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story.lead_photo.caption Want to catch a whopper flathead like this one landed by Chris Elder of Mount Ida? Use a live sunfish for bait. - Photo by Keith Sutton

To target catfish successfully, especially trophy-size cats, anglers must acquire an in-depth understanding of the primary feeding patterns specific to each species during each season. What are catfish likely to be eating? When? Where? Armed with the answers to these questions, the angler can have reasonable expectations of finding and hooking catfish. Without these answers, luck alone determines the outcome.

Here are three patterns you should know when catfishing this summer — one for each major species of catfish in Arkansas.

’Hoppers on Top for Channel Cats

If channel cats can find concentrations of favored foods on the surface, they’ll feed on top. If you don’t believe it, drop by a catfish aquaculture operation at feeding time. Fish farmers fatten cats on a diet of floating chow, and when the farmers scatter the food over a pond, you’ll see thousands of whiskers as cats rise to feed.

One natural food that encourages a topwater bite is grasshoppers. When something spooks them from their grassy haunts, these insects will leap, fly and often dive right in the water. If a grasshopper lands in water inhabited by channel cats, it won’t sit long before a cat will come up and eat it. Catfish sometimes feed on other insects as well — mayflies, moths, caddis larvae, hellgrammites and more. But these puny bugs don’t appeal to larger cats the way a fat ’hopper does.

Grasshoppers usually live in tall grass and are relatively easy to catch. A good trick an uncle taught me is to spread an old flannel blanket across the grass, then drive the ’hoppers to it. Their feet stick in the fabric. A fine-mesh insect net works, too. Keep the grasshoppers in a cricket cage until you’re ready to use them.

As catfish bait, grasshoppers work equally on the surface, at mid-depths or on the bottom. But fishing them as topwater baits is the ultimate thrill. You watch the wake of a catfish homing in on your bait. You see the fish boil beneath it. You witness the hook-set. Catfishing doesn’t get better than that.

To fish a grasshopper this way, secure it to a 2/0 or 3/0 Aberdeen hook with a small rubber band (the type used by people who wear braces or in little girls’ pigtails). Then flip the insect beside shallow cover using a fly rod or spinning outfit. No weight, bobber or other terminal tackle is necessary unless you need something to help you make longer casts.

As soon as the bug hits the water, prepare for the strike. Cats hit ’hoppers hard and fast, like a largemouth blasting a topwater plug. Within seconds of each cast, you’ll be enjoying a rod-bending battle, and watching the action as it happens makes it all unforgettable.

Blue Cats on Skippies

Skipjack herring are common in many big Arkansas rivers that are inhabited by blue cats. Skipjacks make up a major portion of the blue cat’s diet, and many catfishermen use them for bait. They’re easily captured in cast nets, on sabiki rigs or on small jigs or spoons.

Skipjacks are active baitfish, moving continuously in large schools. They’re fish-eaters, with minnows, shad and other small fishes among the Skipjacks’ favored foods. This fact makes them doubly attractive to blue cats, especially in late summer. Here’s why.

In July and August, large schools of skipjacks churn the water’s surface as they pursue young-of-the-year shad. You can see the fish swirling near the surface, with shad jumping about as they try to elude the skipjacks. This activity usually occurs near dawn and dusk, frequently near creek mouths or at the junction of two rivers.

When surfacing skipjacks are sighted, it’s likely scores of blue cats are lurking below. They’re attracted not only by the prospect of a skipjack entrée, but also by the many dead and crippled shad left behind when skipjacks slash through a school. Sometimes striped or white bass join the feeding frenzy, too, working on skipjacks and shad alike. This increases the number of injured baitfish fluttering about, another drawing card for gluttonous blues.

For the dyed-in-the-wool blue-cat angler, this is a setting like no other. A 1/64- to 1/32-ounce silver or white jig cast toward swirling fish will usually garner a strike from a skipjack that can be used for bait. Cut the skippy in small pieces, run a hook through one, then cast it toward the swirls and let it fall to hungry blues waiting below.

Keep your fishing rig as simple as possible for best results. All you need is a circle hook or octopus hook at the end of the line, with nothing more than a split shot or two to carry it down.

Flatheads on Sunfish

Wherever flathead catfish are found, sunfish such as bluegills, redears, green sunfish and longear sunfish are found as well. Not surprisingly, flatheads, being fish-eaters, love a meal of these usually abundant panfish. In some Arkansas waters, sunfish are the No. 1 component of the flatheads’ diet.

Summer flatheads tend to hole up in deep-water haunts during the day and come out at night to feed in shallows. Sunfish usually stay in relatively shallow water, and many are still nesting along the shoreline this season. That makes them prime targets for prowling flatheads and excellent baits for summer anglers.

In some areas, you may be able to use a seine or fish trap to catch sunfish in quantity, but catching them on hook and line can be fun in its own right. Keep the sunnies in a minnow bucket ready to use.

If you want to exclude small flatheads from your catch and zero in on trophies, use the biggest sunfish you can catch. For flatheads 50 pounds and up, this may mean a bait that weighs 8 ounces to 1 pound or more. It’s tough to cast a bait that size, but you don’t have to. Rig it up; then use a boat to place it right where you want it. For flathead fishing at night, this usually is in shallow water not far from thick woody cover such as a log jam, treetop, brush or other such feature.

Place the rig; then let it sit. You don’t want to move the bait too often. Trophy-class flatheads are rare creatures, even in the best waters, so it may be necessary to leave the bait in one spot for an hour or more until a hungry, cruising heavyweight can find it.

These are just a few of the many summer feeding patterns exhibited by catfish. The fishing tips offered for each scenario may or may not work in the waters you fish. If they do, hallelujah. If they don’t … well, learn to pattern catfish yourself. What are they eating? When? Where? Those are the questions you must answer. How? Examine the stomach contents of the next catfish you catch, and the next and the next. You’ll find the answers there.

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