River Channel Catfish: A Delaware River Story Good Anywhere Else Too
We followed route 519 underneath interstate 78, from where we took the last exit in New Jersey. Soon we made a nearly random right in the direction of the Delaware River. We found an unnamed road running parallel to the river along a railroad track and over Pohatcong creek. Finally we found what looked like a good hole from the view above, with some parking space along the road.
Within the next couple of hours with my three year old son, I felt reintroduced to a way of fishing that felt as old as the river itself. For days I had spoken to him of “big catfish!” and sure enough he witnessed one anyone would call big for a three-year-old to catch—or see in these days of absurd over protections. I hadn’t seen a channel catfish in years, though I’d caught numerous smallmouths since in the same river. But this was the way to introduce Matt to the river—by methods so universal they probably haven’t changed much in a hundred years. It was like instinct guided me to this approach. The thought of my son on the river bank instantly yielded the idea of catfishing. No hazardous wading or complicated bank walking, and a stable place to sit down rather than maneuver in a boat. I was just adventurous enough that day to search an area of the river I’d never fished before.
Where to Find Them
The classical image of catfishing involves finding some deep, slow water, sitting on the bank, and bottom fishing. This works especially for bullheads, but is far from the whole story. The Delaware River from its upper reaches down into its tidal range above the Commodore Barry Bridge holds abundant populations of channel catfish. Like any other species of gamefish, they concentrate on certain structures rather than disperse evenly throughout the river. But they inhabit a diverse range of structures, again like other gamefish do.
One of the myths about channel catfish, for example, is that they best like a muddy river bottom. Actually a rocky or gravel bottom is almost exclusively preferable to mud. And if not rocks or gravel, then sand or clay is much better than mud. Another myth is that channel catfish inhabit only slow water: long, deep stretches, holes, and slow eddies. But they can be caught in riffles above pools, and some of these shallow. (They’ve been known to hit shallow running Rapalas fished for smallmouth bass in fast water.)
A good general rule for finding channel catfish is that some deeper water should be nearby. If drifting bait through riffles is the idea, try riffles ahead of a deep pool, or deep stretch of river. River bends where the current cuts deep against or even into the bank are excellent spots and usually clean and rocky bottomed. The current moving through such areas carries away any silt that would spoil the ground. Bridge abutments break the current and create eddies behind them, often with considerable depth. It is not always the case, however, that catfish will be in the deepest water of these eddies, and they often move along the breaking edge of the main river current. Sometimes there are shallows with current moving over them near abutments where catfish will feed on baitfish hugging the bottom edge of current, and crayfish below.
Naturally the biggest catfish—channels over 8 or 10 pounds—are typically going to have some range to swim, while some of the smaller catfish can even be caught in small pocket pools four and five feet deep associated with rock bars extending well into the river. (They don’t offer drinks and nor should you while wading.) Most of the river bottom will be rock or gravel, so it’s usually safe to assume that a deep stretch of river is potential territory for big cats. Any large boulders or fallen trees in deep water close to the bank break up the current, provide cover, and draw baitfish like a magnet—structures worth hard fishing effort and a good reprieve when day is done.
When to Go
Channel catfish have light-sensitive eyes, tending to feed especially near dusk, before dawn, at night, and on overcast or rainy days. They can be caught in sunlight, but then it’s a good idea to fish deep where the cat’s whiskers do what they’re meant to do—provide at least as much sensation as the eyes. At dusk, cats can even taken plugs off the surface, so shallower riffles above pools and in bar pockets may be places to try then.
Channel catfish also feed especially well when river flow is rising. When water is off-color fishing may be excellent, even when it is really muddy, which has all to do with scent, as if catfish come into their full element.
Omnivorous feeders, smaller channels will even eat seeds and wild fruit and vegetable materials dropped into the river from overhanging branches. A wide range of possibilities serve for bait including chicken livers tied to the hook with thread or elastic, cheese baits, stink baits, nightcrawlers, crayfish, shiners and other baitfish, cut baits, and for really big cats—live eels. Freeze expired shiners and especially oily herring—bunker chunks not so fresh are great—and put several or more thawed on a large circle hook.
As mentioned earlier, artificials take channels on fair occasion, but usually intended for smallmouth bass or other species such as walleye.
It’s best to go as light as possible, but within sensible limits. If you’re fishing near heavy cover in deep water and hook a ten-pound-plus catfish, then you had the right idea if using tackle to do some horsing. A good all-around rod is the seven-foot Shakespeare Ugly Stik catfish rod. It’s got backbone and a sensitive tip. But other rods on the market of similar length with backbone and casting reach all work fine. Ten-pound test line casts a good stretch with a half-ounce slip sinker. If smaller catfish are the target or a stretch of water without obstacles is to be fished, even six-pound test and larger split shot may be a good idea, particularly if drifting bait with current whether from boat, shore, or wading.
Baitholder hooks are a good idea with chicken liver, cheesebaits, or nightcrawlers, but circle hooks are the going alternative for good reason since they’re easy to remove and insure release, although on some palates channel catfish taste excellent. Snell baitholder hooks and run the main line through an egg slip sinker, or dipsey snap loc, and tie on a barrel swivel. Tie the snelled hook to the swivel by about 18 inches of separation. Baitholder hook sizes can range from four to one or larger. Sinkers can range from 1/8th to two-ounces depending on current, casting distance desired, and drift strategy (or not). Allow the sinker to slip on the line so the fish picks up the bait without feeling weight. A couple of yards of line gets taken before the hook is set to ensure the cat engulfs the hook with the rod and reel in your immediate control, not in a rod holder with the bail shut. When drifting a nightcrawler or crayfish in shallow currents, a plain-shank size 4 hook tied directly to the main line will do with a small tin split shot or two.
When fishing large chunks of cut bait for big catfish, Octopus or circle hooks up to size 6/0 can be snelled, or in the case of plain shank circle hooks tied directly to the line below a swivel. Again, slip egg sinkers are best above a barrel swivel and an ounce is minimal weight since heavier will help with casting range using 12 or 14-pound test line, and especially for keeping bait mass down. For live eels, a Mustad live bait hook, size 4/0, tied directly to the line works well. Live line the eel like you would for stripers. They find bottom—and snags. But eels tend to find their way out of snags too, so be patient. And you never know, in the Delaware you just might come up with a striper—big striper! Especially very early on a summer morning an hour or two before dawn, these fish have an enormous presence in the river by individual size alone.
From the bank or boat, channel catfish are great, overlooked gamefish on the Delaware and many other river systems and lakes. Most of them get caught during the summer months, although some have come through the ice on lakes. They’re great fighters, great on the dinner table, and an interesting pursuit.