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Fly Fishing for Catfish
Understanding our Quarry
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Mention catfish fishing and fly fishing in the same sentence and watch the eyebrows rise. Conventional wisdom is that we need a bucket of smelly baits to catch them. You know the stuff that the dog refuses to eat but gleefully rolls in.

It’s a misconception that catfish are primarily scavengers, as the following excerpt from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission shows, http://myfwc.com/fishing/Fishes/catfish.html. “Major foods are aquatic insects, crayfish, mollusks, crustaceans and fishes. . . .Contrary to popular belief, carrion is not their normal food.” Channel catfish are predatory and, as such, are catchable on flies and lures.
Catfish food - shad and crayfish
Photos courtesy of Colorado Division of Wildlife. Catfish are predators preferring live bait, such as crayfish and shad over carrion.
An internet search using the key words “fly fishing” and “catfish” produces hits, but the majority are sites with separate articles on fly fishing and catfish fishing, but none on fly fishing for catfish. The closest you’re likely to find is the occasional story where someone caught a catfish while fly fishing for other species, which is how I caught my first catfish on a fly. So if you decide to take up the challenge of targeting catfish with a fly, you will have little information to draw on as you navigate these largely uncharted waters.

Why bother fly fishing for catfish? First and foremost, they’re abundant. Most Colorado warm water fisheries have catfish. Other than trout, channel catfish are one species that the Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW) stocks catchable sized fish, eight inches or longer.

Secondly, channel catfish get big, even in small ponds. How big? The qualifying length for a master angler award is 30 inches, as compared to 24 inches for rainbow trout. The state record by weight is 38.25 inches long and 33.5 pounds. Only four other species have recorded heftier fish.

Third, even smaller waters have the potential to produce big catfish. The master angler awards from 2004 through 2007 show 55% of trophy channel catfish came from different waters. As compared to largemouth bass at 35% or rainbow trout at 33% coming from different waters. These percentages are based on public waters only.

Fourth, they are challenging to catch, especially on a fly or lure. Finally, once you’ve hooked one, you’re in for a tussle. Catfish put up a strong and determined fight that few other species match.

Before heading out to fish for new species or locations, it is a good idea to do some homework. A little research allows selection of effective fishing techniques, fishing at times when chances for success are highest and concentrating our efforts on productive waters without putting in fruitless hours on the water. While catfish don’t receive the admiration of trout or salmon, nor garner the excitement of bass, catfish are amazing fish. Amazing? Yes, amazing! Catfish come equipped with an array of finely tuned senses, superior taste, smell, touch, and hearing when compared to other fish, along with excellent eyesight, and a sixth sense, electroreception, the ability to sense living creatures. Further, when it comes to intelligence they are at the top of the class among fish. With all that, it’s a wonder we’re able to catch them at all.

Catfish’s smooth skin and barbels (whiskers) have a well developed sense of touch that allows them to feel around for food. But more impressive is their sense of taste, earning them the nickname, swimming tongue, a reference to the taste buds found over their entire body. That’s right. There are taste buds not only in the mouth and gill rakers, but also on all outer surfaces: barbels, fins, tail, and skin. If a catfish touches something, it not only feels it, it tastes it too. Their sense of taste is so good that they can taste some things up to 20 feet away. Imagine being at a restaurant and knowing how the meal at the next table tastes. Now that’s impressive!
Colorado Channel Catfish
Colorado Channel Catfish
Catfish smell through their nostrils where water flows over folds of sensitive tissue. In fish, the number of folds is thought to be related to how well fish smell. Channel catfish have over 140 folds, whereas rainbow trout have 18 and largemouth bass 8 to 13. Catfish can detect some compounds at concentrations less then one part per million. With a sniffer like that and a body for a tongue, there is little doubt as to why baits attract catfish. Keep in mind that the compounds we smell are volatile in air, whereas catfish smell compounds that readily disperse in the water. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that baits smell the same to catfish as they do to us.

A fish’s body density is equal to water, so sound waves pass right through them. Rather than eardrums, catfish use their air bladder to sense sound. Unlike most fish, catfish have a specialized bone structure that connects the air bladder directly to the inner ear allowing them to hear up to 13,000 Hz, a substantially higher frequency than the 600 to 4,000 Hz typical for most fish. For reference, humans hear in the range of 15 to 20,000 Hz. Additionally, catfish have a lateral line that allows them to detect low frequency sounds down to 10 Hz. Essentially, catfish hear almost as well as we do, and far better then the majority of fish. This makes it all the more difficult to remain undetected when fishing for them.

It’s a common misconception that catfish have poor eyesight. Catfish eyes are equipped with six sets of muscles allowing them to shift eye position. Their eyes also have an equal number of rods (for dim vision) and cones (color vision). Further, like walleye, they come equipped with a tapetum lucidum that reflects light back to the retina aiding in night vision. A catfish’s eyesight isn’t superior to other fish, but it isn’t inferior either. Luckily for us fly and lure fishers, catfish are fully capable of feeding by sight alone.

The sixth sense, electroreception, is the ability to detect electrical fields. A series of special cells along the lateral line and on the head allow catfish to detect the electrical fields created by living organisms, much the same as sharks. Catfish must be within a couple of inches of their prey to detect them with this sense. While this may not seem like much, under low light or turbid conditions, a catfish can locate prey while digging through mud with this sense alone.

Research by Gordon Farabee for his master’s thesis showed that catfish have greater learning ability than other freshwater fish that were similarly tested. The best learners were channel catfish, bigmouth buffalo, and common carp; intermediate were black bass; and the dummies were rainbow trout, northern pike and bluegill. Catfish’s array of senses and intelligence go a long way to explaining why they are one of the largest and more successful fish families, representing approximately eight percent of all fish species worldwide.

Catfish typically feed near the bottom. However, they can occasionally be found further up in the water column and even surface feed. Catfish truly like warm water. Based on catfish farming practices optimum growth occurs at 80 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Farming practices provide insight as to when catfish will move up in the water column to feed. At water temperatures below 60 degrees Fahrenheit catfish are reluctant to feed on floating pellets, which farmers use to gauge feeding efficiency, but they will do so at temperatures above that mark.

One last bit of biology, channel catfish love structure. They like to associate with channels, depressions, breaks to deeper water, outer edges (deep water side) of weeds or brush, logs, stumps, trees, points, edges, and underwater humps. Any of these structures are even better if an obvious food source is present, such as crayfish or minnows. Sound familar? It should, this is typical bass structure. The primary difference is that catfish tend to hold tighter to the bottom and will associate with shallow structure at much warmer temperatures than bass.
Catfish like this brushy shoreline structure
Typical brushy shoreline structure, fish outside edge tight to bottom with big flies for channel catfish.
As fly fishers we can put this biology lesson to good use. First, we need to pick times when channel catfish are most likely going to use their excellent eyesight to feed. This means concentrating on waters with good clarity, two feet or more, and at times of good light, such as midday. Evenings/mornings will produce best during clear conditions or when a bright moon is present.

Another factor is water temperature. Channel catfish are most active (aggressive) when temperatures are in the 60-85 degree range. With the higher temperatures being best, equating to the hot days of summer. We can now refer to the dog days of summer as the catfish days of summer. Lastly, we need to fish structure similar to what black bass or other structure oriented species use. The primary difference being we’re going to fish our flies tight to the bottom most of the time.

When choosing a fly rod for channel catfish, keep in mind they get sizable, with 10-15 pound fish not being rare. Plus, catfish associate with structure, which can require some heavy handed pressure to keep them away from snags in order to land them. While “trout” rods will work, a 7 or 8 wt is more appropriate. Additional benefits to heavier rods include: the ability to use heavy, fast-sinking fly lines, greater comfort casting large flies, and the ability to use stronger leaders with less worry about breaking the rod when applying heavy pressure to the fish.

When it comes to line selection remember catfish are primarily bottom feeders, which dictates full sinking lines. Not only to get the fly down to the fish, but to keep it there. By adding weight to the leader or using weighted flies on a long leader a floating line can be used in water five to ten feet deep. However, there are issues with using a floating line, the first being castability. Adding weight to a leader generally requires opening the casting loop in order to avoid trailing loops or worse hitting your rod (risking damage). Further, long leaders with weight or weighted flies increase the problems with turn over further shortening casting distance.

Second, and even more important, when you retrieve a weighted fly (or weighted leader) when using a floating line, the fly will tend to lift from the bottom. While this type of jigging retrieve can be an ideal presentation for crappie, bluegill and even bass, it generally isn’t effective for catfish. You’re generally better off keeping your fly close to or on the bottom as long as possible. Full sinking lines are ideally suited for this task. Sink-tip lines are not recommended, as they tend to have similar issues as floating lines, especially short sink tips combined with a fast retrieve.
Fly rods and sinking lines for catfish
Seven weight rods, several lines of differing sink rates and 8-12 pound leaders. An ideal setup to chase catfish with a fly.
 
Colorado Channel Cat taken on the fly.
Colorado Channel Cat caught on the fly and released.
Consider making your first sinking line a type III. The type number is a rough approximation of its sink rate in inches per second. Thus a type III will sink at approximately three inches per second. Actual sink rates vary with water conditions, flies used, rate of retrieve, etc. Type III lines allow you to fish ten to fifteen feet, or even deeper with minimal effort, yet, you can effectively probe all but the shallowest water and your floating line will cover that. Many who fish sinking lines find an intermediate (type I) useful. It will give you better control under windy conditions than a floating line, plus it doesn’t have the issue of lifting flies on the retrieve. If you find yourself probing waters deeper then 10 feet on a regular basis consider a type V to type VII sinking line or a 250 to 450 grain shooting head with an intermediate running line. These fast sinking lines allow you to probe depths 20 to 30 feet and deeper. While you may be tempted to use a very fast sinking line in shallow water, don’t, as you will find yourself constantly hung up.

Sinking lines make leader selection relatively simple. While short tapered leaders are helpful in turning over the flies, a four to six foot section of leader material works just as well. Leader shyness is generally not a problem, so use relatively heavy leaders, 8 to 15 pound test, especially as heavier leaders tend to turn over large and weighted flies better. To build a basic tapered leader start with a heavy 12 to18 inch butt section of 30 to 40 pound test followed by a 12 to18 inch section of 20 pound test and then add up to four feet 10 to 12 pound test.

Fly selection is somewhat a personal decision and should be guided by the water’s food base. Channel catfish are omnivores and opportunistic feeders. Typical foods include aquatic insects, crayfish, mollusks, crustaceans, and fishes. Any variety of nymph, crayfish, and streamer patterns will work. Catfish, being bottom feeders, require weighted patterns in most situations. When fishing around heavy structure consider snag resistant flies. Like bass, big catfish are on the prowl for good sized meals, so larger sizes are in order, 10 or larger. Consider using flies constructed with natural materials, preferably non-dyed. The thought is that natural materials have fewer potential negative chemical signatures that the catfish can smell or taste, and possibly offer a more “natural” feel and taste.
sculpins, woolly buggers, foxee clousers, clousers and worm flies
Author’s favorite catfish flies; sculpins, woolly buggers, foxee clousers, clousers and worm flies.
The following patterns tied in olives, browns, blacks, pink, and white work well and can be easily weighted. Stick with colors that match the local food sources and you’ll do well. Consider using dark or fluorescent colors in low light situations and light colors on bright days under clear water conditions to increase their visibility to the fish.

Nymphs – stonefly nymphs (not present in lakes, but it’s a big profile buggy fly), large mayfly nymphs, damsel fly nymphs, and dragon fly nymphs.

Crayfish/crustacean patterns - beside “true” crayfish patterns, consider suggestive patterns such as woolly bugger, woolly worms, half backs, Red Foxee Clouser, and the worm fly.

Streamers/fish patterns – clousers, deceivers, bucktail streamers, just about any 2-6 inch streamer is appropriate. Two color streamers provide contrast, which can increase their effectiveness. Any salt water fly pattern book is an excellent source of patterns.

It’s now time to fish and based on what we’ve learned we head to the local catfish hole on a hot August day and rig up our 7-wt rod with a type III sinking line, four feet of 12 pound test leader and a large woolly bugger. Settling into our float tube we kick out from shore and down the bank toward some snags sticking out of the water. Our initial cast is toward the snags. We count down long enough to get the fly on or near the bottom and start our retrieve. This is very similar to black bass fly fishing with subsurface flies. Generally, it’s best to start fishing tight to the shore, even in the heat of the day. When shore traffic is light, catfish will move shallow. Some days they’ll smack the fly as soon as it hits the water, very much like a black bass.

Employ a variety of retrieves until you figure out what will trigger a strike. Frequently, a slow retrieve along the bottom does the trick. While fast retrieves can trigger strikes, initially it’s best to slowly and methodically work the flies along the bottom, including such techniques as making a quick strip and pausing long enough to allow the fly to settle back to the bottom. The key is to make sure that you’re getting the fly close to the bottom and that you keep it there.
Author with 32 inch catfish caught on the fly.
Author with 32 inch catfish caught on the fly.
You may be wondering how you can tell when your fly is on or near the bottom. While experience will ultimately be your guide, the following guidelines will help. Start by estimating how fast your fly sinks. For example, with a type 3 line allow 3 to 4 seconds per foot. However, when fishing with a heavily weighted fly the sink rate may be closer to 2 seconds per foot. Next determine how deep you’re fishing. A depth finder is ideal for this task. Say you’re in six feet of water using a type III line, cast and countdown eighteen (3 times 6) seconds before starting your retrieve. If you don’t snag, feel the bottom or get a strike, then countdown longer the next cast. If you snag or can feel the fly ticking the bottom, shorten your count. It won’t take long to figure out the countdown.

If you don’t have a depth finder start your retrieve after a short count of 4-8. Then with each successive cast add 4-8 more counts until you can feel bottom, snag, or catch a fish. Bear in mind that if you know the water depth, when you cast toward shore, the water will be shallower and you’ll need to adjust your count. So, if you’re not snagging bottom or catching fish, count longer before starting the retrieve. If you’re catching fish, you’re just right. If you’re losing flies to the bottom, make shorter counts.

To fish from shore or from the water is the next question. My preference is from the water. The reason is catfish have excellent hearing, especially low frequency sounds. Traipsing around the shore can create enough of a disturbance to put fish down. On fish farms, catfish are known to rise to the surface at the sound of footfall as far as 100 yards away in anticipation of being fed. If you do shore fish, tread softly. Even from a boat you want to minimize movement as sounds are readily transmittable from the boat to the water. Float tubes, pontoons, and kayaks are ideal ways for fly fishers to quietly approach fish. Regardless, on or off the water, be aware that noise can put down the fish.

Along the lines of sound, it may be useful to add sound to some of your fly patterns. This is an area that I have not explored but, being a top end predator that uses all its senses to track and find its prey, it would seem reasonable to add rattles to a few fly patterns, especially patterns of prey that are known to make sound, such as crayfish.

Speaking of catfish’s outstanding array of senses make sure you’re not sending negative chemical signals when you fish for them. With their senses of smell and taste it is advisable to avoid allowing chemicals, such as petroleum products, sunscreen and insect repellents, to contact your flies. If you have any doubts, wash your hands thoroughly with an unscented soap. Along those same lines, if your goal it to simply catch fish and you’re not proud, then there is nothing to prohibit you from adding a positive scent to the fly, such as anchovy paste, a piece of worm, or spray on commercial scents, provided the use of bait is legal in water you’re fishing. This however moves us from “fly” fishing to modified bait fishing, not something this fly fisher cares to do.

Few freshwater fish are harder fighting than a catfish. Turning a catfish from snags and tiring it sufficiently is only part of the challenge to landing catfish. They come equipped with a defense system in the form of three sharp, mildly venomous spines on their dorsal and pectoral fins. While not deadly, a wound from one of these spines can be painful and subject to potentially dangerous infections. The best defense is to avoid getting stabbed.
Dave Bowden with big Colorado Catfish caught on a fly.
Dave Bowden with big Colorado Catfish caught on a fly.
Catfish tend to erect their spines and lock them in an upright/outward position when handled. With small fish, hold the fish with the belly in the palm of the hand and one or two fingers wrapped around the base of the pectoral spines. Or similarly slide the hand along the back until the dorsal spine is between the fingers and grasp the lower spines with your fingers. Either approach allows you to grip the spines and avoid being impaled by a thrashing fish. With larger fish a finger or two just under the gill cover will generally work, just don’t go very deep or you risk damaging the gills. Or simply grip the fish in the mouth which is probably the safest way to handle catfish in terms of avoiding getting spiked. However, that approach does pose the risk of skin scrapes, as the catfish’s mouth is quite raspy. Any of the fish grippers on the market also provide a means of controlling the fish without getting impaled.

All catfish are extremely challenging to catch consistently on a fly. Here’s a fish with a set of senses second to none in the fish world. Smell, taste, hearing, touch, sight, and electroreception, catfish have it all. It’s a wonder catfish ever feed by sight alone, allowing us to catch them on a fly. In order to fool catfish into striking a fly, we need to not only use good patterns, make great presentations, but also make sure that we’re not imparting any negative signals, such as sound or chemical signatures on our flies.

Keep quiet and clean your hands before tying flies or tying them on your line. As catfish have excellent vision, keep a low profile and avoid casting shadows over the areas you’re fishing. Catfish make their homes in and around heavy structure so you’re faced with the problem of effectively getting the fly to the fish without snagging and losing your fly. Then once you hook up with one of these brutes you have your hands full trying to land them. Working a strong fish out of heavy structure is no easy task. Once you get them close to hand, you still have to avoid getting impaled by a sharp spine. So if you find yourself yearning for a fly fishing challenge, then look no further, as there is no tougher freshwater fish to catch and land on a fly than a catfish.

References:
Understanding Catfish Senses (Keith Sutton), Cat Fish Senses ( Joe Crumpton), Exploring The Catfish's Senses (Catfish Billy), Catching Cats on Artificials (Keith Sutton), Fish Hearing Studies (ariamarine.com), Common Myths Concerning Catfish (Catfish Billy)

 

© 2014 David Coulson
About the author:
To say fly fishing is a passion for Dave is an understatement, he lives by the adage, ďfly fishing isnít a matter of life or death, itís much more important than that.Ē Simply, if itís a fish, then Daveís willing to chase it on a fly. This includes making two or three trips a year out of state to places like Alaska, Canada, East and West Coasts to fly fish for salmon, northern pike and salt water species, such as redfish. The rest of the time Dave spends his time plying Colorado waters with a fly rod for everything the state has to offer such as bass, perch, crappie, bluegill, walleye, catfish, pike and yes even trout with a fly.
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