Saturday, May 19, 2012

River Channel Catfish: A Delaware River Story Good Anywhere Else Too

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.


Friday, May 18, 2012

Catching River Smallmouth Bass: Techniques, Whereabouts, and When to go in Summer

Summer Smorgasbord

River Smallmouth Eat it up

          River summers offer gamefish a plethora of food to pounce on from many structural angles. It’s impossible to find a single pattern that would really exclude all other fishing possibilities; fish will strike from all sorts of positions, especially smallmouth bass. Lures and approaches can vary, or you can select a single method and do well with that. Smallmouths are willing feeders all day, if the lunkers, especially in low, clear water, are aloof and more aggressive early and late.

          Insects fallen from trees and blown into the river; insect larvae; leeches and worms; crayfish (especially small and molting); and a whole host of baitfish, including shiners, chubs, dace, smaller fallfish and suckers, darters, madtoms, fingerling channel cats and bullheads, panfish are all forage for smallmouths, so a wide range of lures is effective. Most anglers use light spinning outfits, although a few flyfish nymphs, wet flies, streamers, poppers, even dry flies. Until September, when shad and herring fry head downriver on my home Delaware River, lure choices are limited only to imagination. Once two-inch fry rich in Omega 3 make themselves available, the bass tend to feed on nothing else, so enjoy summer variety while it lasts.

          Lures imitate forage and get where bass are; some are effective for many situations. It’s easily possible, for example, to float trip the Delaware all day using only a four or five-inch Senko style plastic worm rigged Wacky on a plain shank #2 Mustad, or an 1/8th ounce jighead dressed with a three-inch Berkeley Gulp! Leech. Either will apply to all sorts of structure, from rapids to holes nearly 20 feet deep, drawing strikes all day. Senkos are great for casting distance, sink fast and deep without added weight, can be retrieved when rigged Wacky at a moderate, pulsating clip through fast water, and nine-inch smallmouths rush them in shallows to make distended efforts at swallowing the total length. Three-inch Berkeley leeches are a light touch by comparison, but about equally effective.

          What I like to do—most of the time—is try to beat the odds by using a wide array of lures, interchangeable by small snap, not snap swivel unless I opt for an in-line spinner. And otherwise I tie jigs and hooks for Senkos directly to the line. Something rubs me wrong about throwing a rubbery Senko into rapids. If a minnow imitation plug is not really more effective in fast water, at least I like to think it is, and my confidence in the lure certainly counts for something.

          Just the same, a fast, deep sluice between a set of huge boulders, with more boulders on the bottom releasing boils on the surface, just begs for a crankbait to course down, ricocheting off the tops of rocks, digging in sand beside those obstructions, pausing to snap a smallmouth to attention, then tearing off on its way provoking the bass rush and engulf it.

          Don’t believe it! It’s not all about food. For us to think the bass just like to eat is awkward because our eating habits get wrongly associated with the life of bass. We eat with manners—bass play their own energies. They don’t rocket to a swimming plug because they desire the taste of meat that much. Forage and predator alike are sporting. They have no concept of sport, but they feel it, and the feeling of life is what it’s all about for them.  

          An 1/8th ounce jig may be effective in the same spots as plugs, but you can knock on bass’s doors with a jig—tap it on top of a rock, then let it tumble off the edge to drop by the window, the open space of the crevice where a bass stalks. By such a sensitive approach you will never wield power as you will with a crankbait. When free-floating a canoe or raft, or power boat drifting and steering electrically, a crankbait gives you more control as you cover more area. But fishing fast is not the only way. And covering water is relative—which I’ve never encountered anyone else think or write about. A crankbait obviously seems to cover” more water, but not if bass are hiding in the rocks. Bass under rocks will never see a crankbait plow through. A bass will feel it slam into the rock it is underneath, but that will be all—the bass is in recess and will not rush out and take chase. What is covering water if the condition of the bass itself is not respected? Quite literally, a light jig that subtly falls in full view, illuminated by sunlight right at the crevice opening, and then waits for the bass with Leech moved by current, is covering water that a crankbait cannot.

          Nothing beats getting out on the river just before a cool dawn, with steam devils whirling off the surface funneling 90 feet up and informing you that the water temperature is down a little closer to what is optimal for smallmouth bass. Now’s the time to be quiet. You can hear a bass take a baitfish from the surface 200 yards or more away. Until the sun gets over the ridge, smallmouths move into shallow flat areas with loads of baitfish, especially among common aquatic vegetation. On very rare occasions—pickerel are probably at least as rare as muskies—teeth will threaten your surface lure. More likely a largemouth will engulf it, but not as likely as will a smallmouth, and during this magic hour topwater plugs are especially vulnerable to big ones.

          Don’t be afraid to put some muscle into your approach. A quarter-ounce plug isn’t too loud. Consider lunker smallmouths’ needs. While the average one-pounder picks and pecks away all day, even at trout-sized edibles, a big smallmouth over two pounds, possibly four, needs to consume more each day (or possibly each night) than do bass half or a quarter their size. A four-pound bass does not likely maintain its mass solely by eating stonefly nymphs. Toss a Heddon Plunker, Heddon Baby Torpedo, Rebel Pop-R, or any popper or bladed topwater to coax out strikes. Never fish routinely. Nature is spontaneous, erratic, and ultimately unpredictable. We think of it as lawful and orderly, but this implies only what we know of nature, and we will never be omniscient. The point of fishing is to beat the odds. So count on original moves to get a fish to strike. Break cadences into motions that surprise even yourself, by feeling your own natural responses.

          With sun rays beaming through treetops, in-line spinners become especially effective.  Blades with prismatic reflective tape do wonders for sun rays, but the old standbys of silver or gold blades still catch fish. A straight, moderately fast retrieve through faster water broken up by boulders or rocks is best. With spinners, to pause the lure—as is effective with plugs and spinnerbaits next to an ambush point—is to defeat the purpose of what these lures do. They imitate a healthy, if overly determined and outstanding (especially with prismatic tape) baitfish. To pause a spinner is to kill the sustained, mesmerizing effect. It’s mesmerizing for us, and bass at least don’t mind. On the other hand, pausing a spinnerbait may be the best way to draw a strike since the blades, swivel mounted, just shift into upward position and turn and flutter as the jig body carries the lure down. A twister grub instead of a skirt is obviously effective this way. An 1/8th ounce spinnerbait with smaller size Colorado blades may be fished a lot like a jig in boulder strewn channels, also allowing for effective blade vibrations and steady retrieves.

          And speaking of jigs, tubes are an old standby, but forever deadly. Effective in winter with water temperatures in the 30’s by allowing the plastic tentacles to pulsate in slow current as the jig remains motionless on bottom, summer certainly allows you increased tempo. Tube jigs especially draw strikes on the drop, or possibly soon after they hit bottom (and pulsate). So with an 1/8th or possibly quarter-ounce jighead, you can drop it on and next to likely lairs, work it off the bottom a few times, reel it in and try another target.  

          All other plastics—swim baits, twister grubs, Shad Rap type realistic imitations, etc.--are effective choices that can make the day interesting and possibly turn a catch to your favor. But never rely on a lure itself ahead of how you use it. Reading water and timing (not staying too long or short in a spot or area) are more important factors than lure choice. If you can read water, you can judge at least fairly accurately what lure to use and have an idea of how to place it. You may think of a better lure while fishing a spot, even try three or four or more, but most important—find fish. To cast a lure where no fish lay is certainly to catch nothing.

          These lures and approaches—besides flies—require only a 5 ½ foot, medium power, fast action rod. A six foot or even longer will work, but accuracy on a river is important. The shorter, not too short, rods are more accurate with some loss of casting distance compared to longer. Stick with six-pound test monofilament and you’ll have all the casting distance you need.




Thursday, May 17, 2012

Mount Hope Pond Bass Under Cold Front Conditions

 Got plenty vitamin D today and with cold front (40's last night & forecast 30's tonight up there) felt skeptical of making day #9 without breaking figures by zeros in my handwritten fishing log. Had little over half hour to fish, hooked and lost a 16-plus-inch bass right at my feet within five minutes, and caught this smaller bass photographed. So potentially I would have done better than I did in all that rain the other day, which really doesn't surprise me very much. When a low pressure system hangs around awhile it's just another version of the status quo, and fast action happens when conditions change. Still, I preferred fishing in that rain and wind. No one was around. I was away from it all, and today sort of felt like the town had made the pond a big back yard.

That watermelon seven-inch Chompers gets to be the same damned thing after awhile. Today I tried an eight-inch blue fleck Chompers after I released this bass. Will try to remember to use these in sunlight. An eight or nine-inch bass swam up, pecked in the tail, then took the whole eight-inch worm in one suck, and I just pulled it out of its mouth intentionally. No use educating a little bass. It would know better when it joins the ranks.

Fished the east side. I am really loving manuvers among the sticks. This is my second year fishing the pond and I feel it's home already, know differences from last year and two weeks ago or so too.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Caught Aqua-Marine Round Valley Reservoir Bass w/Abundant Sun

 Photo is evidence I might have caught more bass if I fished the reservoir instead of the pond. But no regrets for five minutes on the way out, catching that bass on my last cast, because I encountered two beautiful black rat snakes about four feet long way down the trail along the pond's west side.

I walked to the reservoir edge to immediately see that brown trout being fought, photographed below. He had two close to 20 inches on shiners. Scouting shadows along the edge which reached into four-foot depths, I noticed a large congregation of sunfish and some small bass which heightened my interest since often larger bass are just beyond in deeper water. I also noticed a school of shiners huddled in very shallow water, dispersing as I approached. Walking back towards the corner, a bass about 10 inches grabbed a shiner almost at my feet. Fascinating that a catchable sized bass had run into Round Valley water inches deep, but I've noticed such as this for a couple of years now and have caught more than a few from two feet of water. I used to think you couldn't catch bass in Round Valley Reservoir in less than 10 feet of that crystal clear water.

I fished in the corner area, but out in 10 or 12 feet of water--very carefully--with the seven-inch Chompers those last three or four casts. I didn't want to blow it because today marks the eighth day in a row for my fishing log (handwritten) without getting skunked, and I like to see numbers unbroken by zeros.

The take felt almost like a sunfish, but a split second later I knew--no, it's a smallish bass (I think). 10 or 12 feet down and about 10 yards out I could see the patch of vegetation this bass emmerged from. Abundant sunshine and all, once again the reservoir didn't let me down.

The first black rat snake shook its tail rapidly in the grass like a copperhead imitates a rattler. Or perhaps snakes don't imitate, that's an anthropomorphism, but I really don't know--did snakes other than pit vipers encounter rattlers doing it and actually mimic them? I doubt it, but who knows. These two rat snakes looked plenty intelligent to me. They certainly are keenly aware. 

The first made no quick exit. It did it's tail thing, then rounded out into strike position confronting me, its eyes locked into mine, not moving. As I took photos, I heard a rustle in bushes yards away and supposed another was present before I saw it actually coming our way. This snake came right up to check me out, eyes locked into mine, as if it were the other's mate making sure things were cool. You've got to see the photo of the second snake not about a foot from my right boot. I never took a step forward. I don't mean I was afraid. I wasn't at all and that's why, I'm sure, this snake felt comfortable coming right to me. Snakes sense that people afraid of them are likely to kill them. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Bass Fishing in Lengthy Low Pressure Weather Conditions

Today typified what I often notice--a nice rainstorm does not always mean lots of fish. This low pressure had been over us for about 36 hours, approaching its tail end. I fished the western length of Mount Hope Pond for two bass in about an hour, both caught on the Chompers seven-inch worm, although I tried a Rebel Pop-R in shallows of both corners.

Started out in one of my angry moods over something, but they don't stop me. A fourth of the way to the north end that mood had lifted and the rain, wind, mild temperature, and solitude felt nice.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Largemouth Bass & Pickerel! Plastic Worms, Spinnerbaits in Rain; Round Valley Reservoir Pond & Elsewhere

Fishing Round Valley Pond with Chomper's seven-inch worms, just a size 2 plain shank, resulted in catching three bass, one of them close to 18 inches, the others around a pound, and missing five hits. I was off kilter, hate it when it happens, but it does on rare occasion. But the better of the bass I caught at the end of my stay healed the disturbance some. It wasn't the lengthier fat female I caught in the reservoir last May, but I caught that later in the month, and who knows what may hit yet.

Annual Scouts picnic this evening, I got a chance to fish a private pond, catching three bass around a pound and a pickerel about the same in 20 minutes or so on a spinnerbait. Gave my rod to the kids to use as soon as one asked. This young man I photographed made a beautiful first cast.

"Hold the line by your index finger," I showed him. "When you feel momemtum gain, release."

I praised his cast. He hooked and caught that bass! That was the first cast he ever took!  

Hiking Patriots Path Trail: Inspirational Photography and Family Time, Whippany River Excellent Trout Stream

 Took a hike on Patriot's Path with my wife, Patricia, and our son, Matt, on Mother's Day. Patricia and I used to hike like this often, and sometimes more than the four miles or so we completed somewhere in Mendham Township, in wilds that felt every bit as authentic as Sussex, mounting sustained inclines here in Morris, too.

We neared the top of a 300-foot or so climb when inspiration struck--it never fails to strike me on an outing--and I lit into expressions of appreciation for this place when this spice bush swallowtail--I think that's what it is--landed directly to my right. Immediately I began photographing, wild with awe.

This never fails to happen to me. But it doesn't happen to anyone else I know. Walt Whitman may have been even better--he's photographed, I think, with a butterfly, a yellow swallowtail, that landed on his arm. Saint Francis opened his arms; birds landed in his embrace. Inspiration. Hart Crane called it connectivity. Most of us call it love. You open your heart and nature fills it.

Or the heart bursts free of your own will. Either way, heart opens, nature responds. Fishing works this way too. 

And so does the search for wild creatures. Matt encountered two garter snakes. I had said the day before that chances indicated we'd find one.

And, wow, the Whippany River has trout lies galore! All these years driving by I never realized what an excellent stream. It is stocked. Upstream of where the Pequest trucks net out the shares, native brookies occupy a presence at the least, and Matt said he saw several brookies about five inches long while exploring the river. He also said he saw dace. He knows the difference.   

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Florida Keys' Stand-Out Fish: Live Shrimp & Ballyhoo Wire Rigs

We caught some other strange reef denizens I got no photos of--even tried eating one and it was awful--the names of which I don't know and haven't looked up. The head shot below is familiar of course.

This was 2007 and we plan to return this summer. I rented a 19-foot boat with 90 hsp after watching weather three days. I have so many thousands of hours of experience behind me because I spent 13 years as a licensed commercial shellfisherman, so I knew what to hope for and what to avoid. That's life or death when you go six miles out in a small boat.

I caught the barracuda on my 5 1/2-foot St. Croix medium-power rod I use for bass, freshwater. It ran like a freight train and came within yards of spooling eight-pound test, weighed about 15 pounds, took a live shrimp up on the reef intended for yellowtail snappers and such as these tropical fish photographed. Matt hooked another just as big that cut a snapper in two right in front of us in the crystal clear water, but the barracuda got the hook.

That one I caught was tussle. But we went out further, over 85-foot depths, to try the ballyhoo and rigs from wire like piano high notes require, rigs I tied with needlenose pliers myself rather than blow money on someone else's effort. I'll never forget making the rigs with that wire; it was craft. We drifted the ballyhoo with weight enough to get down 30 feet or so for whatever column cruisers might be there. Something plowed the bait, made my heavy 11-foot surf rod feel like a noodle. It dove, ran line through coral, and that was all, three times as fast as the barracuda. I've fought 50-pound fish, and this felt three times as big at the least. Wahoo! 


From the bridge to a small island a very short walk from our vacation place, Matt hooked a barracuda larger than the one I caught, on a Bomber floater/diver. It jumped six feet into the air three times on 10-pound test--this fish at least 20 pounds--and finally cut the line on a concrete bridge abutment. He did catch a bonnethead shark 4 1/2-feet long at night, which I blithely estimated at 25 pounds and released, thinking small hammerhead, puzzled at how the hammer didn't look right.

So Matt looked up the local fish the next day in the literature I had gathered.

"It was a bonnet hammerhead," he said.

And the world record at the time was 23 pounds and some ounces.