The angler sculls his johnboat from brushpile to brushpile, putting hooked minnows between the silvers of waterlogged branches. Every now and then - but not too often - he pulls backs gently and threads out a small crappie to add to the stringer.

Lazy, small-potatoes fishing, and he likes that on this hot, August afternoon.

But suddenly he's jerked to his senses by something heavy lunging downward against the thin bamboo pole. The pole is bent nearly double and the fibers of the bamboo creak from the pressure.

Big bass? Massive northern pike?

Could be. But the angler has another suspicion: old whisker-face.

Five minutes later, after a tussle of magnitude, the big, brooding eyes of a six-pound channel catfish stare back from the end of the line. The cat's whiskers hang limp, but the pectoral and dorsal spines are erect, ready to stab careless hands.

Cautiously, a thumb and forefinger are slipped behind the menacing spines and the cat is lifted clear, unhooked, and added to the stringer.

Everyone catches catfish. Crappie fishermen, bassmasters, bream dunkers, fly fishermen - you name it. All are subject to the tugging attack of this maligned and often-misunderstood gamefish.

Yes, gamefish. Some "sport" fishermen will arch their eyebrows at this designation, but the channel catfish should be classed as nothing else.

Channel cats fight as strongly as the touted largemouth bass, and they need little prodding to strike a complete line of lures, flies and baits.

Dilettantes may gasp at the suggestion that cats will come to flies, but anyone who's done more than dabble in the art knows that a catfish on a fly is not all that unusual. Channel cats lunge at streamers just as they nab natural baitfish. On the Shenandoah and Potomac, cats will sip mayflies - and your dry fly - from the surface like the most sophisticated brown trout.

Same goes for lures. Just when you know you've hooked into a four or five-pound smallmouth, a flash of catfish blue shows beneath the water. They're fighters.

All fishing methods take cats at times, but if you want to specialize, bait is the way to go. It doesn't have to be so smelly that you don't want to touch it with a 10-foot fly rod.

When cats are feeding, they often work middepth levels in lakes and river, coming well off the bottom where novices believe they spend their lives in mud-caked seclusion. Here, a simple bobber rigged three to six feet abo ve a lip-hooked minnow is an effective rig.

Normally, cats will come in greater numbers if you fish a bit lower. For rivers. I like a simple rig consisting of a No. 2 hook and 2-4 split shot crimped on the line a foot above the bait.

Impale a big minnow on the hook and toss it out to the edge of riffles, deep eddies and slow backwaters. Let the bait sink several seconds, then work it back slowly with twitches of the rod tip. When a cat strikes give him line for five to 10 seconds. Set the hook hard.

Another bait that can be used with this rig in chicken liver. This is getting into messier stuff, but big cats love it. Drape a large chunck onto the hook and fish it dead drift, like a nymph for trout, with several split shot to take the bait down to the fish.

On the Potomac, you can catch cats until your arms hurt with this setup. And don't be bashful about throwing your livers out into fast water either. Here chunky, pound-size cats cats often hang out by the hundreds.

For lakes, a three-way swivel with a half-ounce dipsy sinker and a hook rigged six to 12 inches off the bottom works best. Shrimp, crayfish and nightcrawlers work well here, in addition to livers and minnows. Work sharply sloping points and deep coves when catfishing the lakes.

One of the most appealing aspects of catfishing is the time it's done. Night is the prime period for big fish in the five to 10-pound class. It's hard to think of a better way to spend a hot August night than on the banks of a silent catfish lake - sipping coffee, tending lines and swapping tales of lunkers.

Whatever you do, don't throw your catfish back in the water. Nonfisher men shell out millions for the succulent white flesh each year, making catfish the No. 1 selling freshwater fish in the country.

Skin the catfish with pliers, cut off the head and remove the entrails. Wash, roll in flour or corn meal and pan-fry. If it's a big one, steak or fillet it for a mouth-watering treat.