It was an early May morning and I was fishing a deep, slow riprapped bank for walleyes and drum. A flyrod was my tool of choice, and I was tossing Clouser minnows into the high Spring flows just above a dam. I had landed two Walleyes and a nice Northern Pike, and lost two flies to toothy pike as well. Now at the end of the riprap and having just been snipped off once again, I tied on a heavily-weighted Sculpin pattern and decided to fish my way back slow and deep, along the deep edge. After laying out a cast and letting the fly sink for 15 or 20 seconds I began an extremely slow retrieve, crawling the fly along bottom. Halfway through a fish hit so hard it felt like someone punched the butt of my rod. I gave a hard strip-set, then held on as the fish made a slow, powerful run straight away from me. The fish turned and gave some brutal headshakes, then continued to move slowly around. This was a very heavy fish. If it was a Drum or a Walleye, it must be over 12 pounds for sure. I must have battled the fish for ten minutes, my long flyrod fully bent and jerking violently with each pounding headshake. Finally I caught a glimpse of the fish, and was pleasantly surprised to see a large Channel Catfish. He wasn't done, either. I had another five minute battle with the catfish before I finally lipped him. I had caught occasional catfish on flies before, but none as big as this 8-pounder. After releasing the fish I continued to work my way down the riprap. My second cast produced another jolting strike and once again I had a fine battle with a large Channel Cat. Two more cats came to hand before I left, the largest pushing ten pounds. This was just about as much fun as I'd ever had with a flyrod, and I found myself laughing aloud. Three more trips back to this spot over the next week produced more catfish action, then a week later they were gone and I caught only Walleyes.
Flyfishing is definitely not the most effective overall method of catching Channel Catfish. That being said, at times they are as willing to take a fly as a Walleye or Bass. One time I have consistently caught them is in Late Spring. Whether pre-spawn or post-spawn, catfish are eager to take lively meals at this time. I've had the best action in deep runs with logs, as well as areas of deep riprap. These may be nesting areas for the catfish and they may be guarding their young, or they may be gorging themselves before or after the spawn. Whatever the reason, these Springtime Channel Catfish slam a fly hard and can be caught in numbers. Another prime Catfishing situation is found during midsummer in smaller rivers and streams. As evening falls, active Channel Cats will move into the heads of holes and even into riffles at times. Woody debris cover is once again attractive to the fish.
Big, ugly flies seem to work best for catfish. Sculpin and Crayfish patterns, along with large brown and black wooly buggers and bunny leeches work well. These should be heavily weighted. Sinking lines are very useful for this type of fishing, as keeping your offering smack on the bottom is key.
A floating line will work fine if you utilize long leaders. The most important part of the equation is moving the fly with deliberate slowness along the bottom of the river. In slow water, let the fly hit bottom and then retrieve the fly with slow, short pulls or a hand-twist retrieve. Let the fly settle back to bottom for a few seconds between each pull. Considering the amount of snags associated with catfish-holding water, you will probably lose a few flies. In faster current, a full-sinking line excels. A downstream cast can be made, then slowly crawl the fly back to you. Otherwise, a normal bottom-bouncing drift can be used, preferably having your fly hang up occasionally during the drift.
Channel Cats will hit hard, so be ready. Hit them hard right back with a strip-strike. If you find yourself on a river or stream with a good population of Channel Catfish, give them a shot with your flyrod. Using the flies and methods I described you will also catch Walleyes, Drum and Smallmouth Bass. There is no doubt, though, when a catfish grabs your fly. You will have a mean and nasty battle on your hands, and a new species to add to your flyrod life-list.