Daytime catfish fishing is a straightforward affair well suited to relaxing afternoons on the riverbank. Brushed by the sun, the soothing landscape around you creates an idyllic backdrop against which to wait for the occasional cat to take the bait.
It's a different scene once darkness falls.
As familiar landmarks evaporate in the gloom, primal instincts heighten your senses to levels rarely experienced in everyday life. Hungry catfish further fuel the adrenaline rush as they strap on the feedbag with a vengeance, breaking the nocturnal silence with the sweet sounds of screaming drags and thrashing fish that are sure to drown out the occasional bumps in the night.
Few anglers know the dark shadows drill like Phil King. Nearly four decades of plying the iconic Tennessee River near Pickwick Dam has taught the veteran guide much about connecting clients with cats of all stripes.
A decorated competitor in national tournaments, King has been crowned world champion in prestigious events including the Cabela's King Kat Classic, and is a three-time winner in Big Cat Quest Championships. He was also the first angler to break the 100-pound barrier in a modern-day catfish competition, with a 103.10-pound blue behemoth.
King's night court docket, however, often centers on reeling in oodles of eater-size channel cats in the 5- to 10-pound range—with a fair number of larger fish thrown in the mix to keep everyone on their toes.
"Channel cats feed aggressively at night," he says. "And they're perfect targets for easy-to-fish dipbait programs." Indeed, even first-time cat fans can arm themselves for battle with relatively little fuss or muss, and follow King's proven plan of attack to enjoy epic catches.
In fact, one of his favorite channel cat routines is happening right now on rivers across the southern tier of Cat Country, and it promises to hold water well into winter. "Channel cats move into shallow, current-washed shoals to feed at night throughout the fall, and I've caught them shallow into December," he says. "Once winter sets in, the same tactics still produce fish. You just need to focus on a bit slacker water."
Here's how it works. A medium- to medium-heavy-power casting outfit is the backbone of King's system. He favors 9- to 10-foot rods for bank fishing, but says 8-footers are fine when afloat. "Long rods are key for smooth, long-range casts that help you cover more water from shore," he explains. "In a boat, you can always let out more anchor rope to extend your reach."
Cat rods abound, but luminescent options such as Berkley's Glowstiks are top choices. The sturdy rods feature light-absorbing, glow-in-the-dark E-glass blanks, plus the added illumination of an internal, battery-operated LED. "A glowing rod simplifies strike detection and helps avoid nighttime tangles," says King. "And you can always turn on the LED for additional lighting."
When tying rigs and unhooking cats, King relies on the convenient radiance of a Berkley Angler's Head Lamp. "Hands-free lighting is a huge help when wrangling rigs and fish," he explains.
Though his quarry averages under 10 pounds, King's line choices trend toward the stout side of the spectrum. "When rigging rods for flatheads and blues as well as channel cats, I often spool with 80-pound Trilene Braid," he says, noting that beefy monofilament such as 40-pound-test Berkley Trilene Big Cat is a fine choice for anglers who target mainly channels.
"Big Cat has great shock strength and abrasion resistance," he says. "Plus, it fluoresces in black light, so it's easy to see at night."
At the business end of the line, King adds a Berkley DipWorm. Pre-rigged on 20-pound Berkley Big Game with a size 6 treble hook, the tube-style body sports ribs and cups to hold bait better than traditional designs. "It's easy to use with a slip-sinker or three-way weighting system," he says. "Current governs sinker size, which typically ranges from three to six ounces. The main thing is keeping the bait in one place—not allowing it to roll downriver with the flow."
King sweetens DipWorms with a sticky, scent-saturated prepared bait. His go-to is Berkley PowerBait PowerDip. The product of extensive lab and field research, PowerDip dissolves at just the right rate to lure catfish in before the flavor fades. "It's available in blood and cheese formulations, and I always bring both flavors, because channel cats often prefer one over the other," he says. "Experiment with each kind on different lines until the fish tell you what's on the menu for the night."
To boost his odds of success, King targets high-percentage areas. "Incoming creeks are hotspots," he says. "Fish the upper and lower points of entry into the main river, as well as the slower water right at the mouth. Typically these are hard-bottom areas with sand or gravel, often spiced up with woody cover."
Gravel shoals at the head of islands are also prime lies, as are river bends. "Both inside and outside bends can be good," says King. "Especially those with chunk rock that offers current breaks for catfish to sit behind."
Once in position, King fires out as many lines as the law allows, covering different depths to determine where peak feeding activity is occurring. He counsels patience once lines are set. "Usually five to 15 minutes is enough time to get bit," he says. "But I wait half an hour, to give all the catfish in range of the scent trail time to move up and take the bait." Lacking takers in the 30-minute time frame, he repositions baits 75 feet downstream, to take advantage of the first set's scent trail.
Often, though, strikes are fast and furious. "There's no mistaking a channel cat bite," King grins. He warns against executing an eye-crossing hookset at the first sign of a nibble, however. "Channel catfish like to taste the bait before moving off with it," he explains. "Once the rod loads up or the fish takes line from a bait-runner reel, they've typically hooked themselves, especially on a treble. If you try setting the hook, you might actually rip it out of the fish's mouth or break the line."
By simply reeling down and putting pressure on the fish, then continuing to take in line, you're well on your way to boating or banking a feisty channel catfish. And if you follow King's strategies to the letter, chances are the fight will only be the first of many such nocturnal battles waged against these delicious ghosts of the darkness.