Reading Small Rivers For Catfish

Reading Small Rivers For Catfish

Illustrations: Ron Finger

I say with confidence after spending a fair share of time on small rivers for catfish the season past, that all remains right with the world, the sky is not bound to fall, nor the earth soon bound to pass; and that rivers still run as they always have in my lifetime, with catfish holding just where they should be during each subsequent season. It makes me smile that it really is so terribly predictable. Indeed, even factoring in the unpredictability of weather, catfish will be this season just where they were the last — just where they have been for decades and even centuries previous.

This isn't so in an absolutely literal sense, because rivers are constantly changing. A sandbar right smack there today, may not be there next year, or even next week. Then again, at age 10, I caught my first five-pound channel cat from alongside a snaggy old tree lying just so in a river-bend hole in a little stream in northwest Iowa; and the surprise is that tree and bend hole remain today, some 37 years later. Such permanence is the exception on rivers, though, hardly the rule.

It is the definitive parts of a river that never change — the riffles, the holes, and the runs. God created, with only passing exception, all rivers equal in this regard. The rivers in Kentucky alongside which race horses roam have riffles, holes, and runs. Wyoming rivers, like the remaining free-flowing portions of the North Platte, where channel cats swim in near anonymity, have riffles, holes, and runs. Indiana, Arizona, Ontario, Brazil. Rivers there and the rivers you fish have riffles, holes, and runs.

An obvious riffle, hole, and run.

So predictable is this basic scenario that these river elements never even occur out of order. Riffles always lead to a hole, holes are always followed by a run, and runs always lead to another riffle. Yes, each individual element may shift location. Yes, they change shape and size. So too are these elements sometimes difficult to recognize. With time on the water, though, ah yes with pleasant time on the water, these elements become familiar friends who whisper secrets about the catfish that have no choice but to hold there.

Rivers wind because the earth spins, and as the earth spins, water moves predictably clockwise in the northern hemisphere. Pull the plug in your tub and the water swills clockwise down the drain. River water, though, bends clockwise and then rebounds like a billiard ball from bank to bank, causing curves in rivers that haven't been straightened by man. Even straightened rivers, though, will again do their best to begin to swivel-hip their way to the sea

Most rivers consist of a continuous series: riffle-hole-run, riffle-hole-run.

As rivers bend back and forth, they flow over various substrates. Rock and gravel areas do not easily wash away, and these humps in the landscape become riffles — shallow, narrow, hard-bottom spots that form natural dams above which water gathers and then constricts just enough to flow over the riffle and quickly downriver.

Riffles extend downriver so far as hard bottom lasts. Then, as the fast water gathers speed flowing downhill, it meets softer sand and soil, and this substrate is scoured away, creating a deeper, wider section of river. A hole forms. Holes are also called pools.

To add perspective at this point, know that riffles in small rivers may be no more than 20 feet across and might be followed by holes no more than three feet deep and ten feet long. On the other hand, riffles in larger rivers may be a quarter mile across. Such extensive riffles have a series of lesser holes running lengthwise below them, instead of one large hole. Cats tend to gather in the biggest, deepest holes.

Runs are river flats that begin at the tailout of a hole, where water that scoured the hole finally begins to slow before being pushed downriver. Here silt and other suspended debris sinks to the bottom, causing the run to shallow up. Eventually, the river flat may stretch for some distance with no significant depth change. The bottom usually is sand and silt with occasional rocks and patches of gravel, plus other debris. Flats usually form the most extensive areas on most rivers. Soon, the water flowing through a run will again build in front of another shallow, narrow, hard-bottom spot — another riffle. And so continues the series.

Riffle-Hole-Run-Illustration-In-FishermanYou may protest that this continuous series of elements just doesn't exist on your rivers. Not so. In many cases, though, rivers have been terribly altered. Before man entered the scene and dammed, dredged, and diked, even on the largest rivers, these features often were easy to determine. Of course, on larger rivers, flats often ran for miles, and reading the changing makeup of these flats often was an additional key to finding catfish. That's another story. Too, the lower portions of large rivers like the Mississippi, the Ohio, and the Missouri are a more complicated story. Grant, too, that on altered rivers these features often seem to have lost their significance.

Even on most altered river sections, though, these features exist in principle if not in easily distinguishable fact. Wing dams may still be seen as riffles, even if they're manmade. And they are followed by holes, which are followed by flats, which extend until the next wing dam. On other altered rivers, a trip upriver or downriver with your sonar running shows subtle changes in bottom contour, depth, and substrate content that reveals the presence of riffles, holes, and runs, again in predictable order. Yes, yes, I again agree that sometimes it seems otherwise; but I have learned that it is my ability to interpret that is in error, not an anomaly in the makeup of a river.

A Great Abiding Freedom.

Good, Better, Best

The reason so many fisherman fish at bridge holes is that bridges offer easy access. The car is parked, a lawn chair set out, a forked stick or two pushed into the ground, rods propped up, the angler pops a cold soda and sits comfortably in the shade.

The first anglers to fish a bridge hole often catch fish, too, because bridges usually are built on and over riffle areas, so a hole naturally forms there and often attracts at least a few cats. By the time most anglers get there, however, the fish usually have been fried in someone elses pan. The rule on small rivers during most times of the year is that new fish won't move into a fished-out hole until the water rises.

The modern catman is a mobile sort. We have taught for many years that an angler must be prepared to survey at least a two-, five-, or ten-mile section of river, in order to determine the location of the best holes. Holes are the home of catfish. And bigger and deeper holes, and particularly holes with cover in the form of woody debris, usually attract many more cats. Remove these holes from easy access to other anglers and such holes are gold mines of great fishing, waiting to be discovered. Again, though, keep searching around the next bend in order to finally decide where the best holes are — and where to spend the most time.

Just Lookin' — Surveying For Major Snags.


Cover often serves as a feeding station or rest area for cats, attractive in part because cover is different from the rest of the river. Mainly, though, cover helps gather food and lets catfish lie comfortably near current, the supplier of food. But cover must be seen in the larger context of where it lies relative to our continuous series of riffles, holes, and runs. Some snags are better than others.

It's not just the size of a snag that determines if cats will be there. Put a great big tangle of trees in the middle of a long river flat, and it probably will attract only small cats. Put that tangle in a big deep hole, however, and some of the biggest fish in that section of the river might be there, both channel cats and flatheads.

Ultimately, the best snags lie in the best holes. As you might also expect, the location of the snag in a hole influences how cats use the snag. Cover in fast current near the top of a hole is primarily feeding territory. Cover in quiet water at the lower half of a hole is ­primarily holding or resting territory. A snag near the core of a hole is both a feeding and a resting area. The best snags, as you might expect, lie near or just downstream of the core of a hole, where moderate current hits the head of the snag, creates a current edge, as it flows around the snag, and a current break at the rear of the snag.

These Shots Are From One of Doug Stange's Last Trips With His Late Great Cat Buddy, Toad Smith. Those Were The Days.

Another way to look at this: Rivers are composed of a continuous series of riffles, holes, and runs, and the biggest, deepest holes in an area are the home of the catfish. A big hole is a big one-room home. In that home, the snag or the core of the hole usually is the bedroom, the top of the hole the kitchen. Catfish usually rest around or under the snag or in the core of the hole, but may occasionally snack there, especially when it's near the kitchen. Active cats move around the hole, checking areas that gather food.

Unfortunately, lots of cats don't always use snags that lie in a perfect position in a good-looking hole. Just as certain snags often gather more cats than other snags, certain river sections sometimes attract more cats during certain periods. A good snag in a section with lots of cats using it has a better chance of attracting lots of cats. This again is one reason for fishing quickly from hole to hole, looking for active cats, at least on your first trips to a river you haven't fished in a while or haven't fished before.

Occasionally, though, you'll also find situations where almost every snag, no matter how small and poorly placed, will have a cat or two using it. This most often occurs during prespawn — when cats are actively feeding and roaming. Or it occurs in river sections with a huge catfish population. Many rivers across the country are like this; that is, catfish populations are booming in many areas. But it won't seem like it if you insist on fishing the same five or ten holes for the entire season.

By The Season

A Quick Check And A Quick Cat.

Catfish make seasonal movements within rivers and tributary streams. The basic movement is upstream into smaller water during spring and early summer, then back downstream into bigger water during summer and especially fall. During winter, catfish must gather in holes with sufficient depth and current where oxygen is available to sustain them. Such holes are most likely in downriver sections.

Soon after spawning and as the water begins to drop during summer, cats tend to move downriver. Tiny stream sections that hold fish during early summer might not hold many fish during late summer; although some cats usually remain in the deepest holes. On the other hand, during wet summers cats may remain in river sections that run almost dry during most summers. So while seasonal trends apply, weather also plays a part. The point is that we can't just think riffles, holes, and runs, but must also concentrate on river sections that hold the most fish during each yearly period.

The species of catfish makes a difference, too. Flatheads rarely move more than one tributary away from a major river, while channel cats may push into tiny water, sometimes into tributaries several tributaries removed from a major river. Blue cats, even more than flatheads, are fish of big rivers. Smaller blues may push upriver into the beginning stretches of tributary streams just off big water, but rarely much farther. The biggest blues stay in big water.

Perhaps the watershed of streams and rivers where I grew up fishing in northwest Iowa is something like where you fish. The Little Rock River is a tiny stream only a step or two across as it runs some 60 miles through southern Minnesota into northwest Iowa and enters the Big Rock River near Doon. Meanwhile, the Big Rock River has coursed south for some 100 miles through southern Minnesota and northwest Iowa, beginning as a tiny stream and increasing in size to 100 feet across in the lower section just before it enters the Big Sioux River above Hawarden. The Big Sioux is a major tributary of the middle Missouri, beginning in northern South Dakota as a tiny stream and running almost 200 miles before it meets the Missouri at Sioux City.

Flatheads are common in the lower section of the Big Sioux, becoming less common 50 miles upriver. Occasionally, a blue cat is caught in the lower Big Sioux. Meanwhile, I have had wonderful fishing for small channel cats in Otter Creek, a tiny tributary of the tiny Little Rock River, which again, flows into the Big Rock, which flows into the Big Sioux, which flows into the Missouri. These cats are hundreds of miles and many minute stream sections removed from the Missouri.

What national treasures are these remaining relatively unaltered watersheds. Most tiny tributary streams like Otter Creek, you see, have been straightened and tiled into nonexistence. Where marshes once gathered rain water, filtered it, and then sent it slowly on its way through miles and miles of tiny coursing tributary streams, streams that ran relatively clear and clean, we now too often face a treeless countryside, where arrow-straight chutes carry tiny trickles of water some seasons and ranging flood waters the next.

We need to protect what remains as we revitalize that which has been damaged. Question authority where alteration to any river or stream is concerned, particularly at the county level, where the temptation to ignore state and national mandates concerning national resources often runs strong in some states. To still be able to float for miles along many of our nation's rivers, catching catfish for sport and for our tables, and not be besieged by hordes of other anglers is a great abiding freedom. Reading small rivers right is only part of the equation for continued good fishing.

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

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