Channel Catfish in Reservoirs
Channel cats flourish in reservoirs, from massive flowing systems such as Wheeler Lake on the Tennessee River, to irrigation reservoirs in Nebraska, flood-control reservoirs in Texas, and numerous smaller impoundments across the catfish belt. Put out a wad of nightcrawlers or a dollup of commercial catfish bait in nearly any reservoir and you eventually catch a channel cat. The challenge is catching lots of them, or bigger-than-average fish. That’s when certain tactics, baits, and tackle make the difference.
Lincoln, Nebraska’s Stan Liberty wins tournaments and catches channel cats from small to medium-size reservoirs in Nebraska, Kansas, and nearby states. He mixes day-fishing with night-fishing, and sometimes includes shore-fishing tactics when fishing from his boat.
“Early in the year, from ice-out till just before catfish around here spawn in June, it’s a shallow-water bite,” Liberty says. “Channel cats are along shallow shorelines during the day, in 3 feet of water or less, looking for warmer water and feeding on winterkilled baitfish and whatever they can find. They associate with wood or bottom structure. I look for a laydown along the shore or big tree branches that are laying on the bottom.
“That time of year, I anchor and cast toward shore or whatever structure I find. I use gizzard shad guts I buy by the case from Yammer and Sons Bait Company in Alabama. Ordering in bulk, I can get them for half the price I can buy them locally. They come frozen in Mason jars. Channel cats love them. The gizzards are tough, so I hook the gizzard then loop the entrails around the hook, maybe pin the end on the tip of the hook. They’re fantastic bait when I’m anchoring, but don’t work as well later in the year when I drag baits because they don’t stay on a moving hook very well.”
When anchored, he slips a 1- to 1½-ounce egg sinker onto 60- to 65-pound-test PowerPro Hi-Vis braided mainline, then pinches a split shot 12 to 16 inches above a 6/0 to 7/0 Gamakatsu circle hook. The split shot pegs the sinker away from the hook.
“You can’t forcefully cast shad guts and you can’t move them around after you cast them or they come off the hook,” he says. “I lob it out to where I want it and never move the bait. I may bring in a little line to keep a tight line, but I never move the bait on the bottom. I like hi-vis line when I’m still-fishing because it lets me see little ticks and bumps that tell me a cat is interested in the bait.”
When waters warm into the low 70s, the prespawn bite fades as the catfish spawn shifts into gear along riprap and rocky shorelines. Steve Henkel, owner of Henkel’s Hook and Arrow in Carlyle, Illinois, near 18,900-acre Rend Lake and 26,000-acre Carlyle Lake, says the spawn is his favorite time to target channel cats.
“My grandkids and I have a ball,” Henkel says. “We use crickets under a plain red and white bobber, fishing right along riprap. I put two or three crickets on a #1 or 1/0 baitkeeper hook, with a split shot on the line above the hook to get the bait down. I use crickets until the bluegills start picking at them, which tells me that the spawn is over and the catfish have moved out.
“The spawn bite starts with catfish staging in 6 to 8 feet of water off rocks and riprap. During the peak of the spawn, they’re in tight, maybe a foot or less off the waterline. You may have to move sideways along the riprap or rocks to find them on a particular day, but once you find them you definitely know you’re on the spot.”
Scott Linton of Carlyle, Illinois, has won catfish tournaments on Carlyle Lake, and agrees the spawn is prime time to catch channel cats. He extends the opportunity by following the spawn from the upper end of the lake to the lower end.
“The north end is shallower with more mudflats, and the water warms faster, so catfish at that end spawn earlier,” Linton says. “A month later, the deeper water down around the dam has warmed up and the cats down there are spawning. I use shad guts under a bobber, or any other good catfish bait, and catch catfish through the month of June.”
Postspawn is potentially some of the best catfishing of the year. “Those fish are hungry after they get done with the spawn,” Linton says. “They feed heavily, day and night. During the day, I look for them in 3 to 4 feet of water associated with some sort of structure—wood, a laydown tree, or stumps. I cast and bait with shad guts.
‘That’s the time of year when I also start to drag baits. If I don’t get action in woodcover in 3 to 4 feet of water, I move out deeper, over flats around old channel edges, and pull cut shad at 0.5 to 0.7 mph. I like a 61/2- to 71/2-foot medium-heavy rod with a relatively soft tip. I’m not fussy about brands. I’ve caught tons of cats on $25 Berkley Big Game rods I bought at Walmart. I’ve got Meat Hunters that work well, and my favorites are 61/2- to 71/2-foot medium-heavy Rippin’ Lips rods that only cost me $45 each. What’s important to me is the reel I use. I’ve got Team Catfish and CatMaxx reels, but my favorite is the Abu Garcia 6500C Catfish Specials. They can take anything a catfish can throw at them.”
Linton and Liberty agree that pulling, aka “dragging,” baits at 0.5 mph is deadly for channel cats from midsummer through early fall. Both favor pulling cut shad on Santee-Cooper rigs, which incorporate a float to lift the bait slightly off the bottom. Linton targets submerged ledges and flats near old creek channels. He pays close attention to depth.
“Carlyle Lake doesn’t have a thermocline, but catfish still don’t go much deeper than 10 or 15 feet deep in the summer,” he says. “You can never go too shallow, but you can definitely go too deep.”
He fishes day or night in midsummer as his schedule allows. During daylight hours, he drags fresh cut shad, white bass, or other baitfish through woody cover using a slinky-style weight to minimize snagging. After sunset he heads for shore.
“A lot of the lakes I fish in summer get a thick line of moss along the shore,” he says. “At night, channel cats come up to that moss line and feed on panfish and baitfish that are in there feeding on snails and other things that live in the shallow weeds. My rig isn’t sophisticated—a 7/0 or 8/0 circle hook on 50- or 60-pound-test hi-vis PowerPro braided line, with a 1- or 2-ounce egg sinker pegged a foot or so above the hook with a split shot.
“Fishing at night along a shoreline is another place I like to use shad guts. I lob them out along the edge of the moss line, maybe into only a foot or two of water. It’s impressive when catfish hit. They’re aggressive. They’re in such shallow water that they often come out of the water like a bass. I seem to catch bigger channel cats if the moss line is close to a drop-off to deeper water. I tear them up all summer anchoring and fishing those moss lines after dark.”
Many reservoir anglers have learned to link their summertime catfishing to weather conditions and events. Extended periods of high pressure are great times to drag fresh cutbait during the day over shallow to medium-depth flats associated with old creek channels or drop-offs. Sudden thunderstorms that deluge the watershed of a small lake often bring to life creeks or storm drainages, and the sudden influx of water triggers short-term catfish hotspots where those creeks temporarily gush into reservoirs. Liberty always takes advantage of passing summer thunderstorms to catch cats, but crosses his fingers and hopes for multi-day deluges.
“There’s one lake in particular, when we have several inches of rain over a couple days, the lake level rises a couple feet and I can get my boat back to the mouth of the creek that feeds that lake. Normally it’s too shallow, but when I can get back there, it’s fantastic fishing. Catfish are stacked in there feeding on the stuff coming in from the creek. Last summer we had a couple days of heavy rain and that spot went from its normal 1-foot depth to 5 feet for a day or two. I anchored at the mouth where the creek was flowing in and caught and released 35 5- to 10-pound cats in about 4 hours. I was using shad guts, and they hammered them.”
Another midsummer hotspot for channel catfish that’s often overlooked, especially in smaller reservoirs, is associated with swimming beaches. Beaches are often constructed with sand hauled in and spread over shallow mud or clay bottoms, and delineated by marker buoys on ropes.
“Channel cats seem to like the zone between the sandy bottom and the mud bottom,” he says. “Where the moss line stops at the edge of the sand beach is a good area. I like to fish after dark. There’s something about the combination of weeds and mud meeting sand that works after dark. If I was a shore fisherman, I’d pay attention at night to the areas around beaches on smaller reservoirs in summer.”
In reservoirs big and small, changes in barometric pressure, water temperature, water levels, and changes from daylight to dark trigger channel cats to move from shallow to deep or vice versa. When they move, they often follow distinct “highways.” Texas guide Chad Ferguson has mapped many catfish highways on Lake Worth and other Texas reservoirs.
“In one lake, I know where an old roadbed runs from the shore out into deep water,” Ferguson says. “When the cats are moving, they follow that old roadbed. Sometimes they’re on top, sometimes they’re off to the sides, but they definitely like to follow structure when they’re moving from depth to depth. In another one of my lakes, the city installed an intake for their water supply quite a way out in the lake, in deep water, and just laid the pipe along the bottom from shore out to the intake. That’s one of the spots where I catch lots of catfish. They follow the pipeline when they’re moving from deep to shallow or shallow to deep. They generally make that sort of move mornings and evenings, especially in the summer.”
As summer tapers into fall, Liberty, in Nebraska, gradually returns to his springtime pattern of anchoring and fishing shallow as the water cools. He finds channel cats savor the sunshine on warm fall days and move along shallow shorelines and into mud-bottom bays and coves. Later in the fall, as water temperatures fall into the 50s, channel cats move toward wintering areas.
“Channel cats in Carlyle and Rend lakes move to deeper parts of the lake in winter and school up in wintering holes,” Linton says. “Prior to that, they slowly move deeper, follow old creek channels, or temporarily set up over little holes along the way. At Carlyle, those spots on a big flat may only be a foot or so deeper, but they’re enough to hold catfish that time of year. You’ve just got to keep moving, trying different things to stay on top of where they are and what they want to eat that time of year.”
To catch channel catfish in reservoirs in spring, summer, and fall, day and night, be as mobile as the fish you seek. Fish shallow from shore or boat during the Prespawn Period. Fish riprap and rocks during the spawn. And during the summer and early fall, try shallow mosslines at night, shallow woody cover during the day, and drifting or dragging big flats or structure both night and day.
*Dan Anderson, Bouton, Iowa, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman and Catfish In-Sider Guide.