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Catfish Week: Creeking for Channel Catfish

Multi-year tracking of radio-tagged channel catfish proved that they use small rivers and large creeks in distinct, seasonal patterns.

Catfish Week: Creeking for Channel Catfish

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Sometimes the catfishing gods smile on me. I was fishing for channel cats in “The Creek,” a meandering farmland waterway near my home. It runs about 10 to 15 feet wide through summer. The farmer who owns the land is a longtime friend who gets a Christmas card from me every year that includes gift certificates to a local steakhouse. I was getting ready to lob my first glob of chicken liver into the lazy current when the farmer’s 14-year-old son and a friend splashed their ATVs through the creek a couple hundred yards downstream, then wheelied up the bank. Spying my pickup truck, they buzzed along the creek’s bank, shut off their machines, and picked their way down the bank to where I stood.

“You’re fishing in this little creek?” the farmer’s son asked. “What are you trying to catch?”

“Catfish,” I said as I gently tossed the liver into the slowly swirling water at the base of a cutbank 15 feet away.

“Hah,” the young lad smirked with the inherent confidence of a 14-year-old. “There ain’t no catfish in there.”

And that’s when the gods humored me. The float I was using to drift that chunk of liver just off the bottom disappeared with an audible “plonk.” I wound my reel slowly to remove slack from my line, waited till I felt firm resistance, then reeled steadily while I lifted the tip of the rod to rotate and set the 6/0 circle hook on the other end of the line. After a couple line-sizzling runs up and downstream, and a lot of buzzing from my drag, the boys eagerly waded into the shallow water off the sandbar and used my net to land a 6-pound channel cat.

That was the day those two teenagers became converts to catfishing. I landed another smaller cat before I handed them the rod and then helped each of them land 3-pound fish. I answered a lot of eager questions before I eventually loaded up and headed for home, ending their introduction to the glories of fishing for channel cats in small rivers and large creeks where, “there ain’t no catfish.”

An angler standing in a creek with a fishing rod.

Right of Access

Access is the biggest challenge to taking advantage of channel catfish in creeks and small rivers. Small waterways generally flow through private property, and laws vary from state to state about who controls access. The laws of Kansas, Iowa, and many other states consider the water in a creek or river to be public property, but the shores and bottom of waterways are property of the adjacent landowner. Missouri, Arkansas, Minnesota, and Montana view the water and the bottom of the waterway below the high-water line to be public access.

“I generally don’t have problems getting access to fish in creeks on private property,” says Iowa angler Spencer Bauer. “I knock on doors and ask for permission to fish, and 4 out of 5 times they let me fish. It’s all about being polite, friendly, and treating them and their property with respect.”

The Science of Small

Multi-year tracking of radio-tagged channel catfish proved that they use small rivers and large creeks in distinct, seasonal patterns. “On small rivers and big creeks, when you’re looking for catfish it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time,” says Greg Gelwicks, fishery biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “Most channel catfish in creeks and small rivers migrate downstream every fall and spend their winters in wintering holes in larger rivers. In the spring, when water temperature gets above 40°F and spring rains raise flow rates, there’s almost a slow parade of catfish moving upstream out of those wintering areas.

“If water levels are high enough, they move up into fairly small creeks. If there’s adequate flow, habitat, and food, they stay in those creeks all summer. Otherwise, as water flows decrease in late summer, they move back downstream till they find suitable flow and habitat. In early fall, once water temperature falls below 60°F, they start moving downstream out of the creeks. By the time the water is around 40°F, they’re in their wintering holes in larger rivers, and the creeks and upper reaches of small rivers are nearly empty of catfish.”

Two hands cutting a small sucker into catfish bait.
A chunk of fresh cut sucker or other baitfish often can’t be beat for small-stream channel cats.

Catfish in small rivers and creeks in southern states may not make major seasonal pilgrimages like their northern brethren, but they certainly move according to flow rates. Heavy rains and high water encourage movement upstream into small streams; dry spells with falling water levels move them downstream.

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The relationship between catfish movement and increased water flows was documented by Jamison Wendel and Steven Kelsch, using radio-tagged channel catfish on stretches of the Red River in North Dakota. Once tagged fish had established themselves in their summer ranges, any movement was strongly tied to changes in river flow. One tagged catfish moved only 223 feet upstream or downstream all summer; another traveled a total of 27 miles during periods of elevated flow. Almost all their tagged fish moved to some degree when water levels rose, with movement of individual fish averaging 3.5 miles over a summer’s worth of rainfall events. Many returned to their original summer haunts when water levels fell, though some stayed in new locations, presumably because they found better habitat or food.

“Water levels are key for me when I’m fishing on creeks,” says Iowa’s Spencer Bauer, host of ­rivercertified.com. “I’ve caught nice catfish on small tributaries to rivers where the deepest holes were only maybe 3 or 4 feet deep. It all depends on how high the water is, and especially on how long it stays high. The threshold where I start checking my favorite creeks is if the water has been at least a foot or two higher than normal for at least a week.

“I get channel catfish most often in a creek situation during prespawn, which is from April through early June around here. I also pay attention after heavy rains, when the creeks are roaring. Those events move cats a long way up into even little creeks. There have been times when I fished on top of the bank of a flooded creek, where the flooded water was only a foot or so deep. You could see the fins of the cats as they worked that flooded grass and weeds, feeding on nightcrawlers and insects. I look for them in flooded weeds or areas of reduced current, taking advantage of all the food.”

Later in the summer, when water levels traditionally fall and stabilize, Bauer pulls on a pair of mid-calf rubber boots, loads his backpack with hooks, sinkers, and floats, and stalks catfish in creeks. His choice of tackle for creeks and small rivers is straightforward and simple. He uses a 7-foot medium-power fast-action Whisker Seeker Catfish and Carp Series spinning rod. His reel is an Okuma Avenger spooled with 35-pound-test Whisker Seeker braided line. He rigs 4/0 to 6/0 Whisker Seeker Triple Threat circle hooks unless he’s fishing with a float. Then he uses Whisker Seeker 4/0 Super-J-hooks. If he’s fishing on the bottom, he rigs a Carolina rig with a 20-pound-test monofilament leader and a hefty 2-ounce flat bank sinker to ensure his baits don’t move.

He often uses a float to suspend his bait when fishing in creeks. “I don’t think a float is necessarily better than using a bottom rig,” he says, “but it’s more fun. I just like to see a float go under and then rear back and set the hook. Either way, I want a rod with a fast, flexible tip to work with the circle hooks, and a good backbone in case I have to horse a big channel cat or flathead out of a logjam. The Okuma Avenger reels are really durable and only cost around $50. I prefer braided line because it floats on the water, which works well when I use a float. It doesn’t take much tackle to catch a lot of nice catfish out of small creeks.”

Urban Creeks

Some of the most productive catfish creeks around the country are within city limits. Many are associated with medium to large rivers fed by tributaries that flow through cities and suburbs. Modern urban planners often develop greenbelts with bike and walking paths along those tributaries. Anglers who explore those creeks often encounter catfish miles from the tributary’s mouth.

Because many anglers might live in close proximity to urban creeks, the potential for overfishing is high. Anglers who identify honey holes in these waters should follow harvest regulations. I practice catch-and-release in these settings. If you selectively harvest, check for any fish consumption advisories that may be in place.

With that in mind, I can relate experiences on urban creeks flowing through suburban neighborhoods that produced 20-pound channel cats from pools 10 feet across and 4 feet deep. And anglers hoisting 30-pound flatheads in a tributary upstream of a large river and 100 yards from a major interstate. I just can’t tell you the exact name and location of those creeks. When it comes to hot catfishing in creeks in your area, “Seek, and ye shall find.”

An angler kneeling and holding a catfish in tall grass.
Understanding riffle-hole-run theory guides Benner Flaten in his quest for catfish in creeks and small rivers.

Creeks Are Where You Find Them

Brenner Flaten, vice president of the Montana Catfish Association, agrees that small rivers and large creeks provide exceptional fishing for anglers willing to adapt their fishing philosophy, strategy, and tackle. “All small rivers and big creeks are pretty much the same, all over the country,” he says. “If you learn the riffle-hole-run concept that In-Fisherman has taught for years, you can figure out any river or creek pretty quick. During prespawn, when there are strong flows, I fish any shallows I can find, or behind logjams and current breaks. If a creek is flooding, I fish in grass and weeds that just got submerged. In late summer when the creeks are low I look for current, like riffles or where neck-downs constrict the flow.”

Flaten has a 17-foot 6-inch River Pro jet boat and uses it to illustrate the size of some creeks he fishes for channel cats that range from 5 to 20 pounds. “People are surprised, but we have quite a few catfishing opportunities in eastern Montana,” he says. “I sort of specialize in fishing small rivers and creeks or side channels and backwaters on larger rivers. I run up into places where I actually have trouble finding a place to turn the boat around.

“The Musselshell River empties into the west end of Fort Peck Reservoir. During prespawn in late April into early June when the current and conditions are right, I’d put that river up against any small river in the country for catfish. There are days on the Musselshell when we’ve landed more than 15 channel cats between 15 and 24 pounds and lot of smaller ones,” he says.

Flaten favors a 7-foot St. Croix Classic Cat fiberglass rod with medium power and a medium-fast action on small rivers and the 7-foot 6-inch version on larger rivers. He stocked up on those rods when he heard it was being discontinued, and snaps up used ones he finds on the Internet. He also recommends legendary Berkley E-Cat rods of the same length, power, and action. Those, too, discontinued years ago.

“I’ve tried graphite and composite rods, but I just get along better with glass rods when I’m using circle hooks, which is what I frequently use,” he says. “I prefer Gamakatsu Octopus Circle hooks, from 4/0 up to 8/0 on a standard sliprig with a 4- to 8-inch leader and a no-roll sinker. My mainline is always Berkley Big Game Solar monofilament. I use 15-pound test on small rivers and creeks and bump up to 20-pound if I’m on bigger rivers like the Yellowstone or fishing on Fort Peck. Channel cats can reach the 30-pound range in the west end of Fort Peck, so you need to be prepared.”

A family in a boat motoring through a small creek.
Brenner Flaten pushes his jet boat up waterways that can be so small he sometimes has trouble turning his boat around.

Flaten prefers to use fresh cutbait, and “matches the hatch” according to season and availability. He catches goldeye, creek chubs, or various types of suckers from the waters he’s fishing and uses bait shears to chunk them. Leopard frogs are also a favorite.

“We can catch frogs from late April through early fall,” he says. “I use a butterfly net to catch them. We clip their rear legs off with the bait shears. Put them on a circle hook with the legs bleeding out, with their front legs providing action, and the channel cats absolutely crush them. We have a tournament in June on the Milk River every year, and if you don’t have frogs in that tournament you’re at a huge disadvantage. It’s nothing to catch 10-, 12-, 14-pounders on frogs on certain bodies of water.”

Flaten stresses the importance of catch-and-release on small waterways. While catfish populations in creeks and small rivers are “dense” compared to the number of cats in larger rivers, their numbers per mile of river may be low. It’s fine to harvest a few eaters per mile, but keeping everything that bites can depopulate long stretches of creeks and rivers and harm future fishing.

Don’t get the wrong image when Flaten talks about the “rivers” in his area. Long stretches of rivers in eastern Montana would be considered “creeks” in the Midwest or Southeast. Just like the creek I fish in Iowa, where I met those teenagers. I often saw them fishing that creek later that summer. They were usually muddy to the knees, soaked to the waist and eager to show me smartphone photos of their latest catches.

They’re young adults now, and have expanded their catfishing range to include reservoirs and larger rivers. But they still fish The Creek. We have fun trading fishing stories every time our paths cross, and usually end our visits with a smile, a nod toward the creek, and the admonition, “Remember, there ain’t no catfish in there.”


Dan Anderson, Bouton, Iowa, is a frequent contributor on catfishing topics in In-Fisherman and our annual Catfish In-Sider Guide.




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