I felt the comforting “thud” as my bell sinker hit bottom after a 24-foot free fall through the murky depths of Lake Fork’s fertile waters. 

Guide Seth Vanover’s comfortable fishing barge had its bow tied to what was left of a 15-inch diameter oak tree that once provided shade along what is now a submerged creek bed.  A couple cranks on the reel handle and my No. 4 treble hook, baited with a big piece of fresh chicken liver, was dangling tantalizingly a few inches from the lake bottom. 

Earlier that morning, Seth had baited the hole with grain and the sharp tug on my line indicated that there was an abundance of channel catfish already at the dinner table. The chicken liver was the second course of their evening meal, and from the intensity of this first strike it was obvious they were ready for the main course.

With steady pressure applied to the rod, the fish was soon in my hands. If you’ve fished for catfish much, I’m sure you have learned to slide your hand along the fishes body, beginning near the tail and ending with a grip that leaves those needle sharp barbs protruding between your fingers. You have also learned to watch those little eight or 10-inch catfish. They have a very bad habit of flipping just as you attempt to grab them, which often results in a painful jab. It’s not a bad idea to wear protective gloves on the hand you use to handle your catch. 

 As I gripped my first catfish of the day, the 2.5-pounder began making that little croaking sound that I first heard as a youngster when we trotlined for channel catfish up in Oklahoma at Long Log Lake, not far from Idabel.  

The croaking of a channel catfish has become a comforting sound, one that holds promise of some exciting fishing action that results in a big platter of crispy fried catfish fillets. 

My friend Phil Zimmerman joined us for this late afternoon of fishing this past week and out of the corner of my eye, I noted that he and Seth were also busy with their own catfish. I’ve often been asked which fish species I enjoy catching most. 

It’s a tough question and, if asked when I am doing battle with any fish, whether it be scaled or slick skinned the answer is probably “the one on the end of my line!” 

But, for sheer fishing fun, it’s hard to beat the often nonstop action of catching channel catfish during the summer months over a hole baited with grain. the crowning glory of a successful catfish trip is the evening meal. It’s hard to beat a big platter of crispy fried catfish fillets! 

 It’s possible to catch plenty of catfish without baiting, but the action is never as good as when fishing over water where soured grain or cattle range cubes has been distributed. 

Catfish are gluttons and the aroma of food on the lake’s bottom brings them from quite a distance. 

 Vanover keeps several spots baited with range cubes or soured grain. He places the “bait” in a weighted burlap bag and drops it to bottom, usually on the edge of a submerged creek channel with plenty of standing timber along its banks.

  “Right now, it’s easy to concentrate catfish with grain at Fork. Just key on water 22-24 feet deep and look for timber along creek drop offs,” Vanover said. “Channel catfish, the predominate catfish species in Fork, usually hold close to bottom. If you’re fishing a lake with a strong population of blue catfish, it’s often necessary to fish higher in the water column. Blues like to suspend and locating them can be much like crappie fishing, varying depth until you find them. Almost always, though, you’ll find the channel catfish within a foot or so of bottom.” 

Vanover is a big proponent of using chicken livers for bait. 

“Chicken liver is cheap, readily available, stays on the hook well and catfish love it,” Vanover said.

Granted, there are many prepared catfish baits on the market and I sometimes use them but day in and day out, chicken liver is my “go to” bait when fishing for channel catfish. The trick to baiting with chicken liver is to run the barb of the hook through the connective tissue in the center of the liver.” 

 Rigging for channels when fishing vertical under the boat is easy, simply place a bell sinker about 14 inches above a No. 4 treble hook. When a fish swallows the bait, as will invariably occur occasionally, simply snip the line at the fish’s mouth and tie on another. 

When using the larger No. 4 hooks, opposed to smaller No. 6 or No. 8’s, more fish will be hooked in the mouth, making hook retrieval much easier. 

When casting baits for channel catfish, whether from the boat or the bank, a Santee Cooper Rig works best. This is simply a basic Carolina or live bait rig with a small float pegged a few inches above the hook/bait. 

This system allows the bait to float up from bottom, making it easier for catfish to pick it up. The same thing is accomplished when vertical fishing by the angler when the rod is lifted and bait pulled up off bottom. After a couple hours of boating catfish, we all began keeping a close watch on the sky. A welcome midsummer cool front was approaching and some dark, ominous clouds appeared on the north side of the lake. 

It was time to remove the loop that kept the boat tethered to the oak, fire up the motor and head back to dock. By the time we reached shore, we were being pelted by some very cold rain drops. Nobody was complaining, though. We all remembered the past two summers! 

  After some fast work with the electric knives, Phil and I were on the road heading for home. 

The ice chest in the back of the truck held plenty of catfish fillets. A big family fish fry is obviously in the works. Bet that doesn’t surprise you.

For more information on catching catfish at Lake Fork, contact guide Seth Vanover at 903-736-4557 or visit www.lakeforkcatandcrappie.com.