The big catfish cruised the rock-covered shoreline, gorging on the numerous crawdads hiding in the riprap.
Sitting in a boat a short distance away, a man baited his hook with a crawdad he had purchased at a bait shop earlier that morning. He hooked the big “mudbug” in the tail, dropped it in the water and free-spooled his rig to the rocks covering the bottom below. Then he placed his rod in a holder affixed to the transom.
As the man was baiting a second rig, the first rod went down. The angler lifted the rod, and then, without setting the hook, he turned the handle. The circle hook he used required no hook-set. It caught cleanly in the corner of the big cat’s mouth.
During the 15-minute battle that ensued, the man wondered if the fish might escape. The catfish surged straight away at first, and then began spinning, wrapping itself in the line. Pulling the catfish sideways through the water made it feel like a behemoth. The whiskerfish turned out to be a nice 21-pounder, and the man was justifiably proud when he finally brought it aboard.
The man rigged another crawdad and free-spooled it down to the rocks. Once again, a catfish hit before a second rig could be baited. This fish, too, was landed, and during the next hour and a half, another and another and another joined it. None were 50-pounders as the man had hoped, but all were larger than the biggest largemouth bass a man might hope to catch once in a lifetime. Five cats in 90 minutes, 15 to 23 pounds!
The man was not surprised. Catfishing on riprap in early autumn often turns out like that.
THE BEAUTY OF RIPRAP
Riprap is a covering of large, loose rocks placed at strategic places on the shorelines of large lakes and rivers to help control or prevent erosion. These blankets of angular stone, which often extend deep into the water, appeal to catfish for several reasons.
First, riprap provides a home for some of Mr. Whiskers’ favorite eats. Crawdads are particularly common around riprap, which may provide the only decent habitat for them in an entire body of water. Catfish stack up to feed on these tasty little critters, often gorging to the point that crawdad parts protrude from the mouths of these fish.
Many baitfish also are attracted to riprap. Algae grow on the submerged stones. Shad and minnows are attracted to the algae. Catfish come along to eat the baitfish.
Riprap also provides good, basic habitat structure for catfish. There is cover, depth, shade and protection.
Riprap sometimes stretches along miles of shoreline, permitting the use of varied catfishing tactics for changing seasonal and weather conditions. And because of its placement near dams, and around bridges, causeways and roadways that cross channels, it provides shallow- and deep-water domiciles in close proximity — a key catfish attractor. These factors combine to make riprap a hotspot for large numbers of catfish in early fall.
Because hang-ups are common in the rocks, it’s best to keep fishing rigs simple. When fishing shallow edges, use nothing more than a baited hook. Smaller “eating-sized” cats are abundant, so a 4/0 to 6/0 octopus or circle hook usually is adequate. Bait your hook with crawdads, baitfish, piece of cut bait or other catfish favorite, cast to your targeted spot, and then allow the rig to flutter down 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 deep riprap edges, try a 1/4- to 1-ounce jighead with bait rigged on the hook. Work that rig in the same manner as the one previously described. Drop, lift, move; drop, lift, move. This is an ideal manner for avoiding hang-ups and targeting cats hiding in cavities and crevices within the rocks.
The best baits are native riprap inhabitants such as shad, minnows, crawdads and small sunfish (be sure to check local regulations regarding bait use first). A tail-hooked crawdad or a sunfish hooked behind the dorsal fin can bring smashing strikes. Several small whole shad or live minnows stacked on a single hook can work great. Stink baits and night crawlers are effective as well, especially on the eating-sized catfish.
For a change of pace, try artificials to catch riprap cats. Many baitfish- and crawdad-imitating crankbaits will take cats when bounced through the rocks, particularly in clear waters. Deep-diving models work best as the longer lip helps keep the line from snagging. Riprap catfish also will hit a variety of jigs and spinners.
Fish riprap methodically, casting upwind or upcurrent, and keeping a tight line while your rig moves naturally through the water. One good method is to anchor near the outer, underwater edge of the rocks near some object or contour change that distinguishes a small section of riprap from its surroundings. Sometimes a tree washed in will be enough to attract catfish. Other times a difference in the rocks will do the trick. Look for spots where big boulders change to smaller rocks. Points, cuts, pipes and cavities all attract cats.
When checking riprap for these peculiarities, you should look for other unusual bottom features as well. The alert angler will watch his depthfinder closely for a creek channel that borders a wall, submerged humps, a pit, some brush, a submerged roadbed used during the riprap’s construction or some other nuance that might tend to concentrate fish on a structure that may extend for miles.
Keep two rods ready — one with a simple baited hook rig, the other with a baited jighead — and work all depths thoroughly, starting shallow at night and deep in daylight hours. This method helps determine catfish holding preferences quicker, and then during your remaining fishing time, you can zero in on the specific depth zone where catfish are concentrated.
Bridge riprap can be especially important in lakes. Bridges usually span creeks, rivers or connecting channels, and the bridge area often represents the deepest water in the area. Catfish concentrate near distinctive features such as bridges. That happens as fish are funneled into the narrow section of water where a bridge crosses a lake or reservoir. Also, movement between two areas separated by a bridge is restricted to that relatively confined area. Some catfish will make the area their home, or a
t least remain long enough to feed in the shallows before continuing. Food is carried through these manmade funnels by current. Catfish take advantage of that situation and hold out of the flow on the downstream side to inspect the selection of groceries washing past.
When fishing bridge riprap, the four corners formed as the riprap bank gives way to the bridge superstructure are always worth a few casts, regardless of the presence of other structure. These corners form semi-points that often hold several catfish. The downcurrent points are best as these are ideal ambush spots for catfish. Cast into the current from a boat stationed on the bridge’s downcurrent or downwind side. Doing so allows your bait to move downcurrent in a natural manner.
Riprap offers all the things catfish need for living high on the hog, so it’s little wonder you find so many catfish on the rocks. What is surprising is the number of catfish anglers who overlook riprap as a source of great autumn catfishing. If you’re one of those anglers who continue to cruise right past this great structure, stop next time, and take a second look at those rocky stretches. They may be your ticket to catfishing success.