Locating Late Summer Channel Cats in Rivers
July 31, 2018
Summertime is prime time for catching channel catfish in still and flowing waters across the species' range. Finding and catching warm-weather channel cats is easier when you understand their seasonal movements and habitat preferences.
In rivers and streams, channel cats often move upstream in the springâ€”which makes the areas immediately below dams, riffles, and other structures that slow or obstruct their progress productive fishing areas. Lacking such impediments, a channel cat's spring travels may take it from the main river far up a small tributary.
In summer, channel catfish often move back downstream, though they may linger well above their winter range if food and habitat encourage them to stay. Prime habitat includes holes and middepth runs. River reaches offering woody cover such as logjams are often catfish meccas. In big rivers, you can often find channel cats around bridge abutments, wing dams, barge mooring areas, and other structures that break the current while offering food and cover.
Of course, much depends on current. When summer flows run high and strong, channel cats tend to hold tighter to cover or structure. While extremely low water may force them into the few remaining deep holes, particularly in smaller rivers, moderately low water coupled with a lack of current often scatters them far and wide, making them difficult to locate with any consistency.
Such was the case during the summer of 2017 on the fabled Red River of the North, which flows more than 500 miles from the confluence of the Sioux and Otter Tail rivers along the Minnesota-North Dakota border northward to Manitoba's Lake Winnipeg. Famed for producing channel cats of epic proportions, the Red is a top destination for cat fanciers hoping to hook a personal bestâ€”including behemoths topping 20 pounds.
"The water was really low," recalls channel cat guide Brad Durick. "Low water and little flow makes fishing tougher, because the river becomes more like a long lake and the catfish spread out. When you have thousands of places for the fish to hide per river mile, it's much harder to find them than when stronger flows concentrate them in a few predictable areas."
Durick says options for speeding your search for low-flow summer channel cats include keying on deeper holes with some vestige of current, often betrayed by swirls and seams on the surface, and fishing stretches of river with some current, sand bottom, and little structure, which translates into fewer hiding places. "I've also trailered to an area with a lowhead dam, which creates a bit of current," he adds. "But you have to be flexible. When heavy rains give the river a shot in the arm, catfish are quick to react." In spring, catfish that were scattered over a wide area converge on classic prespawn areas almost overnight. During summer, high water often ushers fish closer to the banks and along inside bends.
Barring severe highs and lows, Durick says the Summer Period is his favorite time on the water. "Our spawn starts around June 10 and runs from 2 to 6 weeks depending on the conditions," he says. "The fish move into summer patterns that last from the second half of July though August into early September. I love this time of year. It's my favorite time to be on the river. You have to look and work for fish, but the rewards are worth the effort."
Though the fish are a bit spread out, Durick keys on classic channel cat haunts. "A section of river offering a riffle-hole-run combination, along with a tree pile for good measure, has everything a catfish wants," he says. "Targeting high-percentage areas within such a reach is a great way to put fish in the boat, fast."
One such spot is the outside edge of a logjam or other woody cover. "You catch fish above tree piles, but the biggest channel cats hang toward the outer wood edge, where faster current carves out a hole for a current break," he explains. "Heads of deep holes are another great spot to connect with actively feeding catfish. Large holes are easy to find, often well known among catfish anglers and may receive a fair amount of pressure. When possible, avoid community holes in favor of holes other anglers miss."
Toward that end, Durick has created a milk run of smaller, shallower holes overlooked by the masses. "It doesn't take much for a slight depression to become a hole for catfish," he says. "Holes just 1 to 3 feet deeper than the surrounding bottom and perhaps 20 or 30 feet long often produce two or three good-sized catfish every time you fish themâ€”especially if you rotate holes, resting each one four days or more before fishing it again."
He uses electronic aids including Humminbird Side Imaging and AutoChart Live to scout for and map out subtle holes. "It's a far cry from the old days when it would take all year to figure out a section of river using traditional flasher-style sonar," he says. "Now I find the hole, drive over it a couple of times, and have a detailed picture of it within a few minutes. I know the shape of the hole, any structure within it, which side the fish are on, and what the current is doing. Humminbird's new MEGA Imaging is so detailed, you can mark fish suspended an inch off bottom and tell whether or not it's a catfish."
As far as depth goes, Durick is more concerned that the right amount of current brushes past the hole than he is about how much water is above it. "I've never put much stock in depth," he says. "Depth doesn't hold them, current does." On the Red, he fishes from 3 to 20 feet. "Catfish aren't afraid to go shallow when the hole and current are right," he says. "I've caught them at midday in 3 feet of water, when the air temp is 90 and the water is 80°F."
Durick anchors or Spot-Locks his boat above the hole and strategically deploys a series of lines in and around it. "Fishing six lines, I put two baits at the front of the hole, work the sides with another two lines, and throw one in the middle of the river and one up close to the bank, to get a feel for everything going on around the hole." When sonar reveals slight micro-channel depressions connecting the hole with larger channels or other structure, he targets these passageways as well, to intercept catfish moving to and from the hole.
Since efficiency is the word of the day, Durick seldom dallies in a spot. "When I roll up, I turn on the timer on my depthfinder," he says. "Most small holes produce two fish, occasionally three. In stable conditions, you should get the first fish within 5 minutes, and the second one within the next 5 minutes. Waiting for a third fish that may or may not bite burns daylight, so as soon as the second fish is in the boat, I'm on my way to the next hole."
Durick notes that repositioning lines can save the day when the bite fizzles. "If you suddenly stop catching fish in smaller holes, check the back of the hole for negative fish that aren't fired up enough to swim to the head of the hole and come after your bait," he says. "I've been burned by overlooking these inactive fish."
While waiting for catfish to take the bait, Durick places his rods in holders. "I use 7/0 Rippin' Lips dual-action circle hooks, so you can set them if you want, but it's easier for clients to simply let the fish do the work for you," he says. "I run them on a slipsinker rig consisting of a 10- to 12-inch, 30-pound mono leader, #1 or #3 barrel swivel, soft tubing to cushion the sinker, a no-roll sinker, and 30-pound Berkley Big Game mainline."
He favors a moderate-action Rippin' Lips Super Cat rod. "When using circle hooks, you want the tip of the rod to be soft but still have enough backbone to fight your fish," he says. "With the Rippin' Lips' medium rod, a 3-pound fish can turn the hook without getting spooked, but the rod has the power to fight a 20-pounder. When I fish 5-ounce sinkers in a tailwater targeting bigger fish, I beef up to medium-heavy."
A cutbait fan, Durick typically relies on suckers and frogs in the summer, at times adding goldeyes to the mix. "It pays to have a variety," he says. "Last year, for example, the fish would eat frogs until 11 a.m., then preferred frozen suckers the rest of the day."
Whatever the flavor, fresh bait is often best. "But when the water temperature gets into the 80s, switching to frozen sucker or goldeye can be to your advantage," he says. "I believe that when the water's hot, scent washes off fresh bait faster than it does off frozen bait, so this buys you a few extra minutes of maximum attraction."
Looking forward, Durick reports that at press time a pair of sizable late-winter snowfalls had pumped much-needed moisture into the Red River Valley, boosting hopes for more normal flows in 2018.
Small River Strategies
Large systems like the Red River of the North are great destinations for memorable road trips, but smaller waterways, sometimes much smaller, often produce exceptional channel cat action throughout the summer. As In-Fisherman has long counseled, the connectedness of streams and rivers, coupled with the channel catfish's remarkable ability to move long distances, are what make some streamsâ€”often far separated from a larger riverâ€”good spots to find catfish.
Offering cases in point, Editor In Chief Doug Stange has written about his summertime exploits in small Iowa streams, some with prime fishing spots far up a watershed 100 miles or more from a river the size most anglers would consider decent catfish territory. One of Stange's most productive streams was just 8 to 10 feet across and no deeper than 3 feet, in places.
The story is the same virtually everywhere across channel cat country. Last summer, for example, my son Jake and his fishing buddy Jake (who, by coincidence, also shares the same last name) dialed in a classic summer small-river channel cat program on a small, central Minnesota river typical of many systems elsewhere in the species' native and introduced range.
"The free-flowing river offers the classic riffle-hole-run structural progression In-Fisherman has talked about for decades, plus plenty of woody cover," Jake says. "It's great catfish habitat, with relatively little fishing pressure compared to other larger rivers in the area, like the St. Croix. From July into early August, we consistently connected with channel cats averaging 5 to 8 pounds, with fish up to 14. A couple broke off that felt bigger, but the ones that get away always do."
Their rigs were textbook channel cat rigs, featuring 24- to 36-inch leaders of 20-pound fluorocarbon, with cut baitfish impaled on a snelled circle hook. While a tempting setup was important, their pattern mostly hinged on finding the right combination of flow and timber. One logjam in a run on a straight section was particularly productive, though as you'd expect, woody cover in outside bend pools with undercut banks also held fish. "The bite lasted as long as the water level and flow were stable," he adds. "The pattern dried up when the water level and current dropped in late summer."