On an early morning in June, you can see the tips of catfish tails sticking up over the surface of the water in the shallows around Mermaid Island.
It may be spawning season that makes them congregate in that location. At that time, even a jig and a plastic minnow will bring more into your boat than your family is likely to eat all summer.
But unlike crappies, which are so easy and fun to catch during those early spring runs and hard to find the rest of the year, catfish merely go from easy to catch to ridiculously easy to catch when they are on a feeding frenzy.
I lamented in an earlier column that I miss the days when a good catch during a couple of hours on the water early on a summer morning would be three or four decent walleye, with an odd catfish thrown in instead of three or four nice catfish and you’re lucky if you find one walleye. But I am not terribly upset about the trend, as catfish run larger than walleye and fight a lot better. They’re a lot of fun.
And they have become the dominant species on Lake Wissota. No, it’s not just me.
Lake Wissota’s page on the DNR website lists walleye as “abundant,” the only species to have that designation.
Musky, smallmouth, northern and catfish are listed as “common.” That underestimates the abundant catfish, and the jury is still out on whether the walleye assessment is still accurate. (A “present” listing for largemouth bass is akin to Democrats at an NRA convention – there are a few, I suppose).
On the Lake Link fishing report website, a recent poster noted on a Sunday his boat took home nine channel cats, one longer than 30 inches and another boat reported taking home 20 on Saturday and 18 on Sunday.
“Channel Cat population has been really high for the past five years,” wrote another poster. “Just about anywhere you can get a hook wet on the lake will produce with live bait. Cat numbers are so high they are the most common catch when targeting walleyes with live bait.” Amen to that.
The County K bridge area is famous for catfish, and was more than 20 years ago when I moved to the lake and the catfish had not yet taken over.
People fish them from shore there. The fishermen in the boats looking for cats range all the way into the state park area. But anywhere you can get a hook wet in a few feet of water is a good bet. If I leave first bend up Paint Creek without at least one catfish, it usually means nothing much at all is biting at that time.
Fishermen are often too quick to pronounce their theories on what is going on with a fishery, armed with no information beyond some limited personal experience and a lot of speculation. In any boat with three walleye fishermen having a slow day there will be at least one who will insist it is the fault of the over-abundance of muskies swallowing trophy walleyes whole.
So I will refrain from blaming catfish for how walleye fishing has slowed.
I do wonder, however, if competition between the species for the same habitat is having a detrimental effect on the walleye. But let’s wait until the next DNR fish survey to see whether there is any data to suggest a decline in walleye population. We may be catching more catfish than walleye for the simple reason that catfish are way more aggressive.
If you don’t believe it, just get one of those over-30-inch cats on the end of a line on medium action tackle. You’ll be wondering if a musky hit your minnow. A 20-inch catfish for a moment may make you hope that it’s really a 30-inch walleye you’re fighting.
And if you’re not sure what to do with that big one you’ve caught, I suggest you soak it in a strong brine with brown sugar and Worcestershire sauce, then smoke it with some hickory or apple wood for about three hours.
Serve cold with an even colder Leinenkugel’s.