The desert is an ever-changing landscape — a relentless ebb and flow that dares living things to exist. In deserts such as the Sahara, massive sand dunes rise to towering heights; wind pelts and edifies the faces of these barriers with a continuous assault of stinging grains. Gusts sweep sand to the top of the ridge until it's so steep that it collapses.
Mercifully for living things, the backside of each hilltop hosts a pocket of quietude — an oasis amid violent atmospheric forces. Depending on their size and relative calm, these sanctuaries might house whole communities of life. If small and subtle, the tranquil spot might merely function as a temporary rest stop for a single creature to linger and lie, and to perhaps snatch a passing meal.
There's a place where relentless watery currents replace sand-laced winds, imposing their powerful wills on the ever-changing landscape. In rivers, underwater "deserts" provide an expansive habitat with dune-like features. Catfish travel across and linger in these delicate confines. And because flows constantly deliver fresh supplies of drifting vittles, river dune areas draw catfish that want to bite.
"Catfish anglers seem to be in love with the notion that the biggest fish live in the deepest, darkest holes in the river," says professional guide and tournament angler Ryan Casey. "If that's where I had to fish all the time, I'd be hurtin' for clients." That's because, according to Casey, and wizard catman John Jamison, from prespawn through summer and into early fall, the "dunes" host the most consistently productive pattern on countless rivers, including the Mississippi and Missouri where Casey makes his -living.
Meanwhile, for hundreds of miles in every direction, anglers who fish rivers such as the upper Missouri, Arkansas, James, Ohio, and lower Mississippi, as well as countless tributaries, have access to the same sandy pattern. The trick to success is identifying the oases — divots that current brushes over. Catfish position just under and out of the flow, yet close enough to the crest of the dune to snatch tumbling, struggling bites of food.
That's what anglers like Casey hope happens to their bait while maneuvering slowly across a sandflat. At the 2010 Riverbend Catfish Tournament Trail Classic, for example, Casey and tournament partner Jason Jackson weighed a 105-pound whale, caught from the Mississippi River near Alton, Illinois. On a big river like the Mississippi, big blues — 30s, 50s, 70s, and larger — can happen any time, along with scores of smaller fish. While Casey observes masses of boats anchored on holes waiting for "the one," he's drifting nearly mile-long stretches over relatively shallow sand dunes. He calls these areas flats, although the key catfish holding areas are anything but.
"Most of the best dunes form on hard-turning riverbends where sand is deposited on the inside edge as it begins tailing out," explains Jamison, who taps the pattern on the Ohio and Mississippi, as well as the Missouri, Kansas (Kaw), and Grand rivers nearer his home in Spring Hill, Kansas.
"As the flow enters a bend," he says, "the river picks up speed on the outside part of the bend, scouring a hole on the outside bank. On the inside of the bend, flow is reduced, which allows sand to be continuously deposited in that area, creating expansive sandflats at some locations." Wind that creates dunes in the desert isn't much different than current creating dunes in rivers. Both are powerful forces, and over time can alter the size and shape of this malleable topography.
"Most sand dunes run perpendicular to, or across the river," Jamison says. "Some of the best ones form below the mouth of a feeder river, so long as inflowing current is strong enough to play against the main current, which forms a dune along the current seam." Other less prominent dunes can form off the ends of or behind wing dams. Jamison also targets minor dunes that form in areas of high barge traffic, where giant propellers continuously scour the bottom and push sand in the same general direction. Less obvious, though often expansive, are sandflats in the middle of the river. These zones don't offer the dramatic up-and-down dune formations that occur elsewhere, yet they host numbers of fish — especially areas with subtle waves that can each harbor a resting cat.
Little Waves on Bottom
The two master anglers share similar perspectives on dune location and formation but fish them differently. Casey's glad that there's a place in the river he can fish day after day, spring through fall, that produces a consistent blue catfish bite. Dunes are a river guide's best friend. They're the home of blues, even during the hottest days of summer — productive in rising and dropping water alike. If you ask Casey to name his preferred flow conditions, he's quick to respond.
"My favorite time to fish is when the river's dropping fast in summer. Blues push out to the middle of the river, near and into the channel. They leave their hiding areas in thick cover and position behind little drops within the flat. It might be just a 1-foot drop — like a divot — but it's enough to allow a catfish to hold in that spot and conceal itself. If you look closely at the down-imaging window of a unit like the Humminbird 1198, you can make out fish shapes lying in these little slack-water depressions."
In spring, Casey first hits the dunes when the water temperature reaches 60°F to 65°F. Current's fast, water's rising, and catfish are moving progressively shallower. It's not uncommon during certain periods, spring and summer both, to find blue cats concentrated in 3 to 7 feet of water, swimming across the river's shallowest sand. During this early phase, Casey and his clients commonly put 30 to 50 cats in the boat each day.
Later, when current slows in summer and early fall, he still prefers more active current zones. Blues, he says, rarely feed in slow-moving water unless there's faster current nearby. He reads the surface, which conveys messages about the structure the river conceals.
"Every bottom change is given away by different surface signals. Lots of people ignore these current clues, but once you learn what they mean, you can almost predict when bites occur. Foam lines are obvious ones that form where two currents meet, which is also often where a dramatic rise or slope in the bottom occurs. Every time you see a boil — no matter how minor — it indicates a drop or divot in the bottom. Surface boils ought to have big red flags on them that say, 'Catfish Here!'"
When I spoke with Casey last May, the water had been slowly rising, and he was working a sandflat about 13 feet deep on an inside bend, and just crushing the cats despite reports of inactive, spawning fish. Although by mid- and late summer he's often fishing deeper and into the middle of the river, that's not always the case — even during some of the summer's hottest weather. It depends on flow and whether or not he's fishing at night (big blues often patrol shallow sand dunes after dark.)
Whether on flats 7 or 27 feet deep, he says his tickets to success are those little depressions that pepper the sandy expanses. They look like mini waves, what he calls a "washboard bottom," which is what it looks like on his Humminbird. Of course, the more dramatic drops — say where depth rolls from 13 to 19 feet — provide potentially better fishing, harboring numerous catfish as opposed to one or two.
"The flat I'm on now tops out at 13 feet," he reported. "There are minor divots all over it — and each one can hold a big fish. But every 50 yards or so, I see a couple larger surface boils or ripples indicating a major drop in the bottom."
To cover the entire flat, while probing each larger divot as well as numerous smaller depressions with baited three-way rigs, Casey uses a controlled drift. Making minor adjustments with his Minn Kota Terrova, he maneuvers his boat to maximize the time his rigs spend in and near fish-holding fissures. "I used to spend a lot of time anchored on larger dunes and holes," he adds. "But with GPS and mapping, I can now pull off an efficient drift, going from waypoint to waypoint or just following the surface boils. A controlled, precision drift like this is 10 times more productive than anchoring. We still anchor on occasion during a tournament if we're targeting a few individual big fish."
To execute a controlled drift, Casey points the nose of his Sea Ark into the current and deploys the bow-mount Minn Kota. He uses upstream thrust to occasionally slow his drift or adjust direction. In spring, he slows his drift speed frequently, as powerful currents can rip rigs too fast through productive water. As water warms into the 70s and above, he speeds things up, often drifting at current speed to match the elevated activity level of catfish. If he's adjusting and slowing speed frequently, it's not uncommon for a single drift of several hundred yards to take an hour. "You go through dead spots, where rigs don't get touched, then all of a sudden, sinkers start bouncing through those little divots on bottom and rods start going off — sometimes two or three at a time."
Individual dunes and associated divots concentrate fish, but current dictates where and how catfish position within them. This determines Casey's rigging scheme. "When current's moving fast over flats, blues hunker down into the divots and grab passing food. I use a lighter sinker and increase dropper length to the hook. These rods go into outside rod holders, line angled at about 45 degrees. This lets these rigs swing low and flutter, lightly dragging baits along bottom where catfish can find them."
When the river drops and current slows, cats often rise off the bottom, and it's critical to deliver baits straight into their line of sight or no more than a foot above, as they usually feed upward. "Pay close attention to current changes and your sonar screen. I'm always watching the water for reductions in flow that might indicate suspended fish. In these scenarios, I anchor my three-ways with bank sinkers up to 10 ounces, keeping them vertical as I drift. These are placed in inside rod holders. Sometimes I also tie in a second hook, 2 to 8 feet up from the first, depending on the levels I see arches on sonar. Think of it as hand-feeding fish — make it easy for catfish to find and eat your bait."
When I fished the St. Louis section of the Mississippi and Missouri last August in John Jamison's Lund, we repeatedly crossed paths with Casey and his clients in the midst of productive drifts. We were using Jamison's dune tactics, and caught some nice fish. Rather than ranging over expansive sandflats interspersed with small and medium holes, we fished prominent dunes — areas where the bottom rose gradually uphill before spilling quickly into 20 to 30 feet of water. These were the largest, deepest dunes in the river, and they're Jamison's favored spots.
Rather than drifting and presenting rigs vertically beneath the boat, however, we used a controlled drift and walked baits downstream with the current. Thumbing line off the spools of our Shimano Tekota line-counter reels, we alternately dropped and raised the rod tip, guiding the sinker along bottom as current swept it downstream.
Jamison describes the process of walking a dune: "As current hits the front face of the dune, it speeds up. You feel your rig start to pull more on the line as it begins to climb the uphill slope. Keeping your rod tip high, gradually thumb line off the spool. Just before the peak of the dune, current reaches its fastest speed. Get ready, because here's where an active blue often pops up from behind the lip and grabs your bait.
"Otherwise, as soon as your sinker drops onto the backside of the dune, it starts to slow. Here, you have to raise your rod tip to keep the rig moving downstream. When cats aren't as active, your bait might have to fall well down into the hole before it gets bit. At the bottom of the hole, there's often a dead spot where current stops or reverses direction. Slow the boat way down. I use the Spot-Lock feature on my Minn Kota iPilot, which holds me in place like an anchor. It takes practice to keep the bait moving here. You might have to pump the rod a bit harder or feed out extra line so the current forms a loop that pulls the rig downstream. Other times you want to let the bait linger in the slack water for several seconds, as non-aggressive catfish often are in the core of the hole."
Jamison says that locating fish can be time consuming, as blues are often scattered along the entire backside of a dune. "You have to probe every nook and cranny. Once you get it dialed in, it's awesome. The jolt of feeling a blue cat grab the bait and rip your rod down is unlike anything else."
While I was writing this story, Jamison called to tell me he'd just boated a new "record." "I caught a 45-pounder today," he said. "The Shimano dial read 650 feet on the line counter when she bit. Does the IGFA have a long-distance category? Might be a world record."
The key to getting bites in dune areas is to determine how blues position in them, especially in or near slackwater holes or divots. Jamison and Casey rely on Humminbird sonar units with Down Imaging and Side Imaging. Down Imaging reveals blues glued tightly to bottom, while Side Imaging also shows suspended cats and smaller holes that can each hold a catfish or two. Both anglers also look forward to adding 360 Imaging to their arsenal when it becomes available this summer. This new technology, which Casey says gives you ability to "see into the future," shows terrain and fish all around the boat, including what lies ahead of your position.
Cats on the dunes typically spread across broad areas, yet there are certain zones that concentrate fish, such as a patch of a few dozen 1-foot divots surrounded by expansive featureless flats. Jamison uses Side Imaging to see left and right between the troughs, where fish are marked clearly. Side Imaging encompasses huge areas around the boat. Move the cursor over a productive zone and enter a waypoint.
When searching new water for productive dunes, Jamison runs his Lund wide open, looking for small up and down waves to scroll across his sonar screen. Once he finds them, he idles and inspects the holes more closely with Side and Down Imaging. In a slackwater hole behind a large dune, he also notes what he sees on sonar. If the hole looks littered with debris, which is usually just dense sand and sediment swirling around the core, it usually won't hold many catfish, although active blues may still be stationed up near the slackwater lip where they're visible on screen.