Sometimes you just have to go with the flow, and when catching channel catfish are the order of the day, well, that should be one of those times. Although it’s true that many lakes offer fine catfishing, channel cats are river fish by nature, and many of the best opportunities to enjoy fine catfishing action occur in streams of various sizes.
Photo by Jeff Samsel
Despite stereotypes of being lazy sorts of fish, channel cats really do like the current. While catfish will congregate in the bottom of the biggest, slackest pool in a river, those fish generally are resting. Cats in the current are looking for dinner, which makes them far easier to catch.
Along with attracting actively feeding fish, moving water offers a couple of other important benefits. First, the current positions catfish. Where in a lake or in a slack river pool the fish could be almost anywhere, the current will control how the fish orient themselves, making it easier to know how to present baits to them. In addition, current carries bait scents downstream, and a catfish will follow its nose (and its whiskers) to the source and find your bait.
Of course, not just any current will do. Cats tend not to inhabit the swiftest, shallowest runs in a river, and they prefer current breaks to go with their current. They like to hold behind rocks, brush or other cover and wait for foodstuff to pass by. That food might be aquatic insects, mollusks, crawfish, finfish or just about anything dead. As scavengers, channel cats tend to feed opportunistically on whatever comes their way.
Because catfish do find food primarily with scent glands (which are not only in their nostrils and on their whiskers but all over their bodies as well!) the best baits for attracting them might be best described as stinky. Chicken livers, readily available from any grocery store, certainly rank near the top of the list. Other good picks for river cats include cut fish and commercially produced catfish baits such as Strike King Catfish Dynamite. Natural baits, such as crawfish and night crawlers, also work nicely.
Baits of all sorts need to be presented close to the bottom and either placed in or dragged through key zones. With that in mind, let’s examine the types of spots that are most likely to hold catfish in the current, in each case considering the types of presentations that will most effectively put catfish bait into the strike zone.
Major bends in streams of all sizes create the kinds of conditions that catfish really like, and the sharper the bend — generally speaking — the better the cat habitat. A typical hard bend in a creek or river features a deep scour hole somewhere along the outside bend and a shallow bar on the inside bend, providing cats easy access to a nice variety of depths. Meanwhile, a hard turn in the river creates complex currents, inevitably with eddies and often with back-currents. Plus, currents cut into banks, and trees commonly topple, adding cover to already attractive river-bend holes.
In a small stream, an entire bend might be fished effectively from a boat beached atop the sandbar on the shallow side or even from the same general position along the bank. A major bend in a large river, on the other hand, might extend several hundred yards, and the only way to fish it effectively might be to drift-fish, drifting the entire hole from top to bottom several times.
In big rivers and small streams alike, catfish will tend to stack up in key areas within each bend. The extreme upper end of a scour hole, undercut spots along bank on the outside bend, the side slope into the hole from the inside bend side, and the proximity of trees or rocks along a bend all tend to hold catfish. For relatively large rivers, anglers are wise to invest time looking around with a graph before putting down lines. For rivers of any size, visible cover, current lines and the slope and makeup of the bank provide valuable clues.
A simple and often effective way to fish a river bend is simply to anchor a short cast’s distance upstream of a likely fish-holding area, cast bottom rigs downstream and put the rods in holders with the reels engaged. A bottom rig can be very simple, with an egg sinker on the main line, a barrel swivel, a couple feet of leader and a circle hook. Using a circle hook with this type of presentation allows the cats to hook themselves when they take off with the bait.
A good starting position for many river-bend holes is toward the top end of the bend (immediately upstream of where the water begins to deepen) and even with the slope from the inside bend down into the hole. Such a position allows you to put most casts along slopes between deep and shallow water, where cats tend to be most active, but it also allows you to place baits down in the deep water or up on the sandbar by changing the angles of your casts. The catfish will reveal where they are feeding most actively by which baits they take, and you can re-position, if necessary or figure accordingly when you move to another bend.
Most trees that fall into a river have the capacity to attract some catfish, but it’s important to realize that not all deadfalls are created equal. Some provide far more useful catfish habitat than others. Also, the best trees to fish can vary from river to river and even from day to day, so patterning comes into the equation. For example, if you catch a few cats behind a tree that drops into fairly deep water and none from an otherwise similar looking tree in shallow water, chances are good that more cats will be found around other deep treetops.
Generally speaking, the most productive trees will be those that have the biggest and most extensive crowns in the water, that extend through the biggest range of depths and that break the most current. That said, a deadfall that stretches across a somewhat shallow but sandy slope might have a deep, catfish-filled scour hole immediately below it. Any time you find steady current adjacent to a solid eddy, a nice range of depths and woody cover, you’re likely to find channel cats in that hole. Of course, multiple trees lying together only add to the cover and to the complexity of the currents and current breaks.
In many cases, a good way to set up to fish the edd
y of a deadfall is to tie to the tree itself — ideally on a limb that does not break the current substantially so that the boat will hold steadily in the current and adjacent to the slack water. In other cases you can anchor in slack water or pull up to the bank just downstream of the tree. The most important thing is that your positioning allows you to place baits close to the cover and along breaks in the current and in the bottom depth.
A three-way rig fished with a tight line is just the ticket for tight quarters and plentiful snags as it allows you good control in placing baits. Beginning with a three-way swivel, tie one eye to the main line, one to about a foot and a half of leader with a pyramid weight or bank sinker tied to its end and one to a shorter leader with your hook on it. Weight-wise, use just enough to hold bottom firmly wherever you place the rig. Pitch the offering into place, let it find bottom and keep the rod in hand with the line tight. When you hook a fish, make every effort to turn it toward you right away; if it tangles itself in the timber, the battle usually is lost.
HEADS OF POOLS
Anywhere a shoal or shallow flat gives way to deeper water, the extreme upper end of the pool is likely to hold actively feeding catfish. The drop itself normally creates an underwater eddy, and the cats hold in the first deep water, facing upstream and looking up. Of course, if the head of the hole contains big rocks or possibly downed trees, that only sweetens the prospects, and cats are likely to be stacked up on the downstream side of the cover.
Additional catfish may be scattered through a hole, so placing some casts a little farther downstream or possibly drifting the length of the hole in a large river can be effective at times. Generally speaking, though, the catfish in the head of the pool will be the most active, followed by fish in the extreme lower end of the pool, where the current begins to speed up again. Most pools slacken in their midsections and become better resting areas than feeding areas.
Beyond being likely to hold the best concentration of active cats, the head of a hole, by its very nature, is upstream of the rest of the hole. That means that if you place a chicken liver, a piece of cut fish or a wad of dough bait on the bottom at the head of that hole, the scent is going to spread downstream through that hole. In essence, you get to fish the best part of the hole and chum the rest of it at the same time.
Anchoring immediately upstream of a hole and casting downstream to place bottom rigs is a simple and effective way to fish the head of hole. In larger rivers its sometimes necessary to shift your position side-to-side a few times in order to find the most productive line, as fish might be most concentrated along either edge of the hole or maybe right down the middle.
Riprap and catfish don’t always go together, but where the rocks drop into relatively deep water and a modest but steady current brushes along those rocks, chances are very good there will be cats hanging around the rocks or tight to the bottom, right where the riprap ends.
Riprap becomes especially attractive to catfish during late spring and early summer because the fish often spawn around the rocks. While the cats that are actually spawning typically don’t bite very well, they will feed along the same riprap banks before and after the spawn; often there will be fish in all three stages of the spawn at the same time.
The toughest thing about fishing riprap in the current is getting your bait among the cats without snagging your rig in the rocks. Vertical approaches can be productive, given sufficient depth to get over the fish without spooking them. Other times, it’s necessary to put baits on the bottom, out from the edge of the rocks.
A three-way rig works nicely for the vertical approach. Using your graph to mark the edge of the rocks and your trolling motor to control the boat, position the boat directly over the edge, facing upstream, and drop your rig to the bottom. Reel just half a turn and then either release line or reel up as needed so that you keep contact with the bottom without dragging your offering. The same approach can be extremely effective a little farther up the riprap slope, where you’re actually bumping the rocks with your weight. This takes a much more delicate touch, though, and you’re likely to lose some tackle.
An alternative, especially in larger rivers or in places where the riprap doesn’t go deep enough to allow vertical fishing over the edge, is to anchor just out from the bank and place baits downstream on the bottom.
Any place a bridge spans a river is apt to hold catfish for a variety of reasons, chief among them being the cover and current breaks created by the bridge’s support system. Many bridges also have riprap at both ends, providing extra cover for cats. Where any hint of a causeway stretches out into the original riverbed, a fish-concentrating funnel forms. Of course, a bridge’s shade offers added appeal — appeal that only increases as the season progresses.
More often than not, the downstream side of a bridge and the immediate eddies of the bridge supports will hold the most cats. The most productive bridge supports tend to be those closest to the main channel edge, although the cats could easily be above or below the drop or along the slope.
Large pilings and broad supports that span the entire width of a bridge also create significant eddies with accentuated currents beside them, and the currents commonly create scour holes. The result is a hotspot for cats, with nice depth relief, a solid current break and the cover of the bridge support itself.
Because effective bridge fishing commonly calls for a precise presentation of offerings, using a tight-line rig to fish vertically behind bridge pilings or into a scour hole can be very effective. A good alternative for broad bridges in large rivers is to use the same type of rig and to drift from upstream of the bridge to well below it and then to run back up and make another pass along a different line. Your trolling motor can be used to slow the drift and therefore lengthen each pass.
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Try any of these locations and specialized tips for fishing them on your waters. Chances are, you’ll be bringing home some extra catfish fillets this month!