Experiences of top catmen along with results of scientific studies have tightened our grip on the seasonal response of catfish, from small rivers to the largest of watercourses. Myths about notoriously tight-lipped catfish late in the year have been dispelled — in fact, autumn catfishing can be fruitful when conditions are right. At other times, channel catfish can be anything but aggressive, especially after a bout of a miserably cold October or November rain (or worse). But when the cold steel of the hammer drops and the going gets tough at traditional summer spots, the tough get going — right down to the places channel cats ride out old man winter.
“My understanding of seasonal patterns for channel catfish evolved when I regularly fished the Big Sioux River and its smaller tributaries in Iowa,” In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange explains. “Lots of channel catfish were in shallow feeder tributaries well upstream from the Sioux in spring. We’re talking miles and miles off the main tributary, some no wider than a few yards with water not much deeper than 3 feet. Deeper pools in those same areas held smaller catfish through summer and early fall.
“By late September or early October, catfish vacated summer locations and moved downstream. Catches were better in deep sections of the mainstem Sioux, as well as in the deepest holes in lower reaches of the tributaries. Understanding movement patterns to wintering habitat, and knowing what makes a good overwintering area, are keys to catching late-season catfish.”
SCIENCE REVEALS MOVEMENT DETAILS
Findings of tagging and tracking studies verify traditional ways of thinking about late-season catfish, while results of other studies go against the flow. It hasn’t been easy going, since collecting large samples can be difficult and channel catfish have been known to expel internally implanted transmitters, requiring some industrious solutions. Diligence pays off, as these studies provide some of the most detailed information on fall and winter movements.
Late-season movements of channel catfish were investigated in the Lower Wisconsin River system. Biologists implanted radio transmitters into 187 channel catfish and followed them some 85 miles on the Lower Wisconsin River and 65 miles of the adjoining Mississippi.
The fall migration of catfish began in mid-October, and most fish arrived at overwintering sites by early December, reports biologist Don Fago. The Mississippi River was an important overwintering area, especially for fish tagged there and in the lower reaches of the Wisconsin River. Of the catfish tagged in the Wisconsin, 64 percent moved downstream to the Mississippi to overwinter.
But not all catfish moved downstream. A substantial proportion (23 percent) of the fish tagged in the Wisconsin overwintered at Prairie du Sac Dam, the most upstream point of the study site. Many fish tagged at the dam remained there for the remainder of the winter.
The farther downstream a fish was tagged in the Wisconsin, the more likely it was to move to the Mississippi to overwinter. Most of the fish tagged in the Wisconsin 28 to 44 miles upstream of the mouth, moved to the Mississippi; while only 21 percent tagged at Prairie du Sac Dam, about 85 miles upstream from the mouth, overwintered in the Mississippi.
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