Strategies For Moving-Water Channel Cats

Anglers who target river catfish must always consider the effects of current. Water in motion affects both the movement and the behavior of whiskerfish.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

It's a Jack-the-Ripper kind of night. The sky is dark, the air thick and damp, the moon just a sliver dancing between flashing black thunderheads. In the glare of our lantern, the eyes of my friend Jimmy Harris reflect the maelstrom of river below us. We sit high above the water on the thick oak planks of a country bridge, our feet dangling from the edge as we fish.

Jimmy's knife glints as he decapitates a small fish. The head sails into the weeds; the tail is impaled on a thick hook. Jimmy casts the bait toward a nearby riprap bank of the swollen river, and before the bait sinks to the bottom, his rod is yanked downward, and then straightens. Jimmy lifts the rod and waits. The line twitches; then he drops the tip and strikes. "It's big," Jimmy grunts.

He pumps the pole up and down, cranking in line. Out in the river, a sizeable fish thrashes on the dark surface, then dives again. More line peels from Jimmy's reel. It seems an eternity before he brings the fish alongside the bridge. When he does, I lift the lantern high, and we have our first look at the adversary. Churning the water below is a sleek fish 2 feet long, with a sharply forked tail and beady eyes. Its only adornments are a muzzle of long whiskers and spines on its back and sides.

Jimmy moves to the riverbank and drags 12 pounds of catfish up on the rocks. "How's that for a channel cat?" he beams. "That's the biggest I've caught. I'll bet there are some of his hungry kinfolk swimming around out there, too. The river's right tonight."

Rivers are among the best places to catch channel cats, a fact borne out by Jimmy and me that night. In fact, channel cats derived their name from their habit of hanging out around river channels. Catching them in these environs isn't difficult if you know some good strategies for fishing moving water. Here are three to make it so.

WINGING IT

Wing dikes, also called wing dams, are among the best big-river hotspots for channel cats. These long, narrow rock structures direct current into the main channel to lessen shoreline erosion. They are most numerous in hydropower and navigation dam tailwaters but may be scattered along the entire length of a large river.

Wing dikes fulfill their intended functions by diverting current. They usually lie perpendicular to shore, and when moving water strikes them, the water swirls back on itself. The force of the current then moves outward, toward the middle of the river. The water velocity slows, allowing suspended sediments to fall and accumulate on the river bottom.

Inactive channel cats typically stay on a wing dike's downstream side, lying on bottom, usually not far from shore, where current is minimal. Most feeding cats, especially the more numerous small cats, hold near the river's bottom on a wing dam's upstream side. The reason for this is three-fold. First, hydraulic action here creates a "tube" of reduced current near bottom that runs the length of the dam. Hungry cats can feed here without using excess energy. Also, this is a zone of abundant food -- crayfish and mussels in the rocks; shad, herring and other baitfish holding in the slower cylinder of water. Additionally, when the river's high and the wing dams are submerged, channel cats can feed on addled or injured forage.

There is another lesson, however, perhaps even more important: Trophy channel cats are best targeted around the eddies, or vortices of water, near the ends of wing dams. It would seem that bait tossed to the edge of an eddy would swirl round and round. But when done properly, the bait will sink quickly to the bottom and remain stationary. Reposition your rig if necessary to achieve this end, and then prepare for the rod-jarring strike that will soon follow if a big channel cat is nearby. Often, big cats cruise slowly through a hole, waiting for something to arouse their taste buds before they rush in to strike. Allow the bait to sit up to 10 minutes, but if there's no bite by then, move and try another eddy.

The best baits for these areas are chunks of fresh baitfish such as herring or shad, and a good rig to use is a basic three-way-swivel rig. Use a 2-foot hook leader tipped with a 3/0 to 7/0 Eagle Claw Kahle hook. The leader for the sinker should be 8 inches or thereabouts and be tied to a 1- to 3-ounce sinker.

Anchor above the eddy you intend to fish, cast to the spot and let the reel free-spool until the weight hits bottom. Strikes usually come quick and hard, so use heavy tackle. A 7- or 8-foot rod with a soft tip such as the Shakespeare Ugly Stik catfish rod would be ideal. A rod such as this has enough backbone to parry the aggression of a large fish, but the tip allows the fish to take the bait without immediately feeling the tension of the rod itself. Marry this rod to a reel with strong gears, and you're in business. And since the bites from river catfish can be aggressive, keep a firm grip on the rod at all times. One moment of inattention could cost you the catfish of a lifetime.

CATFISH ON THE ROCKS

Riprap is used to help lessen erosion on rivers. In this case, however, the rocks aren't constructed into dikes -- they're used to blanket the banks. This cover is most often placed on shores near dams and around bridges, causeways and roadways that cross channels. And because it provides shallow- and deep-water domiciles in proximity to one another -- in addition to being a haven to baitfish -- riprap is a frequent hotspot for channel cats.

Hangups are common in the rocks, so it's best to keep riprap-fishing rigs simple. When fishing shallow edges, use nothing more than a baited hook. Smaller channel cats are abundant here, so a 4/0 to 6/0 octopus or circle hook usually is adequate. Cast to the targeted spot and then allow the rig to flutter down enticingly through the water column. When you perceive the rig has touched bottom, lift your rod tip and pull the rig sideways, so it drifts down to a different spot. Repeat until you get a taker.

When targeting deeper riprap edges, try a 1/4- to 1-ounce jighead with bait rigged on the hook. Work this is the same manner as the weightless rig. Drop, lift, move: This is an ideal means of both avoiding hangups and targeting cats hiding in cavities and crevices within the rocks.

The best baits are native riprap inhabitants such as shad, minnows, crayfish and small sunfish. When fishing for flatheads, a tail-hooked crayfish or a sunfish hooked behind the dorsal fin can bring smashing strikes. For blue cats, use chunks of cut shad. Small whole shad and live minnows stacked several to the hook work great on channel cats. Commercial stinkbaits and night crawlers are effective here as well.

WADE ON IN

There are many small, seldom-fished rivers whose channel cats are abundant. Wade-fishing is often the best way to catch a mess of cats in these environs. Slip on some waders or a pair of shorts and tennis shoes, and move slowly through the stream, stopping to check areas in which cats may hide, which shouldn't be hard to find. Fallen trees in outside stream bends attract some of the biggest channel cats, especially in those areas where current has eaten away the bank so the tree has toppled into a washout where catfish can hide. Ledges are also small-stream hotspots. Cats love holes, and they'll back in beneath a ledge to ambush forage animals brought by in the current. Other good fishing spots include the downstream side of huge boulders, eddy pools (where water moves in a circular pattern forming a pool of calm water) and water near logs and logjams.

Use a bobber to drift bait over these areas. Add just enough weight to the line to hold the bait down; then, allow the rig to drift naturally in the current, guiding it alongside potential catfish hideouts. If possible, use natural baits -- crayfish, hellgrammites, etc. --taken from the stream you're fishing.

Jimmy was correct about the river being "right" that night.

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