While catfish are still catfish, the difference between day and night tactics and strategies can be profound, even when fishing the same lake or river.
Catfish live and flourish by following their instinctive nature, which means they are voracious feeders. As such, the popularity of catfishing has grown tremendously.
Anglers can productively fish for catfish both day and night. However, differences exist in how catfish react to the bright of day and the dark of night.
“Catfish are caught year ‘round but the late spring and summer months offer the best opportunity to catch catfish around the clock,” said Rodger Taylor, catfish tournament angler and guide. “Some things are consistent for catfish success and one is targeting the right place to fish. Catfish have an affinity for a bottom depth change whether day or night, so points, humps, drops and other similar areas are prime places. But the specific places to target will change.”
According to Taylor, the key to success is to follow the forage, which is perhaps the Golden Rule for experienced catfish anglers.
“I’ve learned that even on the same lake, on the same day and evening, my tactics and strategies must change to be successful when transitioning from day to night in part because forage patterns change,” Taylor said.
Catfish tend to be found in shallower water at night because in part their forage moves shallower. However, catfish are still active during the day; they’re just found in deeper water.
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“From May on through the summer, I’ll fish both day and night patterns but some of the things I key on will vary, some being subtle changes while others are more dramatic,” Taylor said.
The forage factor is universal on lakes; catfish are going to follow the forage. The key is the specific forage that supports the catfish population, whether threadfind or gizzard shad or both. Smaller panfish species often move shallow as well, which is also an attractant.
Of course, not all catfish move shallow at night, and shallow can be relative in terms of where fish will be found at night. Often they simply move short distances from where daytime patterns are consistently productive. One distinct pattern he’s found is fishing points and humps.
“During the day, I’ll often fish specific targets, such as points, humps and drops,” Taylor said. “While catfish are often caught reasonably shallow early and late in the day, much of the rest of the time I find fish much more aggressive in deeper water. For example, I’ll fish a point or hump and focus primarily on deeper water, working different depths until I work out the depth pattern. But I’ll certainly work the shallower water too because daytime doesn’t always mean deep fish.”
Taylor typically reverses the process at night and targets primarily shallower water while periodically checking deeper water as well. The catfish bite can be aggressive either day or night but periods of a slower bite are common.
“Patience is a key when catfishing at anytime,” Taylor said. “If you move into an area right after catfish have fed heavily, it may be a while before they feed actively again. But if you’re in an area holding fish, the bite will turn on again. But fishing after dark doesn’t ensure more or bigger fish. Catfish eat when they are ready to feed, day or night, not simply because it gets dark. But fishing at night often enhances comfort during warm weather, thus improving patience, which can lead to bigger and more fish.”
Taylor also says that drift fishing and anchor setups are productive anytime of the day or night, but he typically prefers to anchor at night.
“For me the enjoyment factor goes way up when anchored at night,” Taylor said. “I use my graph to locate and fish specific targets at either time. When I mark forage and bigger fish in a specific area, I’ll give them 45 minutes or more to bite before moving to a new setup. Drift-fishing at night can be productive, but I seem to catch more big fish, and usually just as many fish, by anchoring on good targets at night. Lack of visibility at night on long drifts can create problems unless I’m very familiar with the area. Plus, I feel I can more effectively fish shallow water without spooking fish from my anchored position at night.”
However, Taylor is quick to point out that fishing during the day is extremely effective; he just works deeper water. The same rules apply; find good bottom contour changes coupled with plenty of natural forage.
“Some people are caught off guard that I’ll often fish by day even in the middle of the summer, thinking night fishing is always better during warm weather,” said Taylor. “It is good, but it’s just different and sometimes I prefer the daytime patterns because I can be more productive. But that can change during the course of time. A couple weeks later, I may be back on the night-fishing patterns.”
Taylor conducts both types of fishing on the same trip by doing a late evening trip that runs until about midnight when conditions warrant.
Taylor also has to factor the desires of clients in terms of day versus night fishing, and anglers need to consider the options when contemplating day or night fishing. Both can be extremely productive, but each has pros and cons. Daytime fishing can be warm, and the fish deeper. Recreational boating traffic must also be considered, but visibility is excellent and maneuvering the boat and setting up is easier. At night it’s cooler, fish are typically shallower, and wind is often less of a factor. But visibility needs to be enhanced with artificial lights and navigation can be challenging in the dark. However, the basic equipment needs are similar in terms of rods, reels and electronics.
“I use the same rigs for night fishing as I do for daytime,” Taylor said. “My graph is used the same but I’ll more frequently check shallow water areas at night, but still look for forage and marks indicative of larger fish before fishing. By day I often start fishing deeper water and progress my search toward shallower, while at night I’ll search from shallow to deep water until I locate the productive depth pattern.”
Baits are often the same whether day- or night-fishing, with Taylor preferring natural forage from the lake, since that’s what catfish normally eat. But other baits can work extremely well, especially if targeting individual species of fish. Channel catfish are often targeted with stinkbaits, nightcrawlers, minnows and small chunks of cutbait. Blue catfish eat most anything, live, cut or stinkbaits. Flatheads have a preference for live bait, but fresh cutbait will produce flatheads.
Ultimately, it’s not the gear or even catfish behavior that defines day or night success, it’s the approach. Understand the catfish connection with forage, and use electronics to be in an area where forage and fish are marked in the same vicinity. Be patient but realistic that sometimes fish won’t bite even if they’re present. Finally, be willing to move after reasonable effort and time, day or night.