Thursday, April 4, 2013

Nothing beats a cool cat crashing a panfish party

A hooked channel catfish takes to the air at Lake Manatee.

Quick, what fish species come to mind when you think of fly fishing?
Aunt Sara's Homely Daughter Nymphs deadly on catfish.

Rainbow trout?





Myakka Minnows attract lots of catfish attention.



You wouldn't be wrong if you mentioned one of the above.

Doubt if any of you thought about channel catfish.

Patrick O'Connor shows off a river catfish.
However, I've caught quite a few channel cats on fly over the years, and they're one of my favorites. Channel cats actually just might be the best fighters of all of Florida's warm-water species. They fight hard, make determined runs  and test the skill of even the most-experienced of fly anglers.

I don't target them. In fact, I'm not really sure how I would do that? I catch them while I'm fly fishing for bluegill. They seem to be suckers for subsurface flies like my Aunt Sara's Homely Daughter Nymph, Myakka Minnow and other sinking creations.

I catch channel cats in two bodies of water: Lake Manatee and the Manatee River. I usually hook them while casting along shoreline structure like grass and fallen trees.

I have landed channel cats from a pound to 12 pounds. I've hooked larger, but haven't been able to land them.

Large cats are capable of making long runs. They'll take fly anglers deep into the backing. How many times do you get taken into the backing by any freshwater fish in Florida? For that matter, how many times do you get taken into the backing by a snook or redfish in the salt?

My typical setup is a 1-weight TFO Finesse fly rod, full floating line, 7 1/2=foot 5X tapered leader. I fish a sinking No. 10 fly (ASH-D Nymph, Myakka Minnow). When using nymphs, I'll add a strike indicator about 2 1/2 feet above the fly.

Most fly anglers probably don't want to go a light as I do. I think a 3- or 4-weight would be perfect for this endeavor.

I'll cast the fly to the structure, let it sink and then begin a slow, erratic retrieve, all the while keeping my eyes on the strike indicator. The indicator won't always go under to signify a strike. Sometimes it will stop. At others times, it will dart to one side of the other. Or maybe it will just twitch.

The key to using a strike indicator is if you think it does something, set the hook. If there's a fish there, you'll have a bent rod. If not, no big deal. Simply pick the line up and make another cast.

One of the reasons kayaks make the best fly-fishing platforms is that they're so stealthy. You can get very close to your intended target. I'm rarely more than 25 feet away.

When fly fishing, taken out only the amount of line you intend to cast. For me, that means pulling about 18 feet of line off the reel. That combined with my leader gives me 25 feet.

I rarely make any "false casts." I simply pick the line up on a back cast put the fly where I want on the subsequent forward cast. I waste little time and my fly is constantly in the strike zone.

If you're a fly angler, a "pedal-driven" kayak might not be for you. You'll want a clean cockpit that will handle your fly line. Remember this old adage: Your fly line will catch upon anything it can.

So true.

I fish out of a Native Watercraft Ultimate 14.5. It's the perfect fly-fishing boat. It's open cockpit is great for fly fishing and fly line.

If the panfish are active, you'll get lulled into a false sense of security by the gently take of bluegill, shellcracker, speckled perch or stumpknocker. The hit of a channel cat is very similar.

But that's where the similarity ends.

Once the catfish realizes it's hooked, it will begin a bulldog-like battle. It might try to get into the structure. Or it might dig for the bottom. If that fails, it will usually take off on a long run. Sometimes a cat will make two or three runs.

You just don't strip these fish in. You have to fight them until they tire out. Even then, the battle isn't over.
It's best to land them with a net. If you don't have a net, be very careful if you're going to "hand" land them. Their dorsal and pectoral fins can deliver a nasty, painful puncture wound.

On most days, I'll hook up to a half dozen channel cats. When Patrick O'Connor of Rotonda and I fish the Manatee River a couple of weeks ago, we combined to land seven out of the 10 channel cats we hooked.

On a return trip a few days later, I enjoyed some catfish action unlike any I'd ever experienced. I caught and released 28 of the 35 channel cats I hooked. My fish ranged from a pound to slightly less than 6.

Although I release them, channel cats are great eating fish. They prefer clean water and dine mainly on minnows and bugs.

My top priority when I take to fresh water to fly fish is bluegill. I love watching a bluegill rise to a suck in a surface popper. I love how a "hand-sized" bluegill  battles with all of its might.

But I don't mind when a frisky channel cat decides to crash the party and liven things up!


  1. Great article. Here in Texas, I kayak fish a lot of our Hill Country rivers for Guadalupe Bass and Sunfish. Every once in a while a cat will come up and suck down my hopper. Your right, a cat of the fly is a blast. They sure put up a great fight, and it is a nice surprise when you are casting for sunfish or small river bass.