With the boat rocking gently to a slight summer breeze, it’s easy to doze off in the darkness. Just as you start to fade, though, is exactly when a big cat nabs your bait. So be ready to snap back into gear.
Once summer hits full steam, much of the best catfish action occurs after the sun goes down. Catfish still can be caught by day, but they tend to feed more aggressively at night. They also move shallower, where it becomes easier to find them and to set up efficiently. It’s also less sweltering at night, and you typically find less competition from recreational boaters and other fishermen.
Night catfishing is different, though, and it calls for an altered approach. The fish favor the same types of offerings, but they spend their time in different locations. Therefore you have to set up in different spots. As significantly, some added considerations must be made simply because it is dark outside.
As a general rule, catfish move shallower after the sun goes down. They spend mid-summer days in fairly deep water, where they find a hint of thermal refuge. Then they move shallower to feed at night.
Good places to set up for night catfishing, therefore, are shallow flats that are close to deep-water daytime areas. Prime locations include shallow flats along inside river bends and just upstream of the same bends, the shallow ends of points that stretch out to major channels, the tops of noteworthy humps that are surrounded by deeper water and flats adjacent to bridge causeways.
The kinds of cats you’re after also impact spot section. Blue catfish are big-river fish by nature, so they favor structure along the main-river channel or in the most open part of a lake. They’re also more apt to follow baitfish schools than are their whiskery cousins. Any hole that has a lot of bait in it warrants extra consideration.
Channel cats are just as likely to be found up tributary arms and in coves.
For flatheads, nothing is more important than cover, especially daytime cover, because they like to stay hidden in the thick stuff by day. Find boulders, standing timber or snarls of sunken branches in deep water and shallow feeding areas nearby, and you’ve likely found a good area for nighttime flatheads.
Because both navigating and setting up to fish become more challenging in the dark and because the “night bite” often fires up a little before dark, arriving a couple hours before nightfall can yield dividends. It’s also a good idea to do a little bit of home scouting with a map to identify a few areas where you think the cats should be during the day and find the transition zones to adjacent shallower areas.
Once you’re on the water, visit each spot and do some looking both with your electronics and with your eyes. Use your graph to look for baitfish and for catfish, cover that might hold fish and key bottom breaks or likely travel routes from wherever you find fish to adjacent shallow flats.
The graph won’t tell you everything. Watch the bank and the surface for visible, shallow cover, clues about underwater cover, and changes in the bank make-up. Often the point where the bank make-up or vegetation type changes marks the head of a hole. Also, take note of currents and current breaks and consider how you would anchor to get your baits in the right zone. While it’s still light, think about where you might anchor to cut off the fish as they begin straying shallow during the evening and select an even shallower spot or two to fish later in the night.
Once you’ve figured out your spots, go ahead and get in place so can see how the boat and your lines settle. That way you can be anchored and have your baits in place before the fish begin to move.
For fishing in current, anchor upstream of where you expect the fish to hold and cast downstream. In many lake settings, where lines can be spread in any direction, you can anchor right on top of a hump or at the edge a flat, close to the slope into the deeper water.
If possible, position the boat so you can stagger the depths of your baits either by the length or direction of your casts. Often the first bites of the evening occur at the deep end of the range, with the shallower baits drawing more action as the night progresses. Of course, when the shallow lines start drawing all the action, that’s often a clue that it’s time to move the boat a little shallower.
For blue and channel catfish, a sliding bottom rig and bottom presentation work well. Run your main line through the center of a barrel weight or the eye of a bell sinker, tie a heavy barrel swivel to the end of the line and then add a couple of feet of leader and your hook. The amount of weight needed varies according the depth of the water and strength of the current.
Flatheads prefer baits that are presented slightly off the bottom. If you’re anchored over sufficiently deep water to fish vertically, drop each line all the way to the bottom, turn the rod handle once or twice and put the rod in a holder. An alternative is to add a big sliding float to the line and set the stopper to suspend the bait off the bottom a cast’s distance from the boat.
Detecting strikes and setting the hook in a timely manner definitely can be more challenging in the dark. Rigging lines with circle hooks allows the catfish to hook themselves and can increase the number of strikes that get converted into hooked fish. Fish also tend to get hooked in the mouth, instead of being hooked deep, when you use circle hooks. Beyond the often-touted conservation benefits for situations where you’re releasing fish, hooking fish in the mouth makes them far easier to contend with when you are working under the cover of darkness.
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A few other possible helps for detecting strikes include using rods with fluorescent or even glow-in-the-dark tips and fluorescent line, clipping bells on the tips of rods and using clicker-type reels with the clickers engaged.
Unless you set up with only one rod per angler, with every rod in hand, quality rod holders are also a good investment. More than a few rods have been lost to big catfish after anglers have left rods leaning resting in what they thought were secure positions, especially under the cover of darkness. In some instances, that’s almost certainly occurred right after the angler got lulled to sleep!