Fish like edges. Channel catfish are no exception. They like both outside and inside weededges. These edges provide cover, food, and a physical route for navigation. Plus, they're often accompanied by changes in bottom composition, depth, and current, which appeal to channel cats.
Weededges become defined in early summer and continue to harbor fish through mid-fall. As temperatures cool, vegetation dies and channel cats head for deep basins. Until then, vegetation is a key element to locating catfish throughout the season, and multiple strategies can be used to target them.
The most common approach is to anchor and cast several setlines in various directions and hope fish find your bait. But to be more effective, approach anchoring with a plan. One technique is to use what I call "timed anchoring." This entails mapping a long weededge—either with sonar or by sight. As you cruise the weededge, be observant of turns, points, or changes in the density of weeds. These distinctive areas are good spots to anchor and fish. Each anchoring location can be marked on GPS or with buoys. Spots should be fished for a relatively short period before moving to the next. This quickly eliminates unproductive water and helps locate concentrations of fish.
Position the boat directly on the edge of the weedline with one anchor at the bow and another at the stern. This eliminates boat swing. Fish each spot no more than 40 minutes without a bite before moving to the next and rebait after 20 minutes at each spot. Spread lines at multiple depths both along the weededge and also out beyond the weedbed.
Vegetation often stops growing where soft bottom transitions to sand or hard bottom and where abrupt depth changes limit light penetration. Depth changes also are edges and attract fish, adding to the appeal of weededges at these locations. Suspend a few baits just off the bottom along the weededge and set others at the base of the nearest depth change. Remaining lines can be placed in any open pockets in the vegetation. Think of this as like fancasting, but with setlines, to fish a large section weedline and the adjacent area. Eventually this process reveals the holding and migratory routes of catfish along contour lines or weededges.
Baits & Setups
Bait choices can range from cut- and livebait to chicken livers, nightcrawlers, and stinkbait. Whatever you choose, have several options available and alternate baits based on water conditions. Warm water often favors stinkbaits and sour baits, whereas colder water generally calls for fresh cutbait and smaller baits overall. I prefer to use fresh cutbait consisting of 2- to 3-inch strips of sucker along with 3- to 4-inch live bluegills during much of the season. I only use stinkbait during the hottest part of the summer.
I use the smallest baits on the shallowest lines in the spread with the largest baits on the deepest sets. Larger cutbaits give off more scent and also can be more visible, which makes them easier for deep-water fish to find. When catfish get finicky, smaller baits often work well as the fish often take them with less hesitation.
I like to suspend one bait several inches off the bottom under a slipfloat on the weededge. This slipfloat rod provides a constant visual indicator of the location of the depth change while I fish, and it provides clues as to the depths of other lines. For example, if the bobber stop is set at 8 feet and the bait starts to hang up as it drifts onto the break, you know where the 8-foot depth transition is. The float also allows for greater horizontal coverage as the bait drifts with the waves.
Another option is to fancast a jig baited with a piece of cutbait around the edge. This allows for a large territory to be covered more quickly than by using setlines. Jigs designed to fish tubes for bass, like the Bite-Me Vertical Eye Tube Jig, which has a stout EWG Gamakatsu hook, are especially effective. Jigs with strong hooks with an extra-wide gap handle the abuse delivered by big catfish and accommodate a meaty piece of cutbait.
Work jigs with a drag-and-stop retrieve. Vary pauses from several seconds to several minutes. Jigs are valuable search tools for locating scattered catfish and also for detecting surrounding cover that may funnel catfish into specific areas. I fish jigs on 10-pound-test monofilament, and prefer mono's slight stretch so catfish feel less resistance when they pick up the bait compared to no-stretch braid.
In large lakes and reservoirs with long, expansive weedflats, anchoring is less productive and a mobile approach is more effective. Before fishing, it's beneficial to spend time scouting weedflats with down-imaging and side-imaging sonar. Plot a trail on your chart screen that follows the contour of the vegetation and mark unique features or pods of fish with icons. This approach calls for precisely following a plotted course with the trolling motor and hovering in place or slowly drifting when prime areas are encountered.
Similar techniques are used across the country for blue catfish in big rivers, but less frequently for channel cats in lakes. For a six-rod spread, I fish a port and starboard rod at the bow of the boat and two sets of rods off each side toward the stern. The length of the rods and sinker weight and bait fished on each pair of rods is tailored for the technique.
For maximum coverage and the fewest tangles, I prefer longer rods at the bow placed in rod holders and positioned perpendicular to the boat. I use 10-foot 6-inch Abu Garcia Vendetta rods, moderate-action sticks with plenty of power in the butt half to deliver strong hook-sets. The soft tip allows catfish to take the bait without feeling too much resistance.
Rods are paired with Abu Garcia Alphamar 16 line-counter reels, which display how much line is out (how deep each bait is set). Keep baits within inches of the bottom and continually adjust bait depth as water depth changes along the drift. Controlled-drifting is labor intensive. One eye is always on the graph to steer to waypoints and to watch for fish and changes in depth. The other eye is on the rods, watching for bites and adjusting the amount of line out on the reels. Control drift speed with a trolling motor or driftsock.
I spool reels with 12-pound-test Berkley Trilene XT for its strength and abrasion resistance when fishing tight to cover. Reels are placed in free-spool with the bait clicker engaged. The clicker audibly signals bites, and free-spooling allows fish to take out line prior to the hook-set.
On the rods at the bow, I use a slip-rig with a 1- to 2-ounce egg sinker sliding on the mainline above a barrel swivel. To the swivel I tie a 2-foot leader of 15- to 20-pound Trilene Tournament Grade Fluorocarbon terminating in a snelled 2/0 to 3/0 Lazer TroKar Octopus hook. The surgically-sharpened point on TroKar hooks allows for easier penetration with minimal pressure from a moving boat. I use sinkers heavy enough to keep the bait straight down, and I adjust weight depending on depth and drift speed. Sinker adjustments often are dictated by wind speed. Keep drifts as slow as possible. If wind speed is more than about 15 mph, a slow controlled-drift becomes impractical, and anchoring on waypoints is a better option.
Off each side of the boat near the middle, I set 8-foot 6-inch Abu Garcia Vendetta rods with Alphamar 16 LC reels. These shorter rods present baits closer to the boat. I use lighter sinkers on these rods so the bait trails slightly behind the boat while still maintaining bottom contact. Typically one half of the weight used on the bow rods is sufficient for these center rods. I like using 1/2- to 1-ounce Lindy No-Snagg Slip Sinkers to minimize snags while maneuvering through vegetation. Middle rods also are placed in rod holders and set perpendicular to the boat.
The last set of rods at the stern are 7-foot 10-inch telescopic Vendetta rods paired with Alphamar reels. These rods are set in holders at a 45-degree angle toward the stern. A lighter Lindy No-Snagg Slip Sinker is used to position baits farther back than those on the middle rods. I fish livebait on the back rods because it offers vibration that cutbait doesn't provide. Even if these livebaits don't get eaten, they often get nervous and serve as an attractor when drifted past big channel cats. A bouncing rod tip caused by the bait trying to flee signals me to hold the boat and baits in that area for an extended period.
When a fish hits, get to the rod quickly and turn off the bait clicker as you put your thumb on the spool. Gently remove the rod from the holder without putting any added pressure on the line. With the reel in free-spool, let the fish move off with the bait. Based upon the aggressiveness of the fish, allow it time to take the bait prior to engaging the drag and setting the hook 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.
Similar tactics can be employed by shore anglers along an inside weededge. Inside edges often consist of flat sand aprons with water depths of no more than 2 to 3 feet deep. For this reason, channel catfish typically only feel comfortable in this skinny water under the cover of darkness. Exceptions occur when heavy sustained winds muddy the water and push baitfish into these areas during the day.
Key spots include irregular turns in the vegetation and sporadic lumps of denser vegetation that provide lanes between them for catfish to travel. Also watch for isolated lights on docks and along the waterfront that attract insects and baitfish. Fishing lighted slipfloat rigs on the outside edges of these areas is perhaps one of the most fun ways to catch catfish.
As catfish cruise the inside weededge in search of a wayward panfish, a piece of cutbait or hapless bluegill can be suspended in this zone. The slipfloat often "dances" as channel cats make the bait nervous prior to closing in. The bite is often deliberate rather than a slight tap. The float may bounce a few times prior to frantically zigzagging and being pulled under water. Give the fish a second to move off with the bait and then set the hook hard.
Catfish are most comfortable and aggressive on inside edges during the night. Don't allow a bait to sit more than a half hour without re-baiting and casting to a new area. The sound of the bait hitting the water often attracts fish and results in a bite within minutes. Also, since channel cats swim in groups, have a second rod rigged and ready to cast back into an area once a fish is landed. Deal with unhooking, re-baiting, and re-rigging after the fish is landed.
Options for catching weededge cats are plentiful. Take time to scout likely fish-holding areas and use a systematic approach to presenting baits, and catching cats becomes easier. Whether you take a hi-tech approach of side-imaging, mapping weedbeds visually, or fishing from a dock to intercept fish on an inside weedline, channel cats are available to anyone willing to ride the edge.