October 20, 2022
By Dan Anderson
The key to catching channel catfish in the fall is to forget where you caught them last summer. Once water temperatures fall below about 50°F, channel cats move toward areas where they spend the winter. Anglers aware of that annual migration and who alter where and how they fish can enjoy catfishing success well into November, maybe even to Christmas Day.
The challenge to catching late-season channel catfish is that there are no absolute rules about how far and how fast catfish move. Studies of radio-tagged channel catfish in rivers at multiple locations across the Midwest proved some fish moved as much as 35 miles between Labor Day and Thanksgiving to find suitable wintering areas; others moved barely at all. Some fish moved from their summer grounds to their wintering areas in a matter of days; others took a month or more to make the migration.
Channel cats in northern rivers demonstrated the most dramatic seasonal movements, sometimes abandoning their summer haunts overnight after a significant cold front chilled the waters of their shallow rivers. Movement of fish in southern lakes and rivers wasn’t as pronounced, but was still significant enough to require anglers to alter their tactics to stay on fish as waters cooled.
Research and angler experience prove that the secret to catching channel catfish from fall into early winter is understanding how cooling water temperatures trigger catfish movement, and anticipating when and where catfish move during that migration.
Studies in Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and South Dakota have documented large-scale movements of channel cats once water temperatures in rivers cooled. The magic number seems to be around 50°F, although some movement was credited to increased flow in small, shallow rivers due to seasonal rains. Fish that had been “trapped” in holes took advantage of the opportunity and moved when fall rains increased flows. Whatever the trigger, tagged fish in small rivers consistently moved to areas of either deeper water in that river, or downstream all the way to the confluence of the small river with a larger river, where they wintered in the deeper waters of the big river.
On the middle section of the Wapsipinicon River in Iowa, most channel catfish from dozens of miles of that relatively shallow waterway moved either upstream or downstream starting in mid-October to reach a single area where sand mining created an area of water up to 20 feet deep just off the shallower main channel. Tony Barada, assistant fisheries administrator with Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, cites research on the Platte River (famed for being, “a mile wide and an inch deep”) that indicated many of the channel cats from the middle reaches of the river, where “deep” holes are often only about a meter deep (a little over 3 feet), migrated each fall downstream into 2- to 3-meter-deep holes, or moved farther downstream into the Missouri River for the winter.
“Water temperature and flow seem to be the triggers for the fall migration,” Barada says. “The Platte is so shallow that it cools off quickly once the air temperature falls. Another factor is that in the fall, irrigation demands are reduced, so there’s more flow, allowing fish to move more easily. It’s hard to tell if they’re simply responding to the opportunity to move after a summer of being trapped in shallow holes, or if decreased water temperature triggers movement that coincides with the increased flow. Either way, they definitely move to deeper areas for the winter in October and November.”
Channel catfish on large rivers don’t need to travel long distances to find satisfactory wintering habitat, but still respond to changes in their environment as winter approaches.
“In October and into November, they’re moving toward specific wintering areas on the Mississippi River,” says tournament catfisherman Tyson Emery of Fulton, Illinois. “On the Mississippi, I have good luck fishing below dams. Not right at the dams, because there’s too much current immediately below a dam, but a mile or two downstream from the dams. That’s where there seems to be areas with enough depth yet have the reduced current that they like for wintering holes. My rule of thumb for cold water catfishing is that I don’t want current that requires more than a 2-ounce weight to hold my bait in place.”
A study done by fishery biologist Don Fago on the Wisconsin River involved radio-tagging 187 catfish to monitor their late-season movements. While 64 percent of the tagged fish moved downstream to overwinter in the Mississippi River, 23 percent overwintered below the Prairie du Sac Dam on the Wisconsin River. Fago noted that fish tagged in the lower portion of the river tended to migrate to the Mississippi, while fish originally tagged near the dam tended to overwinter near the dam.
On big northern rivers like the Mississippi and Ohio, current and cover affect the location of channel cat wintering areas. Emery uses his electronics to scan the Mississippi for channel edges and drop-offs with submerged structure. His goal is to find an edge, ledge or drop-off with submerged trees or structure that allows channel cats to be near but not in the current. Wing dams also draw his attention. While he fishes the upstream sides and tips of wing dams in summer, in late fall and early winter he focuses on the slower currents on the downstream of side of wing dams. He uses the same tackle year-round—B’n’M Elite 7-foot 6-inch medium-heavy rods equipped with Okuma Cold Water 203 reels spooled with 65-pound-test Power Pro braided mainline and 50-pound-test mono leaders rigged Carolina-style.
“I like braided line in the summer because I walk my baits, even for channel cats, and the braid lets me feel the bottom better than mono,” he says. “Plus, there are some big flatheads in the river up here, so it’s nice to have the stronger line. I use the same line year-round so I don’t have to spend time re-spooling my reels.”
Team Catfish 5/0 Double Action hooks loaded with cut shad or mooneye are his favorite late-season baits. “I use shad almost exclusively,” he says. “Mostly the middle section, but later in fall I use 3-inch shad fillets or cut creek chubs, or shad guts. The 3-inch fillets work well in late fall for some reason. They really like shad guts that time of year, but even fresh guts like you buy from a baitshop in Mason jars are pretty nasty smelling.
Emery also fishes the Rock River in Illinois, targeting channel cats that have migrated upstream to dams or deeper holes in that smaller river. “There’s an outside bend that’s deep, with a lot of submerged trees and junk all along the channel that runs around that bend,” he says. “I catch a lot of channel cats from that bend in late fall. I think the cover along the bottom in that area reduces the current enough to give the catfish the conditions they want for a wintering area. Once you find a spot like that, unless there’s a major change in the river, they seem to return to that same area year after year.”
Lakes and Reservoirs
Channel catfish in lakes and reservoirs also move in response to changes in water temperature in late fall, though the movements may seem to contradict the way their brethren in rivers move. While river cats travel to find deeper water, channel cats in lakes often temporarily move shallower as water temperatures cool. Once water temps in lakes fall below about 50°F, catfish are often attracted to warmer water in shallow bays and arms on sunny afternoons.
“Once the water cools, I fish a lot in shallow water,” says Texas catfish guide Chad Ferguson. “They’re pretty predictable in late October through November. I look for flooded timber or clumps of willows in 4 to 6 feet of water, sometimes even in cattails. I fish with punchbait on a #6 treble hook underneath a foam float, with a couple split shot above the hook to hold the bait down. I start out fishing on the edge of the flooded timber or willows, then gradually work my way into the cover if that’s where the fish are. That time of year, after the cool down, they’re looking for warmer water in the shallows, and being catfish, they prefer to be around structure as much as possible.”
A few tricks improve Ferguson’s catch rates in the fall. He doesn’t actually pre-chum areas for catfish in advance of a fishing trip, but likes to toss out a few scoops of range cubes or sour wheat when he first pulls into an area to get the attention of catfish already in the area. He uses only punchbait because it’s effective for the 2- to 5-pound channel cats his clients seek, and it eliminates the need to spend time collecting baitfish before each trip.
“Just about any punchbait catches catfish if the catfish are there,” he says. “I use Benny Robert’s a lot, CJ’s is good, Sure Shot catches fish, and Mr. Whiskers is good. If I run out, I run to the nearest tackle shop and buy whatever’s on their shelf. For me, the brand of punchbait isn’t as important as fishing where I know the catfish are.”
Finding catfish isn’t hard for Ferguson, especially in the fall when channel cats are often concentrated near woody structure on sunny afternoons in shallow areas. Last year he took a camera crew to film a TV show on a lake he hadn’t fished in over 25 years. He spent an hour cruising the lake, using both sonar and eyeballs to identify depths and structure. Once he identified the prime places to fish and started fishing, it only took 11 minutes of fishing to get the video they needed for the show.
“Then we turned off the cameras, stayed another hour and caught 65 more nice channel cats just for the fun of it,” he says. “The hardest part about catching catfish is finding the first one. Once you get that first one in the boat it’s just a matter of fine-tuning exactly where they are in an area, and then keeping bait in front of them.”
Ferguson uses the same tackle for channel catfish in spring, summer, and fall: Whisker Seeker Tackle’s Chad Ferguson Signature Series 7-foot 6-inch medium-heavy baitcasting rods equipped with Abu Garcia 6500C baitcasting reels. He prefers 35-pound-test Whisker Seeker High Visibility braided line tied directly to #4 or #6 treble hooks.
“When you’re fishing shallow, in 4 to 6 feet of water, that’s the simplest, best way to present baits,” he says. “It keeps the bait off the bottom and the punchbaits are milking flavor and chumming as the floats drift with the wind—it’s just a great way to fish. If it’s cloudy, or the shallow water is cool enough so the cats aren’t in there, I move out to deeper water, maybe 16 to 24 feet deep. The catfish move back and forth between deep and shallow that time of year. In the lakes down here, they don’t move a long ways, they just move till they find the forage fish or water temperature they like.”
Reservoirs in northern states may combine two populations of channel catfish in late October through November. Catfish that spend their summer in the relatively shallow waters of small tributary rivers and large creeks migrate downstream to the deeper water of reservoirs for the winter. Those catfish tend to concentrate in the first areas of deep water they encounter at the upper end of reservoirs, though they may follow surges of water that come into the reservoir and blend with “resident” catfish that spend their entire year in a specific area of the reservoir. The notion that channel catfish in a lake or reservoir move to the deepest available hole is faulty. Sheer depth isn’t as important for wintering catfish as stable oxygen content and easy access to food during midwinter feeding forays. Anglers searching midwestern lakes for late-season channel cats should customize Ferguson’s Texas reservoir strategies to match their local conditions: Target shallow flats with cover on sunny afternoons, then follow the fish as they move toward nearby drop-offs into middepth water on cloudy, cool days.
Emery, the Illinois catfisherman, says his catfishing season doesn’t end until ice keeps him off the water.
“I’ve caught channel cats on Christmas Day,” he says. “In November, even into December, if you get a couple sunny days that raise the water temperature a degree or two, channel catfish will feed. They drift up out of those deeper holes and feed on shallow mudflats in the area. It’s a good idea to downsize baits because they’re not looking for a big meal, but it’s surprising how good catfishing can be that time of year if you know where to look.”
*Dan Anderson, Bouton, Iowa, has written for In-Fisherman publications on catfish topics for more than a decade.