Before You Can Catch Them '¦

'¦ you have to find them. Here are some tips for finding catfish this summer in places you may not have thought to check out. (July 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Before you can catch the fish . . . what? You have to find them? You have to have the right gear? You have to have the right terminal tackle and baits?

Arguably, your answer should be "all of the above" -- and this story will offer a look at everything you'll need when preparing for a catfish trip on your home waters this month.

Depending on the kind of water you prefer to fish, finding cats can vary from downright easy to pretty doggone tough. The kind of water also might require slightly different kinds of gear. Your terminal tackle might vary based on the size of the water, and/or whether it's still -- a pond, lake, reservoir or riverbank eddy, for instance -- or moving.

In other words, there's more to this story than might first meet the eye. As you read on, keep in mind those places that you enjoy the most for catching catfish, and those new places that you've targeted for a tryout this month. Something here will apply to every fishin' hole on your list, be it a tried-and-true whiskerfish honeyhole or a brand new spot you just can't wait to visit.

Catfish often are thought of as opportunistic bottom-feeders -- primarily because they are. But they can be more predatory than some anglers realize. If you plan to fish moving water (streams and rivers, regardless of size), your approach should be to look for areas where deeper holes meet flats, bars or shallower riffles, because at this time of year, cats will move from one area of water to another. That idea is most valid from dusk to dawn. It's a reason that night-fishing at this time of year is among the most popular approaches to catching cats.

Catfish typically stay deep during the brightest, hottest part of the day. Then, as the sun begins to set, they get much more active. The same applies at larger impoundments with the topography to offer contour changes with some structure.

As the day ends and water temperatures cool slightly during the evening and overnight hours, catfish leave their deeper haunts and prowl for food. And that's when they become most vulnerable to anglers. If you plan to fish a river or stream, or a lake large enough to offer diverse underwater topography, keep the following in mind as you identify the areas you plan to fish.

With flowing water, look for spots where riffles dump into deeper pools, especially those on channel bends and swings. Those spots are great bets, because plenty of underwater structure is often in those deepwater bends. Periods of high water and stiff currents associated with decent or heavy rainfall often wash debris into the depths, and it'll pile up on the channel bends. Catfish call places like that home; it's in these kinds of spots that they find available cover.

The larger the lake, the more likely you'll also find this kind of setup. Lakes as small as 5 acres can offer some depth change, and you might even find some underwater brushpiles. (Or you might plant some yourself, if you're allowed to do so.) As you go up in size and get into larger impoundments and reservoirs, the underwater world grows much more diverse.

If a topographic map of the lake you intend to fish is available, by all means get one and study it. If it's so small that no map exists, and if you have access to a boat, it will pay you to spend some time "mapping" the lake yourself using your craft's onboard depthfinder. Look for depth breaks, main underwater channels, and areas where those channels meet flats and shallow bays. These are wonderful places to catch cats.

Only the smallest of farm ponds and other potholes will fail to reward this kind of study. When you're only dealing with a few acres of water at most, you won't have any trouble putting a bait just about anywhere you want even if you're fishing from the bank. But more about the best approach to fishing ponds later -- for now, let's stick with the larger lakes/ reservoirs, and with river/stream fishing.

To break down specific approaches to fishing the best spots, let's look at approaches to each from the shore, and then from a boat. One of the best things about catfishing is that you absolutely don't need a boat to catch big fish and/or lots of fish. You just have to think about where you're planning to set up along the bank.

On smaller rivers and streams, it's hard to beat finding a spot along the bank on the inside edge of a channel swing. Wherever possible, I like to set up to use two rods -- and you should too, for several reasons. You'll want to fish one of them in the shallow water slightly upstream from the head of the hole, and then the second in the deeper water. The approach for me will be bottom-fishing live or prepared bait.

Another advantage you gain in a spot like this is the ability to drift-fish the deeper water. That is, you can add just enough weight to allow your bait to bump along the bottom, and then you cast it into the water flowing into the hole and let the current drift it into and through the deeper water. Catfish using these areas are not unlike stream bass or even trout in that they'll lay in wait along the current edges and snatch any easy meal that comes floating by. You can use that natural tendency to your advantage when you find a setup like the one described here.

On truly large rivers, you can take a similar approach adjacent to wing dams built to provide current breaks. At places like those, you can put a bait out on the bottom in the calm water of the eddy, and then cast another bait out into the current, slightly upstream, and drift-fish that offering. Both should prove effective at catching cats.

When fishing from a boat, you can find a spot to anchor that will provide you easy casting access to the deep, slow-moving/still water and the current nearby. You'll cast one rod into the deeper water and still-fish it, while you drift-fish another bait along the current edges. This dual approach works very well, and you're likely to catch fish both ways during the same trip.

Another approach you can take when fishing from a boat, especially on large rivers, is simply to drift-fish through an area with a bait bumping along the bottom. And you can do it two ways. This time of year, streams and river are generally at normal levels, and you should be able to find current edges that will provide a moderately slow drift for your boat without a lot of help from you. If anything, you might have to tap your bow-mount trolling motor now and then to stay on course.

And during periods of high water with swifter current, you can still effectively catch cats with this kind of dri

fting by using your trolling motor to work slightly against the current and, as a result, slow you down. This technique can be especially effective because catfish will get a longer look at your bait as it moves along slower than the prevailing current would otherwise carry it.

On large lakes and reservoirs, you want to identify spots similar to those described for river and stream fishermen -- that is, places where deep water transitions into a shallow bay or main-lake flat where cats can roam in search of food.

The mouths of feeder creeks generally provide this kind of structure break. So will many main-lake points. These are great spots to target for cats from your boat.

They'll also work well if you're shorebound because you can set up in a spot that will provide you casting access to the deep and shallow water. You'll be still-fishing pretty much exclusively using this approach, regardless of whether you're in a boat or on shore.

Other great places to target for cats on larger lakes are those spots where the feeder creeks actually begin widening from their normal channel width into a cover or bay on the main lake. Often, these spots will have a least a little bit of current from the inflow of the stream, and that will draw baitfish and game fish of all types, including cats.

Generally speaking, you won't notice as significant a depth difference from the stream itself into the cove -- at least not for some distance. If you're fishing from a boat, one of the best things to do is to anchor right at the point where the feeder creek widens into the cover or bay of the main lake. From that spot, you can cast out into the cove -- say off the bow of the boat -- then cast off the stern up into the stream itself. There could be decent current there, and your bait will drift back toward you. Or you can impart your own action and use a slow, deliberate retrieve such as you'd use if you were bass fishing with a Carolina rig.

If you're fishing from the bank, your approach ought to focus on finding a spot that will let you cast one bait into deep water and the other into shallow water. And if there is current at the back of a cove where the feeder creek dumps in, that's a great place to set up. You can set up so as to permit casting into the deeper water with a still-fished bait, and also cast into the current at the tail of the stream and drift your offering into the cove. Each of those methods can be very effective.

When you're just fishing a local pond, take the shallow-and-deep approach simply by keeping one bait fairly close to shore while you cast the other toward the base of the dam, or -- if you know it's there -- the deep water in the middle of the lake. Doing so simply gets your bait into spots that could expose them to the largest number of catfish during a given outing.

You just read the phrase "could expose them" because the exact time you intend to be fishing will be cause to alter your approach at least a little bit. Think of this as not unlike figuring out where to put your tree stand when deer hunting.

You want the stand closer to feeding areas for afternoon hunts because the deer will be moving to food after bedding for most of the day. In the morning, you want to try to get closer to the bedding areas because deer will be coming in from food plots and other areas to bed.

When fishing adjacent to wing dams built to provide current breaks on truly large rivers, you can put a bait out on the bottom in the calm water of the eddy, and then cast another bait out into the current, slightly upstream, and drift-fish that offering. Both should prove effective at catching cats.

If you fish in the late afternoon and into the evening, you may want to start out fishing the deep water almost exclusively. Once dusk turns into night, you can move one of the rods into shallower water to target cats that have moved up. If you'll be fishing in the early morning, start out plying the shallow spots first, then move deeper as the sun rises and light intensity grows with it.

Something that likely has occurred to you as you've read this far is that the kind of "prospecting" for catfish described so far could require making casts with fairly significant lengths. You might need only to lob a bait 20 yards from shore into shallow water, while you'll need to fling a bait a few hundred feet from the same spot to reach deeper water. This is where tackle selection becomes important.

Generally speaking, longer rods give you the ability to make longer casts. From here, you can get away with a short rod that you might use for bass fishing for those short casts. The longer ones definitely will require rods of at least 6 feet. Seven would be even better.

This catfisherman prefers stout rods, regardless of length, with fast actions. There are those who will argue that slower rod actions will help offset the stiffer, less forgiving fishing lines on the market today and reduce the overall shock to your gear of a powerful hookset. I respectfully disagree.

Today's fishing lines offer both less stretch than ever before and more overall strength. As a result, they're much better suited to handling the stress associated with trying to cross a catfish's whiskers with a powerfully hard hookset.

Rods with plenty of backbone and a fast tip will allow you to get down to the business of hooking a cat quickly and efficiently. In my view, they're definitely the way to go.

Whenever possible, mount reels on your rods that are equipped with bait-clickers to alert you to strikes. They're wonderful, as they provide another measure of security for you during those long nights of fishing when dozing becomes a distinct possibility. That's not something any catfisherman wants to do -- but we've all done it. That clicker can wake us up and keep us from losing the fish of a lifetime.

You might want to consider spooling your reels with one of today's high-tech braided or "power" lines because they offer among the best combinations you'll find of strength, hook-setting power and abrasion resistance. If you don't think the latter is important when you're after cats, then just let a big cat bull its way into thick cover after you set the hook. And they'll do it if you let them!

We're down to the business end of your rigs now, and here is where the sharpest hooks you can find come into play. Catfish have tough mouths. Anything you can do to improve your hook-setting ability also will improve your overall percentage of bites to landed fish. With that in mind, don't spare any expense in the hooks you use. Get the best you can afford, and don't be afraid to touch them up with a sharpener before you ever fish them.

My rig of preference for still-fishing on the bottom involves a barrel swivel with an egg-shaped slip-sinker above that swivel. I add a foot or two of line to the other end of the swivel, and I tie my hook to that. Using this rig lets a cat pick up a bait and swim off with it, pulling line through the slip-sinker as it goes. The lack of resistance will help the fish hold onto the bait longer, and t

hat will help you get a better hookset.

If you're going to be doing some drift-fishing, think about investing in some of the "bait-walking" styles of sinkers available these days and used a lot by walleye fishermen. These weights are great for using when you're drifting a bait through moving water, as outlined already. Some might disagree, but arguably, the key to this kind of catfish success involves achieving the most realistic-looking drift possible. These kinds of sinkers will help you get there.

One final thought on making a catfish trip this month. Bring along the insect repellent. You're possibly going to be on a boat or at the water's edge from dusk to dawn -- the time when biting bugs of all kinds are out in force. You'll never regret having bug spray along to provide some important protection.

You wouldn't spend a summertime day on the water without sunscreen. Similarly, you won't want to spend an evening on the water without insect repellent.

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