Outbox: Try hooking a fish with catfish

August 10, 2003|by BILL ANDERSON / Staff Correspondent

Some of the most interesting aspects of writing a column are the e-mails from readers with questions, comments or complaints. Most of the complaints are about a policy that one of the state agencies is following or planning to follow. Most of the questions are about one of the various outdoors activities found in our region.

A recent e-mail from a reader was pretty typical. Earlier this summer he and some friends went on a multiday canoe trip down the Shenandoah River in Virginia and noticed that two of the little bait shops along the way had small catfish (madtoms) for sale as bait. He was intrigued by the fact that folks used little catfish for bait, and even more intrigued by the fact that they were selling for $7.50 for half a dozen. He was right, that is some very expensive fish bait.

The baits he was referring to are known locally by many names. Many folks call them stonecats or, in Pennsylvania, stonecatties. A few fishermen refer to them as bullheads, although the small catfish used for bait in most smallmouth rivers are not bullheads. They do, however, look a lot like small bullheads.


Fishery biologists in Maryland and West Virginia tell me that the little catfish in question is actually the marginated madtom and that the stonecat is a different animal. I've been calling them stonecats for too many years to worry about changing now.

The catfish are usually a butterscotch or olive color and feature a distinctly pinkish hue to the belly. As a live bait for trophy river smallmouths, stonecats from 3 to 5 inches long are in a class by themselves. This is particularly true in the late summer.

There are good reasons why bait shops can and do charge so much for stonecats. The first is that they are hard to catch in any quantity, and the second is that they are extremely tough and you can often catch a number of bass on the same bait.

There are a number of techniques used for catching stonecats. The best I've tried is to seine the shallows near weedbeds at night, using a net that is weighted in front to keep it right on the bottom. It's tough work, and you quickly get an appreciation as to why the baits are expensive to buy.

After you are lucky enough to get a supply of baits you can fish them in any number of ways. When the rivers are low and clear, a very good tactic for boaters is to float with the current and drift a stonecat under a bobber. Sliding bobber rigs are the best because you can easily adjust the depth of the bait under the bobber.

Other fishermen like to anchor upstream from good holding water and soak the baits in the pool until a big smallmouth wanders by. A third method is to wet wade and make upstream casts, drifting the bait through likely holding waters. Each method works well in our area.

One thing worth noting is that you can save a lot of fish by striking fairly quickly after the fish grabs the bait and runs with it. Years ago, the procedure recommended by veteran anglers and the outdoors press was to let the fish run until it stops, and then set the hook on the second run. What this approach usually guarantees is a gut-hooked fish that is doomed to die, even if you release it.

Fish don't have hands or pockets. If they are running with the bait you can set the hook because the bait is in their mouth. This is particularly true when using circle hooks. Early hooksets when using live bait will allow you to release most fish to be caught another day.

Bill Anderson writes a weekly outdoors column for The Herald-Mail. He can be reached by e-mail at

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