A River Catfish Companion
April 17, 2014
You don't know me, but if you're reading this we probably share a common interest: catching catfish. You probably don't fish where I do (the upper Mississippi River) either, but the tactics that I use to catch cats on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border probably will work on other fair-size rivers and reservoirs.
I've been fishing with my partner, Michael Maves from Ellsworth, Wisconsin, for about three years. We've learned a lot about river catfish, and we continue to learn something new every time we hit the water. I've often thought that Mike would be a great central character for a book of humorous catfishing tales — the kind of stories that In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange used to write about his late, great catfishing buddy Otis "Toad" Smith.
From The Archives: Stange & Toad:
In some respects, though, Maves would make old Toad look downright sophisticated. Maves carries an old washing machine in his johnboat that he uses as a livewell. His outboard motor has no reverse gear, forcing him to occasionally ram snags and other obstructions to change direction. No wonder then, that his boat leaks like a sieve. And Maves often removes his fake front tooth for photographs, allowing him to better achieve that redneck-catman look. The most worrisome thing is that he's only 27 years old.
But enough about Maves' character; he'd probably blush if he knew I were writing such nice things about him. Let me describe how a typical catfishing season unfolds on the upper Mississippi River. The channel cat fishing usually begins a month earlier than the flathead fishing — about mid-April during a normal year.
Early-Season Channel Cats
The water in the main channel usually is running high and the flow is strong. The water temperature is rising, but still is considerably cooler than the tributary streams. Main channel areas that produce good numbers of prespawn channel cats from late spring through early summer usually don't hold fish when the water's high and cold.
Our best early-season pattern is to fish backwater areas and tributary streams. But tributaries can be hit or miss. Sometimes there's too much current. If the main river is running high, though, water from the main channel sometimes backs up into smaller streams. The result is high water — usually the highest water levels of the year — but fairly slack current. Couple that with warmer water temperatures and a lots of forage and you have the makings of a functional channel cat pattern.
The best channel cat holding areas usually are patches of thick cover associated with slacker water. We've caught good numbers of fish from flooded trees, logjams formed by drifting timber, and even under floating bogs that are formed by debris washed from the bank when the water begins to rise. Find the right combination of current and cover, and you'll find channel cats.
Sometimes, we move farther up these tributary streams, looking for the traditional riffle-hole-run structure common to all free-flowing rivers. Sometimes the holes have cover — usually fallen timber washed against outside river bends — and sometimes there's no cover. In either case, current seams — where slow and fast flows meet — and outside bends and cutbanks usually concentrate the most channel cats.
We release most of what we catch, but sometimes we keep enough fish for a meal. The fish that we've cleaned at this time of year usually have shad or crayfish in their stomachs. We almost always bait with fresh or slightly sour cutbait, but plan to experiment with crayfish this season. These crustaceans probably are more abundant than shad in many tributaries.
We'd be the first to admit that fishing can be tough during the early season, especially when the water is exceptionally high. Success seems to rise and fall with the water temperature and with the weather. The action begins when water temperatures are in the low 50°F range, and continues to improve as the water warms into the high 50°F to low 60°F range.
Some channel cats probably remain in tributaries all season long. We've caught numbers of channel cats and even a few flatheads in August in larger tributaries. But we've also done poorly in these same waters at the same time of year. We're not sure what variables affect the bite in these areas; they're either good, or they're not.
Primetime Channels & Flatheads
Tailrace areas begin to heat up once the water temperature begins to stabilize in mid-May to early June. In our region temperatures are hovering around the 60°F mark, enough to kick the cat's metabolism into high gear. Fortunately for the channel cats, this also is the time that flatheads begin prowling after dark, and they demand most of our attention.
From mid-June through about mid-September, when I hang up my cat rods for the year, catfishing on the upper Mississippi River is a mixed bag. Changing your focus from flatheads to larger channel cats sometimes is as simple as changing baits, since both species often reside in the same areas. When using live bullheads, for example, we never catch channel cats. But if we change to a small sucker, chub, or piece of cutbait, we'll catch lots of channels. We usually bait a couple of rods with large livebaits and a couple with cutbait to cover all the bases.
But that doesn't mean that both species don't show different habitat preferences. Flatheads on my stretch of the Mississippi River seem more drawn than channel cats to wood cover. Flatheads might hold near wing dams, scour holes, and riprap banks, but our best catches always come from woody rather than rocky areas.
Channel cats also love wood, but seem better adapted to a variety of cover options. We've caught channel cats on riprap banks, sand and gravel points, and submerged rockpiles. Other areas probably hold channel cats, too, but with such a short fishing season, we usually focus our attention on flathead spots, which give up enough channel cats to keep things interesting.
OK, back to bait. Bullheads, as I've said, are a flathead-only bait. Big flatheads love live bullheads. Suckers, chubs, and cutbait will catch flatheads and channel cats. And while a channel cat will crunch a fairly large sucker, say from 5 to 8 inches, we often have trouble hooking fish — they crush the bait without taking the hook. Downsizing to a 3- to 5-inch baitfish results in more channel cat hookups, but might not attract as many flatheads.
We've also been on several trips when the channel cats seemed to prefer live baitfish to cutbait, which is the standard offering on the upper Mississippi River all season. The best period for livebait seems to be from the end of July though August, but there are no hard rules. Keep both baits on hand and experiment when you're not getting bit.
Dipbaits catch lots of small fish, so we don't use them. Crawlers are a good cat bait, too, but they also catch lots of carp, drum, and other scaled critters, so we don't use them either. Stick with livebait and cutbait throughout the season, and if you're fishing the right spots, you'll catch your share of cats.
Tackle Tips & Tricks
We use 17- or 20-pound monofilament for channel cats. In most cases, the same rod-and-reel combination will work for flatheads, too — just replace the mono with a 50- to 80-pound superbraid. A 50-pound braid has roughly the same diameter as 17-pound mono, yet provides more strength and hooksetting power, and better sensitivity to monitor livebaits. Most line manufacturers also recommend using a lighter rod with braid than with monofilament of the same break strength, so a medium-heavy-power channel cat rod works well.
We can think of no reason to fish with a clear line. High visibility lines like Trilene Big Game Solar or Hi-Vis Power Pro are much easier to see during daylight hours. If you worry about cats seeing your line, don't. If you can't help but worry, try using a clear monofilament leader. Fluorescent lines literally shine for night fishing. Mount an ultraviolet black light in the back of your boat or on your motor cowling, and you can watch your line all night long. It's fun to watch your line jump when a channel cat smacks your bait.
Circle hooks also are a godsend for channel cat fishing. They have dramatically increased our hookup percentage, and the fish are almost always hooked near the lips. We usually keep our reels engaged unless we're going to snooze, then we use the freespool clicker to alert us to a bite. Just remember not to set the hook; wait for the rod tip to double over and reel the fish in.
A couple more circle hook tips: use a hook one or two sizes larger than you'd use with a normal hook. We prefer Gamakatsu or VMC circle hooks with a wide gap. Also, rods with the action of a pool cue don't work with circle hooks. A soft tip section lets the fish move off with the bait without feeling too much resistance. Once the hook is set, though, you need a powerful butt section to pull the fish away from cover.
We've noticed that channel cats seem more active a certain times of the day and night. This is especially true during July and August, when the period from about an hour before sunset until about 1:00 a.m. often is dynamite. After that, the bite usually slows until about an hour before dawn, when the action picks up again. We haven't noticed such an obvious pattern with flatheads, though — they seem to bite consistently throughout the night.
And while we'll often sit on a flathead spot for several hours if we have a lot of confidence in that area, we almost never wait for channel cats. When we're channel cat fishing, we usually move to a new spot if we go 15 to 20 minutes without a bite. The more good areas you can cover during the course of a night the better, especially when the fishing is slow.
Another difference between channel cats and flatheads is that flatheads almost always seek out areas with slow to moderate current, while channel cats tolerate, or maybe even prefer faster flows. We sometimes catch channel cats in slacker flathead-type areas, but rarely catch a flathead in a fast-water stretch that's better suited to channel cats.
Many more differences between the two species, of course, but not as many as most anglers believe. The same baits and tackle will catch flatheads and channel cats throughout the season, often in the same locations. The real key to success, if there is such a thing, is spending as much time on the water as possible, learning how cats respond to changing weather and water conditions.
Mayfly hatches usually slow the channel cat fishing. Not enough to make you quit fishing, perhaps, but enough that you likely will settle for catching fewer fish. Smaller cats might feed on the emerging insects, while larger fish probably are feeding on smaller baitfish drawn to the surface by the bugs. Either way, the fishÊ¼s attention is distracted.
If youÊ¼ve never seen an evening hatch, you probably will be startled by the sheer magnitude of it. Your boat will literally be covered with the insects, which are mashed into the floor of the boat as you try to move around. Navigating through dense mayfly clouds is even worse. If you want to stop your spouse from asking to go catfishing with you, take her on the water during a mayfly hatch.
The Effect of Weather
DonÊ¼t let post-frontal conditions keep you off the water during summer. If a big thunderstorm moves through an area the day before you plan to fish, or even the same day if you plan to fish at night, you still can catch plenty of channel cats at night. You might not catch as many fish as you would during stable weather conditions, but the fish still eat.
Flats At Night
I learned a few years ago that channel cats and flatheads often roam flats at night. I was heading for the ramp after a couple of hours of fishing when I decided to drop anchor on a deep flat on an inside bend off the main channel. The flat was just upstream from a wing dam and a large snag.
This was late July — probably just after the cats finished spawning — and the fishing had been slow. In this spot, though, I began catching fish immediately, and the bite continued through the night. I fished that area another 10 times or so that season and caught five to 15 channel cats every trip, with a bonus flathead or two to boot.
*Dirk Wassink is an avid catfish angler on the middle portion of the upper Mississippi River.