Primetime Channel Catfish
July 12, 2012
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