Catfish Fishing: Transition Cats

Catfish Fishing: Transition Cats

We talked to some of the best ­catmen in North America about their favorite time of year for catfish fishing. Fall, they answered in unison. Best in the South where flatheads respond to cooling water just as they do in the North. Best at the northern edge of the channel catʼs range. And best in the heart of blue cat country.


Flatheads — The Need To Feed

When biologists with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission released 11 adult flatheads into the Cape Fear River in 1966, Ed Davis was there. The flathead population has flourished in the last 30 years, even in the face of heavy recreational electrofishing on the lower river. Today, the Cape Fear ranks among the top destinations for trophy flatheads in the Southeast. And Ed Davis is one of the top flathead fishermen in the country.


"The best time to tangle with a record-class flathead," Davis says, "is when the water temperature starts to drop in late fall. Cooling water has a powerful effect on flatheads. Blue and channel cats are feeding too, but with little urgency. Big flatheads, though, are feeding with renewed vigor, like a bear packing on the last few rolls of fat before winter. Smaller fish tend to move toward wintering holes when water temperatures drop below 55ËšF, but big fish — those over 50 pounds — continue to bite until the temperature drops to the mid-40ËšF range."


While more flathead anglers are beginning to recognize that fall is a good time to catch big flatheads, most assume that the best cool-water bite occurs during the day. That's a mistake, Davis says, one that may be keeping them from catching as many fish as they could. "It's necessary to be at the right spot when a big fish wants to eat," Davis continues. "And that's seldom the time when fishing's most comfortable. Don't expect these fish to abandon successful feeding strategies — like foraging shallow after dark — just because the water temperature drops.

Location — "Good night-fishing spots differ from good daytime spots. Might sound like common sense, but even though most catfishermen know that big flatheads are nocturnal, they continue to fish the same holes at midnight that they fished at noon. Catfish use holes in medium-size rivers like the Cape Fear as resting areas. Depth means security, and cover means comfort. Seldom, though, do deep holes offer food. When cats are ready to eat, they go where the food is, usually to the head or tailout area of the hole, or to shallow flats near shore.

"In early to midfall, big flatheads can be caught from deep holes during the day, but that's a boring way to spend an afternoon. The key is to drop a bait right in front of a big cat's nose and keep it there until he decides to eat. I once marked some big fish near the tail of a hole, and since nothing else was happening, I decided to wait them out. I anchored upstream, set out baits, and waited. And waited. Almost nine hours later, two fish bit, one right after the other. My partner and I both landed 60-pound flatheads. Okay, so it's not always boring.

"Regardless of season, though, I've caught my biggest flatheads at night. That's the only time to fish if your heart's set on a trophy. But again, instead of fishing the core of the hole, anchor near the head of the hole and fish the downstream tailout area and the flat areas to either side of the hole. I may also use a float rig to suspend a bait a foot or two down over the deepest part of the hole for active cats cruising near the surface. Never underestimate the power of a lively baitfish to summon big flatheads.

Bait — "As choosy as big flatheads are about where they live, they're seldom particular about what they eat. They're ruthless opportunists that can be caught on almost anything. A few years ago, I kept a 20-pound flathead that was badly hooked and bleeding. When I cut open the stomach, I found a partially digested muskrat. Big cats may prefer live baitfish, but they often eat whatever's available.

"The size of the bait is important, though, and should match the size of the fish you're after. Most flathead fishermen select baits that are too small for big fish, especially during fall. Even in the best spots on the best rivers, small fish outnumber big fish by a large margin. You need an offering that's too big for the little fellers to play with. I've caught 10-pound flatheads on 11⁄2-pound baitfish. That's why I prefer 2- or 3-pound carp. Little fish won't bother baits that size, but they're perfect for a 50-pounder."

Rigging — The most compelling aspect of Davis' technique isn't the terminal rigs he uses, but rather the way he deploys those rigs. His "release rigs" are based on the limbliner's approach — using multiple rods to cover several areas and experimenting with different baits. At least one line is a brush hook, which consists of a release clip tied to an overhanging branch. The line is attached to the clip so the bait swims freely in the upper half of the water column. When a flathead grabs the bait, the line pulls free of the clip.

But Davis also catches big flatheads near the surface on the edge of the flat, away from overhanging limbs. Instead of fishing a single line downstream from his anchored boat, Davis uses a release jug, which consists of a two-liter bottle with a large barrel swivel glued to the cap. He attaches a length of 50-pound line to a heavy bank sinker or decoy weight to anchor the jug in current. He ties another shorter line to a release clip. Once the jug's in position, he attaches a baited rig to the clip.

Tackle — "My favorite rod and reel combination is a 61⁄2-foot fiberglass Penn Powerstick matched to an Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 7000," Davis says. "Unless I'm fishing specifically for a line-class record, I usually use 20- or 30-pound test. I can't cast this line directly into heavy cover, but it's a good compromise for most situations. I've been told that light lines put too much stress on big fish. In my experience, though, more harm comes by landing a fish quickly, especially in heavy current. Bring a flathead to the boat gradually if snags aren't a problem, and he'll usually be in ­better condition for release."

Channel Cats — The Hole Truth

The Red River of the North, which flows north along the Minnesota-North Dakota border into Lake Winnipeg, stands alone for its production of trophy channel catfish. The average size of the fish increases north (downstream), as the size of the river increases. Below the dam in Lockport, Manitoba, where guide Stu McKay fishes almost every day throughout the open-water season, the average channel cat weighs nearly 20 pounds.

"I get phone calls," McKay says, "from anglers who want to know the best time to book a trip. They can catch big fish almost anytime, but two periods provide the fastest action. The first is the Prespawn Period, roughly between mid-May and mid-June. The cats are hungry and on the move. Fish congregate below the first major barrier above Lake Winnipeg — the dam at Lockport. Set up below the dam at the right time with the right bait and you'll catch more 20-pound channel cats than you ever knew existed.

"But fall — specifically early September through mid-October — can be just as productive, and the average size of the fish is larger. And, since the fish are spread over many miles of river, finding them is more challenging than during the early season.

Location — "Location is the challenge during fall. Aside from their size, channel cats here are like channel cats everywhere. They adapt to changing water conditions and eat whatever forage is abundant. The lower Red River doesn't have logjams and other shallow cover as is common in the upper river or other channel cat streams, but these fish still feed in ­shallow water throughout much of the season.

"I first discovered a shallow fall pattern in September 1991," McKay continues. "I was guiding a couple guys from Oregon who wanted to catch a few white bass. We were pitching minnow­baits as we drifted down the shoreline. I was using the electric motor to follow the edge of the flat when the guy in the front of the boat hooked up with a big channel cat. Then I hooked one. While I was fighting my fish, the boat drifted toward shore. The propeller hit rocks, and the whole shoreline erupted for 100 yards downstream as hundreds of big cats shot off the flat into deeper water.

"Similar flats continue to produce lots of big fish during late summer and early fall. My guess is that they're attracted by migrating leopard frogs, but we also find lots of juvenile white bass in shallow water. Regardless of what draws them onto the flats, they usually return to the main river channel when the water temperature drops into the low 50ËšF range in late September.

"We continue to catch cats in deep holes through ­mid-October, depending on water temperature. Once the water cools below 45ËšF, the fish become increasingly sluggish. They can still be caught, but they're not busting up tackle. As the water temperature continues to drop, most of the cats fall back into Lake Winnipeg where they winter without having to fight current. Some fish stay in the river, though, and ice fishermen catch a few each winter.

Bait — McKay says bait choice seldom is critical. "Just use natural bait," he says, "one that the cats are accustomed to eating and immediately recognize as food. I rely on fresh-cut pieces of goldeye through the entire season," McKay says. "Lots of other baits will catch fish, but goldeye are abundant and easy to obtain in the lower river."

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Rigging — McKay's choice of rigs remains constant, depending on the depth of the water he's fishing and the speed of the current. "It's tough to beat a running lead or slipsinker rig in most situations," McKay says. "I fish primarily over a rocky bottom, so it's important to keep the rig firmly anchored. I prefer a pear-shaped snag­less sinker that looks like a flattened egg sinker. It sits flat on the bottom, even in heavy current.

"In shallow water, though, I usually start with a slipfloat rig. Covering a typical flat with a set rig would take several hours. With a float rig, though, I can drift baits 100 yards or more down the flat from a single anchor position. I also can cover various depths, from the shoreline to the edge of the drop-off. Once I locate fish, I can work them over with a set rig or continue to drift baits through their holding area."

Tackle — "I've been using long ­European-style spinning rods for several years," McKay says. "I really like the increased casting distance and line control a longer rod affords, but in most cases the typical 11- to 13-foot models favored by shore fishermen are too cumbersome to use and transport in a boat. I've been using 9- and 91⁄2-foot models, which seem to be good compromise lengths for bottom fishing and float fishing."

Blue Cats — A Return To Solitude

Fishing for flatheads and channel cats is good on the entire Osage River system, which includes Truman Reservoir and Lake of the Ozarks. Below Bagnell Dam, though, monster blue cats are the main attraction. And Virgil Agee is their worst nightmare. Agee caught the 101-pound catch-and-release world record in fall 1994, and a couple months later, another that unofficially weighed in at 121 pounds. But he's convinced that even larger fish remain, and that fall is one of the best times to catch them.

"The period from September through November," Agee says, "is my favorite time to fish for giant blues. December and January — when water temperatures are the coldest of the year — also are productive, but cooling water usually provides better fishing. I often wonder whether big blue cats actually become more active in the cool water or if they just feed more confidently because of less activity on the river.

"Throughout summer and into early September, for example, action for big blue cats usually is slow. Many biologists speculate that the fish have left smaller rivers like the Osage for the deeper and cooler waters of big rivers like the Missouri. But I'm not convinced. I believe big blues stay in the same deep holes throughout the year, except maybe to spawn. A big deep hole on the Osage provides as much security and food as any hole on the Missouri or even the Mississippi. In early September, though, I don't catch many fish over 50 pounds.

Location — "Even if the fish are responding to a change in water temperature, my best indication of the start of the season is when jet skiers and water skiers leave the river. Then I start looking for the biggest, deepest holes I can find. I drift through a hole several times, watching my sonar for active fish holding a foot or two off bottom, or for likely looking structural elements like sharp ledges. Some anglers won't fish a hole unless they see a series of fish arches, but that can be a mistake.

"First, fish holding tight to the bottom aren't detected by sonar. And second, every fish you see isn't a big blue cat. They might be channel cats, paddlefish, or some other species. But I know that if I see one fish in 45 feet or so of water, it's probably a big blue or flathead. Two fish together might be in the 50- to 60-pound range. If I see more than three, they might be 40-pound blues or paddlefish. Every fish I've caught over 80-pounds has been alone. I'm looking for that single, thick arch in deep water.

"Instead of driving across the hole in a zigzag-pattern, motor up to the top of the hole, shut off your motor, and drift back downstream. When you mark a fish or find a prominent ledge, line up a landmark on shore and continue to drift through the tail of the hole. Then run back upstream and lower your anchor within casting range of the spot you lined up with your landmark. By making a series of drifts through the hole, you'll be able to set up in the most promising spot. That's important because once you're anchored you need to stay put until a big fish decides to eat.

"Many anglers also make the mistake of fishing vertically. Even in deep water, a big fish knows when you're overhead, which may keep him from feeding with his normal confidence. If you're fishing in 50 feet of water, anchor at least 50 feet upstream to minimize the evidence of your presence. In heavy current, it may be necessary to fish closer to keep your bait from drifting out of position, but always fish as far away as possible.

"Specific spots where big fish can be found within a hole don't seem to change much from year to year or even from season to season. I'm not sure whether big blues establish a specific home range within the hole or if different fish of the same size are attracted to these same spots, but if I catch a 50-pounder on a particular ledge in September, I can catch one there again in November.

"When I first started targeting blues in cool water, I fished mostly at night. I caught lots of fish, but usually from shallow flats adjacent to the hole, and they seldom were bigger than 30 pounds. Mega blues, I believe, just as likely eat during the day than at night. I've caught my biggest fish between one and four in the afternoon, but that's also when I most often fish.

"I also don't pay much attention to weather conditions, moon phases, or other environmental factors. When I can go sit on a hole for several hours, I go. The weather changes too fast during fall to worry about cold fronts and barometric pressure. But water level's another matter. Stable flows usually are good, but a slight rise is even better. It takes about 12 hours for water from the Bagnell Dam to reach the stretch of river I fish — time enough to plan a trip.

Bait — "I don't think any bait can beat live gizzard shad for blue cats during late spring and summer. When the water starts to cool in September, though, I switch to live chubs. Shad often are difficult to find during fall and seldom are as hardy as wild 10- to 12-inch chubs. I may set out a rod baited with a big live shad, too, but my biggest fish have all come on chubs. They're my confidence bait in cold water.

"The way I hook a baitfish depends on the current. In moderate to heavy current, I hook it through both lips to keep it facing into the current. In slack water, though, I hook it through the back muscle just behind the dorsal fin. In current, a chub or shad hooked in the back quickly weakens and dies. Too much energy is needed to fight current, and the bait eventually begins to spin in circles. Minnows hooked through the lips aren't nearly as active, but they live longer and still respond with fierce struggles when a predator draws near.

"And if I miss a fish when I pull back to set the hook, I usually let the bait sit for at least another hour before I reel it in — even if I think the bait is dead. Most fishermen I know reel in their line as soon as they miss a fish. Then they put on another livebait, and cast out to the same area. That's a mistake. When a big blue grabs and kills a baitfish then drops it, he knows something's wrong. Something didn't feel right. But if you let the bait sit, the fish that made the kill sometimes returns to eat the bait.

Rigging — "I use a standard slipsinker rig consisting of an egg sinker and a 4/0 or 5/0 hook. Unlike most catfishermen, though, I don't let the sinker slide on the line above a lead shot or a swivel. Instead, I peg the sinker about a foot above the hook with a small piece of twig. This keeps my livebait on a short leash, making it easier for a big blue to grab it. This simple rig also eliminates swivels or split shot that would further interfere with the natural movements of my bait.

"If I'm fishing in slack water and hooking my baitfish in the back, though, I just let the weight slide all the way down the line until it reaches the hook. Since there's no leader to spin around the main line, I can cast this snug rig much farther than I could a pegged sinker rig. I can fish farther away from fish I've identified on sonar or from promising structure. In fast water or other situations that require closer range, though, fixed leaders get the nod.

Tackle — "I use a 71⁄2-foot heavy-power flippin' stick matched to an old Ambassadeur 5000D. The rod is great for long casts and has more than enough power to pull giant blue cats from the deep.

"Today, my sights are set on the all-tackle world record, but I don't think I'll need super-heavy line to land that fish. Any good abrasion-resistant 20-pound line can whip a 100-pound blue in open water, provided the fish is handled correctly. If I were fishing in heavy cover, though, I wouldn't hesitate to use 40- or 50-pound test. Let the fish and the conditions dictate the ­equipment."

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