By Wade Bourne
Biologists in state fisheries agencies confirm that underutilized catfish populations exist in smaller creeks and rivers from Virginia to Texas.
"No business; no plans; no worries; no money; no future. Too healthy to beg; too lazy to work; too old to steal. Ain't got much; don't want anything. Ain't mad at nobody. Ain't running for nothing. Waiting for the 3rd of the month."
Joe B. Sweeney, Retired. Lobelville, Tennessee.
Actually, Joe Sweeney's "business card" lacks one additional, important inscription: "River rat, specializing on catching catfish."
And so he does! This laid-back angler took early retirement a few years ago to fish and enjoy life. This morning he's on the Buffalo River, across the highway from his house, doing what he does three to four times a week from late spring through mid-fall: Rod-and-reel fishing for cats. Shafts of sunlight are shining through sycamore and maple trees along the east bank. In a few hours the morning will turn hot, but for now the air is fresh and cool. A light breeze and a swaying current soothe Sweeney's soul as he watches his rods and waits for a bite.
"Isn't this the life?" he muses. "This is what fishing ought to be, quiet and peaceful. And I can pretty near always catch a mess of fish. Just give me three fiddlers, some french fries and hushpuppies, and I'm in hog heaven!"
Suddenly, the tip of one of Sweeney's rods begins jerking. The angler picks up the rod and waits. Now his mood has changed from relaxed to ready. He's like a cat about to pounce on a mouse. "Gotta let'im take it," he coaches himself. "Gotta let'im nibble 'til he pulls the rod down. Go on, big boy, take it all..."
As though following Sweeney's command, the fish pulls the rod tip down with a decisive thump, and the angler quickly sets the hook. Then a brief fight ensues, the fish wallowing in the current, then burrowing under the boat as Sweeney takes line. However, the catfish's evasions are fruitless, and soon this squirming one-pounder is airlifted over the gunnels. After a brief moment of admiration, the angler deposits the fish into a bucket holding two similar-sized members of its kind. "Get the grease hot, mama!" he laughs.
Joe Sweeney has had plenty such chuckles on the Buffalo River over the years, because he's done this so many times before. He's lived - and fished - here all his life. When he was little, his father and grandfather taught him where to find smallmouth bass; how to gig for suckers, buffalo and carp; and how to catch catfish as a matter of routine. "I used to specialize on fly fishing for smallmouth," Sweeney explains. "But as I've gotten older, I've turned more to catfishing. It doesn't take as much effort, and I can just about always count on getting a few."
And so can other southern fishermen who apply Sweeney's simple methods in creeks and rivers near their homes. Channel, flathead and blue catfish abound in many of this region's small running waters, and they are vastly overlooked by anglers more attuned to big lakes and such "glory species" as bass and crappie. Fishermen armed with minimal tackle, bait and knowledge can enjoy this almost-untapped resource with pleasing consistency. The fish are abundant, and bites are frequent. As Sweeney says, this truly is fishing like it should be.
Small Stream Catfishing: An Overview
The Buffalo River in central Tennessee is typical of many streams in the mid-South: Moderate in size, depth and current. It meanders through quiet fields lined by rolling hardwood ridges. The river course is a continuous series of shallow, swift riffles, deep pools below the riffles, then runs of medium depth and speed. The Buffalo's water quality is good enough to support ample populations of smallmouth and rock bass, a variety of other sunfish, several species of rough fish, a hodgepodge of creek minnows, and catfish, which grow in surprising number and size.
"My biggest catfish from the Buffalo weighed 38 pounds, but I've hooked fish I know were bigger," Sweeney narrates. "Also, I've heard stories about yellow cats (flatheads) up to 80 pounds. Most of these bigger fish were taken on trotlines or limb lines.
"I catch mostly smaller fish -- 1/2-3 pounds. There are a lot more of these, plus they're better to eat. In fact, if I catch a catfish much bigger than this, I pitch him back in the river. He won't be nearly as good as the little ones."
Biologists in state fisheries agencies confirm that underutilized catfish populations exist in smaller creeks and rivers from Virginia to Texas. Catfish can live in any 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.
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."
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."
Tackle, Rigging, Baits, Boat
Joe Sweeney's tackle for stream catfish is both elementary and inexpensive. He uses two 6-foot medium action fiberglass casting rods fitted with spincast reels. (He notes, "It's hard to beat the old Zebco 33 for what I do.") He spools 8-12 lb. test line onto these reels.
To rig up, Sweeney ties on two 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. I'll tie the first hook directly into my line with a granny knot some 18 inches above the end. Then I'll tie on my second hook 8-10 inches below this.
To rig up, Sweeney ties on two hooks and a combination of sinkers matched to the depth and current.
"Last, I add my weights. I'll run two or three egg sinkers up the line, then clamp a small split shot on the end to keep the egg sinkers from sliding off. For fishing the Buffalo in the summer, I like about an ounce of lead. This is plenty weight to hold the bait on bottom in swift current. Fishermen on other streams may add more or less weight as differences in depth and current require."
Sweeney says catfishermen can bait with any of a range of cut-up fish pieces, crawfish tails, stink baits, worms, insects, etc. However, he has narrowed his bait choice to three top performers: Red worms, chicken livers and catalpa worms.
"I raise my own red worms; they're always good for catfish. Fresh chicken liver is also a standard, and it's one of the cheapest baits you can use. A box costs around 75 cents. Chicken livers are messy to handle and hard to keep on the hook, but that blood and liver smell sure attract catfish. When I use liver, I'll cut off a thumb-sized piece and run the hook through it two or three times."
However, Sweeney says his favorite bait for stream catfish is a live catalpa worm. "I planted three catalpa trees in my yard in 1956 just so I'd have a supply of these worms. I get two crops a year, one in June and the other in August. When I notice the leaves starting to disappear off my trees, I can collect catalpa worms by the dozens. They're big and tough, and they stay on the hook well. Catfish absolutely love'em."
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."
Sweeney's boat/motor combo is as simple as his taste in fishing. He runs a 14-foot aluminum johnboat powered by a 15-horse outboard. He outfits his boat with a bucket or cooler to hold his fish, seat cushions, paddle, and two anchors - one attached to the bow of the boat, the other to the stern.
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 approximately 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.
Philosophy of Stream Catfishing
Joe Sweeney and his methods typify the casual approach that goes along with small streams, catfishing, and lazy summer mornings. There is none of the hustle of the big lakes, no fast boats, crowded ramps, expensive gadgetry or sophisticated techniques. Rather, this is old-fashioned fishing-for-dinner and a chance to shift into low gear......
"See how the current's eating this field away?" Sweeney observes at one particular turn where a high bank shows five feet of topsoil. "The river's always changing. There's something different every year, new trees in the water, old ones gone, a fresh cut, an island washed away."
In a way, the river resembles the lives of those who fish it. They, too, are always changing. "A lot of people just don't go fishing anymore," Sweeney muses. "My grandsons used to go with me, but now they're into the two G's: Girls and golf. So mostly I fish alone, or sometimes I'll take a neighbor." He threads a fresh worm on his hook.
"There are a lot of canoeists on the river in the summer, and sometimes all the boat traffic interferes with fishermen. I usually fish early and late and leave the water to the paddlers during the mid-day hours.
"And while I'm talking about canoeists, I don't think some of them have as much respect for the river as they should. They throw cans and Styrofoam cups and other trash in the water. I hate that." Sweeney casts his freshly baited rig downstream, waits for the weight to hit bottom, then sets his rod against the gunnels.
"I used to raise red worms to sell. Whenever I'd be away from the house, I'd leave several boxes of worms out where people could find them, and they'd drop their money in a cigar box. This business ran on the honor system, and I never knew it if anybody beat me out of a cent."
In a few minutes Sweeney gets a bite, and he quickly lands a channel catfish the size of a large corncob. "Big enough to bite, big enough to keep," he judges, dropping the fish into the bucket.
In the next hour, Sweeney talks about whatever enters his mind. He explains how his father and grandfather built flat-bottomed boats out of poplar planks, then sunk them in the river so they would swell and seal. He talks about old friends and favorite fishing spots. He laments the fast pace of life and the fact that modern parents spend so little time with their children. He says, "My motto is, 'Don't send'em. Go with'em.' In this age you've gotta spend time with kids to keep'em out of trouble."
That's the way it is with small rivers and catfishing; there's plenty time to think. You can ponder whatever is important in your life. You can remember yesterday, reflect on tomorrow, share an opinion or tell a tale.
The only trouble is, all too often a sneaky fish will snatch your bait and steal you away from your meditations. You have to stop and reel the vagrant in, but putting up with such a "nuisance" is a fair price to pay for the pleasures of this summer sport and setting.