Catfish may not be very pretty, but they fight hard, taste good


June 06, 1993|By GARY DIAMOND

One of the most popular species of fish in the nation has a face only its mother could love -- catfish. They're found in most freshwater lakes, rivers, streams and brackish water bays throughout the continental United States.

In Harford County, large numbers can be found residing in Conowingo Lake, the Susquehanna River and throughout the upper reaches of Chesapeake Bay, especially in areas north and east of Pooles Island.

Catfish are like cars. They come in a large variety of colors, sizes and models. Species include bullhead, channel, blue, flathead and tiny stone cats. Although the most common species in Harford County are bullheads and channel cats, on rare occasions a hefty flathead or blue catfish shows up in Conowingo Lake or the Susquehanna River, just below Conowingo Dam.

There are lots of myths associated with catfish, especially about their dietary habits. Contrary to popular belief, catfish do not root through muddy bottom areas and look for decaying forms of food. In reality, they mainly dine on small minnows, tiny bluegills or crappie, crayfish, worms and freshwater shrimp.

Catfish have an incredible sense of smell and are capable of detecting odors given off by minute particles of food at great distances. Veteran Harford County catfish anglers prefer using the freshest bait available -- not rotted chunks of chicken as some folks would like you to believe.

Anglers fishing from the catwalk of Conowingo Dam use fresh, cut herring, whole live shiners, small, live bluegills, night crawlers and pencil eels to catch channel catfish weighing up to 15 pounds. These baits are well-suited for fishing the fast-moving tailrace waters where stout boat rods, big sinkers and heavy Dacron lines are necessary to land channel cats and an occasional carp.

Downriver, near Lapidum Landing, the river's flow collides with tidal currents surging from the upper reaches of Chesapeake Bay, slowing the water's velocity from 8 knots to a snail's pace. Consequently, the lower river's catfish population doesn't have to expend large amounts of energy to obtain a meal.

Anglers fishing between Lapidum and the river's mouth use light spinning tackle to land channel catfish ranging from 2 to 12 pounds. Additionally, they also have the option of using a selection of strong scented baits such as chicken livers, menhaden, chunks of processed cheese and commercially prepared concoctions sold at a few local tackle shops.

Bottom-fished night crawlers, cut herring and menhaden are likely the most productive catfish baits used in the shallows waters between Havre de Grace and Pooles Island. Although catfish in this particular area rarely exceed 5 pounds, the average size is nearly 3 pounds, which is considered high for catties found in brackish water.

Although large numbers of channel catfish are caught by shore-bound anglers every summer, the largest catches are usually made by fishermen who have access to small and mid-sized boats. The reason behind this phenomena is quite simple.

Catfish, similar to all species of fish, are structure-oriented. They congregate in areas with abrupt changes in bottom contour such as channel edges, lumps, rock piles, points and drop-offs.

These variations interrupt the natural flow of the river or bay, creating turbulent, backwater eddies where juvenile fish, forage species and other forms of food collects in large quantities. Each of these locations essentially becomes a feeding station for predator species. Consequently, if a glob of night crawler or chunk of herring drifts by the same location, it's bound to attract the fish's attention.

Catfish, especially those over 5 pounds, put up a good battle on light tackle. They don't leap out of the water, but a hefty channel cat will do its best to shake the hook with head-shaking, bulldog tactics that often work. A channel cat's best attribute, however, is its eating quality.

Fresh catfish can be prepared using many recipes, and they're easily smoked, broiled or fried. The meat is delicate, white and flaky, tasting somewhat similar to winter flounder.

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