By Don Wirth
Channel cats provide great eating, and they're fun to catch as well.
Love fishing for channel catfish? So do we. Here are our picks for the best channel cat waters in the country!
Red River, Manitoba
It's hard to imagine a better catfishery than the Red. In fact, it's one of the few fishing spots anywhere that consistently exceeds its press billings. "We just held our annual channel cat tournament, and it took 8 channels weighing 169 pounds to win it," lodge owner/guide Stu McKay said. Whoa, that's a tad over a 21-pound average! "Last season the Red was absolutely incredible, due in part to flow rates being 50 to 100 percent higher than normal," McKay says. "The big channel cats were everywhere, shallow and deep, with a 32-pounder our best fish of the season. And we're looking for an equally sensational year in '00. The only thing that'll mess this place up is a drought."
McKay suggests targeting the three to four miles below the St. Andrews dam at Lockport. "The mile immediately below the dam is known as the Miracle Mile; it typically holds an unbelievable concentration of big channels and is best in early spring. Pre-spawn fishing can be absolutely unreal. By the third week of June, the spawning waves will be on the move and 20s are common."
Cheatham Reservoir, Tennessee
Although best known as a haven for monster blues, the stretch of the Cumberland between Madison and Ashland City, Tenn., (a.k.a. Cheatham Reservoir) is coming on strong in the channel cat department. Expect large numbers of eating-sized cats, with enough wallhangers thrown in to keep things spicy. And you might even hang a big one right in downtown Nashville; the Cumberland runs within a stone's throw of Music City's recording studios and the Titans NFL football stadium.
Landing lunker channel cats require stout tackle.
Nashville guide Donny Hall stays on this river-run reservoir year-round, but favors winter for the biggest channel cats -- his largest so far is 25 pounds. "December through February is my favorite; the water temp usually runs 40 to 45 degrees, and channels stack up in holes 20 to 30 feet deep -- usually shallower than our blue cats," Hall explains. "You'll catch plenty of nice fish on cut skipjack fished on the bottom on Carolina rigs." River bends, points and other current breaks also produce quality bites.
Guide: Donny Hall (615/383-4464). Lodging: Daystop Inn (615) 356-9100.
Rock River, Illinois
Dark-colored and spooky, the Rock, already a popular destination among walleye fishermen, is gaining a solid reputation as one of the Midwest's premier channel cat venues. The 13-mile stretch from Dixon to Sterling is outstanding; it averages 7 feet in depth and can run to 40 in places. The river's name comes from the limestone that forms much of its bottom; sandbars add to a catfish-friendly habitat mix.
When it's right, few channel cat fisheries can touch the Rock in terms of sheer numbers: "During ice-out, you may catch 150 fish a day," guide Denny Halgren of nearby Dixon says. But look for more than quantity in the future -- the Rock's channels are getting bigger (and meaner) every season. "Fish ranging from 10 to 18 pounds are becoming more abundant; we expect to pop some bigger ones this year."
Anchoring down on wintering holes in the 17-foot range can produce fast action just prior to ice-up, Halgren has found. "The channels will suspend around 14 feet deep in these holes; a sinker rig with a long leader and a float on the end will catch these suspending cats when baited with cheese, worms or other catfish fare."
Guide: Denny Halgren (815) 288-6855. Lodging: Best Western Brandywine (815) 284-1890.
Mississippi River, Illinois
Fabled in song and story, yet remarkably underfished. That's the Mighty Mississippi. Around Alton, Ill., the historic river boasts some of the best channel catting on the continent.
Alton-area channel cats run 2-12 pounds, and there are lots of them.
Tennessee catfish expert Jim Moyer loves the Alton-area channel cat fishery so much, he's now booking guide trips there in the summer. "The stretch north of Alton is one of the most fun places to fish I've ever found -- easy to get to, easy to fish and chock full of eatin'-sized channels," he says. "Here, the river has an extra-heavy shad forage base, which draws massive numbers of catfish. The area is worked heavily by commercial fishermen, but so far this hasn't diminished the sport fishery."
The fun part comes when you rig a minnow, crawler or leech under a cork and toss it around any wood snag you come to, Moyer explains. "The channels routinely run from 2 to 12 pounds, and there are lots of 'em. Catches of 25 to 50 fish a day are typical, and the action is usually fast. It's a great place to introduce your kids to the fun of fishing."
Guide: Jim Moyer (931) 358-9264. Lodging: Highway House Motor Inn (618) 466-6676.
Upper Mississippi River, Minnesota
Some extraordinary channel catfishing can be experienced just a long cast from Minneapolis in the swift, scenic Upper Mississippi River. Legendary riverman Dan Gapen, who's fished the stretch from St. Cloud Dam down to Anoka for over 40 years for smallmouths and walleyes, says this classic river is exploding with channel cats. "Best channel fishing I've ever seen in the Lower 48," he asserts. "These fish are so abundant, it's possible to catch 50 or more every time you drop anchor above a rocky riffle." Numbers are one thing, but size matters, too, and the Upper Mississippi is no slouch when it comes to quality channels. "My biggest here so far is a 22-7, but it's the average size that's really impressive. On most days your catch will average between 6 and 8 pounds apiece -- now that's a nice channel cat!"
Gapen recommends Monticello, Minn., halfway between St. Cloud and Anoka, as a good base of operations. The bite is strong just about any time you decide to go, he says. "In spring, target islands and sandy, riffly areas. Summer finds cats staging in holes; they'll venture to adjacent shallow rock riffles to feed. By fall, channels will be ganged up big-time at the heads of fast-water rapids. Local favorite baits/presentations include cut chubs and live or crushed frogs fished on egg sinkers or 2 1/2- to 3 1/2-ounce Bait Walker Plus rigs."
Guide: Joe Gapen's Olman River Float Trips (612) 263-3596. Lodging: Best Western (612) 295-4000.
Merritt Reservoir, Nebraska
The word is finally out about this red-hot channel cat fishery -- in fact, catfish tournament organizer Tom Lawrence ranks Merritt among the best channel cat destinations in North America. "July, August and September can mean a dozen 15- to 25-pound channels a day," he swears. "It's absolutely awesome!"
Yeah, but fishing Merritt's not exactly a cakewalk. The bad news is that high winds can make presentations challenging to say the least; the good news is that the bite can be so fast, locals don't even bother to anchor. Use a drift sock to slow yourself down. The summer pattern is a no-brainer: "Start upwind on flats close to the river channel and drift chunks of congealed beef blood off the bottom," Lawrence recommends.
This is one catfish destination you really gotta wanna get to. It's pretty much in the middle of nowhere, and the stark terrain is straight out of High Plains Drifter. So is it worth the seemingly endless drive it takes to get there? "You bet," Lawrence says with a big, wide grin as he wipes channel cat slime off his hands.
Lodging: Valentine Visitors Center (402) 376-2969. Information: Merritt Trading Post (402) 376-3437.
Chotawhatchee River, Florida
Here's a taste of the Florida that existed before Mickey Mouse and all those t-shirt shops arrived. The Chotawhatchee is a scenic stream in the northwest corner of the state surrounded by pristine oak hammocks. It also happens to be chock full of channel cats.
"Right now, this is the best place in Florida to bag a 20-pound-plus channel," says Joe "Catfish Man" Crumpton, catfish project leader with the state's Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. My biggest here so far is a 24; my brother, who lives near the river, caught a 26. One morning last spring we fished pieces of hot dog in a deep hole and caught a 17, 19 and 24. Now that's good catfishin'!" Right on, Joe!
The Chotawhatchee enters the state from Alabama and runs all the way to the Intracoastal Waterway unencumbered by dams or spillways. Because of its large drainage area, sudden water level fluctuations are to be expected after hard rains -- the Chot can jump as much as 4 to 8 feet overnight. You couldn't draw a prettier channel cat river. There are some 40-foot holes, plenty of 15 to 20 foot water, shallow shoals, and scads of undercut banks with snaggy cover.
Catfish Man recommends using the town of Ebro as a jumping-off point. "There are several fish camps there and a good launch ramp," he notes. "I like to target spots ranging from 8 to 20 feet deep, tying up to a tree along the bank and casting a variety of baits into fairly snag-free areas. Worms will catch big numbers; two fishermen can easily boat 30 to 40 keepers a day on 'em. Try hot dog chunks and big strips of cut bait for larger channels."
Information: Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (352) 742-6438. Lodging: Ebro Motel (850) 535-2499.