Channel Your Energy

There's no better time than now to get back to the basics. So find a johnboat or a riverbank, cast a line or two and wait for the channel cats to come calling. (June 2009)

They carry no daily limit on the Mississippi River. They're considered among the tastiest of God's creations. And you can catch them pretty much anywhere along this waterway from just northeast of Blytheville to southeast of Eudora.

Often referred to as "opportunistic omnivores," channel cats will eat virtually anything available -- insects, small fish, birds -- that will fit into their mouths.

Photo by Keith Sutton.

Of course, we're talking about the channel catfish that inhabit the Mississippi River along Arkansas' eastern border.

Right now is a prime time to catch these whiskerfish. They're preparing for the spawn, fattening up over the spring and looking ahead toward their annual mating rituals.

True, these fish may not stack up size-wise to their blue and flathead cousins, but a livewell full of these fish, often ranging from 1 to 10 pounds, can prove more palatable for table fare than their larger relatives.

To know when, where and how to catch channel catfish during the month of June, an angler first needs to understand the biological mechanisms driving the catfish's engines at this time of the year.

READIED FOR THE SPAWN

Channel catfish will spawn in water temperatures ranging from 75-80 degrees Fahrenheit. This roughly translates into the fish spawning in our neck of the woods somewhere from May through July. Of course, a big runoff of cool, early spring rains and snow up north can delay that process a few weeks on the Mississippi River when compared with surrounding waters.

Over the previous few months, as the weather has warmed, the channels have been feeding heavily. Spring is usually accompanied by high-water periods on the Mississippi, which means fish are finding lots of food trying to escape strong currents in the main river.

The channel cats will ambush their food by waiting in depressions on the river's bottom, behind wing dikes or at the edges of chutes connecting the river to oxbows, bayous and ditches that drain into it. Often referred to as "opportunistic omnivores," the catfish will eat anything from insects to small fish to birds or carrion.

When these fish are hungry, they use their senses to find their next meal. Those senses include taste buds that are distributed over the entire surface of the body, with a concentration of taste buds on the four pairs of barbels, or whiskers, around the mouth.

Furthermore, their exceptional sense of taste is accompanied by an ability to smell some amino acids at rates as low as 1 part per 100 million. These amino acids are often referred to as the "building blocks" of proteins.

In other words, if it's alive or dead and smells and tastes like something a catfish might want, then that's what's for supper. Even high, muddy water with near-zero visibility is not enough to keep channel cats from the dinner table, since they don't rely heavily on sight for feeding.

While channels are interested in feeding during the spring months, they are also on the move. This movement is another preparation for the approaching spawning season. Fish are moving toward the banks, up tributaries and into backwaters where there is lighter current.

This can be an extensive movement, with the fish returning to the main channel of the river again in the months following the spawn. In fact, some channel cats have been documented as moving more than 100 miles over a period of several years.

Many fishermen hear the term spawn and think of heydays in the boat or on the bank with stringers full of crappie, bluegills or bass. This can be the case with channel catfish, but not for a short period during the spawn.

Fishing can become depressing when you are zeroing in a hole that usually provides more than enough catfish fillets for dinner. But don't get down, because there's a bright side to this situation.

While fish activity may be in a lull in one spot, it may be booming in another. Here's why.

The male channels will guard the nest, usually in a dark area like an undercut bank or a hollow log, after the females lay the eggs (up to 20,000 or so in just one nest). In fact, the males will chase off the females, choosing to stay and guard the nest alone for a period of several days before the fry disperse.

During the time these fellows are guarding their little ones, they are not interested in feeding, only in taking care of the next generation. But because of the differences in current, water temperature and habitat, channels may be spawning in one location on one day and in another spot along the river a week or two before or after then.

So, that means all that an angler needs to do is make a move if the fish aren't biting in any given location. Fish in other areas may be in the pre-spawn or post-spawn phase, which lends itself better to getting those catfish from the river's waters and into the skillet's oil.

WHEN, WHERE AND HOW

With a nickname like "Catfish," you'd figure a guy must have a rough-looking mug or at least know a little bit about fishing for them. Thankfully, for Keith Sutton (www.catfishsutton.com), it's the latter of the two that landed that handle for him.

This outdoorsman has written four books on catfishing and countless articles on the subject, many of which have appeared in the pages of this and its sister publications. That said, he was an obvious choice when it came to finding someone to dispense some sage advice on Mississippi River channel cats.

"Channel cats can be caught just about anywhere you drop a line in the Mississippi in June," he began. "That being said, it's easier for the angler to fish quieter areas of water where the Mississippi's heavy current doesn't make fishing difficult. I prefer to drop a line in slack areas behind wing dikes and in river backwaters."

Those places are just as popular with the channel cats in June and are plentiful, providing an almost endless list of possibilities for fish-catching locations.

"There's no one place better than any other when it comes to channel cats," Sutton continued. "This species is abundant everywhere in the river along the entire Arkansas border. It doesn't matter where you put a bait, you'll probably catch some if you do it right."

Sutton noted that channels are feeding both day and night and may be caught on a variety of bait as they look for the worms, mussels, shad and skipjack herring that the Mississippi's current offers.

"They may be found almost anywhere, but they tend to stay in light to moderate current, usually behind a current break like a wing dike or on the upstream edge of a bottom hole facing into the current and waiting for food to pass by," he explained.

Among the favored spots for "Catfish" to catch catfish are little dips in the river bottom along wing dikes.

"Find one of these with sonar, drop a bait in and you might catch 100 or more channel cats in just a few hours of fishing without ever moving your boat," he said.

While that is a preferred daytime tactic for Sutton, he said his favorite nighttime catfish haunts have him parking the boat: "I also love to sit on a big white Mississippi River sandbar at night and cast to channel cats that come to feed in the shallows after dark. There's nothing like sitting by a big campfire waiting on the next bite."

For Sutton, June channel catfishing on the Mississippi means an egg-sinker rig, with the sinker on the main line above a barrel swivel. To that swivel, he ties a 3-foot hook leader. He uses 3/0-5/0 octopus or circle hooks baited with night crawlers or chunks of shad. One important thing about the rig, he stressed, is to make sure that the sinker is heavy enough to keep the rig down in the current.

Most of the channels taken from the river will be anywhere from under a pound to around 2 or 3 pounds. But the Mississippi also has some larger specimens, according to Sutton.

"Channel cats can reach trophy sizes in the Mississippi, often up to 15 pounds and sometimes more. And they're extremely abundant in the river, allowing anglers to catch dozens on a good day or night of fishing. Combine the two -- the opportunity to catch trophies and the opportunity to catch lots of fish -- and it all equals up to a fun day on the water that's hard to beat for pure old-fashioned fishing fun."

For a fisherman who is so passionate about catfish that he's even pursued these fish on other continents, the Mississippi River is still about as good as it gets.

"Some of my most memorable nights catfishing have been on the Mississippi. I feel like Huck Finn when I'm out there sitting on the bank waiting for a bite and see the Delta Queen or other big paddlewheelers pass by. It's an awesome experience every catfish angler should have sooner or later."

FURTHER INSTRUCTION

If one were to refer to Sutton as a professor of catfishing, then another member of that department would have to be James "Big Cat" Patterson (bigcatfishing.com).

Patterson has been fishing and guiding for catfish on the Mississippi River for decades. While he often targets the bigger blues and sometimes the flatheads, he knows that the summer can mean fast action when it comes to catching channel cats here.

With the spawn being a piece of the puzzle, Patterson said there are a handful of spots he keys on when looking for channels in the month of June.

"I fish shallow, and I fish the revetment banks, the riprap. One good way to do it, since riprap is so 'hangy,' is with a cork," Patterson explained. "Set that cork about 3 feet deep. Bait it with shad guts. I love me some shad guts for that time of the year. I prefer slow-current areas. I pitch the cork toward the bank and pull it out until it stands up.

Then, just let it drift along the bank. You can drift the boat along with it or anchor. Or, you can anchor the boat and put your weight on with a three-way swivel or Carolina rig. I think they spawn around these riprap banks in the breaks."

Along these revetment banks, Patterson said he's also heard of using crickets to catch high numbers of the smaller fiddlers. You can also use cut bait, dip bait, catalpas, crawfish or worms, he suggested, adding that you'll find lots of channels in the 1-pound to 10-pound range and some bigger blues there as well.

Other places he likes to fish include the top side of dikes along some sandbars. Here, Patterson said, the current is running around or over the dike and the water may be 4 or 5 feet deep or less. "If you don't get a bite in about five minutes, it's time to move a little ways because the fish aren't there," he added.

"One of the best places in the world to catch channel cats is in an oxbow chute or on the edge of a field draining back in the river," continued Patterson. "Just 3 or 4 feet of water is all you need, just enough to get the boat in there. With the water temp at 70 (degrees) or better, you can sometimes catch 200 to 300 pounds in no time, just as fast as you can throw your hook out there."

Patterson stressed that there are several such places along the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River, making note of Chute 96 just above Horseshoe, the chute at the lower end of Brandywine Island and others.

"You can put in at Island 40 Chute, pay the launching fee and motor down to the runouts. Once you get there, if the river's at about 20 feet to about 13 feet, with my favorite being from 17 to 18 feet, you can catch fish there even in a small johnboat. In fact, the smaller, the better."

Other preferred backwater areas include holes in the standing timber. Just find a clear spot and run back in that spot off the river when it's high and muddy, he suggested.

Another choice spot for June, Patterson said, can be the lower ends of some of the river's islands.

"If you can catch the river when there's water running from behind the islands in a shallow area, say about 2 feet deep, you can find fish feeding on the food that is coming down in the current, especially where that sandbar drops in to 8 or 10 feet of water. Just run the boat up on the sandbar, pitch the bait out and drop it. It won't work every time, but you may fill up a cooler in a few minutes."

Otherwise, Patterson mentioned finding logjams in 2 to 4 feet of water, anchoring down and then pitching the bait to the upstream edge of the jam and letting the current pull the bait under the pile.

"Big Cat" also listed mud banks, treetops, depressions and drainage ditches as likely channel cat hangouts. In fact, his largest channel cat from the Mississippi, a 20-pounder, came from a ditch that was only 15 to 20 feet wide and just 4 feet deeper than the surrounding water.

Tackle, Patterson said, can range from light, crappie tackle including 1/0 light-wire hooks and split shots to medium, bass tackle, 1/0-3/0 Eagle Claw L7228BP hooks and sinkers varying from one ounce to a couple of ounces.

WORKING TOWARD THE PhD

While "Big Cat" and "Catfish" can probably offer more advice on t

his subject than anyone else, they also noted the importance of self-education and safety while on the river.

"Everyone can do just like I do," Patterson began. "Every day that I go out on a trip, I have to look for the right places, unless the fishing has been the same for a while. If I went somewhere and caught lots of fish on Monday, then I'm going to probably go back there on Tuesday if the river's the same. There's a good chance I'm going to catch more fish there.

"What I'm saying is all you have to do is get out and start looking, fish the river enough and keep good records. It will help you. I've got friends who keep computer records. They can type in that the river gauge is reading 13 feet, and then their computer will bring up all the places they've caught fish at that stage."

Patterson added that channel catfish have a notable overbite and generally bite softer than blue cats do. So, he said, make note of how the fish are biting on a given day. If the bite is a light, slow pull that results in no hookups, then move the rods out of the holders and nail the fish when you feel them. For this technique, he emphasized, you cannot let the fish feel you moving or holding the rod because the channel will spook and simply move away.

As for the opportunity to continue fishing, Patterson said, "Be sure to wear life jackets and use care in anchoring your boat for safety's sake. And be aware of the big barges on the river that often create dangerous wakes when passing. Safety should be foremost on your mind whenever fishing this big, powerful river."

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