Veteran cowpunchers in search of cattle don’t randomly wander open rangelands in hopes of finding a single cow here and there; they look for places where cattle tend to gather. On cold, windy days, cowhands look for clumps of trees or brush where cattle cluster to escape the wind. On hot summer days, they know that cattle won’t be far from a stream, pond, or watering tank. The same strategy applies to finding channel catfish in the wide-open spaces of lakes and reservoirs.
Catfish in large expanses gather near structural elements. Rather than drift-fish aimlessly across open water, find and fish submerged structures that attract catfish. The challenge is determining which structures attract and hold channel cats under varying weather conditions and lake levels. A survey of veteran catmen and fishery biologists indicates that channel catfish in open waters follow distinct patterns.
Saylorville Lake, Iowa
Saylorville is a 5,400-acre flood-control reservoir on the Des Moines River in central Iowa. Its upper third is silted and shallow, ranging from 2 to 6 feet, except where the river channel drops to 10 or 15 feet.
“We can generally catch channel catfish over the old river channel at the upper end of Saylorville, but we stumbled on a new strategy last spring that worked really well,” says Mark Eby, a 28-year-old catfishing fanatic from Adel, Iowa.
“Over the years, during low water a lot of intertwined, submerged channels have developed on the big flats at the upper end of the lake. Those channels may be only a foot or so deeper than the surrounding flat, but that’s apparently a big difference to channel cats.
“Last April there were heavy rains upstream, but the Army Corps of Engineers kept the gates on the dam open, with a lot of water moving across that big flat at the upper end. You could see the general movement of the current across the flat, with all the submerged channels running slightly faster. There was a pretty good current in those channels, and that’s where the channel cats were. Once we’d find one of those channel cuts, it was nothing to catch a dozen or more 2- to 5-pound fish in a couple hours.”
Eby says that normally he and Shane Luellen, his fishing partner, expect to find channel cats on Saylorville along the upper edges of drop-offs, but that on the flat the catfish are down in the mini-channels. “In places it was so shallow we had the motor up and then used a push pole,” he says. “The secret seemed to be the current and change in depth in those channels, even though it was only a drop of 1 or 2 feet. The current in some of the channels was moving right along, compared to the surrounding flats. I was surprised that channel catfish were out on that flat so early in April, but it was a pattern that worked all spring.”
In mid- to late summer the lake’s flats become difficult to navigate with a boat, so Eby and Luellen shift to deeper water in search of submerged humps or drop-offs, or fish the old river channel. “Channel cats are all along that edge of the river channel and we anchor over the edge,” Eby says. “Another good area is where the old river channel widens and is around 20 feet deep. There are old sandbars that come up to 15 feet and artificial reefs made out of old car tires that come up to 10 or 12 feet. Anchoring on top of those humps in the summertime is just about a sure thing for channel catfish.
“Around those mid-lake humps, catfish seem to be a couple pounds heavier than what we caught when we hugged the shoreline and fished brushpiles and visible structure,” he notes. “Mid-lake channel cats ran 2 to 8 pounds, and we were disappointed if we didn’t catch at least one 10-pounder on every trip.”
Lock-and-Dam Pools, Upper Mississippi River
“Before the dams were built, the upper Mississippi River was a braided river,” notes Mike Steuck, Iowa Department of Natural Resources research biologist. “Those old, braided channels are still there, submerged in the lower pools, and they’re great spots for channel catfish. Catfish hold along the upper edge of the old channels in the main pool. The average depth of a pool might be 10 feet, but the old channels drop into 15 feet or more.
“Finding catfish along the edges on a particular day takes some experimentation,” he says. “Sharp drop-offs are good, and any curves or bends in the drop seem to attract cats. I just work up or down the edge of an old channel drop-off, move 100 or 200 yards along that edge, and I usually find channel cats within one or two moves.
“I look for a firm bottom—no shifting sand or muck. In the summer when mayfly larvae are hatching from areas of firm mud bottom, catfish gorge themselves on those larvae. Even 5- or 10-pound catfish suck up a bellyful of larvae when they get a chance.”
Stumpfields, the submerged remnants of tree-groves in the pools above dams on the Mississippi, are other prime openwater hangouts for channel catfish. Steuck says that current dictates where he fishes in stumpfields.
“In summer, I fish the upper ends or the sides, depending on where the current is coming into the stumpfield,” he says. “Channel cats like to lie on the edge of the stumps, where the current washes food to them. But during the spawn in June, I’ll move to the middle of the stumpfields, because for spawning they’re more interested in the cavities and holes in the old stumps and rootballs than they are in what food the current brings them.”
Navigation maps are excellent references when trying to pinpoint the location of channel drop-offs and stumpfields in Mississippi River pools. Army Corps of Engineers offices and local bait shops have these maps, and they also can be downloaded from mvd.usace.army.mil.
Steuck notes that side cuts and shoreline channels associated with lock-and-dam pools on the Mississippi are generally silted, shallow, and slow-moving. “That means if you find current, there is generally a little deeper water, and that’s a good place to find channel cats. Lots of guys fish the downed timber along the sides of those cuts; but if you find a drop-off out in the middle, you’re probably going to find channel cats along its top edge.”
Truman Lake, Missouri
Kevin Sullivan, Resource Scientist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, admits there’s a shortage of information about channel catfish movement and habit use on mega-reservoirs like Truman Lake in Missouri.
“There are more questions than answers,” he says. “We’ve done some sampling on big flats in bays or arms of the lake in 6 to 10 feet of water, using hoop nets baited with cheese, and have caught a lot of channel cats. There’s no significant structure on those flats—catfish are just out roaming, probably following baitfish. But if you find any sort of a hump, you’re going to find channel cats. Once you find and mark a spot like that, it makes fishing a big flat easier, because all the fish from that area tend to associate with that structure.
“We also see channel cats out in the main lake, where it drops from 9 or 10 feet down to 16 to 20 feet,” Sullivan says. “When they’re around a drop-off like that, they’re on the upper edge or just back from the edge, rather than suspended over the deeper water.”
Sullivan has noticed that channel cats are attracted to certain characteristics of the old channel. “Where there’s a big bend, the channel cats are inside the bend, down on the flat where the sandbar would have been,” he says. “If there’s a submerged cutbank on the outside of that bend, catfish are along and back of the upper edge of the old cutbank, too. In a way, you fish a submerged river the same way you fish a regular river—you look for cutbanks, big bends in the channel, big sandbars— except the riverbed is under 15 or 20 feet of water.”
North Texas Reservoirs
Drop-offs from large shallow flats, plus soured wheat and daylight, are the keys Chad Ferguson, catfishing guide from Saginaw, Texas, uses to put his clients on channel catfish in Lewisville, Cedar Creek, Ray Roberts, and other north Texas reservoirs.
“I usually bait half a dozen spots with sour wheat before we start fishing,” he says. “Because we’re attracting active, feeding cats with the wheat, I can usually catch as many during daylight hours as after dark. The only advantage to fishing after dark is in the summer, when it gets uncomfortably hot for clients during the day. Catfish also tend to move slightly deeper during the hottest part of the day, when water on the flats gets into the upper 80ºF range. I fish water 5 to 10 feet deeper at night than I would during the day.”
Ferguson baits a series of bottom structures. “I used to drift, but now I anchor and fish specific locations. There’s no use drifting around looking for catfish when most of them are going to be associated with drop-offs, humps, or other bottom structure. I bait drop-offs in 2 or 3 feet of water but sometimes as deep as 6 to 8 feet, humps in 6 to 8 feet, and a few deeper places.
“By the time I get back to the first spot I baited, if there are catfish in that area and at that depth, we’re catching fish within a few minutes,” he says. “If I don’t get bites at a certain depth within 15 or 20 minutes, I move to a spot I baited that’s either deeper or shallower. When I find fish at a certain depth, I zero in on my other baited spots that are the same depth.”
Ferguson’s only bait for channel catfish is Sure Shot Channel Cat Bait, a punchbait made by Benny Roberts. “Sure Shot is the way to go if you want to catch a lot of 1- to 5-pound channel cats,” he says. “We’ve caught a couple hundred averaging 14 to 17 inches on it in one day.”
Anglers tempted to test deeper waters in large southern reservoirs are usually wasting their time. “There’s no use fishing deeper than about 20 feet, because of pooroxygen below thermoclines,” he says. “You’ll be on lots of catfish if you fish shallow drop-offs and humps, or any changes in depth associated with shallow flats. Most of the year, I catch the majority of fish from drop-offs, points, or humps in 2 to 5 feet of water.”
The next time you’re trying to round up a mess of channel cats on a large reservoir, think like a cowboy. Look for specific places in wide-open spaces. Chances are good you’ll corral more channel cats than if you stay close to shore and fish deadfalls and shoreline structure.