From Iowa to Texas, savvy anglers have charted the seasonal movement patterns of catfish, noting how strongly submerged structure such as river and creek channels and roadbeds affect their location. In some cases, these bottom features are extremely subtle.
On Saylorville Reservoir on the Des Moines River in central Iowa, Matt Davis, owner of Whisker Seeker Tackle, routinely creates waypoints on every spot where he catches channel cats during his research and development of Whisker Seeker products. "One of the spots where we've caught lots of catfish doesn't make sense according to contours on a recent map card," he says. "It's about the size of a football field, on a big flat at the north end of Saylorville. The map shows no structure, and sonar doesn't reveal any noteworthy structure, yet catfish consistently relate to something down there.
"It didn't make sense so I bought an older map card on eBay and compared it. With the old card, my Humminbird showed an outside bend in the old river channel there. The channel is silted in now, so it isn't shown on the new card and it doesn't show on sonar, but catfish still relate to where the channel used to be."
Something similar happened to Texas Guide Chad Ferguson. He finds fish associated with the location of old creek channels, river channels, and roadbeds that now are silted in. "In one case I know exactly where an old roadbed is that's consistently good for catfish runs through shallow water," Ferguson says. "It's silted in and there's no indication of it on sonar, but I catch lots of catfish over it. I even took off my shoes and waded around, trying to feel if there was a difference in the texture over the top of the roadbed compared to the ditches on the side. I couldn't feel any difference, but there's something there that catfish sense and it makes them favor that area. I've frequently put baits on top of the roadbed and on either side of where that road used to be. Baits on top of the road out-fished those on the sides by 3-to-1 or better."
If catfish associate so strongly with submerged structure invisible to sophisticated electronics and bare feet, imagine how closely they cling to palpable, visible submerged structure such as discrete river channels, field terraces, house foundations, or pipelines.
"In one lake," Ferguson continues, "a town installed a water supply intake out in the lake in deep water. They laid a pipe from shore to the intake across the bottom. Since it's been added, I catch lots of catfish there. Fish follow that pipeline when they move from deep to shallow water or vice versa. In some seasons, they make that sort of move daily."
Channel catfish are a mobile species. Daily movements seem related to light levels and prey location, while seasonal shifts are related to changes in water temperature and day length. Long ago, In-Fisherman categorized the Calendar Periods of fish activity, from Prespawn through Spawn, Postspawn, Summer Peak, and Coldwater periods. For cats, transitions between those periods often involve significant location shifts within a lake or river system. The distance traveled during those transitions may be a minor move or a major migration, depending on catfish species, water body, and geographic location.
Blue catfish are famed for long seasonal migrations. In a study of radio-tagged blues in Lake Texoma, most monitored fish migrated from the reservoir up the Red River each spring, spent the summer upriver, then returned downstream each autumn. Below Wheeler Dam in Alabama, blue cats also were mobile, traveling dozens or even hundreds of miles downriver during seasonal migrations.
In studies in both Iowa and Missouri, flathead catfish annually migrated each fall from summer haunts to deep, low-current wintering holes. Each spring, they left the wintering holes and moved to specific areas on tributaries to spawn. Afterward, they moved from spawning areas to locations within those rivers to spend the summer. And in radio-telemetry studies in Iowa, channel exhibited similar seasonal movements and site-loyalty. Given the extent of seasonal and daily movements of all three species, anglers who understand when and where catfish move, and who target those specific pathways, have an advantage over those who cast baits and hope a catfish finds them.
"Blue catfish here in Wheeler Lake on the Tennessee River use submerged river and creek channels like humans use roads," says Guide Jason Bridges. "The main river channel is the catfish equivalent of an interstate highway and feeder creek channels are like secondary roads. When fish make major moves in the spring and fall, they follow the main channel. When they're in their summer or winter locations, they don't travel as far every day, but use those creek channels to move between feeding areas."
Bridges likens sunken trees lodged against the bank of a submerged river channel or creek channel to rest areas where traveling catfish congregate to rest and feed. "If I'm following a channel on my electronics and spot a big tree or some other major object on the edge of the channel, I create a waypoint," he says. "That spot is always worth fishing." Other spots that immediately earn waypoints are intersections where an old creek channel meets the main channel. "Intersections are prime real estate. Anchor, drift over it, or slow-troll over it. Fish these spots thoroughly."
Any irregularity in bottom topography represents a potential pathway for catfish. "Old field terraces may only be a foot or two higher than surrounding bottom, but that's enough and fish follow them as they move," Bridges says. "Terraces and old fencerows often had trees or brush in them, and that sort of cover makes it even more attractive to catfish."
The depth or height of bottom irregularities isn't as important as their variation from average depth in a reservoir. Ten years ago, Mark Eby of Adel, Iowa, discovered that fact on the upper end of Saylorville Lake. "We can generally catch channel cats over the old river channel at the upper end of Saylorville, but one April we stumbled on a new strategy that worked extremely well," he says. "Over the years, during low water, a lot of intertwined, submerged channels have developed on big flats at the upper end of this reservoir. Cuts may be only a foot or so deeper than the surrounding flat, but that's apparently a big difference to channel cats.
"That particular April, we had heavy rains upstream, but the Corps of Engineers kept the gates on the dam open, so a lot of water moved across the big flat at the upper end. You could see the general movement pattern of current across that big flat, with the submerged channels running slightly faster. They had good current and that's where the channel cats were. Once we'd find a channel, it was nothing to catch a dozen 2- to 5-pound channel cats in a couple hours after work. In places it was so shallow we had the motor up and used a push pole.
"The attraction seemed to be the current and the change in depth in those channels, even though it was a drop of only 1 or 2 feet. I was surprised that catfish were up on that flat so early in April, but that pattern held all spring. It taught me that catfish pay close attention to even minor changes in bottom topography."
It can be a challenge to decipher the best way to fish underwater catfish highways, whether they're subtle channels on shallow flats, radical drop-offs into deep cuts, or invisible channels in silted-in reservoirs. Tom Hankins, a retired guide in Indiana, prefers to fish deeper structure by moving back and forth across it.
"I like to slow-troll cutbait just off bottom and zig-zag back and forth across any drop-off into a channel when I'm fishing for channel cats," Hankins says. He slow-trolls at between .5 and 1.2 mph with Whisker Seeker catfish lures loaded with fresh-cut shad. "They almost always bite as the bait drops off the edge. The trick is to keep enough line behind the boat so the bait can fall straight down the break to the bottom. When slow-trolling, if you have the correct weight and enough line behind the boat, the bait has time to drift down the face of a drop-off, so you don't drag it over fish that are suspended below the lip of a drop-off or on the bottom."
On the Tennessee River, Bridges often anchors on key spots associated with submerged channels. Based on years of experience there and conditions on a particular day, he selects a specific spot along a channel, anchors over the edge of the drop-off, and positions baits across the deep-water side of the drop, on its edge, and also along the top of the drop.
"Whichever line gets bit tells me where blues are feeding that day," he says. "Sometimes they're on the flat beside the drop-off, sometimes they're right on the edge, sometimes they're at the base of the drop, and sometimes they're out in deep water toward the middle of the old channel. On Wheeler Lake, it's important to fish the river current, not the wind direction on the surface. At Wheeler there's always at least a little current. Even if a west wind is blowing straight up the lake, I position my boat and fish the current that's flowing east because current generally trumps wave action for these deep fish."
Current is part of life for river fishermen, and it informs anglers where to fish on a given day. Red River of the North Guide Brad Durick has learned that current in association with submerged "highways" is key to consistent catches on the Red. In his book, Cracking the Channel Catfish Code, he explains how advanced electronics helped him decipher that river's underwater mysteries.
He discovered that major holes on outside bends in rivers often are connected by channels that catfish follow when traveling between holes. He says there's often a major channel in the middle of the river that parallels the bend in the river, with a shallower secondary channel close to the base of a cutbank. These channels may be only a couple feet wide and a foot deeper than the river bottom, but the difference is enough to create a path catfish follow.
Durick mirrors Bridges' tactics on reservoirs by positioning his boat over channels along the river bottom and spreading baits across the width of the channel. The tactic is especially effective in early morning or late afternoon, when catfish typically move to or from their deep midday lairs.
The daily movement of catfish in rivers and lakes is often mistakenly assumed to be solely a move from nighttime feeding grounds to daytime resting areas. Catfish feed throughout the day; diurnal movements are more often related to light penetration than changes in feeding behavior. Veteran anglers know that on cloudy days catfish often stay in rather shallow feeding areas. On bright days, Hankins follows catfish from shallow areas where they feed at dawn to deeper feeding areas toward midday. "They feed all day," Hankins says. "The key is to move with them. Around midday during summer, if I can find an old creek channel on a flat that's 10 to 15 feet deep, I'm pretty sure I'm going to catch catfish."
Since Bridge's specialty is trophy blue cats, he's learned that while targeting catfish highways is key to catching fish, the biggest blues often come when he fishes along those pathways rather than right on top of them. "If I'm working a submerged channel and marking a lot of baitfish and some big fish I know are blues, I pull off to the side," he says. "The biggest blues aren't in the middle of the feeding frenzy.
"I think the 50- and 60-pounders let the 10- to 20-pounders do all the work. The big boys stay out about 100 yards and pick off stragglers. The 70-plus-pounders don't have to work hard to feed. They're big enough so they can eat about anything they want — drum, carp, stripers — so they loaf around the edges and take whatever comes their way. The easier it is, the better they like it."
Whether you're targeting blue catfish so big they can snack on 10-pound drum, or focusing on nocturnal flatheads, tracking channel cats on their daily travels, the key is to fish along the paths they follow. Sometimes those paths are as obvious as a 10-foot channel on a topo map or down-scanning sonar. Or they can be as mysterious and subtle as a submerged roadbed or channel buried in silt. Either way, catfish know and use those paths. So do successful catfish anglers. –
*Dan Anderson, Bouton, Iowa, is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications. Guide contacts: Chad Ferguson, txcatfishguide.com; Jeff Bridges, -wheelercatsguideservice.com; Brad Durick, redrivercatfish.com.