Clayton: Cats under a cork

Luke Clayton
Special to the Empire-Tribune

I love catching catfish when they are biting on "tight line" on bottom, when they are in the flooded grass and willows during the spawn, over holes baited with soured grain and when they are "on the rocks" feasting on gar eggs. I love the tug of a catfish on a trotline! But my biggest thrill is watching a floater (cork) begin to jiggle on the surface and then disappear, pulled down by a chunky channel catfish that has moved into the shallows to put on the feed bag! 

Lake Fork Guide Seth Vanover with one of many chunky shallow water catfish landed last week.

This past week, I joined my long-time friend guide Seth Vanover and nephew Billy Kilpatrick (retired guide) for a few hours of red-hot shallow water channel catfish catching at Lake Fork. This was not my first time to partake of this annual fishing fiesta and definitely not Seth’s. Each year about this time, we set aside a morning to fish together when the fish are up in very shallow pockets, feeding on spawning shad and worms and insects washed into the lake from recent rainfall. The fish are usually in these shallow pockets during most of May. Runoff from rainfall supercharges the bite but the fish are shallow, regardless. Add a wind blowing into a shallow bank and the bite really gets hot. Such was the case last week!

Some say this catfish pattern is beginning of the spawn and it could be but only a couple of the many fish we landed had developed egg sacs. I believe for the next few weeks, before the water warms and the catfish spawn really gets going, the primary reason for this awesome shallow water bite is the shad spawn. Catfish are opportunistic feeders; they go where the food is and right now, their primary food source, shad, is shallow.

As Seth eased the throttle back on his big 22-foot Nautic Star boat, the cove we were heading to looked familiar but different. With the currently low water level at Fork, it was a good bit smaller than I remembered from past fishing trips.

“Luke, here we are," says Seth as we entered the sheltered little cove, a stiff breeze at out back. "I think the first time we fished here together was about seven years ago. Although the shoreline vegetation is gone because of low water levels, the catfish are here right on schedule. We’ve been pulling limits of good eating channels out of this and one other pocket.”

Luke Clayton

A glance as the graph indicated the big boat was setting in 5 feet of water, near the center of the little cove, within easy casting distance to the shallows near shore. Our gear was simple, light spinning rigs spooled with braided line, a number four treble embedded in a ball of Stubby’s Cheese bait and a spring-loaded float about 14 inches above. In truth, these actively feeding catfish could have probably been caught on anything from live worms to chicken liver, but Stubby’s bait is clean smelling, stays on the hook well and more importantly, it catches fish!

With the power poles embedded in the mud, our boat was a stable fishing platform. We soon had baits tossed up close to shore and quickly found the fish were concentrated on the clear water side of a mud line running along a little shelf or drop off of about a foot, 15 feet out from the bank. The trick was to cast up close to shore and crank the bait out just on the edge of the off-colored water. This is where the shad were congregated. On several occasions, we could actually see the fins of the catfish working the surface or hear the "plop" as they pushed bait to the surface.

Always experimenting and testing different methods, Seth rigged a rod for bottom fishing. The dense catfish bait needed no weight and settled quickly to bottom. Rather than "tight lining" as is common when bottom fishing with a weight, Seth left a little slack in his line and became a line watcher. This method actually produced as well as fishing with a cork but to my bias opinion, it isn’t half as much fun as seeing that floater go under! When the slack line twitched, Seth reared back and set the hook. Using either technique, the bait is setting on or very near bottom and the results was the same: fast paced catching.

If you are planning a shallow water trip for catfish, be aware that not every shallow cove you fish will be holding catfish. It might be necessary to test fish a few likely areas before you find a concentration of fish. Shallow coves can be especially good this time of year but bank fishing along straight stretches of shoreline can also be productive during early summer, especially along shorelines where the wind is pushing spawning shad shallow against the bank.

A few tosses of a four-foot castnet will produce all the shad you need for bait. Getting snagged is a necessary evil in this type fishing and a wire crappie hook works better than a treble. These hooks will straighten out when you do get snagged and your ‘down time’ re tying hooks will be lessened.  A light clamp on weight is helpful in casting and keeping the bait near bottom. Mixed bags of white bass, catfish and even largemouth are common; every species in freshwater takes advantage of the abundant food source provided by the hapless spawning shad.  

Seth pointed out that this shallow water bite is certainly not the only way to fill the cooler with catfish the next few weeks but some of the bigger spawners will come from water 3 feet or less.

This week’s episode “A Sportsman’s Life” on Carbon TV highlights this fishing trip.