Deputy Dawg and Old Fighter
As I waded downriver, the prospects of fly fishing the tail-out of a pool I’ve long loved were looking better and better. The river was low, the water warm and clear, and best of all, there was a low canopy of fog overhead. I started by fishing an intermediate sink-tip line and a conehead bugger with some good-looking white legs. It wasn’t long before I was rewarded with a mid-sized smallmouth bass and then another bigger brother. I began reminiscing in some great action from a few summers ago when I caught some dandy bass and lost a few more that made me miss this spot. On that warm summer morning I could see the bass, cruising and hanging in the tail-out and ambushing bait. It was exciting stuff for a bass guy…
A few casts more and I was tight to something that didn’t jump. A deep and slugging kind of fight ensued and a nice walleye came to hand. I made more casts and got another hook-up and again, another deep slugging fight followed. But this one was different. This fish pulled drag into the current, swung like a door below me and across, and did little corkscrews and tight twists and turns. It was hard just lifting it to the surface to see what it was. Eventually I had it close and confirmed what I thought – a channel cat…
It was my second catfish of the year on a fly – the first having been caught a week prior under similar circumstances. I have run into these fish every year it seems, but normally only one or two a year at best. They are chance happenings – a streamer stripped across their nose or a big nymph drifted too close for them to resist, I suppose. I’ve never intentionally fished for them.
As I approached the end of the tail-out, I saw that the surface commotion I had first witnessed from afar was not the splashy rushes of bass on the hunt, but sporadic boils and bulges in the water, as if big browns were gorging on emergers. The surface action was different but energizing nonetheless. I began extending my casts so my streamer swept deeper and deeper into the tongue of the tail-out. I jigged the streamer as I fished it and was soon rewarded with a good tug and a solid fish. This one fought the same as the previous cat, but with a lot more bravado. The fish surged upriver, held steady, and then made for the depths of the pool. I clamped down on the drag. A little later, a bigger channel cat twisted and turned at my feet.
Two more channel cats followed over the next hour, and all of them had struck the streamer with authority. The biggest had my eight weight bent well into the butt section and took well over 10 minutes to land.
I returned to the same spot on the next two mornings, trying to determine whether this was some fluke event or an actual feeding pattern. The fish were still there both times and continued to take the streamers I fished. While I caught one cat and lost one on both subsequent days, the feeding seemed consistent and the water continued to boil sporadically.
A Saturday return visit, a week later, yielded nothing, however. Perhaps the cold front that doused the area late in the week with unseasonably cold and rainy conditions put the fish off. There were still some of the surface boils I had seen previously, but no takes this time at all. Interestingly, there was a steady hatch of large Isonychias coming off. They lumbered skyward – relative “bombers” compared to some of the caddis that were fluttering about.
Thinking back on those interesting mornings, I now believe these cats were feeding on emerging Isonychia nymphs as well as their spinners. The hatch was a good one and as fly anglers of the Southern Tier know, this is a big mayfly. It seems odd for a catfish to feed up in the water column, but channel catfish are omnivores, much like carp. On the last day I fished this pattern, I experimented with nymphs and even skated big dries across the tail-out. A large bitch creek nymph on the swing did provoke a splashy take but that was the extent of my success fishing anything different than a big streamer.
I was thrilled to partake in this newly discovered pattern of feeding but was still a little puzzled. Should I have indicator fished large pheasant tail nymphs to the feasting cats? Would I have been better off fishing Isonychia dries or emergers to these fish – patterns I normally housed in my trout vest and not my bass vest? Research on the internet revealed the fly rod world record to be taken by indicator fishing a wooly bugger. Such tactics were able to fool a 20+ lb channel cat in Texas. Could they have worked equally well on those days on the Susquehanna? And could the hot and dry weeks prior to my fishing have set “the bite” up?
I continued to think through this fishing conundrum but what suddenly came to mind was not some divine answer from the piscatorial gods, but the memories of a cartoon I watched as a child. Deputy Dawg was a cartoon series that ran in the early 60’s. It featured a dog – Deputy Dawg – who was a deputy sheriff in a backwater area of the south. The other characters in the cartoon series were varmints – Muskie Muskrat, Moley Mole, Vincent Van Gopher…
Deputy Dawg would pal around with Muskie and Vince just as often as he would lock them up in the Jailhouse, and the trio would often engage in their favorite pastime, “fishin’ for catfish”…
But the catfish – and above all the largest and wiliest in the lake, Old Fighter – would always somehow get the upper hand any time Deputy Dawg tried to catch them, causing him to scowl and howl his infamous “dagnabbit”.
And so I waded off the river on that last Saturday morning, empty-handed, thinking a little like Deputy Dawg and his holy grail quest to catch Old Fighter. I resolved to return again, in late summer of next year, and figure out old Mr. Whiskers. I’ll fish those tail-outs on foggy or overcast mornings after a period of warm and dry days. I’ll look for those enticing surface boils. But I’ll experiment a bit more. I’ll try an indicator and some big nymphs and have a white-legged bugger streamer ready in reserve. Maybe I’ll get to tangle again with those beautiful channel cats, and just maybe, dagnabbit, with the Old Fighter of the Susquehanna.