Last spring, we had so much rain people were catching more catfish below the Bay Bridge than striped bass. Chunking and chumming produced most of the cats, but trolling and jigging also saw cats, instead of the hoped-for rockfish, on the end of the line.
This year it looks as if we will have some very restrictive regulations on rockfish. With even catch and release banned, anglers are going to need something else to target, and catfish may just fill that void.
Since there is a decent chance you will catch a rockfish while trying to catch a catfish, you will have to use circle hooks. I am not sure what criteria the DNR enforcement officers will use to determine when you are playing catch and release with rockfish instead of targeting catfish, but if I caught more than two or three rock without catching a cat, I believe I would move to a different location.
Location will be key to catching catfish. Unless we have another monsoon spring, they won’t be around the Bay Bridge or even in the open Bay much below the mouths of the tidal rivers. Look for them in the Upper Bay on the Susquehanna Flats, the Lower Susquehanna River, and all the tidal rivers and creeks.
The nice thing about catfish is they are available from shore as well as from boats. My wife’s family used to hold their reunion at Charter Hall on Carpenter Point at the head of the Chesapeake Bay, and each year we would have a fishing contest with the little kids. A three- or four-pound catfish would usually win first prize.
That’s another good thing about catfish: they are kid friendly. You don’t have to learn how to cast a dry fly, jig a soft-plastic bait, or set out a trolling spread. Just put a bait on the bottom and wait for a bite.
Chumming or chunking will improve your chances of drawing catfish to your bait. Any fresh or frozen chum will work. I have used dry cat food soaked in bunker oil with good success and saved considerable expense. My chum bucket is a five-gallon bucket with half-inch holes drilled all around; works just fine. A mesh chum bag placed on the bottom by the boat is another good idea.
I am not familiar with too many tidal rivers in Maryland, but I have been fishing the Nanticoke River and Broad Creek since I was a little kid. Catfish have been on the menu here forever, and I have caught them at the spillway in Laurel at the head of Broad Creek, at the junction of Broad Creek and the Nanticoke River at Phillips Landing, and from shore in Sharptown. I suspect most of the other tidal rivers and creeks are pretty much the same as the Nanticoke and Broad Creek.
Catfish are like any other predator. They don’t want to work any harder for a meal than they have too. They like to sit and wait for food to pass by. To this end you will find them in the lee of a point, behind a blown down tree, or in a deep hole or depression or at the tailrace of a spillway.
Boaters will always have the upper hand, as they can cruise the water using their SONAR to locate productive bottom. Once they find a good location, they can anchor above it and drift their baits back to the waiting catfish. If no one is home, it’s off to the next good-looking spot.
Shore-based anglers must have a bit more patience. I like to fish spillways when possible, as the moving water will attract bait and bait will attract catfish. The tailrace is the most productive spot, but if you watch the water flow, you may find eddies around the edge on the spillways where cats can lie in wait. Old pilings and other such structure are also good for finding catfish.
Catfish bait can be any of a number of live or dead offerings. Many catfish experts like to use homemade stinkbaits to draw catfish to their hooks. No doubt, catfish use their sense of smell to find food, but unless you have a very understanding wife, husband, or significant other, concocting those stinkbaits in the kitchen can put quite a strain on your relationship. A more common and easier-to-stomach bait would be cut bunker, earthworms, or live shad or minnows.
This spring, if you can’t fish for rockfish, give catfish a try.
By Eric Burnley