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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...

Canyon Reservoirs

These deepest and clearest of impoundments run through western states. Built on major rivers like the Colorado, they're long and narrow with many long tributaries that run over 100 feet deep. The sand and rock substrate makes them infertile. And while channel cats exist in many, populations generally are small.
Some waters of this type produce outsize fish, though, like southern ­California's famous bass lakes, where anglers finessing livebaits often are thrilled by channel cats larger than the world-record largemouth. Examples of canyon reservoirs include Powell (Arizona-Utah), Flaming Gorge (Wyoming-Utah), Havasu (Arizona-California), Castaic (California), and Mead (Nevada-­Arizona).
In late spring, catfish move to ­shallow arms that offer rock outcrops or other cover for spawning. At other times, look for cats along deep underwater points, relating to humps or submerged islands, or among deep boulders. While ultraclear water typically keeps ­catfish deep in canyon impoundments (they've been caught 160 feet deep in Lake Powell), feeding opportunities such as an insect hatch or schooling threadfin shad can draw them to the surface during daylight.

Flatland Reservoirs

The Lindners defined flatland reservoirs as those built over watersheds with slight gradients, giving them a shallow basin with maximum depth near the dam of 20 to 40 feet. Their basins typically are soft with brush, timber, and stumps common throughout, unless the area had been farmed before impoundment.
These rounded reservoirs have relatively few major creeks but many small cuts that tend to be shallow and short. Small humps may be present, but the main river channel provides the most prominent depth break, although bridges, road beds, and other manmade structure are important features for fish and anglers.
Large expanses of shallow water make flatland reservoirs productive for plankton, baitfish, and predators. They tend to occur at the lower end of major river systems, and water color tends to be dark unless abundant aquatic vegetation is present to clear the water. Examples of prime catfish fisheries in flatland reservoirs include Lake Seminole (Georgia), Santee-Cooper (South Carolina), Carlisle (Illinois), Ross Barnett (Mississippi), and Castle Rock (Wisconsin).

Highland Reservoirs

These deep, clear impoundments form when dams are built in mountainous regions, with rock and gravel the dominant substrate. They tend to have many long, deep coves that form over creeks, valleys, and gullies. Populations of all species are less numerous due to reduced primary productivity and limited preyfish.
Populations of channel and flathead catfish aren't large, though individual fish often reach trophy size, also true of other predators like striped bass, walleyes, and black bass in these impoundments. Highland reservoirs are concentrated along the Appalachian Mountains, though some occur in the west. Examples include Dale Hollow (Tennessee), Bull Shoals (Arkansas-Missouri), Amistad (Texas), and Lanier (Georgia).
The deep lower ends of highland reservoirs are predominately much deeper than catfish generally prefer, so fish occupy the shallower headwaters and concentrate around creeks, cuts, and pockets in the lower reaches. In spring, they push far into creek arms and backwaters to feed. Highland reservoirs also feature bluff banks that drop steeply into deep water, although they offer little feeding area compared to the broad flats of flatland reservoirs. Fish hold at the base of bluffs if water isn't too deep (40 feet or so), or along shelves and outcrops along the wall. These areas are effectively fished with banklines.
Highland reservoirs offer the best opportunity to catch catfish on artificials. First, clear water gives fish plenty of time to react to lures. Also, the ­relative scarcity of preyfish may make fish less particular about what they strike.
Narrower feeding zones also allow anglers familiar with a reservoir's underwater structure to present jigs, spoons, or crankbaits in high-percentage areas. Highland reservoirs also are conducive to trolling. And artificial offerings pulled along shoreline breaks take cats along with a variety of gamefish.

Hill-Land Reservoirs

These mid-depth impoundments look like typical reservoirs, with a distinct Christmas-tree shape, due to increasingly larger creek arms at the downstream end and a narrowing at the dam. Their diverse habitat provides for a variety of gamefish, often including channel and flathead catfish, and blues in the south-central portion of the United States. Water color tends to be clearer than in flatland reservoirs, again due to abundant vegetation. Examples include Texoma (Texas-­Oklahoma), W. F. George or Eufaula (Georgia-Alabama), Shelbyville (Illinois), Kinzua (Pennsylvania), and Sam Rayburn (Texas).
If power plants release warmwater, these thermal plumes attract catfish during the coldest months of the year. Otherwise, catfish winter along the main river channel or in deep creek arms. In spring, some fish migrate upstream to the next upstream dam.
They're first caught, however, in deep timber adjacent to the channel. Here they feed on shad, herring, and other baitfish. Other groups of cats move into coves and creek arms with little or no flowing water, as warming conditions there draw prey of all sorts.

Major River Pools

While this category of impoundment isn't included in the original In-Fisherman reservoir classification, the segments of big rivers, divided by locks and dams provide major catfish fisheries in the Midwest and Southeast. The Mississippi and Ohio rivers are prime examples, while narrow sections of the Missouri, Tennessee, Cumberland, Chattahoochee, and many others fit the pattern.
In spring, some cats, primarily channels, roam quieter spots in the spillways of the upstream dam. As water warms, they move to deeper and faster areas that provide better feeding. During the first half of the season, the upper third of the pool holds most catfish, with fish spreading downstream after the spawn.
Rock dikes and wing dams, built to improve barge travel, hold channel cats from midsummer through winter, though the portion of the rock structure that fish use changes seasonally.
In summer, active fish hold on the upstream side of structures to feed on drifting edibles or to prey on smaller fish using the structures. The deepest wing dams provide wintering habitat by creating deep holes with little current. Other key spots in major river pools are tributaries (fish the ledge off the delta and larger pools near the big river); backwaters, both natural (oxbows) and man-made (harbors); deep riprap banks or points; and major storm drains.
Although the pace of reservoir ­construction has slowed greatly in recent decades, agencies have built small reservoirs for fishing, such as the one I worked on in Georgia. In arid regions, however, new reservoirs continue to be built. Nearly all house populations of one or more of the major catfish species, and many have excellent and untapped fisheries to explore. Study the reservoir type and ­general seasonal movement patterns of catfish in such waters. Then set some good baits and you'll be into cats, maybe even one like George Lijewski's 109-pound blue from Santee-Cooper or the new 111-pound record blue from Wheeler Reservoir in Alabama.

Plateau Reservoirs

Plateau reservoirs occur from the Missouri River west to eastern Oregon, where geologic formations include small tributaries and flat-topped humps. These impoundments tend to be broad and wind-swept, with moderate productivity.
Channel catfish predominate due to their location, and populations usually are moderate with fairly small average size. These waters make prime walleye habitat, but lack of shallow cover and rock limits the production of catfish. Examples include Oahe (South Dakota), Meredith (Texas), Fort Peck (Montana), Roosevelt (Arizona), and Banks (Washington).
As with other reservoir types, in spring, some catfish move to the next dam upstream, providing good tailrace fishing for boat and bank anglers. Timbered backwaters also attract cats from spring through fall, with creek mouths and associated points key areas in late summer and fall. Plateau reservoirs feature humps that may rise to within 10 to 20 feet of the surface. Catfish, along with walleyes and sauger, feed on these structures, as well as on sand, gravel, or clay points. Check the deepest side for catfish.

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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