Primetime Channel Catfish

Primetime Channel Catfish

Every time I hit the water, I believe -- I know -- that I'm going to catch catfish. I'm excited about the process of finding and catching channel catfish, and I want you to share in that excitement.


This, though, really is the best period of the year. The Prespawn Period begins soon after river levels stabilize from the high water caused by melting snow and spring rains. Unlike pike and walleyes, which move toward spawning areas before the ice fully melts, channel cats are in no hurry to reproduce. They're much more concerned with finding food.



The Prespawn Period lasts for several weeks or even a couple months in many parts of the country; so this is an extended period when the overall mood of the fish is aggressive. This period provides the most consistent action of the year -- both for size and numbers of fish. Still, you have to put the right bait in the right place at the right time. But when you get it right, it can be really right right now.

SCOUTING TOP LOCATIONS


Tracking studies in the North reveal that the best wintering holes are the deepest holes available in a long stretch of river. In some cases, channel cats swim down smaller streams to the confluence with a larger river. They hold in the core of deep, slack holes until the water level begins to rise and temperatures warm in late winter or early spring.


This begins a tumultuous period of rising water and catfish movement -- usually upstream -- toward productive feeding grounds. Wintering holes offer protection from current, but inadequate food for large numbers of fish. So the cats move toward areas that concentrate food. Fish on small rivers might move only a short distance before settling into mid-depth holes with downed trees or other cover. Cats in larger rivers might move many miles before a dam or other impassable barrier blocks further migration.

Identifying top catfish locations during the Prespawn Period depends largely on the size, depth, and current speed of the river you're fishing. The nature of a river often changes from one stretch to another, making this process more complex. We've always advised learning to find cats on a small to midsize river, before tackling larger rivers. But that's not an absolute rule.

Still, smaller rivers are easier to read, by virtue of their compact proportions and their visible cover and structural elements. A big-river hole might be a half-mile long and 200 yards wide, while a half-mile stretch of a smaller stream contains several holes. Holes, snags, and other catfish attractors also are more obvious in smaller rivers.

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Holes often are the basic holding area of catfish during the Prespawn Period. Not the deep, slack holes they occupied during winter, but mid-depth holes laden with cover such as snags, boulders, and wing dams. The size and depth of the hole matters, but the amount and quality of the cover seem to be more important. The fish might not hold near a logjam in the middle of a shallow run, but neither are they usually found in a large, deep hole that's void of cover.

You need to cover a lot of water in order to identify top locations. If you fish the bend hole immediately downstream from the boat ramp, you're probably overlooking a much better hole around the next bend. You're also fishing the same areas that most other anglers fish. To catch more and bigger cats than the average angler, move more often and cover more water.

THE SPOT ON THE SPOT

Once you've identified a good hole, or better, a few good holes, preferably a few miles from a boat ramp or popular shore-fishing access, how do you proceed? If you're like most catmen, you probably anchor upstream from the cover element, cast your baits to the front or side of the cover, and wait for a bite. If you don't get bit in 20 minutes or so, you pull anchor and move to your next spot.

That's not a bad strategy when the fish are really cranked and the action's fast. But that's the exception rather than the rule. In most small rivers, truly great spots don't exist every mile. Use a run-and-gun tactic when you're exploring a river stretch for the first time, or when you're fishing streams with lots of good holes and an above-average catfish population.

Several factors determine how channel cats set up in a hole, but none is more important than water level -- except, perhaps, current velocity. High water usually means faster flows, and vice versa. So if we limit our discussion to high, normal, and low water levels, we can cover most of the conditions we'll encounter.

During normal water levels, active channel cats hold in areas that provide the best opportunity for a meal. Current is the purveyor of those meals, so it's easy to see why current seams are such high-percentage fishing spots. These areas allow cats to hold out of the main force of the current, positioned to easily intercept morsels carried by the faster water.

In a small river hole, the most active cats might hold at the tail of the riffle at the head of the hole. This is a where the fast water pouring over the shallow riffle slows, dumping its load of insects, baitfish, and carrion -- all the stuff channel cats crave. Active catfish get first crack at the food that washes into the hole.

Another top spot is the area in front of a snag piled along an outside bend. Inactive fish hold in or behind the snag to escape the current, and then move to a position in front of the timber when they're ready for a meal. Again, they patrol an edge along which food is delivered by current.

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These same spots are productive during low-water levels, but the sweet spot tends to be more concentrated. Instead of holding in the tail of the upstream riffle, active cats may move right into the riffle (usually a late prespawn and summer tactic) or will fall back into the core of the hole. Increased depth in this area offers better overhead protection from predators. Active cats also continue to hold around cover objects, spending the most time along the deeper outside edge rather than near the bank.

It's during high water that catfish location really changes. The same spots that afforded current protection during low and normal flows are too fast during high-water periods. In this situation, active cats will more likely hold in the eddy that forms behind the snag, or near the tail of the hole. They may also vacate the main river by moving into areas flooded by high water -- spots that would otherwise be dry.

TACKLE & RIGGING REFINEMENTS

Understanding how channel cats relate to changing water conditions is one key to finding and catching them in rivers. Novice anglers too often look for a shortcut -- a secret bait or terminal rig or rod-and-reel combination -- to help them catch more fish. Bait and tackle don't matter if you're not fishing in the right spot.

If you've chosen a good spot, though, after carefully evaluating river conditions, then tackle and rigging refinements can improve your catch. During the early season, for example, channel cats often bite tentatively, sampling rather than engulfing baits. Standard J-hooks are a better option than circle hooks in this situation, because they allow you to set the hook as soon as a fish grabs the bait.

More Tackle and Rigging Tips:

  • Use a softer rod for circle hooks than you would for standard J-hooks. A bass-style flipping stick is a fine choice for many catfishing situations, but the tip is too stiff for circle hooks. A softer tip allows cats to move with a bait without feeling resistance.
  • With circle hooks, keep the reel engaged -- but use a freespool clicker with J-hooks. Increasing line tension causes a circle hook to rotate in a fish's jaw until the point catches the soft flesh in the corner of the mouth. With a standard hook, though, it's necessary to minimize tension and manually set the hook.
  • Leader length makes a difference. In current, long leaders result in more snags. A 12- to 18-inch leader is fine for clean-bottom areas in slow to moderate current, but a 3- to 6-inch snell is better suited to faster flows.
  • Many anglers have been taught to use the lightest possible jigs and sinkers, but this rule has little application in catfishing. The main line slides freely through the sinker to minimize resistance, and a heavier sinker is less likely to roll, keeping baits in position and minimizing snags. So don't be stingy with the weight.
  • We usually use monofilament line in low water. In heavy current, on the other hand, we use braids. Monofilament offers better abrasion resistance when fishing close to wood and other cover, but the thinner diameter of a braided or fused-filament superline offers less water resistance. Low-stretch superlines also are superior for detecting light bites in heavy current

Drop Shot Rig

Dropper Rigs

These rigs can perform well for panfish, like crappies and perch, that are feeding near bottom. One rig is called the dropper-loop rig for the looped snells holding the hooks off the 6- to 12-pound-test monofilament mainline. Sinker size ranges from 1/2 to 2 ounces depending on conditions. Typically, one to three pre-tied snells are secured 12 to 18 inches above the sinker for presenting multiple baits simultaneously, state laws allowing.Drop-shot rig — The drop-shot rig is a type of dropper rig, often used in bass fishing. On a drop-shot-rig, the hook is attached directly to the mainline rather than on a loop or leader shooting off the mainline. Below the hook is a sinker fixed to the end of the mainline. The rig allows baits to be presented off bottom a set distance, and is effective with livebaits, as well as with artificial softbaits such as worm, grub, and minnow imitations. On a drop-shot rig, baits can be worked very still, or jiggled and twitched, to attract fish and trigger strikes.

Generic Egg Sinker Rig

Livebait rigging is used to drift or troll livebait on or near the bottom, with frequent pauses to give fish a good look at the bait. If a fish strikes, drop the rod tip toward the fish and feed a little line as it swims off. A sliding sinker reduces weight resistance. Heavier fixed sinkers risk spooking fish that strike the bait and feel unnatural pressure.

Generic Slip Rig

Livebait rigging is used to drift or troll livebait on or near the bottom, with frequent pauses to give fish a good look at the bait. If a fish strikes, drop the rod tip toward the fish and feed a little line as it swims off. A sliding sinker reduces weight resistance. Heavier fixed sinkers risk spooking fish that strike the bait and feel unnatural pressure.

Lindy Rig

Livebait rigging is used to drift or troll livebait on or near the bottom, with frequent pauses to give fish a good look at the bait. If a fish strikes, drop the rod tip toward the fish and feed a little line as it swims off. A sliding sinker reduces weight resistance. Heavier fixed sinkers risk spooking fish that strike the bait and feel unnatural pressure.

Northland Roach Rig

Livebait rigging is used to drift or troll livebait on or near the bottom, with frequent pauses to give fish a good look at the bait. If a fish strikes, drop the rod tip toward the fish and feed a little line as it swims off. A sliding sinker reduces weight resistance. Heavier fixed sinkers risk spooking fish that strike the bait and feel unnatural pressure.

Rubbercor Rig

Livebait rigging is used to drift or troll livebait on or near the bottom, with frequent pauses to give fish a good look at the bait. If a fish strikes, drop the rod tip toward the fish and feed a little line as it swims off. A sliding sinker reduces weight resistance. Heavier fixed sinkers risk spooking fish that strike the bait and feel unnatural pressure.

Sinker Placement

Slipsinker Rig

Teamed with livebait, the slipsinker rig has accounted for more walleyes than any other presentation, but this versatile rig also is a favorite of catfish anglers and has taken many bass, pike, sturgeon, and panfish. The heart of this rig is a sinker that slides on the monofilament or braid mainline above a barrel swivel. For walleyes, for example, you might use a 1/4-ounce walking sinker, 6- to 10-pound monofilament mainline, and a leader of 4- to 10-pound monofilament or fluorocarbon, with an octopus style hook of a size appropriate for the bait. For larger fish, like big catfish, upgrade to line tests of 20 to 30 pounds or more. As with the split-shot rig, the length of the leader determines bait action and control. Use sinker weights appropriate for current and depth. Slipsinker rigs used in strong current might require sinkers up to 8 ounces or more.
The slipsinker rig can be cast and slowly retrieved, slowly trolled, or used as a stationary presentation, so the depth of the water, bottom terrain, and how fast the bait is being moved by the boat, current, or during retrieval, all play a part in determining the weight of the sinker. The sinker usually is a boot-shaped walking sinker or egg- or bell-shaped sinker for gravel and sandy bottoms, or a bullet sinker in weeds and wood. Beads or blades are sometimes added to the leader in front of the hook as an attractant.
Because the mainline slips through the sinker, anglers often find it to their advantage to let a fish 'œrun' with the bait, fishing the presentation with an open spool and letting the fish pull line off the spool with the least resistance possible. This gives the fish more time to get the bait further in its mouth or throat, which can cause more — often lethal — injury to fish. If you can set the hook quickly, or fish on a tight line, it'™s often better to do so, especially if you intend to release your catch.

Slip Float Rigs

This is the rig that just about every angler fishing today started out with that first time they went fishing, although most were probably too young to remember. Nothing too fancy, just a float or 'œbobber' a couple of feet up the line from some split shot, and a hook baited with a worm below that. Works like magic on panfish.
There are two primary types of float rigs — fixed-float and slipfloat. The fixed float is just that, when the float is fixed to a certain point on the line, and is best fished in situations where the fish are feeding shallow, say four feet or less. The slipfloat rig allows the float to slide up and down the line so you can fish in deeper water. A small bobber stop is fastened on the line somewhere above the bobber to limit how far up the line the bobber can slide, determining how deep the bait is fished. When the rig is reeled in, the stop goes through the rod guides and onto the spool of the reel to allow for casting and retrieving.
While the fixed-float rig is a good way to target shallow fish like crappies, bass, sunfish, catfish, and trout, the slipfloat rig'™s ability to go deep broadens the potential species list to include pike, walleye, muskie, striper, and more. A longer light-to-medium action spinning rod, about 7 feet long, with a slow to moderate action, spooled with 4- to 8-pound monofilament, is a good choice for a float rig. Hooks should be matched to the bait, such as a #4 to #8 baitholder hook for angleworms and nightcrawlers, for example, although a jig also can be used.
Fishing a float rig often is a case of not doing anything at all, letting the bait do the fish-attracting work, as the float is slowly moved by wave action on the surface. Both rigs should be cast by gently swinging the rig sideways and behind you, then thrusting the rod toward the target with a slight upward motion as you release the line. You want to lob the rig to a specific spot as gently as possible. If the wind is blowing, or you'™re fishing in current, target your cast so that the wind or current moves the rig into your target zone. In other instances, a little bit of action added by quick twitches of the rod tip or even substantial pulls that move the bait up in the water column and then let it settle, induces strikes. The float signals when a fish is on the line, a visual experience that remains exciting to anglers no matter their age or fishing experience.

Standard Three-Way Rig

An alternative to the set rig is sometimes called the bottom rig or three-way rig. While this rig can be used from the boat, slowly trolled, it also works well as a stationary presentation. Instead of attaching the mainline to the sinker, the mainline is attached to a three-way swivel, with a dropper line to the sinker, and a leader and hook. This adaptation allows the bait to move a little higher off the bottom.

Weedless Bullet Sinker Rig

Livebait rigging is used to drift or troll livebait on or near the bottom, with frequent pauses to give fish a good look at the bait. If a fish strikes, drop the rod tip toward the fish and feed a little line as it swims off. A sliding sinker reduces weight resistance. Heavier fixed sinkers risk spooking fish that strike the bait and feel unnatural pressure.

Split Shot Rig

A hook tied on the end of the line with a sinker pinched on the line above the hook might be one of the best-producing panfish presentations of all time, but it works for bigger fish, too. Most often fished with live­bait like nightcrawlers, angle­worms, minnows, or maggots, this rig can work with some softbaits, like smaller worms and curlytail grubs. The beauty of this rig is that it lets the bait swim free to attract fish with its natural movement. The closer to the hook the sinker is placed the less movement allowed; the farther away the hook and sinker are separated the less control you have and bites can be missed. The number and weight of the sinkers is determined by depth, current, and size of the bait. You want just enough weight to keep the bait freely moving and in the strike zone.
Due to the light weight of this rig, it'™s usually fished in water shallower than about 20 feet, and most often shallower than 8 feet, with a 6- to 7- foot slow to medium action, medium-light power spinning rod with 4- to 8-pound-test monofilament line. The split-shot rig can be gently cast and slowly retrieved, fished stationary, or allowed to drift. Follow the drift with your rod tip to be sure it drifts naturally and doesn'™t snag.
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