Hard To Catch Channel Catfish
July 09, 2016
Experiences of top catmen along with results of scientific studies have tightened our grip on the seasonal response of catfish, from small rivers to the largest of watercourses. Myths about notoriously tight-lipped catfish late in the year have been dispelled -- in fact, autumn catfishing can be fruitful when conditions are right. At other times, channel catfish can be anything but aggressive, especially after a bout of a miserably cold October or November rain (or worse). But when the cold steel of the hammer drops and the going gets tough at traditional summer spots, the tough get going -- right down to the places channel cats ride out old man winter.
"My understanding of seasonal patterns for channel catfish evolved when I regularly fished the Big Sioux River and its smaller tributaries in Iowa," In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange explains. "Lots of channel catfish were in shallow feeder tributaries well upstream from the Sioux in spring. We're talking miles and miles off the main tributary, some no wider than a few yards with water not much deeper than 3 feet. Deeper pools in those same areas held smaller catfish through summer and early fall.
"By late September or early October, catfish vacated summer locations and moved downstream. Catches were better in deep sections of the mainstem Sioux, as well as in the deepest holes in lower reaches of the tributaries. Understanding movement patterns to wintering habitat, and knowing what makes a good overwintering area, are keys to catching late-season catfish."
SCIENCE REVEALS MOVEMENT DETAILS
Findings of tagging and tracking studies verify traditional ways of thinking about late-season catfish, while results of other studies go against the flow. It hasn't been easy going, since collecting large samples can be difficult and channel catfish have been known to expel internally implanted transmitters, requiring some industrious solutions. Diligence pays off, as these studies provide some of the most detailed information on fall and winter movements.
Late-season movements of channel catfish were investigated in the Lower Wisconsin River system. Biologists implanted radio transmitters into 187 channel catfish and followed them some 85 miles on the Lower Wisconsin River and 65 miles of the adjoining Mississippi.
The fall migration of catfish began in mid-October, and most fish arrived at overwintering sites by early December, reports biologist Don Fago. The Mississippi River was an important overwintering area, especially for fish tagged there and in the lower reaches of the Wisconsin River. Of the catfish tagged in the Wisconsin, 64 percent moved downstream to the Mississippi to overwinter.
But not all catfish moved downstream. A substantial proportion (23 percent) of the fish tagged in the Wisconsin overwintered at Prairie du Sac Dam, the most upstream point of the study site. Many fish tagged at the dam remained there for the remainder of the winter.
The farther downstream a fish was tagged in the Wisconsin, the more likely it was to move to the Mississippi to overwinter. Most of the fish tagged in the Wisconsin 28 to 44 miles upstream of the mouth, moved to the Mississippi; while only 21 percent tagged at Prairie du Sac Dam, about 85 miles upstream from the mouth, overwintered in the Mississippi.
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This study suggests that in this large tributary to the Mississippi and others like it, finding late-season catfish isn't just a matter of looking downstream, but also upstream if suitable wintering habitat is within reach of catfish. In this case, both the Mississippi and deeper scour holes below an upstream dam provided winter refuge for catfish in this relatively wide and shallow river.
Transitions of catfish downstream in fall have been documented in a number of studies. In smaller tributaries to big rivers like the Missouri or Mississippi, or even good-sized rivers like the Wisconsin, whether or not most catfish leave the tributary in winter likely depends on the availability of suitable wintering habitat in the tributary.
Take the Platte River in Nebraska, for example, a wide and shallow tributary to the Missouri. University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers implanted 45 channel catfish with transmitters in the lower Platte between 1988 and 1990 to document movement patterns.
Dr. Ed Peters reports 67 percent of movements were downstream in fall, and all movements were downstream in winter, most likely to escape the cold water and current in the shallow Platte where overwintering habitat was limited. Channel cats moved to deep scour holes in the Missouri, then back up the Platte to spawn in spring.
A study in Perche Creek in Missouri, a tributary to the Missouri River, showed that some channel catfish resided in this tributary year-round, while another group was transient, moving between Perche and the Missouri. Researchers at the University of Missouri and the state's Department of Conservation tagged channel catfish in lower Perche and in an adjacent section of the Missouri to document these movements.
Most catfish tagged in Perche Creek were considered year-round residents, while most Missouri River catfish were transient, moving into Perche at some point. A general pattern of movement downstream in fall was observed, regardless of whether catfish were resident or transient. All the transient fish in Perche Creek moved to the Missouri River to overwinter. The percentage of transient fish increased farther downstream in Perche, with 72 percent of transient fish using the lower 5 miles.
LATE SEASON PATTERNS REFINED
Small Rivers -- In early fall, catfish are likely to inhabit the same holes where they spend the summer. But once water cools to around 60F, most evidence points to movement downstream to deeper wintering holes with slow current. Downstream transitions likely dominate movement now because these areas contain relatively deeper water. Don't overlook suitable wintering habitat that may be upstream or in the general river stretches where catfish spend warmer months. They congregate at these wintering spots, particularly once the water temperature drops below the 45F to 50F range, and there they remain from late fall throughout the winter.
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In early fall, traveling catfish gather where shallow water or other obstructions block movement. Many catfish anglers enjoy success by fishing riffle and run areas upstream of deeper holes. Eventually, the biggest, deepest holes concentrate catfish.
No hard evidence exists to suggest what the minimum depth of a suitable wintering site is in smaller rivers. It appears to be relative to what depths are available -- a deep pool in a big river is generally deeper than a deep pool in a small river, and the shallowest rivers are likely to be vacated. Fish the deepest holes, especially those with some form of cover, and the cats should be there or at least on their way. If they're not, keep moving. The most successful anglers are those who fish as many holes as possible. If a river-run reservoir is within reach, Stange suggests the best late-season strategy is to fish deeper areas of a reservoir from a boat.
"There's no doubt weather influences catfish in fall, so watching weather patterns is critical," he says. "October has been a consistent bite month in the smaller rivers I fish in the Upper Midwest. Then the weather gets colder and the nasty late October and November rains and snow slow the bite. I've found that a bout of warm, moderate weather for several days gets fish active again, sometimes even into early winter."
According to Stange, temperature isn't the only factor. "High water can be a disaster. The best bet is if stable mild temperatures are accompanied by stable flows, especially on the moderate to low end of the spectrum. High water and cold weather stimulate movement of channel catfish to wintering areas. If you get a week of moderate weather afterward, fish those wintering holes catfish likely moved to.
"In the South, opportunities for channel catfish are more flexible, even through winter. Fairly mild temperatures won't confine catfish to winter locations typical of more northern rivers. You can catch channel catfish all year down there but, in winter, the best bets might be in reservoirs," he says.
Large Rivers -- Studies indicate that big-river catfish emulate their small-river counterparts late in the season, moving mostly downstream to deeper winter quarters protected from heavy flows. Deep holes near the mouths of tributaries attract catfish that migrated out of tributaries, as well as river residents. Scour-holes associated with wing dams also congregate catfish.
Late-season habitat use by channel catfish was examined by radio tracking in Pool 13 of the Mississippi River: biologist Douglas Stang noted that catfish during the fall-winter period were primarily found in main-channel border areas. Bottom areas that contained sand waves were also used frequently, likely providing current breaks near bottom. Scour-holes near wing dams also were an important late-season habitat. As river flows changed, current modified the location of sand waves; catfish responded by moving to new sand waves and different wing dams. Average depths of catfish locations increased from about 8 feet during the spring-summer period to about 14 feet in fall and winter, but catfish were found in water as deep as 40 feet.
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The winter habitats of channel catfish in the Missouri River were examined by the Missouri Department of Conservation in 1982 and 1983. Eighteen channel cats were outfitted with radio transmitters in a central Missouri stretch of the river. Biologist Tim Grace noted that some catfish moved short distances up tributaries and wintered in 10- to 20-foot-deep holes, while others stayed in deep holes at the mouths of tributaries. Channel catfish selected the deepest holes available -- 25 to 30 feet deep -- in the Missouri.
Knowing the river well helps fine-tune location. Take the Red River of the North, perhaps the finest fishery for trophy channel cats. Red River Guide Stu McKay noted that from September through mid-October, locating channel catfish is challenging because they're spread over many miles. He reported that in early fall, they're often caught from shallow flats, where they're likely feeding on frogs or juvenile white bass. When the water temperature drops to the low-50F range in late September, they return to the main river channel. When water cools below 45F, the catfish become increasingly sluggish, falling back to Lake Winnipeg. But some remain in the river and can be caught through the ice, he says.
COLD CATFISH COMFORT FOOD
"Late season is time for bottom-oriented presentations like sliprigs and split-shot rigs," says In-Fisherman's Doug Stange. "I use a single hook like the Eagle Claw 84 or Mustad 92671, or a beaked design like the Eagle Claw L7226. A jig tipped with a minnow or cutbait is another good option, especially for more vertical presentations from a boat. Float rigs aren't really good anymore.
"I'd rank cutbait at the top for late-season channels -- and it needs to be fresh. I've had good success fishing live minnows well into November, which also is a good bait option for river walleyes this time of year. Freshly killed larger minnows like suckers, with a few slits cut in into the side, also produce well. Keep replacing baits regularly to be sure they're oozing substances attractive to catfish."
A fresh chunk of sucker fillet is Stange's favorite bait. "It's important that the fillet isn't too thick. Cut a thin strip about 3/4 of an inch wide and 1 to 1 1/2 inches long. If suckers aren't available and you use more coarse-scaled fish as bait, remove the scales -- they don't like scaley baits right now."
Another of Stange's favorites is a minnow cut into thirds and stuffed onto a jig -- tail, midsection, and head. The midsection is added first so the long axis is perpendicular to the hook. The tail section is added next, followed by the head, which holds the package together.
"We used to write about channel catfish as if there was an end to fishing as cold weather set in," says Stange. "But the truth is, there really is no end to catching catfish -- even ice fishing, if you're so inclined. Fall offers up the chunkiest channel catfish a water body can offer. The growing season is wrapping up, eggs are starting to develop in females, and body condition is at its peak. Finding them means understanding what triggers movement and identifying wintering habitats. For year-round catmen, there is no bitter end."