Cooper Column: Catfish on the Fly

Bill Cooper, Special to The Rolla Daily News

My father regularly caught catfish on spinnerbaits when I was a child. The feat proved a bit unusual and I didn’t know of anyone else doing so at the time. Over the years I adapted my father’s techniques to the fly rod and still enjoy catching catfish on my fly rods today.

Catfish remain the most popular fresh water species in the South. Catfish have long been regarded as the toughest critter you can hope to hook on the end of your line, and their qualities as table fare are legendary. King catfish has a long and storied history among American fishermen and it is apt to remain that way for the foreseeable future.

Catfish are a rugged species which live in rugged places, often big rivers and lakes with woody structure and deep holes. The people who pursue catfish pride themselves with their rugged nature and in turn utilize heavy, rugged equipment to land the mighty catfish.

Most cat-fishermen would consider it laughable to pursue catfish with a fly rod. The mind picture most people have of fly fishermen is of a gentlemen in fancy clothes waving a wispy, long rod around in the air with a tiny feather and fur fly attached to the end of a long fly line. It’s not quite the picture of the heavy duty catfish fisherman with which most of us are acquainted. 

Regardless of the stereotypes, I began fishing for catfish with a fly rod as a teenager. Initially I began using a fly rod because of its length. The long rods allowed me to tight line minnows in the willow-tangles of the bayous and sloughs along the Mississippi River in southeast Missouri. 

Presenting a scrappy minnow to waiting catfish in the thick willow branches proved much easier with the long rod rather than trying to cast into the tangles with a bait caster or spinning rod. A length of line about the length of the fly rod was used to swing the minnow to a hole in the cover  and allow the minnow to wiggle its way into the depths. 

The results of such fishing techniques often made the effort worth it. Channel catfish were the normal target species. Most I caught were usually in the 2-to-4-pound range, but the occasional 7-to-8-pounder turned up, stressing the spine of the fly rod.

The real appeal of catching catfish with a fly rod is the fight which the muscular catfish is capable of serving up. Their long, lean, muscular bodies are strong and capable of giving an angler a real run for his money. Tackling a sizable catfish with a fly rod is a sure fire way to have some angling action that one will long remember.

Not normally considered a fly fishing target, catfish can provide the fly fishing enthusiast a fight of a lifetime. 

Very little has been written about fly fishing for catfish. Most anglers who have caught catfish on a fly rod did not specifically fish for them. Mr. Whiskers is most often a pleasant surprise to the angling parties.

Catfish are most often sought by anglers throwing heavy weights and large baits into deep pools. Occasionally fisherman catch them on crank-baits and soft plastic baits as well. Seldom are they ever caught by fly fishermen.

Fly fishing gear for catfish needs to be sturdy. I most often use  a rod in the 7 to 10 weight class, but if I’m feeling especially sporty, I will stick with a standard 5-6 weight rod, which is what most fishermen utilize for Missouri trout streams.

A floating fly line will handle most cat fishing situations well. The sheer size and weight of the flies you will use for cat-fishing  will pull the line under and down in the water column. Areas with faster current could require a sinking or sinking tip line. However, the floating fly line tends to become tangled less. Too, loosing a few flies is far less expensive than tangling and loosing a fly line.

A strong leader is a must when fly fishing for catfish. Leaders from 17 lb. to 25 lb. test are adequate in most scenarios. Commercially tied leaders intended for saltwater usage are available, or you can tie your own, or as I often do, simply use a piece of heavy duty level monofilament line. Leaders should be 7 to 9 feet in length.

Catfish have a voracious appetite and prey on a wide variety of fish and other food sources. They feed heavily on minnows, and baitfish such as, sunfish, shad, herring, suckers, goldfish and carp. Utilizing flies that resemble these baitfish is a good way to go when fly fishing for catfish.

Clouser type flies usually work best. Clousers slice through the water hook point up resulting in fewer snags. Too, make sure your flies are weighted to get them down near the bottom. Hook sizes from 2/0 to 8/0 on circle hooks work very well. The circle hooks will turn in the mouth of the fish, effectively hooking them in the corner of the mouth.

Casting these largest than normal flies is going to take some practice on your part, but it is well worth the extra effort.

Any fly that resembles a bait fish will work for catfish. Large wooly buggers, or your favorite saltwater flies are good choices. I have recently began using my favorite tarpon flies for catfish. I prefer a tarpon toad, or similar fly on a 2/0 hook. The tarpon flies  are tied on heavy hooks which are needed for the brutes, plus the weight helps get the fly down.

Just last week I ventured to a catfish pond with my 6-weight rod in hand. Five minutes into the trip I hooked into a beast of a catfish on a tarpon fly. The light rod arched  big time. The battle was astounding. I quickly released the brute and within minutes hooked an even larger fish. After subduing it, I gave it up for fear those brutes were going to shatter my $300 trout rod.