Susquehanna Channel Cats from a Kayak

By James Wells

As a regular angler on the Upper Susquehanna River, one hears all the time about how great the smallmouth, walleye, and musky fisheries are in our river. While there is no point in arguing with anyone on these points (as they are true), there is one point that is often forgotten: The Susquehanna is home to some awesome catfishing.

As an angler floats down the river fishing from a boat, canoe, or kayak there are always anglers sitting on the side of the river as dusk approaches getting ready for a night of, hopefully, hooking into one of these monsters of the deep. The sight of medium to heavy poles in the air with lines out in the middle of the river stuck into the ground next to an angler is something most look forward to as the majority of catfisherman love to talk to you. Having asked many anglers about why they are willing to sit in a chair waiting, sometimes, hours for a catfish to take their bait; the answer is virtually always the same, the fight. As a kayak angler, I feel the same way.

The Upper Susquehanna is home to the Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctuatus) one of the largest catfish in the family Ictaluridae. They can reach upwards of 40-50 pounds but the average fish is 2-5 pounds. They are variable in color with the younger fish most often being light brown to tan to yellow with numerous small dark spots on their sides to the older fish being tan, yellow, slate-blue, gray, or almost black with fewer or no spots.

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Picture 1. Variation of Channel Catfish caught and released from the Upper Susquehanna.

While the fish are variable in color, size and appearance, they are the same in one aspect. They are aggressive, opportunistic fish that will eat anything that they can catch and will fit in their mouth.

I have been an avid kayak angler for the last 5 years. I can’t say that I never fished or kayaked before that time, but I really caught the bug in 2007. Combining these two things previously done separately teaches a lot about how different and challenging kayak fishing is compared to shore or boat fishing.  In the beginning it was all about the bass, largemouth and smallmouth were the preferred targets and anything else caught was considered to be by-catch. Maturing as a kayak angler, I found that, while I still loved catching bass, my appreciation for the other species of gamefish grew. One such fish that I am incredibly fond of is the Channel Cat. There are very few experiences in the Susqy that compare to that moment when your line jerks taut and you set the hook on a big cat in your kayak. The pole doubles over, you get a free ride as the fish starts pulling you around, and the fight is on. While not jumpers like the bass or musky, they fight hard, pulling down towards the bottom of the river in spastic runs trying to get away from the surface. Depending on your tackle these fights can commonly last 5-10 minutes. As any kayak angler knows, there is nothing like the adrenaline rush of hooking into a big fish. It’s the ultimate feeling of you versus the fish and most of the time it is hard to place a bet on the victor.

There are a lot of myths surrounding the habits of catfish. Growing up on the Susquehanna in New York I’d hear things like: Catfish only live in the deep holes, Catfish only feed at night, Catfish will sting you with their whiskers, etc. As a fisherman and a biologist, let me just say a few things. Channel cats are a ubiquitous fish in the rivers they inhabit. They are literally everywhere, though they do prefer deeper pools and eddies with structure. Catfish are more active at night but are also feeding and moving around in the day. They have no stingers on their barbels (whiskers) but they do have three large spines, one on their dorsal fin and 2 on their pectoral fins, and these will draw blood if you’re not careful. One thing not mythological in regard to catfish: Bait is king. From cut-bait, to worms, dobson, stonecats, minnows, doughballs, shrimp, chicken livers, it will all work. They are extremely sensitive to smells and will gobble up most types of bait like it is their job. Which it is.

When hitting the river, there’re a few things to make sure are present and accounted for. First and foremost is a PFD. ALWAYS WEAR YOUR LIFE JACKET! Safety is the most important thing when you’re on any body of water. This cannot be stressed enough. After that comes a first aid kit, cold drinks, snacks, lip grips, hemostats, net, tackle trays, waterproof camera, measuring board, rods and reels, and anything else you feel you need for a day of kayak angling. A good tip is to safely (free from any tangling or snagging issues) tie off anything that you could lose in the river to your PFD or kayak. That’ll keep from ruining the day by losing equipment. My rod and reel choice is a 6’6” medium with 15lb. braid on a spinning reel. I try to catch most of my catfish on the medium but sometimes when I’m smallie fishing the ultra-light gets run over by a monster and a battle of wills ensues. Try not to stress the fish if you are a catch and release fisherman but if you do hook into a big one on light tackle be sure to properly revive the fish before letting it go. So now that your all geared up it is time to go kayak catfishing!

When the catfish are pre-spawn and spawning you will find them to be hungry and aggressive. With the water level being higher you will find that deeper channels hold many catfish sitting at the bottom waiting for food to pass them by as they fatten up for the spawn or are guarding their nests around submerged structure or shelves. While in the spawn the fish become easy targets. Please do not focus on fishing the spawning beds of any species of fish as it could possibly harm the breeding population of the species you are fishing. If you find yourself on the spawning area of a fish, move out in to deeper water or a new location and leave them alone to start the next generation of fish in peace.

The seasons after the spawn are when the catfish congregate in the pools and eddies during the day and get more active and aggressive by night. This is also when I turn more to live bait for my catfish. Though they will still hit artificial lures, I’ve caught Cats on everything from spinnerbaits to in-line spinners to crankbaits, live bait works better in most cases. Find large deep pools or eddies with a good back current and structure. Take your bait and put it on a good strong hook. I use a #1 or #2 circle hook tied with a palomar knot. If you are unfamiliar with using circle hooks I highly recommend learning about them and switching over from traditional hooks for live bait fishing. In my opinion they are better in almost every way to traditional bait hooks. Then throw your baited hook, with or without weight depending on the current, into a position so it will drift into the bottom of the pool or eddy. Let it sit for awhile and repeat until you’ve hooked a fish. Jigging plastics off the bottom in these places also works quite well, especially if they are scented.

It is best to use stealth when getting into a good position to hit these hotspots as you don’t want to spook the fish with a lot of splashing around. Drifting through these pools and eddies also works but tends to be a bit more snag prone. Anchoring on shore or having a river anchor for your kayak also works well. Floating past the spot you plan to hit and then cautiously paddling up below it is best. This technique works during the day and at night, the key is just to find the spots that have the higher concentration of fish. As proof of this I offer up this: this year I landed 29 channel cats out of my kayak during the day in 1 week. The hook: It was all out of one hole. All fish species migrate to certain areas throughout the year. Finding out how to identify where they probably will be depending on season, weather, water level and other conditions will make you a better angler and having a kayak to get to those spots will make it easier.

So in the future when your talking about how great a fishery the Susquehanna is don’t forget to mention all of the fish that make it a great fishery. There are plenty more species besides the catfish that often don’t even get an honorable mention in the stories of Susqy anglers. Having a diverse ecology makes this river as great as it is and to focus on just a few of the numerous great gamefish we have available to test our wills against narrows us down and doesn’t give credit where credit is due. So next time you hook up with a Channel Cat, enjoy the ride. Catch it, snap a photo, release it, and appreciate it. Because that is what fishing is all about.

About the author:

Jim is an Environmental Scientist and Biologist who lives and works in the southern tier region of upstate New York. He is an enthusiastic kayak angler who can often be seen floating down the Susquehanna whenever he gets the chance. Feel free to contact him with questions at jgwcareerseeker@gmail.com.

About the author