Catfish Shore Habitat
June 05, 2014
Forget the heavy tackle and deep water and try a different approach for a change. You might be surprised how many catfish are less than a cane pole distance from shore.
"I'd like it better if the waves were washing against the bank," Guide Phil King said. "That's when conditions are just right, plus you don't have to work as hard to stay positioned." Scarcely had he made the comment when he added, "But I'll bet that wasn't a wave that just pulled the bobber under."
After a quick hookset, he was attached to a frisky channel catfish that had trouble making up its mind whether to roll in the line or run under the boat. The 2-pounder wound up flopping in the livewell despite its best efforts.
King, a 3-time winner of the big-fish award at the National Catfish Derby looped another wad of nightcrawlers onto the hook prior to wiping his hands and making another cast. Having taken the prize that many times in five tries, he obviously knows something about collecting lunkers, but this time he was after eating-size cats. The only problem, if such indeed it could be called a problem, was keeping bigger fish away.
"The quality of fish on Pickwick Lake has steadily improved in recent years" King said. "Part of the reason is a change in commercial fishing practices. Most buyers don't want big fish, so more of the heavyweights survive, spawn, and keep growing. During the spawning season when the fish move onto these rock faces you can have a ball. The frequency of the bites is one reason that anything over four pounds is going to be turned back, plus the big ones don't taste as good as smaller fish."
King's red and white bobber disappeared again, and I grabbed for the camera. As I did, my Thill float, which handles waves well, shot out of sight. Grinning broadly, my companion cranked as he explained that we had just hit one of the catfish apartment complexes that often yield multiple hits.
"This stretch of bank has a combination of vertical cracks and layered limestone rocks that form a series of small ledges, many of which are undercut," King said. "Catfish use both for spawning sites. With so many hideaways, it just stands to reason that the fish pile up here and nest side by side. Apparently they don't feel crowded or feel the need to protect their selected spot from other catfish. Predators or other threats can approach only from one direction."
King went on to explain that many impoundments, especially older ones, have lost much of their woody cover such as logs, stump fields, and root clusters, which have traditionally been catfish spawning strongholds. Other waters never supported this kind of cover, though they still sustain healthy catfish populations. Being adaptable creatures, the various members of the catfish family simply use whatever is available.
"The more vertical a cracked or broken bank, the better the odds that it will hold fish," King said. "But a bank doesn't have to be tall to be effective. The place where we stuck the double barely sticks above water. It just happens to drop off sharply into deeper water. Early in their movement onto these rocks the fish often are 8 to 10 feet deep. I usually toss the bait tight, then let it fall with as little weight as possible for a really slow sink. Later, as the fish get more active, one occasionally will come out of a hole or crack to grab a bait.
Since these fish stick close to their nesting location, it also follows that your bait needs to stay as close to the vertical face as possible," King said. At a lot of places along this stretch, your bobber practically has to run against the rocks to be in the right drift path. That's one reason that I like a wind blowing onshore, plus the motion probably stirs up food that the fish can pick off as it sinks."
This was a good time to ask about bait selection. Since King commonly uses cut shad or shad minnows when he's chasing lunkers in or out of competition, his use of nightcrawlers was surprising.
"Maybe the wave action has something to do with it, but these fish, especially the smaller ones that we're after, show a marked preference for crawlers and crickets," King says. "Grasshoppers are good if you want to take the time and trouble to collect enough for a day on the water. Shad minnows, shiners, cutbait, even small sunfish where they're legal for bait will catch cats. You just get fewer hits and bigger cats, and I'd hate to be a juvenile fish of any kind around here when the sun goes down. If you're just out for fun, rig two rods and fish one each way. Problem is, when you pass through one of the super holes, you wind up with fish on both rigs at the same time."
Dipbaits, whether homemade or commercial, do not figure into King's equation. Since it's primarily a driftfishing technique using current, wind, and a trolling motor when necessary, scent usually is less important than sight.
"Most of the fish caught are channels, but the presence of a fair number of flathead cats in the area also plays a part in that decision," King said. "If the bait's not alive and wiggling, flatheads usually won't eat it. Because of the slow, constant motion as your boat moves along the rocks, the fish have only a small window of opportunity, and it seems to me that a lively bait of any kind offers a stronger attraction than something that smells strong but doesn't move. In muddy or murky water, that could be different. Here the visibility normally is good and most strikes are generated by what the fish sees rather than what it smells. I'm not saying that you can't hedge your bet by using a scent additive. After all, your bait is drifting with the current, and a little whiff of the buffet about to arrive can't hurt."
The rods that King uses for this type of catfishing differ substantially from the stiff sticks and big-spooled reels he uses when pursuing the giants. Any decent medium-power blank will work, though he prefers a rod at least seven feet long to make casting a float easier, My choice of an 8-foot steelhead spinning outfit and 12-pound-test line also met with his approval.
"Longer rods let you make overhead casts safely rather than trying to sidearm an unwieldy combination of bait and bobber," King said. "They also give your casts a nice vertical arc, and when you're on target, your bait drops right down the face you're trying to fish. It's just another tool for keeping things as close to the rocks as possible. Don't make the mistake of thinking that the contours down below are the same as those above. Rocks that stick out form ledges, and the fish spend most of their time under them rather than outside or right at the edge. It doesn't matter how tempting your offering looks if it's too far away to tempt a fish that might not be hungry to begin with. Put it right on their noses, and they'll take an easy meal even if they don't have much of an appetite.
"Because this is mainly open-water fishing and you seldom have to worry about forcing a big one to come up off the bottom, this is one of the most enjoyable catfishing experiences. Even that skinny broomstick of yours will do the job if you're patient enough to fight things out."
Phil was aware that the "skinny broomstick" had whipped a 28-pound blue only a few days earlier when I was on the lake alone. To accomplish that feat, though, your reel must have a good, smooth drag that can handle powerful runs. Also, despite the relatively light tackle, do not make the mistake of using light-wire hooks that are more appropriate for crappies. Premium, heavy-wire hooks from 1/0 to 4/0 are more appropriate since they resist bending and give you a chance to land an occasional lunker, even if you just want small ones for the table.
Having amassed enough fish to warrant heating fresh oil in the cooking pot, I pressed King into revealing the details of his approach. There are plenty of waters around the country where this type of fishing is either unknown or nearly so. How would he handle a lake he'd never seen before?
"First of all, I'd want a lake map to save a lengthy inspection tour," King explained. "A quick check should come up with a few places where you could find vertical banks, and where these appear close to a major channel drop-off would be likely starting places. Early in the spawning season, I'd look for a south-facing bank where the rocks and adjacent water warm quicker. An ideal situation would go something like this: a bend in a steep, broken bank with a channel drop close by, some degree of current to keep your baits moving naturally like natural forage, and a light to moderate onshore wind.
"With these factors in place, you can get to work. Depth selection could be harder to establish, so you need to experiment. Using a two-hook rig with the baits a couple feet apart is one way, or you can just use a bobber that lets you make occasional adjustments. It's not uncommon to find plenty of fish on Pickwick between two and four feet deep during the peak Spawn Period. On other lakes, especially clear lakes that allow a lot of light penetration you may have to go deeper. That requires the use of a slipfloat in many cases, which usually isn't required where I do most of my fishing. Other factors to consider are water temperature and whether or not the fish were actively spawning, in prespawn or postspawn mode, and the catfish species involved. My holes often have channels, which are the most common; blues, and flatheads are close to one another. Only now and then does changing depth make a difference in what is caught.
"Here's something else I find interesting: Common knowledge might seem to indicate that the big fish will be deeper than smaller specimens, but this isn't necessarily the case. If a prime spawning ledge or crack is five feet down with other less desirable spots below, a lunker claims the best spot regardless of depth. A distinct pecking order is established in most cases. Find a good fish at a certain place this season, and you can just about plan on finding others there later. At some of my favorite spots, I know that I'm going to get my bobber sunk even before I cast. A few are so predictable that it's natural to start thinking that I should get a small one here, a big one next, then another small one, and so on."
The best fishing times also are predictable. According to King, the peak of the spawn usually hits on or close to May 15 on his waters.
"The fish start moving in and out of the rocks in late April when the water temperature creeps above 60°F," King says. "By the time it hits 70°F, they will be getting serious about things, and by the middle of May it's normally 75°F or so. This is prime time and will remain good for the better part of a month. Spawning activity on the rocks can drag on through most of June.
"On Pickwick this also is helped by the lake level being stabilized near summer pool elevation by this time. Fluctuating water levels, which are common during the spring rainy season, push the cats back toward the deeper channel edges where conventional bottom-fishing techniques are required. A slow rise is not a problem, but falling water or a rapid change of any kind tends to spoil the bite."
For those who let spring turkey hunting, yard work, or their jobs get in the way of fishing for spawning catfish, King advises to try your luck in fall and winter. The cats come back to gorge on young-of-the-year baitfish. Bring your shiner bucket this time, but remember that it may not be a skillet fish that you encounter. Isn't that a frightening thought?