Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Channel catfish are strong, fast and great on fly rod

Fly-fishing pro Joe Mahler of Fort Myers battles his first Manatee River channel catfish.
I am sure there are lakes, rivers and other bodies of water around the country where you can target channel catfish on fly rod, but I don't know where they are.

I do know Lake Manatee and the Manatee River have to be among the finest places to catch these hard-fighting whiskered fish on fly rod.
Steve Gibson show off a cat.

I found that out years ago while casting a light-weight fly rod for bluegill. I had caught a good number of the diminutive panfish that morning and expected another one when the strike indicator darted quickly to its left. I set the hook and knew immediately it wasn't a bluegill attached to my No. 12 nymph.

The fish was heavy -- and strong. I not only had to hope that my light tippet would hold, but also that the fish didn't head for the vegetation along the shoreline.

Almost as if the fish was reading my mind, it swam away from the shoreline cover toward the middle of the lake.

"I've got this battle won," I thought to myself.

All I had to do was keep pressure on the fish and allow it to tire itself out.

Easier said than done.

For one of the few times in my lifetime, I was into the backing on my fly rod. The fish was very strong and bulldog-like. It was surprisingly fast, too.

This Lake Manatee catfish hit a Myakka Minnow Jig.
Just when I thought I was gaining the upper hand, the fish made a 90-degree turn and headed back toward the shoreline. Even though I applied all the pressure that I could, I wasn't able to keep the fish out of the vegetation. In a matter of seconds, my light tippet broke.

While my initiation into fly-rod catfishing may have ended on a down note, it was only the start of something good. Since then, I have landed quite a number of channel catfish on fly rod.

Until recently, however, I never set out to catch them. Most simply were incidental catches while I was fishing for panfish.

But I decided recently to forget about bluegill and other species . I would concentrate on channel cats.

I don't know why Lake Manatee and the Manatee River produce so many channel catfish. I can speculate, but it's only that.
Joe Mahler casts a tight loop toward a deep bend.

I do know that I don't encounter them in any other body of water I fish: Upper Myakka Lake, Myakka River, Braden River, Evers Reservoir, Shell Creek, Deer Prairie Creek, Cocoa Plum Waterway or the Everglades. I've not hooked them on fly in larger lakes like Okeechobee, Kissimmee, Istokpoga or Tarpon.

But I find them almost every time I fish Lake Manatee or Manatee River.

I can only speculate that the state might have stocked them heavily in years past. And the water in those bodies of water is perfect for them to survive and multiply.

Just recently, a buddy of mine, fly-fishing pro Joe Mahler (www.joemahler.com) launched our NuCanoe Frontier kayaks at Ray's Canoe Hideaway (http://www.rayscanoehideaway.com)  on the Manatee River shortly after daylight. The tide was incoming, so I knew we'd have to bide our time until it began to ebb. Experience told me I rarely do much on the incoming tide.

Joe and I paddle upriver and spent an hour or so in a small bayou until the tide turned. When we left, we found the water pushing downriver. Perfect.

I most often find channel catfish on the deep river bends around fallen trees. So, that where I spend most of my time. I'll fish one bend, then move to the next.

There is decent current in the bends and the cats hang out around the tree limbs to dine on whatever swims by. Channel catfish aren't your typical bottom feeders that forage for dead fish. They prefer live fish.

For this outing, I was rigged up with a 6-weight TFO Finesse rod, floating line, 7 1/2-foot 12-pound leader with an 8-pound fluorocarbon tippet. It probably wouldn't hurt to use a 7- or 8-weight fly rod.

My fly of choice was the Myakka Minnow, a pattern I created about 10 years ago. I'm don't know if it's the best pattern for channel catfish, but I do know that it produces consistently.

I made three casts in the first deep bend without success. My fourth cast produced a feisty 4-pound cat. The hit was strong and quick. Luckily, the fish swam away from the cover out into the middle of the river.

Realize, you just don't bring a catfish in. It's not that easy. You must tire it out before attempting to land it.

I had forgotten the landing net that day, so I had to subdue the fish by hand. No problem. You have to be careful of a catfish's dorsal and pectoral fins. If you avoid them, it's no big deal.

Contrary to popular belief, most of the channel cats I hook seem to be hanging out near the surface. They most often take the fly shortly after it hits the water. I've even taken a couple of cats on popping bugs.

We didn't set the world on first during our outing, but we didn't expect to. I usually do best in the cooler months: November, December, January, February, March, April. In summer, it's much too hot, rainy and the water level is usually up.

Joe landed a smaller cat downriver for his first.

"I didn't really think you could target channel cats on fly rod," said Mahler, one the nation's top flycasting instructors. "I'm amazed."

The largest channel catfish I've ever taken on fly rod is about 7 pounds. I've hooked several substantially larger, but wasn't able to land them.

That could change during this year because I plan to target them with heavier gear.

My best day took place two years ago on the upper Manatee River when I caught and released 18.

Some anglers might snub their noses are targeting channel catfish on fly rod, and that's OK. I'll take them any day.


They pull hard and will give you all you want. In addition, they just love flies.


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