June 04, 2014
By Steve Hoffman
Big River Habitat
Big rivers are far different today than they were when the first settlers arrived. Flood plains that once stretched miles on both sides of these great waterways have been severed by levees that line the banks for thousands of miles. Dams on the upper Missouri and Mississippi rivers, and the entire length of the Ohio, now control the ebb and flow of water levels.
Most dramatic of all are the changes to the river channel. The naturally shifting course of the river, which once changed dramatically from one year to the next, now is controlled (as much as possible) by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps' fingerprints are visible everywhere on big rivers, in the form of structures built to maintain a navigable channel for barges.
Big rivers still harbor big cats, though. Some biologists, in fact, believe that some river sections like the middle and lower Ohio may support more big cats today than before the dams were built. Lock and dam structures transformed relatively shallow river stretches into a series of deeper pools, increasing the quantity and quality of catfish habitat.
The challenge big river anglers face — the same challenge Moyer, Eckholm, and I encountered on the Mississippi River below Alton — is to understand how catfish relate to these manmade structures. Truth is, fishing a bridge pillar the size of a house isn't so different from fishing a snag or a boulder on a smaller stream. The scale is larger, but so is the top-end size of the fish.
Manmade structures like wing dams are particularly important on channelized rivers like the lower Mississippi and Missouri. Snags and brush — the primary habitat on smaller rivers — are routinely removed from big rivers, and oxbows, side channels, and sloughs are sealed from the main river. A deep, swift, and turbid barge highway results, with wing dams as the primary catfish habitat.
A study of the use of wing dams by catfish on the Missouri River, conducted by the Missouri Department of Conservation, revealed that active flatheads prefer to hold along the edge where fast and slow currents meet. The most distinct current edges on wing dams occur at the tip of the dam, where fast water from the main channel pours over the slack water behind the dike, and behind low spots atop the dam.
Channel cats prefer similar feeding stations, but in rivers containing flatheads and blue cats, smaller channels are forced into less opportune areas. Most of the channel cats sampled in the Missouri River, for example, were found near snags and riprap along the eroded mud banks in front of wing dams. Blue cats were evenly split between snags and the tips of wing dams.
Biologists caught few fish in the deep slack water behind wing dams, but speculate that could be the result of inefficient sampling gear rather than habitat preference. In our experience, inactive cats tend to favor the deep scour holes behind wing dams during normal water levels from late spring through early fall. In colder water, though, active fish also favor these slack-water holding areas.
Most of the blue cats Moyer and company caught on the Missouri River before Eckholm and I hit the scene were holding at the head of the scour hole at the tip of the wing dam. Moyer used a three-way rig with 6- to 12-inch dropper line anchored by a 6- to 8-ounce bank sinker. The leader was about two to three feet long, and terminated in a 10/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hook.
Fresh cutbait usually is a better choice than frozen bait, but large gizzard shad and goldeye were difficult to find. Fortunately, Moyer had brought several pounds of skipjack herring fillets from Tennessee, which were nearly as effective as fresh bait. The "Basic Systems" column in this issue provides more information about three-way rigs, while "Baitman's Corner" illustrates Moyer's method for catching and preparing skipjack herring.
We didn't fish the tailrace below Alton Dam during our three-day visit, but it probably would have been a good option. Tailrace areas hold some catfish all year, but the population peaks during spring and early summer when the upstream migration of prespawn catfish is blocked by dams.
On major rivers like the Ohio and the upper Mississippi, lock and dam structures segment the stream into pools from about 10 to 90 miles long. In the tailraces below these dams, cats consume baitfish killed or injured when they pass over the dam or through the lock. They also feed on skipjack herring, shad, and other species that school in the upper level of the water column.
In long river stretches, fresh waves of fish continue to reach tailraces for several weeks, sustaining the bite as resident fish are harvested. The best tailraces lie at the heads of long pools, particularly if large tributaries and major current breaks don't divert a portion of the catfish population. Blue cats, though, usually bypass holding areas that attract large numbers of channel cats and flatheads.
All catfish species favor well-oxygenated water with a steady supply of living or dead baitfish, but cats seldom hold in fast current. Instead, they seek edges formed by currents moving in different directions, or where current flows of different speeds and volumes merge. The edges form tunnels near the bottom — areas of relative calm in otherwise turbulent water.
Catfish move easily through these tunnels, searching for baitfish or other food items washing through the tailrace. The best current tunnels usually are found where flows of different volumes meet below the dam. If a pillar separates two dam gates, one running water and one closed, the pillar creates a current edge where a large volume of water from the open gate runs over a lesser volume moving in the same direction.
Current tunnels, though, usually don't coincide with the visible current edge on the surface. Surface currents move much faster than water near the bottom. This allows the faster flow to run farther over the slower flow on the surface than on the bottom. The best way to identify the location of a current tunnel is to feel for it with your rig, which will hold easily in slack water, but be pushed downstream by the main current.
Once the water temperature approaches 70ËšF, cats become more interested in spawning. Some fish remain in tailrace areas, but their numbers dwindle as they move toward areas with better spawning habitat. After more than a month of predation, baitfish numbers also have been reduced, and the survivors are warier and more elusive.
Some cats spawn in riprap near the dam, but most move downstream toward slower water with more cover. In the upper Mississippi River, some cats enter backwater areas like oxbows, sloughs, and side channels that contain piles of fallen trees and undercut banks. Other fish spawn in the main river on riprap banks that provide suitable crevices for nesting.
John Pitlo, a research biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, has been netting cats on the upper Mississippi River for more than a decade to determine the effect of minimum-length regulations for commercially harvested cats. His research has revealed distinct differences in the spawning habitat preferences of flatheads and channel cats.
Before cats begin to spawn, flatheads and channel cats often are caught in the same nets. After spawning commences, though, the range of each species seldom overlaps. Channel cats prefer root wads and logjams strewn along undercut clay banks. Old muskrat and beaver holes are popular spawning sites, too, especially if they're located behind snags or other current breaks.
Flatheads, on the other hand, prefer old riprap walls built during the early 1900s, before the current lock and dam structures were built. The tops of the walls are about four feet beneath the surface at normal water levels, tapering at a 45-degree angle down to 8 to 12 feet of water. Female flatheads lay clutches of eggs in crevices at the base of these walls.
The Spawn Period may last a month or more in some rivers, but Pitlo believes that flatheads and channel cats that are weeks away from spawning are attracted to major spawning sites after the first wave of fish begin to spawn. Prespawn cats probably respond to the pheromones produced by spawning catfish. This attraction is so strong that Pitlo sometimes uses ripe female cats as bait to attract catfish to his hoopnets.
Barge mooring stations, bridge pillars, and other massive concrete structures also attract and hold big river cats. One of the best spots Moyer and I fished during our filming expedition on the Mississippi River was a massive concrete foundation supporting a crane, presumably used to load or unload barges. Current washing against the base of the structure gouged a deep hole on an otherwise featureless flat.
Same's true of bridge pillars, though bridges usually are constructed over hard bottom areas that provide a better foundation. The current isn't able to carve a depression in rock so easily as it does in sand and silt, but the pillars still break the current; and blues, channels, and flatheads often can be caught in the eddy formed behind these structures. The largest pillars create the largest eddies, and often hold the biggest cats.
Not all concrete structures are visible from the surface, though. Old demolished dams are a favorite target for Frank Van Winkle, a veteran catfish angler who plies the Ohio River near Cincinnati. The tops of these structures lie 20 feet or more beneath the surface, but still function as a current break for catfish. Van Winkle says cats, particularly flatheads, spawn in the rocky crevices at the base of the dam and may remain in the area throughout the warmwater season.
Most of the manmade structures on big rivers hold cats sometime during the year. Larger permanent structures usually feature larger scour holes — especially if they're exposed to the main river current — and large holes often hold big cats. Spend more time looking and evaluating options until you get a sense of what's available in a long stretch of river.
Our trip ended successfully, by the way, and the results can be seen on our latest catfish video, Catfish: Predators On The Prowl. During our last night we caught several blue cats to 40 pounds and a flathead that probably weighed 35. Not a bad trip, especially when few local anglers were catching any fish, except for our friend Charlie Thomas, who caught and released a monstrous blue cat that had to weigh 75 pounds, less than 100 yards from where Moyer and I were anchored. "Just goes to show you," Moyer said, smiling, "it's sometimes better to be lucky than good."
Big rivers are dangerous. Turbulence below navigation dams and wing dams are particularly hazardous. If you have any doubt whether anchoring is safe, donÊ¼t anchor. No catfish is worth risking your life.
When fishing the main channel — especially after dark — keep an eye out for barges, too. Like a loaded truck on the highway, tugboats donÊ¼t respond quickly enough to dodge small boats.
Use a quick-release anchor system consisting of a large float on the end of the rope, so you can move fast if necessary. Veteran river anglers also recommend having a sharp knife handy to cut yourself free just in case.
Berkley Gulp! Catfish Shad Guts
Sporting random intestinal shapes, realistic bloody colorations, and patented Gulp! fish-attracting scent, these fake guts put an end to scooping the innards out of hapless shad to sucker hungry cats. Just glom a gob around a 1/0 to 4/0 treble or baitholder, secure it on the barbs, and you're set. Available in 1.2-ounce, re-sealable packs. Click Here to View Product!
Berkley PowerBait Catfish Chunks
Studies in simplicity, these cubes are easy to fish. But more importantly, they're formulated by Berkley's scientists to tempt catfish three times faster than standard doughballs. Available in liver, blood, and fish flavors, in 6-ounce packages. Click Here to View Product!
Bowker's Catfish Bait
A staple of diehard catmen for decades, Bowker's dip excels on dip worms, tubes, and sponge strips, which the company also carries. You can also coat natural baits such as shrimp with it for extra flavor. It's available in original, blood-, shrimp-, and shad-added versions, which let you tailor taste to season and conditions. The blood bait, for example, is deadly on dog-days channels, while the shad scent shines in cool water after ice-out. Click Here to View Product!
Catfish Charlie's Dip Bait
An extra-sticky dip, Charlie's molds on and sticks to hooks, tubes, worms and other baitholders with ease. Available in 12- and 36-ounce tubs, in cheese, blood, and shad variations. As with other dip baits, Charlie's shad flavor is particularly productive in cool water. 641/673-7229
Doc's Catfish Bait
On the cat scene since 1927, Doc's knows a thing or two about stinkbait. Which explains why the company offers three temperature-driven dips — an extra-stiff blend for hot weather, an original mix for temps of 70 to 90 degrees, and a cool-weather concoction for temperatures below 70. All are available in 12-ounce, 40-ounce, and gallon-sized containers, in cheese and blood flavors, while liver is an option with the original, in 12-ounce cans only. Click Here to View Product!
Magic Bait Hog Wild Catfish Dip Bait
Cat fans seeking traditional thin, fast-oozing stinkbait will appreciate Hog Wild's ability to quickly infiltrate the water column with cheese, blood, and shad-based aromas. Available in pint-sized jars, it's a natural for tubes, sponges, netting, and similar delivery systems, but also shines for giving dough baits an upgraded coating. Click Here to View Product!
Rippin Lips Leakin' Livers
Pinch one of these all-natural chunks to activate its scent-dispersal system, and it oozes a fine flavor trail for about an hour. Easily skewered on a 1/0 treble or single baitholder, Leakin' Livers are available in original chicken liver, blood, garlic, and fish oil options, all sold in re-sealable, 15-bait packs. Click Here to View Product!
Strike King Catfish Dynamite
Better known for bass baits, Strike King also whips up this dandy kitty dip. Available in 12-ounce tubs, in cheese and blood flavors, it works well with a number of cat baits, including the company's ribbed Dipping Worms. strikeking.com
Team Catfish Secret-7 Dip
Nearly 20 years of tinkering went into the recipe for this sticky, cat-calling dip, which the company purchased from a retired chemist. Rich in fish attractants, the bait bonds with a variety of cat lures, but Team Catfish says it's especially deadly on its Furry THaNG dip holder. Available in 12 to 64-ounce jars and buckets. Click Here to View Product!
Uncle Josh Little Stinker Dip Bait
Famous for pork rinds, Uncle Josh also offers the Little Stinker line of prepared catfish baits, plus rigs for presenting them. Available in blood, chicken, and rotten shad formulations in 16-ounce allotments, the dip is a doozy for delivering a scent trail in flowing water situations, particularly when paired with the company's Sticky Worm. unclejosh.com Click Here to View Product!
The Kermit Factor
The unwary mouse that falls from a vine over a catfish hole has made its last mistake. We sometimes find rodents and snakes, as well as water-dwelling amphibians like frogs and salamanders, in the guts of catfish.
Frogs are locally popular and usually productive baits. They can be hooked through the nose or through one leg. Some anglers cut off the lower legs to make a more compact bait. Dead frogs usually work as well as live ones. As with fish and crayfish, cutting or crushing them allows the attractive amino acids to flow toward the catfish's sensitive olfactory and taste organs. Forget tadpoles, though. They apparently secrete a substance or aroma that's noxious.
The leopard frog is one of the most widely distributed frog species and the one most commonly used for bait. Leopard frogs mate in early spring, leaving clutches of eggs clinging to submerged vegetation in ponds and river backwaters, before moving to adjacent meadows and other grassy areas for the summer. With the exception of occasional visits to lakes and rivers, catfish rarely encounter leopard frogs during summer.
As the days become shorter and air temperatures cool in early fall, leopard frogs begin to congregate and prepare for winter. They gather in staging areas adjacent to water, particularly during periods of cool, rainy weather. One clue that this fall migration is underway is increased numbers of road-killed frogs. Once nighttime temperatures approach the 50ËšF range, frogs begin moving toward lakes and rivers where they'll spend the winter.
Such an abundant food source rarely goes unnoticed, and catfish often cruise shallow flats where leopard frogs make brief forays into the water during the first few hours of darkness. As the water continues to cool, frogs gradually spend more time in the water than on land, providing increasingly better feeding opportunities for prowling cats. Fish continue to consume other live or dead prey when the opportunity arises, but using frogs makes sense when they're so abundant.
Catfish take advantage of any food seasonally available, though there's no denying the appeal of human food like hot dogs. Still, wild-grown baits natural to the system and familiar to the fish, or commercial baits that duplicate them, work best most of the time.
Flathead catfish share with bass an innate love of crayfish. Often just rubbing a cat's belly reveals their lumpy remains. Tail-hook live craws and bottom rig them. But as flatheads grow, they're less likely to take these smaller baits, or maybe they have a harder time beating their 5- to 10-pound kin to the forage.
Crayfish are easy to catch, and the best time to collect them may coincide with the best catfishing. Crayfish usually hold under rocks or other cover during the day, then emerge to consume whatever living or dead prey they can find after dark. Chub creeks and bullhead ponds usually hold good numbers of craws, which are easily located and captured with the aid of a headlamp and long-handled dipnet. Wire minnow traps baited with a piece of dead fish are excellent craw catchers on any water with a decent crayfish population.
For channel cats, craw tails make a fine bait for bottom drifting or float-fishing in summer. When using a whole craw, try crushing the head a bit to release those tasty brain morsels that Cajun crawdad fans can't resist.
Catfish eat clams — freshwater mussels, Asiatic clams, snails of various sorts, even zebra mussels. Blue cats are notorious for foraging on mussel beds. Shake their bellies and you can almost hear the shells rattling. Food habits studies suggest that blue catfish feed on mussels more readily from spring through fall, especially in more southerly reservoirs, with blues turning almost exclusively to shad when they become more lethargic and vulnerable in cold water.
Across North America, white suckers are a can't-fail bait, as this most common species is suitable in size for yearling channel cats and up to 40-pound flatties. Slice 'em and dice 'em for float or bottom rigging for blues and channel cats, or tail-hook a 2-pounder to lure a mother flathead from her lair.
Note the difference, though, between pond-raised bait suckers and wild ones. Cultured baits don't flee, a movement that often triggers a lethal attack from a predator. Seine baits or catch suckers on live worms, instead. We've found that keeping pond-raised suckers in a tank with a big flathead quickly trains the suckers in survival, making them better baits.
Smaller members of the catfish clan — stonecats, madtoms, and bullheads — make excellent baits. Indeed, studies of catfish show these species can be cannibalistic. In some waters where flatheads have been introduced, bullhead populations have plummeted.
Young carp, for example, are gourmet fare for big flatheads, who may follow them onto flooded pastures at night.
The closely related exotic goldfish also makes a fine bait on setlines or rod and reel. Surprisingly, cut carp doesn't rank nearly as high for channel, white, or blue cats. As a caution, be sure to check state regulations on which baits are legal and how they may be obtained. Rules vary.
Wherever gizzard and threadfin shad abound, catfish prey on these aromatic, abundant species. Catfish guides on Santee-Cooper and many other southern reservoirs use cast nets to gather a tank full of livebait to start the day. Skewering several 4-inch threadfins through the eye socket provides a tasty bait for channel cats, blues, and flatheads. Cutting larger gizzard shad in half and rigging them on the bottom also brings action.
In early spring and fall, 3-inch shiners and redtail chubs from bait shops make fine baits for channel cats. These selections follow the general rule: Smaller baits in colder water, big stuff for summer nights.
Sunfish make great baits, remaining lively on the hook and attractive when cut. Toughest and liveliest of all is the green sunfish, a prime flathead bait on line or rod and reel. Bluegills, pumpkinseeds, redears, and the rest of their clan are appetizing, too.
Nightcrawlers remain a great bait for all cats, sometimes unequaled for channel cats. Even the biggest cats can't resist worms. Drift 'em, float 'em, or bottom rig 'em. A ball of about six crawlers on a 3/0 hook is a fine bait for flatheads early in the season. The aroma and wriggling action seem to attract the big cats. In Kansas reservoirs, catmen dabble treble hooks adorned with several juicy crawlers for spawning flatheads, targeting undercuts and rock crevices along riprap walls where cats have holed up.
Catalpa worms are a highly regarded bait in parts of the South, where they're common. These meaty green worms apparently become a focus for many fish species, where they feed on lakeside trees and tumble into the water. Freeze them for future use. The worm's flavor is said to be so irresistible that the essence of catalpa or crushed worms is added to some commercial pastebaits.