Catfish in Tailwater Areas
January 30, 2015
It's no mystery why some of the best catfishing of the year often takes place in a tailwater area beginning soon now in the South and lasting well through June in the North. It's gluttony. And it's love. In that order. For a fat cat's penchant for chow is hardly affected by the lusty advances of even the most lovely catfish of the opposite persuasion — at least not until the very end, when nature cannot be ignored. Even then, though, even when a bully big male cat is guarding his brood in a hole in a cutbank, food's welcomed with a bite and a burp when it rolls close by.
For fishermen, the call is clear and so is the direction to head for good fishing. Tailwaters may be large or small, turbulent or gently flowing, shallow or deep, and — we need to interject at least once — dangerous or safe, depending on the size of the river and the subsequent size, construction, and purpose of the dam.
All tailwaters are dangerous in high water. The water immediately below the turbines of large hydro stations, though, where water boils for all the world like cauldrons from hell, holds a special terror. Lowhead dams, too, are always dangerous, particularly so because many of them don't look as if they are. But get sucked into the turbulence below and you can kiss your butt goodbye, even if you're wearing five life jackets.
Cats move upriver during high-water periods in spring. Say a river's free of ice by March. By April the water temperature is poking into the 50°F range, and cats are on the move. Hole by hole, run by run, shallow section by shallow section, cats move until they hit barriers. A barrier may be a particularly shallow portion of river. It may be a tremendous buildup of fallen timber stretching across a river. Eventually though, it usually is a dam.
A cat consolidation of sorts is going on, the opposite of what happens by late summer. Say a river's 50 miles long. By late summer, catfish relate to the deepest holes in the river; but those holes often are evenly spread throughout all 50 miles of river. By late spring, though, once cats have had a chance to move, most of them are somewhere in the upper third of the river.
Cats don't all group in tailwaters. But a lot of them at least make it there and stay for a while to feed before gradually moving back downriver to spawning areas, perhaps the same areas where they've spawned before. At any one time then, once plenty of water is moving during spring, the catfish population in a tailwater area is constantly being replenished by catfish arriving from downriver. And again, because of the supreme feeding conditions in most tailwaters, most cats at least stay for a while.
The amount of intelligent fishing pressure makes a difference in the number of available fish in smaller tailwaters. Once cats reach a tailwater, the consolidation continues as they are moved by current into prime feeding areas. There may be few such areas in smaller tailwaters, a dozen in larger tailwaters. Rarely, though, are there many prime areas. Of course, you need to recognize prime spots. We'll get to that.
Once the fish stationed in those areas are caught, it takes awhile for the spots to be replenished. During peak prespawn movements during spring, this may take several days. During low-water periods during summer, it takes a major rain to replenish spots. Periods between good fishing may last more than a month.
Once you learn to read current, you know exactly where fish might be. Then you need to probe those spots to see what kind of structure lies below. That usually determines how many cats can be there. Once you're anchored right, you'll catch most of the cats feeding there, which during June is most of the cats most of the time.
What are the fish eating? Anything they can get their face on. Particularly baitfish. In many situations, it's baitfish ground to fine palatable slabs by turbines; in other situations, baitfish disoriented by their ride through turbulent waters — also, dead baitfish or parts of larger deteriorated fish like carp washed from above, as well as baitfish drawn to the tailwater for the same reason the cats are there. Blue cats, channel cats, and even flatheads, which usually prefer livebait, take deadbait at this time.
During spring, therefore, it's rarely necessary to use anything but chunks of cutbait of a size appropriate for the cats being pursued. In small rivers, the best bait may be as simple as a freshly killed 4-inch baitfish. Cut off the tail so current doesn't catch the tail and spin the bait. Slash the sides of the baitfish a time or two to get those succulent juices flowing. Slip the hook through once near the tail of the bait, leaving the hook point exposed to ensure a good hookset. Use a #4 or #2 hook like the Eagle Claw 84 or the Mustad 92671. Simple, affordable, sturdy hooks. Lots of snags here, so buying boxes of a hundred saves money.
Cats up to about 10 pounds take a cut slab of baitfish (suckers and shad work great, but almost anything will do), something about 1 inch x 1 inch x 1/2 inch thick. Increase those dimensions by half an inch at most for bigger fish. Too big doesn't attract bigger fish holding in current. The cats eat almost any piece of fish that comes by. Too big becomes more difficult to present properly in current.
Again, leave the hook point exposed by slipping it once through the corner of the skin of the cutbait. A 2/0 hook's just right for fish from 6 to 10 pounds or so. For bigger fish, go with a 3/0 hook. Sharpen hooks with a file and reduce the barb to make sure the hook sets easily. Eventually, when the biggest flatheads likely switch to livebaits, you'll need heavier rigging. Many of the rigs outlined in the Top Presentations section of this guide apply.
Weight your bait with a bell sinker, preferably the kind called a bass'‘casting sinker, which usually has a swivel on top. Egg sinkers don't work well because they don't hold bottom; you end up with twice as many snags. There's no way to completely eliminate snags, though, so make your own sinkers, or at least buy in bulk. Order sinkers weighing 1 ounce for small waters, 2 through 5 ounces for most waters, and 8 ounces for turbulent deeper waters.
One of the biggest mistakes catmen make is worrying about the length of leader between the hook and sinker. This is needless worry because no leader is necessary. Let the sinker slide right up against the hook. The resulting rig looks, casts, and fishes almost like a leadhead jig — exactly what you want. Too much leader causes a loss of feel, lack of control, and subsequently snags. If the swivel eye on top of the sinker is so big that the eye of your hook sticks, use a bead to cushion this connection.
Use current to move this rig along the bottom. If your rig's just heavy enough and you hold your line just tight enough to stay in constant contact with current, your rig moves through prime current spots so you can feel everything down there. Lift the rig over rocks and slide it through sand and gravel pockets. Snags are minimized, while presentation is maximized.
The most important part of this process, though, is the acquired ability to judge more than bottom content. Bottom content is secondary to current in determining where fish are. Current's the key, and you can use this rig to judge current conditions. Specifically, first look for and then feel for current tunnels.
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Current edges are formed (1) where current flows moving in opposing directions meet, and (2) where current flows moving at different speeds and consisting of different volumes of water meet. Current tunnels are formed near bottom along current edges or at the rear or tailout of holes gouged by the turbulence of the tailwater. The combination of different currents opposing each other where they meet the bottom, which further tends to reduce current, creates an area of relative calm in turbulent water. Catfish move easily through these tunnels, and food that washes into these areas moves slowly through them, easily accessible to the catfish holding there.
These tunnels may be either flat or relatively indistinct in shape, or oval and much like a tunnel. The flat tunnels usually form along current breaklines where currents moving in opposite directions meet. The circular tunnels form where currents are moving the same direction at different speeds and with different volumes of water. Most current areas usually contain both kinds of tunnels in the same area.
The obvious spot for circular tunnels is immediately below the dam. If a pillar separates one lock from another, and if one lock is running water and the adjacent lock isn't, the pillar creates a current edge where a large volume of water crushes and runs over a lesser volume of water moving in the same direction.
Again, be careful here. In most major dam areas, so much water is running or it's so deep that the area's impossible to safely fish. Lowhead dams don't, for the most part, have many pillars. Stay away from lowhead dams. And stay away from areas of massive turbulence. It's dangerous to anchor in some situations, too. Ask folks who know about local conditions. And when in doubt, don't anchor.
To fish through these current tunnels, anchor in the slower water on one side of the most turbulent water, as close as possible to the head of the current edge. Cast your bait to the head of the current edge, usually just behind a pillar, and tighten your line to the bait. The objective is to locate the head of the current tunnel and to keep your bait anchored there, or at least move your bait through the current tunnel as slowly as possible. Get your bait in a tunnel and you'll catch catfish.
Identifying the exact location and length of current tunnels is dependent on your ability to feel the tunnel with your rig. Cast to the crease at the head of the current break. As your rig falls to the bottom, it's buffeted by current. As your bait hits bottom, it's surrounded by slower-moving water. All the water along the bottom is moving slower than the water above. You can do better, though. Probe for the tunnel, the area of relative calm in the storm.
Holding your rod tip at about 2 o'clock, tighten your line to your rig lying on the bottom. Your sinker should be just heavy enough so turbulent water sweeping against most of your line drags your bait slowly along the bottom. Hit a current tunnel and your bait stops, at least momentarily. The tunnel feels different. Sometimes your bait will anchor right where it first hits the tunnel. Other times, the boat isn't anchored in perfect position and the bait is dragged along the edge of the tunnel or out of the tunnel. With experience, you'll be able to judge what's happening.
Hit the head of the tunnel, keep your bait there for two minutes, and you'll feel the solid cawonk! of a cat. Drop your rod tip a foot or two toward the cat as he begins to move away, and then set. Big cats don't miss when a bait's in a tunnel. And little cats don't dare fin where monsters tread.
Chances are several cats are working each tunnel. They move forward through the tunnel until they hit the head of the tunnel, then sweep back to the area near the end of the tunnel and work forward again. I picture the tail of a tunnel waggling around like the bottom of the cone of a tornado. Most tunnels are no more than 15 to 20 feet long. The farther back in a tunnel your bait is, the more turbulent the water and the more difficult for cats to find your bait.
Pancake tunnels are most common. They lie along current breaks where currents moving in opposite directions meet. These can be fished from a boat or from shore, using the same anchored bait described before. A float may also be helpful in moving a bait along or through these flatter and longer tunnels. Catfish aren't so likely to always lie at the head of these tunnels, so it takes longer for fish to find your bait. Shouldn't take longer than 10 minutes in a spot, though. Fish along areas and move on — or at least try a different portion of a current area.
Additional weight is necessary for fishing from shore. Often you must deal with the disadvantage of a long cast to a current break and subsequently lots of current billowing your line and dragging the sinker rig out of position. A long rod helps, at least a 71â„2-foot flippin' stick, but better is an 11-foot surf-casting rod. Also, use the lightest line you can get away with, usually 12-pound test on small waters, 14 or 17 on most waters, and 20 to 30 for heavy-duty work.
Hold the rod tip high to minimize the amount of line in the water. Again, don't ever keep your bait in the same spot for long. Let it settle, let it drag, get it to hold. Wait no more than five minutes. Move the bait again to be sure you're searching for cats, and to be sure your bait hasn't tumbled into a crevice where cats can't find it. Yes, you'll lose rigs. This is the most expensive part of catfishing.
In large and turbulent tailwaters like those found behind TVA dams and behind the locks on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, few rigs hold bottom unless breakaway rigging is used. Such rigging usually consists of a light dropline and sinker that snags bottom as the bait drifts along. A cat takes the bait and the drop rigging breaks, which frees the catfish to fight without weight on the line connected to the angler.
Another approach is to use a boat to run up into the fast water. Stop the boat along a current crease and let the current get the boat moving at the same speed as the current, before dropping your bait vertically to the bottom. Use your motor to keep the boat moving just fast enough to keep your bait vertical below the boat. Again, you're moving the bait along in the slower water on bottom.
Some of the hottest territory in the tailwater is at the tailout of the hole gouged immediately below the dam. When your bait hits this area, it slows even more as it enters the tunnel that runs along the drop-off lip coming up from the deep water in the hole. This tunnel runs the length of the rear of the hole. But there's no way to fish it perpendicular to current. You can only drag baits through the area on your way drifting downriver. Once your bait's swept up onto the flat at the end of the tailout hole, reel up, motor back to the end of the turbulence, and begin again.
These basic principles apply to situations found in every tailwater, but other tactics are bound to develop, given the peculiarities of each tailwater. Always be willing to try what's working locally. But don't be afraid to buck the status quo.