If you have a choice, I suggest that you fish for catfish just before dark until about midnight. This seems to be the best time, especially for channel cats. However, any time you can get bait in the water you have a chance to catch catfish. In the middle of the day, when the sun is high, these fish will seek-out shade around banks, docks, logs, trees and brush.
As far as time of year, spring seems to generate the best overall bite. Just before spawning they will come into shallow water to feed and will be most likely to hit your baits. May through August, depending on the weather, are good times. It is easier to judge the spawn in impoundments because the water temperature is more constant. In a river the spawn can be very tricky to predict, especially if the river floods due to the northern snow meltoff.
For the channel cat, the bait must smell good to them. It is a safe bet that if the bait turns your stomach, the catfish will love it. You can also use cut bait, dough bait, whole minnows, cheese, chicken livers, night crawlers and commercially made stink baits, like SONNY'S.
Whatever bait you use, make sure your hook point is exposed and not buried in the bait. Leave the baits out long enough for the cat to find it through the scent it is releasing. Channel cats will often carry the bait off a short way before they eat it. They have sensitive mouths; so do not apply any drag on the line until you are sure the fish has swallowed the bait. Channel cats tend to like clearer water than some other catfish species. They can be found in lakes and rivers over gravel or rock bottoms. The big ones in this area come from around the Mississippi River dam's tailraces.
As mentioned, June is a good month for channel catfish in this area. This will often coincide with the post-spawn. When the water temperature reaches about 55 degrees these fish will begin to feed. As the water temp climbs above 65 degrees, they become much more active. The current U.S. record with rod and reel record is 56 pounds.
A good tip to keep in mind when tight lining for catfish is not be overly concerned about the small fish that will nibble at your bait. The minnows and bluegill will not eat all your bait. In fact, the commotion these little guys can cause around the bait can actually attract the catfish to the spot. When the nibbling stops is when you should pay close attention. It may mean a big cat has arrived.
Now that we have given the fish a great meal, let us now discuss how you can prepare the catfish once you get ready for your feast. I prefer all of my fish grilled, but I know the traditional method for preparing catfish is to fry them. Therefore I will pass along this recipe for Cajun Catfish:
Ingredients needed are 2½ cups cornmeal, ground cayenne pepper, 1 tsp. butter flavored salt, 1 cup milk, 1 cup plain flour, salt, 1 tsp. garlic powder, 10 pounds of catfish and cooking oil. Soak catfish in milk. Mix dry ingredients in large bowl. Roll fish in dry ingredients. Fry in hot cooking oil deep enough to float the fish. Be sure the grease in not TOO hot.
My guess is that there are more tons of catfish consumed in Illinois each year than any other fish. And for good reason. They are delicious. So do yourself and your family a favor this month and next. Mix up some stinky bait, get your gear and get out and catch some channel cat. Oh yeah, do not forget to call me when they are ready.
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