Summertime temperatures are heating up and the cats are prowling after dark.
Nighttime is catfish time, and is especially appealing in the summer as it provides an escape from the scoring daytime temperatures, as well as from water skiers and other recreational users that churn area lakes into a froth.
When night settles over the water, Mr. Whiskers starts to feed.
Sure, catfish are slimy and ugly.
They have icky whiskers and sharp, poisonous barbs on their fins.
They live in water not fit for a proper fish, and eat stuff that would make a goat barf.
But hey, nobody’s perfect.
“Maybe it’s because of that that I appreciate catfish,” says angling accomplice Bob Sherborne, who for years has specialized in nocturnal catfishing. “They’re rough and tough and down-to-earth. Catfish aren’t weenies. They’re blue-collar. They’re survivors.”
Catfish don’t have a picky palate. They will chow down on chicken/turkey liver, worms, Ivory soap, hot dogs, commercial stink baits, shrimp, rancid fish chunks – whatever’s handy.
They’ll even eat SPAM. Like Army chow, catfish take whatever’s slopped onto their plate.
Fishermen who pursue big cats prefer live bait – big shiners and even bluegill -- or big chunks of cut bait. They believe that if you want big catfish, use big bait.
Catfish come in an array of sizes. The perfect catfish, like beauty itself, is in the eye of the beholder. One of my fishing buddies, Brownie Stricklin, likes to fill a cooler with 8-inch “fiddlers” which he skins and deep-fries. Brownie eats the crisp little fish like corn on the cob.
Catfish around two-to-three pounds are idea for steaks and fillets. Bigger, older, catfish don’t make good table fare. (In some waters eating them is not advised due to their propensity to store and accumulate contaminants in their flesh.)
Being hard fighters, the bigger cats are popular with sport fishermen who generally practice catch-and-release. The bigger fish also are prime spawners, which is why the TWRA imposes a daily limit of one catfish over 34 inches. (And also to curb their sale to pay-to-fish fishing operations.) There is no limit on smaller-sized catfish on most waters.
Keith Sutton, an outdoors writer and nationally-famous catfishing expert, routinely catches fish in the 25-30-pound range. During a trip to Kentucky Lake with some fellow outdoor writers, Keith demonstrated his cat-knack by boating several 10-12 pounders. He was disappointed that he didn’t catch bigger ones.
Richard Simms, a guide in Chattanooga, specializes in big cats in the 50-60-pound category.
Records are kept for the various species of Tennessee catfish: a 112-pound blue cat caught on the Cumberland River, an 85-pound, 15-ounce flathead wrestled from the Hiwassee River, and a 41-pound channel cat that came from Fall Creek Falls.
The smallest species of catfish is the brown bullhead. The state record came from the Chickamauga Reservoir and registered 2 pounds, 14 ounces.
Big or small, cats are fun, especially when the summer sun goes down.