Trophy Cats

August 6th, 2009

by Dan Kibler

Chris Nichols was at Ground Zero for the blast-off of trophy catfishing in the Carolinas, and he’s been just as surprised as anyone.

Nichols, a veteran guide who regularly fishes Lake Norman, Mountain Island Lake, Lake Wylie and Lake Wateree for bass and catfish, understands how more and more fishermen have been drawn to targeting big, whiskered fish.

“It’s really surprising how quickly the trophy catfishing phenomenon has taken off in North Carolina and South Carolina,” Nichols said. “A lot of people are guiding for catfish now; people are more educated about catfishing, and they’re all catching big fish.

“Think about what has happened to catfishing in the last two or three years on Wylie, Norman and Wateree. It’s turned into a huge fishery and a trophy fishery. The thought of people catching 30- and 40-pound catfish is becoming normal. It used to be that if somebody caught a 30-pound catfish, you went ‘Wow!’ Now, it’s commonplace.

“A lot of striper fishermen are switching over to catfish,” said Nichols. “The reality is it’s a lot easier to catch big catfish than stripers.”

Reservoirs along the Catawba and Yadkin/Pee Dee chains have three basic catfish species: channels, blues and flatheads. Channel cats are the most pedestrian of the three; they are present in most reservoirs and rivers in good numbers, but they are the smallest. Blue catfish are native to river systems and have largely been introduced into piedmont reservoirs by fishermen who brought them in in coolers – with the exception of Lake Norman, where they were stocked in the 1980s by the N.C Wildlife Resources Commission. They grow to immense sizes, as do flatheads – the hulking, yellowish brutes known as “mud cats” that do not show up in great numbers but make up for it by being the most pugnacious of the three.

Channel cats will hit a variety of baits, from live baitfish to cut baits, to shrimp and smelly concoctions involving chicken livers, blood and dough. Blues are suckers for cut baits – crappie and bream are commonly used, and fishermen are discovering that the hordes of white perch that are taking over many reservoirs really do have a positive use: as catfish bait. Flatheads will hit live baits almost exclusively, with crappie, bream and goldfish the most popular and productive.

Most reservoirs have some combination of the three species – some have all three. Lake Wylie has all three, and all three fisheries are booming, and not because the fish have just showed up, but because fisherman have only recently started to target them.

“I think these fish have always been here; people are just now learning how to catch ‘em. I was down at Wylie the other day, bass fishing, and a buddy of mine was down there fishing for catfish,” Nichols said. “I saw him and pulled my boat over to talk to him, and he said he’d caught a 36 – or 38 – pound blue.

“A little while later, I was fishing a point, and he was drifting toward me, and there was another boat, and that fisherman was battling a big old fish. It turned out to be a 31-pound flathead he’d hooked on a Carolina rig.”

The “trophy” aspect of the fishery thrills Nichols, who said he hasn’t kept a blue catfish over 10 pounds in quite a while. As far as big fish are concerned, there is as much catch-and-release practiced by catfish crazies as by any bass fishermen.

“For the most part, people are throwing the big ones back,” he said. “Sometimes, when a person who has never caught a big fish catches one, he’ll take him home, but a lot of people are releasing them.”

Dan Rajkowski of the CHARLOTTE KNIGHTS BASEBALL

August 6th, 2009

Dan Rajkowski, General Manager of the Charlotte Knights baseball team, with a 40-pound Flathead catfish caught on Lake Wylie August 5, 2008. The big flathead fought for about 30 minutes. Rajkowski was fishing with Knights Groundskeeper Eddie Busque on Busque’s boat. The cat was released.

When Cats Became Kings

June 23rd, 2009

Catfish

by Dan Kibler

It wasn’t too long ago that catfish, always the staple at your local fish fry, were targeted only for their sweet, white flesh.

Using a variety of smelly concoctions and baits including, but not limited, to shrimp, blood, entrails, hot dogs, dough and worms, eating-sized catfish were targeted by fishermen on occasion – like when the volunteer fire department or the local church was planning a lunch or dinner to raise money for something or other.

Catfish are what the kids in the Norman Rockwell paintings were after, sitting in their denim overalls on the bank of some stream with cane poles and floats and some kind of bait drifting along the bottom of a deep hole – the ol’ fishing hole.

Over the past decade, however, catfishing has evolved. Yes, there are still people fishing from the bank for the little channel cats and bullheads that perform so nicely in the frying pan, but a second class of catfishermen has arrived on the scene: trophy hunters.

People like Robert Potts of Mocksvile, who fishes for monster flathead catfish on the Yadkin River upstream from High Rock Lake.

Potts is willing to spend the 10 to 12 dark hours of every summer day anchored up in various spots in the river, soaking big, live bream or goldfish or crappie on the bottom, in hopes of getting maybe one to two bites.

Of course, those one or two bites may be from fish that weigh up to 50 pounds, the fishing equivalent of passing up spike bucks all through deer season for one shot at a 10-pointer.

“A big catfish is like a big buck, in a way,” said Potts. “Trying to catch one is like trying to hunt a big deer. They live kind of a secluded life. They may not be as smart as a buck, but the bigger ones, they can just feel it when you’re around.

“And a big catfish is kind of a creature of mystique. It’s prehistoric looking. Fighting one is a little like turkey hunting. Once you’ve experienced it, you’re never the same.”

Fishermen like Potts target big flathead and blue catfish up and down the Yadkin and Catawba River systems. Almost every lake on both rivers has a population of flatheads and blues. Lake Norman is home to the state-record blue catfish, an 85-pounder caught in 2004. For years, a 69-pound flathead from the Yadkin River was the state-record flathead; it has been eclipsed several times since then, now standing at 78 pounds.

Tackle companies have responded, building and putting specialty catfish rods and reels on the market, not to mention the big circle hooks that most trophy hunters use – because they practice catch-and-release on the biggest fish.

“Fishing for big catfish has just exploded (since 2000),” said Jerry Neeley of Bessemer City, who guides for blues on Lake Norman, Mountain Island Lake and Lake Wylie. “There are a lot of catfish clubs springing up. It used to be you never heard anything about that, but now there are two or three (tournament) trails for catfish that will draw 20 or 30 or 50 boats.

“When people call for trips now, they’ll tell you, ‘We just want two or three good bites and one real big fish,’ and we can usually do that…. You can catch a 20-pound blue at Norman and Mountain Island just about every trip.”

Biologists don’t know a lot about big catfish; there hasn’t been a great deal of fisheries research done. It is known that flatheads feed mostly on live bait: bream, crappie and goldfish are favorites. Blues, like their smaller channel catfish cousins, are more scavengers, feeding mostly on cut bait (white perch, bream, crappie or shad). Both species really do a job on the freshwater mussels and Asiatic clams that, in some areas, carpet the bottom of reservoirs – especially those on the Catawba River chain.

Flatheads and blues were stocked in the Yadkin, Catawba and Cape Fear River systems in the 1950s and 1960s. Blues became so popular with some fishermen that they caught fish, kept them alive in livewells and carried them back to their home waters to release.

“What’s happening now is that as they’ve gotten more popular, angles are moving ‘em around,” said biologist Scott Van Horn of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. “It’s getting harder to find a place that doesn’t have blue cats. If they don’t know, they’ll have them within the decade because of the prevalence of these unauthorized transplants.”