bottom.


Manitoba is blessed with one of the greatest channel cat fisheries on earth. The Red and Assiniboine rivers are virtually loaded with channel catfish. These rivers are also the most under-utilized fisheries in the province. Low fishing pressure on these rivers is due mostly to the relatively poor access provided by public facilities and the more difficult and challenging fishing conditions presented in flowing water. For those fishermen that persevere, these rivers offer some of our most unique outdoor opportunities. Whether bank fishing, wading, or fishing from a boat, Manitoba's two great rivers offer an unparalleled nature experience. With few exceptions, a trip to the "old fishing hole" in any major river will usually be accompanied by solitude. Flood control structures as well as their connected river like structures can also hold fish at certain times of the year. Catfish fishermen, those that are "dyed-in-the-wool," will try to exploit as many of these possibilities as they possibly can. The experiences of these anglers over the years have shown that catfish are not evenly dispersed over the stream bottom; rather they are concentrated in certain areas, and the success in putting fish on the stringer depends on their ability to search out and find the reaches that hold fish. In fact, some of the more knowledgeable catfishermen stil feel that 90 percent of the fish are concentrated into 10 percent of the habitat. One of the best ways of improving your catch of catfish is by closely observing the characteristics of locations that produce fish -- or likewise do not produce fish. Some careful observations and the tried and proven techniques of trial-and-error will make any angler a good river cat-man.

Baits and Other Catfishing Tips

Using the right bait is probably the most confusing part of channel catfish fishing, and there are nearly as many concoctions as there are catfishermen. Bait selection ranges from nightcrawlers, chicken blood, chicken liver, chicken or fish guts, crawdads, grasshoppers, frogs, live and dead minnows, cut bait, and a multitude of prepared "stink" baits. The prepared baits most often have one thing in common -- cheese. All of these bait preparations and many others are excellent for catfish, and all will catch fish. Selection of a bait from this lengthy list may seem difficult but in actual experience selecting bait for catfish can be made into a rather simple process.

The most important points to consider when selecting catfish bait are to determine the size of fish sought and the water temperature of the lake or river that will be fished. The rule of thumb is to use cut-bait or dead minnows for the best luck in late winter and spring-time just after ice-out. Fish in deeper portions of the river prior to ice melt; then shift your efforts to shallow water afterwards. The shallow water warms faster and attracts catfish into the near-shore reaches. Catfish can be caught under ice conditions, but feeding begins in earnest after the water temperature reaches 40 degrees F.

The keen sense of smell possessed by channel catfish make it one of the few species of game fish that can be readily caught during high stream flows in the spring, summer, and early fall. During these conditions the bona-fide catfishermen prefers to fish during periods of rising water levels. This method is common among catfishermen, but the exact reason for a feeding frenzy by the fish is not understood. Fish surely become more active during this time; however, the converse is true for falling water levels. Catfish usually become less active during falling levels and are less susceptible to the angler. During periods of stable or rising water levels nearly all baits will produce good catches of catfish. Use those baits that are most available under natural conditions.

One of the most popular catfish baits that is easy to store is prepared bait. As water temperatures warm to 70 degrees F and above, many catfish anglers switch to either shrimp or goldeye. These baits are most effective for catfish during mid-summer -- June, July and August. Summer is the normal period of low river flow, and some smaller tributaries can be fished effectively by wading. A pair of cut-off jeans and old tennis shoes will allow you to walk directly in the stream. Catfishermen seeking larger fish during this period use large-sized baits such as goldeye, live chubs, big frogs, crayfish. Large catfish like a good-sized meal and the movement and scent of these prior baits will attract their attention.

Tackle Selection

Tackle used to fish catfish is almost as varied as the baits. Relatively short rods may be used, but river anglers seem to have the best success when using longer rods from 6 to 8 feet in length. Many even use a fly rod. The advantage to the longer rods, when river fishing, is the reach they can be used for better placement of the bait. This allows the angler to fish many good holes without casting. Just drop the line near a likely spot with no more line out than the rod length. This provides excellent control of the bait for better placement and improves the chances of hooking a fish after a natural-like presentation. Twelve-pound test (or better) line is recommended over lighter weight line because the bait is fished on the bottom and often near underwater snags. Catfish fishermen have been slow to accept superlines in favor of monofilament, but this transition is now occuring. Increased sensitivity and better line strength versus line thickness are a couple of considerations which are starting to win over a few cat-men.

The type of reel used makes little difference, but it is essential that it be in good working condition. If you are fishing for large fish, be sure to match the reel to the fish. Light duty reels are made to catch small fish and heavy duty reels have the power to land lunkers. Light tackle will catch more smaller fish but may not handle one of record class size. The thing to remember is that catfish may be in snags or heavy cover in the river and after the strike the fish may need to be "horsed" a bit.

Terminal tackle is an important consideration when setting out after "old whiskers." The most important part of the terminal tackle is the sinker and hook. Catfishermen need not show concern about the sizes, shapes, and color of expensive lures, but hooks and sinkers, inexpensive as they are, are important. Always use the lightest weight necessary, and always use a slip sinker. The slip sinker rig allows a catfish to pick up the bait without feeling the weight of the sinker. With any resistance on the line whatsoever, a respectable channel cat will leave the tasty bait morsel in search of another. Always use a sharp hook. Hooks with bait holders on the shank are preferred by most anglers. Use sponges or plastic worms when fishing with one of the soft, prepared cheese baits. No matter which hook and bait you select, present it to the fish in the most natural manner, which always requires the use of a minimum amount of sinker or weight.

Hints for Better Catfish Fishing

Catfish, like all fish, are not randomly distributed, but are congregated in particular locations. Fishing success will depend on your ability to find these concentrations of fish. Light tackle catches more fish, but heavy tackle is required in snags and structure when catching large fish. Catfish can be caught year around. Use cut-bait like tulibee or sucker in the late winter and early spring when the water temperature is between 35-60 degrees F. Use fresh caught goldeye or if require shrimp or prepared cheese baits in the summer when the water temperature is above 70 degrees F. Cheese baits are effective on smaller fish 10 to 16 inches in length. Cut bait (large pieces of sucker or goldeye) is best for larger fish, those above 3 pounds.