Cats and Dogs: The Perfect Summer Fishing Combo

We may earn revenue from the products available on this page and participate in affiliate programs. Learn more ›

IT STARTED WITH a single knock—just one quick bounce of the rod tip. If the fish committed, within two seconds the ancient chipped and scuffed Ugly Stik would bow over and not pop back up. “Here we go, bud,” I said to my 5-year-old son, Jamie. “You ready?”

He hustled to my side of the drift boat, tripping over anchor ropes and coolers and knocking over his Gatorade in transit. In the time it took him to get to me, the rod had bent in the holder right down to its shredded foam grip. I wrenched the rod out and handed it to the kid. To me, the fish felt, at best, like a sizable channel catfish. But to Jamie—all 42 inches of him—I may as well have been handing him a 30-wide offshore outfit with a hot yellowfin on the other end. 

“You remember what I told you, right?” I asked.

“Yeah, Daddy,” he said. “Follow that fish!”

“Yup. If it goes to that side of the boat, you go to that side of the boat.”

Jamie grunted and groaned. Beads of sweat formed on his tiny forehead in the July heat. He struggled to turn the handle of the beater spinning reel I had matched with the old rod. I learned the hard way when Jamie was only 3 not to use my good tackle for catfishing with him after having to take a swim to recover my rod. If this one goes in, I may or may not make the same effort. There will be swimming today, of course, but not until Jamie is exhausted from catfish battles—or until we run out of hot dogs. Whichever comes first.

Dog Gone

I’ve spent a lot of time with serious catfish anglers over the years and have always enjoyed it. People think of catfishing as a lazy man’s game, which it can be. But it can also be precise and tactical. The hardcore dudes put in a lot of effort to catch fresh bait; they scout prime locations, stay on fish all year, and dial in rigs and gear to beat 50-plus-pound blues and flatheads. Although my home river, the Delaware, doesn’t have blues and just a smattering of flatheads, it is rife with big channel cats—and in the spring I’m as serious about catching them as some of the ringers I’ve rubbed elbows with on the James River in Virginia and central Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna. I insist on catching fresh shad for bait, and I send it out with snazzy baitrunner reels and beefy rods in case a channel bigger than my personal best—a 37-incher that weighed 22 pounds—happens to latch on. But summer catfishing vibes are different in so many ways.

close-up of channel catfish being held by hand
Channel cats are suckers for hot dogs soaked in sugary drink mix and garlic powder. Keith Sutton

Most of the time, summer catfish trips with Jamie are impromptu. For example, I’ll just happen to notice during breakfast that we have a day with no thunderstorms in the forecast. Or maybe Jamie is acting up, and I need to get him out of his mom’s hair. These trips leave very little time for prep; certainly not enough time to wrangle up any sort of fresh chunk baits. I could, of course, go to the local fish market and buy shrimp, but it pains me to throw them in the river instead of on the flat-top with some peppers and onions. The dollar store is the better option. They sell hot dogs that I can use guilt-free because I’m convinced they’re not fit for human consumption anyway.

After Jamie inevitably cons me into buying him a new water gun or squishy shark or pirate sword in the toy aisle, we head over to the packets of drink mix. They’re all Kool-Aid knockoffs, but catfish aren’t brand snobs, and choosing a flavor lets Jamie have a hand in our success. I prefer my dogs to be marinated in cherry powder, but the kid opts for grape. Not that flavor matters here; the fish are attracted to the sugary smell mixed with the naturally salty, greasy aroma of the hot dogs.

At home Jamie pulls his stool up to the edge of the kitchen counter and finds his plastic safety knife in the drawer. He carefully cuts each dog into inch-long chunks and puts them in a Ziploc bag. Once the entire pack of dogs is whacked up, he dumps the grape powder in, runs his finger around the empty packet and gives it a lick. Then he shakes in a bunch of garlic powder, and I add a little bit of water to the bag. By the time we get to the river, each chunk will be bright violet and produce an odor that could gag a maggot.

Sweet and Easy

Some days we fish from the boat. Others, I row down to one of the islands, beach it, and set up a couple of folding chairs and two sand spikes for the rods. The beauty of catfishing with Jamie—as opposed to doing something like casting grubs for bass or spinners for trout, both of which require more focus—is that he can totally check out. As long as I’m paying attention, we’re good, because when you plant a circle hook in a rubbery catfish mouth, it doesn’t come out easily. Jamie can be off digging a hole or splashing around or peeing on a tree and take his sweet time getting back to the bucking rod. Usually it’s a channel cat doing the bucking, but a soaked hot dog has also duped Jamie’s first American eel, carp, and, believe it or not, striped bass.

As soon as one of those big cats starts rolling on the surface, Jamie goes into Wicked Tuna mode. “Hit him, Daddy!”

It took me 12 years and a lot of allowance money spent on lures to catch my first striper. At that age, I couldn’t have cared less about soaking bait for channel catfish. That was lame, I thought. It wasn’t until I had my own kids to take fishing that I realized how special and underutilized the local channel fishery really was. But these summer trips with Jamie are a blessing and curse: Because he’s tussled with much bigger fish than I had by age 5, he’s already pretty much over bluegills. He has his sights set on tarpon and barracudas, and I’ve had to explain that we don’t need a gaff and a tail rope out on the river.

I do, however, have a net with a telescoping handle on the boat at all times. As soon as one of those big cats starts rolling on the surface, Jamie goes into Wicked Tuna mode. “Hit him, Daddy!” he screams. “Scoop him up!”

What he doesn’t realize is that the telescoping handle only goes so far. “He’s still 20 feet away, bud,” I tell him, fighting not to laugh. Eventually he wrestles the fish close enough for the bag and goes nuts as it hits the deck with a thud. He already understands that he has to be careful around the spines on the cat’s fins, and he supports it under the tail and chin as he stretches it across his lap for a photo.

I try to get as much cat slime off my hands with a rag before grabbing my phone, but there’s nothing I can do at the moment about cleaning my purple fingertips stained by the faux Kool-Aid. It’s very possible that as Jamie gets more interested in catching other fish, these summer catfish trips will wind down. Until then I’ll savor the sweetness.

Read more F&S+ stories.