Early-Season Catfishing Tactics
April 23, 2018
In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange wrote about early-season catfishing in a previous issue of In-Fisherman: "March is poison for being so full of promises broken. A snip of warmer weather here and there and all us cat people are ready for the new season. But even in North Texas, top fishing is still a month away.
So what's a feller to do, but spin wheels trying and mostly come home crying?" He's right. There's a chance we'll get skunked on some of our initial spring outings. A single sunny, balmy spring afternoon doesn't translate into a warming trend that raises water temperatures enough to inform catfish that spring is nigh. But eventually, waters warm and the urge for catfish to move, feed, and prepare for the spawn finally matches the urge of catfish anglers to catch catfish. Those are the early-season fishing trips of legend.
We've all heard about the connection between channel cats and dead shad at ice-out in lakes across the northern reaches of catfish country — catfish anglers standing on windward shorelines with shards of ice tinkling at their feet as they land catfish after catfish eager to gulp hooks loaded with dead soured shad.
But some of us also have zipped our Carhartts tighter and gritted our teeth as a chilly spring wind blew off the water into our face and thought, "So where are all these ice-out catfish I'm supposed to be catching?" That's the poison of which Stange was talking. When catfishing is good in the early season, it's great. But when it's bad, it's uncomfortable, discouraging, and frustrating.
Rest assured, the soured-shad bite does exist. Gizzard shad often experience winterkills under the ice, or even during extreme cold snaps on open water in midwinter. At ice-out the wind and waves carry those carcasses to shore. Channel catfish enthusiastically gather to feed on the rancid smorgasbord in areas where dead shad collect.
A study conducted at Missouri's Pony Express Lake by biologists Steven Fisher, Stephen Elder, and Elvessa Aragon indicated that up to 90 percent of the radio-tagged channel catfish they were monitoring one spring day were in the same bay, presumably feeding on the buffet of dead shad along the shoreline. "There can be amazing concentrations of channel catfish in certain spots on lakes when they're feeding on winterkilled shad," Elder says.
Ken Alberts, a catfishing fanatic from North Liberty, Iowa, once told me channel cats at Coralville Lake during the dead-shad bite are so concentrated that the fishing is almost boring. "I've done it so often on Coralville, caught so many catfish, that there's no challenge to it anymore," he laughs. "It's so easy that after the first couple trips each spring, I'm ready for warm-water fishing when fishing's more of a challenge and I feel like I earn the fish I catch."
Guide Ted Peck experiences similar success in the backwaters of the upper Mississippi River on the Iowa-Minnesota border near New Albin, Iowa. "It's so easy to catch channel cats on the Mississippi in spring," Peck says. "Some of my best trips have come just after ice-out, when there were still shelves of ice in backwaters. Dead shad set frozen in the ice, and channel cats move up into backwaters and cruise under those ice shelves waiting for shad to drop out. I flip dipbait worms loaded with Sonny's Super Sticky dipbait right along the edge of those ice shelves and hammer channel cats."
The important thing to note about the research at Pony Express Lake, as well as Alberts' and Peck's experiences, is the concept of "concentration." If most catfish in a lake are concentrated in a specific location, that means the rest of the lake is relatively devoid of catfish. Catfish anglers who've fished the frigid shoreline of lakes on sunny spring days and earned nothing but rancid fingertips simply weren't in the right place. It's location-sensitive fishing, and can be a form of Stange's early-season "poison" if you get the location wrong.
Boom or Bust
Lake Mendota, on the north side of Madison, Wisconsin, also can break an early-season catfisherman's heart. Shortly after ice-out, 10- to 20-pound channel cats go on a feeding spree at Mendota that attracts anglers from across the Upper Midwest. Fishery biologists theorize that natural die-offs of a few predator species in the lake a decade ago allowed several year-classes of an existing population of channel cats to produce exceptional spawns, followed by above-average recruitment, which translated into a flush of channel cats that has produced phenomenal spring fishing in recent years.
"Around 2010 we did a spring survey with fyke nets on the northeast side of Mendota, in the area where they're common after ice-out," says Kurt Welke, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources biologist. "We pulled 444 channel catfish that averaged 10 to 12 pounds from one net. It was so full of catfish it looked like a stuffed sausage. I've never seen anything like it. It was a good example of the huge population of big channel catfish we have in Mendota."
Because Mendota's locals are more focused on perch and walleyes than on catfish, and because the midwestern catfish fanatics who now migrate to Mendota each spring are catch-and-release advocates, the population of big channel cats there continues to grow and impress anglers who target them in the lake's northeast corner, where warmer water flowing from adjacent marshes and sloughs concentrates big fish. But anglers who fish that hotspot before water temperatures get warm enough to trigger the spring migration, or anglers who arrive too late, after the cats disperse, risk a sip of Stange's poison.
The boom-or-bust nature of spring catfishing extends to flowing waters. Research conducted by Greg Gelwicks in small rivers in northeastern Iowa helps explain the fickle fishing catfish anglers sometimes experience in early spring. He studied movements of radio-tagged channel cats in the lower reaches of the Turkey River and found all of the tagged fish moved 28 to 35 miles downstream each fall to spend the winter in the Mississippi River. He monitored movements in response to changes in water temperature following ice-out in spring.
"Catfish returned to the Turkey River from the Mississippi when water temperatures warmed from about the mid-40°F to 60°F range," he 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 down to the Mississippi. In early to mid-April there was a sharp warming trend into the mid-50°F range, and the catfish went up the Turkey again and stayed there."
So that perhaps explains why you might experience good fishing on your local river during an early spring warm spell, but then have poor fishing the following week after a cold, sleety weather front moves through. Channel cats that move out of wintering areas can quickly turn tail and duck back to their wintering holes, depending on water temperatures.
White Trees Giveth
Catfish anglers farther south don't have to wait for ice-out to begin a new catfishing season. But they still have to deal with daily and seasonal changes in catfish behavior. One of the most consistent winter bites for channel cats on lakes in Texas and other southern states lasts through about mid-April. Cormorants migrate south each winter, and by late winter catfish have learned they can get a reliable breakfast each day under cormorant roosts. In reservoirs, anglers target standing trees painted white with cormorant poop.
Texas Guide Chad Ferguson schedules his visits to cormorant roosts shortly after daybreak. "The ideal day is dead calm at sunrise," he says. "It's critical that I don't bump the boat into trees when I'm getting it into position, and that we don't bump around a lot in the boat. The cats are spooky in shallow water under those trees. You've got to work fast, because the wind usually starts to come up and the bite is usually done by 10 or 10:30 in the morning."
Another Texas guide, Bobby Kubin, says presentation is important when fishing under cormorant roosts. "The cats are keying on the 'plop' of the cormorant droppings hitting the water," he says. "You want to lob your casts, so the baits make noise when they hit the water. Dipbaits, cutbaits, anything white catches catfish under cormorant trees."
The Mobility Factor
Once water temperatures rise into the 60s and start heading for the 70s, it doesn't matter whether channel cats are in southern or northern rivers and lakes — their primary urge turns toward reproduction. Gelwicks' study, supported by other research on channel cats around the nation, indicates they tend to return each year to the same general locations in rivers and lakes where they spawned in past years.
In lakes, the rocky, cavity-pocked habitat favored by spawning catfish is often limited to specific areas. Cats return to the same spawning areas because there are few other places with suitable habitat. But that individual channel cats in rivers consistently move to the same wintering holes each winter, migrate to specific spawning areas in late spring, and then shift to summer areas that may or may not be near those spawning areas, implies impressive navigational skills.
It also forces catfish anglers to be particular about when and where they fish. The cutbank that was last summer's hotspot, for instance, could be the Dead Sea the next June when most of the cats in that stretch of river are spawning along a riprapped bridge revetment miles downstream. Conversely, the riprapped breakwater at your local lake, where you clobbered spawning channel cats last June, could be a waste of time for postspawn cats if they've migrated to shallow flats across the lake to chase schools of shad in August.
The mobility of channel cats might make finding them on a given day more difficult but improves success rates once they're located. That's one reason why dams on rivers have always been hotspots for catfish in the spring. Warming waters and increased flows due to spring rains spark cats to migrate upstream till they're blocked by dams or a natural barrier. At the same time, biological preparations for the spawn trigger insistent hunger.
Channel cats concentrate in specific areas below dams and also move among areas during feeding and resting. The trick is to pinpoint the best spots to place a bait. "Tailraces are diverse complexes of habitats, with fast chutes, eddies, current seams, pools, pockets, and shoreline riprap," says In-Fisherman managing editor Rob Neumann, who led studies of catfish in rivers while a professor of fisheries and has spent many an hour fishing tailraces. "One of the first places to check are primary current edges. These edges form where flows moving in opposing directions meet, or where flow in one direction meets slower or calm water," he says. "Current tunnels form near the bottom along these edges. Catfish use current tunnels as a refuge from flow and as a route to move and feed, as dead or weak baitfish eventually settle into tunnel areas. Once you get your rig to touch bottom below a dam, you can walk your bait and feel for current tunnels. Slipsinker rigs with cutbait are my favorite this time of year.
"Sometimes cats are along those current edges closer to the dam, or they're farther downstream, where the edge runs along a washout hole," he says. "Other times they might be in the core of a hole, or the head or tailout of that hole, but most feeding cats tend to be along current edges. If it's a larger dam and there are several gates, sometimes an eddy of calmer water forms below the barrier between gates. If you can safely position your boat so you can reach those gates with a cast, you can cast a float rig in the eddy and it'll often just swirl your bait around that area."
In lakes, late spring rains often create inflow from tributaries that attracts prespawn cats. Maybe it's the warmer water coming from the surrounding land. Maybe it's worms and other goodies common in spring freshets. Whatever the reason, channel cats in lakes often hold just over the edge of sediment deltas that form at the mouth of small tributaries, snarfing anything edible that tumbles over that edge. If the tributary is large enough, cats move up into the flow and cluster in shallow holes, before they drift back into the lake as spring rains dwindle.
When it comes to early-season catfishing, it's all about location and timing. There are uncounted opportunities for anglers to be in the right place at the right time to catch lots of catfish. Those prime places vary from season to season, week to week, day to day — sometimes even hour by hour. The trick is to dodge the poison, the wrong places at the wrong times that send you home skunked.
*Dan Anderson, Bouton Iowa, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications. Contact: Guide Chad Ferguson, catfishedge.com, 817/522-3804; Guide Bobby Kubin, bobby-catfishing.com, 817/455-2894.