On The Hook: Wiskered bait

Catfish are a favorite for catching tarpon

Good catfish? Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it ?

How could these creatures of the sea who pride themselves on being first to your bait make all possible effort to slime your tackle and then impart a hand numbing sting as you struggle to dispatch them be considered good?

Stay tuned.

Catfish are a nemesis to anyone who fishes the really nearshore waters and all of the backwaters here in Southwest Florida. They can be anywhere on any given day. They will bite on just about anything that exudes an odor including jigs and artificials.

Their perfect operating environment is in water that is roiled up and muddy to the extent that it looks like café latte. They don’t have to see the bait as other species do; they move toward an odor and clamp down.

Once aboard your boat or flopping around on your dock, they represent a real threat for a severe sting if even touched by one of their “whiskers.” Talk to someone who has had that unpleasant experience and they’ll tell you it’s like getting stung by 10 bees all at once. Then for the next two hours, you can’t think about anything else and finally the site goes dead numb.

So, to repeat, how can they be good for anything? Well, hang onto your hat on this one !

Up until three or four years ago, we would fish for the tarpon during their spring run up from the Keys with live or cut mullet or good size thread herring. And then a strange thing happened. All of a sudden the bait of choice became catfish! That’s right — a catfish that has been caught and front end removed became the bon-bon of the silver king fleet.

Theory is that the tarpon migration north is so magnanimous in number with all fish sporting a pre-spawn appetite that the traditional baits of mullet, etc, could no longer meet the tarpon demand, and the only species numerous beyond belief (as we already know) was the catfish. So, appetite evolution struck again and the tarpon turned to catfish.

With that as a backdrop, our charter two weeks ago, saw it play out up close and personal.

The customers were three guys from the U.K. on holiday here and staying at one of the hotels and, for this morning, also on holiday from the “Mrs” who were having a spa experience. So our trip was a freewheeling event. Free as birds, the three just wanted to catch as many fish as they could, all catch and release.

Now, the tarpon had been around for a couple weeks but the bite was day to day. I had a few charters where we had good luck and landed one or two, but just as many where we soaked bait with nary a bump.

When I explained the chance/risk of a tarpon charter, our U.K. guys gave it a pass, catching lots of fish instead of a tarpon would be jolly good.

We were on a rather strong incoming tide that morning and the water was good but not gin clear. We started with drifts at Capri Pass and were working tipped jigs. Our top of the line that morning would have been nice chubby Florida pompano with maybe a trout or a mackerel as second best. Bottom of the barrel would be the dreaded CF.

Expectations ran high as we joined three or four other charter boats working the sides of the pass with tipped jigs for our expected top of the line catch. Our Brits were excited and dove into the effort enthusiastically.

Even before we lost our first bait, a couple of the other boats hoisted lines and pulled off. Not a good sign and we were soon to discover why.

Our first catch was announced as a “I’ve got one,” and with it’s deep twists and turns gave all the evidence of a dreaded catfish. That’s exactly what it was; a venomous topsail as we struggled to manage an injury free release.

And it just so happens, that was the identical catch for fish two through five, for the assembled Brits. We switched over to tiny jigs that would stay off the bottom and tried again.

Almost the same result; four catfish and a ladyfish. This wasn’t going to do it and as we stored our rods, the remaining charter boats were also clearing the area.

The week prior, we had good luck on trout and snapper in a deep trench dropoff just off Sea Oat Island, so we set up at anchor smack in front of the drop off and changed over to bottom rigs targeting the bottom-feeding trout and snapper.

It didn’t take long. Within 15 minutes, our hopes were whisked away on the whiskers of endless numbers of catfish. Strikes would come within milliseconds of the bait reaching the bottom. Nothing else but catfish.

Next move was onto pure structure, over by some docks on the Isles of Capri, where we had never experienced a catfish bite. The baits were cast up close to the pilings and, unbelievably, we had CF’s again.

The Brits were characteristically polite voicing such distracting platitudes as “It’s such a brilliant morning,” but their discontent was self-evident.

Time to play a hunch.

This was the most vociferous catfish bite I had seen in weeks. They had to have invaded the inshore waters for some unknown reason this morning. Tarpon love catfish and they have to know that. Let’s try for tarpon.

I explained this to my crew and, as a court of last resort, they thought such a trip salvage was worth the effort. So back we went to the Pass. Our goal this time was catfish.

The catfish bite was still in high gear and within 10 minutes we had six nice cut catfish baits ready to go.

We broke out two bigger rods, a block of solid chum from the cooler and a jug of liquid chum and set up just a few hundred feet outside the Pass.

No sooner had the catfish baits hit the bottom and the chum begun to work that we had one of the rods click, click, click, and then go off with a scream just as the tarpon made his first skyward leap. The rod was set and handed to the closest angler who proceeded to pull instead of dip only to see his tarpon head for open water.

We must have fished for more than two hours on the tarpon effort and had four good size tarpon on for various lengths of encounters. Three slipped our grasp, but we had one tarpon right up to the boat.

The Brits were enthralled with the strength and fight of the tarpon and all took in the water pictures of the boat side tarpon. I’m sure they all took credit for the landing.

It was really a wondrous experience and the tarpon bite was super strong paralleling the numbers of catfish in the water and quite a saving experience for that mornings charter.

So, the next time you are indefensible against the catfish, maybe the tarpon are still around.

Capt. Bill Walsh owns an established Marco Island charter fishing business and holds a current U.S. Coast Guard license. Send comments or questions to dawnpatrolcharters@compuserve.com.

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