by Ron Presley
Night Bite Catfish on the St. Johns River
You don’t have to fish for catfish at night, but it sure is cooler in the hot Florida summer. The St. Johns River, known for its outstanding bass and crappie fishing, is also a great place to put some channel catfish on the dinner table.
If you fish by boat there are plenty of easy access parks to begin your adventure. If you fish from shore it is a short walk to the river’s edge from many St. Johns River parks. Shoreline fishing can be very productive for catfish. Boats are not necessary to catch a great stringer of catfish on the St. Johns.
One of my favorite launches is Ed Stone Park where the St. Johns River intersects with Hwy 40, near Deland. The West Volusia County park includes a nice seawall for shoreline fishing, picnic tables, restrooms, grills, and a four-lane boat ramp on the north side of the highway.
There is a convenient drive thru under the bridge that takes you to the south side where you will find the highly recommended Shady Oak Restaurant and the Shady Oak Bait Shack.
Channel catfish are the main target for Central Florida anglers, and the St. Johns River produces some big ones. In any fishing hole, success depends on many variables. Just like the old adage in business, the most important element in your success is likely to be location, location, location.
If you choose the right location to fish, chances are you will take home some fish for dinner. Finding the right location is partly trial and error as well as your history on the water. Just being out there on the water will identify your favorite spots, but trial and error will identify some new ones. If you don’t hook up in an hour, or less if it doesn’t feel right, you should consider moving to a new location unless you expect a change in fishing conditions.
What to Look For
Two important elements of river catfishing are current and structure. Catfish are a little different than crappie, where a brush pile in calm water will hold crappie it might not hold catfish. In the case of catfish, you still want structure, but you also want current and Mother Nature usually supplies that well in the St. Johns River.
Look for an area with sunken logs, rocks, or other debris. Catfish like to lay down behind the structure and ambush their dinner as it comes by in the current. Bridge pilings and tight bends in the river are also good current breaks and likely catfish haunts.
Tackle and Rigging
Catfish tackle is simple and inexpensive. This makes it easy for anyone to enjoy the sport. Not counting a rod and reel the basic tackle includes swivels, sinkers, leader material and hooks.
Most catfish anglers like to put out multiple poles. The more baits in the water the more chances to catch a fish. The only limitation is the local fishery laws that regulate the number of poles that can be used at any given time. In Florida, there is no limit to the number of poles you can set out for catfish.
A 7-foot rod with a good backbone, either spinning or casting, is an excellent choice for catfishing in the river. A reel spooled with 20-pound braid is ideal to handle anything you might catch.
The go-to terminal tackle is a simple Carolina rig. Start with a 1/4 to 1⁄2-ounce egg sinker. Trial and error will help choose the proper size for the current. Slide the sinker up the mainline, followed by a small plastic bead. Attach a swivel to hold the sinker and bead in place. Next, add a length of 20-pound test monofilament leader and then a 2/0 or 3/0 Daiichi Circle Hook.
Plan to get hung up occasionally when fishing on the bottom and be prepared with plenty of replacement swivels, sinkers and hooks. You will catch more catfish in the hangy areas so a few lost sinkers are worth it.
To see the bite better in the dark, fasten a Whisker Stix LED light to each rod near the tip. A fish bite becomes perfectly obvious in the darkness of night as these lights reveal the bite. These small lights have all kinds of fishing related applications. Be creative and use them where you think they would help. The battery is in a water-resistant battery boot and work well in inclement weather and even when submerged.
Throw the baited rig out on the bottom and wait for the bite. Just remember, with circle hooks you don’t want to set the hook like you would on bass. It is better to just reel down on the fish until the rod loads up and then give a smooth steady lifting motion to set the circle hook. One of the best ways to fish this rig is to bait up, place the rod in a rod holder, watch the Whisker Stix LED and let the circle hook do its job.
Baits of Choice
Natural baits are always best if you can get some, but channel cats will be scavenging around for anything they can find. Strong smelling baits work well. One of the most popular is plain old chicken liver. Livers put out a good scent trail that gets the catfish active. As the scent trail moves downstream in the current the fish will come out of their ambush spots to investigate. Set up above some woody structure and allow the scent to tempt the fish out of the structure.
Old timers and local catfish anglers like plain old earthworms, and they work just fine. Fresh or frozen peeLED shrimp is also readily available and easy to use. Keith “Catfish” Sutton, in his book, Hardcore Catfishing, has documented an unbelievable array of tasty treats that tempt hungry catfish. They range from grasshoppers and frogs to mussels and cicadas (locust). Even stranger things like cut up soap bars and hot dogs marinated in strawberry Kool-Aid have been known to work.
Of course, there are also the homemade concoctions that creative anglers mix up on their own. Growing up in Kansas I was introduced to dough bait that my father-in-law made up. It included sweet anise and a secret ingredient that even today my wife will not let me reveal.
Don’t forget the prepared baits like Leakin’ Livers from Rippin Lips. It comes in chicken liver flavor and several others. The soft pellets are easy to use and they release a constant flow of scent for up to an hour. That scent may be just the ticket to keeping the area active with feeding catfish.
Don’t be surprised if you experience a good bite and then it stops. Catfish are known to stray away from a feeding spot only to return a little while later. They do come back after being disturbed, so use a good dose of patience before leaving a productive spot, and if you have time, come back later.
In Central Florida the St. Johns River channel cats are a very dark colored fish. Many people confuse them with blue catfish that are found further north. They don’t get as big as the blue cats, but they will give you a battle on light tackle. The Florida state record channel catfish weighed 44.5 pounds. Needless to say, you better have the right equipment, tie good knots, and be ready for a big catfish at all times. As a final precaution, be sure to pack the mosquito repellant and plenty of refreshments for your trip to the river.
My night trips include a Thermacell Outdoor Mosquito Repeller Lantern and the hand-held portable Thermacell. The lantern serves the dual purpose of repelling mosquitos and providing light for fishing at night. I also use the portable Thermacell MR-450X. Florida mosquitos can be fierce, and these Thermacell products allow anglers to stay on the river after dark without the nuisance of mosquitos and other bugs.
I also have Vicious LED lights to add the convenience of light on the deck. I chose the green color for a soft ambient glow that does not blind my vision. The Vicious LEDs produce 720 lumens for plenty of light to tie hooks and rigs without needing additional lighting.
The right location, the right tackle, the right bait and the right amount of patience will put plenty of St. Johns River catfish on the dinner table. Personally, I prefer to take only what I want for a fish fry, CPR’ing the rest for others to catch in the future. Enjoy the cooler temperatures, have the river to yourself, and always be ready for a big one when fishing at night.
Chicken Liver Tip
Chicken livers can be difficult to keep on the hook. One solution is to use a medical netting product to fabricate a pouch that will keep the liver contained and in the strike zone. The medical tubing comes in lengths that can be cut to accommodate the size of bait you want.
First, tie an overhand knot about 3 inches from the end of the tubing and cut with scissors behind the knot. Turn the tube inside out to place the knot on the inside. Use the fingers of one hand to open the tubing and stuff the liver (or other bait) inside the tubing with your other hand. Close the open end of the tubing while pushing the bait to the bottom.
Next, use scissors to make a small cut from the end towards the bait ball. That cut will give you two strands of mesh that you can tie together with a couple of overhand knots, leaving a perfectly enclosed bait ready for use.