Catfish – Anytime, Anyplace

Channel Catfish are the most widely distributed of the three major species. Their original range was through the Mississippi Valley north to Canada, and south to Mexico. Channel Catfish have been introduced and stocked virtually everywhere in North America, and in Europe. They are raised commercially on ‘farms’ for the restaurant and grocery industries. It goes without saying that they are great on a plate! In size, they are the smallest of the three main species, weighing up to 50 pounds. 20 pounders are not uncommon, with 5 pounders being about average. Channel Catfish have a streamlined body, a deeply forked tail and 24-30 rays on the anal fin. Their coloration is silvery blue on the back and sides with numerous random black spots, fading to white on the belly. Channel Catfish spawn when the water temperature reaches 72-75 degrees. They make a nest in natural cavities, undercut banks and rocks. Channel Catfish prefer lakes and larger rivers with sandy or hard bottoms and plenty of current, but they do well in lakes with mud flats, streams, stock ponds and can even thrive in brackish water. They like deep pools and channels with access to shallower water. In reservoirs, they can usually be found in the tailraces below dams. They will usually be in eddies, current seams, and deeper holes in pools below rapids and shoals. Channel Catfish are very cooperative; eating pretty much anything they think might be edible. Live, dead, frozen or rotten fish, night crawlers, crawfish, mussels, shrimp, chicken livers, dog food, cheese, catalpa worms, grasshoppers and ‘stink bait’ are all good producers. Like their cousins, the largest are usually caught on trotlines with live fish, but many large fish are caught by a thrilling method called ‘noodling’, where it is legal. People wade along undercut banks and stick their hands in the crevices between the rocks. Large catfish holding in these natural shelters will attack the offending arm by biting down on it and they will not let go! These large behemoths, some in the 40 pound range, are then dragged out of their holes, usually with some help, and deposited on the bank, undoubtedly near a first-aid kit. All catfish have extremely powerful jaws, and I cannot see how you would escape some injury, however slight. It is just my opinion, but I place this type of catfishing in the same category as bungee jumping, and other ‘extreme’ sports. I will stick to traditional methods, thank you. Channel cats are also caught on jug lines and limb lines. They are active night feeders in the spring, summer and early fall.

There are many catfish tournaments held nation-wide, and numerous associations you can join that specialize in ‘trophy’ catfish. The internet is full of catfishing websites devoted to these subjects. For the rest of us, who just want a few medium-sized fish for the kitchen, the rig I am about to describe is easy, quick to set up, and works everywhere, from a boat, the bank, or a fast river. This is a variation of a rig the commercial ‘Long-Line’ fisherman use (I used to be one). Attach 3 to 5 1/8 oz. split shots, depending on the current, to the bottom of your line. Make one dropper loop 18″ above the highest sinker and attach a #2 Aberdeen hook, or a #6 treble hook for ‘stink’ bait. You can make one, or even two more dropper loops at 18″ intervals and attach hooks to them. It is called a Fish-Finder rig and allows you to fish several different baits at different depths. A major problem with fishing rocky bottoms is that the sinker will often get wedged in crevices between rocks, causing you to lose your rig, and/or your fish. With this rig, if a sinker becomes wedged, it will pull off, saving your rig and fish.

Where you fish depends on what time of year it is. I divide the year into several divisions.

1. Pre-Spawn-When water temperatures approach the correct ones for spawning for the particular species, the catfish begin to move into shallower water, and suitable spawning grounds. The males come in first, followed closely by the larger females. In rivers, they will move upstream towards dams, and in lakes, towards coves and inlets. At this time, they will often school and feed heavily to condition themselves for the job at hand. Normally they will not be meticulous about what they eat. Almost any suitable bait works. This is some of the best catfishing of the year.

2. Spawn-Once the temperature has reached the correct level for spawning, and suitable sites have been found, the catfish quite feeding. This is probably to guard against them eating their own eggs and young. This is a good time to chase white bass, crappie, black bass, or bluegills and give the catfish a rest.

3. After Spawn-Once they have completed their task, catfish will move to the places they intend to spend the summer in, and resume normal feeding habits. Night fishing is often productive from now until late fall. Flatheads will find deep pools and holes in rivers. Channel Cats in rivers will move into deep holes in pools below fast water, or other current breaks. In lakes, Channel cats will move into deeper water along channels with good access to shallower water. They will feed in the shallows at night and move to deeper water during the day. Blues in large rivers will follow the same pattern.

4. Summer-Catfish will remain in their established habitats until the water begins to cool in the fall. They are very predictable at this time.

5. Fall-when the water temperature starts to cool, catfish begin looking for suitable winter habitat. In rivers, all species will begin to move down stream and look for deeper water. In lakes, Channel Catfish will move into deep water and stop foraging in the shallows at night. They will often school near bottom structure. The cooler water temperature triggers heavy feeding in preparation for a slow winter. Most suitable baits work well.

6. Fall Turn-Over-When the cooler surface water sinks, and the denser bottom water mixes, catfish will scatter and can be anywhere in the water column. They will still feed, but locating them in lakes can be difficult. In the south, this does not occur in some lakes where it never gets very cold. Blue Catfish are the exception. They will be in deeper water, but will still follow the fall pattern of feeding and movement. Turn Over also does not occur in rivers, and the fish will usually continue their fall behavior.

7. Late Fall- As the water become cooler, catfish will tend to school near suitable wintering grounds. They will move to deep water and bottom structure. Except for Blue Catfish, their feeding patterns will begin to slow down. Smaller baits are the rule here. In rivers, they will seriously begin to migrate downstream.

8. Winter-Up north, lake ice over. Catfish, except for Blues, become sluggish and do not move around much. In lakes, they will be deep near bottom structure. In rivers, they will be in deep pools downstream. They can be caught, but you have to use small bait and have it almost right under their nose. In the Deep South (where I live) catfish will tend to maintain their fall habits because the water does not get that cold. Blue Catfish still feed actively and this is a good time to target them if you are in their region. Otherwise, you might want to consider pursuing white bass and freshwater stripers. They love the cold water. This is the time of year that I concentrate on trout. If you are determined to catch catfish at this time of year, small baits and infinite patience is the rule.

If you plan to fish rivers, there is a skill you must master if you are to be consistently successful. Trout anglers call it ‘Reading The Water’, and it is just as important for catfish. There are certain features you should look for to locate catfish.

1. Bottom Slope-the slope of the bottom determines the current speed and bottom composition. A sharp slope indicates a fast current with a hard or rocky bottom. A mild slope indicates slow current with a bottom of silt, and or mud. Most rivers and streams contain the entire spectrum between these two extremes. Look for Flatheads and Blue Cats near mild slopes with deep holes. Look for Channel Cats off steep slopes with holes, riffles and eddies.

2. Rapids-Rapids indicate fast, shallow water, or a shoal. At the downstream end of all rapids, there are deeper Pools, with slower current, which contain even deeper Holes. Channel Cats will be in the holes of the pools, usually on the downstream end, waiting to grab anything that drifts by, because it will usually sink in the slower water. The current here will contain dazed baitfish, wayward insects trapped in the current, organic trash, invertebrates, and all kinds of things Channel Cats consider yummy. Toss your bait in at the end of rapids and allow it to drift into the holes…and hang on! Most of the time, the strikes will be savage.

3. Current Seams-This is a junction where fast water and slow water meet and run parallel to each other. Usually it is where an inlet comes in, or the water has changed direction due to and obstacle such as a bend in the river, where the outside water is faster than the inside. Channel Cats will find a place to patrol along the slow water and wait for something to pop out of the faster water. Or, if it is a particularly appealing morsel, they will rush in, grab it and move back to the slower water. Toss your bait right between the two currents and let it drift. Strikes will be hard and fast, and with the Fish Finder Rig, it is not uncommon to hook two catfish at once.

4. Eddies-Eddies are where the water has reversed direction and created vortexes (whirlpools) at the point of the change and to either side. This is most commonly seen at sharp bends in the river, or near Tailraces close to the dam, where the river becomes restricted in width. This is sometimes referred to as ‘back-flow’. Eddies are great! They usually contain some catfish. Look for eddies, especially along the walls of dams, where the current is stopped and has to go somewhere. Toss your bait right in the middle of the eddy and let it spin. Strikes will be hard and fast.

5. Other features to look for are fallen trees, large rocks, undercut banks, and anything that breaks the current. Catfish will be found on the downstream side of these obstacles and will usually attack anything possibly edible that drifts by.

In lakes, especially in fall and winter, a boat and depth-finder are almost a necessity. Look for catfish along shelves, drop-offs, old streambeds, off coves, along ripraps and around docks and piers. Under bridges is a particularly good place to search. If you can find schools of shad, catfish will usually be near. Look for diving flocks of birds. This is a good indicator of a school of baitfish near the surface.

Flatheads and Blue Cats are mostly fish eaters, so the best baits for them are live fish, for Yellow Cats, and live or cut fish for Blues. The standard bait for Channel Cats is chicken livers, but they are messy and do not stay on the hook very well. You can wrap them in pantyhose pieces before hooking them and they will stay on the hook, but it is difficult to remove the pantyhose from the barb later. Alternatively, you can use the livers frozen. My solution is this: Take a cup of chicken livers and add ½ cup of salt and a few drops of vanilla extract. Refrigerate them overnight. The salt toughens the liver so they stay on the hook well, and the vanilla makes the catfish homicidal. Shrimp is also good bait, but turtles love shrimp as well. You might be having turtle soup for supper instead of catfish fillets when using this. Of course, Channel Cats love live, cut and rotten fish, so these can work. I have used left over minnows from bass trips for catfish on many occasions. If they die, just freeze them until you need them. You don’t even have to thaw them out. Channel Cats will eat them frozen as well. Another bait I use with good results is to cut up a package of cheap weenies into ½” cylinders and put them in a jar. Cover them with malt or apple cider vinegar and refrigerate overnight. Medium-sized catfish love them. Here is another one: Mix raw hamburger meat with Wearies and just enough Big Red soda to make a ball. Place it in a plastic bag and pinch off what you need for the hook. Carp like this one, too. Cheese, dog food, soap, catalpa worms, night crawlers, grasshoppers and crawfish have all been used with some success from time to time, as well as commercially prepared ‘stink’ baits. Experiment and find what works best for you in your particular location.

No catfish article would be complete without at least one recipe. For catfish, there is only one real recipe. Cornmeal, flour, salt, pepper and catfish fillets. Roll the fillets in the dry ingredients, and drop them in a deep fryer until they float and are a succulent golden brown. Serve with fries, hush puppies and garnish with an 8 x 10 glossy photo of Roland Martin…….

Happy Fishing

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Dan Eggertsen is a fellow catfish fishing enthusiast to the point of obsession. :) He's been providing solid advice on catfish fishing since 2004.

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