How One Angler Tackles Small Stream Catfish

News & Tips: How One Angler Tackles Small Stream Catfish...

Biologists in state fisheries agencies have stated that underutilized catfish populations exist in smaller creeks and rivers from Virginia to Texas. Catfish can live in any water but cold streams at high elevations. These fish are adaptable to a broad range of current and turbidity conditions, thus their abundance. Also, they are extremely hardy, and they will eat virtually anything organic.  

shop fishing rod reelJoe B. Sweeney of Lobelville, Tenn., should have a business card that says "river rat, specializing in catching catfish." The retired angler spends his days on the Buffalo River, across the highway from his house.

Sweeney begins fishing for stream cats in late April, and action picks up as the weather warms. "My favorite months are June, July and August," he notes. "This is when the fish bite the best."

Though catfish are known as night feeders, Sweeney goes after them only during the daytime. "I catch all I want in early morning and late afternoon," he continues. 

"However, when the sun starts shining in over the trees, the action slacks off. I think the bright light drives the fish back under logs and into holes, and they quit feeding until the shadows reappear."

Smaller creeks and rivers from Virginia to Tennessee are thriving with catfish.

For this reason, Sweeney prefers an overcast sky to a clear one. When clouds block the sunlight, catfish may feed right through the day. "I especially like a still, humid morning following a night of lightning and thunder. I don't know why such a morning is better, but it is."

A crucial element in Sweeney's stream-fishing pattern is location of the fish. "Most people think catfish hang in deep, quiet holes. This may be true of the bigger ones, but smaller cats feed in shallow, swift areas. I'm talking about runs that are 2-3 feet deep and exposed to direct current. Also, a spot is better if it has a clean gravel or clay bottom instead of a mud bottom. Catfish hold around cover (logs, treetops, rocks, etc.) in these areas and move out into the current to find food. In fact, they feed a lot like a bass."

Fishing Tackle, Rigging, Baits & Boat

The Fishing Tackle

The Rig

  • Two fish hooks and a combination of sinkers matched to the depth and current. ("I prefer smaller hooks than most catfishermen do," he remarks. "I use #4 Eagle Claw wire hooks.")
  • Tie the first hook directly into the line with a granny knot about 18 inches above the end; then tie on my second hook 8-10 inches below this.
  • Run two or three egg sinkers up the line and clamp a small split shot on the end to keep the sinkers from sliding off.

The Fishing Bait

  • Red worms — Sweeney raises his own.
  • Chicken livers — Fresh is the best. "Cut off a thumb-sized piece and run the hook through it two or three times."
  • Catalpa worms — Sweeney's favorite, which he collects from his own catalpa trees. "They're big and tough, and they stay on the hook well. Catfish absolutely love'em."

The Process

Sweeney routinely fishes different baits on his two rods to see if the catfish have a preference. "One day they might want worms, the next day livers. But they'll eat just about anything.

"For instance, one of my neighbors lives on a bluff overlooking the Buffalo, and a couple of years back he cooked a country ham and trimmed off some fat and skin and threw it in the river. The next morning I was fishing under the bluff, and I caught a cat that weighed about 3 pounds. When I cleaned it, there was that ham fat and skin rolled up in a ball in its belly."

Streamfishing Methods

Thus rigged, baited and boated, Joe Sweeney is ready to begin his quest.

"Again, most people fish the deep holes, but in summer I catch a lot more in the shallow, fast runs," he reiterates. "I look for logs, rocks or undercut banks in direct, moderately strong current. Then I anchor just upstream from this cover and cast downstream beside it. When the weight hits bottom, I reel up slack line and set the rod in the boat with the tip sticking over the gunnels. Then I just sit back and watch for a bite."

When fishing alone, Sweeney anchors only one end of his johnboat. The other end swings downcurrent, and his lines extend beyond into his target area. However, when accompanied by a partner, Sweeney anchors his boat across the current with anchors on the bow and stern, then both anglers fish the downcurrent side.

Sweeney likes to anchor about 20 yards upcurrent from his target area, and he casts as close to his target cover as possible. Then, with his first rod propped up, he casts his second line a few feet out from the first, and he sets this rod up in a like manner. Then the waiting game begins.

When a catfish starts nibbling, the line pulses, and the rod tip jumps. Sweeney picks up the rod, slowly reels his line tight and waits until the fish takes a big bite. When the rod tip dips convincingly, he sets back and plays the hooked fish to the boat.

In the course of a morning, Sweeney will fish several different spots. "I don't stay at one place more than 15-20 minutes," he says. "If catfish are there, they'll usually bite right away. The normal routine is to catch two or three fish from a spot, then the bites quit coming. So this is sort of a hit and run method. I don't wait in one place for very long hoping to get a bite."

One nemesis to Sweeney's technique is hangups. "It's very common to hang and break your rig off, but that's just a drawback that goes with the fun. I keep the hook and sinker people in business," he notes.