Rivers are spooky at night.
Nightly returns of summer fog create scenes of thick shadows and swirls that would make a Hollywood special effects artist envious. Ghostly quiet settles over certain river sections after sunset, creating quite an arena for monsters that lurk in dark holes waiting to take an unsuspecting victim.
The hero in this dramatic story provides bait to be devoured by these lurking monsters. Dashing ladies or gentleman are equipped with only a limber rod to combat these monstrosities of the deep. They wait in the summer heat with sweat dripping, buzzing mosquitoes and an occasional passing water snake.
Yet those who venture forth may well be rewarded with the catfish of a lifetime. That lightly nibbling fish could be a state record flathead or blue cat throwing down the gauntlet to do battle in this ancient land known as the Heartland.
The Midwest has no shortage of catfish in numerous public fishing accesses and you are cordially invited to try your luck. The catfish spawn in August creates good possibilities for catching a trophy cat. Let's take a look at techniques used by a top professional.
R.R. Shunway, of Topeka,is a professional cat fisherman. He gained the handle, “Cat Daddy,” after winning numerous tournaments and speaking at seminars. His biggest catches on rod and reel to date are an 85-pound flathead, a 27.5-pound channel cat and a 85-pound blue cat.
He has fished Kansas and Missouri’s lakes and rivers since the early 1960s. His passion led to a career of guiding and speaking in seminars about his catfish-catching techniques.
“I use different techniques for catching large catfish,” Shunway said. “For example, on lakes or ponds you can find channel catfish around rock areas on dams and coves. I look for shallow water with any type of structure. You can fish all along the rock areas with a bobber and minnow, crawdad or nightcrawlers. Use baits that will move around a lot.”
Shallow areas, normally 2- or 3-feet depths, are excellent spots for fishing live wiggling baits. Males leave their guard positions on nests to attack predators that might harm their eggs or fry.
Bass fishermen are occasionally rewarded with a big catfish on a plastic worm or grub during this period.
Shunway prefers fishing at night throughout summer. Catfish tend to feed more from night to morning. The sunrise period is another key feeding time. Then they return to cooler holes or deeper water to avoid summer’s boiling temperatures. Fish guarding nests stay and endure the heat.
“I also like to fish around timbered shorelines on lakes during the spawn,” Shunway said. “I consider this to be like catfish hotels. The fish want to escape the open water during spawn. Shallow areas with lots of brush and timber provide shade and cover. You can really catch a lot of catfish around these areas.”
Rock bluffs are excellent spots to try. Spawning blue catfish lay on cool rock ledges. Try parking your boat in front of ledges and cast baits against the rock walls.
Small rivers are hotspots for big cats during the spawn. Shunway recommends quietly approaching big brush piles. Channel, flathead and big blues build their spawning beds around brush for cover from predators or river current. Yet the right commotion will drive them to deeper water.
This type of fishing requires cue stick rods that will be discussed later in this story. Catfish in heavy brush dive straight to the junk when hooked. A rod with backbone is required.
Bends in the river can be just as productive. Flowing current cuts into the bank leaving a concave cut in the mud or sand. Big catfish love to spawn in these spots.
“I can talk about lakes or small rivers during the spawn, but I prefer big rivers,” Shunway said. “You have to cover a lot of territory on lakes. But, you can easily predict where big fish are on a bigger river. Chances are you will catch much bigger fish, too. The key to fishing a big river is scouting first.”
Shunway suggests leaving rods and reels at home the first time you scout out productive big river cover. Plot a map by noting visible structure and items noted on a graph of spots that would hold spawning fish. Look for channel bends, brush piles or rock dikes where fish can escape the current.
Deep, long brushpiles are extremely good. Shunway looks for areas where long trees have washed in and hung on the shore. The ideal spots generally have big rocks behind trapped timbers.
“The bigger the pile of brush, the bigger the catfish," Shunway said. “Just like a motel — big feller, big bed.”
“I love to use toads for bait,” Shunway said. “They are tough as leather and stay alive under water for long periods. More importantly, the catfish love them. I hook toads under that bone between their legs. A 10-pound carp works good for large blues or flathead that prefer live bait. Crawfish and nightcrawlers are always good. Golden-eye shad are good baits as well when you can find them.”
Golden-eye shad and other baitfish are normally found in large schools. Shunway searches smaller tributaries or back sloughs for schools that generally show themselves by breaking the surface.
Wads of baitfish can also be spotted on graphs. The throw nets are tossed out and pulled back in full of bait. Native bait is always the best for any area. Baitfish not generally found in the area is sometimes ignored. Some baitfish can be frozen and used later for blue and channel catfish. Flathead prefer live bait, but will occasionally take a dead offering.
“I love to constantly chum for catfish,” Shunway said. “I use pure turkey blood with a little all-natural anise oil added. I also use soybeans, wheat and milo that have festered until the maggots are visible. Some grow to an inch or more and really draw catfish. They really have a stench.”
Rods and reels
Shunway prefers a rod that will identify a bite when fishing for lakes catfish. He prefers a light-tipped Seeker Rod. He uses the Super X tip for more visibility.
“I will never understand why catfish anglers buy cheaper equipment,” Shunway said. “I realize that every angler cannot afford $200 for a rod, but you need better equipment for catfishing. You never know what you are going to hook.”
Shunway also notes to purchase catfish rods with 10 to 12 eyes. More eyes allow better play for fighting a big fish and longer, smoother casts. A rod with four to fives eyes places a lot of tension on the line when fighting a fish or even casting all day. He prefers medium-action rods in lakes.
He uses cue-stick rods for river fishing. These 9- and 10-foot rods have a number 10 tip on the rod’s end. This rod allows you to fish out of either side of the boat. But more importantly, these huge rods will hold a huge catfish.
Line and hooks
"Eagle Claw makes some of the finest hooks I have ever fished with,” Shunway said. “They have a variety of sizes for catfish. I prefer the Circle 'C' Eagle Claw hook. You will catch a lot more fish if you can keep from setting the hook, and I know that is hard to do. But, a catfish will hook itself with the hook.”
Shunway prefers 30-pound Ande Line monofilament line. This line stretches well and holds good lake fish. He also uses braided lines, especially in rivers. He favorite is Triple Fish brand in the Bully Braid version.
“I use a 100-pound test in braided line when fishing in larger catfish spots like the Mississippi River," he said. "I use 50-pound test for lighter fish."
Rivers have long provided the best opportunities for huge blue, flathead or channel catfish. But, recent drought years have eliminated most of the summertime fishing in small rivers. Many are mud flats by hot weather with tiny creeks running down the middle. You would be well advised to check with local conservation departments about river conditions.
“I approach rivers like the Missouri very carefully,” Shunway said. “I can’t swim and the river is full of hazards. But, you can catch huge catfish in larger rivers. The Missouri River is not channelized and most brush washes down stream.”
Shunway looks for wing dykes. These rock structures have choice areas out of the current for spawning and scour holes. Scour holes are generally found in the end of dykes. They are holes produced by the constant pounding of heavy current.
Constant water flow over the top of these unique holes create a good oxygen source. Smaller fish lay in these areas as do flatheads or big blue catfish. The bigger fish feed on the smaller fish while enjoying this comfortable atmosphere provided by the extra oxygen.
Shunway finds some catfish like to spawn behind bridge pilings. They find cuts behind the concrete ledges and slip up in this still water.
“The bigger brush piles mean bigger catfish,” Shunway said. “That has always been my rule of thumb. I occasionally find spawning fish in washed out bank areas close to deep water. You just have to keep looking until you find their spawning sites. The more you go, the more you know.”
Any type of rocky points are good places for spawning fish. A gravel bar or shoreline with sand pebbles will hold spawning fish. The key is finding your spot and then try Shunway’s techniques.
Kieser: Fishing pro shares tools of the catfishing trade
Rivers are spooky at night.