Fall Channel Catfish Tactics
September 30, 2019
With so many good bites happening during fall, channel catfish can be overlooked. During this period, they move from shallow feeding flats to deeper weededges. Cats make their final transition into the deep basin as winter approaches. Falling water temperatures trigger the annual migration of channel cats from shallow to deep water. As nights lengthen in early fall, water temperatures start their slow decline. This initial change doesn't entirely chase catfish from the shallows. Provided there's not a dramatic dip in the water temperature, catfish remain active during daylight and nighttime hours on weedflats where young-of-the-year panfish are abundant and serve as a primary food source. You can also find fish in soft-bottom areas that produce insect hatches until the first hard freeze and also along windblown shorelines that concentrate food. As severe cold fronts set in, water conditions in the shallows become less stable. Quick swings in temperature and water clarity occur as fall storms bring influxes of cold water. These conditions trigger the initial migration of catfish out of the shallows. They start to push deeper to more stable conditions along the first contour break into
deep water. The depth of this initial transition varies with each fishery, but generally consider drop off areas in the 6- to 15- foot range as the intermediate transition zone for fall channel catfish.
Cats start to congregate there and can be caught along the edges of the first major depth change outside shallow flats. Locate areas where vegetation ends abruptly and the depth gradually tapers into the basin. These are generally soft-bottom areas, not fast-breaking rocky ledges that attract other schooling fish like smallmouth bass and walleyes. Focus on distinct troughs or channels leading from the flats to deep water since they are natural funneling areas for channel cats. During early fall, catfish periodically return to the flats when conditions are favorable, but they eventually abandon the shallows and move to deep wintering locations.
Many approaches can work for these early transition fish, but one of the most effective ones involves anchoring. Select a stretch of the breakline and designate four to five anchoring locations, spaced about 80 to 100 feet apart. Anchor on the top edge of the break, with one anchor at the bow and one at the stern to eliminate boat swing. Give each spot no more than 40 minutes before moving if no bites occur. At each anchor spot, spread lines at various depths along the contour with some on the upper edge where vegetation may still be present, a few on the break, and the others at the base of the break. Think of this as fancasting with setlines to work the entire zone off one side of the boat. This process eventually can reveal the holding or migratory routes of catfish along these contours.
Bait choices can range from cutbait to livebait in the form of bluegills, suckers, or chubs, to chicken livers or stinkbait. As the water continues to cool, stinkbaits and soured baits lose effectiveness. In addition, catfish tend to have a preference for smaller baits as waters cool. This shift in bait preference generally begins as the water temperature drops below 60°F. For livebait, select bluegills in the 3- to 4-inch range and sucker minnows no longer than 5 inches.
I often use fresh cutbait consisting of strips of sucker meat that are 2 to 3 inches long and 1/2-inch thick, along with small live bluegills or chubs. The shallowest lines in the spread are set with the smallest baits and the deepest lines with the largest ones. Large cutbaits have more surface area and give off more scent. They also are more visible, which makes them easier for fish to find.
Also try suspending one of the baits several inches off the bottom under a slipfloat at the edge of the break. This line provides a visual indicator of where a depth break occurs and offers a gauge of the depths of the other lines. For example, if the stop is set at 10 feet and the bait starts to hang as it drifts onto the break, you know where the 10-foot transition occurs. A float also allows for greater horizontal coverage as the bait swings with the waves.
Another option for catfish that have yet to move to the basin is fancasting a jig baited with cutbait. This underutilized approach lets you check multiple depths quickly. Jigs designed to fish tubes for bass, like the Bite Me Vertical Eye Tube Jig, excel here. They have stout Gamakatsu EWG hooks that can handle big catfish and a wide gap to accommodate a meaty piece of bait. Jigs should be fished with a drag-and-stop retrieve. Vary the length of the pauses from several seconds to several minutes. Jigs work as search tools for locating scattered catfish and also for detecting any surrounding cover that may funnel catfish into specific areas. I usually fish jigs on 10-pound-test monofilament.
As Winter Approaches
As water temperatures drop below 50°F, channel cats congregate in the main-lake basin. In shallow and moderate-depth lakes and reservoirs, locate the deepest hole and catfish will be nearby. In large deep waterways, pinpointing fish is more challenging. Start by eliminating holes deeper than 40 feet. Extremely deep water is difficult to fish effectively and isn't typically favored by channel catfish. Instead, focus on the 25- to 40-foot range. Look for areas with irregular and rolling bottoms that are free of vegetation.
I've spent a considerable time observing channel catfish with a Marcum VS385C underwater camera, which demonstrates that there are periods when catfish rest motionless with their bellies on the bottom. At other times they roam in groups. Feeding fish usually are within 4 feet of the bottom, occasionally higher in the water column. While they may patrol an extended territory, cats routinely return to the same resting areas. Congregations can range from half a dozen to more than 100 fish. Not only do they stay in specific areas throughout winter, but they also return to these same areas year after year.
To target basin catfish, I generally spend considerable time scouting basin areas adjacent to summer feeding flats and early fall transition areas, my eyes glued to the down-imaging and side-imaging displays of my Humminbird 1198 unit. Down-imaging displays catfish holding just inches off bottom. With side-imaging, an area of more than 200 feet on each side of the boat can be viewed with each pass. Mark waypoints where you spot individual fish and use separate symbols for multiple fish. Side-imaging lets you set waypoints on individual fish that are marked to the sides of the boat. No need to go directly over fish to establish waypoints for them. This saves a lot of search time.
Once you locate enough fish and mark them, you can use a hovering, drifting, or trolling approach to target them. With a six-rod spread of lines, my system involves a matching set of port and starboard rods at the bow of the boat and two sets of rods on each side toward the stern. The length of the rods, along with sinker weight and baits on each pair of rods, are fine-tuned.
To spread lines for maximum coverage and the fewest tangles, I set 10½-foot Abu Garcia Vendetta rods in holders at the bow, positioned perpendicular to the boat. These moderate-action rods have plenty of power in the butt to deliver strong hook-sets. Their soft tips allow catfish to move off with a bait without feeling much resistance. Their flex also gives an early visual indication when any pressure is exerted on the line.
I pair these rods with Abu Garcia Alphamar 16 line-counter reels. Line-counters display how deep each bait is set. Baits should be kept within a couple inches to 2 feet off bottom and should continually be adjusted up and down as the water depth changes as you drift. Controlled drifting is labor intensive since one eye is on the graph to hit waypoints and to watch for fish and depth changes while the other eye is on the rods, looking for bites and assessing the need to adjust the amount of line out on each reel. Control the speed of the drift with the trolling motor. I spool with 12-pound-test Trilene XT for its durability. Alphamar reels have a bait clicker that signals when line is pulled from the reel. Keeping reels in free-spool with the clicker engaged improves catch rates for catfish in cold water as it allows them to take line prior to the hook-set.
For rigs on down rods at the bow, I use a sliprig with a 1½- to 2-ounce egg sinker on the mainline tied to a barrel swivel. Such hefty sinkers help to keep baits straight down, not trailing beyond the next set of rods toward the middle of the boat. Adjust sinker weight based on water depth and speed of the drift. Try to keep drift speed as slow as possible with the assistance of an electric tolling motor and driftsocks. If winds exceed 15 mph, a slow controlled drift becomes impractical and anchoring on waypoints is the sole option.
The leader consists of a 2-foot length of 15- to 20-pound Trilene Tournament Grade Fluorocarbon, snelled on a 2/0 to 3/0 Lazer TroKar Octopus hook. The surgically sharpened TroKar penetrates with minimal pressure. Generally, there are few snags to worry about when fishing deep basin areas.
The second set of rods in the middle of the boat is a matching combo of Abu Garcia 8½-foot Vendettas with Alphamar 16 LC reels. These rods are 2 feet shorter than the bow rods and present baits slightly closer to the boat. Use lighter weights on these rods so they trail slightly behind the boat while maintaining bottom contact. Typically, half the weight used on the bow rods is sufficient for the center rods. To allow sinkers to slide through vegetation, I use 1/2- to 1-ounce Lindy No-Snagg Slip Sinkers for these rigs. The middle rods also go in rod holders set perpendicular to the boat.
The final set of rods are 7-foot 10-inch telescopic Vendettas, paired with Alphamar reels. I set these rods in holders at a 45-degree angle toward the back of the boat. I use slightly lighter Lindy No-Snagg Slip Sinkers to get baits farther back than those on the middle rods. If you use livebaits, choose small ones and fish them on these back rods. Livebait offers a vibration that cutbait can't provide. Even if livebaits don't get eaten, they often get nervous and serve as an alarm when they're dragged past a large fish. The bouncing rod tip caused by the bait trying to flee signals the need to keep the boat in the area and allow all six rods to work.
When a bait gets hit, get to the rod as quickly as possible and turn off the clicker as you put your thumb on the spool. Gently remove it from the holder without increasing pressure on the line. With the reel in free-spool, allow the fish to move off with the bait. Based on the aggression level of the fish that day, give it time to take the bait prior to engaging the drag and setting the hook, which should be done in one motion. Once a fish is caught, keep circling through the area and slow the drift to catch as many fish as possible from the school. The bite can continue until ice-up, though catfish activity gradually declines as water temperature falls.
Fall may be a time of divided loyalties to many species, but don't neglect big channel catfish. They're in prime fighting shape now, packing on pounds and schooling up. The scouting process to find transitioning catfish on the edges and in the deep basin takes effort initially, but it pays big dividends as catfish frequent the same areas year after year.