Rivers, lakes and ponds contain many catfish hotspots. If you’re lucky, you can pick a spot at random, cast your bait and start reeling in cats. But most of us aren’t so lucky. For consistent success, especially on unfamiliar waters, we need more information: We need to know where, specifically, hungry cats are likely to be.
Some places definitely are better than others, including the following 10 structures where whiskered fish gather like kids ’round an ice-cream truck, gobbling every morsel that passes by.
1) Outside River Bends
Rivers follow the path of least resistance. When hard bottom obstructs the flow, the river changes direction, forming a hard-bottomed outside bend with current. These bends are trophy cat honeyholes, especially for flatheads, which love dark hollows. The river gouges the bank, forming undercuts. The undercut ledge or lip offers natural seclusion to giant cats waiting for a meal.
Erosion topples trees on the bend into the water. This creates an additional hotspot where hungry cats find plentiful forage. If a deep-water pool lies just downstream, productivity increases even more.
2) Wing Dikes
These narrow rock structures on navigable rivers direct current into the main channel to reduce erosion. Cats gather beside them, with actively feeding fish usually near the river’s bottom on the dike’s upstream side. Water hydraulics here create a “tube” of reduced current running the length of the structure. Hungry cats can hold and feed in this food-rich zone without expending excess energy. Therefore, when wing dikes are fished, focus your efforts on the upstream side.
When targeting big cats, drop a weighted bait into one of the circular whirlpools of water (eddies) near the ends of wing dikes. These are the prime feeding sites, so they usually hold bigger, more dominant cats.
3) River Holes
Although sometimes difficult to pinpoint, river-bottom holes are big-cat magnets. These structures break current, providing resting and feeding spots for blues, channels and flatheads.
In smaller rivers, holes form below shoals where current washes away bottom substrate. Look for big-river holes directly below dams, near outside bends and near tributary mouths. Sonar helps identify this structure.
Cats that are “holed up” often remain motionless, waiting for food to drift nearby. Consequently, baits must pass close to elicit strikes. Work holes thoroughly, top to bottom, front to back, and note where strikes occur. Concentrate on the most productive spots.
Cats stay in deeper areas during sunny days, moving to shallow spots to feed at night and on cloudy days. Work your bait accordingly.
4) Tributary Mouths
Tributary mouths are staging areas for pre-spawn and post-spawn catfish. If the mouth is relatively deep, or if the tributary channel joins a primary creek or river channel on the bottom, the area may have good trophy potential year ’round.
During cool months, tributaries with a warm in-flow attract the most catfish. Cool creeks are best during summer. Heavy rains that wash forage into the main water body also draw cats to mouths of feeder creeks and rivers. Examine each area, and fish those offering the most attractions.
Catfish usually ambush prey from behind current breaks — humps, holes or trees — near the confluence of the tributary with the main lake or river. Cast your rig upstream and allow it to drift past these honeyholes.
5) Bottom Channels
Some rivers and lakes have prominent bottom channels; others have subtle drops and ledges. All such structures are trophy cat magnets you can find with sonar.
Main channels act like major highways, leading migrating catfish from one part of the water body to another. Small branches act as secondary roads, leading migratory fish toward shallow-water habitat.
Trophy cats usually stay near deep water falling into the channel. Look for them near features on the ledge distinguishing it from surrounding areas — brushpiles, points, adjacent humps, cuts in the bank, etc. Big catfish also like outside turns of channel bends, channel junctions and deep channel edges near dams.
During the day, anchor in the shallowest water near the dropoff and fish deeper water. At night, do the opposite to catch cats moving shallow to feed.
Engineers often place riprap (large rocks along shorelines to prevent erosion) near dams, bridges and causeways. Riprap appeals to catfish because it attracts forage animals and provides cover, depth and shade. Large channel cats, especially, like this habitat.
When fishing a long, look-alike stretch of riprap, focus on objects distinguishing a small section. A pipe or fallen tree may attract catfish. Other times, a difference in the rocks does the trick. Watch for big boulders changing to smaller rocks or slides of rocks creating underwater points.
7) Inundated Lakes And Ponds
Small ponds and lakes inundated when larger lakes fill are prime locales for trophy cats of all species. These offer easy access to deep-water holding areas and shallow feeding spots. They’re especially productive in large, shallow lakes.
Pinpoint the spot with sonar, then look within it for points, dropoffs, sunken islands or humps that may attract cats. If scattered trees or stumps exist around the perimeter, fish them carefully.
These mats of floating logs and debris form in backwaters of big rivers and reservoirs during high water. As current velocity and wave action increase, moving water presses against the seam of still backwater, causing it to circulate like a giant vortex. Logs sucked into this eddy form rafts sometimes half a mile across. The rafts attract baitfish and other forage, which in turn attract catfish.
Secure your boat off to one side, and present a live or cut bait on an egg-sinker rig — a 1/2- to 1-ounce egg sinker above a barrel swivel to which your leader and hook are tied. You want the eddy current to pull your rig beneath the raft’s outer edge. After casting, hold your rod tip high and strip line from your reel, guiding your rig under the rotating maze of logs. If a bite hasn’t come by the time your line catches on the driftwood, move and try again. If cats are present, they’ll usually bite seconds after your bait touches bottom.
9) Windswept Shores
Heavy wind produces a chain reaction on fertile lakes. The wind blows floating plankton (microscopic plants and animals) against the shore. Minnows, shad and other baitfish that feed on plankton follow their food to shoreline reaches. Catfish that feed on baitfish follow, too. For this reason, fishing shorelines pounded by heavy winds often produces extraordinary catches of catfish. It’s a situation every catfish angler should exploit.
10) Deep Holes In Ponds
During most seasons, you’ll find pond catfish (typically channel cats and/or bullheads) lying in the deepest water, usually close to the levee or dam if one is present. Cats abandon these structures only when oxygen levels fall too low, such as when a pond stratifies in summer.
Deep holes are particularly good during daylight hours when cats seek the sanctuary of darkness. Fishing here may produce fish in spring, summer and autumn, but winter months outshine others. During this season, cats pile up in coldwater congregations where a single school may contain hundreds of fish.
PRO NOTE ON DRIFT FISHING
When catfish are difficult to pinpoint, try drift-fishing, an active approach that can make your catch rate soar. This is just what the name implies. You drift in your boat, using wind, current or a trolling motor for propulsion. With one or more baited lines out, you keep moving so you cover more water and increase your odds of finding catfish.
A bait-walker rig with cut bait works great. This consists of a 1- to 3-ounce bait-walker sinker tied to the line, with a 2- to 6-foot hooked leader tied to the sinker’s top eye. Tie one or more such rigs, put them out, then start drifting. When you catch a cat, remember where it was. The first fish could be an accident. The second one could be luck. The third one tells you the fish are there and wanting the bait in the same manner.
(Editor’s Note: Keith “Catfish” Sutton has written four books on catfishing: Pro Tactics: Catfish, Fishing for Catfish, Catching Catfish and Catfishing: Beyond the Basics. To order autographed copies, visit his Web site at www.catfishsutton.com.)