DNR technician Dick Brandt with a channel catfish from Madison's Lake Mendota. / Contributed photo
Bob Zownir of Madison with a good eating size channel catfish from the Wisconsin River. / Contributed photo
Summer is here and it will soon be that time of year when fish are hard to find and often harder to catch. When you have temperatures in the 80s, it can make comfort on the water and good fishing a difficult thing to find. The warm weather and water increases weed growth, encourages algae blooms, and at its worse depletes oxygen levels in lakes often causing fish kills. These Ďdog daysí of summer donít help fishing, since most fish have now moved to deeper water and mid-lake structure while searching for their comfort zone. This is the location where the water temperature is comfortable and there is a food source in close proximity.
The vast majority of fish that were in the shallow water early in the season, have now moved to their summer haunts and only make forays into shallow water to feed during low-light periods and at night.
Wisconsin has numerous lakes and rivers that have good catfish populations. Maybe, the reason that catfish (channels and flatheads) are so plentiful in this part of country is because many anglers are out fishing for bass, walleyes, muskies and panfish. Catfish donít get the respect that other fish species receive which is odd because they give a good fight and are excellent table fare. I think that some of the negatives about catfish are because they are harder to clean and many anglers donít like handling them because of their barbs which can cause a painful sting.
Anglers that do well fishing in the hot weather adapt to this fishís ever-changing summer patterns. But, many more anglers have their fishing success decline as the summer progresses and temperatures rise.
But with catfish, who are one of the last fish to spawn, fishing gets better as the weather warms and things heat up!
Summertime catfishing is a way to extend your summer fishing success while also getting some excellent fillets. Most Wisconsin rivers like the Mississippi, Wisconsin, Wolf, Fox, Rock, Crayfish, Pecatonica, Kickapoo and Yahara Rivers all are good waters for summertime catfish. Many of the inland lakes in Wisconsin also contain good numbers of catfish, especially if they have a river draining into a lake or running through it.
All of the lakes in the Madison Chain, Lake Wisconsin and the huge Winnebago system are excellent locations for summer catfish. If you travel Wisconsin, youíll find that people who live in close proximity to rivers are usually catfish anglers. These Ďriver ratsí have learned over the years to appreciate catfish for the reasons that I previously mentioned: their fighting ability, ease in catching, and again their great taste.
Many of the catfish that I catch on the Wisconsin River are caught accidently while fishing for walleyes or other species of fish. Most of the river Ďcats that I catch are caught on live or cut bait while Iím anchored below a snag-hole or slowly drifting the river with nightcrawlers. If you plan to go fishing for catfish, Iíd suggest that you go out toward sunset and plan to stay out well after dark. Catfish move up on feeding shelves, rock bars, and into the shallow water after dark and throughout the night making them easier to find and catch.
Most serious catfish anglers always seem to have some secret concoction of stink bait for catching their catfish. These mixtures often contain cheese, chicken livers, fish, shrimp, and blood mixtures that are cured for a few days to gain their distinct odor and consistency. A couple of the better commercial stink baits are Sonyís and Uncle Charlieís Catfish Bait. A problem with most of these mixtures is that as the weather warms it gets harder to keep these stink baits on your hook. Now, there are sponges and tubes that hold the bait longer on the hook and keep you from constantly re-baiting.
Iíve talked to many old-timers who swear the best catfish baits are small bluegills, sunfish, chubs, and even gobs of nightcrawlers. If bluegills or chubs are the baits that you want to use, then you have to go out before fishing and catch your bait for the night. To catch bait, use a light wire hook, 4 # test mono, and a piece of worm. Another popular bait is to use chunks cut from ciscoes, suckers, chubs, and other rough fish which channel and flathead catfish readily eat. Cut the rough fish into V-shaped pieces about an inch and a half long and hook the chunk onto a No. 2/0 red catfish hook.
The rest of the equipment and gear that one needs is a good stout 7- to 8-foot rod (Berkley makes a good one that is reasonably priced) combined with a quality baitcasting reel like a Garcia Ambassador 6500 spooled with 30 to 40 # Berkley Big Game monofilament line. On the end of the mono, put on a slip or egg sinker (1/2 to 1 ounce), tie on a barrel swivel, and finally a two foot lead to the hook. Catfish are usually on the bottom, so thatís where you want your bait to be. This rig will work for most catfish that youíll run into in all of the Midwest.
There are endless locations to fish for catfish in Wisconsin and there are usually some close to your home. Try anchoring near wood, deep holes, river bends, and the mouths of bays off the main river channels which are all good locations to start any catfish adventure. Again, I suggest that you fish at night or early in the day because catfish are much more active after dark and easier to catch when they move into shallow water. Try giving catfish a half an hour to bite when you start fishing likely locations because this is enough time for the bait- sensitive catfish to find and hit your pungent offering. If you donít have any action in a half hour, move on to your next location. Bring along some good lighting, plenty of bait, and a cooler full of ice to put your catch in if you donít have a live well or are fishing from shore. Shore fishing for catfish is common and can also be productive on most rivers and lakes in Wisconsin.
Both the Mississippi and Wisconsin Rivers are full of catfish of all sizes from the smaller channel catfish to the big flatheads. On the Wisconsin River, the area directly below the Prairie du Sac Dam is always good place to start. The scour hole below the dam is over 40 feet deep and always holds catfish because the water there has an abundant oxygen supply which can be hard to find in some waters during summerís heat. The waters below the Prairie Dam to the Highway 12 Bridge contain many good locations for catfish from a boat or from shore. Another good location is on the north side of Madisonís Lake Mendota, where the Yahara River enters the lake near the Marinerís Inn and Highway 113. Here, youíll find water 20- to 25-feet deep and catfish like this area year-round with its rock structure.
The smaller catfish are great eating, when you cut out the mud-vein on the fillet. Soaking bigger fish in milk overnight also is another way to prepare catfish and can take away any fishy taste. Let the big fish go and keep the eaters from 15- to 20-inches long. Night fishing for catfish is a great way to spend a summer evening and another way to catch fish during summerís hot months when fishing is difficult.
You may always contact me for advice and current information at http://www.garyengbergoutdoors.com.
Read more from Gary Engberg.
Gary Engberg is a professional tournament angler, fishing guide, and writer. He began fishing tournaments in the early 1990ís and has fished the In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT), North American Walleye Association (NAWA), Masters Walleye Circuit (MWC), World Walleye Association (WWA), FLW, and Mercury Nationals in the years since. Gary has hosted the Outdoor Horizons radio show weekly for 14 years in Madison on WTDY 1670 AM and WTDY 106.7 FM Saturdays at 8:05 am. and is also a correspondent for the Wisconsin State Journal for the last 12 years.