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Darkside catfishing

An owl's hoot echoed through the night air when I felt the first gentle tap on my line.

"Here, son," I said, handing the pole to 12-year-old Josh. "I think a big catfish is fixing to take it."

Josh tensed with anticipation.

"Don't get in a hurry," I said. "Wait till he starts swimming away."

"I feel him yanking it," Josh said. "He feels like he's got it."

Suddenly, the fish surged away, putting a stiff bend in the rod. There was no doubt now the fish was on. It twisted and turned as Josh grimaced and cranked.

After a brief but exciting tussle, the fish came in, resigned to its fate and croaking softly. It was a nice channel cat, 5 pounds of muscle and mouth, and before we left the lake, it would be joined by nine more of its whiskered brethren. For Josh, this was a little like heaven.

I've been fishing for catfish since I was big enough to hold a cane pole. Now I have six sons who share my enjoyment of the sport. When possible, we make our catfishing forays at night. That's when cats bite best, and a nightfishing junket is far more memorable for the boys than a daytime outing.

If your idea of a fun summer outing is sitting around the motor home sipping sodas and watching TV, then nighttime catfishing is probably not for you. But if you don't mind a snake dropping in for a visit now and then; if you don't mind reeking of shad guts and limburger stinkbait; if the hummingbird drone of a million mosquitoes fighting over the tender cuts of your face doesn't drive you bonkers; if you're not repulsed by the feel of catfish slime and bottom ooze between your digits; then, maybe, just maybe, a witching hour safari for cats is your ticket to happiness.

A catfishing adventure is the best of all ways to scratch your fishing itch. You're almost sure to catch a few fish for the frying pan, and there's always a good chance you'll hook a big flathead or blue cat that outweighs any fish you've ever caught.

Be Prepared

Mosquitoes are night creatures, too, so insect repellent is a must (on you, but never your bait). You'll need a good lantern, and if you're bank fishing, a lawn chair and some rod holders. Pick a body of water where catfish are abundant (your state fisheries department can recommend some), and carry plenty of bait. Good all-around choices include baitfish (minnows, shad or sunfish), night crawlers, crawfish, catalpa worms and stinkbaits.

Tackle Tips

Simple tackle is best for darkside catting. Most anglers use a medium-action rod-and-reel combo to better reach offshore fishing spots. Six- to 15-pound line and size 1 to 2/0 hooks are OK for the small "eating-size" catfish most folks are after.

When fishing for cats 20 pounds and up (100-pounders are possible in some waters), use a long rod, 7 feet at least, for more hook-setting and fighting power. Those constructed with graphite/fiberglass composites offer strength, sensitivity, flexibility and moderate pricing. Bait-casting reels are toughest and provide more power for cranking in big fish. Look for a solid frame, tough gears and smooth casting, plus enough line capacity for the conditions you fish. The best for night fishing also feature a "clicker" mechanism that gives an audible signal when line is pulled from the reel, thus indicating that a catfish is taking your bait.

Use big needle-sharp hooks for big fish — 8/0 or better, with heavy wire construction that won't bend. For big-cat bait, use fish and nothing but fish. My favorite is a thick chunk of shad, herring or other oily baitfish for blue and channel catfish, and a lively sunfish or bullhead for big flatheads.

Tactics

Fish on bottom, using a sinker heavy enough to carry your bait down. Or use a bobber to float the bait slightly above bottom.

Don't get antsy; let the bait sit several minutes before moving it. Like kids after fresh-baked cookies, cats smell their treats then track them down.

You can fish from a boat or from shore, as you prefer.

A boat offers more mobility. Bank-bound anglers are limited in the choice of fishing areas. Anglers in boats aren't. If you've been fishing in one spot for a while, and the fishing is unproductive or the bite stops, you can move quickly to another spot. Your range is limited only by the size of your fuel tank.

Unfortunately, boating at night can be hazardous. For that reason, most catfishermen do their night fishing from shore. A campfire is built, the rigs are baited and cast, and the rods are propped on forked sticks or placed in holders. The participants sit and sip coffee while they shoot the breeze. A cat probably will bite sooner or later, and the action starts. But if not, it's an enjoyable outing anyway. The camaraderie makes it worthwhile.

If the action part of the outing is as important as the aesthetics, be sure to pick a bank fishing site within casting distance of prime catfishing areas. This might be a clearing on shore near the outside bend of a river, a spot under a shady tree beside a farm pond levee or a gravel bar adjacent a deep hole on a small stream. The best areas have flat, brush-free banks where casting is easy, and you don't have to worry about ticks and snakes crawling up your britches legs.

Place your fishing combo in a rod holder properly set in the ground, put the reel in free-spool, flip on your bait clicker and relax until the action starts. This technique is excellent when targeting trophy catfish that tend to roam in search of prey at night.

As Different as Night and Day

Some folks say you can catch as many catfish during the day as you can at night. And maybe some folks do. I'm not one of them.

My best catch ever came on a dark, moonless night in spring while fishing from a Mississippi River sandbar. In just four hours, a friend and I caught more than 150 catfish — mostly flatheads, a few blues and channels, several over 20 pounds. I've had 100 cat nights more times than I can remember.

I catch lots of catfish in the day, too, and nowadays, I must admit, most of my fishing is done when the sun is up. But my best daytime excursions have never equaled my best night-fishing trips.

I still fish at night when time permits. The number of catfish I catch doesn't really matter, though. I fish at night for reasons that have nothing to do with mathematics.

I go to listen to the whip-poor-wills and owls. I go to smell the freshness of the night air. I go to feel a cool twilight breeze rustling my hair. I go to see the heavens ablaze with countless stars.

Mostly, I go to relax and enjoy some time with friends and family. If we catch a mess of catfish now and then, that's a bonus. If we don't, none of us really cares. What's important is the companionship an after-hours catfishing excursion provides.