Lake and Reservoir Bridges
We’ve spent the better part of 20 years telling you to stay away from river bridges because that’s where everyone fishes. Once the catfish holding by a river bridge are caught, it takes a spell of high water before more cats gather below that bridge.
Bridges on lakes and reservoirs are another story. Bridges there usually are built across necked areas that mean current, which draws catfish, especially early in the year. Often as not, though, these spots produce some fish three seasons long.
The problem with bridges can be boats going under and cars and trucks traveling over. Dust. Gravel. Little spill-splash from cattle and hog trucks. I can testify too that no-stretch superlines really don’t stretch, after a boat ran over my SpiderWire Catfish Fusion last spring, the prop winding the line up so fast that my rod looked like an arrow as it took off from its perch in a forked stick. Bridge graffiti, too. Such literacy. Such sense of verse. Such a range of topics.
One of the most productive bridge spots connects shallow with deeper areas. Could be a marsh area on one side of the bridge connected to the main lake. The cats usually hold in the main reservoir during winter, but are drawn to the current from the warm run-off coming from the marsh in spring and on into summer. Most of the cats hold on the downcurrent side of these spots. Usually the current flows from the marsh into the main lake, so most of the cats hold on the main-lake side of the bridge.
The best bridge spots usually connect major parts of lakes or reservoirs. The best bridges almost always are those connecting the deepest lake or reservoir section to another smaller or shallower section. Most of the cats hold in the deep lake during winter, so the bridge is a major traffic area as cats move into shallower lakes during spring and early summer. Again, though, even modest current continues to draw some cats most of the year.
You should be so lucky as to have access to a one- or two- or ten-acre pond full of channel cats. Should you have such a pond, particularly a small one, you probably shouldn’t, as one of my friends did, stock the pond with a fat old flathead from a nearby reservoir. He thought he could catch the flathead again whenever he wanted. But he couldn’t, and pretty soon he had a pond with a fat and apparently quite contented flathead and few channel cats. In fact, almost none. And those that were left were so scared that they just crawled up on the bank one day and surrendered.
The best spots in most ponds are places where almost anything sticks out or sticks in. Stick-out spots are anywhere a point pokes into a pond. An obvious example is David and Cheryl Woods’ pond on their farm in Missouri where I goes a turkey huntin’. David and Cheryl built their pond, shaped like a big elbow. So when David gets a hankerin’ for a catfish dinner, he drives his mobile deer blind (pickup truck) down to the elbow where he has a little spot mowed nice for his lawn chair. It’s positively American, or at least Missouri American. Cats looking for food naturally filter around stick-out spots like David’s elbow point. And soon enough, Cheryl walks down to the pond, wakes David up, and catches him a catfish for dinner.
Stick-in spots, on the other hand, are the corners of a pond and the inlet area. Some inlet areas even have a little running water, which again naturally draws cats. Inlet areas also warm quickly during early spring and are the first areas to draw catfish. Corners of ponds, meanwhile, tend to congregate cats that naturally bunch up there as they search along the shoreline.
This is the best time of year to be floating or walking a nice stretch of small to medium-size river. In most parts of the country, the cats haven’t spawned yet, and they’re cranked—movin’ right along upstream, they are, for the most part, stopping along the way to feed when they hit river barriers. The best barriers are major river snags (tree tangles) in conjunction with a big river hole just downstream from a long flat shallow section of river. Smaller tangles also draw some fish.
This is prime time for walking or drifting far and fishing fast. Say you’re boating. Usually the plan is to motor upriver, noting potential spots as you pass, then fish as you motor back downriver. At each spot, anchor so the boat stops 50 feet or so in front of (upcurrent from) a snag. From this position, pitch baits just in front of and alongside the snag. The most active cats patrol the front and current-washed side of the snag. Usually doesn’t take more than a couple minutes to get bit. Then it might take another 5 to 10 minutes to call a few more fish out of the core of the snag. Don’t stay much longer even if the spot looks too good to be true.
Keep moving. We usually try to fish four or five spots in an hour. Takes time to up anchor, move, and reanchor. Second time out, we know better than to stop at the marginal spots we fished the first go-around. Good spots produce nicer fish. Marginal spots often are full of peckerwoods that don’t dare run with the big fish. Sometimes, though, when we’re looking to deep-fry a bunch of cats whole, those pounders are just right. I fillet most of the catfish I creel if they weight more than two pounds. Smaller fish cook up just as well skinned and pan dressed. A couple of those channel cats deep-fried, two ears of buttered corn, a scoop of red beans and rice, and a hushpuppy or two is about as good as it gets for a catman.
Tailwater areas get better and better as spring progresses into early summer. By the time water temperature cracks into the 70°F range, cats often are going crazy.
If there’s a problem with tailwaters, it’s that sometimes reaching the fish that hold in the fast-water areas right below the dam is difficult. Much of the feeding takes place there as cats push into current breaks formed by obstructions on the bottom or by the way the water gathers as it’s released from the dam.
Even just downriver from the dam, though, to be successful you must read current, watching, in particular, how different currents meet to form an edge and an eddy. Most of the cats hold along these current edges or roam through eddy areas. Some cats also move right up on shallow shoreline flats. Often these flats are swept by large eddy areas. Usually, though, the current isn’t super swift here. These are prime flats for presenting bait below a float (a lighted float at night).
If you’ve never fished a tailwater area and the process sounds puzzling, don’t be put off, just go and have at it. Usually at this time of year so many fish are there that you’re bound to catch something. And while you’re at it, you’ll begin to get a feeling for where other folks are fishing and perhaps begin to see why they’re more or less successful than you are. Most cat folks are willing to help. They’re not going to give up their fishing spots, but they’ll probably explain what they’re doing if they’re catching fish. At least the channel cat boys will. The flathead crowd tend to be more tight lipped.
Fresh cutbait can be freshly killed shiner or sucker minnows, or shad about 4 to 5 inches long. My preference is for larger chubs, shad, or suckers, with the sides filleted off and then cut into one-inch strips. In a pinch, four or five smaller minnows impaled on a hook also works. Keep the bait on ice until just before you use it. Hook a 4-inch minnow through the tail, after trimming off the tail so it doesn’t catch current and make the bait roll and tangle. Crush the head of the bait or cut the head off to get juices flowing. Don’t try to hide your hook. Cats rarely care about hooks. Leave the hook point exposed so it’s easy to set the hook.
I enjoy gathering bait. Never know what you’re going to dredge up in a seine—boots, turtles, tires, cans, and the occasional pissed off muskrat. If we have time, we find a small creek where it runs into a larger river, lake, or reservoir. In small rivers, if the water level’s down, we seine the edges of holes right in the river. Might even end up with the makings for turtle soup or chowder. Release all muskrats, boots, and tires, unless they’re in season. When time’s short, buy the biggest bait you can find at a baitshop. Baitshop bait isn’t an option every place in the country, though, especially in many places in the East and West.
Another option is to catch chubs by hook and line, using tiny portions of crawler or liver on a #8 hook. Good spots include under bridges over creeks or in holes in small rivers. Get the chubs biting by chopping a couple crawlers (or liver) into bits and tossing a palm full of bits into the hole. Chubs are voracious once they start feeding. Use a float to suspend bait for chubs. Fish on the bottom for suckers.
I usually start fishing with a piece of cutbait. It’s the only consistent way I’ve found so far to tempt flatheads along with channels and blues. The dominant fish in the area usually bite first; and usually that’s the flatheads or larger channels. Start with dipbait and, my thinking is, you’ll likely spook the flatheads and not be able to catch them even if you switch to cutbait after fishing with a dip.
If it’s just channels you’re dealing with, start with either bait, then when fishing slows on one option, present the other. Often you’ll scratch an extra fish or two from a spot by switching baits after the initial flurry subsides.
I’ve been experimenting, too, with first presenting a dipbait from one company and then, after the initial flurry, switching to a dipbait from another company. I also tried beginning with a dip from one company and then switching to a different blend from the same company. The first dip gets bit good. Then things go downhill.
Some of the dips I’ve used with good results include those from Bowkers, Catfish Charlie, Cat Tracker, Sonny’s, and Uncle Josh. I fish dips either on dipworms or surgical tube worms. Those companies also sell dip worms.
The old one-, two-, and (maybe) three-punch presentation works in other places, indeed, most places. Works in front of or behind wing dams and closing dams on large rivers. Works on flats in large rivers and reservoirs. Works in conjunction with drift techniques along channel edges in large rivers. Works on pay ponds in Ohio, Kentucky, and other states. Works along riprap in heavy current on the channelized Missouri River from Sioux City down to St. Louis. And more. Just can’t get to everyone’s specific situations right here. I will, however, leave you with a recipe.
A fair number of you write from time to time, requesting the jambalaya recipe Toad Smith and I used to do bankside at midnight on the first campout trip of the year.
• Whack one catfish of about five pounds and cut the fillets into one-inch strips (or cubes).
• In an 8- or 10-inch cast-iron skillet, add a tablespoon of butter, a medium onion chopped, a clove of garlic chopped, and a big splash of white wine (chicken broth works too).
• Cook the onion over medium heat, stirring for about 3 minutes. Add chopped tomatoes and reduce them to pulp by cooking about 5 minutes.
• Add two or three 12-ounce jars of medium or hot salsa and a little more wine, plus cayenne, black pepper, and salt, to taste.
• Cook on medium-high to reduce the liquid by half, about 5 minutes.
• Reduce the heat to a slow simmer. Add the strips of catfish, cover, and simmer 8 more minutes. Stir once gently. Garnish with chopped scallions. Serve over rice.
- A sure winner with catfish, this recipe also performs well with walleye, pike, bass, and large crappies. For less fire, substitute sweet peppers for the jalapenos.
-----Two 6- to 8-ounce fillets-----
- 1 Roma tomato, diced
- 1/4 onion, minced
- 2 jalapeno chilies, cut into rounds
- 2 tbsp. cilantro, minced
- salt and pepper to taste
- 2 tbsp. olive oil
- 2 tbsp. lime juice
- 2 garlic cloves, mashed
- 1 tbsp. tequila (optional)
• Combine all ingredients except catfish. Place catfish on a lightly greased baking sheet and spoon the tomato chili mixture over each catfish. Bake at 350°F for about 15 minutes or until the flesh is opaque and flaky. Serve with black beans and guacamole.
- 2 ripe avocados, peeled and pitted
- 2 cloves garlic, mashed
- juice of lime
- 1 small tomato, finely minced
- 1/2 onion, finely minced
- few drops olive oil
- a pinch each of salt and pepper
• Mash all of the ingredients together. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.
-----Refried Black Beans-----
- 2 c. or one can cooked black beans
- 2 cloves garlic, mashed
- 1/2 onion, minced
- 1 tbsp. bacon fat or olive oil
- 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
- 1/2 tsp. ground chili powder
- salt (about a tsp.)
• Heat the olive oil or bacon fat in a skillet. Add the onion and garlic; cook until translucent over medium heat, about 5 minutes. Add the beans and cook, mashing the beans against the skillet with a fork or spatula so they become sort of mushy, but most of the liquid is cooked out. Add water if they seem dry. Add the seasonings and taste.