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River Monsters in a Mid-Bay Creek

Channel cats give a good fight and good eating

Deborah Banker nets one of the river cats landed in an afternoon fishing.

Wife Deborah and I were enjoying a lazy afternoon fishing one of the Bay’s many small tributaries when it happened. I had just made a long cast to a downed tree that, I hoped, harbored more of the fat 10-inch perch that we had been gathering for a fish fry.

Fishfinder

    The big spot have arrived, and panfishing is on fire in the mid-Bay. Hefty croaker, large perch and the Norfolks are here in serious numbers now. At Belvedere Shoals, Podickery, Hackett’s, Tolley and over to the east at Love Point on down through the False Channel, anglers are filling their boxes.
    Summertime dead zones, however, are causing our rockfish to move around and are pushing many to the south. The Bay Bridge is still holding a few, but the majority of bigger stripers are down around Chesapeake Beach on the west side and below Poplar Island across the Bay.
    Trolling with spoons is popular, with size-15 to -17 Tony’s being the choice of most anglers. Our recent full moon has soured crabbing prospects with another major slough making the jimmies light and scarce. Another week or so should see the fishery back up.

    As I began the retrieve, my small spinner bait was walloped. The five-foot perch rod bowed down into the corks, and my drag started to buzz. For the first five seconds, I held onto the belief that the jumbo perch of my dreams had finally taken my lure. Reality set in as my line continued disappearing downstream.
    This fish was obviously way bigger than any perch. Perversely, the unseen monster had started its run down the creek by diving under the half-submerged tree trunk.
    My reel sounded like an angry bumblebee as line melted off the spool, but I had no choice. Six-pound test line is hardly a lunker-stopper, and what’s more, I could feel the line chafing against the underside of the intervening tree trunk as the fish accelerated.
    Eventually, though, the fish stopped and I eased it back. It took forever; working it out from under the tree trunk was especially delicate. But my luck and the fresh monofilament on my reel held out.
    As I drew the fish closer to the boat, it ran again but not back under the submerged timber. This time it headed for deeper water, which was probably a poor choice for the fish. Out in the open, free of fouls and snags, I could let it tire itself out.

Catfish on the Line

    As I finally got the fish near, Deborah readied the net, and I caught the first glimpse of my quarry as it breached the surface of the creek’s algae-tinted water. The broad flat head — thick, dark olive-green back and spotted golden flanks — left little doubt as to its identity, a big channel catfish. Not my first choice in a game fish, but it did have certain undeniable qualities.
    I eased the fish to the net, and Deb managed the big dude into the boat.
    “Hey, this is just like the fish the guy on River Monster catches,” she said.
    Of course it wasn’t nearly as big as the outsized cats caught on the television series, and we were really only on a creek, but it did look rather like a monster with its big flat head, menacing small eyes and sinister barbels.
    After the long battle on my light rod, the fish was exhausted, and we got it unhooked and into our cooler without further incident.
    “That, my dear,” I said, closing the fish box, “isn’t a particularly handsome creature, but it is going to make one fantastic dinner.”
    A channel cat, normally a freshwater fish, is an unusual catch for the small, mid-Bay creek we were fishing. But on the very next cast to that fallen tree, I hooked another one even larger than the first. This one ran immediately for open water and, though the battle was more strenuous, it was far less intense.

Catfish Dinner

    Later that day, filleting the cats proved a simple and quick operation. Scoring through the fish’s tough skin with a sharp knife along the lines of the fillet, then pulling the skin off with pliers was step one. I followed that by running my knife along its spine and over its ribcage, then continuing the cut down the length of the backbone, easily separating the meat from the carcass. The fillets were thick, boneless and succulent.
    The next afternoon I prepared a wet rub by sautéing for about 10 minutes three tablespoons butter, two tablespoons paprika, one tablespoon each of garlic and onion powder, one tablespoon coarse salt and three-quarter tablespoon each of cayenne, coriander and fresh-ground black pepper.
    Selecting two of the big fillets and rubbing them well in the mélange of spices, I covered them with plastic wrap and put them back in the fridge for about four hours to marinate. That evening, I cooked them on a freshly oiled and very hot charcoal grill for about five minutes a side, until they were well blackened and flaked to the touch. Served with a sautéed medley of fresh summer squash and Vidalia onions (in olive oil), the monsters were delicious.


 

Conservation Notes

    Maryland Department of Natural Resources is finalizing plans to curb rampant commercial fishing violations. A random two-day audit for the previously unmonitored 30 commercial check stations has been formulated. Also a Hail In/Hail Out system being advanced would require every commercial boat to call an automated number on leaving and returning to dock. The enforcement efforts are to include requiring all gill nets to have permanently attached positive identification.
    As administrative costs to manage commercial fishing are almost three times the amounts collected from permits and licenses ($410,000), fee increases have been proposed. Watermen’s organizations are opposing most of the proposals. Fisheries Service officials will brief recreational and commercial fishing advisory commissions next week with an eye toward having a completed proposal available for online comments on Aug. 17.