August 31, 2020
When it comes to fishing in floodwaters, there seems to be two types of anglers: those who view floods the same way they regard a Friday night cold front, and those who grin and hope for more rain.
“I love floodwaters,” says guide Jeff Faulkenberry, who specializes in catching the big blue catfish of Truman Lake in Missouri. “Sure, the more water there is, the more spread out the fish are, but it’s like deer hunting. Whether you’re hunting a 20-acre field or a 200-acre field, you focus on the pinch points, the things that concentrate the deer. It’s the same with catfish. Don’t focus on all the extra water, focus on the pinch points where the cats are.”
Many anglers target blues suspended in deep water and are challenged when high waters increase the water column over their favorite spots. Faulkenberry doesn’t worry about the extra depth due to flooding; his focus is usually on relatively shallow water.
“I guided around 280 trips last year and on 90 percent of them I fished 10 feet or shallower,” he says. “My favored depth for blues is 2 to 8 feet. I target shallow water because the fish there are more aggressive than in deep water.”
“Truman was high and flooded a lot last year,” he says. “We fished a ton of flooded corn and bean fields last fall. On one trip we were hammering blues around a flooded barn, fishing over submerged feed bunks where the cats were rummaging around for flooded cattle feed. They weren’t giants—15- to 20-pounders—but we caught a ton of them in as little as 2 feet of water.”
Faulkenberry patrols a field, side-scanning to identify pinch points and structure or schools of feeding blues. Once he finds them, he anchors and casts to them with his Jeff Faulkenberry-Signature 7-foot 8-inch medium-heavy and heavy-action rods manufactured by Ozark Rods. He prefers Okuma XPD baitcasting reels in 30-size, spooled with Berkley ProSpec Chrome monofilament line.
“I like the ‘give’ in monofilament,” he says, “especially when we’re dealing with big blues up close to the boat and with clients who aren’t experienced with big fish up close like that.”
He favors Santee-Cooper rigs with equal-length droppers to a 3- or 4-ounce weight and 8/0 or 10/0 Team Catfish Double Action hooks. Fresh cutbait is mandatory. “It doesn’t matter if you’re fishing flooded fields or fishing the reservoir at normal pool, you need fresh cutbait,” he says. “It can be shad, bluegill, perch, or whatever you can find, but it has to be fresh.”
Faulkenberry also targets flooded tributaries. The Grand River is a primary tributary to Truman Lake, and its mouth is on his list of high-water hotspots. “There’s a railroad trestle where the Grand comes into the lake,” he says. “At that bridge, the river goes from 50 yards wide to open lake in a short distance. It’s an area where there’s a seam and eddy, where the river’s current bumps into the lake’s water. That’s the place to fish.”
Red River of the North
That’s sometimes the strategy of renowned guide Brad Durick on the Red River in North Dakota. When the Red is high and rolling, he sometimes moves into tributaries in search of magical spots where opposing currents meet.
“The river pushes upstream into tributaries as it rises so it almost looks like the tributary is flowing backward,” he says. “There have been times when we went upstream until we found the spot where the current moving down the tributary disappears against the water moving up from the big river. One time we went up a 40-foot wide creek, found that spot where the currents met, and absolutely clobbered channel catfish. Big ones. It was such a little creek that the trees were canopied over the boat so low that we had to cast sidearm to avoid tangling in the branches.”
When the Red River approaches flood stage, authorities close local boat ramps. Prior to that, Durick focuses on carefully developed high-water strategies to catch catfish outlined in his book Cracking The Channel Catfish Code. One of our sport’s most analytical experts, Durick has identified distinct patterns that define where he fishes when the Red gets rowdy. He visualizes a bank-full river as three distinct rivers. The main channel is U-shaped with the deepest water and fastest current. From the edges of that main channel to each of the banks are what he calls “secondary rivers.”
In periods of high water there often is a distinct downstream-pointing “V” visible in the current on the surface of rivers. That V designates the river’s main channel, what hydrologists call the river’s “thalweg,” identifying the fastest part of the current over the deepest areas in the river.
“I look upstream, identify that V, and visualize where the main channel is,” he says. “During high water I focus on the two secondary rivers on the sides between the main channel and the bank. The current is slower in those secondaries, and the catfish are in that slower current, where holes and logjams provide structure and current breaks for the cats.
“A lot of times they’re right up tight against the cutbanks, in the little seams between the slower current and the back eddies flowing right along the bank. Once you learn to identify those seams in the secondaries on the sides of the main channel, you can clobber catfish.”
Captain Terry Rogers of Paducah, Kentucky, runs Hooked On Cats guide service at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. He also fishes the nearby Cumberland and Tennessee rivers. He views high waters as an opportunity to catch more and bigger catfish.
“Last year, the rivers stayed high longer than they have for decades, and it was one of my best years ever,” he says. His clients frequently caught dozens of blue cats per trip, many up to 50 pounds.
Rogers often targets wing dams when the rivers are high, especially on the Mississippi. He has a milk run of favorite wing dams where he knows high water has created scour holes on the downstream side where those wing dams meet the shoreline.
“Those big washouts have never let me down when the river’s high,” he says. “I like to deadstick (drifting with rods in rod holders) between the wing dams. There are big, shallow sand- and mudbars between wing dams, out of the main current. Blue cats roam there, feeding. I use my trolling motor to drift my boat at about half the current speed. I run Carolina rigs on 70-pound-test Extreme braided line with a 6- to 8-ounce weight on a sinker slide to protect the line, tied to a barrel swivel. I have a 14- to 16-inch leader of 50-pound-test Berkley Big Game mono tied between the swivel and an 8/0 Rippin Lips circle hook baited with freshcut skipjack—sometimes gizzard shad or threadfin shad.”
Once he has his trolling motor adjusted to keep his boat speed at half the current’s speed, he drops his baits to the bottom, bounces them once or twice to confirm depth, puts his 7-foot 6-inch Rippin Lips medium-heavy rods in rod holders, then cranks the reels a few turns to bring the baits 3 to 4 feet off the bottom.
“That gives me enough clearance to drift baits over rocks or junk on the bottom,” he says. “I watch my sonar and raise or lower the baits as I pass over humps or drop-offs. I generally target two areas when I’m deadsticking. Either ledges or drop-offs close to the bank that create areas of reduced current, or long, sloping sand and mud banks on inside bends. If I’m fishing a ledge parallel to a cutbank, I keep my baits along the base of that ledge. If I’m fishing an inside bend, I run my baits along the base of little ledges or into drop-offs that stairstep down to the deeper water.”
More River Advice
Captain Ben Goebel, owner of River City Catfishing, a guide service based in Mt. Vernon, Indiana, agrees that the sloping mud- and sandbars on inside river bends are catfish hotspots during high water. There you’ll find a series of stairstep ledges, sometimes holes that the river carved.
“The cats feed ‘up’ along those ledges as the river rises,” he says. “At crest, they can be right in the flooded willows along the water’s edge, but normally they’re a little deeper along those ledges and holes that are in 15 to 20 feet of water on the inside bend. They’re there because the current is reduced on that inside bend, and there’s all sorts of food washing into that area. Sometimes the main channel will be rolling at 4 or more miles an hour, but the current across that inside bend is barely enough to get my boat drifting so I can fish.
“We caught an 85-pounder last year on the top side of an inside bend, laying along a ledge where I wouldn’t even be fishing at normal water levels. People think you have to fish the deep holes in the Ohio and Mississippi to catch big blues, but I catch as many in 25 to 30 feet as I do out in 40 or 55 feet of water.”
Goebel likes to bump baits for blues, whether he’s targeting shallow water during floods, or deeper holes and ledges during normal flows. Some think bumping is difficult for clients to learn, but Goebel says casual anglers can learn the technique and catch more fish because of it.
“It takes an hour or so for a beginner to learn bumping,” he says. “But once they learn how the bottom feels; once they catch their first fish, then it’s game-on. Most of my repeat customers ask to bump the next time they come because they feel more involved with the fishing rather than sitting and watching a rod in a rod holder. I tell them at the outset, ‘You will catch fish if we bump, and you will be tired at the end of the day,’ because it’s definitely more work. But at the end of the trip they always seem to think it’s the most enjoyable way to fish.”
Goeble’s customers bump with 7-foot 6-inch medium-heavy B’n’M bumping rods he favors for the sensitivity. Daiwa Lexa 300- and 400-size baitcasting reels carry 80-pound braided Slime Line tied to a rolling T-swivel that reduces line twist. His three-way rig has a 15-inch-long 80-pound-test Slime Line dropper, with equal-length dropper lines to a 3- or 4-ounce weight and 8/0 to 10/0 Backstabber hooks from Hooker’s Terminal Tackle.
Goebel, Rogers, and Durick agree there is a simple way to tell if you’re fishing in the right spots when rivers are high, wide, and on the verge of “wild.” “If you’re fishing and your line keeps getting fouled with line-trash—grass and twigs and floating junk—you’re in the wrong spot,” Roger says. “Move to where there’s less current and less trash. Catfish aren’t going to be where there’s strong current beating them with twigs and all the junk that comes downstream. You want to be where the catfish are, so look for areas of reduced current.”
A final tip for when rivers and reservoirs have crested and are receding toward their normal shorelines: target paths that drain floodwaters back to the main channel. “After the crest, it’s a great time to be at the mouth of ditches or gullies where flooded areas are draining back into a lake or river,” Rogers says. “All the cats that were spread out across the flooded areas pass through those bottlenecks. You’ll be sitting on a parade of catfish heading back to deep water. Those spots are best right after the crest, because they start moving out of those flooded areas as soon as they feel the change.”
*Dan Anderson is a veteran freelance writer who writes extensively about catfish in In-Fisherman magazine and this annual Catfish In-Sider Guide. Guide contacts: Brad Durick, redrivercatfishing.com, 701/739-5808; Capt. Terry Rogers, hookedoncats.net, 270/210-4308; Capt. Ben Goebel, rivercitycatfishing.com, 812/568-8716; Jeff Faulkenberry, 660/351-5420, Jeff Faulkenberry Outdoors on Facebook.