July 31, 2016
By Ned Kehde
Some waterways abound with wood, resembling a flooded forest or a warren of root wads and logjams. Others are virtually devoid of it, giving their submerged topography a moonscape aura. Toledo Bend Reservoir, Texas, and portions of the Kansas River are examples of wooded waters. The many woodless acres of Grand Lake, Oklahoma, fit the moonscape scenario, as do many miles of the Ohio River.
At Grand Lake and other woodless reservoirs, some anglers alter the barren topography by anchoring scores of brushpiles. Occasionally, Mother Nature lends a hand by depositing trees, branches, and root wads in the upper portions of reservoirs, after floodwaters rip up the foliage along adjacent sections of feeder creeks and rivers.
No matter if there is a plethora or scarcity of wood, many catfish anglers find that wooded environs are often dandy places to fish. Yet, there are tricks to finding the best wood. At waterways that contain a lot of flooded timber, the trick is to pinpoint which pieces of wood are the ones catfish prefer.
At timberless waterways, anglers aren't faced with that tedious chore. Because wooded coverts are such a rare element, many anglers maintain that their uniqueness makes virtually all of them fruitful spots to fish, at times.
Some wood piles are better spots than others. Jeff Williams, for instance, finds the biggest blue cats in Oklahoma's Grand Lake in the largest wood piles that lie in deep water along the edge of the submerged Neosho River channel. The same phenomenon occurs along the submerged Osage River at Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri, which is another moonscape reservoir graced with sporadic deposits of deep-water wood piles.
According to Williams, who is a tournament angler and owner of Team Catfish, from Grove, Oklahoma, the best deep-water-wood pile fishing takes place during December through May. Depending on the area of the lake that he fishes, an ideal deep-water brushpile sits in water as shallow as 20 feet or as deep as 40 feet.
Williams has tangled with an impressive array of big blue cats at three of the largest and best-situated coverts of wood at Grand Lake. During a 4-hour outing at one of these wood piles, he caught and released 30 blue cats — 8 of them weighed from 25 to 30 pounds and 6 weighed from 20 to 25 pounds. To pinpoint deep wood piles, he uses Lowrance sonar, and a GPS unit guides him back to the most fruitful coverts.
When fishing wood at Lake of the Ozarks, Williams primarily works between mile-markers 50 and 70, and at Grand Lake he fishes from Twin Bridges to Honey Creek State Park. Sometimes he probes woody lairs in upper portions of Lake of the Ozarks in the vicinity of mile-marker 90, which is regularly buffeted by current jettisoning out of Truman Dam. Here, the most prolific wood lies in 20 to 30 feet of water. At Grand Lake, when the current is flowing from 6,000 to 12,000 cubic feet per second down the Neosho River, he fishes a variety of wooded habitats that grace the Neosho River arm from Twin Bridges to Miami, Oklahoma.
To fish a woody lair that's surrounded by current, he anchors his boat upstream from the spot at an easy casting distance to the heart of the wood pile. When wood isn't affected by significant current flow, he anchors his boat upwind. Once the boat is properly situated, he places his bait in the middle of the wood pile.
He plummets his bait into the center of the brushy thicket because he believes this is the best way to get a lot of bites, which increases chances for big blues. He loses a lot of rigs and some trophy-sized cats, but he also boats an impressive number of Goliaths.
When Williams fishes wood, he uses a medium€‘heavy€‘action Team Catfish Thunder Cat rod and a Gold Ring 400 casting reel spooled with 65-pound Tug-O-War braided line. He uses 8/0 Double Action circle hooks and, depending on the depth and current flow, a 3- to 10-ounce flat bank sinker attached to a sinker slide that's cushioned with a sinker bumper.
To pull big blues from wood piles, he says it's best to use a delicate approach, noting that they can't be manhandled. Instead of a hard and violent hook-set, he sets with a long, sweeping motion of his rod. After the hook is set, he uses his rod and reel to slowly coax the blue cat out of the maze, describing it as a steady and subtle pull.
At Grand Lake and Lake of the Ozarks, most of these deep-water woody coverts sit in 30 to 40 feet of water. But deep-water venues aren't the only spots that Williams fishes for blue cats. On some windy spring days at Lake of the Ozarks, he finds that laydowns, root wads, stumps, logpiles, and even a single log situated on a mudflat in 2 to 5 feet of water hold big blues.
Williams plans to create a variety of new wood habitats in Grand Lake, and during the years to come, he'll build some new ones and rebuild the best of the old ones. Not only will he create wooded habitats designed to shelter blue cats, but he intends to develop some to attract Grand Lake's elusive flathead catfish. He plans to monitor the virtues of different habitat configurations and wood types.
Jeremy Leach, of Lexington, Indiana, normally fishes a 70-mile stretch of the Ohio River from McAlpine Lock and Dam to Markland Lock and Dam, where wood is a scarce commodity. He says the current during high-water spells in spring washes away most of the aggregations of trees, logs, and root wads. But the few logjams that remain, mostly along the inside bends of the river channel, attract a noteworthy number of catfish.
Piles of wood are deposited on flats but they are transitory. Sometimes they're able to endure several upsurges of high water before they're torn asunder by current; so, for a short time they can provide a sanctuary for a catfish or two. The depths of the wood piles range from water as shallow as 2 feet to as deep as 20 feet. A few of them extend from the shoreline across the entire flat to the river-channel edge, but the majority are at least 30 feet from the shoreline.
Leach often finds accumulations of debris and wood at the mouths of feeder creeks. These spots also attract numbers of shad in April and May. He says water that flows out of the creeks is warmer at that time than water in the main river, and suspects the warmer water attracts shad and catfish. The river also contains several man-made structures, such as concrete loading-docks for barges that extend off the shoreline and into the current and catch substantial amounts of wood, creating fine coverts for catfish.
He fishes a lot of wood that's visible. And like Williams, he also uses sonar to find wood piles in water as deep as 30 feet. To fish wooded environs during the spring, he anchors his boat about 60 feet upstream.
Rather than placing the bait in the middle of the wood pile as Williams does, Leach places baits at the upstream edge of the wood. His tackle consists of a 71„2-foot heavy-action Tangling With Catfish Extreme Rod, and an Abu-Garcia 7000 C3 reel spooled with 40-pound-test Berkley Big Game monofilament. During spring, he fishes with a fresh piece of shad on a 6/0 or 8/0 Kahle hook, attached to a #3 three-way swivel with a 12-inch segment of 40-pound-test Big Game. He also uses a small float on the leader to help keep the bait off bottom. The depth of the water and speed of the current dictate the size of sinker he attaches to the other eye on the three-way swivel.
Whenever the river runs at a normal and consistent flow during April and May, Leach usually finds that piles of wood situated on a channel ledge are best. But heavy rains cause water levels to fluctuate a lot during April, May, and into early June. When the river rises, he's discovered the best fishing is in shallow-water wood piles near the shoreline.
Then as the water level drops, he fishes deeper water near the main channel. He gets more bites by placing the bait on the edge of the wood pile that borders the deepest water, which contradicts his rule of thumb about the importance of using current to carry the bait's scent into the heart of the wood pile.
Leach believes that Ohio's blue cats often seek sanctuary during daytime and vacate those spots at night. Because he fishes only during the day in spring, he spends many hours probing wood. If the wood fails him, he fishes sand- and rock humps, hot-water discharges, and holes below locks and dams.
John Jamison of Spring Hill, Kansas, has spent nearly two decades targeting channel catfish in Clinton and Hillsdale lakes in northeastern Kansas, and Smithville and Mark Twain lakes in northern Missouri — reservoirs with flooded timber.
Traditionally, the heat of the channel cat spawn is during the first week of June at these reservoirs, and many spawning sites are associated with wood. But several weeks before spawning, Jamison finds them lurking around laydowns in 2 to 4 feet of water, along the edge of a submerged river or creek channel in the upper portions of the reservoirs. In northeastern Kansas and northern Missouri, this phenomenon normally occurs in mid-May.
He targets primarily laydowns — where a tree has toppled into the water — because standing timber rarely provides channel cats with an adequate amount of shelter. There are exceptions, he says — occasionally, he finds a piece of standing timber with either a significant root system or a collection of limbs and brush situated around the base of its trunk, providing a sizeable sanctuary for channel cats.
Jamison uses an electric trolling motor to move slowly along the channel edge. He uses a Rippin' Lips 71„2-foot medium-action E-glass rod, and a closed-face spincasting reel spooled with 12€‘pound€‘test Big Game. To the line, he ties a 1/0 Rippin' Lips Tournament Grade Circle Hook sporting a chunk of congealed chicken blood. He prefers not to use a sinker. It takes a deft hand and special tackle to work with bloodbait and, from his experience, this spincasting outfit is ideal for delicately pitching a chunk of blood to the edge of a laydown.
Toward the end of May and as the spawning season approaches, Jamison finds that channel cats leave flooded trees along the river and creek channel edges and move to flooded timber on adjacent mudflats, where they continue to prefer laydowns rather than standing timber. He fishes mudflat laydowns the same way he fishes them on the channel edge, using a trolling motor to quietly move from laydown to laydown and his spincasting outfit to pitch the blood.
Some folks are surprised when he describes plying laydowns with blood and spincasting equipment as a big-fish tactic. But his many catches support his methods. He's landed several 20-pounders, and his wife lost a long-winded Donnybrook with a giant over 30 pounds at Hillsdale. Jamison and his partners have used these wood tactics to win tournaments at Mark Twain and Smithville with catches of giant channel cats.
*Ned Kehde, Lawrence Kansas, is an In-Fisherman Field Editor and frequent contributor on catfish topics.