Department of Fish and Wildlife
Find A Cool Stream For Summer Catfish
When you open a jar of Bowker’s dip bait, the reek from it all but scalds the olfactory nerves in your nasal passages. It smells really, really bad. A wind induced blast of its rank odor can turn a weak stomach. You can’t keep the jar open long because the stuff is too vile.
It catches the fire out of stream channel catfish.
Blue braids wind all over a map of Kentucky, showing the myriad streams and rivers of our state. Kentucky streams with pools 6 feet deep hold surprising numbers of channel catfish.
“Channel catfish can survive anywhere a bluegill or a longear sunfish can survive,” said Ron Brooks, director of fisheries for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Channel catfish are naturally a river and stream species. They evolved in the rivers.”
Stream catfishing really shines for fishing the long, hot and sticky days of July and August. Channel catfish in streams bite best during the heat of the day from early afternoon until dusk. Few anglers fish this time of day during summer.
“The flow of the streams keeps water temperatures down compared to lakes or a large, almost still river,” Brooks said. “This keeps the channel catfish in better condition during the stressful time of summer.”
Current makes dip bait such a deadly stream channel catfish bait. Anglers fishing the braided rivers of the Great Plains concocted rank recipes of rotten cheese, blood and animal parts to lure channel catfish from their lairs. Channel catfish are one of the few species that thrive in the mud and sand shallow rivers of states such as Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. The dip baits those anglers invented work for channel catfish in streams across the country.
Small companies that often grew from garage tinkering manufacture much of the dip bait on the market. An Internet search quickly reveals several dozen. Department stores and tackle shops sometimes carry it as well.
Dip bait fishing employs small square pieces of a sponge, a 3/0 circle hook and some weight to keep the mess down. Thread the circle hook through the sponge and wet it. Squeeze out the excess water and use a stick to push the damp sponge down into the dip bait. Ordinary kitchen sponges work for this technique, but the Grecian-style super absorbent sponges found at auto parts stores work best. They soak up much more dip bait.
Some companies produce soft plastic worms and strips for holding dip bait, but for streams, nothing beats a sponge.
Circle hooks prevent gut hooking of the channel catfish and don’t get hung on roots, sticks or logs as treble hooks often do. Plus, circle hooks make removing channel catfish much easier than with a treble hook, avoiding painful puncture wounds from the notorious spines near the catfish’s mouth and the dorsal spine on its back.
Gently lob the dip bait near the channel catfish’s habitat. “They really like getting under and beside sunken logs, holes in the bottom and undercut banks,” Brooks said.
A root wad or undercut bank near flowing deep water at the head or tail of a hole is a high percentage channel catfish spot. They will also inhabit undercut banks in surprisingly fast water in shoals and riffles.
Many stream catfish anglers put their jar of dip bait on the bank and wade to productive spots. This brings welcome heat relief and allows the angler to make precise casts. A landing net with a short handle helps deal with a writhing catfish while waist deep.
Allow the current to release the scent plume from the dip bait down into the channel catfish’s habitat. Channel catfish come equipped with powerful scent detection organs and this foul scent coming downstream grabs their attention. They follow the scent to its source and eat it.
“Catfish will eat anything they can get down,” Brooks explained. “They are scavengers. If they have an opportunity to eat, they’ll take it, no matter what it is. That’s why they eat sponges soaked in dip bait.”
Dip bait isn’t the only thing that fools stream channel catfish. They readily devour nightcrawlers, pieces of crayfish, hot dogs, catalpa worms, shrimp, chicken livers and even lunch meat.
“I did some river studies on pallid sturgeon in a former job,” Brooks said. “I had bologna for lunch one day on the water and I stuck a piece of the bologna on a hook and cast it in the water. I caught a 15-pound blue catfish. Another day, I had salami for lunch. So, I rolled up a piece of salami and stuck it on the hook. A huge catfish broke me off. The 20-pound test line just snapped. I think it was a big flathead.”
Most stream channel catfish run from 3 to 5 pounds, the perfect size for eating. “Fish always taste better when they come from cooler water,” Brooks said. “Stream fish fight better as well.”
Don’t mope because of the heat-induced slow fishing during the day. Get a jar of dip bait, some circle hooks and old sponge and beat the heat by wading a creek or small river for some nice channel catfish.