Knee Deep IN CHANNEL CATS.
Toad Smith and I were wading wet, playing cool cookies, I guess you could say, standing knee deep in the thick of the action, midstream, dressed in our best cat duds--old jeans, worn tennies, old socks, and so on. I remember Toad's shirt that day, a faded red knit polo thing that didn't quite cover the entirety of his tummy, much less the top of his "asky when he'd bendoversky," which of course he did to land catfish. That's when I'd turn my head away from the shine and yodel out, "Moooooon Over Minnesota!" a small tribute to the river we were fishing. We were, per usual, having a good time of it, what more can I say.
I also remember Toad's attire, because--and I have told this story before--we had stopped in town at a diner to get a cheeseburger and fries before fishing and had discovered right off that we could just go from vehicle to vehicle in the parking lot and pick plenty of grasshoppers off the grills of pickup trucks and the occasional Caddy; it's still mostly Ford, Chevy, and Dodge pickup trucks parked at diners in most farming communities, with some of the old retired boys driving Caddies--truth is, to this day, I have never fished a hopper off a Mercedes Benz.
That's when the biker lady stepped from the diner, toothpick in mouth, flexing arms like power pistons from out of a Grateful Dead T-shirt with the sleeves cut off at the shoulders, a snake-and-skull tattoo on one bicep, her blond hair in the kind of tight bun reminiscent of one of the fiihrer's women in a Nazi war documentary. She took one look at Toad, dressed as he was, looking, I suppose, for all the world like a homeless person, there picking grasshoppers one by one off the grill of her truck, which carried her Harley in the pickup bed. Pathetic, she must have thought, and she slipped a wad of bills from a pants pocket and offered him $5 to get a hot meal and maybe a shower--along with a wink and a "then why don't you come see me sometime."
A tight little pained smile creased Toad's face. Little beads of sweat broke out all along his brow. It was the only time I ever saw him at a loss for words, the only time I ever saw him shrink from a situation. "Opportunity knocked and you failed to answer," I said.
"For a moment, I saw my life passing before my eyes," he said.
But I digress, for I was about to make a connection, if you would return momentarily to the first paragraph, exactly to the part about gnawing to the applecore, about to make a connection about apples. For it was that late afternoon that we stood, as I've said, knee deep along the edge of a sandbar, when, what from upstream should appear but two green apples floating downriver. I don't remember either of us saying anything, just looking at each other, strange, as in how did those green apples happen to be floating buddy buddy downriver--and from whence could they have come?
Toad grabbed one, as did I. Perfect late-summer green apples. "Yum!" I said, cracking off a bite. "Special delivery from above," Toad said. "At least from upstream," I said. "That's what I said," he replied. "Probably laced with arsenic," I said, "then dropped in the water to clean from the gene pool anyone sensible enough to wade wet for catfish." "Probably someone against folks having too much fun," he said.
Too much fun is just about the only way to describe wading wet for cats in July, August, and September, months that might seem like the bottom of the barrel for catching fish. Hotter than Hades. Rivers threaten to go dry. But the hot weather just kicks cats into overdrive, and the low water just makes cats easier to find and rivers easier to wade. For those willing to hang loose and wade right in, this baptism brings many an angler back to life. Most of us, after all, are pretty much just a wet step removed from being carefree kids again, brimming with enthusiasm, full of anticipation and curiosity.
Make no mistake, this too is a fine way to corner catfish. Pick just about any section of river with plenty of decent holes. As you know, rivers run in a continuous series of riffle, hole, run configurations. Some series of riffles, holes, and runs are better than others. Some sections of river also have more good series of riffles, holes, and runs than others. By late summer, many cats have moved to the best holes, often deeper holes associated with wood cover.
Lots of small streams, though, don't offer much cover other than deeper water along cutbacks or in the core of holes. Sometimes that water's only two or three feet deep. Try to find river sections that average slightly deeper than surrounding portions of river. It's not unusual to have many of the cats from, say, a three-mile section of river, holding in a half-mile section where the holes are just six inches or a foot deeper, on the average.
One of Toad's favorite small streams in Iowa was like that. It's a tiny stream a hundred miles and five tributary intersections removed from the Missouri River. By August, the stream wasn't more than 20 feet wide and two feet deep in most places. Most fish ran about a pound. But a good afternoon of wading might produce a dozen to three dozen fish. That's good sport and good eating, too.
Bigger rivers are better overall, of course. They just have more fish of a bigger average size, along with a shot at one that might surpass 10 pounds. Lots of anglers wade wet, for example, on sandbars formed by wing dams in the upper and middle Mississippi River. Cats move up on the sand to feed on all sorts of critters, including crustaceans and insect larvae and the minnows that eat the larvae. Perhaps the best presentation is to drift a bait below a slipfloat set just deep enough to keep the bait tumbling along over the sand. The best catches are almost always at or after dark, or up until about 9 or 10 in the morning.
The Minnesota River, where I've learned so much about catfish over the years, runs for some 300 miles across Minnesota. It has served as such a fine proving ground for catfishing techniques because it's a classic river, so much like portions of hundreds of other rivers across the country. Long shallow stretches are interspersed with sections having more gradient, where the water runs faster over riffles, into holes, and on through long runs. Lots more gravel and rock there. Lots more wood cover. These are the stretches to target. Might be 10 or even 20 feet of water in some of the deepest downriver holes, but most holes run 4 to 8 feet deep.
We usually walk upriver, then hustle back downriver once we've finished fishing the best spots, only stopping to refish a few of the top spots on our way back to the truck. Occasionally, especially if we get to the river during early afternoon and don't expect the best fishing to occur until late afternoon on toward dark, we'll walk downriver first, noting the best potential fishing areas as we go. It's typical to catch small fish and an occasional decent fish all day long. The best fishing, though, usually is up until about 9 or 10 in the morning and after 5 or 6 o'clock in the afternoon.
I love to drift a bait below a slipfloat this time of year, with the low flow just moving the float and bait along slowly through potential spots. Any float will do, but those simple walleye-style slipfloats with a stem are more visible at a distance. On streams, I use a bass flippin' stick and 12- or 14-pound line on a casting reel. On larger rivers, I use a Euro-style rod like the 11-foot Aurora, with a casting reel filled with 14-, 15-, or 17-pound line. The longer the rod, the higher the rod tip can be held above the water, which helps to keep line off the water for a truer drift for the float and bait.
This is one time of year and one situation where fresh cutbait doesn't stay fresh for long stashed in a plastic bag in your back pocket. Cutbait works, though. Hoppers can be good, too, and so can dipbaits. Hoppers keep well in a plastic bag or a small jar. Just duct tape a shower curtain ring to a jar and hang it on your belt. With a plastic bag, just run a corner of the top of the Ziploc-type bag through on the shower ring and, again, hang it on your belt.
A regular stringer works to keep a few fish. Toad used a wire fish basket tied with a stringer to his belt when he was standing in the water. Usually, he'd just carry the basket by hand and lay it in the water near shore as he fished. The basket was per--feet for smaller cats; we didn't keep big cats anyway, unless we happened to catch a flathead of four or five pounds. Good eating. Just about the perfect size for a meal for two.
I mention the basket, because it also was a handy way to carry dipbait, usually in a glass jar. Dips, of course, get pretty runny in hot weather, and the cooler water keeps them in a little better consistency. Thicken runny dips just a bit with a binder such as flour.
Dealing with dips midstream isn't easy, because you must unscrew the lid on the jar, then drop the plastic worm in and dip it with a stick. Dip worms also hold dip best if they're dried off a bit just before dipping. Most anglers hang a towel on their belt or tuck it in a back pocket.
The point is, you just don't have enough hands to accomplish everything easily in midstream. So most anglers doing the heavy dipping routine wade wet, but usually stand along the edge of the water to make presentations. They set the dipbait on the bank. Or if they're carrying a cat bag over their shoulder, they set the cat bag containing the dipbait on the bank. Dips, which are mostly made from rotten cheese, are a potent bait during late summer.
This is prime time to hold a bait right in a riffle area, often in less than a foot of water. Active cats move right into the shallow riffles to feed. If you're drifting a float, just let the float and bait tumble right through the riffle. A cat will grab the bait as it bounces through the riffle or grab it just as it enters the beginning of the hole below the riffle.
To hold a bait in the riffle, use a simple slipsinker rig with a heavier than normal (for low water) sinker, say a bell sinker of at least an ounce and probably more like two ounces. Cast the bait right into the fast water and let it settle. Get it to hold right in the fast water. The taste molecules from the bait are carried down into the hole to the cats, which shoot right up into the fast water to grab the bait. Hold your rod tip high, so that when a fish grabs hold you can drop the tip toward the fish a foot or two before setting. Don't feed line to the fish. Just drop and set. Don't have your reel in freespool. Hold on tight. These fish often are really smokin' along when they grab the bait.
Now you know I could go on talking about different situations and telling all kinds of stories. Seems to me this isn't one of those situations where most of you need all that much instruction. The point is to go. Imagine all the younger cat anglers out there who have never tried wading wet. Think of all the fun they'll have, all the things they'll discover. And all you old boys who have done this before back in your more "instructive" years, well, think you can drag those old bones out of an easy chair for one more round? Might be the most fun you have all summer.
OK, one story. The closest catfish to me in my junior high school days were eight miles or so north of the small farming community where I lived. A narrow gravel road led over a small bridge across a small river, the Little Rock, to be exact. That's where I caught my first catfish, wading wet.
Well, one hot August afternoon, a couple local hot shots and their girlfriends in a hot-rod '57 Chevy headed up that gravel road north of town. I know because, going about 200, they almost flattened my friend and me as we peddled our bikes up the road toward the bridge, fishing poles in hand.
Now, the road narrowed a few miles from the bridge, where the hot-rodders had to slow down as they pulled up behind a tractor. Eventually, a wide spot allowed the farmer to graciously pull to the side to let the speed wagon pass, which they did, laying on the horn and spraying gravel. Arms with middle fingers extended also went out the car windows as the car spun around the tractor. Up yours you hornytoad-headed old farmer!
The rest is history, as they say. The hot-rodders pulled up to the bridge and piled out, intent, apparently, on a little wet wading of their own, likely without swimming trunks. Well, the farmer continued on down the road, eventually reaching the bridge where the '57 Chevy was parked, windows rolled down to keep the car cool. As the farmer passed, he just pulled the lever on the wagon he was hauling, a manure spreader. We got to the bridge just in time to witness that "thems that deserves it sometimes gets theirs in the end."