Don’t discount catfish

With a typical saltwater bay boat passing in the background, this nice blue catfish was caught on a Gulp! in the MRGO near the Hopedale dam. While trout and redfish are still caught in the area, the change in salinities since the dam was installed has caused an influx of freshwater catfish.

These hard-fighting fish shouldn’t be seen as an incidental catch

Catfish are common in southeast Louisiana. But for decades they were only in the freshwater lakes and areas on the fringe of fresh/brackish waterways. However, over the last two decades they have spread into areas that were formerly considered for saltwater species only. Still, they are not specifically targeted by many in these areas, and anglers are usually pleasantly surprised when one of the tasty, hard-fighting beasts is landed.

Fueled by hurricane and wetlands protection projects, the changes in hydrology and salinity levels have allowed the cats to spread into areas where they were not previously seen by current generations. Diversions, dams, and blocked canals have all contributed to conditions conducive to the expansion of fresh cats into all but the extreme coastal spots nearer the Gulf.

Catfish provide great sport and have become common catches for kayak anglers fishing in all the traditional saltwater areas around the greater New Orleans area. Of course, catfish were always found in Lake Pontchartrain along the northern and western areas, but they are now common throughout the lake and areas like Hopedale, Shell Beach and Delacroix are chock-full of big catfish.

Targeting catfish

Many catfish are caught by accident fishing for trout and redfish. While live or dead bait is best, I have seen them caught on spinner baits, spoons and even topwater. However, since they are primarily bottom feeders with small eyes, bottom rigs using live or natural baits are best to specifically target them. Cut fish, live worms, minnows, and shrimp all work well for attracting these catfish.

Blue and channel cats are both available, with the blues generally being larger. Although similar in appearance, channels, particularly when younger often have distinct black spots. The easiest way to distinguish between the two is that the blues have a straight, flat-bottomed anal fin while the channel’s fin is rounded. Louisiana’s other catfish species, the flathead, is rarer in these areas, but a few spotty catches have been reported.

With size and possession limits on popular speckled trout and redfish becoming more restrictive, kayak anglers may consider targeting catfish to add additional fish to their bag. Blue cats have a 12-inch minimum length, channel cats have an 11-inch minimum and flatheads, a 14-inch minimum. However, the bag limit is 100 fish per angler in combination of all three species. Additionally, over 25 of those fish may be under the legal length limit. This is a great opportunity to collect some tasty meals while out in the marsh.

Handle with care

You’ll often hear fishermen speak of “being stung” by a catfish. Although their whiskers (barbels) look like they can sting you, they are completely harmless. What you do need to watch out for is the spines on the tips of their pectoral and dorsal fins. A thrashing catfish in a kayak can easily inflict injury with one of these spines. Handle the cats with a net or lip-gripper and you should have no problem keeping them under control. The larger the catfish, the blunter the spines. Therefore, the smaller ones are more likely to stick you.

Handling catfish in the tight confines of a kayak can be a little dicey. Using a net and/or lip-grip keeps the fish under control and lessens the chances of getting stuck by the fin spines.

A typical rod and reel combo that you are confident in using to catch redfish is all that is needed for these catfish. While some blue cats in these areas get quite large, if your set-up can handle a bull red, you should have no issues with a big blue cat.

Terminal tackle is fairly basic. A typical bottom or Carolina rig with various weights of sinkers (depending on current) and a stout J-hook, is all that is needed. For those with enough patience to wait for the fish to eat and then simply reel, rather than setting the hook, Circle hooks work well for catfish also.

What works best

Catfishing can be a waiting game, so an anchor or stake-out pole to keep the kayak stationary is a big help. Seek out deeper cuts, canals, and drains to post up and cast to the deeper areas. As with trout and reds, some tidal water movement is always best. Since you are fishing with a static bottom rig, the current helps carry the bait smell and vibrations to attract the fish to your line.

As noted above, live and dead natural baits are best, but one great exception is Gulp! baits. This scent-filled artificial is seeing its fair share of freshwater catfish catches. (I know that pesky hard-head cats are also quite fond of Gulp!) If the bite is slow, move to a similar nearby area. I have seen days where a move of less than 100 yards has resulted in many fish where the other spot yielded none.

Many kayak anglers are enjoying the incidental catch of these catfish without putting two and two together and realizing that they can be specifically targeted. With just a little change in baits and techniques, your favorite trout and redfish spot just might become your new favorite freshwater catfish spot.

About Chris Holmes 256 Articles
Chris Holmes has kayak fished in the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and many places in between.