The connectedness of streams and rivers and the channel catfish’s remarkable ability to move long distances are what make some streams, often far separated from a larger river, good spots to find catfish. In‑Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange has written about his spring‑through-summer catfish exploits in small Iowa streams, with some prime spots far up a watershed 100 miles or more from a river the size most anglers would call good catfish water. One of his most productive streams was just 8 to 10 feet across and no deeper than 3 feet, in places.
Small rivers and streams can support self-sustaining populations of channel catfish if suitable habitat exists for the fish’s year-round needs—food, cover, suitable flows, good water quality—and overwintering sites. Other streams provide a temporary seasonal home to catfish from spring through summer. Some catfish migrate long distances from larger rivers to smaller tributaries to reach ideal spawning habitat, which is often more available in tributaries than in bigger rivers. Some catfish continue to hole up in smaller waters to feed until water levels drop too low in mid- to late summer, or until dropping water temperatures in fall send them downstream to more comfortable environments.
Stream Catfish Science
Greg Gelwicks, Interior Rivers and Streams Research Biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, has studied channel catfish in small rivers and streams extensively. He evaluated smaller flowing waters as habitats for several gamefish including channel catfish, which involved pinpointing movements using radiotelemetry. His findings on two small rivers in northeastern Iowa, the Turkey and the Wapsipinicon, reveal that habitat plays a key role in the seasonal use of these systems by channel catfish.
The Turkey River study focused on the lower reach of this system, between its confluence with the Mississippi River and a dam 40 miles upstream. All of the catfish tagged in the Turkey moved 28 to 35 miles to the Mississippi each fall in September and November, where they stayed throughout the winter. Catfish returned to the Turkey each spring to spawn and remained in positions near their initial tagging locations throughout summer.
Spring movement into the Turkey River coincided with warming periods. “Catfish returned to the Turkey when water temperatures warmed from about the mid-40ºF to the 60ºF range,” Gelwicks says. “One year it warmed up early, and catfish began moving up the Turkey in March. Then a cold snap hit and they moved back out to the Mississippi. In early to mid-April there was a sharp warming trend into the mid-50°F range, and catfish went up the Turkey again and stayed there.”
The Turkey River is an example of a stream where catfishing can be good from spring through summer, but residence year-round is limited by the lack of overwintering habitat. “All depths recorded in the Turkey River study were less than 6 feet. A few deeper pools were found in the lowermost areas of the study reach, but the primary wintering location was the Mississippi River,” he says.
Gelwicks also tracked catfish in the Wapsipinicon River within a 15-mile stretch bounded by lowhead dams. The Wapsipinicon findings show that whether or not a stream section sustains channel catfish year-round—especially those isolated from a larger river—depends on the availability of wintering habitat. “In the Wapsi, all catfish overwintered in a single hole about 20 feet deep. It’s an old sandpit that provides the only suitable wintering habitat in that stretch. In spring, catfish left that hole and spread back out throughout the 15-mile stretch,” he says. Gelwicks describes a good hole as being at least 10 feet deep, with enough current to keep the water oxygenated.
In an article by Dan Anderson in a former In-Fisherman Catfish In‑Sider Guide, Gelwicks notes that many small streams throughout Iowa hold substantial numbers of good-sized catfish in summer, an observation he based on electrofishing surveys. Many of these wadeable tributaries have maximum depths in pools of just a few feet. “Some streams, especially in the southern Iowa Drift Plain, contain a high density of catfish,” he says. “Where we see high densities, they’re typically slow-growing and run a bit smaller, likely because of competition.”
Gelwicks says that without barriers to movement, channel catfish in spring move up into smaller streams, where anglers can tangle with numbers of them through mid-summer. “Typically by the end of July, flows decline, water levels start dropping, and the largest catfish move out,” he says. “These streams continue as good nursery areas for young-of-the-year catfish because of good forage and lack of predators. We’ve sampled young‑of‑the‑year flatheads in these streams, too, indicating that some flatheads move up, as well.”
In Missouri, adult channel catfish have been found to inhabit smaller tributaries into early fall, suggesting that these environments provide suitable habitat throughout the growing season. While at the University of Missouri, Dr. Jason Vokoun sampled catfish with hoop nets in northeastern Missouri’s Grand River—a tributary of the Missouri River—as well as in two smaller tributaries of the Grand, Big Creek, and Yellow Creek. Yellow Creek is about 15 feet wide, while Big Creek is about twice that width.
Adult channel catfish dispersed throughout the mainstem Grand and its tributaries in June. Samples showed adult catfish remaining in tributaries into October, after which they moved downstream to overwinter in the mainstem Grand, primarily in scour holes that form around bridge support structures.
Identifying Potential Spots
Good maps can help narrow the search for streams that have good catfishing. Starting at the main river, you can track streams up the drainage from the primary tributaries off a main river, then into secondary tributaries, and so on up the drainage.
Maps don’t replace on-the-ground reconnaissance or word-of-mouth from reliable sources, but they can provide clues as to which locations are accessible and likely worth a visit. U.S.G.S. topographic maps are a great resource, showing streams and rivers, unimproved roads, dams, elevation, and more—things you might not find on a typical roadmap. Also check sources like Google Maps, using the satellite view, to do recon on stream access, road crossings, and the makeup of the streamside area—is it forested, farmland, and likely to contribute to instream woodpiles?
In the search for small-stream catfish, Gelwicks highlights the importance of connectivity. If there aren’t barriers to catfish movement and there’s enough water, channel cats can move up into tributaries in search of spawning sites and later for summer habitats. In some systems they may only move as far as the lower reaches of primary tributaries, but where connectivity and habitat allow, or where a source population exists farther up in the drainage, catfish may be found well up into the farthest reaches of these systems.
Just as important as connectivity is habitat at the scale of a stream “reach”—the dominant habitat characteristics over a longer stretch of stream. You might identify a potentially productive reach on a map, but a visit reveals poor habitat and far less chance for good catfishing. In a study of catfish populations in Iowa rivers and streams, biologist Vaughn Paragamian noted that catfish abundance was keyed to habitat quality. He found the best stream reaches for both numbers and sizes of catfish offered a variety of depths, sufficient cover, and variations in current.
In Paragamian’s study, woody cover in the form of brushpiles, fallen trees, rootwads, and logjams were most important in streams that lacked rocky substrates, but woody cover was beneficial in all catfish streams. Catfish abundance was lower in channelized reaches, which lack habitat diversity and cover. Search instead for reaches that contain a good mix of deeper pools and riffles, which provide a broad spectrum of habitats and variations in current.
Potential Catfish Streams
In this sample drainage system, channel catfish are likely to be found in the main river (A) year-round, although in spring a large contingent is likely to move into the primary tributary river (B) during early Prespawn. The primary tributary (B) may support a year-round population of resident catfish if it contains suitable overwintering habitat. Lacking wintering habitat, catfish vacate streams and spend winter in the main river.
Channel catfish are likely to move into secondary tributaries (C) in search of spawning areas and can remain there through summer if suitable flows persist. If flow and spawning habitat are adequate, catfish may move into upper sections of secondary and perhaps tertiary tributaries (D). These smallest tributaries often suffer intermittent flow or low water in mid- to late summer, forcing catfish to vacate.
A dam blocks movement of catfish from the lower river into the upper sections of the drainage system. Catfish may be present in streams above the dam (E and F) if the impoundment or the primary stream feeding it provides year-round habitat needs. The area immediately downstream of the dam is a good spot to find congregating catfish during their upstream migration in spring.
Cover Water to Find Catfish
Whether you’re floating a navigable stream or wading, plan on fishing a lengthy reach to find the best spots. You might get the urge to park yourself in a lawn chair under a shady bridge where you’ll likely catch a couple of cats, but more could be had.
Cover a mile or two of water and fish from spot to spot as you evaluate the different kinds of habitats the stream reach provides. If it’s not panning out, you might retreat to another stream or continue fishing another mile, perhaps at another access point. Sooner or later you develop a good sense of a stream’s overall potential.
Good spots to find stream cats in summer are pools that contain woody cover. Current deflects against outside bends and scours sediments, especially when flow is high in spring, creating some of the best spots to find summer catfish. As flows recede in summer, these pools are quiet spots that attract both resting and feeding catfish. Pools can also form below riffles, around bridge pilings, and some exist as former sandpits.
A good summer pool may not be a good wintering pool. A good one in summer might be of only moderate depth, depending on what the stream has to offer. In the Turkey River that Gelwicks studied, channel cats were found most frequently in 2 to 4 feet of water in summer, areas substantially shallower than wintering spots. In many smaller catfish streams, a good pool might be only waist-deep.
Certain types of woody cover can be better than others, as can the amount and location of wood. Snags made up of several good-sized logs are generally preferred over a single log or treetop with a few wispy branches. Cover in the faster current near the head of a hole is typically a good place to find feeding cats, while cover in quiet water at the lower end of a hole is mostly resting territory. Cover spots located at the heads and cores of holes are often the best places to fish.
Although channel catfish can live in areas of zero current, the best pools generally have some flow. Catfish tend to avoid more isolated and stagnant pools, which can suffer localized dissolved-oxygen deficits.
Because outside bends bear the brunt of current in high water, they’re also zones of high erosion, often leading to sloughing where banks aren’t stabilized by terrestrial vegetation. Erosion is more prominent around areas with bank disturbance, such as where livestock can access streams or where banks have been cleared. Holes in these areas tend to be less defined with more unstable sediments. Although snags can accumulate along these bends, they typically don’t hold as many catfish as one found on an outside bend with a healthy bank.
Root systems of trees, brush, and other forms of vegetation help bind soils on stream banks and can lead to the formation of undercut banks. Water scours soil underneath root systems, forming a well-defined pool that’s cut under a bank, and cutbank areas that house log complexes can be some of the best catfish spots of all.
Pinchpoints where streams narrow are other good spots. Flow increases as water is squeezed through these areas. Catfish often hold at the head and tail of pinchpoint, where flows begin to increase or decrease. If there’s wood in the pinchpoint, it can make an area like this special.
Small-water catfishing is a simple operation requiring minimal tackle and just a few supplies. Most stream cat duty can be accomplished with a 6- to 7-foot medium-light- to medium-power spinning or casting setup with 10- to 15-pound-test monofilament. When wading, a small shoulder bag is helpful for carrying supplies: extra hooks, floats, weights, pliers, sunscreen, a bait knife, bug repellent, bait, a stringer, and maybe lunch. Because of briars, ticks, and poison ivy, long pants are a good idea for streamside trailblazing.
A splitshot rig with one or two shot pinched on the line about a foot above the hook is great for slowly drifting baits along and under snags and cutbanks. A sliprig with a slightly larger bell sinker holds baits on bottom—a good choice when you want to keep your bait pinned in likely catfish locations.
Streams are dandy places to fish float rigs, too, where you can slowly drift baits off bottom along logjams, cutbanks, through runs, and mid-channel pools. For bait, you usually can’t go wrong with small chunks of cutbait or small, freshly killed baitfish. The same goes for a gob of worms. Crickets, grasshoppers, and frogs are other options.
Wading small rivers and streams is a great way to wind down from the hustle and bustle of life. There’s a relaxing solitude—watching, listening, and feeling the waters as they roll by, sand and gravel shifting underfoot. A leaf floats along, every so often twisting in a eddy then gliding on its way, turning again before it lands by a log. Could be a catfish there.
- Monofilament to Hooks and Swivels
The Trilene knot provides a reliable connection that tests at about 95 percent break strength. Although this knot works best with monofilament, threading the tag end back through the large loop also secures superlines.
1. Run the line end through the eye, reinsert the line back through the eye, forming a double loop.
2. Wrap the tag end around the standing line 5 to 6 times.
3. Pass the tag end through the double loop at the eye.
4. Moisten the knot, hold the tag end firm, and draw the mainline tight.