If you’re having trouble finding and catching summertime catfish, these 10 tips will help you solve your July catfishing problems. Our expert explains how to solve the summer catfish doldrums no matter where you fish.
July and catfishing go together like peas and carrots. For many anglers, what makes the sport so appealing is how much fun it is to catch these whiskered fish.
There is at least one species of catfish dwelling in a lake or river within a short drive of most Americans, and in most cases, it’s a resource that’s relatively untapped.
Here’s a look at 10 proven catfishing tactics, presentations and approaches that will help you hook more fish. If you fish out of a boat, from a pier or off the bank, here’s how to enhance your arsenal of catfishing tactics:
WADE FOR ‘EM
The heavy, torturous heat of summer seems to dehydrate our bodies and slow our activities to a bare minimum. As expected, the heat has much the same affect on the rivers we fish, causing water levels to drop and slowing the current to a lull. For many anglers, this seems to be an inopportune time to pursue cats. But in reality, the timing couldn’t be better.
On many small to mid-sized rivers, boat navigation can be hazardous when the water is low. But for those who don’t mind getting a little wet, there are still plenty of fishing opportunities. Of course, I’m talking about wading.
Before wading any river, determine what sections are safe enough to navigate by foot. Wading may be not feasible, even dangerous, on a large and deep body of water.
Wading for catfish doesn’t have to be complex. A pair of old tennis shoes, a fishing pole and the right terminal tackle is all it takes. Start by selecting a stretch of river that holds fish, usually an area with holes, timber piles and deep bends. Move slowly downstream, casting to any potential holding area. It won’t take long for a fish to hit if one is present. In some areas, you may find it necessary to exit the river or creek and walk along the shore to bypass deep holes and tangled snags.
Use a jar or Zip-Loc bag to store your bait. If necessary, tie it to your belt. Grasshoppers, cut bait, worms and chicken livers are all great wading baits. They’re easy to come by and easy to fish. Toss in a few ice cubes to keep your cut bait fresh. This approach works best on smaller rivers and creeks when fishing for channel catfish, although you’ll occasionally get a surprise from a hungry flathead.
It is usually not necessary to use waders. Just jump right in and cool off. Put a fistful of extra hooks and sinkers in a plastic bag and store them in a pocket. Keep it as simple as possible.
USE A FLOAT
Floats or bobbers are underutilized in the world of catfishing. This is unfortunate, as these handy little tools have a broad array of applications.
When targeting rivers or creeks, floats can be used to drift baits downstream. Simply attach a float to the line, tie on a hook and an adequate sinker, and you’re in business. Set the float so it will suspend the bait a few inches off the bottom. You can use this apparatus to cover long stretches of river quickly; allowing the bait to drift through eddies, around woody structure and through riffles. Some anglers make drifts up to 100 yards long. Long rods are useful in guiding the bait where you want it to go.
On lakes, use floats to suspend your bait over and near heavy structure. If you’re fishing at night, tape a light stick to the float. This is helpful when targeting flatheads with live bait or channel cats using cut bait.
FISH DURING THE DAY
One axiom that has plagued the world of catfishing for years is that in order to have the most success, especially when targeting flatheads, you must fish at night This could not be further from the truth. According to a professional flathead guide, targeting flatheads in the daytime can sometimes be more productive than night- fishing. During the day, the fish move less and spend their time in more predictable locations, thus making them easier to find and catch.
Flatheads inhabit shallow feeding flats at night, feasting at their discretion and moving constantly. When daylight comes, they behave much the same as a vampire does, escaping to a secluded lair or den (typically a large snag, blowdown or undercut bank) where they remain relatively inactive until nightfall. They will not pass up an easy meal during the day, however, and often become territorial.
According to one expert, the best way to catch daytime cats is to locate several of the largest timber piles on the river, usually in about 8- to 15-feet of water. Anchor your boat near or above the woody cover and place several baits into it and on its outside edges. Many flatheads will strike immediately out of sheer aggression.
If you spend half an hour without a strike, bring the baits in and reposition them on the same piece of structure — if it’s still slow, change again or change locations.
You’ll rarely find more than one flathead inhabiting the same daytime hole. If you catch several small fish inside a timber tangle, that’s a pretty good indication that there are no big fish around, as the lunkers typically run smaller fish off.
Anglers who don’t have boat access will often be able to locate and fish these daytime “dens” from shore or by wading.
Jigging has been successfully used to catch nearly every species of fish. Yet catfish anglers usually disregard the concept, though certainly not because it doesn’t work.
Many think of “jigging” as using a gigantic leadhead jig tipped with a big sucker or chub. Although this rig can be effective for catfish, the real secret is the jigging presentation, the up-and-down rhythm of a retrieve. Cast out a standard bottom-bumping jig, let it sit still for a while, and then slowly lift and drop the bait as you crank it back to the boat or shore. Work it slowly, stopping occasionally to let following fish pick it up.
A standard jig-and-minnow rig is great for covering large piles of timber or riprap shorelines. Cast a large, stout jighead tipped with a 4- to 5-inch chub, sucker or shiner into a prime spot and retrieve it slowly, using the lift-and-drop presentation discussed earlier. Stop occasionally, allowing the jig to sink, then start again. Catfish, especially the big ones, are experts at chasing down prey and will have no problem catching a slow-moving jig.
LONGER IS BETTER
For shore-bound anglers, long rods can put you in touch with fish you wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise. Using long rods to gain casting distance seems relatively elementary. However, we’re not talking about your standard 8- to 10-foot pole. I’m talking about the new, highly functional “carp rods” being imported from several European countries that are up to 13 feet long. These super-long rods allow anglers to chuck baits offshore up to 150 yards. It may take a little practice to obtain the maximum casting distance, but equipment like this can more double the amount of water you can fish.
If you do opt to use a long rod, consider spooling up with the new braided or non-stretch lines. The standard flexible monofilament often makes hook-setting at long distances difficult or impossible.
MOVE MORE OFTEN
Catfish anglers do not move or change locations nearly as much as they should. Changing spots allows fishermen to cover more water, and more often than not, they’ll catch more fish. Some professional guides are notorious for changing locations upwards of 15 or even 20 times in a single day.
When targeting channel catfish or blues where they roam, moving every 20 minutes is not out of line. Obviously, if you’re catching fish, you should stay until the action subsides.
When targeting flatheads, it’s a different story, but not that different. Many anglers come prepared to sit all night in a single spot, but this isn’t necessary.
Throughout the night flathead activity comes in waves. The two most productive times are just after sunset and just before sunrise. If you’re targeting a large feeding flat and don’t get a strike by the end of the first wave, move to another location before the early-morning bite starts. When targeting specific structure like a timber pile or hole, move every 30 to 60 minutes.
When daytime catfishing, changing locations often is crucial. The most productive anglers hunt for active fish; they don’t wait for receptive fish to find them!
KEEP IT QUIET
How often do you see trout fishermen splashing through the water, skipping rocks across the surface or jamming to their favorite tunes from a shoreline boom box?
Why then, do so many catfish anglers fail to execute their presentation with the same degree of stealth? Trout are more in tune with their surroundings, so they are more likely to be spooked — right?
Actually, nothing could be further form the truth. In fact, a catfish’s sense of hearing is over 15 times more sensitive than the average trout’s. Catfish are capable of detecting sound up to 13,000 cycles per second. Their “ears,” or hearing organs, are vastly developed and highly acute.
Fishermen must learn to respect a catfish’s sense of hearing, because by doing so, they will catch more, bigger fish. Simple things that should be avoided are loud shouting, skipping rocks, clanking around in the boat, pacing up and down the shoreline and listening to a booming radio.
Some species of catfish are so sensitive to low-frequency vibrations that the Chinese once used them to warn of potential earthquakes. If they can sense changes inside the earth, I’m willing to bet they can hear just about anything you do on the shoreline or in a boat.
Many anglers claim to have caught plenty of fish while doing the very things we just discussed. Though this may be true, those same people could have caught a lot more fish if they had not been making so much noise.
FISH MORE CREEKS
Many catfish anglers disregard small creeks as potential hotspots, thinking that bigger fish means targeting bigger rivers or lakes. Big water holds big fish, and that’s true. But all across North America, there are thousands of creeks and streams that are heavily populated with channel cats over 6 pounds and flatheads (where they are found) up to 20 pounds and more.
Anglers looking for fast action and eating-sized fish should learn to exploit smaller waterways. Small creeks and flowages rarely have a boat ramp, but in most cases a canoe, kayak or 12- to 14-foot johnboat outfitted with a small outboard will navigate the creek just fine. Any bridge or culvert crossing will suffice as a launch ramp.
When fishing smaller creeks, target the same type of cover you would find on a big river, including deep holes, eddies, snags, etc. The only difference you’ll notice is that these structural elements are much easier to identify on small creeks. Holes may be subtler, however. They may only be only 5 to 7 feet deep, but there might be 10 good catfish lairs in a mile of creek.
FISH NEAR DAMS
Low-head dams, big dams, little dams — they all have one thing in common: They all hold fish. Dams limit the upstream movement of all species, but also provide a virtual smorgasbord for hungry catfish. Small baitfish wash over and through the overflow areas into the heavy currents.
For the savvy catfish angler, this spells opportunity. Dam pools are well known for holding fish in late spring, when the catfish move upstream to spawn. The truth of the matter is, dams hold catfish all year, even in the summer.
On small rivers, creeks and streams, it may not be a dam that blocks the upstream movement of the fish. On some bodies of water, shallow riffles or logjams prevent the fish from going any farther. These areas are hotspots, too.
On big or small water, position your bait near any current obstruction like a chute, eddy, or behind an abutment. Riprap areas and wing dams are also great spots. Use plenty of weight to get your bait to the bottom and hold it there.
These areas are great for catching channels and blues if they’re present. Flatheads prefer slower current, but may often be found at the base of the scour hole immediately downstream. Dams provide shoreline anglers with great opportunities to catch fish, too, and most of them offer convenient public access.
FISH ISOLATED COVER
How many times have you chosen not to fish an area because you knew you’d hang up every second cast? If you say “Never,” you probably don’t fish very much. But the fact is, most of us do frequently ignore such places. On waters that are not heavily fished, it’s usually no big deal. We can find plenty of cats in easily accessible areas without having to worry about snags, lost tackle or broken shear pins. But to have the best luck on waters that receive heavy fishing pressure, it’s often necessary to get into the thickest snags and ugliest backwater areas.
Heavy wood tangles, backwaters, flooded areas, stump fields, and the like are among the most productive areas to target on heavily fished waters. Those little snags of wood you’ll find on the main river or lake are not the places to be. Every passing angler has already battered such spots with a wide assortment of cut baits, stink baits, live baits — you name it.
Not every nasty pile of timber or brush will hold fish, either. Be prepared to move frequently and make your approach and presentation as carefully as possible. Big fish did not grow big by being gullible.
Use heavy line and stout tackle when targeting areas of heavy cover, because you’ll need to get the fish out quick. Some anglers use un-weighted rigs, often just a hook and bait, which helps prevent hang-ups. Drop your bait inside all the various pockets, niches and openings in the structure, and be sure your bait reaches the bottom, where most catfish hold. Cover each area slowly and thoroughly before moving on.