Chip Hart of Batavia, Ohio, hoists a 10-pound blue catfish he took on a recent excursion on the Ohio River.
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CINCINNATI - A certain mystery attends night fishing, especially when you are hunting for giant-size catfish.
An eeriness hangs with the humidity in the air, which is filled with a mix of odors industrial and commercial. Darkness cancels out a large range of your vision, which means anything not artificially lit.
"Jaws" is lurking below, deep in the Ohio River current, and you hope not to escape it but rather to find it. That happens about 1 a.m.
You've been on board Dale Broughton's 21-foot custom-built catfishing boat since 6:30 p.m. You are a dozen miles below the dazzling night-glitter of River City, still in the 95-mile-long Markland Pool.
You've seen Sunday night recreational traffic fade with the black. Only the occasional, massive string of barges, being herded along by a deep-rumbling, searchlight-probing pushboat, ripples the river glass.
You've caught your share of channel cats, 5 and 10-pounders. They're fun enough, certainly enough to keep up interest, and to encourage you to keep an eye peeled for movement of the rodtips.
It's a picky night for the bite - has to do with the lessening flow without any nudges of rain, and a million other variables, Broughton explains. The channel cats are, however, a side show. You want a big flathead catfish, or maybe a blue catfish. A big one.
About 12:30 a.m., your fishing buddy, Chip Hart, of Batavia, Ohio, jumps to the transom and lifts a rod that is all but bent double. A few minutes later he reels up and Broughton nets a blue of about 10 pounds. Very nice fish, strong fish, the first you've ever seen, bluish along the upper head and back fading to a pale, almost milky white.
We release the blue, much as we did all the channels earlier. It is all warm-up.
About 1 a.m. a tentative dip of one of the transom rods signals an interested fish. The rod dips more, the hook is set and ugh! - you feel like you have hooked a planet. But the planet starts to move - right at you. You reel quickly to catch up and the planet spins out of orbit.
For a good five minutes, even with reassuringly heavy tackle, this behemoth gives you all the powerful action your arms and shoulders want. Finally, the thrashing into the net. Another blue, and a big one. Forty inches, 30 pounds. My oh my.
Indeed, imagine what the 50-pound line-class record, landed from this same river in 1999 down between Louisville and Owensboro, must have fought like. It weighed a whopping 104 pounds.
Still and all, a 30-pounder is introduction enough to the increasingly attended pastime known as catfishing, Ohio River-style. These big blues have a habit of rolling and twisting like an alligator when revived and released slowly back to their lairs.
"I'll hold you by the belt," Broughton said as I leaned over the side with the 30-pounder. Watch your hand [gloved, thumb jammed between jaws]. He could roll fast and break your wrist." Yeah, careful.
Interestingly, the blue is considered endangered on the Ohio side, yet you could keep one on the Kentucky side if you had a Kentucky license. Just another strange peculiarity of interstate fish and game politics.
"Catfishing's come a long way," summed Broughton, a late 30s-something who has been at the cat game professionally for "eight, nine years." He is into it enough that he flew all the way to Lewiston, Idaho, just to pick out and equip a special boat - a Custom Weld, one of the tough, shallow-draft, commercial-grade aluminum riverboats they use out in the big rivers out there for salmon and steelhead trout.
Broughton, who once competed in catfish tournaments till he soured on rampant rules-stretching and some outright cheating, is prepared for anything when it comes to his quarry. He does not use sissy gear. Stout seven-foot rods, big Ambassadeur reels filled with 30-pound-test monofilament line, four and five-ounce egg sinkers, big brass barrel swivels, 50-pound-test shock leaders, and 8/0 or 9/0 hooks that are kept needle sharp.
His largest catfish is a 63-pounder - a flathead close to 60 inches - but the longest fight went to a 47-pound blue, which a client battled for 55 minutes. Mainly, Broughton said,he encourages catch-and-release fishing, for it takes 20 years or more to grow a big cat of any stripe.
"Channel cats are roamers but flatheads are very territorial," the guide said. Blues tend to hang on the inshore edge of current and in cooler water. You ought to see him work to manuever the boat into just the right spot to anchor - where the current flows just so.
His main season is from April through November. "Anytime the water temperature is above 50 degrees, the flatheads are biting." But the blues and channels remain active through the winter, and only weather will hold Broughton back.
The trick, as ever, lies in decoding the the river. "River level, man, never seems to cooperate." A flood can blow out fishing for two months.
"I've been using bluegills for bait," Broughton noted. "Shad are hard to find any more because of the low flows now." He has to hook-and-line 'gills from farm ponds ahead of time to stock up for the catfishing.
He cuts up some, leaves other live, hooking them under the rear portion of dorsal fin in a nose-down position.
"When the river's not moving much, they [cats] can detect vibration," he said of the action of live bait. "The current holds them down. When there's not much current the fish don't pick up the scent trail."
Still, he adds, cats deep in their dark kingdom 40 to 50 feet underneath the surface have a terrific sense of smell. "They can track a bait - it's unreal."
So is catching a 30-pound blue in the dark of night and seeing it come over the side into view under a deck light.
On western Lake Erie - Walleye activity remains good in most areas of the western basin, though some pockets of fish are feeding heavily on emerging mayflies.
The area beyond the end of the Toledo Ship Channel and the Turning Buoy and on east to West Sister Island has been fairly productive for anglers drifting and casting mayfly rigs, or Weapons. Trollers are doing well with spoons trolled under Jet Divers, according to Rick Ferguson at Al Szuch Live Bait.
The Ohio Division of Wildlife also reports decent walleye action near A-Can and B-Can of the Camp Perry Firing Range, west of Green Island and Rattlesnake Island to Niagara Reef, and from the west side of Kelleys Island to Mouse Island.
Some anglers are doing well on yellow perch, according to Dan Baker at Butch and Denny's Bait. He said a husband and wife took a two-person limit weighing 15 pounds a mile west of the Toledo Water Intake, with the fish averaging more than eight inches long. He said an average 30-perch limit weighs around six pounds, so the fish are running above average.
Bass anglers are reminded that both smallmouth and largemouth bass taken in Lake Erie or any tributary to the first dam must be immediately released during the current closed season, which continues through June 29.
A few walleye also have been taken this week in the Maumee River below Grand Rapids Dam by anglers casting jigs and plastic tails, according to River Lures at Grand Rapids.
Channel catfish action has been in high gear, fish running five to eight pounds, from the dam down to Weir Rapids, the shop added.
West Toledo angler Greg Krieger also reports very good bass fishing at Sand Lake in northwest Lenawee County, Michigan.
He has been taking smallmouth off rock piles out to the first deep cover at 12 feet, using crawdad-colored crankbaits such as the Rebel and Rapala. He also has taken largemouth on spinnerbaits, such as the Stanley Double Wedge, in catalpa color, fishing deeper weed beds.
A family fishing program, in cluding instruction, is planned for Sunday, 3 to 5 p.m., at the day-use area at Mary Jane Thurston State Park, State Rt. 65 west of Grand Rapids. For other details call naturalist Natalie Miller 419-348-7679.