River catfish location and behavior varies little from one river system to the next. Factors like weather, water levels, and dam generation schedules remain unpredictable, but once you understand how to interpret these factors, finding fish becomes relatively simple or at least straightforward. And particularly during the Prespawn Period, which now is in full swing across much of Catfish Country, a catfish that can be found usually can be caught.
This is not to suggest that specific locations remain constant from one season to the next, because rivers are constantly changing. Log jams and snags may be deposited at the head of a bend during high flows one season, only to be uprooted and swept away the next. Sandbars shift, grow, and recede beneath the constant pressure of changing currents. And on many big rivers, the Army Corps of Engineers contributes changes of their own in the form of dams, dikes, and levees to control flood waters and maintain a navigation channel for commercial barge traffic.
In spite of these seemingly major changes, though, the overall structure of the river remains constant. All rivers contain a constant series of riffles, holes, and runs. A riffle lying 10 feet beneath the surface of the Ohio River might not be so obvious as one visible on the surface of the Minnesota River, but it serves the same function. The harder bottom resists the eroding force of the current, causing water to accelerate. As soon as this faster flow hits softer bottom downstream, it scours a hole. The current slows at the tail end of a hole, allowing sediments to settle. A uniform flat or run then stretches downstream to the next riffle.
Manmade structures like wing dams, riprap banks, and barge mooring stations alter the natural flow of big rivers, but they also contribute to catfish habitat. Dams, for example, often are constructed where a shallow riffle poses a danger to barge traffic. And like the riffle, the force of water pouring over a dam scours a deep hole that provides excellent catfish habitat. Wing dams also function like riffles, diverting current to scour deep holes that offer protection for cats and other species. The piles of downed timber that afford cats cover in many small farm-country rivers are periodically removed by river engineers, but bridge pilings, boulders, and other permanent structures that serve a similar function often are left in their place.
North America’s major rivers are much different today than they were a century ago, but many still harbor incredible numbers of catfish. In some river sections, man’s alterations may have even improved catfish production by increasing the depth of the channel and the amount of suitable habitat. Finding the most productive locations, then fishing those spots efficiently with proven baits and rigs, is the key to memorable catches of prespawn cats on big rivers.
JAMES RIVER BLUE CATS
Blue cats probably are the species most anglers in the Midwest and Midsouth associate with big rivers, but growing populations of big blues also thrive in tidal rivers from Virginia to South Carolina. Many of these rivers afford catfish the same kind of habitat as other navigable waterways, though gizzard shad, blueback herring, and other prey species usually are much more abundant. According to guide Jimmy Weir (757/464-1112), catfish behave the same way in tidal rivers as they do in inland streams.
“It’s important to consider how fish behave in their environment,” Weir says. “When fishing secondary channels or feeder creeks, for example, I know the fish are there to eat. I employ a run-and-gun approach by setting up on deep holes or cover like docks and trees for no longer than 30 minutes. If I don’t get bit, I move. Since these areas usually aren’t as deep as main-river spots, though, I also know that the fish will be more wary. I motor around the core of the hole, then drift back into casting range by releasing more anchor rope.”
Tributary streams and side channels frequently are visited by blue cat anglers during high-water periods, but Weir says they usually hold the largest concentrations of fish from midwinter through midspring. “By the time water levels begin to stabilize, I’m looking for fish in the main river channel,” Weir adds. “Blue cats have gained something of a coldwater reputation in recent years, but I’ve taken some of my biggest fish during summer, especially when water temperatures approach peak levels. This is when blues begin to move onto shallow flats adjacent to the main channel to feed after dark.”
Even when targeting actively feeding fish, though, Weir says that fresh bait is essential. “I often spend two or three hours gathering enough bait for a day of fishing,” Weir adds. “When the bait’s not abundant in shallow water, I motor in an S-pattern across ledges in the main river, watching my sonar for schools of shad. I keep an eye out for big-fish arches, too, since this can help pinpoint the depth where blue cats are feeding.
“Many big rivers are blessed with large populations of gizzard shad, skipjack herring, or other schooling baitfish species,” Weir says, “which is one reason they produce so many big blue cats. On the James River, one throw with an 8-foot cast net may capture so many shad that I have to struggle to haul it over the gunwale. Shad from about 8 to 14 inches long are the best bait year-round. Cut the bait once behind the gill plate and again in front of the tail fin. On some days, blues seem to prefer the heads, while the body section produces more fish on other days.”
CUMBERLAND RIVER CHANNEL CATS
“Channel cats are the least depth-specific catfish species,” says guide Donny Hall (615/383-4464) of Nashville, Tennessee. “I’ve caught them in water 2, 20, and 50 feet deep on the same day. Particularly in navigable rivers like the Cumberland, the population usually is large enough that distinct populations may gather at several depths to take advantage of different feeding opportunities. But a good number of fish almost always can be found in shallow water, especially during spring.”
Hall defines shallow water as “less than about 10 feet,” but adds, “In river sections with lots of water deeper than 50 feet, a 20-foot flat might be considered shallow. My largest channel cat to date, a 25-pounder, came from a 15-foot ledge. And at times, fish this size or even larger may be found in water barely knee deep.”
How shallow channel cats hold depends on several factors. “They hug tightest to the bank in high, muddy water,” Hall says, “probably because the shoreline concentrates most of the river’s forage species. Many big rivers also have lots of timber and rock cover in the one- to ten-foot depth zone, and during normal water levels, channel cats often hold near these objects close to the bank. They’re usually tight to the cover when the current’s intense, less so when it’s more moderate.”
Tributary mouths also serve as a natural food delivery system. “When creeks are running high and muddy after a heavy rain, channels move onto the flat at the mouth,” Hall adds. “Moving out from the mouth might reveal a ledge or drop-off with a big tangle of wood cover—limbs, brush, or even entire trees—accumulated during high water. This often is one of the best channel cat spots on the river, for numbers and size.”
Channel cats also may move into the tributary stream when conditions are right, but usually don’t move far. “Sometimes a big concentration of cats hold between the mouth and the first major bend in the creek,” Hall says. “They usually hold tight to the bank, or in or around big snags and other wood cover. Drifting a float rig through these short stretches quickly can fill a livewell with channel cats.”
In clearer water and rivers with little shoreline cover, channel cats are much more reluctant to move shallow during daylight. “Check the 10- to 15-foot zone where light penetration typically stops and cover usually is more plentiful,” Hall suggests. “Often a stump row or other seemingly insignificant patches of cover will hold good numbers of fish. The best fishing usually occurs after dark, though, when cats move onto shallow flats to feed.”
OHIO RIVER FLATHEADS
Once water temperatures climb into the low- to mid-50˚F range, which often coincides with heavy spring rains, flatheads begin feeding more heavily. Wintering holes offer plenty of security and comfort, but little food, so cats move toward areas that concentrate forage species. Large minnows, shad, and any other fish of appropriate size and abundance—from white suckers to white bass—are important prey. Increasing current forces baitfish into slacker water behind snags, wing dams, and deep bend holes, and the flatheads follow.
Ohio River guide Frank Van Winkle (937/392-0018) usually begins his early-season flathead search at the base of flooded dam foundations. “The top of these structures usually lies 20 feet or more below the surface,” Van Winkle says, “but they still function as a barrier to flatheads moving upstream from wintering areas. The fish likely follow the main channel upstream until they reach these dams, then hold along the face of the structure or behind large chunks of broken concrete.”
By midspring, though, heavy run-off sometimes makes anchoring in the main channel or presenting baits in deep water almost impossible. “In fast water, I usually look for shoreline bars on big inside bends or at the mouth of tributary streams,” Van Winkle says. “While the current in the middle of the river is fast, water traveling outside the main channel is slowed by friction with the bottom. These areas also provide cover for baitfish that in turn attract and hold flatheads until water levels begin to recede.”
Shoreline barriers are particularly important flathead habitat in channelized rivers like the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri. Snags and brush are periodically removed from these rivers to aid barge navigation, and oxbows, side channels, and sloughs often are sealed off from the main river. The result is a deep, swift chute with little natural cover. Wing dams and riprap banks may be the primary catfish habitat in these river stretches.
Active flatheads usually hold along current edges behind wing dams, where fast and slow currents meet. The most distinct current edges occur behind low spots on top of the dam and at the tip of the dam, where fast water from the main channel pours over the slack water behind the dike. Some dams on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers have had sections removed to allow water to flow over the dam. The notched dams provide an additional current edge that may hold additional flatheads. Inactive fish usually hold in the scour hole below the dam.
Big lively baitfish are the traditional offering for big river flatheads, but Van Winkle says that fresh cutbait sometimes is a better choice, particularly during the early season. “The best cutbait bite usually occurs when lethargic flatheads first resume feeding during early spring,” Van Winkle adds, “but I usually have at least one rod tipped with cutbait all season long. I’ve caught lots of flatheads over 40 pounds on cutbait rigs presented between a pair of big livebaits.”