ROANOKE, Va. (WFXR) — Looking for a fish that will put up a great fight, provide great table fare, and is relatively easy to catch? Look no further than channel catfish, and now is the time to target them.
Channel catfish are found in most Virginia lakes and streams. They are apex predators and feed on other fish, insects, crayfish, snails, worms, and sometimes even birds. You can usually find them finning throughout the water column, though they’ll often be near the bottom. They prefer sand or gravel bottoms, with cover of weeds, rocks, or timber nearby.
Why now for channel cats?
When water temperatures climb into the mid-70s, channel cats spawn. We’re almost in that temperature range in area waterways. While they don’t eat a lot during the spawn, just before, channel cats will gorge themselves to build up fat stores to sustain them while they’re spawning.
Where should you look for them?
Go to the food, their food. We’re talking about bluegills, shiners, shad, and chubs. Bluegills and other sunfish are also spawning at this time of year, usually on sand or gravel. You’ll find channel cats nearby. You’ll also find channel cats near their own spawning areas. Look for them where there is sunken timber or rocky cover. They also like to spawn beneath undercut banks.
Once you’ve scouted out a location, there are a variety of baits that will be effective. Channel cats aren’t too picky when they’re feeding. They’ll hit nightcrawlers, worms, minnows, cut bait, chicken livers, and a variety of pre-packaged dough and stink catfish baits. Chances are if you can get a bait in front of them, they’ll try to eat it.
Rigging is fairly simple, too. A 1/0 circle hook tied to a length of 12 or 15-pound test fluorocarbon or monofilament line with an egg sinker attached and rigged Carolina style is all you’ll really need. Fish it on the bottom. You can also fish that rig, minus the weight, under a float.
Catfish aren’t subtle. They usually hit most baits like a freight train. You might feel a tap and a run, or your rod may bend when they strike. Either way, count to three, set the hook, and hold on. Channel cats are known for their line-peeling runs. They put up a fantastic fight.
Another thing to know about catfish is that you have to be very careful handling them. They have spines on their pectoral and dorsal fins, and it can be painful if you get jabbed. The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (VDWR) has a video on how to properly handle catfish that you can see here.
Where should you target channel catfish in southwest Virginia?
Smith Mountain Lake is tops. The VDWR reports that Smith Mountain Lake holds good numbers of channel cats in a variety of size ranges. Claytor Lake, the Roanoke River, the Staunton River, the Appomattox River, and the New River are also good places to try to catch channel catfish.
While the Outdoors Bound staff returns most of the catfish we catch, we will keep a few smaller ones to eat. They aren’t pretty, but they are delicious. They’re a mild, firm-fleshed, white fish that takes to a variety of cooking methods. They can be baked, broiled, steamed, grilled, or fried.
Basic Fried Catfish Recipe:
- 2 pounds catfish fillets
- 1 cup flour
- ½ cup cornmeal
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon Louisiana-style hot sauce
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1-quart peanut oil
Heat the peanut oil in a deep pot or deep fryer until it reaches 350 degrees F.
Whisk together the flour, cornmeal, and other dry ingredients.
Add hot sauce to beaten egg.
Dip each fillet in the egg, then dip in the flour-cornmeal mixture.
Carefully add fillets to the hot oil two at a time and fry until golden brown, about 5 minutes.
Remove with tongs and let them drain on a rack or paper towels.
While channel catfish are prevalent, you could also run into smaller bullhead catfish, or larger flathead and blue catfish, depending on the body of water. Regardless of how you go after them, now is the time to do it.