Fifty-degrees Fahrenheit. That's the magic number for channel catfish anglers in the fall. Above 50, catch rates can be fantastic, possibly the best of the year. Below 50, success depends on a lot of variables, but catch rates can still be good.
In northern regions, 50°F comes early, in mid- to late October on the Red River of the North, the eastern reaches of the Yellowstone River in Montana, or the Nanticote River on the East Coast. Waters in Kansas, southern Illinois, and east to the Carolinas often stay above 50°F until about Thanksgiving. Southern states flirt with winter water temperatures in the 40s on occasion, and channel cats in those regions subtly alter their behavior in response. The main thing is for anglers to adjust tactics when water temperatures fall into the low-50°F range and below.
Starting with Biology
A longstanding theory among anglers is that catfish innately "understand" that winter is coming, and feed heavily to pack on weight to tide them through the lean times on the horizon. But that's a misunderstanding about catfish behavior as science doesn't support that premise.
"There's no biological basis for saying that fish feed more in the fall in anticipation of winter," says fishery biologist and In-Fisherman Contributor Dr. Hal Schramm. "The metabolism of fish is adjusted by water temperature. In warmer water their metabolism is higher and they have to feed more to keep up with that higher metabolism. As water temperatures cool, their metabolism slows and they eat less. They aren't like bears that have to store fat to survive during hibernation when they don't eat at all."
Though catfish don't necessarily "feed up" in fall in anticipation of winter, they may have increased hunger during that stage of their annual prespawn, spawn, post-spawn cycle. "Catfish are members of a group of fish that tend to develop their egg mass fairly early in the year well before they spawn," Schramm says. "It makes biological sense — when forage is most abundant in the fall, that's when their bodies develop eggs. They carry those eggs through winter when metabolism and feeding is lower, then finish egg development the following spring. Building an egg mass requires a tremendous amount of energy. Trying to build that egg mass during winter when their metabolism is low and forage availability is reduced doesn't make sense."
Even though catfish likely aren't feeding more than normal in the fall and early winter, anglers may enjoy good catch rates during that time because circumstances make them easier to catch. Shad and other temperature-sensitive baitfish clump together in search of ever-diminishing areas of warmer water. Catfish follow baitfish and therefore concentrate in specific locations in rivers and lakes, making them easier to find and catch.
"If catch rates for catfish are higher in the fall," Schramm says, "there are good reasons for it, but none of them are because they're intentionally feeding in anticipation of winter." With that science in mind, anglers who adapt their fishing late in the season to correspond to seasonal catfish behavior can capitalize on strategies that provide the potential for memorable fishing trips.
River Patterns North
"Once it starts to cool after Labor Day, things get interesting on the Red River," says North Dakota's Captain Brad Durick. "After water temperatures fall below 70°F, it's 'game-on' and fishing stays good till water cools into the lower 50s. Above 50°F, it's pretty much the same pattern, bait, and tackle I use all summer — 7-foot 6-inch Rippin' Lips medium-power rods, Abu Garcia 5600 reels, and Berkley Big Game 30-pound-test monofilament mainline. I rig a no-roll sinker ahead of a 10-inch snelled 7/0 Rippin Lips Tournament Series circle hook.
"By the start of October, water temperature is typically below 55°F and fishing slows, and once it drops below 50°F, my guiding season is done for the year," he says. That's when his personal catfishing season begins, however, using a tactic he discovered several years ago on the Red River. While fishing for walleyes, Durick noticed clusters of catfish marks on his sonar in deeper holes. He always has catfish gear in his boat, and dropped baits in those holes — with limited success.
"Cats were there and they'd bite, but they weren't aggressive," he says. "I eventually learned to use my walleye gear, and now I can catch cats whenever I find them that time of year. Once the water is below 50°F and down into the low 40s, I can catch good numbers of channel cats by fishing for them like I fish for walleyes. I vertically jig with something like a Northland Whistler Jig or Patterson's ReelBait Jig with a fathead minnow. I drop it down to the bottom and then raise it up a couple inches and jig it a little to determine the action they prefer.
"For vertical jigging I use a Scheels Outfitter spinning reel on a 6-foot medium-power graphite rod with 10-pound-test braided line. They bite softly — just like walleye taps — so you have to use lighter tackle to feel them. They're not as feisty in cooler water, so you don't have to have big rods and heavy lines to handle them once hooked.
"The trick is finding them," Durick says. "Channel catfish tend to migrate to wintering holes in winter, and they seem to congregate in certain areas, but in fall and early winter they move around. A couple of years ago in late fall we found what we thought was a wintering hole and we caught and released a ton of nice channel catfish. After the river froze up, I went back and tried to ice-fish that spot and there were no catfish there. I think they move a lot before freeze-up and probably stay mobile even under the ice. But they're definitely concentrated in groups, so during that time of year, when you find them you can get into some good fishing.
"They aren't always deep. A lot of times they're in 4 to 8 feet of water, and on bright, sunny days they move up into 2 to 4 feet of water. Once you hit on a pattern and the right tackle you can catch a lot of channel cats, even in November, as long as the water temperature stays in the 40s."
Water temperature also is the key to catching late-fall channel catfish in the reservoirs of Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma. Kansan Mike Gingerich is taking a break from guiding on Perry and Banner Creek reservoirs and other flood-control impoundments in his area in order to start a family, but he still finds time for fall fishing.
"In fall, it's all about finding schools of baitfish because catfish follow the baitfish," he says. "I look for balls of baitfish on my sonar or schools of shad busting the surface. The cooler the water, the more concentrated the baitfish and catfish are. I slow-troll at .2 mph from September through November. Things taper off below 45°F. I could probably catch channel cats in water cooler than that, but once it gets into the 40s I switch to blue cats because that's when they turn on for the winter."
Gingerich favors a 7-foot, medium-heavy Meat Hunter rod with an Okuma Classic 200LA baitcasting reel. He uses 80-pound hi-vis yellow Power Pro braid for his mainline. To it he attaches a 3/0 Eagle Claw three-way swivel. A 50-pound-test Zebco Omniflex monofilament leader goes between the three-way swivel and a 5/0 Team Catfish Double Action circle hook or Eagle Claw 5/0 circle hook. He pegs a float 6 inches up from the hook to keep the bait off bottom. Leader length varies from 36 to more than 48 inches, and he experiments with leader length to determine how far off bottom catfish are biting. A breakaway dropper line of 20-pound-test Cajun monofilament tied to the three-way swivel holds a 1-ounce pencil weight Gingerich casts in a Do-it mold. "Pencil weights are rigid and drag across the tops of rocks and other snags and hang-up less," he says. "I use flexible slinky-style weights if I'm fishing on a flat where I know there aren't many snags."
Gingerich emphasizes mobility and flexibility to find baitfish that lead him to catfish. Baitfish that lived on specific flats or along old creek channels during midsummer are prone to move daily, sometimes multiple times per day, in the changeable weather of autumn.
"I look for pods of baitfish on sonar, especially pods that are broken into smaller groups," he says. "If you see a big mass of baitfish, it's a spot worth checking. But if you see a bunch of small pods of baitfish in the same general area, that's a sign that gamefish are actively working them, and that's an area I definitely want to fish."
Late-Season Shore Duty
Shore anglers can use another of Gingerich's tactics to capitalize on fall catfishing. White bass and hybrid stripers in reservoirs often drive schools of shad toward a shoreline, often into a bay or cove. If you see shad busting the surface near the shore you might be within casting distance of a feeding frenzy that attracts channel cats.
"Anytime you see white bass busting shad on the surface there are probably catfish down under the action, feeding on wounded or stunned baitfish," Gingerich says. "Even if the activity on top fades, catfish often remain in the area feeding on leftovers. If I was fishing from shore in fall, I'd study a lake map and look for a windward shoreline where there's an old creek channel or drop-off close to shore, with a shallow flat between the drop-off and the waterline. Baitfish often move up into that shallower water on a sunny day to take advantage of the warmer water, and channel catfish follow them.
"A couple years ago I worked as a fishery biologist aide, and we set hoop nets in late October in some lakes around here, in 1 to 3 feet of water close to shore. There were times when those nets were crammed full of channel cats. Everybody thinks catfish go deep when the water cools, but there are times on sunny days when they're surprisingly shallow, taking advantage of warmer water."
Bait Perspectives & More
Gingerich's bait selection varies by season. While he prefers shad in summer, cooler waters expand his options. He often keeps fresh carp along with shad in his boat, and says channel catfish on some autumn days favor fresh-cut carp. Fresh-cut white bass also can work well in fall.
While natural baits are preferred by many guides and tournament anglers, commercially manufactured baits can perform well even in the cooling waters of autumn. Clark Culp of Delaware scored big on the Nanticoke River using CJ's Catfish Punch Bait last fall. "My best luck all year was last November 11, 12, and 13, around the Super Moon," Culp says. "I caught over 100 channel catfish between 4 and 14 pounds."
On the Mississippi River along eastern Iowa, Scot Ruppert had similar success last November using Sonny's dipbait and his Rupe Tube dipbait worm. "Last fall, the water temperature was 43°F and I caught 28 channel cats from 3 to 4 pounds in one afternoon fishing with Rupe Tubes and Sonny's," he says. "I caught them on a mudflat in 3 to 4 feet of water. Dipbaits have a reputation of under-performing in cooler water, but I think the problem is that anglers keep fishing dipbaits in their summer spots after the cats have moved in fall. If you keep track of where they're feeding, you can catch them on dipbaits as long as the water temperature is above 40°F."
That means southern anglers can keep catching channel cats throughout much or all of winter. Many southern guides switch in early December to targeting blue cats, as clients love wrestling with 20- to 70-pound blues, and winter is the best time to put bunches of them in a boat. But anglers interested in catching channel cats into winter down south have multiple options.
Dipbaits work well in southern waters throughout winter. Anglers target shallow flats — especially on sunny winter days — to catch 2- to 7-pound channel cats on lakes Tawakoni, Worth, and Eagle Mountain in Texas, as well as lakes all across the Deep South. Shallower is better in many cases. One to 2 feet of water can hold swarms of channel cats in search of baitfish clustered in sun-warmed bays.
Another winter pattern down south is the cormorant bite, where anglers fish in standing timber where flocks of migratory cormorants roost each night. Anglers who "plop" a wad of dipbait, a light colored jig, or anything that approximates cormorant droppings shortly after sunrise at the base of a roost tree can often enjoy fast action for channel catfish until the bite tapers off in mid-morning.
Ultimately, it's all about temperature, which controls fish metabolism, effects baitfish behavior, and drives catfish patterns. Work around that magic number to catch channel cats late in the season.
*Dan Anderson, Bouton, Iowa, is a regular contributor to In-Fisherman on catfish topics. Contact: Captain Brad Durick, braddurick.com.