The Catfish of Affirmation

Sometimes I think I’ve learned quite a bit about fish over the last 43 years and sometimes I feel like I’ve learned nothing at all.

I love to ice-fish more than any other type of fishing, this being what I grew up with in the north country. When late November rolls around, I feel like it’s just time to start cutting holes out on a lake somewhere.

Yet, a couple of winters back, I traveled northwest to Wisconsin to tutor some hopeful young ice-fishermen on their native water, Lake Winnebago, and I found myself skunked, absolutely skunked at what I do best. The ice-fishing season that’s just ended was also not among the best and I caught a stocked trout, a yellow perch and a bluegill sunfish in the four times I ventured out. The final day out concluded with me falling on the ice, bruising the right arm severely from wrist to elbow and Dad falling minutes later and being airlifted to a hospital in Pittsburgh with a concussion.

I think I had more success on the Spartan waters of western Maine as a child.

Late February/early March is not the very finest period of Pennsylvania’s fishing calendar other than for a few species pursued by a few devotees. This year I’ve sat these weeks out entirely, in fact. Perhaps I was a bit discouraged by the ice season which hadn’t really ended well but I just coudn’t think of anywhere I found especially compelling and when I did, I had only cold sleety days available for it. Hence, I did other things like starting a new job.

Last week though, I scheduled an evening of fishing for myself. I scoured the map in advance, feeling like I wanted to not only catch but to eat fish as soon as possible, perhaps inspired by the inflating price of supermarket fish (and beef, and pork, and hot dogs…). Looking over the map, I thought about which fish would be on the move and where, which waters would warm first and where the minnows or other preyfish would be concentrated. My process felt simple but I was drawing on decades of fish pursuit and study across a wide breadth of seasons and circumstances. I ruled out possible options that I might have rushed out to try at the age of fifteen, already having made those mistakes.

Catfish were simply the most likely fish that were in season, were probably waking now from winter semi-dormancy and could be found close to home. I knew the kinds of places one would set up for catfish on a typical summer night but these weren’t likely the right venues for tonight. There were many places I’d found cats in the past but all would still be too cold in March. The patterns catfish follow had been learned from long nights spent on the banks or waterways from northern Maine to southern Florida.

There was a lake near me though with extensive bays, swamps and shallows in its upper end – places that would warm rapidly with the first fifty to sixty degree days and I knew of a small inlet creek that seemingly no-one else fished that would also be introducing warm water into one of these bays, concentrating small suckers and minnows that were about to run miles upstream. This would be irresistable to hungry catfish, I felt, and if I were lucky, to the bullheads I favor on the plate.

I rattled along over gravel for the final couple of miles of the drive and parked at a seldom-visited lot surrounded by woods. Across the road, a tiny creek gurgled past but nothing that would suggest a really fine angling opportunity lurking nearby. The sun was still up, the air was warm and substantial clouds rushed by overhead as the tops of the sycamores shook. I had my waders on and was underway in about a minute, crossing the stream and starting the hike down along the floodplain.

You’ve truly found a treasure among the Pennsylvania waters when you’ve got a place to fish without a trail or without bobbers decorating the branches, for that matter. This was the case here along Lost Creek, let’s call it. Seventeen minutes after leaving the car, I stood where it emptied into the bay, surveying a few very isolated acres of water and a sluggish muddy flow emptying in. It was all about perfect: a fine temperature, almost no mosquitoes yet and a forest alive with a thousand bird calls. Turkeys prattled somewhere upstream and ospreys screamed somewhere out over the water. Carp thrashed among the first emergent greens in the shallows.

Borrowing techniques from my adolescence, I cut Y-shaped sticks, spearing them into the mud as rod-holders. Tonight, I had an ambush point. I wouldn’t need to move, the fish would come to me, shortly. I had a medium-weight spinning rod and my ten foot telescoping pole with line simply tied to the end. Worms were prominent on the menu this evening and the spinning rod sat with a bait at mid-channel while I probed around a little more actively with the pole and bobber.

Before dark, I took a small sunfish, small perch and a really beautiful eleven-inch white sucker, probably starting a run up to spawn for the first time. I kept the perch and sunfish for bait which replaced the worms as darkness fell and the frog chorus reached a crescendo. I cut a set of steps into the steep clay bank down to the water in case of emergency. As soon as I finished this, the spinning rod bounced for the first time.

I set the hook into a nice active fish that thrashed around on the surface for a bit, giving me a look at what seemed to be a fat mid-sized catfish with mustard yellow along the flanks – it was an enormous bullhead, just what I’d come for! My mouth watered a bit before he thrashed against the bank, the hook popped free and he disappeared again with a swirl.

Over the next hour and a half, I lost a few more, had several bites and landed two thirteen-inch bullhead and a large channel cat, all of which were dispatched and strung on the stringer. Fish were still biting actively when I reeled in, collapsed the pole, turned on the headlamp and made for the car. It hurt a bit to walk away but it was good also to know that I’d left some behind for next time or maybe to lay some catfish eggs in the months to come. I had work to go to in the morning and this was actually a good thing too.

My heart swelled as I trudged back across the floodplain, field-dressed cats in tow. The stars were showing overhead through the skeletal branches, a creek rippled past loudly and the din of frogs fell away behind. No-one had sent me here tonight to the catfish honey-hole. I’d looked at a map, thought about what I knew of the habits of catfish, thought a bit about timing and some about minnows. I’d looked things over upon arrival, set up on a promising bend of the creek and chosen the right bait. My reward was now tugging at the muscles of my right arm and it felt like I had learned something afterall from half a lifetime of sitting out on creek banks at night probing the depths.

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