Reservoir Catfish

Reservoir Catfish

"Dese lakes jest ain't natural fer catfeesh," the old-timer advised me, as I dipped a netful of juvenile channel cats and released them at a boat ramp. I had to allow he had a point though his sentiments against stocking were unusal among anglers I met while working for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

The old catman apparently favored rivers for his catfishing, which true enough were the original habitat of channel cats, blues, flatheads, and white catfish. But the flurry of reservoir building during the middle decades of the 20th century transformed free-flowing rivers into series of impoundments separated by dams. These new waters varied in shape, size, depth, water color, productivity, and countless other characteristics.

Fish populations that developed in reservoirs included species that lived in the rivers before the dams were built and other species that were stocked intentionally or entered from tributaries or flooded backwaters. From Wisconsin to Louisiana, catfish became reservoir catfish — successful reservoir catfish. Stocking catfish in reservoirs rarely is necessary, and the introductions we made in Georgia were into small impoundments recently built as public fishing areas.

Catfish are built to deal with current. Their streamlined bodies, strong white muscle, large tails, and flattened bodies allow them to navigate fast flows with seemingly little effort. Yet catfish have adapted to nearly every type of reservoir. Their array of sensory systems helps them feed in waters that vary in clarity from liquid mud to crystal clear, in temperatures from 33°F to 95°F, and in depths from inches to over 100 feet.

Reservoirs typically boost production of shad and other important preyfish that increase the growth rate and abundance of catfish. Dams create deep wintering areas with little current. And as water spills from the original river channel, it floods creek channels and expanses of level ground, creating underwater flats that become feeding grounds for catfish of all sizes.

But this abundance of catfish habitat makes life harder for the catfisherman. Spring feeding areas abound and prespawn movements to these shallow areas are less synchronized than in rivers. The same is true of spawning holes and summer feeding locations.

To illustrate common patterns in reservoirs, consider Santee-Cooper Reservoir (sometimes called Lakes Marion and Moultrie), arguably the best catfish reservoir in North America. The 60,000-acre lower lake (Moultrie) was filled when the small Pinopolis Dam closed on the Cooper River, flooding dikes, swamps, ponds, sloughs, and forests. Soon after, the populations of native channel and white catfish boomed.

White cats in the 6- to 8-pound range became common, and channel cats grew to 30, 40, up to 58 pounds, the largest ever recorded. In 1964 and 1965, blue and flathead catfish, imported from Arkansas, were stocked into Santee-Cooper. Populations expanded slowly, but fish attained trophy size in the early 1980s. In 1991, the reservoir produced the former world-record blue cat (109 pounds 4 ounces) and the state-record flathead (74 pounds). In-Fisherman staff have made annual trips there during the last few years, to study seasonal patterns on this fascinating body of water.

Despite its southern location and shallow basin, catfishing warms up slowly in spring in this flatland reservoir. The flatland reservoir type, which is described more fully in the next section, features many small cuts that focus early-season catfishing. Blue cats are the first to move toward the bank. And in late March, anglers begin catching smaller blues on cut herring fished on bottom.

Blue cats and the other species remain in deep haunts through the coldest part of the year, favoring deep holes or creek channels with little or no current. Water warming into the upper 50°F range, though, spurs their appetite to start feeding on living or dead shad. Preyfish concentrate over and adjacent to humps that rise near the surface, often adorned in Santee-Cooper with stumps and brush. They also move into the mouths of creeks and hold along main-lake points.

Blue catfish are more active in cold water than are other species, and they're usually the first to turn on. Channel catfish move into similar areas, though in Santee their numbers are reduced, due to predation by larger catfish species. Finally, flatheads arrive, though by now, prespawn bluegills and crappies may have joined the menu, congregating in coves, creeks, and sloughs.

Catfish activity increases as water temperatures rise and the peak bite moves shallower. Many cat experts on Santee-Cooper and elsewhere find, however, that the biggest fish rarely move to the 2- to 4-foot-deep flats used by smaller fish in Santee-Cooper's dark waters.

All this feeding prepares catfish for the spawn to follow, when water temperatures nudge into the 80°F range. At this time, perhaps two months after the initial movement toward shallow water, catfish choose spawning niches to lay their eggs. In flatland reservoirs like Santee-Cooper, hollow logs and undercut stumps, culvert pipes, and rock walls provide plenty of places for fish to spawn. In other types of reservoirs, rock bluffs, undercut tributary banks, or riprap shorelines provide cavities for nesting.

The spawn brings a midsummer lull in catfishing, as male fish remain in their nesting cavity for a week or two until fry can venture into the reservoir. Females remain near spawning locations and seem to need a recuperation period before they resume heavy feeding, similar to black bass, muskies, and stripers.

After the spawn, the focus for catfish feeding shifts deeper, particularly for large cats of each species. In reservoirs of all types, predators often become most active on wind-blown shorelines and points, as plankton and shad concentrate and orient in a particular direction. Channel cats, blue cats, and even flatheads key on these concentrations, often feeding off bottom.

Anglers on Santee-Cooper and other productive reservoirs often find groups of flathead catfish suspended under schools of baitfish at first light, and cats immediately snatch a bait dropped through the school. Groups of mid-size blue cats also cruise midwater in flatland and river-run reservoirs, moving vertically in response to baitfish location and light levels. In this manner, blue cats behave like striped bass, and many of the best waters for blue cats also offer good striper populations (Tennessee River impoundments, California reservoirs, Santee-Cooper and Lake Texoma, for example).

During summer, chemical stratification also drives catfish from the bottom of deep channels, since the deepest, coldest layer of water (hypolimnion) gradually loses oxygen as summer progresses. Less-active cats hold along the upper edge of channels or on flats adjacent to channel bends. In reservoirs like Santee, fishing deeper than 20 feet can be fruitless, for this reason. If livebaits die from suffocation, fish shallower.

Reservoir Classification

Rivers flow through diverse land forms. And reservoirs built on them take on characteristics of the land. When Ron and Al Lindner founded In-­Fisherman, they had established a system for classifying reservoirs that helps define general fishing patterns and lets anglers communicate about reservoir fishing across the continent.

Continued after gallery...

Lowland Reservoirs

Sometimes called flowages in Wisconsin or bayous in Louisiana, these impoundments resemble marshes more than classic reservoirs. They're biologically productive, however, and in catfish country, they're excellent fisheries. Lac Des Allemands in Louisiana contains huge populations of channel, blue, and flathead catfish, at an estimated biomass of 430 pounds of cats per acre.

Maximum depth may be only 20 feet, and creek channels are difficult to distinguish. Abundant shallow cover, stained water, and high organic content that results in a shallow thermocline generally keep all fish species shallow. Examples include Black Bayou (Louisiana), Chippewa Flowage (Wisconsin), Bond Falls (Michigan), and ­Taylor Creek (Florida).

Necked-down areas with increased current concentrate preyfish and catfish. During cooler months, deeper holes hold larger fish. Night fishing generally is most productive, as cats leave thick wood cover and feed on open flats where bait presentation is easier.

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