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A Riverman's Journal

Autumn reflections on South Fork & channel cats.

A Riverman's Journal

(Doug Schermer illustration)

The brown leather journal was wedged on a shelf of a steel bookcase in the basement at ­In‑Fisherman headquarters. It was inconspicuous among the large collection of archived books, reports, and other documents accumulated from over 35 years and set aside for safe keeping.

No telling how long it had been there. It’s well worn and the binding is splitting at the ends. No evidence of who the author is, or to whom specifically it belongs to here. Inside the front cover is a small piece of personal stationary with the monogram ‘B.H.C.’ The short note reads:

“My husband loved to fish for catfish. He’d take the old boat down to the South Fork so often after he retired. He looked forward to receiving your magazine in the mail, and especially enjoyed the articles about catfishing. Perhaps your group would appreciate this most, so it seemed fitting to send it to you.”

The journal’s pages contain about three and a half years of handwritten entries, a self-reporting of one man’s experiences from time spent on a small river, South Fork. Noteworthy is his knack for reading the river and how he adapts to the changing conditions. Here we share selected entries from one fall season. We also have added some supporting notes along the way about what we’ve learned about principle patterns for catfish in small rivers in the fall.

Sept. 9

I etched another waterline on the trestle footing at Parker’s Crossing. The level is typical for this time of year. The marks from the last two years are underwater, probably about 8 inches to a foot. Clean running all the way from Parker’s to Sandy Flat below Fence Pool. Pulled the boat through Sandy, with easy going upriver at least another mile to the top end. Eleven channel catfish to 4 pounds.

Sept. 12

Went upriver again today. Sunny and mild. Caught 7 nice catfish, biggest about 6 pounds. The upper section is holding quite a mess of fish this year, not like the last couple, and some bigger ones, too. Each good hole is still producing 3 to 5 fish. Water holding at about 4 feet in some of the deep spots where the catches are best.

Pencil illustration of a catfish underwater near an old root ball
(Doug Schermer illustration)

Sept. 15

This morning I motored into the second big turn up from Fence Pool and the river looked different, making me second guess for a moment where I was. I realized that Big Cottonwood had finally fallen, blown over in the strong winds of the storm last night. It’s remarkable that the big deadhead stood this long, leaning over, most of the roots exposed from the river working under it.

The rootball is wider than my fishing rod is long, must be 8 feet from end to end. It has pulled up a good portion of the bank soil, and the trunk’s resting in the water at the edge of the river. Several of the thick, remaining limbs are blocking passage and need to be cut back, just enough to get through. What a fine spot this will make for catfishing next year, even better later, once the water digs out a good hole beneath it. Wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a fish or two here already, taking refuge in the big tree. Bring the saw.

Sept. 16

Cooler weather has moved in and it rained a good portion of the day. The leaves on the walnut trees in Hanson’s field are fully yellowed, and there’s some color on the ash along the river.

Caught one catfish at Big Cottonwood before I cut back the tops. Cut the limbs to size and stacked the wood up on the high bank. It will make good fuel for lunch fires. Caught three more cats upriver—kept one 2-pounder for supper. Checked the stomach: fish scales, three minnows (one looked fresh), thick green liquid (looks to be digested plants or algae).

Editor’s Note: One of the earliest detailed accounts of channel catfish diets is reported in a study conducted by biologists Reeve Bailey and Harry Harrison, September 1940 to October 1941 on the Des Moines River in Iowa. Over 900 catfish were collected. The reach investigated was a classic for a midwestern river of the time:

“The shores are shaded by luxuriant undergrowth and willow, soft maple, American elm, boxelder, ash, and basswood… Water erosion along the banks periodically fells trees, which accumulate floating brush and logs. The extensive masses of debris thus produced furnish shelter for fish and harbor a rich insect fauna… This section of the stream is a succession of long pools—about 8 feet deep—separated by rubble riffles and wide and shallow bars of shifting sand. The channel is floored with coarse gravel and some boulders.”


These early observations point to the importance of woody debris, like Big Cottonwood, in shaping healthy river habitat and supporting a diverse biological community. Channel catfish stomachs contained a wide array of foods, including over 50 families of terrestrial and aquatic insects, at least 12 different fish species (mostly shiner species), plants, and other miscellaneous items, such as birds and mammals, as evident by the hair found in a gut. Seeds of the American elm were eaten heavily from May into June.

In September 1941, when water levels were low and the water was clear, “legal” size (12 inches and longer) catfish ate more fish compared to the previous summer, with an average of 3.5 forage fish per stomach. The researchers suggest that under low and clear conditions, concentrations of forage fish allow more effective feeding by channel catfish on free-swimming prey.

Pencil illustration of a rod and reel
(Doug Schermer illustration)

Sept. 20

Caught 4 fish in 4 casts, 5 good fish in all, in the area at the head of Fence Pool. They are plump this time of year, and they take a bait without hesitation.

Editor’s Note: The fall transitional period can be one of the best times to fish for channel catfish in small rivers. They are actively feeding to maximize fitness before winter, peaking in body condition after a full growing season.

Sept. 26

Tried a new spot to catch bait today, just upstream from Washout Cut. I’ve learned that one person can effectively operate a minnow seine. Simply fix the top and bottom cords from one end to a tree root along the bank or stake it with a sturdy branch, making sure it holds tight. Quietly walk the bridle end out into the water and sweep the seine in an arc over bottom, pulling it to the fixed end. This is best done quickly to avoid frightening the baitfish, and be sure to keep the weighted line scraping bottom to prevent escape. The ­quarter-inch netting is just right—easier to strain, and it doesn’t foul with debris as much as the finer mesh.

This area proved excellent for seining. The bottom is mostly coarse gravel, with few snags to hang up on. Three hauls yielded an assortment of small fish: common shiners, spotfins, yearling suckers, and others. At about 5 inches, a small sucker provides four good baits, two from each filleted side, or steaks cut from the meaty midsection of a whole one. The catfish seem partial to meaty portions, but they’ll take the head and tail sections, too, though not quite as eagerly. If the haul doesn’t yield suckers, a whole shiner or minnow makes excellent bait. Just cut the gut area delicately with a jackknife before hooking it.

Editor’s Note: Both glass and graphite make fine catfish rods. For small rivers and streams, a 7- to 8-footer is ideal. The best rods have a softer tip, with muscle in the midsection for leverage to pull cats away from and out of cover. Long casts usually aren’t necessary, and in tight quarters you can load the soft tip and lob a lightweight rig easily and accurately. For circle hooks, a moderate- to slower-action rod with a softer tip is ideal, allowing the hook’s point to catch in the mouth and embed while the cat moves off with the bait and the rod progressively loads with resistance.

A slipsinker rig works well for fall channel cats, although float rigs can also perform well before catfish activity slows in the colder, late-fall conditions. For either setup, match it with a 2/0 to 4/0 size hook for small- to medium-size channels. Classic J-style hook options include the Eagle Claw 84 and Mustad 92671. For circle hooks, try the Lazer Sharp L702 and Daiichi Circle Chunk Light, or the lighter wire Lazer Sharp L787, a good choice for more delicate baits.

Pencil illustration of a lakeside tree with a downed log hanging over the shallows
(Doug Schermer illustration)

Oct. 3

Brought along my birthday present today. The new graphite rod is stiffer than my fiberglass rod, especially in the top third, but it’s strong, remarkably light, and handles a catfish well. It’s a foot and a half longer than my glass rod, so it should come in handy for reaching and dropping baits into and around logpiles back upriver next spring. Make sure to bring it each time. It’ll make her happy.

Oct. 15

The bottom woods are near peak color. The hard rains have already knocked off a mess of leaves from the sugar maples in the yard. The oaks are always the last to go. Covered a lot of water above Fence Pool and caught only two fish. The bite up there has noticeably slowed. More wood ducks than usual in this stretch—the hunters should have a good year. Start checking below Parker’s.

Editor’s Note: Water temperatures cooling below about 60°F generally signals the start of the second major migration period of the year for channel catfish. In most instances, this movement is downstream to deeper river stretches with suitable wintering habitat.

Studies have traced fall activity of catfish outfitted with transmitters. Results show that the extent of movement and distances traveled depends on the availability of wintering habitat. In smaller rivers lacking wintering pools, which is often characteristic of tributary streams, catfish have been shown to vacate the area entirely, relocating downstream to the larger rivers or reservoirs that the tributaries feed. Other studies have shown that catfish may reside year-round in smaller rivers, if they provide suitable wintering sites.

Oct. 20

I fished over two miles of water today from just upstream of Parker’s to about halfway down to Meadow Bottoms. The water at Parker’s is showing a slight rise, but it’s around the normal mark for this time of year. The few mild days we’ve had might hold the fish up here a bit longer. But with leaf-off and the growing season ended, a few good rains will mostly run off and bring the river up farther and get the fish moving again.

I found several good fish scattered among the holes throughout this reach. The best spot was at the upstream side of a hole below Parker’s where it shallows to about one to two feet before the gravel bar. I’m convinced that thoroughly working over a good stretch of river is needed to find fish now.

I stopped fishing at about 2 o’clock and beached the boat up on the gravel bar. There was a nice sitting log to watch the river and light the pipe. Many folks don’t like the smell of pipe smoke, but I like the aroma of the Cherry Gold label, especially in the outdoors. Rapping the hardwood pipe on the old log to empty the ashes sounds surprisingly like a woodpecker after grubs.

Editor’s Note: In fall, catfish traveling downstream temporarily hold in pools, especially those with cover, either boulders or rock. They also often gather where shallow water or obstructions slow downstream movement. At times, during this season, particularly during a warmer period and in low to moderate flows, groups of catfish can be found feeding in riffle and run areas upstream of deeper holes. Fish a spot, and if they’re not there, keep moving. A spot containing no fish today could be productive the next time out.

Oct. 27

The trees are mostly bare except for a few stubborn oaks. It’s getting dark early now that the clock has been set back. Spring ahead, fall back. Seems the catfish might be on the same clock, as they do this in the river around the same times. Several bouts of steady rains have brought the river up. This should settle catfish into the good spots below Meadow Bottoms.

Editor’s Note: Eventually, as the season progresses and water temperatures drop below the 45°F to 50°F mark, channel cats concentrate in the biggest and deepest holes, where they’ll remain for the winter. As water temperatures drop into the 40s and below, they have a reduced tolerance for sustained swimming or for holding position in current. The lowest flows are most often found in the deepest pools, and wood- and rock cover serve to slow current even more, providing additional shelter.

Channel catfish metabolism slows in cold water, which reduces feeding, so there’s likely little competition among the consolidated catfish for the limited food resources available in wintering sites. Some catfish will feed, however, if given the opportunity, on smaller pieces of cutbait presented on a bottom rig or suspended on a jig off bottom. Because a single wintering site can gather large numbers of catfish from a lengthy stretch of river, the fishing is often good, even when only a small percentage of the fish bite.

Pencil illustration of an angler in a boat fishing the shoreline of a treelined lake
(Doug Schermer illustration)

Nov. 3

Light snow flurries this morning, and the river temperature has cooled quite a bit these past two weeks. Launched below Meadow Bottoms. I saw only two other boats all day, carrying hunters across the river to reach deer stands.

I fished several good-looking holes. Only two held catfish, the same holes that are usually best this time of year. The catfish seem particular about which spots they use most now. Most of the holes I fished downriver today and in previous years are deep—18 to 25 feet—but there are only two that have good fishing.

The catfish bite much more hesitantly. They take more time to eat a bait when it’s cold, so it’s best to watch for slight ticks of the rod tip. Still, they bend the rod over, and once hooked they fight surprisingly well, for a warmwater gamefish in cold water.

Nov. 13

It was cold and windy today, but the fishing was good in the two holes below Meadow Bottoms. Nine fish to 5 pounds. The fish are set up slightly earlier than last year. Perhaps the fishing can be too good. I can see how many skilled fishermen could catch and keep their share every time out, once they found these groups of catfish.

I kept two smaller fish for supper, but I’ll likely not keep any more this year. I look forward to numbers of catfish back in my favorite places upriver next spring. I especially want to see how they take to Big Cottonwood.

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