The anchor was out on the small flat-bottomed boat that belonged to Ryan Scott. I let it loose in about 5 feet of water, and we drifted slowly downriver until the big weight found a solid hold on the soft river bottom. Looking at the fish finder, I could see that we had drifted just to the edge of a hole in the river. It was a section carved by two river currents colliding. It was three-times deeper than the normal stretch of river–and it had gobs of fish floating in it.
We cast into the wide expanse of the Snake River laid out before us. One side was farmers’ fields the other side was a stellar view of Idaho wine country. But this wasn’t a dainty wine sipping adventure. No, I was after the mighty and oft-overlooked catfish.
It is a rite of passage for many an Northwest boy to sit around a fire along a slow moving river and hope that a kitty fish tugs on the end of his line. But the drunken exploits of amateurs have ruined the reputation of this sport for many of the others.
You see, fly fishers stalk pan-sized fish like deer in the small mountain streams and bass fishermen cast lures into reeds and muck in hopes of a tug. Casting and casting over and over again. Work, work, work. All in the hope they might land a fish that is just a few pounds in weight.
In contrast, cat fishermen primarily use bait of some type–worm, rotten chicken liver or dead fish. They cast and let the fish come to them. Big fish, too. On good nights on the Snake River, if you are positioned well, you can pull in 20 to 30 fish ranging from 5 to 18 pounds each. If you get lucky, you can even haul in a sturgeon.
Trout and bass fishermen decry the cat fishers as lazy and undisciplined in the ways of fishing. But not Scott. He is a man with a passion for catching big fish, no little pan fry was enough for him. A 4-pound bass was a bonus but an 18-pound catfish was a prize.
The cats Scott catches are not from around these parts, however. According to Jeff Dillon, the state fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, “there is no native catfish west of the Rockies.” So all that perfect habitat, the calm waters of the Snake, Columbia and many others around the Northwest, was catfish-less. That is until someone in the mid 1800s got the bright idea to introduce them to the river and badabing badaboom: catfish in the West.
I relayed that tidbit of information to Scott and then explained that Idaho does not have any blue catfish, either.
When I said that, his head cocked off to the side.
“That is a bunch of bull,” he said.
I informed him that according to Dillon at Idaho Fish and Game, no blue cat has ever been reported in Idaho.
“Well, that is silly,” he said breaking out his iPhone. “Here is a picture of one.” He pointed out over the water and said: “We caught him off that island about a mile up river.”
Sure enough, it was a blue cat as far as I could tell. But, unfortunately, just because they have been introduced does not mean that they always bite.
Though we could see plenty of fish in the hole where we’d anchored, more than an hour passed without a bite. The water temperature registered at 77 degrees and it was getting dark, so we moved on. We traveled slowly downriver in Scott’s flat-bottom boat, passing over spots that only registered 1-and-a-half feet deep.
At one point, Scott could tell that I was admiring the quality of his expensive fish finder while comparing it to that of his boat.
“What I got here,” said Scott, “is $2,000 worth of rims on $1,000 car. It don’t make much sense but this little boat can go further into the muck and shallows than any of those fancy or bigger boats, and that’s how I get on the big fish.”
And do catfish get big in Idaho. According the Idaho Fish and Game website, the state record channel catfish, the kind that Scott catches most of the time, is more than 38 pounds. The record flathead catfish is 58.5 pounds, with a girth of 31 inches. The head of a fish that big wouldn’t even fit in a 5-gallon bucket.
Eating a fish that large, however, comes with a cautionary warning. Recently the Idaho Center for Disease Control released a statement advising the limited consumption of catfish because of higher-than-normal levels of mercury. I have no plans on becoming pregnant or nursing anytime soon, but those who do should avoid predatory fish in “working” rivers due to this mercury issue.
Catfish are commonly called bottom feeders but are actually predators and they eat other contaminated fish thus increasing their own contamination levels. As such the Idaho CDC recommends eating smaller catfish and cutting away the skin and fat before eating them.
Scott and I fished for so long that night, it was actually early (as in morning), but we had yet to land a fish. Then there was the slightest of tugs on my line followed by a rod-bending pull. I grabbed my rod and set the hook; the fight was on. Five minutes later, I had a 6-pound catfish in the boat.
We hung for an extra half an hour and landed an additional 4-pounder for the freezer. Cat fishing may not be as highly regarded as fly or bass fishing, but even small cats–like the two I caught with Scott–can ruin a guy on trout and bass. The size of the catfish alone makes this fisherman long for a late night, a flat boat and some cold beer.