Catching Catfish From Shore
October 16, 2015
Anglers who fish from shore sometimes get an inferiority complex. No matter how many or how big the catfish they catch, they're nagged by the doubt that they could have caught more if they'd had a boat.
"Bank anglers can catch as many catfish as guys in boats," says Texas Guide Chad Ferguson. "A boat just makes it easier to move around to find fish. If shorebound folks work to identify the best places to fish and make the effort to get to them, they can catch as many fish as boat anglers.
"Before I started guiding, I met an older gentleman at the lake I fished who always had a nice stringer of catfish," Ferguson says. "I asked if we could fish together, and offered to take him in my boat. He wasn't interested in that, though, said it wasn't necessary.
"I eventually got him to take me shore-fishing. He used an 8- or 9-foot rod that was limber, like a crappie rod. As we walked the bank he used that rod to lower his bait into every brushpile, laydown, and bit of cover he could find along shore. And we caught a bunch. That taught me that it's where and how you fish that matters, whether you're in a boat or on shore."
Mobility is just one of three keys to shoreline success. An understanding of near-shore topography and knowledge of species-specific fish behavior are the others. Ignore any of those factors and chances of success fade. Knowing the feeding patterns and preferences of a species of catfish is the first step to clobbering cats from shore.
"Channel cats, blues, and flatheads are as different in their behavior as goats, pigs, and horses," says Jeff Williams, founder of Team Catfish. "If anglers don't understand the way each species moves and feeds, they're going to have a hard time catching them. You've must match the species and the time of year with the places you fish.
"For blue catfish, winter's the best time for shore-fishing," he says. "A cold snap puts thermal stress on forage fish like shad and can cause mortality. If the weather warms, a steady wind pushes dead shad into shallow bays or along points. Anglers do well on big blues that move into those areas to eat dead shad. Most use long rods so they can cast farther, something like our 12-foot Team Catfish Catfish Warrior, a medium-heavy surf-type rod, rigged with a 3- to 5-ounce weight and a chunk of shad. I don't want to give the impression you must have a long rod and have to cast baits halfway across the lake. Sometimes they're close to shore and you can reach them with a 7- or 8-foot rod. But a longer one gives you the option to cast far if needed."
Williams says bank fishermen need to experiment to catch big blues. "Try different depths, different casting distances and different positions to find where blue cats are feeding on a particular day. Fish may change depths and locations from day to day in winter. "First figure out how far out they are," he says, "then try to hit the same depth with every cast. Count down your bait as it drops so you can dial in the correct depth. Sometimes a foot can make a difference between catching fish or not."
Some blue catfish bank anglers, as well as those targeting blues and flatheads in scour holes below large dams, use radio-controlled boats to carry baits to hard-to-reach locations. The little boats are rigged with quick-releases adapted from planer boards. Anglers steer the boat, towing large baits, out to the depth or location desired, then trip the release to drop the heavy rig precisely on target before returning to shore.
In lakes, forage fish are always the key to success with blue cats even if there's no kill due to thermal shock. Charles Jones, owner of CJ's Baits, studies shorelines to help him find baitfish that lure blue cats close to shore. "I've studied the lakes around Oklahoma City when they were low and know all the drop-offs and channels and humps within casting distance of shore," Jones says. "I don't need a boat. I catch all the catfish I want from shore.
"In winter, baitfish seek warmer and deeper water, so I look for drop-offs and channels close to shore. I use slipfloats to suspend baits and drift them toward the drop-off or channel edge because blue cats try to pin schools of baitfish against that edge. If there's 35 feet of water, I start with one slipfloat set for 12 feet and one at 25 feet, baited with either fresh-cut shad or my CJ's punchbait. I use a 12-foot Meat Hunter, a heavy-power fiberglass rod and an Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 7000 baitcasting reel loaded with 20-pound-mono. I don't use braided line because it floats, and a floating line drifts in loops and makes it tough to fish with slipfloats.
"The main thing is to know where you're casting," he says. "I try to hit a particular drop-off or hump. One of the mistakes shore fishermen make is to pick a spot that's easy to get to. I decide where to fish from shore according what's in the water to bring fish close to shore and hold them there, not how easy it is to reach."
Brian Woodford uses the same "comfort-be-darned" strategy when fishing the Little Sioux River in Northwest Iowa. He targets channel cats from ice-out to the opening of archery deer season in October, and fishes almost exclusively from shore.
"The situation I look for is an eddy or current break just upstream from a big logjam or a stretch of riprap, without any footprints leading to it," he says. "There are lots of great public fishing spots on small rivers that you can't get to with a boat most of the year. I have some good spots just downstream from dams or bridges where lots of people fish, but they aren't willing to walk a couple hundred yards downriver through the weeds to get to untouched spots. My best spots are where rivers flow through public hunting areas. I may have to walk a quarter mile from the parking area, but I'm usually the only person to fish those spots all summer."
Logjams are obvious targets, along with riprapped shorelines. Any small point, log, large rock, or obstruction that creates even a small eddy is worth checking. "I'm a fan of Sonny's Dipbait loaded on a CatTracker surgical tube on a 1/0 to 2/0 J-hook," Woodford says. "Whenever possible, I catch chubs for cutbait and always have nightcrawlers, too. I travel light, with just one 7-foot medium-heavy-power Ugly Stik with a Quantum Optix spinning reel with 12- to 17-pound Berkley Big Game or Trilene XT. Ugly Stiks have good feel, enough backbone to pull cats out of brushpiles, and are about indestructible."
Woodford begins his catfish quest soon after ice-out, fishing Sonny's dipbait or fresh-cut chubs at the mouths of streams that bring warmer water into the icy Little Sioux. The mouths of streams also are prime when late spring rains push the river to flood stage. "I've had good luck fishing the mouths of creeks that normally have only a couple inches of water at the bottom of an 8-foot deep gully," Woodford says. "When the river's high and water backs up in those little creeks, I've hammered channel cats by flipping nightcrawlers under the roots of trees."
During the spawn, Woodford focuses on expansive riprap areas and drifts baits beneath a float to entice channel cats lurking in the cavities. Later in the year, riprap areas on the outside bends of rivers continue to produce catfish.
"I like a big bend with riprap or a logjam on the outside bend," he says. "I try to set up about mid-curve on the bend, so current takes my line downstream parallel to the rocks. Or I may use the current to drift a bait into the eddy just above a logjam on the outside of a bend.
"I never fish one spot too long. If there's one thing that helps me catch catfish, it's that I'm impatient. I rarely sit more than 15 or 20 minutes. If you stay in one spot more than half an hour, you're limiting your catch."
Jones uses the same mobile strategy when he fishes channel cats from shore on Oklahoma reservoirs. While Woodford fishes the Little Sioux River almost exclusively during daylight ("Fish the right spots and catfish bite all day," he says), Jones finds night the best time to catch channel cats, though he fishes whenever the urge and opportunity presents itself. No matter what time of day or night, he travels light, moves frequently, and targets key shoreline features.
"If you drag around a bunch of poles, big tackle box, a lawn chair, and other stuff, you're not going to move often," he says. "I carry a fishing rod in one hand and a 5-gallon bucket with my bait, hooks, and a few sinkers and floats in the other. I plan on moving at least every 30 to 40 minutes if I'm not catching fish. I use CJ's punchbait under a slipfloat. The float lets the bait move, which distributes flavor in the water. I reel in a couple times to refresh the bait and increase the scent trail. If nothing bites in 45 minutes, I move."
Jones targets windward shorelines. "I like 'em so windy that other people won't fish there," he says. "I like it so noisy with waves that I don't have to worry about spooking the fish. Waves push insects and debris and dead fish up against that shoreline and catfish move in to feed. Using a slipfloat with a little glowstick on top, I cast out and let the waves drift the punchbait around to learn how far offshore cats are holding."
Hydrologic science says that as large waves wash into a shoreline, especially a sloping shoreline, a thin layer of undercurrent flows lakeward along the bottom as subsequent waves move toward shore. At some point offshore, depending on its slope, wave action, and other variables, the weak undercurrent dies and any debris, invertebrates, or fish carried by the undercurrent accumulate. Baitfish often feed around debris, and catfish follow. Jones watches for offshore evidence of current among the waves that hints where he should drift baits.
"Often there's a line of foam or small bubbles; that's the spot I want my bait to drift through," he says. "Sometimes it's farther offshore and I use my 10- or 11-foot "Cat Hammer" composite fiberglass/graphite rods and Daiwa SS1600 spinning reels to cast out there. Other times it may be only 5 or 10 feet offshore. At night, channel cats come in close. Guys sometimes miss out on good fishing by casting baits out toward the middle of the lake."
Night-fishing from shore also is effective for flathead catfish in large reservoirs. Williams says the key is to plan ahead and target spots where flatheads roam near shore after sunset. "Study topo maps to identify where drop-offs or old river channels swing close to shore," he says. "The ideal location is a narrow flat between the bank and a major drop-off. Flatheads move up and cruise there after dark. The spot where the flat is narrowest is a pinch point for flatheads. If you space a set of baits between the edge of the drop-off and the waterline you have a good chance of intercepting them."
While anglers benefit from parking baits in a carefully selected spot along a shoreline and waiting for flatheads to find them, blue and channel catfish anglers need to be more mobile. Catfish hunters are following the lead of European tournament anglers and American surf casters who use fishing carts to tote gear, bait, and accessories. Berkley, Sea Striker, and Angler's Fish-N-Mate offer light two-wheeled push/pull carts that allow anglers to transport up to 200 pounds of equipment and up to six rods over reasonably rough terrain. Some models even provide a cutting board to prepare cutbait.
"The easier it is to move, the more apt you are to keep moving till you find fish," Jones says. "I keep things as light as possible. But I have to keep in mind the distance from my shore spot to my truck. I don't want to have to lug all those catfish too far or up too steep of a hill." â–
*Dan Anderson, Bouton, Iowa, is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications.