Chuckleheads and the Art of Nonfishing

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Catfish. (Paul Johnsgard)

By Jack Phillips

On family outings in the 1960s curious bystanders watched my father fish. I thought his methods were normal; didn’t everyone practice catch-and release fly-fishing in Nebraska? In shallow, turgid rivers, for catfish? With barbless hooks? Sure, Nebraska had fly fishers, usually intent on the few clear streams stocked with non-native trout or the vacation waters of the Rockies. Even now, warm-water fly-fishing is a little eccentric. Bass and bluegills are the usually quarry, but to this day I have never encountered or even heard of another angler pursuing catfish with a fly rod in these parts. This is particularly surprising because the eastern Great Plains has one of the nation’s best warm and muddy fly-fishing rivers: the Nodaway in northwest Missouri.

I guess I should be less overt, as fishing holes are as closely guarded as mushrooming spots. But it is unlikely that pressure will increase, as fly-fishing for cats is much less productive than more popular methods. And fly-fishing equipment is delicate and ill-suited to these snaggy and opaque waters. Catfish are brutish and decidedly untrout-like. Hooking a hefty cat will tear up typical fly gear, unless you are using the expensive steelhead or tarpon outfits advertised in fancy magazines. Fly-fishing for cats and other warm-river fish goes against the grain. The idea is to catch small fish with the lightest possible tackle. Or no fish at all. Like my father and my uncles who have gone before, I have devoted myself to the mystical art of nonfishing.

I began learning nonfishing at a young age, though I didn’t know it at the time. I spent many summer days on the Nodaway. My uncle lived on the bank. Locals favored noodling and other bare-handed fishing methods; a fly rod was definitely an oddity. We fly-fished for chuckleheads and fiddlers. A fiddler is a pesky little bait stealer. A chucklehead is a breeding male catfish with chuckles; many catfish species swell foreheads into pillow-like structures during prespawn.

Our chuckleheads of choice were channel cats (Ictalurus punctatus). Sometimes chucklehead channel cats are mistaken for blue cats (Ictalurus furcatus) because they lack spots; sexually mature male channel cats have clear blue skin. We sometimes landed females who held their spots dearly, and occasionally bright yellow flathead cats (Pylodictus olivaris). Every now and then we would catch a puny madtom, a catfish of the genus Noturus that rarely reaches six inches in length. The locals used the names “madtom” and “bullhead” synonymously. Nearby farm ponds were full of black bullheads (Ictalurus melas) and yellow bullheads (I. natalis). Juvenile bullheads look a lot like madtoms, and they were certainly in the river as well.

Our methods would probably be as offensive to serious fly fishers as they were bizarre to Nodaway folk. Fly-fishing typically relies on visual recognition and subtle vibrations. By contrast, river cats tend to find food by taste and smell and by arranging themselves head-upstream behind riffles and snags. Contrary to their reputation, river cats are seldom bottom feeders. Rather, they intercept food in middle and upper depths where the current carries insects, tired minnows, carrion, grain, mulberries, cottonwood seeds, soybeans, corn, and other tasty debris. Little of interest lies still on the bottom. Feeding habits required of us a measure of cleverness, as we had to mimic the physics of drift. Adjustments and experimentation were in order with every pool, eddy, and riffle as we hiked and waded our way through hot afternoons. Catfish feed around the clock in hot weather; heat activates gut enzymes and hunger.

The feeding strategies of cats were matched by our methods, or rather, the methods devised by my father. Weight-forward floating fly line with a long leader and a short tippet made it possible to put a lure in the path of waiting mouths. Taste buds are worn outside, covering the face, lips, barbels, whiskers, and chuckles. Therefore, the lure has to smell and taste like something familiar or interesting. And here, we were admittedly churlish. A piece of rubber power bait or a bit of sponge dipped in goo threaded on a small, barbless hook with a wide gap will convince the cat to hold the lure just long enough to get hooked—provided the angler is alert. My father would sometimes dry canned Niblets on the sand until stiff and fashion a starchy ruse. Twizzlers and Milk Duds will do in a pinch.

All of this fiddling around took a lot of time and yielded few fish. It was almost impossible to play and land any cat of respectable size, and hooking a carp or gar was an unhappy accident. The whole enterprise was designed to do little or no harm to any living thing and often seemed to be designed to catch no fish whatsoever. But that was the point. I came to realize after several decades of cat fly-fishing that the difference between fishing and nonfishing had nothing to do with catching fish.

Fishing was simply an excuse to spend time on the river. My Nodaway uncle once proclaimed that the best way to catch fish is to take up bird-watching. At first, I understood this to mean that birds tell us where the fish are and what they’re eating, and they certainly do. But that was not the point he was making.

I knew this intuitively because, had I been eager to catch fish, I would not have tolerated the delays. My father taught me to sit quietly on the bank or sandbar while preparing to cast. Checking and replacing sections of leader, tying on a tippet, stretching and dressing the fly line, devising a lure, cleaning sand out of the reel arbor, and reading the water were necessary several times during an outing. This process often included sandwiches and root beer. There were toads to admire, turtles to stalk, and bison bones to collect. Sometimes we didn’t get around to fishing. I realized much later in life that preparing to fish was as important as the act of fishing. Maybe more.

Now I fish with my sons. We enter a piscine realm upon walking a bank or riverbed. Every living thing in the water, sky, woods, and mud feels the intrusion. All eyes are on us. It takes however long it takes for normal activity to resume. When our tackle is assembled and preparations are complete, we can put our eyes on the water and listen for the sounds of feeding fish, buzzing insects, and birds getting back to work. The vulnerabilities of chuckleheads are revealed. We are suddenly faced with the decision to bend nature to our amusement or to practice the art of deeper pleasures.

 

Image Credit: Paul Johnsgard

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