Dogs have been chasing cats into trees since the dawn of recorded history.
In a twist of cosmic irony, Sirius—the dog star—made its annual appearance in the early evening sky on July 3—the same day that “cotton” started blowing off of cottonwood trees. This signaled the onset of channel catfish spawning time in lakes and rivers across southern Wisconsin.
Falling “cotton” doesn’t trigger carnal nature of bewhiskered, fork-tailed fish, of course.
Water temperature does. When water temperatures rise to 78 degrees in early July, male catfish move into depressions in root balls of fallen trees and similar areas—including old tires and oil drums that used to litter so much of Rock River.
Sultry days heat both the breeze and the water, with the impact of falling cottonwood seeds not lost upon old river rats who have taken the time to marvel at the wonders of nature.
After spawning, the male channel catfish—which are sometimes mistakenly called blue cats because of the spawning colors male fish tend to develop—viciously guard the nest, striking at any threat that comes close, like fishing lures.
New broods of little catfish are now swimming in their respective ecosystems, augmenting a burgeoning population of more young-of-year baitfish, insects amphibians and other wild critters great and small.
There is so much food in the water that even omnivorous channel catfish display a modicum of depression regarding culinary preferences. In simple terms: The bite is tough for human predators in their quest to hook up with fish of any stripe or whisker.
“Stink bait” is by far the most effective channel catfish bait during the warm-water period. Although this description is spot on, in addition to being the source of significant stains in clothing, catfish connoisseurs prefer the more elegant and accurate term “dip bait.”
About 30 years ago, an old river rat named “Sonny” Hootman achieved the pinnacle of dip bait perfection with his “Sonny’s Super Sticky Channel Cat Bait.” The brand is still around, but like many great products, was purchased by a big company and cheapened considerably.
I became good friends with Hootman back when his bait was just beginning to get sticky attention of consumers and carpets across the Midwest. He would never reveal proprietary ingredients, but mentioned soybean oil is a great way to thin consistency of his bait, with cattail fuzz the best additive when bait gets too runny.
Turtle livers are a great additive for blood-bait recipes. But harvest of these amphibians has been curtailed considerably by the DNR in recent years. Fresh chicken liver will suffice. Once added it should be allowed to ferment in the sun for at least a few days.
Hexagenia, more commonly known as “shad flies” or “May flies” are another outstanding dip bait additive procured from under a street light after a major hatch comes off. A cupful of flies per pint of bait is a good ratio.
But even with this odoriferous frosting, channel cats—which have been chased into the shade of trees during dog-days’ weather conditions—often need to be finessed to put a bend in a fishin’ pole. Once a productive current seam upstream from a deadfall has been established, use no heavier than a 1/8-ounce egg sinker to drop a baited dipworm to the bottom in that seam.
A “skinny” dipbait worm with roughly the diameter of a No. 2 lead pencil is the best way to present bait. These worms have a No. 8 treble hook in the tail. They are about 3½ inches long out of the package. Cutting about an inch off the top end of these worms makes them more effective for finicky dog-days cats.
There will still be plenty of hot, sultry days when summer’s dog days come to an end Aug. 11. But water temperatures actually start to cool down a few degrees by then.
This cooling water isn’t as easy to observe as “cotton” floating on the water or doves and bluewinged teal that are the vanguard of bird migration. But this precursor of autumn will be here very soon.