Tuesday, October 4, 2011

24" Catfish caught on topwater! And a nice largemouth

Leo and his first Illinois fish
After we consumed many huge slices of Chicago-style deep dish pizza, Leo suggested we go back out to fish. It was about 10 or 10:30pm I think, but it seemed like a great idea to me. I put my long underwear and warm clothes back on, we grabbed our gear from the mini, and walked off into the darkness headed for the pond.

I've fished the retention pond many many times, often on the way to or from the train on my commute.. But I'd never fished it at night. It was about 45°F outside, a little bit of light coming from the waxing (?) moon, but we had a headlamp and a flashlight between us. After a short 1/2 mile walk, we arrived at the spot- really the only access to the pond not protected by a thick wall of tall grasses - and began casting. Leo stood on the pipe - the prime spot on the pond, and I stood a little to the left, on what I think is a pipe that the other way. The other day I'd seen water running into it, which was a new thing.

I knew there were many many bass in the pond, and hoped Leo could hook into some! A silver roostertail on the end of his line, he began casting. I opened my tacklebox to choose my weapon- I found my go-to night-fishing lure: a big black spinnerbait. As I was tying a big'ol' palomar knot, I heard splashes and saw Leo had a fish on. I dropped my rod and turned on my headlamp, and ran over to Leo and his fish.

Leo unhooking his catch in the dark
After a short fight, he got it out of the water. A bass! Not the biggest largemouth to come out of there, but definitely not the smallest (I had the dubious honor of catching the smallest a few days back - that 4" largemouth that took my homemade inline spinner). It's always hard taking pictures in the dark, but of course we always have to document each catch. Leo's first Illinois fish! It was also his first fish on an inline spinner. This pond is good for firsts- I was so happy Leo got a fish, and his $5 for a 24 hour fishing license had been put to good use.

I began casting the black spinnerbait into the darkness, waiting for the plop and then reeling it in. Leo mentioned how strange it is not being able to see your lure or where it lands. Night fishing is a strange thing. A few months ago I snuck into a secret location, threw a very similar black spinnerbait and hooked into the biggest bass I'd ever seen. Fighting it in the dark (this was before I had a headlamp) was a strange and new experience for me, and it was relatively difficult. I ended up landing the beast, and taking a few subpar pictures of it on my iPhone camera.

Back to the pond, I was quickly tiring of cleaning off pounds of weeds from my spinner. I decided to switch to topwater, mostly to avoid all the weeds below the surface. I also knew that topwater could be a successful night-fishing technique, but never had too much luck with it. I grabbed my white and blue jitterbug (I had the black one somewhere and would have chosen that, but couldn't find it just then) and tied it to my line. At least that would float on the top and avoid all the weeds! Maybe it would catch a nice bass too.

Leo switched to a nightcrawler under a bobber, in the hopes of catching something else- perhaps a bluegill (which I hadn't seen here in weeks) or a catfish. I'd heard there were catfish in there, but I'd never caught any or seen any swimming around in the dirty brown water. Perhaps they'd come out at night?

I cast out my jitterbug, waited about 10-15 seconds, then slowly reeled it in, stopping it every few feet and letting it sit. Leo casted out his crawler-bobber rig right in front of the pipe. We were astonished nothing was biting it! As we talked about the lack of action with the live bait, I absent-mindedly cast my jitterbug out, letting it sit motionless for long periods of time because I was staring at Leo's bobber. It didn't make sense- where did all the bluegill go? Why weren't any bass taking the nightcrawler? Weren't there supposed to be catfish out at night? It was strange. I began to get sleepy, losing focus, and thinking about my belly full of delicious Giordano's pizza.

There was an incredibly huge splash to my left, out in the water- "Whoa!!" I yelled. So there were fish here! I was excited that there was some activity, and even more excited when I heard my drag screaming and realized whatever caused the splash was on the end of my line. "Fish! Fish! FISH!" I yelled. My drag filled the air with agonizing sounds of its buzzing, the monster on my line thrashing around, jumping, like a cannonball being repeatedly dropped in the water. My heart raced, I was suddenly completely awake. I hoped my 10 pound line wouldn't snap, and the monster fish wouldn't throw the hook.

"Please don't throw the hook, please don't throw the hook," I said, not sure if I said it out loud or not.

I brought in the fish closer, my rod becoming a horseshoe instead of a straight line. At first I thought this was a big largemouth, but the way it was fighting was not like other largemouths. And it was strong- VERY strong. I strained to see the fish, but my leadlamp was off and there was very little ambient light. I couldn't see what it was.

I managed to bring it closer to shore, about 2 feet in front of me, but I paused before lifting it out of the water. I still couldn't tell what kind of fish it was. I was seriously worried my line - or rod!- would break as soon as I pulled up to get this guy out of the water. Throwing caution to the wind, I lifted my rod up, feeling the full weight of this beast on my line, and successfully got the fish on land. Normally I try not to let fish touch the ground, lest their protective slime coating get brushed off - I want these fish to survive, and grow bigger! I wasn't prepared for the weight of this fish, and it dropped down onto the ground.

Even now, as Leo hurried over with a flashlight, I still didn't know what it was. My best guess was still a big bass.. And then Leo shined his light on the fish I'd just caught:

Note the size of the jitterbug. This was a big fish, at least for me
A catfish!!!????

I was shocked. I thought back to my jitterbug- a topwater lure that floats on the surface. I let it sit, motionless, for at least 20-30 seconds as I stared over at Leo's bobber. I wasn't providing any action to the lure, and that's when the fish struck! Not only that, but everything I knew about catfish is they have a tremendous sense of smell and taste, prefer real bait (dead or alive), and most importantly hang out at the BOTTOM. I knew this pond pretty well- the spot where the cat smashed into my lure was at least 4-5 feet deep, if not more. That meant either the cat was cruising the surface, or was enticed up by my lure. My non-smelly, plastic and metal lure, sitting completely still on the surface. Crazy!

Either way, I'd never heard of anyone catching a catfish on a topwater lure!!

With Leo's help, after a few tense moments we were able to get the treble hooks out of the monster's mouth. We were able to get them out without hurting the fish too much, something I was thankful for considering it was sitting on the ground while we de-hooked it. In my wildest dreams I never thought I would catch a big catfish like this fishing topwater! I had toyed with the idea of doing some catfishing at the pond, but I would have brought some garbage bags or something to set catfish on to remove the hooks.

We stood there admiring the fish. I was incredibly excited, pretty sure I jumped up and down a lot, and a huge amount of celebratory profanity escaped from my mouth.

I didn't have a ruler on me; we positioned Leo's tackle box in such a way that we might be able to figure out the length later... Then I realized I had tape at 24" on my rod. I taped it there a few weeks ago, 24" being the legal limit for northern pike. Perfect!

I held the rod next to the giant catfish, and it turned out to be exactly 24". Awesome!

At this point, I knew what I had to do- I needed to do the classic big catfish pose for the camera! Being mostly a bass fisherman, the way I usually hold fish is by lipping them- I didn't even think about holding the catfish horizontally for the picture- maybe that would have been better for the fish.

At any rate, I reached down, trying to get my fingers inside the gigantic and muscular catfish mouth. Could this be a bad idea? Putting my fingers in its mouth? Ah what the heck. It will make an awesome picture. I finally was able to get my fingers in its mouth, its thick gums like sandpaper, scraping on my thumbs. I lifted it up, and was amazed at its weight- even the biggest bass I'd ever caught I could lift with one hand... I could barely support this guy with two arms!! I had no idea how much it weighed- no scale yet - but it was a lot.

I gave Leo my phone, and he got ready to take a picture... But my headlamp was on, washing out the pictures. I asked him to turn off my headlamp, of course my hands were busy inside the mouth of a huge angry catfish. My headlamp is weird and has a turn knob for the light, and Leo was trying to press the button (which of course does nothing). I was so concerned trying not to drop the fish I couldn't put into words how to turn off my light.

I put down the fish for a minute, turned off the light, and picked it up again. Leo snapped some pictures, we both chuckled, we couldn't wait to show this to our wives!

24" of pond catfish- caught topwater on a jitterbug
Right after the last picture, as if on cue, the fish strongly bit down on my fingers, causing me to drop it into the grass. Its rough mouth ripped into my skin, causing one of my thumbs to start bleeding. I think some more bad words happened around this point.

I had it coming
After hooking the beast with some sharp pointy hooks, dropping it on the ground, and generally greatly inconveniencing this mighty fish, I didn't blame it for biting me. It had every right to bite me, and was surprised it hadn't earlier. In fact, I had it coming to me.

I figured at this point we were even.

Applying pressure to my thumb, the bleeding stopped quickly. It was time to get our friend back into the water. Leo offered to pick up the fish and get it back into the water - I wasn't exactly jumping at the chance to put my smashed fingers back in its mouth. Now that's a real fishing partner. Leo picked up the fish, and carefully returned it to the water. In an instant, with a powerful splash of its muscular tail, it was gone into the dark water.

This fish had been the longest, heaviest fish I'd ever landed.

With Leo's help, we got the hooks out, got some great pictures taken, and returned the fish to the water, seemingly healthy and doing fine. I definitely couldn't have done it alone! I probably wouldn't have left my lure motionless on the surface if it weren't for Leo's bobber. Thanks Leo!

We fished for a while longer, but got no more hits, no more splashes, and no more bass or monster catfish. All in all, a great day fishing; I'm glad Leo talked me into some pond night fishing! As we walked back to my house, I cradled my throbbing thumb, so happy to have a fish-inflicted wound.

I feel like a real fisherman now.


  1. nice catfish, they are more predaotry then people think, caught a few on cranks and plastic worms. thats one of the fish not to lip ;)

  2. Yeah I should have done my homework... I learned my lesson though- next time I will avoid the chompers!

  3. I agree with blake I've caught many catfish on plastics and even heard of one caught trolling for salmon in lake michigan. They are very predatory despite what people might think. Great fish chris hope to see you soon in michigan



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