Not Too Early for Big River Channel Catfish
April 18, 2016
There are lots of reasons to target river channel catfish on our nation's large rivers in early spring. Start with the sheer number of channel cats in rivers like the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and other large waterways. Channel cat enthusiasts also are primed to hit the water after a winter's layoff. Best of all is the willingness of channel cats to bite during this season, with weather normally associated with walleye fishing.
"It's easy to catch channel cats on the Mississippi in spring," says Ted Peck, a big-river guide, author, river rat, and raconteur based in New Albin, Iowa. "It's probably the easiest catfishing of the year because they're concentrated and hungry. Some of my best trips have been just after ice-out, when there were still shelves of ice in backwaters. I flip dipworms loaded with Sonny's Super Sticky dipbait along the edge of those ice shelves, or work shallow mud bottom areas on sunny days, and hammer channel cats. Those are the days when I leave the lid open on my livewell and keep tossing eater-size catfish in till it's full or my clients get tired of catching them."
Peck's strategy makes biological sense. In the fall, channel catfish in northern regions move from small creeks and rivers into larger rivers, and congregate in wintering holes. In southern rivers, wintering holes aren't as well-defined, but there is still a trend for channel cats to concentrate in specific areas through the coldest months. Either way, as soon as winter wanes and water temperatures edge up into the 40s, channel cats move from wintering areas and begin feeding heavily. They look for warmer water and easy eating. Winter-killed shad and baitfish make up a large portion of their early-spring diet, and tributaries to big rivers as well as selected backwaters are prime feeding grounds.
The mouths and lower ends of tributaries attract channel cats in big rivers at that time of year because they're usually warmer and brimming with winter-killed baitfish, nightcrawlers, and a variety of other potential meals drifting downstream. For similar reasons, backwaters on big rivers can be honey holes for springtime channel cats — or a waste time for anglers, depending on how a specific backwater "loads" from the main river.
"Backwaters that load from the top aren't as good as those that load from the bottom," Peck says. "If a backwater connects to the river so that the current washes into its upper end and then down through it, there's probably too much current for channel cats, and the water from the snowmelt up north (upstream) keeps that backwater cooler than cats like. But some backwaters are blocked off at their upper end and they load from the bottom. As the river rises from snowmelt, there's a gentle current moving up into the backwater from its lower end that pushes winterkilled shad toward the upper end — and that's where the channel cats are.
"There are 8 or 9 backwaters on Pool 9 of the Mississippi River that bottom-load, and as soon as the ice is off the main channel in the spring I'm in those backwaters fishing right under the edge of the ice as it recedes," he says. "Dead shad are frozen in the ice, and cats cruise around and grab them as they drop out of the melting ice. Once the ice is gone, they stay in those backwaters and feed in the warmer water over the mud bottoms till the water levels drop or they move to spawning areas."
Hydrodynamics in large southern rivers create a similar channel cat feeding binge as spring progresses. Sometimes it's due to a water-level rise from heavy snowmelt farther north surging downriver. Other times it's because of heavy spring rains in the river basin in April or early May. Either way the result is a large rise in river level that spreads floodwaters across bottomlands via lowland ditches, sloughs, and oxbows, creating focal points for catfish anglers. Memphis, Tennessee, Guide James Patterson says the biggest channel catfish he ever caught, a 20-pounder, came from a bottomland "ditch" flowing with water from a rising Mississippi River.
"Channel cats move a lot when the river gets out onto the bottoms," Patterson says. "They're in all the little ditches and channels flowing through the trees. We've got gumbo worms in the bottoms that catfish just go nuts over, snails, bugs, grubs — the cats gorge when the river rises up into the timber. If you can find a little ditch or slough that they're using to get in and out of those areas, it can be a goldmine."
Knowing which direction water flows into or out of backwaters, sloughs, and channels related to changes in water level in big rivers is key to catching springtime channel cats. Patterson says falling water level as snowmelt or seasonal rains ebb in the spring dictates where he looks for channel cats but doesn't change his success rates.
"When the river is falling, water flows out of the oxbows, and channel cats pack into ditches and connections where that water flows back into the river," Patterson says. "That usually happens later in spring. They stay in the lower end of the connections, or in the main river waiting for whatever food washes out of those areas."
Peck says fishing for channel cats in the spring when big rivers rise and fall dramatically is "a game of inches." "Small differences in river levels make a big difference in where the catfish are on a given day," he says. "There may be a backwater that has bottom-filled since ice-out and has been terrific for channel cats for a couple weeks, then the river rises enough so it starts to top-fill. Add that extra current that's now coming in from the top, and the cooler water from snowmelt coming downstream, and it's not a hotspot anymore."
Early Season Baits
While subtleties in water level, water temperature, and current can be critical to catching channel cats in big rivers in spring, bait selection is both simple and broad. Winter-killed baitfish or fresh cutbait are prime in ice-out situations. Nightcrawlers and crawly critters make great floodwater baits, and dipbaits, punchbaits, or other manufactured baits are a strong choice under all conditions. That goes against common wisdom that says dipbaits don't perform well in cool water because they don't "milk" enough flavor to optimize their performance.
Peck makes it easier for Sonny's dipbait to distribute flavor into cool water by blending in a little cooking oil to soften its consistency. He downsizes dipworms in spring, opting for a short, fat, tube-style worm from J&N, which has smooth rubber and holes. He believes channel cats prefer their meals in smaller portions in cooler water. He switches to a longer, ribbed dipworm once waters warm above 60°F.
As for the claim that dipbait isn't as effective as fresh cutbait, Captain Bill Kunzeman, tournament catfisherman, Eagle Claw pro-staffer, and guide says he always has tubs of Team Catfish's Secret 7 and Sonny's Super Sticky dipbaits in his boat for tough times. "Dipbaits always catch catfish," he says. "If I need just a few pounds of catfish before a weigh-in and am striking out with cutbait, I switch to dipbait. To make sure it bleeds enough flavor into cool water I blend in cooking oil. The Secret 7 container has a black lid, so I set it in the sun to let the bait warm and soften before I bait up."
Many catfish anglers in search of the biggest channel cats use fresh cutbait under the belief that manufactured baits target only smaller cats in the 1- to 5-pound range. Jeff Williams, owner of Outdoor BrandZ, manufacturer of Team Catfish's Secret 7 dipbait, says if manufactured baits catch only smaller catfish it's because of the angler's strategy.
"No catfish of any size turns down a juicy, flavorful tidbit dropped in front of them," he says. "The reason people only catch smaller cats on dipbaits is because they're fishing where smaller fish are. If you put a big glob of Secret 7 in front of a 10- or 20-pounder, it's going to take it because it's got everything a catfish wants as far as flavor. But you have to be fishing where big catfish feed."
While bait selection for channel cats on large rivers in spring is relatively easy, tackle selection makes a big difference in success. Even though early-spring cats are eager to eat, their bites can be tentative. Peck uses J-style hooks and a two-handed approach to ensure hookups.
"Circle hooks are great for summer fishing with live- or cutbait when cats like to take the bait and swim off with it," Peck says. "When they swim off, it turns the circle hook in their mouths and loads the rod so all you have to do is wind down to set the hook, usually in the corner of their mouth. In early spring, however, they pick up the bait but tend to not move off with it, so circle hooks aren't as effective. So I use J-style hooks in the spring and make sure I set the hook when I get a bite. Cats won't bite more than once, so I only use two rods, one on each side of me, with a hand on each rod, like a gunslinger ready to grab and set the hook as soon as I see a rod tip bounce."
"It's usually not hard to get channel cats to bite once, but in the spring and sometimes in the summer they back off if they feel resistance," he says. "I use 8-foot 6-inch Eagle Claw SF400 downrigger rods. It has a soft tip. Sometimes I use Tangling With Catfish Whisker Whip rods, which have soft tips and stiffer backbone. Both of them work well when channel cats are in the mood to bite just once and then back off if they feel resistance because the soft tips on those rods don't seem to bother spooky fish as much."
Terminal tackle for early-spring channel cats is conventional but lighter than traditional summertime rigs. Slipsinker rigs, with an egg or no-roll sinker appropriate to the current, slipped on the mainline ahead of a swivel tied to a 1- to 2-foot leader ending in a J- or Kahle hook, works well in most situations. Peck customizes his weights to ensure his baits stay where he wants them.
"In spring I tightline because I want to feel soft bites, and I don't want the sinker moving," he says. "So I stick a finish nail through the hole of my egg sinkers and then pound the sinker flat around that nail. When I pull out the nail it gives me a sliding sinker that lays flat on the bottom and resists rolling in current. That way I can keep baits where I want them on a tight line. That trick also works good later in the year when I'm fishing near structure in stronger current and don't want my weight moving around."
Once water temperatures warm above 50°F, fishing for channels on big rivers more closely resembles small-river catfishing. Even though a river may be a mile wide and 50 feet deep, channel cats are in the same places they would be in smaller rivers — shallow areas with mild current.
"They won't be in deep holes with strong current," Patterson says. "They won't be in slack water or dead water either. They'll be in areas of back current or reduced current, behind bridge pilings or wing dikes. Pockets in the faces of cutbanks or riprapped banks can be good if they're big enough so there's a back-current flowing straight upriver. Current breaks where the water is swirling in circles aren't as good as places where there's a gentle, straight back-current."
Williams suggests targeting channel cats in places where they like to be rather than in generic catfish holes. "I generally don't see channel cats and blue cats sharing the same areas in big rivers," he says. "Blues are in deep holes and strong current. Channels are in shallower water and milder current. If you want channel cats and are catching blues, you're fishing in the wrong places."