How do you catch a beady-eyed fish known for its notoriously poor vision?
You appeal to its sense of smell and taste.
There are a variety of commercial dips and “nuggets” available, but buying off-the-shelf bait is not half as fun as making up your own concoction.
Bait of choice for catfish has been known to include jackrabbit innards, shad guts, nightcrawlers, clotted chicken blood, liver, SPAM, oysters and hot dogs.
In other words, pretty much anything that sticks on your hook and emits odor might work. Avid anglers guard their secret recipes zealously.
The most common types of catfish in the Mid-Columbia are channel cats and bullheads.
Channel cats are the easiest to identify, with deeply forked tails and spots. They have 24 to 29 anal fin rays, compared with 19 to 23 and 30 to 36 for white and blue cats.
Bullheads have square tails. Chin barbels, fin membrane clarity and pectoral spine serration help distinguish the more prevalent brown from yellow and black bullheads.
Channel cats, the larger of the two, feed mainly at night. Strong fighters and excellent table fare, they are found throughout the lower Columbia and Snake river reservoirs, with the highest numbers in the Snake. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife has also planted them in inland lakes to help control forage fish and diversify fishing opportunities.
They migrate in late spring into the lower reaches of soft-bottom streams, such as the Walla Walla, Yakima and Palouse rivers, seeking warm water to spawn. Females seek dark spaces such as an undercut bank, rock ledge or hollowed log to deposit eggs, after which males guard the nest and newly-hatched fry.
Channel cats move from McNary Pool into the lower Yakima River in late April and can be found in deep holes and runs from the Highway 240 bridge to Horn Rapids dam.
A popular weekend evening activity is plunking in the Yakima River delta. Look for an open spot to cast out your bait, prop your rod on a forked stick and wait for a bite. As flows drop, post-spawning channel cats get more aggressive and will strike spinners.
The lower Walla Walla River upstream to Nine Mile Ranch is also popular for still fishing from the bank. The channel near Madame Dorian Park is deep enough to be fished from an anchored boat using a slip bobber to suspend bait just off the bottom.
Channel cats that overwinter in the lower Snake River move into the upper Palouse River in May, where they migrate as far upriver as the base of the falls. An option for boaters is to anchor up in the deep channel off Lyons Ferry Park. Other popular spots include the lower Tucannon River and Lower Deadman Slough near Central Ferry, said Darcy Linklater of Darver Tackle.
Angling for channel cats requires a stout rod and reel loaded with 10- to 15-pound test mono or braided line. Most cats are in the 2- to 3-pound range, although you might see an occasional 10-pounder. A still-fishing rig can be as simple as threading a one-ounce egg sinker to a barrel swivel and tying on a 12-inch leader with hook sizes ranging from 1/0 to 2.
Catfish should be handled carefully, as they have powerful jaws and spines that can inflict injury. Two useful tools include a hook disgorger and needle-nose pliers.
There’s a daily catch limit of five channel catfish, but no limit on their smaller cousin, the bullhead. Bullheads, also known as creek cats or squaretails, generally do not exceed 12 inches in length and can be taken on light tackle.
They have tasty pink or reddish-colored meat, in contrast to the white flesh common for other catfish. Some anglers consider bullheads to be unsurpassed for gastronomical delight.
Bullhead aficionados might try Mesa or Scootenay lakes and Burbank Slough. Sprague, Banks and Moses lakes and the Potholes Reservoir also have sizable populations.
Get out your lawn chair and fish on the bottom with half a nightcrawler or a piece of shrimp on a No. 4 hook.
Neither channel cats nor bullheads are native to Eastern Washington. Bullheads were first introduced around 1880 from the eastern United States. The first authenticated appearance of a channel cat in the Columbia River was in 1945.
Both species are unusual. They have no scales, feed on the bottom and rub chin whiskers with their mates. Their skin functions as a minor respiratory organ, and some can even swallow atmospheric air.
Catfish have been known to survive long enough to swim in the bathtub after being kept in a wet gunnysack all day. I wouldn't recommend doing so, however, if your primary interest is a fish dinner. You may become attached to the handsome whiskers.
-- Dennis Dauble is a retired fishery scientist, author and an adjunct professor at Washington State University Tri-Cities. He can be contacted at www.DennisDauble.com.