Jessica, my buddy Dave Daniel’s daughter, always has called me
“Cat Clancy” because when she was little her dad and I would sneak
away on a hot summer evening for a few hours of fishing for channel
cats on the Mississippi River. I guess until I came along, Jesse
had never heard of anyone fishing for catfish.
Of course that is not unusual here in Minnesota. Many of the
anglers in our state have never caught a catfish, or at least, not
on purpose. With all of the other species available in our state,
the catfish has just never garnered a large following. That’s OK by
me. One thing I know when I go catfishing: It won’t be crowded.
My mother always says that I was born to catfishing. She is
about right. Mom and dad were sitting on the banks of the Minnesota
River fishing for catfish the day I was born. I do not have any
memory of the first times Pa took me back to the banks of his
beloved Minnesota River, but I do remember the first time I stayed
up all night and fished catfish with him and my Aunt Marce. It was
the summer I turned 4 years old.
I liked everything about that night. Gathering the firewood,
cutting forked willow sticks in which to prop the rods, collecting
clams and prying them open to get at the meat we would use for
bait, the way the sand was soft and warm late that night when my
eyes would no longer stay open and I lay down upon it to sleep. And
of course I remember the fish. Sleek, fork-tailed channel cats.
Most only a pound or two, but some much larger. If you have never
spent a night on a river sandbar, you have missed out on one of
life’s simple joys.
My father was a railroad man, and we were always moving when I
grew up. But no matter where we moved, there were always catfish.
The Blue Earth River, the Cottonwood, the LeSueur, the lower
reaches of the Root, the Zumbro, the St. Croix, the Cannon, the Big
Fork and the Red. I fished them all. For a short time in the early
’70s, the LeSueur was my favorite river and from the bridge
crossing at Highway 23 upstream was my favorite stretch.
This had nothing to do with the fishing being any better on that
stretch than on any other stretch and everything to do with beer.
The gentleman who owned the land along the river was a retired
brewmaster who still practiced his craft in his basement. He made
the best home brew I had ever tasted. He also loved fried channel
catfish, but did not care to fish. I fished, but did not make beer.
It was a marriage made in heaven.
Channel cats are my favorite catfish because they bite well even
during the day. The larger flatheads are pretty much nocturnal.
During the day, channel cats usually will be loafing in the deepest
pools on smaller rivers. If the pools have some cover rocks, logs,
or fallen trees all the better.
You do not need bait that stinks to high heaven to catch a
channel catfish. I have caught lots of them on live minnows,
nightcrawlers, crawdads, leeches, and frogs. However, you will, in
most cases, catch more of them with something with a little aroma.
Stinkbaits are good. I used to make my own, but after a jar of it
blew up in the backyard where I had it simmering in the sun, Nancy
put a stop to that.
My all-time favorite catfish bait is chicken liver. Rabbit liver
is just as good, but harder to get. I fish it on a small hook,
about a size six to eight, with enough weight ahead of the hook to
keep the bait down there where catfish feed.
When I need a “big fish fix” I will head for the Mississippi or
St. Croix river armed to battle giant flatheads. Most nights you
can expect to catch two or three “small” fish of 10 to 20 pounds
and maybe tie into a real bruiser or two. The two largest flatheads
I have ever seen were caught at the junction of the Minnesota and
Blue Earth rivers right in Mankato. The same guy caught them about
an hour apart. He had a rusty old scale that only went to 50 pounds
and both fish bottomed out the scale.
Flatheads like either live bait or fresh cut bait. A big sucker
or creek chub is always a good choice. So is a good chunk of
either. It should be fresh though. Unlike their cousins, the
channel cat, flatheads don’t care for tainted flesh.
The biggest catfish I have ever seen was caught by a kid named
Pete and myself on a river called the Dong Nai in South Vietnam.
Pete was from Arkansas and loved to fish for catfish. His parents
had sent him some heavy trot line, hooks, and sinkers, so Pete and
I tried to run trot lines along the banks of the river whenever we
could, but the local fishermen kept stealing them.
Finally, when we were down to only a couple of hooks and sinkers
and maybe 100 feet of line, Pete and I gave up on the trot line
idea. Whenever we were on patrol or pulling an ambush near the
river, Pete and I would sneak down to the river, swing the baited
hook and heavy sinker around and around over our heads and heave
the offering as far as we could out into the river. Most of the
catfish we caught were under 10 pounds, but the locals were
delighted with them.
Then one afternoon, something grabbed hold of Pete’s bait
(weenies out of a C-ration can of beans and weenies) and took off
for North Vietnam. Pete hollered at me to come help. I grabbed hold
of the line with Pete and digging our jungle boots into the muddy
bank we hung on for all we worth. It was like trying to hang onto a
John Deere tractor. But hang on we did, and after about 20 minutes,
the big fish tired and we slid it up into the shallows.
I have no idea how much the fish weighed, but it was bigger than
a lot of the children from the village who had gathered round to
see the battle. The fish had a very wide head, barbels like any
other catfish, and a long, sleek, slate-colored torso culminating
in a broad tail, which if memory serves me, was forked like a
Neither Pete nor I had a camera, so I do not have a picture of
Pete and the big fish. I wish I did. Two nights later, our position
was overrun; Pete was one of the guys who did not survive the
night. Our platoon sergeant asked me to pack up Pete’s few
belongings to ship home to his folks. I did, but I kept the fishing
line, hooks, and sinkers. I figured Pete would want me to have
As things worked out, I never got to fish again in Nam and as
much as I would like to tangle with another monster cat like that,
I’m not going back to do it.